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.

The Musical Joy of the Gypsies of Rajasthan

Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan – Times of Maharajas (ARC Music

There are some CDs that are remarkable easy to review. These are the ones filled with a musical joy and a mastery that goes beyond just mere proficiency. Times of Maharajas by the Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan out on the ARC Music label is just one of those recordings.

With the 2005 Dhoad Gypsies: From Rajasthan” under their belt, more than a 1000 concerts in more 100 countries in the last 18 years, performances for the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, former President of France Francois Holland and gig for The Rolling Stones’s Mick Jagger’s birthday, Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan are again taking us into the rich and colorful musical traditions of the north west Indian state of Rajasthan on Times of Maharajas.

Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan – Times of Maharajas

Overflowing with harmonium, sarangi, kartal, dholak, tabla and some truly extraordinary vocals, Times of Maharajas is extravagantly lush and infectiously joyful. Seriously, who wouldn’t enjoy a recording that has a song entitled “Romantic Peacock?” Musical director and tabla player Rahis Bharti intent on keeping alive the musical and dance traditions of Rajasthan lends his own tabla to Times of Maharajas along with Sanjay Khan, vocalist and harmonium player, sarangi players Ustad Sabri Khan and Ustad Lyikat Ali Khan, singer and kartal player Bilal Khan, dholak player Yakub Khan, singer Moinuddin Khan and tabla players Teepu Khan and Amrat Hussain.

Times of Maharajas is a delight from the opening strains of “Sona ra button banna (The Prince Is Born)” as the courtly life of the maharajas takes on life through each track.

Carefully crafted and intricately worked, Times of the Maharajas expresses a pure musical joyfulness by way of the syncopated vocals against harmonium on the opening before taking shape into “Breathing Under the Water,” and on the happy groove conjured up on “Janwariyo (Romantic Peacock),” or by way of the sweet saranji lines on “Lullaby.”

And the delights just keep coming with “Dhanra Saheba ji (Dream Wedding),” “Nagar bele (Never Let You Go)” and simply fabulous “Royal Dance of Rajasthan Ghoomar.”

Listeners get a real treat by way of a four minute thirty-two second tabla solo with a deliciously threaded harmonium for company on “Tabla Solo” before Times of Maharajas closes with the exotics of “Begha ghara ayo (Maharani Longing for Maharaja).”

Times of Maharajas is a magically rich listen into the times of the maharajas.

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Candid Respect for American Stringband Music

Tui – Pretty Little Mister

Tui – Pretty Little Mister (Hearth Music, 2019)

The shiny sparkly goodness whipped up on the debut recording Pretty Little Mister by the duo called Tui must be akin to the goodness that makes hummingbirds hang around the backdoor, make bad dogs go good and why some fish jump out of the water to kiss the light. Writer’s hyperbole? Perhaps, but only by inches because this is an excellent CD in the resurgence of Americana stringband music. Tight, neat instrumentation, expressive vocals and infectious energy transform Pretty Little Mister into a true delight.

The duo of Tui is fashioned out of singer and musician Jake Blount, one of the few African American banjo players on the stringband scene today and Libby Weitnauer, a sweet voiced fiddler and banjo player from Maryville, Tennessee. This unlikely duo have come to stringband music from entirely different backgrounds.

Mr. Blount found his way beyond funk and metal to American folk through his studies at Hamilton College and delved deep after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. He says, “I remember going into my bedroom and pulling out these old spirituals, digging through the music of black people and slaves to figure out what our coping mechanism was.” Picking up the banjo seemed fitting as it was African slaves in the Chesapeake Bay area were the first to have brought the banjo to the America.

For Ms. Weitnauer the banjo and fiddle are a sort of birthright in Maryville, Tennessee. She says, “I moved to Chicago to get my degree in violin performance and I got homesick and had a reframing of my upbringing. Growing up, you’re supposed to feel shame about growing up in that area. Once I moved away, it became more a feeling of pride, so playing fiddle music was an expression of that.”

But in order to play this kind of music you have to find it first. More than just reclaiming, it’s a kind of unearthing by way of a worldwide roundabout of musicians that share old field recordings, archival material and trades of knowledge of long forgotten songs and musicians. It’s by way of this deep dive into the stringband traditions that the material for Pretty Little Mister emerges.

It’s simply apparent from the get-go that Mr. Blount and Ms. Weitnauer are masterful musicians, but it is the almost elegant interplay of this pair that makes the recording sparkle, especially on instrumental tracks like “Crazy Horse,” “Eighth of January” and “Twin Sisters.”

Equally delightful are tracks like “Sugar Babe” with Mr. Blount’s haunting vocals or the sweet vocals of Ms. Weitnauer on “Went Up on the Mountain” or the swayback slide of her vocals on “Mistreated Mama Blues.”

The duo of Tui offers up first rate performances that come across with a kind of genuine respect and love for the tradition.

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Superb Chick Corea with The Spanish Heart Band

Chick Corea with The Spanish Heart Band – Antidote (Concord Jazz, 2019)

Every once in a while you come across a recording that completely stuns you, one of those where melodies and rhythms leak out, sprawl lazily across the skin and sink deep leaving you utterly spellbound and unable to anything but listen. That best sums up Antidote, out on the Concord Jazz label, by the estimable pianist, keyboardist and composer Chick Corea along with his brand new band The Spanish Heart Band. With compositions that are smart and sophisticated, a collection of musicians that make each track sizzle and all under the guiding hand of Chick Corea, Antidote is deliciously ferocious, sleekly sublime and savagely cool.

Chick Corea with The Spanish Heart Band – Antidote

Revisiting the Spanish, Latin and flamenco influences from his own past and previous recordings such as My Spanish Heart and Touchstone, Mr. Corea assembles a dream team of musicians to realize with work on Antidote. With Flamenco guitarist Niño Josele and fellow Spaniard saxophonist and flutist Jorge Pardo, along with Cuban bassist Carlitos Del Puerto and Venezuelan percussionist Luisito Quintero, as well as drummer Marcus Gilmore, trombonist Steve Davis, trumpeter Michael Rodriquez and dancer Niño de los Reyes at his back, Mr. Corea let’s fly with his signature piano and keyboard lines in an extravaganza of Spanish tinged, Afro-Cuban goodness.

Mr Corea explains, “My genetics are Italian, but my heart is Spanish. I grew up with that music. This new band is a mix of all the wonderful and various aspects of my love and lifetime experience with these rhythms that have been such a big part of my musical heritage.”

Each track of Antidote is a bit like a turn of a kaleidoscope where all the pretty shapes and sparkly bits get rearranged into something even more spectacular. Opening and title track “Antidote” is a wildly wonderful hybrid of Latin jazz, Afro-Cuban strains and Spanish influences, made more so by vocals by Ruben Blades. Chocked full of drama set up by brass, percussion, guitar, flute, palmas and keyboards, “Antidote” is one of those tracks where every note is where it’s supposed to be and everything is right with the world and you just don’t want it to end.

Following up with the sweetly jazzy “Duende,” Mr. Corea and company settle into a fiercely cool groove before Antidote turns stunning with companion tracks “The Yellow Nimbus – Part 1” and “The Yellow Nimbus – Part 2.” These two tracks, colored heavily by flamenco flashes that include a flamenco dancer, finger snaps and palmas, are simply spectacularly drawn by way flamenco guitar, brass, percussion and piano. They are intense, dramatic and extravagantly played out before turning sleekly Spanish jazzy on Part 2.

And the goodness just keeps going with tracks like the easy sweetness of “My Spanish Heart,” again with Ruben Blades providing vocals. “Armando’s Rhumba” is a delicious Latin jazz cocktail of trombone, trumpet, guitar, bass and percussion against Mr. Corea’s piano lines. “Desafinado” dazzles with vocals by Maria Blanca in this plushy jazzy track.

Mr. Corea turns his sights on “Zyryab,” the Paco de Lucia, Joan Albert Amargos and Ramon de Algeciras composition. This track is loaded with goodies like Mr. Pardo on flute, Mr. Josele on guitar and Mr. Del Puerto on bass all backed by Mr. Corea on piano. Listeners get a sweet little listen to Igor Stravinsky by way of Mr. Corea’s lovely piano work on “Pas de Deux” before Antidote closes the recording with the easy, breezy flash of “Admiration” with a closing percussion and flamenco dance section.

Antidote isn’t just good, it’s Chick Corea good.

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SIU2, Hong Kong’s Creative East-West Musical Fusion

SIU2 – Sonic Traveler

SIU2 – Sonic Traveler (Flower Music, 2008)

One of the thrills of my CD review stack is that I often don’t know what musical adventure I’m about to take. This week’s thrill would have to be the wild ride of SIU2’s Sonic Traveler out on the Flower Music label. Based in Hong Kong SIU2 is one of those creative inventions that proves potent not just for their inventiveness but through their own musical skills.

On the surface, Sonic Traveler might come across as quirky, playful and flirty, but a skillfully crafted musical meld of East and West emerges and the smart, savvy musicals skills make the journey worth while. Need a little quirky, need some international getaway music for your ride into work or just want to take a musical tumble into a dramatic, jazzy, rocking slice of fusion? Then look no further than Sonic Traveler.

From the jump, Sonic Traveler defies any preconceived expectations. Crafting a fusion sound by way of composer, sheng player and electric organist Ng Cheuk Yin, zheng player Jason Lau, sanxian player Cass Lam, pianist Peter Fan, bass guitarist Siuming Chan and drummer Lawrence Tsui, Sonic Traveler propels listeners on a raucous roller coast of a ride that’s part high octane jazz, part quirky movie chase music, part hard driving rock all threaded through with Asian sensibilities. With two previous recordings, Open Door (2008) and KonFusion (2010), including a part of Open Door as part of a movie soundtrack, under their belts, SIU2 determinedly puts their own stamp on East/West musical fusion.

SIU2 launches the journey with the frenetic title track “Sonic Traveler,” a bold, jazzy melange of piano, crashing drums, organ and bass with flashes of zheng, sheng and sanxian. Sonic Traveler is a clever walk on the wild side of East meets West with the addition of the zippy zany turns of “Lights Up” and the hard rocking edged “Haunted House.”

“Gondola” proves to be a lovely respite in the frenetic groove, with its elegant piano and sanxian lines, as does the extraordinarily dreamy solo piano piece “Icy Night.”

“Drifting Ice” is just as exotically drawn as if possessed by a kind of musical anticipation threaded through with some wonderful chunky bass and the occasional rhythm driven outburst.

Sonic Traveler closes with “Gliding” that rides high on a “Mission Impossible” theme that runs through the track. It’s quirky and fun.

Buy the digital download version of Sonic Traveler from amazon or the CD from Flower Music

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The Powerful Serenity of Ongtupqa Sacred Music of the Hopi Tribe

Clark Tenakhongva, Gary Stroutsos and Matthew Nelson – Ongtupqa Sacred Music of the Hopi Tribe

Clark Tenakhongva, Gary Stroutsos and Matthew Nelson – Ongtupqa Sacred Music of the Hopi Tribe (ARC Music, 2019)

Stripped bare but for flute, rattles, rasp, gourd, clay wind whistle, clay pot percussion and vocals Ongtupqa Sacred Music of the Hopi Tribe more than fills Grand Canyon National Park’s Desert View Watchtower where it was recorded during a single night with no second takes.

Set for release on July 26th on the ARC Music label, Ongtupqa is a precious listen into sacred Hopi song by way of Clark Tenakhongva, a Hopi Third Mesa traditional singer, Gary Stroutsos, a Seattle, Washington based flutist and composer and Matthew Nelson, an ethnomusicologist, host of Tucson’s KXCI’s program Global Rhythm Radio and the trio’s clay pot percussionist.

On this recording where a flute might sound like the call of a bird or a gust of wind, where a voice might summon up memories of the rush of a storm or an ancestor’s call from the distant past and the gentle thudding percussion of a clay pot might suggest the distant rumble of thunder or the rustle of a footstep on the path, Ongtupqa firmly and squarely roots listeners to the earth and sky in this elegant call into the wild in the hopes it will stay that way. Ongtupqa is spiritually soulful and intensely meditative with not a hint of modern New Age frippery.

Ongtupqa takes listeners through spare, beautiful tracks like “Butterfly Clouds,” the flute instrumental “Place of Emergence” and Mr. Tenakhongva ‘s song about the flight of the butterflies among the watermelon flowers on “Butterflies Are Free” before launching into the truly stunning pairing of “Rolling Thunder” and “Rain of Life.”

There’s also the vocal and rattle centered “Thank You My Fathers,” the lovely haunting solo flute of the Mr. Stroutsos composition “Vasey’s Paradise” and the lovely “Raindrops” to lure listeners.

Ongtupqa’s stunningly powerful serenity glides in on a voice, a breath passing over a flute, the rasp of a rattle and fingertips against a clay pot. Beautiful.

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Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Live at WOMAD 1985 and Night Song Reissue

Nusrat was one of the greatest singer of our time. When his singing takes off, his voice embodies soulfulness and spirituality like no othe,Peter Gabriel said that about the late legendary Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Revisiting the utter extraordinary voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has turned into a bit of a celebration as Real World Records celebrates their 30th anniversary in the music business with a July 26th release of the live recording Live at WOMAD 1985 and the vinyl re-issue of Night Song, his final recording for Real World Records.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Live at WOMAD 1985

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Live at WOMAD 1985 (Real World Records, 2019)

Restored from the original analogue tapes, Live at WOMAD 1985 is simply thrilling. From the first notes of “Allah Ho Allah Ho” through “Haq Ali Ali” to “Shahbaaz Qalandar” and ending on the last of the fading notes of “Biba Sada Dil Mor De.”

Live at WOMAD is a panoramic musical landscape of all the wonderfulness that made Mr. Ali Khan’s vocals so breathtaking. Listeners are treated to the brightness of song, the reverent ecstasy of Qawwali devotion and vocalizations that sound as if they grew out of the fires of earth, bubbled up and over rocks and stones within ancient river banks, took flight and came back to earth as a gentle as a breeze. Surrounded by harmoniums, tablas, singers and hand-clapping, Live at WOMAD 1985 is just simply the raw spectacular richness whirling around Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – Night Song

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – Night Song reissue (Real World Records, 2019)

The re-issue of Night Song is no less astonishing. Originally released in 1996, Night Song came about as a second collaboration with Canadian producer Michael Brook after the release of the 1990 album Mustt Mustt.

Folding in Western and Asian influences, Night Song is smart, sophisticated and strikingly potent even after some 23 years. Listeners get an earful of sweetness edged with kora on opening track “My Heart, My Life” before the delicious open landscape feel of vocals against harmonium, percussion and keyboards of “Intoxicated.” And it just gets better with the eerie mysteries of “Lament,” the electronica mix of “My Comfort Remains” and the precious elegance of title track “Night Song.” My favorite has to be the moody mix conjured up “Sweet Pain.”

Writing together all the songs on Night Song, Mr. Brooks and Mr. Ali Khan (Mr. Ali Khan solely penned “Night Song”) found the perfect balance of east and west for Night Song so it can be no surprise that it was nominated for a Grammy award and is considered a classic world music realm. Re-visiting this recording after more than 20 years was definitely no chore and if you missed snagging it in 1996 or are just hearing it for the first time don’t waste a moment more before falling under Night Song’s spell.

Buy Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Live at WOMAD 1985 and Night Song in the Americas

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Timeless Country Blues

Various Artists – The Rough Guide to Country Blues (World Music Network/Rough Guides, 2019)

Several years ago I was at a neighborhood party where the host had tuned in a local blues to set as background music. A woman at the party asked that the music be changed because she didn’t like blues music. She said the blues sounded dated to her and the music itself implied a kind of pre-Civil Rights misery she didn’t like and didn’t want to be reminded of.

I remember being a little irritated at this commentary, but said nothing. Blues, its regional sounds, tones and its lyrics, like it or not, are all a part of a legacy about the culture from where it comes. Misery, misogyny, racial injustices, class oppression, dirty politics and bad relationships of every kind have always been part and parcel to the blues and a clever way to slip messages past the polite society censors about the culture and its people. Like most musical genres the blues is a kind of historical record, but it’s often an uncomfortable history. Fortunately, a lone person at a party not liking the genre certainly isn’t going to stop it. Have a beef? Have a broken heart or soul? Have a confession? Add a guitar and it’s magically transformed into something universal. Have blues will travel.

Various Artists – The Rough Guide to Country Blue

And the blues do indeed travel. Just one listen to The Rough Guide to Country Blues, out on the World Music Network/Rough Guide’s label, and all sorts of wonders appear. Revered rock guitar licks, jazz phrases and familiar vocal turns, growls and slides hide in plain sight on this collection of country blues that all were recorded between 1926 and 1935 by the pioneers of country blues. It’s filled with sly snatches of ragtime, gospel, hillbilly twangy goodness and Dixieland jazz.

For the skeptics who just can’t imagine why they would want to listen to some old scratchy recordings, let me remind you these songs are the real deal and, here’s the kicker, you probably already know a fair number of them. Proof is in The Rough Guide to Country Blues opening track the hauntingly good “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” by Skip James. Some of you might recognize it from T. Bone Burnett’s soundtrack from the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” as sung by Chris Thomas King.

Some might recognize Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe’s “New Dirty Dozen,” a future version of the song was used in Quincy Jones’s movie soundtrack “The Color Purple” and sung by Tata Vega. Frank Stokes appears on the Rough Guide on “I Got Mine.” Ry Cooder and Pink Anderson have cut versions of this song. Just as Rhiannon Giddens took cues from the vocals of Geeshi Wiley on her “Last Kind Words Blues.”

Halfway through the Rough Guide listeners get a sweet string laced version the Mississippi Sheiks’s “Sitting on Top of the World.” As with all things good and right with the world, what goes around comes around and “Sitting on Top of the World” has gone around and around. This song has been recorded by a few notables like Howlin’ Wolf, Doc Watson, Cream, Chris Goss & the Forest Rangers, Ray Charles, The Grateful Dead, Jack White and Janis Joplin.

The Rough Guide to Country Blues possesses some real gems, songs that just shouldn’t be missed like the sweet jaunty rag of Blind Willie McTell’s “Georgia Rag” or the guitar licks found on Blind Willie Johnson’s “God Moves on the Water” or Bukka White’s “Sic ‘Em Dogs On,” or the sheer goodness of Big Bill Boonzy’s “How You Want It Done?” or Blind Blake’s “Come On Boys Let’s Do That Messin’ Around.”

And there are some blues artists that shouldn’t be missed like Charley Patton’s “A Spoonful Blues,” Son House’s “My Black Mama – Part I” and Leadbelly’s “Packin’ Trunk Blues.”

And no listener wants to miss out on these lyrics on Tommy Johnson’s “Cool Drink of Water Blues.”

I asked for water, and she gave me gasoline
I asked for water, she gave me gasoline
I asked for water and she gave me gasoline
Lord, Lordy, Lord

Crying, Lord, I wonder will I ever get back home
Crying, Lord, I wonder will I ever get back home
Lord, Lordy, Lord

Or these lyrics from Son House’s “My Black Mam – Part I”

Oh, Lord have mercy on my wicked soul,
Wouldn’t mistreat you baby for my weight in gold,
Oh, Lord have mercy on my wicked soul,
Mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm.

Buy The Rough Guide to Country Blues in the Americas

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First-Class Malian Music from Hama Sankare

Hama Sankare – Niafunke (Clermont Music, 2019)

If you’ve ever heard Malian artists like Ali Farka Toure, Afel Bocoum, Le Troup Regionale de Nia funke, L’Orchestre de Gao, Songhoy Allstars or BanKaiNa, you’ve heard Alpha Ousamane “Hama” Sankare. This vocalist, calabash player, composer and arranger is a kind of musical cornerstone in Mali’s musical landscape who stepped out on worldwide musical stage in 2018 on his Clermont Music release Ballebe – Calling All Africans.

Now, because the fine folks at Clermont Music know a good thing when they hear it, they’ve set loose another stunning collection of songs by Mr. Sankare on the world music scene. Entitled Niafunke , Mr. Sankare blazes bright with this collection of original tracks with a few traditional Malian tunes thrown in for good measure and a track co-written with vocalist Afel Bocoum.

Hama Sankare – Niafunke

Whether you’re new to the wonders of Malian music or are already a devoted fan, Niafunke is brimming over with Malian goodness.

Joining Mr. Sankare’s vocals and calabash playing on this recording is a first class line-up of musicians including Oumar Konate on guitar, Oramane Toure on bass, Makan Camara on drums and percussion, Afel Bocoum on backing vocals, Yoro Cisse on monochord, Alibaba Traore on guitar, Kande Sissoko on ngoni and Sekou Toure on backing vocals.

Overflowing with trance-inducing rhythms, warm call-and-response vocals, shimmering guitar licks so good they’ll make a grown man weep and surrounded by the steady, righteous rhythms of calabash, Niafunke is stellar collection of musical treats.

From the opening of “Dewel Wege” through tracks like the guitar lick laced “Remobe” and goodies like “Tiega Mali” and traditional track “Nojarro,” Niafunke is all hip grooves surrounded by that keenly felt Malian dessert blues/rock stamp.

Fans will definitely want to take a listen to “Alkaleyka,” the bluesy “Yer Kur Ti Afo” and the feel good “Solane,” as well as the upbeat ode to women and children “Cherie” and spectacular instrumental “Baba Gomni.”

Niafunke overflows with great music and good grooves, so my only complaint about Niafunke has nothing to do with the music itself, it concerns the liner notes. In teeny tiny letters on the back of the cover under the song title are some of the lyrics to the songs. Some of these lyrics include: “Today Mali suffers – Killings Banditry – We are tearing each other apart,” “People of Mali come together for peace,” and “Its is a tragedy that there are so many people without meaningful work. So much human potential is being lost.”

I’ll say right out that the regular World Music Central reader is smarter than the average bear. That being said, I’m sure there are a good number of folks out there that have no clue about the goings on in Mali or even where Mali is. If it takes liner notes concerning the state of affairs another country or culture or the tragedies of another group of people far away to enlighten music lovers then that’s what it takes. I don’t think making a point to publish decent sized liner notes of a song’s lyrics so people can and are encourage to read them takes anything away from the music. Knowing the hardships of Mali doesn’t take power away from Mr. Sankare’s music – it makes it all the more powerful.

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Dead Can Dance Envision the Rituals of Dionysus

Dead Can Dance – Dionysus (Pias America, 2019)

Anyone who has dipped an ear into the musical wonderlands crafted by Dead Can Dance knows that the journey down these fantastical rabbit holes can be gloriously fierce and wholly satisfying and their latest offering Dionysus is certainly no exception. Following up on releases like Spiritchaser, Anastasis, Into the Labyrinth and Aion, the dynamic duo behind Dead Can Dance Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard have chosen the ritual and rites of Dionysus as the creative jumping off point for their latest musical journey. Dionysus. You know, the Greek god who’s got the goods on wine, wine making, fertility, ritual euphoria, religious ecstasy and theater. That Dionysus.

Dead Can Dance – Dionysus

There’s no need to start brushing up on your Greek mythology or crafting a fennel staff topped with a pine cone; the music on
Dionysus is all about that mysterious, well-trodden path of rite and ritual, plucking sounds that bubble up from the earth or snagged straight from the wind.

For this recording, Mr. Perry lures listeners with an array of collected sounds from around the globe like belled goats from Switzerland, a beehive from New Zealand and bird calls from Brazil and Mexico. Paired with Dead Can Dance familiars like frame drums, flutes, whistles, soaring vocals that might well have been snagged from the air and soul-stirring rhythms, Mr. Perry adds a daf or Iranian frame drum and a fujara or Slovakian shepherd’s flute to his musical cauldron.

Divided into two acts, each with several tracks that flow into one another, Dionysus opens with ship and surf sounds on “Sea Borne” before evolving into mélange of drums, hand claps, fabulous horns and vocals and you’ve magically arrived at the beginning of your own ritual backed by electronica and soaring vocals. Like all fantastical musical journeys there’s always a bit of surrender to the direction of the music.

Dionysus turns next to the “Liberator of Minds,” a lush landscape of percussion instruments, flutes and whistles with a decidedly Middle Eastern flair before giving way to “Dance of the Bacchantes,” a piece that quickly finds ritual ecstasy by way of intense drumming and female vocals and ululations that’s fierce and delicious.

Turning to Act II, is where Dionysus hooks listeners further by way of “The Mountain” where the ritual continues with pipes against mysterious electronica, ethereal vocals, including some from Mr. Perry himself, and a backdrop of rite-inducing percussion.

At the mountain top, listeners are ready for “The Invocation,” preceded by belled goats and the wind before evolving into some truly spectacular vocals laced by bells and zither-like instrument. The retreat to “The Forest” is just as stunning in that familiar musical cross-cultural Dead Can Dance mix of vocals, percussion and electronica.

The journey ends with “Psychopomp” that opens with rattles, birdsong and ritual rhythm before taking on a dreamy slide into an otherworldly place where vocals twine around rattles and birdsong.

Dionysus is everything you want in a Dead Can Dance recording – rhythms rooted to the earth, vocals plucked from under the wings of swooping birds and that savage grace only music can capture for us mere mortals.

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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.

Purchase The Art of the Vietnamese Zither

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