Tradition and What to do With It

Iarla O Lionaird - Foxlight
Iarla O Lionaird – Foxlight
Iarla O Lionaird – Foxlight (Real World CDRW184, 2013)

Spiro – Kaleidophonica (Real World CDRW188, 2013)

The Creole Choir of Cuba – Santiman (Real World CDRW193, 2013)

Peter Gabriel was one of the first mainstream pop stars to champion what we now call world music. Not surprising, considering how globally-infused his own work had become by the time he started Real World Records in 1989. Since its founding, the label has released music that might be steadfastly traditional, modernized to a significant degree or some point in between. Three recent Real World discs all deal with music informed by tradition but certainly not beholden to it.

Iarla O Lionaird’s vocals were one of several things that put the “Celt” in groundbreaking fusion band Afro Celt Sound System. He’s a master of sean nos, a Gaelic singing style that’s traditionally unaccompanied. He somehow managed to make the delicate nuances of sean nos a good fit with Afro Celt Sound System’s often hard-driving dance music, and though his own albums are not designed with the dance floor in mind, they are unmistakably contemporary affairs. Foxlight is (I think) his fourth release, a superbly atmospheric work in which O Lionaird’s voice is framed by layers of both electronic ambiance and acoustic instrumentation.

Spiro - Kaledophonica
Spiro – Kaledophonica
The singing is dependably high up in the mix and, unlike the backing tracks, sounds like it was left fairly untouched in the production process. Some songs harness a bit of a groove (check out the beautifully swaying “For the Heavens” and similarly celestial “Seven Suns” in particular), while some have a serene stillness about them that O Lionaird’s vocals caress to spine-tingling effect. His phrasing and overall lilt are unmistakably those of an Irishman, but this is far from typical Irish music. Instead it’s a spellbinding sonic excursion that simply must be heard and savored.

Spiro is a quartet comprised of a violinist, accordionist, mandolin player and acoustic guitarist (with the guitarist switching over to cello a couple of times). Seems like the building blocks for music that’s nice and folksy, but Bristol-based Spiro only reference a few traditional tunes on Kaleidophonica.

They are a genuine ensemble- nobody really solos or takes the lead. Still, their pieces are intricate and have an unexpected feel of driving forward motion to them. Not really aggressive, just packed with seamless uniformity that comes across sounding sweet but far from quaint. It’s one big layer of sound, yet the individual layers are just as discernible. A fairly challenging but highly rewarding CD.

The Creole Choir of Cuba - Santiman
The Creole Choir of Cuba – Santiman
If you loved The Creole Choir of Cuba’s Tande-La, you’re not alone. And you’ll be glad to know their followup Santiman is every bit as good. Descendants of former Haitian slaves, the 10-voice-strong choir sings songs of past and present hardships in the country of their heritage, but are just as apt to lighten the mood with a tune about, say, the bad luck that comes with having one’s hat fall off. While the liner notes can be referred to for subject matter, I was content to let my first listen be just that. And I was quickly spellbound. The voices here don’t merely call and respond, they encircle, shadow and edify one another like spirits from some hidden realm and sometimes explode with operatic bursts of sheer vocal power.

Usually accompanying themselves with percussion but here joined by piano on two tracks and trumpet and flute on one apiece, the choir sounds like equal parts Africa, Haiti and Cuba and above all sound like the world class group of singers that they are. Splendid stuff.

Buy the albums:

Iarla O Lionaird – Foxlight

Spiro – Kaleidophonica

The Creole Choir of Cuba – Santiman

Author: Tom Orr

Tom Orr is a California-based writer whose talent and mental stability are of an equally questionable nature. His hobbies include ignoring trends, striking dramatic poses in front of his ever-tolerant wife and watching helplessly as his kids surpass him in all desirable traits.


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