All posts by TJ Nelson

TJ Nelson is a regular CD reviewer and editor at World Music Central. She is also a fiction writer. Check out her latest book, Chasing Athena's Shadow. Set in Pineboro, North Carolina, Chasing Athena's Shadow follows the adventures of Grace, an adult literacy teacher, as she seeks to solve a long forgotten family mystery. Her charmingly dysfunctional family is of little help in her quest. Along with her best friends, an attractive Mexican teacher and an amiable gay chef, Grace must find the one fading memory that holds the key to why Grace’s great-grandmother, Athena, shot her husband on the courthouse steps in 1931. Traversing the line between the Old South and New South, Grace will have to dig into the past to uncover Athena’s true crime.

Masterful and Reverent Vietnamese Zither

Tri Nguyen – The Art of the Vietnamese Zither

Tri Nguyen – The Art of the Vietnamese Zither (ARC Music, 2019)

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. You see the title The Art of the Vietnamese Zither and I can hear the huff of your sighs and feel you rolling your eyes from here. Perhaps you are imagining a rather spare, academic exploration of the zither and a dense intellectual tour through Vietnamese music with an impossible array of terms to learn and understand in order to grasp the Vietnamese zither. Well, nothing could possibly be further from the truth. Achingly elegant and intricately engaging, The Art of the Vietnamese Zither will have listeners perched on the edge of their seats, anticipating note after note capable of musically expressing a summer afternoon, the rainy season and a young man’s ride on a horse to seek his bride all by way of the Vietnamese zither.

Armed with a musical education that includes the Music Conservatory of Saigon and the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris, as well as previous recording credits Beyond Borders and A Journey Between Worlds, Vietnamese composer, pianist and zither player Tri Nguyen has turned out a stunning recording with The Art of the Vietnamese Zither. There’s nothing spare or clinical about this music. It comes across as sweepingly cinematic and deeply personal to Mr. Nguyen whether it is a grand, bold piece like “Strategist Khong on the Fortress” or a delicately intimate song like “Autumn Moon Lullaby.”

Composing and arranging most of the tracks, Mr. Nguyen has gathered up a group of musicians to join his vision and own zither playing on the Art of the Vietnamese Zither like Buynta Goryaeva on violin, Iryna Topolnitska on violin, Carolin Berry on viola, Dima Tsypkin on cello, Son Mach on violin, Thanh Trung on guitar, Trung Tran on monocord, Nguyen Quyet on Vietnamese bamboo flute, Thien Lam on Vietnamese lute, Tran Hien on Vietnamese drums and for an unlikely addition on several tracks Qais Saadi on percussion and oud.

From the very opening track “Exchange of Love” through to the last note of closing track “Black Riding Horse,” The Art of the Vietnamese Zither is masterful in its balance. It’s easy to pick out the reverence to ancient musical traditions of Vietnam and where Mr. Nguyen marries that with Western traditions as on the elegant “Song of the Blackbird.”

The bright delicacy and careful bend of notes allow tracks like “Twilight Mist,” “Sadness of the South” and “Move on Water, Walk on Clouds” to simply flow like fluttering silk in the breeze. Stepping away from the delicate into the bold “Melancholy” and “Strategist Khong on the Fortress” prove that there’s plenty of drama in Vietnamese music. And, if that weren’t enough, Mr. Nguyen dazzles with a kind of hybrid track on “Child Where Are You?” with Mr. Saadi providing percussion and interestingly enough sinuous oud lines, and again on the track “Golden Skies.” Closing with the traditional Vietnamese folk song “Black Riding Horse,” Mr. Nguyen fleshes this track out with traditional Vietnamese bamboo flute, lute and drums to dazzle listeners with this wild musical ride on a black horse.

The Art of Vietnamese Zither is a gorgeously sumptuous listen and well worth the journey across southern Vietnam’s musical landscape.

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Alluring Musical Journey to the Middle East

Various Artists – Journey to the Middle East

Various Artists – Journey to the Middle East (ARC Music, 2019)

Everyone knows that the tin with an assortment of cookies is just so much better than the tins with just a single kind of cookie. It’s just so much better to sample one’s way through dark chocolate covered cookies, white chocolate wafers, shortbread squares, bites of buttery Madeleine cookies or milk chocolate covered cookies with tiny pictures pressed into the chocolate than a beaten up bag of plain old snicker-doodles. That’s just fact.

Interestingly enough it can be the same way with music and our friends at ARC Music know this and have put a wonderful collection for listeners to nibble their way through on Journey to the Middle East. This compilation works its way through the music of Syria, Egypt, Persia, Israel, Cyprus, Lebanon and Turkey. This glorious collection would delight the most seasoned listener or the newbie listener dipping an ear into the musical mysteries of the Middle East.

Listener get a dose of the dramatic right up front with the traditional song and dance from Cyprus titled “Cifdetelli” by the folk ensemble Yeksad. Journey to the Middle East turns hip with Hossam Ramzy and Phil Thornton’s “Planet Egypt” replete with hypnotic percussion and call-and-response interplay between mizmar, argul and kawala from the ARC release Planet Egypt.

Up next is “Aziz Jun” by Zohreh Jooya, originally from the ARC release Persian Nights. Fans will simply not want to miss “Midnight Sun” by Dastan Trio. This track is just simply impressive as Dastan musicians Pejman Hadadi, Hossein Behroozi-Nia, and Hamid Motebassem weave a web of improvisational mastery on barbat, setar and tombak that includes some spectacular percussion.

If that weren’t enough to lure listeners to Journey to the Middle East, there’s the sly and sassy “Iraqi Jazz” by Ahmed Mukhtar, the sweetly soulful “Mi Yitneni Of” by The Burning Bush, originally from the ARC release Folksongs from Israel. There’s also “Amaken” by Andre Hajj & Ensemble, the sultry vocals on the Syrian song “Hayyamatni” by Zein Al-Jundi and Armenian dance song “Karoun, Karoun/Nooneh” by Alan Shavarsh Bardezbanian.

The Iranian percussionists of Zarbang have on offer “Cycling Feast” and it is a powerful Sufi trance, ancient Iranian call to the wild and percussion extravaganza all rolled into one. Journey to the Middle East keeps up the wild ride all the way to the end with a final track from Ensemble Huseyin Turkmenler called “Rumeli Karsilamisi.”

Journey to the Middle East is a whole assortment treats and everyone knows that’s the best.

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Refugees for Refugees, Pooling Global Musical Talent

Refugees for Refugees – Amina (Muziekpublique, 2019)

It’s become fairly standard to sum up a person’s life in a single moment. We catch a glimpse of the face as some person crosses a border, disembarks from a ship or jockeys for space in a refugee camp and we sum up that life.

There are some who would chalk up the refugee story by making it part and parcel to tragedy, war or desperate circumstances, while the less sympathetic would see an unwanted burden. But that’s never the whole story. We don’t see bread bakers, engineers, nurses or store owners where the family’s store has successfully existed and operated for and by generation after generation of the same family. We certainly don’t see the keepers of traditional craft work like carving or needlework or artists or musicians. We dismiss the back story of the refugee, that life before being uprooted, and perhaps the most precious of that life. It is with some sadness that I think we might be truly missing out.

It’s somewhere in here that Muziekpubique, a non-profit organization in Belgium, has seen this missed opportunity. Running a program promoting folk and world music by way of concerts, music lessons and a record label. This clever organization and label has teamed up musicians from Pakistan, Tibet, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Belgium to create Refugees for Refugees, resulting in a second release of the recording called Amina, in support of Muziekpublique and Cinemaximiliaan, a kind of cross cultural crossroads for refugees in a Brussels park where refugees can get information, find friends and even watch a movie or find a creative project.

Refugees for Refugees – Amina

While the good deeds of Refugees for Refugees might be incentive enough to support this project, the better bet is to support this wonderful music. Amina is full of delightful surprises and lush pleasures. Composing and arranging most of the music on Amina by members of Refugees for Refugees, this collaboration where one musical tradition is seamlessly enfolded in another, sometimes in improbable combinations, comes across as wholly organic.

Pooling the talents of Pakistan’s Asad Qizilbash on sarod, Tibet’s Dolma Renqingi on vocals, Syria’s Fakher Madallal on vocals and percussion, Tibet’s Kelsang Hula on dramyen and vocals, Afghanistan’s Mohammad Aman Yusufi on dambura and vocals, Belgium’s Simon Leleux on oriental percussion, Iraq’s Souhad Najem on qanun, Syria’s Tamman Al Ramadan on ney, Syria’s Tareq Alsayed Yahua on ud and Belgium’s Tristan Driessens on ud Amina flows free in that otherworldly space where musicians, regardless of their country or tradition, meet and commune, that place where all the good things in music happen.

Hooking listeners from the opening strains of “Perahan,” Amina dazzles with a heady mix of vocals, ud and ney. And, the tracks just get better with “Semki Molem” with its rich combination of deep male chorus against the soaring vocals of Aren Dolma. The ud laced “Qad Hijaz” is just as powerfully stunning as “Kesaro Sarko.”

Other goodies include the sarod and quanun rich “Punarjanm,” “Tonshak” with its scratchy throat singing against Tibetan vocals by Ms. Dolma and musical combination of sarod, dramyen, ud, ney and bendir and all the glorious quanum riches of “Shuq.” “Tales of the Mountain” will raise the hairs on the back of your neck it’s that good, just as simple pleasures of sarod and dholla will delight on “After the Dust.” And still the goodies just keep coming with “Rose Gate,” “Wasla Qudud Bayati” “Lhasa” and closing track “Chaman Chaman.”

With Amina, supporting a good cause never sounded so good.

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Shamanic Sonic Paradise

Poranguí – Poranguí (Sol Creation Records, 2019)

The Sol Creation Records release Poranguí is where fantastical rhythms rise from the earth, where vocals dive off cliffs to be buffeted by didgeridoos and flutes and where electronica seeps through the air like mist. Part shamanic ritual and part sonic wonderland Porangui is where listeners can find their rooted place on earth, fly along with the birds and perhaps on the edge of firelight dance just a little wildly.

Poranguí – Poranguí

Following up on the releases of the original motion picture soundtrack Ayahuasca and Ayahuasca Remixed, the live looping artist, musician and educator with an ethnomusicology background from Duke University, Porangui shows listeners and live audiences with way with meditative sounds and dance grooves with addictive results.

Everything I do live is steeped in improvisation, in spontaneous sound. A lot of the work I do musically is about connecting to what’s happening in the moment in a given space with a given group of listeners,” says Poranguí. “I try to get a feel for what is in the seen realm and the unseen realm, really tuning into the energetics of the space. That’s where the magic is.

Recorded at an opening ceremony for Lightning in a Bottle and at the Espiritu stage at Santa Fe’s Unify Fest, Porangui Live opens with an electronica and chant combination on “Ganesha,” and the magic musical carpet ride just takes off from there. The sound of frogs opens “Tonantzin” but is quickly taken over by the twangy goodness of didgeridoo wrapped around some tightly packed rhythms and soaring vocals. Just as wonderful is the delicate and dreamy “Oxum” with its birdsong, water sounds and silky vocals before the rhythms ramp up deliciously.

Porangui notes, “Music isn’t entertainment for me, as the goal is transformation. It’s a bridge to the heart, to a space where we can begin to imagine our best selves. This is crucial as our planet needs humans to upgrade themselves. For me, it’s coming into contact to our role as fire keepers. Technology is merely a different form of the fire we came to master long ago. We have a choice: to burn ourselves and everything around us with the fire of technology or to use it to illuminate the way.”

And, Porangui Live illuminates the way with offering of a percussion and mouth harp combo as a sort of invitation to play with the coyotes that can be heard in the distance on “Otorongo” or the flute lines along with rattles that sound like old bones against a thrum of percussion before evolving into a call to the night sky on “Danza Del Viento.” Closing with a kind of celestial lullaby on “Stardust,” Porangui lets us return to earth and revel in the night sky with loving vocals against dreamy electronica.

Snaring a little nature, riding waves of soaring vocals and hypnotic electronica and letting the mind of the listener slide from track to delicious track, Porangui Live is a kind of sonic sanctuary where listeners might just heal what ails them.

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2019 St. Patrick’s Day Music

So, here we are. We’ve come to that time of year when I have this sudden insane desire to rip paper shamrocks from the walls and turn them into origami swans. With a few deft strokes of a Sharpie, I yearn to give every cheap, cheesy leprechaun a fabulous Salvador Dali mustache. I want to fill every faux pot of gold with squid and give every green, gaudy hat its proper due by handing it off to the nearest Labrador Retriever to be rendered into a slobbery, slimy cheap piece of felt as it so richly deserves.

It must be St. Patrick’s Day season.

I am currently without Sharpie, Labrador Retriever or squid, but, my fine readers, I do have music for your St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve got raucous music, soothing music, poetry within music, music so fine as to make a pint of Guinness shed a tear. I’ve got music with fiddles, music with guitars, music with pipes and music with voices so lovely it will give that Labrador Retriever pause and so drop that chewed hat. I’ve got music from across the ocean, music from down the road, music from across a green field and music from a dark wood. So, let’s get to it.

Irish Relaxation: Calming Celtic Instrumental Music and Beautiful Nature

Those seeking to find a kind of Celtic serenity this St. Patrick’s Day have to look no further than New Age NY Company’s Irish Relaxation: Calming Celtic Instrumental Music and Beautiful Nature. Celtic Chillout Relaxation Academy and Calm Music Zone offer up tracks like “Irish Relaxation,” Spiritual Awaking,” “Nature of Ireland,” “Irish Soundscapes,” “Patrick’s Day,” “Waves & Cliffs” and “Ancient Hills of Ireland” for those looking for a bit of Celtic Zen (I’m sure all you Druids out there have your own name for a Zen-like state so just fill in your own word).

David Arkenstone – The Celtic Heart

David Arkenstone has on tap for this St. Patrick’s Day The Celtic Heart. Sweet instrumentals like “Hearts Entwined,” “May Dance,” “the Promise Ring” and “Secret Wedding” are comfortably easy and enjoyable. This is perhaps a little sedate for a raucous St. Patrick’s Day party, but might be held in reserve if the mayhem needs to be taken down a notch or two.

The Outside Track. – Rise Up

The label Lorimer has put out Rise Up by a group called The Outside Track. Comprised fiddler and singer Mairi Rankin, singer and flute player Teresa Horgan, composer and harpist Ailie Robertson, composer and accordionist Fiona Black and guitarist Michael Ferrie, The Outside Track boasts such previous recordings like Light Up the Dark, Flash Company, The Mountain Road and Curious Things Given Wings. Rise Up possesses some real charmers such as “Dark Reels,” “Road to Rollo Bay,” “The Wahoo Set,” “Eleanor Plunkett” and “Happy Reels.”

Eabhal – This Is How the Ladies Dance.

Out of the Scottish Gaelic tradition comes Eabhal and their 2019 recording This Is How the Ladies Dance. Musicians Megan MacDonald, Jamie MacDonald, Nicky Kirk and Hamish Hepburn have crafted a fine fiddle and accordion soaked album on This Is How the Ladies Dance with delicious fare like “Beir Soiridh,” “MaSim,” “Windsong,” “An Ribhinn Donn” and “The Artist.”

Claire Hastings and her album Those Who Roam

Luckenbooth Records has on tap Claire Hastings and her album Those Who Roam. With her previous recording Between River and Railway under her belt, this Scottish singer and songwriter dazzles her way Those Who Roam with tracks like “The Lothian Hairst,” “Seven Gypsies,” “Jamie Raeburn” and “Ten Thousand Miles” with some truly spectacular vocals.

The Tannahill Weavers –Orach

Scottish group The Tannahill Weavers has put out Orach -The Golden Anniversary Album, out in the U.S. On the Compass Records label. This is a wonderful collection of traditional and contemporary song celebrates The Tannahill Weavers 50th anniversary and their 18th album with the group’s current line-up members Roy Gullane, Phil Smillie, John Martin and Lorne MacDougall and fondly honoring past band members. Fans get goodies like title track “Orach,” “Jenny A’ Things,” “Oh No!,” “The Asturian Sessions,” “The Ghost of Mick McDonnell” and “Gordon Duncan Set.”

Ciaran Tourish and Keven Doherty –Hotel Fiesta

The goodness just keeps on coming with Altan and 4 Men & a Dog heavyweights Ciaran Tourish and Keven Doherty and their release Hotel Fiesta. This album is a punch to the gut, a kiss on the cheek and a warm embrace all wrapped in one with tracks like “The Oak Tree (Jackson’s 1 & 2),” “Hawker’s Blues,” “A Visit to Ireland/The Lark on the Strand/Peter Byrne’s Fancy,” “Boots of Spanish Leather,” “Ur Chnock Chein Mhic Cainte,” “The Foxhunters/Dusty Miller,” “Dan the Man” and “My Love Is in America/The Cup of Tea/The Donegal Reel.”

Various Artists – Live Recordings from the William Kennedy Piping Festival, Vol. 2

If it’s piping you want, it’s piping you get with Live Recordings from the William Kennedy Piping Festival. This double CD set is a compilation from various performances at the William Kennedy Festival from 2003-2017. There’s more pipers here than you can shake a stick at, including Sean McKeon’s “The Maid on the Green/The Humours of Glin,” John McSherry and Francis McIlduff’s “Son Ar Rost/Song of the Chanter/The Foxhunters/James Kelly’s/The Limestone Rock,” The Goodman Trio’s “An Roguire Dubh/Airgiod Cailighe,” Paddy Keenan’s “The Broken Pledge/The Skylark/The Bucks of Oranmore” and Jarlath Henderson and Ross Ainslie’s “Jim Tweedie’s Sea Legs/Iain Ruadh/Thunderstruck/Angus Thing/Limestone Rock.” This is a sort of glorious piping overdose.

Grainne Holland – Corcra

Following up on recordings Teanga Na nGael and Gaelre, Irish singer Grainne Holland has out this year a whole CD’s worth of her own original songs called Corcra. Teaming up with a stellar cast of musicians including Aidan O’Rourke, Liam Bradley, Brendan Mulholland, Cormac McCarthy, Niamh Dunne, John Joe Kelly, Paul Dunlea, Conor McCreanor and Steve Jones, Ms Holland turns out a stunning collection of songs including “Mise Agus Tusa,” “Coinsias, Corp Agus Croi,” “Harry’s” and “An Ri Rua.” There will be no dry eye in the house by the time she’s done.

Farsan – Gaelic Traditions in the New World

Lead vocalist Mairi Britton, fiddler Katie McNally, pianist, accordionist, mandolinist and vocalist Neil Pearlman and border and highland piper Elias Alexander make up the group Farsan and their debut recording “Gaelic Traditions in the New World” is rich and rewarding and well worth a listen. Masterly moving through tracks like “Taladh A’ Phuilein,” “Pronn An Caoran,” “The Water Boiling Machine,” “Fear Drabastach,” “A’ Mhisg A Chuir An Nollaig” and “Gun Togainn Air Hugan,” Farsan turns out a recording that’s equal parts achingly lovely and joyfully jaunty.


Gary Innes –Imminent

Scottish accordion player Gary Innes shows off his chops on his recording Imminent. Leaning heavily on his own compositions, Mr. Innes casts a wide net over the tracks of Imminent, offering up goodies like “The Doctor’s Order,” the raucously wild “Welcome to New York,” the sweetly solemn “Sheerwater,” the completely entertaining “Alpha Runrig” and the easy mood of “Trade Winds.”


Hannah Flowers – Amhran na Cruite: Songs of the Harp

St. Paul, Minnesota native Hannah Flowers takes a turn in Irish with her recording Amhran na Cruite: Songs of the Harp. Angelic vocals and fairy compositions woven throughout tracks like “Buachaill on Eirne,” “Cul Tiubh na bPearlai,” “Urchnoc Chein Mhic Cainte” and “Dun Do Shuil” will surely earn Ms. Flowers a nostalgic tear at the thoughts of the old country.


Daoiri Farrell – A Lifetime of Happiness

If you are looking for some straight up Irish folk then look no further than Daoiri Farrell’s A Lifetime of Happiness. This is the real deal Irish folk fare to cozy up along with some properly pulled pints and a few friends. You’ll want to snag a listen to tracks like “The Galway Shawl,” “Valentine O’Hara,” “Theres the Day,” “Sweet Portadown,” “Rosie Reilly” and “Via Extasia” if for no other reason than Mr. Farrell’s plumy Irish vocals.

Brighde Chaimbeul – The Reeling

The Skye born, Scottish smallpipes player Brighde Chaimbeul’s recording The Reeling is shockingly good and I mean leaked out of the air, bubbled up from some strange lake good. Recorded live in a historic church in Cromarty, Scotland, the music of The Reeling sounds as if it had just lingered in the air for a couple of centuries before a wee lass captured it and put it down for the rest of us. Don’t believe me? Check out tracks like “A Bhriogais Uallach/Highean Donn nan Gobhar,” “Moma e Moma Rodila,” “An Leimras/Harris Dance” and “Gur Boidheach Nighean Donn Mo Chridhe.”

Jose Manuel Tejedor – Miraes

Brandishing pipes and whistles, Jose Manuel Tejedor gives listeners a taste of Spain’s Celtic flavor on Miraes. Mr. Tejedor lays down the goodness with tracks like “Automatas,” “Espiona,” “Miraes” and “Rihonor/Rio de Onor.”

In addition to Mr. Tejedor on pipes and whiles Miraes is packed bouzouki, mandolin, bodhran, violin, concertina and with some steel guitar from fellow musician Angel Ruiz on “Valles.”

Celtic Woman- Celtic Woman Homecoming Live from Ireland
Celtic Woman Ancient Land

If Celtic Woman is your thing, there are two out this season Celtic Woman Homecoming Live from Ireland and Celtic Woman Ancient Land.

This is rather typical Celtic Woman fare with “Mo Ghile Mear,” Dulaman,” and “Fields of Gold” gracing Homecoming and tracks like “Ancient Land,” “Homeland,” “Mna Na hEireann” and “Tara’s Tune” on Ancient Land. While not exactly to my particular tastes, I’m sure there’s some out there waiting with baited breath to get a listen.

Various Artists – Street Lights

It started out with a few folk. People like Dave Geraghty, Gary Lightbody, Bono, Conor O’brien,Loah, Roisin O, Cathy Davey, Galia Arad, Faye O’Rourke, Saint Sister, Little Green Cars, The High Hopes Choir and The Camden Orchestra, along with musicians Cian Boylan, Conor Brady, Ben Castle, Colm Mac Con Iomaire, Colm Quearney, Rob Malone and Graham Hopkins. Well, these folk put out the single “Homeward Bound” as a way to aid the homeless. Well, wouldn’t you know they put an album to carry their good works over. Street Lights, the album, teams up the likes of Damien Dempsey, Snow Patrol, The Frames, Vincent McMorrow, Villagers and Luka Bloom for a CD that will benefit Ireland’s homeless. Fans will want to check out Street Lights’s version of Paul Simon’s “Homeward Bound,” Damien Dempsey’s “Soft Rain,” Stephen James Smith’s spoken word coolness on “My Ireland” and Richard Hawley and Lisa Hannigan’s “Hush A Bye Mountain.”

Bangers Mash – Quicksand Cafe

Quicksand Cafe by Bangers & Mash, out on the Dancing Druid Music label might appeal those who want to gather up a gang of toughs and rock out this St. Patrick’s Day. Pulling together the talents of vocalist and percussionist Liam Hudock, electric bassist Seth Lesselbaum, vocalist and bodhran player Carole Lesselbaum, vocalist and guitarist Chad Herth, vocalist and fiddler Alexandra Adams, drummer Anthony Anastase and guest guitarist and drummer Brian Gabriel, Quicksand Cafe is a quick-paced Celtic steamroller as it rollicks along with tracks like “Fields of Athenrye,” “Star of the Country Down,” title track “Quicksand Cafe,” “Rambling Rover” and “Morrison’s Jig.”

YR Hwntws – Y Tribanw

From Wales there’s the stunning recording Y Tribanwr by the group YR Hwntws. Lushly sweet with jazzy overtones, Y Tribanwr is downright delicious. Corralling the talents of vocalist Gregg Lynn, vocalist, tabor player and percussionist Nia Lyn, fiddler Bernard KilBride, vocalist, flute and whistle player Imogen O’Rourke, mandocello player Dan B. James and double bassist and bass guitarist Dean Ryan, YR Hwntws has a tight, neat sound throughout tracks like “ Ym Mhontypridd mae ‘Nghariad,” “Aradwr a’i Ychen,” “Bro Morgannwg,” “Ffarwel I Dai’r Cantwr” and “Diawledig a Nefolaidd/Pibddawns Gwr Wrecsam.” The music is downright lovely, the recording excellent and the liner notes contain the Welsh lyrics to all the songs if you want to give your Welsh a go and the English translations if you’re a scaredy cat like me. Yeah, I think speaking Welsh might just need a wee bit of courage.

Lleuwen Steffan – Gwn Glan Beibl Budr

Another offering from Wales and a sort of off-the-beaten track comes Gwn Glan Beibl Budr. Fans might recognize Lleuwen Steffan’s voice by her previous recordings Tan, Duw A Wyr/God Only Knows and Penmon. While Gwn Glan Beibl Budr might be a tad more experimental than the Celtic Woman set would tolerate, but Ms. Steffan’s vocals on tracks like “Y Garddwr” and “Can Taid” are just too good to miss. Fans should check out the silky smooth vocals of “Cwm Rhondda” against some pretty fabulous percussion and instrumentation. Other goodies include the lazy smoky feel of “Caerdydd” and the sweet elegance of “Mynyddoedd.”

The Gloaming – The Gloaming 3

One of the real gems this year has to be Real World Records’ The Gloaming 3. So finely wrought, so utterly elegant, The Gloaming 3 is likely to cause normally placid people to turn to others and snottily ask, “Must you breathe in and out so loudly?” for fear of missing a single note. The Gloaming 3 gang of vocalist Iarla O Lionaird, hardanger d’amore player Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, guitarist Dennis Cahill, fiddler Martin Hayes and pianist Thomas Bartlett transform a voice and four instruments into a Celtic music lover’s wonderland. There’s no need to point out particular tracks, simply because it’s wonderful from the opening notes of “Meachan Rudai (The Weight of Things)” to the very last note of “Amhran na nGleann (The Song of the Glens).” All one needs to do is to surrender to the timelessness of each precious note and let the rest go hang.

I hope some of this music might go a long way to soothe the irritations of cheap green beer, insanely drunken revelers in matching T-shirts with “Irish you were naked” printed on the front and the stupidly obnoxious guy dressed as a leprechaun this St. Patrick’s Day. If not, my advice is to grab a Sharpie, a Labrador Retriever and a bucket of squid.

I’ll leave you with the Gaelic saying, “Giorraionn beirt bothar.” It essentially means “Two people shorten a road.” So, grab a friend, order up a pint, tell a tall tale and revel in some fine music.

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Umut Adan’s Psychedelic Folk-Rock Vibe

Umut Adan – Bahar (Riverboat Records, 2019)

Crafting a kind of homage recording can be tricky business, especially if you is paying reverence to a dated sound and applying that sound to your own compositions.

Walking that fine line where adoration doesn’t cross over into parody or a pale copycat effort has to come with some true convictions, not only to the original sound but also to your own musical chops and whether you have anything new to add. Well as luck would have it Turkish singer, songwriter and guitarist Umut Adan proves rightly he’s got the chops and can kick some ass on his international debut recording Bahar (meaning Spring), out on the Riverboat Records label.

Diving deep into the Anatolian rock movement of the late 1960s, Mr. Adan has revived a sound familiar to devotees of the Turkish rock scene and musicians like Cem Karaca, Fikret Kizilok and Erkin Koray. While I am sometimes skeptical about claims of retro-sounding recordings, Mr. Adan has indeed captured the psychedelic rock sound; so much so it’s a little eerie and wholly satisfying.

Umut Adan – Bahar

Teaming up with producer and musician Marco Fasolo and producer and engineer Liam Watson, who just happens to be London’s Toe Rag studio founder where Bahar was recorded, Mr. Adan breathes a renewed musical life into Anatolian rock’s heyday by recording magic and good old fashioned rock compositions. Divvying up the work load, Mr. Adan plays acoustic and electric guitars, percussion, Mellotron and belts out the vocals on Bahar, while Mr. Fasolo takes care of electric and acoustic guitars, bass, drums, percussion, mellotron and piano.

While the political messages of Bahar might be lost on those who don’t speak Turkish, the music is meaty and entrancing enough to cross any language barriers. Proof is opening track “Bembeyaz Cananım” Dedicated to Turkish folk musician and composer Muhlis Akarsu, this track embodies all the goodness of 60s Anatolian rock.

Following up with a meaty beat and dishy guitar lines “Şeytanın Aklını Çeldim,” Bahar perfects that electrified folk/rock sound. And it just gets better with tracks like “Ortasından Gel,” “Güneş” and the folksy love ballad “Zaman Zaman” by Fikret Kizilok.

Bahar get another hit of folk with “Arabam Kaldi’a” by Mahsui Serif. Tracks like “Dünyalardan Şen Bahar” and “ Sevdiğimi Seçtim” are as close to time travel as you are likely to get. Closing with a song about “the possibilities for humankind to better itself,” “Ana Baba Bacı Gardaş” sticks neatly to not only the sound of the 60s but also the roots of political message in Anatolian rock and folk music, and that’s no comfortable feat today in President Erdogan’s Turkey.

Bahar‘s blast from the past psychedelic/rock vibe might seem out of place, but the state of world right now might just feel the need for some solid rock rhythms and protest vocals, dig it? Also, kudos go to Ramazan Can for the wildly rich cover art. The description far out comes to mind.

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Houssam Gania’s Trance Ritual Music


Houssam Gania – Mosawi Swiri

Houssam Gania – Mosawi Swiri (Hive Mind Records, 2019)

Sometimes the best music is the result of misery. Think about it, a good number of rock songs revolve around the miserable cuss with anger issues going out to kick some ass and break the law. Gospel songs are all about being a miserable sinner seeking salvation or the miserable rejoicing after getting salvation. Folk songs are rife with a litany of the miseries of the average Joe and the need to stand together to fight The Man. Blues, well, the blues dole out miseries left and right, anything from your woman left, your man left, your dog don’t want you and Santa ain’t giving you anything for Christmas.

Country music is equally steeped in miseries. But interestingly enough music makes it possible for those miseries to heal. In essence, music becomes a balm. No matter the misery, the affliction, the landscape or even the weather there’s a piece of music with your misery written all over it, ready to cauterize the wound.

This has been the way since we humans started gathering in fire-lit circles armed with drums and flutes. Of course, Western musical traditions used to heal are downright puny in comparison to the deep well world music traditions have on tap for putting the sick and suffering to rights. From the healing vibrations of the classical Indian raga to the sacred business of Native American drum circles to the potent rhythms of African shamanic drumming and all the magical songs, chants and rites across the globe, humans have bent the will of voice and instrument as response to miseries real and imagined. We still do this.

One of those following that path is Houssam Gania, the Moroccan guimbri player and singer, who also happens to be the youngest son to the late Maalem Mahmoud Gania. Delving into the rich musical ceremony of the Gnawa, Mr. Gania’s recording Mosawi Swiri, available on the Hive Mind Records, dazzles listeners with songs from the Musawiyin Suite, part of the trance ritual music invoking master of sky and sea spirits Sidi Musa.

Joined by brother Hamza Gania and fellow qraqabs (cast iron castanets) players and singers Mohamed Benzaid, Khalid Charbadou and Amine Bassi, Mr. Gania takes lead on vocals and the guimbri, the three-stringed sintir of the Gnawa people on Mosawi Swiri.

Opening with the lush “Moulay Lhacham,” listeners are treated to guest musicians on guitar, keyboards and drums from the Atlantic fishing port city Essaouira region. This track is marvelously meaty with call and response vocals and the persistent rhythms of qraqabs edged with sleek jazzy guitar lines. Stripped bare of guitar, keyboards and drums, Mosawi Swiri takes on a respectful traditional feel as it moves through “Moussa Barkiy,” “Mosawi Swiri” and “Lah Lahrbi Ya Molay.”

For newbies to Gnawa music, the rhythmic clatter of qraqabs might come across as a little startling, but falling into its revolving rhythm enhances the trance ritual effects of the music. Vocals led by Mr. Gania and responses from backing singers along with the intricate thrumming of guimbri easily become voices from the earth, sea and sky.

Hypnotic, Mosawi Swiri encourages the Gnawa trance ritual effortlessly. I don’t know if I personally had a djinn (genie) problem, but I enjoyed the journey of Mosawi Swiri as I’m sure other world music fans seeking a musical ritual to ease their miseries will as well. I’m guessing if you’re a smirking little shit in a Maga hat you might want to steer clear.

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Bassekou Kouyate’s Impeccably Crafted Music

Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba – Miri (Out Here Records, 2019)

Over the years Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba have dazzled fans with recordings like Ba Power (2015), Jama Ko (2013), I Speak Fula (2010) and Segu Blue (2007), so it can come as no surprise that Mr. Kouyate and the members of Ngoni Ba are back at it, serving up some equally fabulous music on their fifth studio album called Miri (meaning dream or contemplation in the Bamana language) from Mr. Kouyate’s original label Out Here Records.

Dipping into topics like love, family, friendship and current struggles over ethnic differences, power and climate change, Mr. Kouyate puts a finger on the pulse of Mali and an every changing world and gives it to us good by way of impeccably crafted music and singsong vocals.

Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba – Miri

Miri proves rich and rewarding Malian fare from the opening track “Kanougnon” with its sweet vocals and oud by guest artist Majid Bekkas against the intricate delicacies of ngoni on this searching for love song. Equally delicious is “Deli,” a song about friendship that boasts some outstanding percussion. Joining Mr. Kouyate on his own lead ngoni and Ngoni Ba members Amy Sacko on lead vocals, Abou Sissoko on medium ngoni, Madou Kouyate on bass ngoni, Mahamadou Tounkara on doundoun, tama and yabara and Moctar Kouyate on cabasse on the track “Kanto Kelena” is vocalist Habib Koite. Fans get a dose of Cuba on “Wele Cuba” with guest singer Yasel Gonzalez Rivera from the group Madera Limpia.

Title track “Miri” is a stunning instrumental track. Interestingly, the track is based on the Mr. Kouyate’s experiences as a child playing by the Niger River near his hometown Garana. Musically, Mr. Kouyate struggles with the easy memories of playing by the river with Mali’s current struggles with the Islamist movement, falling tourism and climate change that has dried out parts of the Niger River. It is through the music that Mr. Kouyate dreams of peace in his country.

There are other goodies like the twangy touches of Mr. Kouyate’s bottleneck slide ngoni on bluesy “Wele Ni” with vocals by Abdoulaye Diabate, some fiery percussion and ngoni lines on the track “Konya” and the rich vocals of Amy Sacko on the bluesy “Nyame,” a song urging respect your family and your family’s heritage with some extra help from guest fiddler Casey Driessen.

Guest singer Afel Bocoum appears on the “Tabital Palaaku,” a song about the conflicts between herders and farmers and the ethnic struggles that go along with struggles over land use in the wake of climate change. Miri closes out with an homage to Mr. Kouyate’s mother on the track he named after her called “Yakare.” Ms. Sacko gives voice to Yakare and her 13 children and a life of singing.

Miri is a true treat and all about the big dreams, small pleasures, love, friendship and hardship of Mali.

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The Blistering Scrumptious Sound of Kel Assouf

Kel Assouf – Black Tenere (Glitterbeat Records, 2019)

World music fans looking for a desert blues/rock fix get their wish on February 15th with the release of Kel Assouf’s Black Tenere. To be released on the Glitterbeat Records label, Black Tenere is the follow-up recording to Kel Assouf’s 2016 release of Tikounen and the 2013 release of Tin Hinane. Burning bright with Belgium based, but Nigerien born, front man and guitarist Anana Ag Haroun, Belgium jazz drummer Oliver Penu and Tunisia born keyboardist Sofyann Ben Youssef, who also took on producing the album, Black Tenere is a razor sharp call of the Kel Tamashek or Tuareg culture as well as a blistering delicious addition to Kel Assouf’s sound.

Black Tenere thrives on potent duality where homage is paid to the Kel Tamashek (Tuareg) traditions and current struggles for independence and a contemporary delving into Western rock influences like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Queen of the Stone Age with some European electronic soundscapes tossed in for good measure.

Noting that, “These days I’m a Belgian when I’m in Niger and a Nigerien when I’m in Belgium,” Anana Ag Haroun says, “My musical tastes didn’t change but they are expanding further thanks to my different encounters and my curiosity. Black Tenere is a rock album. It’s a choice to give a more original touch that builds up the identity of Kel Assouf and differentiates it from the other groups of Ishumar music. For me the music has to travel and it has to be open to other sounds so that everyone can listen to the messages it carries.”

Black Tenere opens with fiery “Fransa,” replete with call and response vocals, guitar, keyboards and the familiar rolling rhythm, taking on the complexities of French intervention and squaring that with the state of their own nomadic way of life. “Fransa” gives way to the hard rocking “Tenere” with some truly kickass drumming, guitar licks and keyboards. “Alyochan” is just as amazing with driving drumming. “Tamatant” is where Black Tenere takes a sharp left turn to land listeners into dreamy electronic soundscape. The guitar licks seem to be suspended in space and the vocals soulful.

The electronica is part and parcel to Mr. Ben Youssef’s influences, his own work on AMMAR 808, a Pan-Maghreb futurism and the Stockholm Stureparken Studio where Black Tenere was recorded.

Mr. Ben Youssef explains, “Stureparken is a studio owned by musicians, one of them is a friend and fellow producer. The thing that is special about the studio is that it has a huge collection of keyboards, synths, guitars, basses and drums as well. All of them are vintage instruments, with some being rarer than others. The idea was to have more choices of good or weird sounding instruments. We were trying to find some special sounds and kept experimenting around that idea.”

He goes on, “I have been a rocker since my teens. I was trying to translate the Kel Assouf trio into a sound half way between its Nigerien roots and 70’s rock, but also stoner rock, which is a music I played for many years. The rhythmic parts and synths show something from my electronic alter-ego AMMAR 808. I tried to tie together my disparate influences: electronic, ambient and rock. It was a natural thing to do after playing with Kel Assouf for all these years. The sound of the album is inspired from the musicians and their personalities, including myself.

Black Tenere swings back into rock grooves with “America” and “Amghar” before delving into the deliciously trippy “Ariyal.” This track doesn’t really start, but unfolds by way of opening cymbals and drums before electronica and keyboards take over and finally guitar lines emerge. By the time the full throat of the song emerges “Ariyal” is all savage coolness. Perhaps one of my own favorites on Black Tenere is “Taddout.” With spacey electronica and keyboards opening into lanky, open sky guitar licks and rolling rhythm “Taddout” comes across as preciously personal as intimate vocals sing about desert life with the lyrics”

I follow the traces of antelopes,
I live in the desert and its storms,
my favorite flower is that of acacia. It’s called Tabsit.
Its perfume is that of freedom and loneliness,
Far from the tumult of city life.

It is Anana Ag Haroun who sums it up, “Music is a weapon of war without violence. It is a claim for justice and it is also the soul of humanity. It brings together human beings from different cultures and different languages and from different countries. If we were to invest more in culture today and less in weapons, the world would be different. Music is peace for our souls.

Buy Black Tenere

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Urna and Kroke, a Well-Designed Collaboration

Urna and Kroke – Ser

Urna and Kroke – Ser (Urna Chahar-Tugchi / Uct, 2018)

One would think that teaming up a singer born to nomadic herders on the Ordos grasslands of Inner Mongolia and a Polish band known on the world music scene for their forays into Klezmer, Jewish music, folk, jazz and fusion as an unlikely mix or, perhaps, just unadvised. Good thing for us that vocalist Urna Chahar-Tugchi and Kroke band members Tomasz Kukurba (viola, percussion, vocals and flute), Jerzy Bawoł (accordion) and Tomasz Lato (double bass) are cleverer than any of us.

The recording, Ser, out on the Urna Chahar-Tugchi/Uct label is simply stunning. Conjuring up a seamless expanse of evocative musical imagery by way of new takes on traditional songs and freshly penned tracks, the Mongolian singer and the Polish band make for a perfect match.

Ser is an elegant collaboration that opens with the traditional song “Zandan Hureng (My Sandalwood Brown.” Framed by the Mr. Kukurba on violin, Mr. Bawoł on accordion and Mr. Lato on double bass, Urna’s vocals soar like a bird and adding some equally impressive vocals by Mr. Kukruba makes the track sweeter. Ser just get better with an accordion opening on “Nojiyaa” and Urna’s lovely vocals, but one can hardly go wrong with a song where the opening lyrics are “On the banks of the Green River a horse waits.”

Title track “Ser” is another stunner in its simplicity of vocals and double bass written by Urna and Mr. Lato. The jazzy simplicity on this track woven out of voice and double bass is achingly lovely. Equally delicious is “Baigal Dalai (Infinite Nature)” another track written by Urna.

Ser further unfolds with traditional song “Undur Uul (On the Summit of a High Mountain) that thrums as if on the back of a horse riding across the grasslands. “Jigder Nana” is a sweetly sassy number that downright catchy with some jazzy interplay between vocals, accordion, violin, double bass and some snappy percussion. It’s simply impossible not to wowed by tracks like”Shirdegiin Chaidam (Flowers of the Steppe)” the charming “Altan Altan Jigjuuhai (Golden, Golden Little Bird)” and a capella track “Erdenis (My Wishes for Humanity).”

Finely worked tracks like “Jergelgeen/Kukurna (Fate Morgana)” a piece written by Urna and Mr. Kukurba, where the melding of vocals against a kaleidoscope of viola and electronica proves the power and depth of this collaboration, where the work is done and there is nothing left but to fly. It’s an ethereal soulfulness.

Ser is your lush ride across the grasslands.

Buy Ser.

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