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.
One of the many perks of
residing in Huntington Beach, CA (yes, the Surf City famed in song and story)
is the Tuesday night street fair that happens on the main drag, just shy of the
pier where the mighty Pacific Ocean takes over the horizon.
Live music is always part of
the festivities, often in the form of local buskers singing for their supper.
It’s usually good listening, but until recently I never thought I’d make it a
point to hurry down to Main Street on a Tuesday evening just for the music.
That changed dramatically when an excited friend informed me that Tuba Skinny,
perhaps the best traditional early jazz band out of New Orleans, would be
capping a string of west coast shows with an appearance- live, direct and free
-on the downtown Huntington Beach pavement. I’d been delighting in the group’s
You Tube videos for some time, and the thought of seeing and hearing them in
person had me, well, quite jazzed.
They didn’t disappoint. Tuba Skinny’s lineup was comprised of two resonator guitarists (one of whom doubled on banjo), a clarinetist, a trombonist, a cornet player, a washboard player, a singer who played bass drum when she wasn’t enchanting us with her vintage-sounding vocals and indeed, a sousaphone player.
It was a perfect old-timey sound they captured, one that revels in being completely disconnected from the manufactured slop that characterizes much of today’s popular music. They didn’t even use microphones, instead relying on their skills as a perfectly attuned ensemble to balance the nuances of their punchy, swinging ragtime feel.
Each member got to solo and shine, and from the fluttery fun of the horns to the spot on chops of the rhythm section, they rendered their cover tunes and originals with infectious joy. Looking around at the sizable street crowd they attracted, I could see faces that appeared to be already devotees of this sort of music and thus entranced. Others, perhaps less familiar but curious, were subtly swaying and wearing expressions that seemed to be saying “hey, this stuff is goooood.” The band concluded their performance with a promise to return, and the audience was loudly in favor of their doing so.
There are 10 releases in Tuba
Skinny’s discography, averaging one per year since their formation. I can
attest to the excellence of two of them.
Nigel’s Dream (2018) charms from the start with a
Caribbean-meets-Crescent City cover of Nassau String Band’s “Belamina.”
Originals like the title track and “Springtime Strut” swing as if they could
have been in the ragtime canon for decades, and the covers, including a
sumptuously bluesy take on Tommy Dorsey’s “Some Cold Rainy Day,” are stunning.
2019’s Some Kind-a-Shake is considerably heavier on tunes not composed within the TS ranks and could serve as a primer on how early jazz should be done. Memphis Minnie’s “I’m Going Back Home” features a contrasting vocal tradeoff topping a jaunty arrangement in classic style, “Jubilee Stomp” reminds as to why Duke Ellington should have been granted higher royal rank, “Ballin’ the Jack” weaves brass, reeds and plucked strings into a perfect whole and the entire album testifies to the brilliance of Tuba Skinny and the timeless quality of the music they champion.
Time for another overview of CDs that have fortuitously found their way into my possession, and, even more fortuitously, that I’ve enjoyed enough to spread the word on. If you want or need a common thread by which these releases are connected, file them under the general heading of Music to Make Hard Times a Little Less Hard or Good Times Even Better. And if that ain’t what music’s all about, it’s at least a key factor.
Many of those who fled the tumult of the Haitian slave revolt that began in 1791 found refuge in New Orleans. The longstanding musical and cultural connections between the two places is celebrated by Haitian roots band Lakou Mizik on their new release HaitiaNola (Cumbancha, 2019), the inspiration for which came about after they played the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2017. A glorious gumbo of guests representing the Crescent City grace the entire album and mutual inspiration abounds.
From the moment the already-irresistible dance groove of the opening “Renmen” gets notched higher by the reedy injections of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the party is in session. Sure, some of that party cools down the pace a bit and makes way for mellower tracks like “La Famni” (featuring Jon Cleary’s moody piano) and “Rasanbleman” (with Leyla McCalla’s cello speaking as eloquently as the spirited voices), but the bulk is celebratory.
The sort of African-derived rhythms that propel “Loumandja” (assisted by Damas Louis and Logan Schutts on tanbou drums) are never far off, and when they’re laced with the declarations of Cyril Neville (“Sa Na Kenbe”), the deftly sweet horns of the Soul Rebels (“Manman Lavi,” “Bouyou Lakou”) or the unparalleled wallop of Trombone Shorty (“Pistach Griye”), they come alive ever more resoundingly. Keeping Lakou Mizik’s traditional/modern rasin approach intact while adding creole wonders of another kind entirely, this album mixes and matches with brilliance to spare.
Panamanian singer/composer/actor/activist/politician/Renaissance Man Rubén Blades returns with Paraiso Road Gang (RB Records, 2019).
Ever eclectic and never content to be under the heading of mere “Latin” music, Blades moves easily from rock-like punchiness to balladry, reggae, Celtic strains (the Spanish kind), hip hop and funk. His voice is as strong and plainspoken as ever, he’s backed by a tight band that attunes to every stylistic change, and here he adds another to a long line of impressive albums.
Singer/guitarist Rafael Berrio comes across a bit like a Spanish Bob Dylan on Niño Futuro (Rosi Records, 2019). He’s got a talk-sing kind of voice and his acoustic/electric backing of guitar, bass, piano and drums has a pleasantly twangy quality filled with subtle accentuations, easy flowing melodies and a seeming refusal to be showy.
With no lyric translations and my lack of fluency in Spanish, the meaning of the songs is lost on me (although the title track seems to be a cataloguing of what our children stand to inherit, both good and bad). Such a quibble aside, the disc is a quietly refreshing diversion that packs its own kind of power and doesn’t need to try hard to do so.
Andreas Arnold is also a guitar slinger, but apart from a couple of tracks, Odisea (Galileo Music, 2019) leaves vocals out of the picture and lets Arnold’s acoustic axe do most of the talking. Flamenco is one language it speaks, while utterances of jazz, blues and rhythms from the Arabic world have a say in the matter also.
Arnold can play some fiery riffs and runs when he chooses to, though his approach is more often one of finesse that comes in selected bursts rather than sustained flash. The supporting instrumentation is primarily bass and percussion, with some additions of piano, trumpet, violin and melodica. No matter the configuration, the interplay between Arnold and his accompaniment never fails to build into a tasty whole that satisfies the ears and heart. Note how well the deft picking of “Bike Messenger” contrasts with the tune’s shuffling inner core or the perfect squaring off of guitar and muezzin-like vocals on “Tangos Arabe.” And be sure to stick around for the concluding “Continuum,” a Jaco Pastorius piece that comes across like the sonic equivalent of a finely cut diamond.
Tabla player Shahbaz Hussain and pianist Helen Anahita Wilson both shine on Diwan (Golden Girl Records, 2019), a duo disc that ranges from qawwali-ish pulses to exquisitely built and disassembled passages that reveal just how skilled these two are. Some of it carries a stately, chamber music feel. Some of it simply dazzles. If you think a stunning wall of sound can’t be built with only two instruments, think again. Hussain and Wilson build a beauty of one here.
You can chalk it up to “gratitude for the force of serendipity,” to quote the very sparse liner notes, or simply enjoy the master musicianship at work.
I initially overlooked Dreamers (Sony 2018), a collaboration of string quartet Brooklyn Rider and Mexican vocalist Magos Herrera. Please pardon my shortsightedness, because the album is a stirring, rhythmically alive but often pensive collection of songs representing a variety of South American styles. Compositions by the likes of Gilberto Gil, Federico Garcia Lorca and Caetano Veloso, dreamers all, are reconstructed by Brooklyn Rider’s savory violins, viola and cello, matched in unencumbered beauty by Herrera’s Spanish, Portuguese and English vocals.
The title track, based on a poem by Octavio Paz, typifies the overall approach with strings and voice gliding through lovely twists and turns on route straight to the soul. Percussion and palmas are added throughout, bringing a spirited zest to the already glorious combination. If, like me, you missed this one, make amends and latch onto it soon.
Born in Cameroon and based in Atlanta, singer/instrumentalist/composer Moken offers a rather atypical African sound on Missing Chapters (Moodswing Records, 2019), his debut album. His voice, an elastic, quirky combination of scat singer, crooner, bluesman and octave-jumping musical theater performer, is the immediate grabber. Trust me- you’ve never heard anything quite like it. The tracks, mainly of a sprightly acoustic sort, range from affirming declarations (“Your Sun is Rising,” “Walking Man”) to grinning slices of life (“Tequila Song”).
This is one of those records that will have you notching up the volume and pricking up your ears to catch the nuances of Moken’s never-predictable singing and how well it goes with the varying, unfailingly tight arrangements of guitar, upright bass, trumpet, drums, n’goni, reeds, violin and percussion. While recognizable as African music with Western elements, Missing Chapters lives up to its title by bringing in Moken’s many unique and adventurous angles.
I’ve had trouble accepting the (no doubt overstated) contention that compact discs are rapidly becoming a thing of the past or, in the opinion of some, already are. Granted, the number of CDs dropping through my mail slot has decreased (which is one reason why I haven’t reviewed any for this site in many months), but the flow certainly hasn’t run completely dry. So with all due gratitude to the forbearance of World Music Central and those who continue to bless me with shiny circles of sonic discovery from around the world, here’s my take on some that have engaged my ears of late.
African rhythms have been successfully combined with the Celtic music most closely affiliated with Ireland, but to the best of my limited knowledge, African and Scottish music hasn’t had a proper melding. Boston’s Soulsha is out to change that with Carry it On (Soulsha, 2019).
Funky, bagpipe-laden melodies swirl their way into hot breaks punctuated by sabar and talking drums, invitations to celebrate and dance are plentiful, equal measures of Western and African musical language are apparent in both music and lyrics, and there’s not a single track here that won’t move you literally and/or in spirit. You’ll hear grooves with origins in Scotland, Senegal, New Orleans and the inner city, and the brief interludes between some of the tracks only hint at the next burst of pure joy to come. Highly energetic and highly enjoyable throughout.
The latest discovery in the seemingly endless succession of great musical treasures from Cape Verde is Laço Umbilical (Lusafrica, 2019) the debut album by Lucibela. She’s got that kind of lilting, longing vocal style brought to the world by Cesaria Evora and the many that followed, and the bubbling, mainly acoustic accompaniment alongside her matches with swaying perfection. Influences of Brazilian samba and the wider Lusophone world are many, making this a lovely addition to the Cape Verdean canon.
Longtime Swedish trio Väsen is back with Rule of 3 (NorthSide, 2019). Their combination of acoustic guitar, viola and nyckelharpa (a keyed, bowed traditional Scandinavian instrument) is as winning and evocative as ever, as much for the way the three of them blend into one exquisitely crafted wall of sound as for the way they ably support each other when one of the three is prominent. There are no vocals on these 15 original tunes, just a triad of gents wielding their instruments with unencumbered, nothing-to-prove expertise suggestive of everything from folkloric dances to loosely structured jazz and quiet afternoon chamber music. Savor this at your leisure and then feel free to savor it all over again (which you’ll likely want to do).
New Yorker Benji Kaplan and Brazilian Rita Figueiredo, both accomplished musicians on their own, combine to form the duo of Benji & Rita on their self-titled, self-released (2019) first album. Fans of classic Brazilian styles will take an instant liking to this, and the abundance of strings and reeds in the arrangements are often employed to create sweetly moody interludes between passages where the rhythms kick in. Rita’s richly textured vocals engage from the start, Benji’s arrangements and guitar are as first rate as his compositions (please tell me I’m not the only one who hears melodic nods to “In the Hall of the Mountain King” on “Zenite e Nadir”), and topical sentiments like the anti-war “Memorial Day” take things even higher. It’s quite an impressive and wide-ranging debut, sporting roots in Brazil and branches in many other places. I hope this twosome stays and plays together for a long time.
Another Brazilian voice kicks off the compilation Acoustic Women (Putumayo, 2019). Fernanda Cunha’s heart-stroking samba is a perfect start to a very fine set of songs by ladies hailing from various points. Some were already familiar to me, some not. I needed no reminders as to the greatness of Spain’s Buika or France’s Francesca Blanchard, and discoveries like the Arab Spring testimonial of Lebanese singer Tania Saleh, the wistful harmonies of Welsh collective Bendith and Canan Uzerli’s splendid German/Turkish duality are ear-openers of the highest order. Another in a long series of keepers from Putumayo, Acoustic Women scores big by spotlighting an intriguing selection of artists and maintaining an air of delicate but sturdily crafted beauty. It’s just under 33 minutes long, but not a moment is wasted.
The musical attitudes of singer/guitarist John Westmoreland were shaped by the passing of his musician grandfather, his partial Finnish heritage, several American folk icons and a stint in Senegalese kora player Diali Cissokho’s band. It all adds up to Cast Fire (self-released, 2019) by the band that bears his surname, Westmoreland. Even before I read the same comparison in the promotional material, what I heard in Westmoreland’s sound reminded me of Leonard Cohen: sung/spoken vocals, a dose of mysticism in the lyrics, a certain degree of aloofness, etc. What could have been a straight up folk rock album is given a “world” overtone with additions like subtle African percussion, charango, the aforementioned kora and some unconventional, unhurried rhythms. A cover of “All Along the Watchtower” feels a bit thrown in, but original material like the soul-searching realities of “Open Your Eyes,” “By and By” and the title track run deep and satisfying.
Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles turns dour demons into dancing angels on Carnival: TheSound of a People (Culture Shock Music, 2017, released 2019). Trinidad’s carnival celebration includes many a devilish character to remind humankind of the ills we’ve inflicted on each other, and Charles performs a kind of musical exorcism on them by combining tightly structured jazz, freewheeling Afro-Caribbean beats and the basics of bamboo, iron and steel percussion into an ecstatic mashup that’ll get your jumbies jumping like crazy. This is an absolutely fantastic release that words can’t adequately describe. Just get it.
And if You Will Come to Me(Cumbancha, 2019), the latest from Israel’s Idan Raichel, finds him in very good form. A keyboardist, composer, producer and programmer of formidable skill, some of his works have nonetheless come across as a bit cold. Not so here. Featuring guest musicians and sounds from Bulgaria, Cuba, Ethiopia, India, Japan and Niger, the album is an innovative and melodically pleasing series of tracks that blend global elements into Raichel’s Hebraic sensibilities with grace and style. It’s dance music, meditative music, unity-promoting music, roots music and cutting edge music seamlessly rolled into one, and it all stirs the heart and hips from the get go.
Best described as indie pop world music, Man Made Fire (self-released, 2019) by Petit Celine is a sometimes quirky, ferociously catchy set of songs created by a multilingual chanteuse who cares less about categorization and more about accessing the emotions that link us all. Whether sizing up the human condition in all seriousness or musing about a dude in a wine bar, Celine hits target after target on songs that borrow from jazz, rock, blues, techno, cabaret and more. But regardless of what the songs borrow, they never fail to give back to the listener a heap of both fun and food for thought.
Some people don’t like instrumental music because it has no lyrics. Then again, there are people who don’t much care for world music sung in languages that are foreign to them. Somewhere in between those objections lies the realm of globally-inspired instrumental music, which wouldn’t do a thing to placate that first group but just might sway the second. I’m not in either group, so these releases present no problem whatsoever for me.
To combine Ethiopian-inspired reeds and a Saharan blues-rock rhythm section largely without a chordal instrument leading the way was no doubt challenging, but the eponymous debut by Molly Tigre (Very Special Recordings, 2018) rises to it marvelously. Bassist Ezra Gale and saxophone player Mitch Marcus, both of Aphrodesia fame, came up with the idea and recruited Chris Hiatt (sax, flute), Joe Abbatantuono (drums) and Ibrahima Kolipe Kamera (jembe) to make it happen.
Don’t be fooled into thinking tracks with titles like “Hello Bolly” and “Couscous Timbuktu” are going to come out sounding goofy. The music holds fast to a funky core while the saxes handle what there is in the way of melody, resulting in slabs of sweet/salty sound very much like those we’ve come to know and love from all those golden age Ethiopian reissues that have come along in recent years.
There are improvisational jazz elements at work in how spontaneous and alive it all feels, and the minimal instrumentation means that every horn line, bass line, Afrobeat-laced drum pulse and djembe crackle gets its delightful due. A few Farfisa organ swells are thrown in for good measure and “Ethiofreaks” takes it higher by featuring Mulatu Astatke-style vibraphone expertly laid out by Tommy Mattioli. And if that’s not a sufficient nod to the originators, there’s a cover of Astatke’s own “Yekermo Sew” capping off a disc that blazes bright and gets it exactly right from start to finish. I can’t recommend this release highly enough; it’s sure to earn a spot in my top ten of the year. (www.mollytigre.com)
On a larger scale and not aiming for any particular fusion, a group calling themselves Free Radicals gives us a wordless musical statement for our times on Outside the Comfort Zone
(Antitrust Music, 2017). Heavy on the horns and textured with an array of other instruments (including violin, vibes, pedal steel, tabla and dumbek), this outfit expertly tears into 23 tracks that cover varying degrees of ska, Ethio-jazz, New Orleans gumbo, Latin rhythms, psychedelia, Afrobeat, rock, reggae, cumbia, blues and all connective tissue therein.
Forget categorizing and simply consider it a first rate selection of inventive, rousing, get-off-your-ass music that just might take your mind away from how fucked up the world is right now. Then again, with titles like “Manifest Dust Bunny,” “Cheeto News Coma” and “The Legals Have a Lunch,” you can also choose to have a good laugh while you’re shaking that thing. In addition to being the stuff of repeated listening, this musical middle finger melting pot sports one of the greatest album covers in history.
It’s a 2013 release that escaped my complacent notice until recently, but I must give belated kudos to Back to the Woods (Folk Dune/Naxos) by Uri Sharlin and the Dogcat Ensemble. Sharlin is an accordion, organ and piano player with an ear for eclecticism, and his keyed-up virtuosity is joined by guitar, bass, bassoon, bass clarinet and percussion on a selection of tunes that range in feel from playful to pensive to power-packed.
In Sharlin’s hands, the accordion becomes a most expressive instrument, leading the ensemble (who all get to show their own chops) through tunes that, by turns, would sound at home in a jazz club, a smoky cabaret, a Jamaican dub session, a busker’s corner or a clearing in the middle of a rain forest. Again, impossible to classify, and again, something you really must hear for the freshness and variety it offers. Sincere apologies to Mr. Sharlin and his crew, who deserve much more than an afterthought.
It is a long time since I have contributed reviews to this site. The reasons are many, varied and not a matter of public record. They’re also quite boring, so you wouldn’t want to hear about them in any case. My tendency had been to write reviews in groups united by some sort of genre, style or perceived common-ground theme. But I presently find myself so far behind that the disconnected overview I am about to subject you to is the only approach that will effectively close the gap. Apologies, and away we go.
As a longtime fan of Afrobeat music, I was greatly interested when I heard that Chicago Afrobeat Project would be collaborating with drummer Tony Allen. Allen, after all, was the man behind the kit for all of Fela Kuti’s groundbreaking records and was just as instrumental (pun absolutely intended) in creating the Afrobeat style. What Goes Up (Chicago Afrobeat Project, 2017) does not disappoint. Allen’s militantly polyrhythmic drumming is as spot on as ever. He also brings the experimental feel of his recent works, so the album isn’t simply formulaic Afrobeat but rather an effective blend of contemporary textures (including measured doses of rap) and traditionally-grounded grooves.
Horns, stinging keyboards and no-nonsense vocals (largely female) share most of the upper mix with Allen’s drums, while bass, guitars and percussion provide covert menace beneath. The lyrical unrest typical of Afrobeat is very much present in songs that address racial and gender inequity, political nonsense, media trickery and the belief that the high and mighty will be toppled sooner or later. None of the tracks are even five minutes in length (another departure from the once-usual Afrobeat template) and lest you think it’s all message-laden heaviness, “Afro Party” will handily prove otherwise. If this is the current state of Afrobeat, it’s in a healthy state indeed.
While Afro-Cuban, Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Colombian and Afro-Peruvian music have all been getting their due of late, Afro-Venezuelan music hasn’t fared as well. Perhaps the level of upheaval in that nation has some bearing, but now there’s a degree of redress to be found with Loe Loa: Rural Recordings Under the Mango Tree (Odelia, 2017) by Betsayda Machado and Parranda El Clavo.
Percussion and vocals are all you hear on this field recording (albeit captured with modern technology), and given that Betsayda and her many-strong ensemble are descended from escaped slaves who lived in hidden village communities, the drumming and call-and-response voices ring with an air of both celebration and defiance. This is thunderously rousing music, binding in its spell and guaranteed to raise your spirits to the highest heights. Alan Lomax is surely smiling from the Great Beyond.
Similarly, Transmision En La Erita Meta (Sendero Music, 2017) is all about drums and voices, though the drums here are more than instruments. They are a trio of sacred Cuban bata, vessels of sound created to invoke and seek the blessings of the deities known as orishas, belief in which originated among the Yoruba people of West Africa and survived the slavery era. The worship system of Santeria was later syncretized with the saints of Catholicism, but purer forms of orisha worship endure in Cuba and elsewhere.
Spoken testimonies are interspersed among the 21 tracks on the CD, and if your understanding of Spanish is as non-existent as mine, the hypnotically complex pulses of the double-headed, bell-festooned bata and reverent vocal chants are all you’ll need to connect to the Divine. The disc comes with an extensive booklet that tells in great detail how the story of the particular drums used fits into the overall tradition that inspired their use. It’s as absorbing to read as the drumming is to listen to. Curl up and absorb yourself in both.
Keeping close geographically as well as covering more music that came about in the age of slavery, Darandi (Real World/Stonetree, 2016) by Honduran Garifuna master musician Aurelio, captures him at his raw best. Following a performance at the U.K. WOMAD festival, he took his band to the in-house studio at Real World Records and recorded a dozen live-and-direct tracks that are a kind of greatest hits from his three previous studio albums.
Acoustic and electric guitars, bass and a pair of snare-buzzed traditional hand drums provide the accompaniment to Aurelio’s nimble voice and the glorious wraparound of his three backing vocalists. The African roots of Garifuna music resound in the highlife-like guitar chiming and feverish drumming, but Spanish and Central American indigenous elements are just as present. I’ll leave it to you to research the Garifuna origin story if you don’t already know it. I’m too busy listening to this excellent music.
The liner notes of A Je (Riverboat Records/World Music Network, 2017), the latest by Monoswezi, describe them as “African-Nordic jazz alchemists.” And who am I to argue? Such wording makes my task of describing their music that much easier. I’m fairly sure this is the group’s third album, and the most immediately striking addition to their sonic brew is the harmonium, that hand-pumped organ so central to Pakistani Qawwali devotional music. The instrument gives a penetrating mystical edge to Monoswezi’s already very fine fusion of Mozambican, Norwegian, Swedish and Zimbabwean sounds. As before, I’d peg the rhythmic side of things as mostly African, though melodically it’s the punctuation of instruments like clarinet, banjo and the prior- mentioned harmonium that add the welcome Scandinavian chill and outward reach.
New to the lineup is Sidiki Camara, a calabash and ngoni (lute) player whose name I’ve seen in the credits of many a West African music album and who brings an extra layer of spark to this one. A Je is Monoswezi’s best yet, full of propulsive, hands-on percussion, adventurous but mutually perfect combinations of lead instruments (such as banjo and mbira plucking happily side-by-side) and vocals that sound like jelis singing tales of recent trips to Arctic zones and beyond. Consistently great listening through and through, so count it a must-have.
Closer to the African mainland (just to the west of it, specifically) we find the latest up-and-coming singer from Cape Verde, Elida Almeida. She scores on Kebrada (Lusafrica, 2017) which despite her young age finds her fully adept at the heart-stirring nuances of singing in familiar Afro-Portuguese styles like funana and coladera, mixing things up with some Latin and Caribbean inflections. Nothing revolutionary, just great music for the many out there who love the sounds Cape Verdeans have brought to the world. The fact that one of the contributing musicians is recently deceased Malagasy accordion master Regis Gizavo makes it even greater and more than a little bittersweet.
Sometimes three pieces are all you need. Such is the case with Stringquake, whose album Cascade (Stringquake, 2016) blends Amelia Romano’s harp, Misha Khalikulov’s cello and Josh Mellinger’s percussion into instrumentals that range from intimately moody to absolutely grand. The two stringed instruments complement each other to perfection, an intertwining mesh that trades leading roles of tonal beauty while keeping pace with a percussion backdrop that includes cajon, frame drum, tabla and steel pan. You can rightly call some of this chamber music, some of it jazz fusion (like the cover of Don Cherry’s “Guinea”) and some of it world music in the not-otherwise-easily-classified sense. But it’s all beautifully, passionately rendered and stands up to repeated listens that continue to impress.
If an unconventional musical foursome is more your speed, check out Astrid Kuljanic on her release Riva (One Trick Dog Records, 2017). Her band, comprised of accordionist Ben Rosenblum, bassist Mat Muntz and percussionist Rogerio Boccato, is called the Transatlantic Exploration Company and her own background of having been born in Yugoslavia, studying music in Italy and Manhattan and finding inspiration on the Adriatic island of Cres makes the name perfectly fitting. And not surprisingly, the music fits the moniker as well. Kuljanic’s swooping, versatile vocals make her sound at home singing reconfigured traditional Croatian songs, scatty jazz pieces, samba-inspired charmers, a quirky original or two and a completely unique take on Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia.” She and her players sound like they’re having a blast and the music is again hard to classify, but the whole thing is head-spinning good. Available from www.onetrickdogrecords.com
Lovers of sevdah, the often-melancholic traditional music from Bosnia and Herzegovina, will rejoice in Divanhana’s Live in Mostar (ARC Music, 2017). The band sports instrumentation that only bows partly to tradition (accordion, electric piano, electric bass, drums, percussion and violin) and livens up their “Balkan blues” with jazzy breaks and klezmer-like seasonings. The achingly gorgeous lead vocals of Naida Catic (particularly on the unaccompanied “Daurko Mila”) are clearly a major asset, but the entire band rises to the occasion.
Given how crystalline the sound is, you might easily mistake the disc for a studio album until the audience reaction reminds you that a lucky bunch of folks were able to enjoy this live and direct. And the CD comes with the next best thing to having been there: a DVD featuring live performances and interviews. Get this and savor a double dose of sevdah at its progressive best.
If your collection of Cuban music isn’t complete (and whose is?), pick up Cuba! Cuba! (Putumayo, 2017). The various artists here are mostly in classic sound mode and some are younger artists carrying the torch for that classic sound. Still, the Putumayo folks like to throw in a wild card or two, and one surprise here is the unearthed instrumental “Guajira” featuring legends Alfredo Valdes Jr. on piano and trumpeter “Chocolate” Armenteros, recorded in Peru in 1964. That track serves as a kind of guidepost for the other fine singers and players on the disc, including veterans Roberto Torres and Armando Garzon (the latter with the ever-venerable and hypnotic “Chan Chan”), Miami-based young traditionalists Sonlokos and the always invigorating Jose Conde y Ola Fresca. This one’s got sizzle to spare.
“Chan Chan” is also the opening track on Mista Savona Presents Havana Meets Kingston (17 North Parade/VP, 2017), a brilliantly realized Cuban/Jamaican fusion in which son meets one drop, congas patter away alongside nyabinghi drums, Spanish-accented troubadours trade off with Trench Town chanters and both sides nice up the party. Some songs are more one locale than the other and employ a key element (like deejay chatter or regional horn riffs) that make the connection, while most are seamless mashups that are simply thrilling, like veteran guitarist Ernest Ranglin joyously picking his way through “410 San Miguel” with pianist Rolando Luna nimbly matching the vibe (and that’s before the dub effects even kick in).
Some of the other participants on the album are Sly and Robbie, Barbarito Torres, Changuito, Bongo Herman, Julito Padron and a chorus of notables that includes Leroy Sibbles, Lutan Fyah and Price Alla. That’s just the tip of things. No other written words will do justice to this landmark release recorded at Havana’s Egrem Studios under the guidance of producer/arranger/keyboardist Jake Savona. Highly recommended.
Grandly combining Italian traditional music with jolts of contemporary Western pop, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino strike a tasty, dance-ready balance on Canzoniere (Ponderosa Music Records, 2017). CGS are one of those bands that can seemingly do it all, mixing accordion, uniformly rhythmic clatter and a reggae feel on “Ientu,” infusing “Moi” with a start-and-stop techno stomp that dramatically punctuates the traded vocals, builds simplicity into complexity in nothing flat with help from guitarist Justin Adams on “Aiora” and erects walls of sound throughout using instruments and voices that are organically and electronically symbiotic. I’m not sure if the term “mind-blowing” is still in the accepted lexicon, but this album fits that description in a most satisfying way.
Scotland’s Mary Ann Kennedy gives us An Dan: Gaelic Songs for a Modern World (ARC Music, 2017), and a very nice lot they are. Her voice is grand and soaring and the arrangements, heavy on strings and Kennedy’s own piano, match to near-perfection. The lyrics are from a combination of literary sources while the musical arrangements are again Kennedy’s work, so the whole thing has an air of tradition mixed with vision.
Those who appreciate the familiarity of Gaelic music will be spellbound even as subtleties like the South African melody that underpins “Song for John MacDonald” ring true from a world beyond. For pure beauty, you can’t beat this.
The raw, percussion-driven but still melodic sounds of Farafina burst forth on this 1992 release. Layers of drumming provide a solid foundation for bala (wood and gourd xylophone), flute and lyrics that focus mainly on the subject of man’s place in the world and the fulfillment of destiny. But don’t get the idea that it’s heady-sounding stuff. It’s energetic and passionate, with a thunderously tight ensemble sound that knows when to fuel the fire and when to sit back and let it burn. So grab your drum, join in, and feel the spirit.
The “new” in the title of this fine compilation is not necessarily in reference to these being up-to-the-minute selections, but more so the spirit of innovation that many of them represent. When Celtic music crosses boundaries without going too far afield of the traditional elements that make it so distinctive (and in recent years, so popular), the results can be thrilling. This disc gives us Celtic sounds with pan-African overtones (Kila, Old Blind Dogs), rock and roll leanings (Wolfstone), bluegrass-meets-zydeco energy (Reeltime) and much more, along with tracks that stick closer to familiar ground. There’s tons of Celtic music available out there; this collection is a solid overview of some at it’s most vital.
A term like “Eastern European music” gets bandied about by many, including me. It’s one of those convenient generalizations used to cover a category that’s more than a category. From folkloric traditions and age-old ballads to mighty brass bands and fusions that were free to happen in post-communist societies, there’s a lot to take in.
Bilja Krstic and the Bistrik Orchestra offer up Svod: Traditional Songs from Serbia and The Balkans (ARC Music, 2016). I remain unclear as to how many pieces constitutes an orchestra, but this outfit’s 9-strong lineup (plus guest players) proceeds with delightful zest through a set of mainly traditional tunes that retain the heartfelt sevdah (Balkan blues) intent and add enough rhythmic swing to lift the spirits and stir the hips.
Krstic’s soaring (but never overbearing) vocals are a marvel in settings of both sparse accompaniment that lets the emotional content sink in and full band buildups often jazz-like in the way they flow. At times sporting a serenity that seems to stop all else before breaking into a dance-inducing left turn, this highly satisfying collection succeeds on those levels and more, including one spine-tingling a capella track.
In rather stark contrast stands Put (Geenger Records, 2016) by the Zagreb-based trio of Franolic, Jovanovic and Culap. The three play oud (Arabic lute), harmonica and percussion respectively, and while there’s a Balkan sensibility running through their rhythms and melodies, influences from Turkey, India and anywhere blues and jazz have permeated are evident as well.
The oud and harmonica shadow each other with a symbiosis that lets them both take turns slinking or springing forward to take the lead as the percussion (primarily frame drum and ceramic udu) marks changes in time and mood and does some leading of its own. Put has got atmosphere to spare, but there’s a core to this music that’s covertly fierce and passionate. Consider it essential listening.
Of course, klezmer -that celebratory brand of Jewish music rooted in the 19th century and well able to get the heart pounding here in the 21st- is one sort of Eastern European music that’s immediately identified with the region and the people who created it. The Klezmatics have been foremost in keeping the sound alive for 30 years and they’re unlikely to stop anytime soon, which is good news for all of us. On Apikorsim/Heretics (World Village, 2016) the band is as crazy cool and ingeniously mad as ever, harnessing their arsenal of brass, reeds, violin, viola, accordion, guitar, bass, piano, organ, harmonium, kaval, tsimbl, drums, percussion and vocals (dang, that’s a lot of instruments when you consider there’s only 6 people in the band) to create Yiddish songs that are lively and infectious almost beyond belief.
Just as important, they see to it that klezmer’s roots as music of an enduring, vibrant culture are not overlooked in serious or humorous terms. So while songs like “May Redemption Come” and “Who Guides the Ships?” are sincere in their spiritual perspective and “My Mother’s Mirror” pulls no punches on the reality of aging, there’s room for a gastronomically indulgent “Party in Odessa” and a close examination on the title track of exactly what makes happy heretics happy. The Klezmatics are in prime form, playing music they’ve not only mastered but obviously continue to love very deeply.
headline photo: Bilja Krstic and the Bistrik Orchestra
The very names of the CDs I’m reviewing here (some, anyway) indicate that they’re looking to go to places that haven’t yet been fully explored musically. Ever-eager to hear new trails mapped out in the world of world music, I couldn’t be happier.
Tunisian Amine Mraihi is a wizard of the oud (Arabic lute). His brother Hamza has equally mastered the kanun (Arabic zither). Together they head up an impressive ensemble called The Band Beyond Borders and are looking to demonstrate as much on Fertile Paradoxes (ARC Music, 2017). You might think you have cause for concern about an opening track entitled “Spleen,” but have no fear. It’s as perfect a mood-setter as you could hope for, with Amine’s pensive riffing joined in due time by Hamza’s complimentary swirl, plus tabla, violin and classical Indian vocals. A meditative air soon jumps headlong into a stops-out jam featuring a chamber orchestra, layered percussion and solos galore, including saxophone, before settling back into the establishing calm.
The remainder of the pieces (shortest among them sporting a seven-and-a-half-minute running time) similarly blend serenity and thunder, tossing in a zesty accordion at one turn and a klezmer-like clarinet, flamenco flair or an abrupt jazz fusion passage the next. It would sound like a mess were it not for how precisely all the players are attuned to every nuanced change and how expertly they execute them. Whether it’s the evocative side or the supercharged moments that grab you most (or maybe the bridges between them), the sheer “wow” factor of this music makes it a must.
If the title doesn’t say it all, as in the case of Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues’ album Different Voices (Dawnserly Records, 2016), it might be necessary to add an explanation like “Blues Harmonica and Classical String Quartet,” which this one does on the front cover. Siegel’s blues harp is certainly the first thing heard, in the form of a mournful wail that ushers in violins, viola, cello and the saxophone of guest Ernie Watts on the cheeky drag of “Missing Persons Blues.” That one’s a head-bobber, and nothing that follows breaks the flow, be it the vocal contributions of Matthew Santos (who also does some handy beatboxing), blues vet Sam Lay or Marcy Levy (reinvigorating that old warhorse “Lay Down Sally,” which she co-wrote with Eric Clapton).
High marks also for the aching gospel tinges of Chicago folk trio Sons of the Never Wrong on “I’ll Fly Away” and subtle counterpunch of the tabla that adds a groove dimension throughout. The interwoven tones of harmonica and strings bring forward the roots of their respective traditions while keeping the blues undertow intact and allowing for experimentation such as the Central Asian-flavored “Galloping Horses,” a track which ends too soon. It all wraps up beautifully with “The Sky Will Fall,” a most heed-worthy lament; although I think music of this caliber can keep both sky and earth intact.
A different sort of blue and a different sort of harp (think stringed) lead the way on New Perspectives (independent release, 2017) by Amelia Romano. This San Franciscan gal has been playing the harp from a very young age, presently favoring the cobalt blue electric model. And yes, some of the delicately refined tones affiliated with the harp are heard on this disc. But Romano has an ear and a vision well beyond the expected (her time teaching music in a South African township is one reason for that) and she takes the harp in Latin, blues, flamenco, jazz and singer/songwriter directions without missing a pluck.
While the personal touch of the relationship tale “Smile” opens the album on an inviting note that shows Romano to be a fine singer as well, it’s her versatility on the harp that really makes the whole thing a gem. South-of-the-border familiarities abound with “Bésame Mucho” and “Joropo Ortiz” reminding us that the harp is as much a Latin folkloric instrument as anything else, and in her own compositions Romano works the harp strings like heartstrings, whether laying back for an emotionally ambient passage or skillfully jamming inventive arrangements including the title track. Joined by varying, mainly acoustic combinations of bass, percussion, curator, guitar, viola, cello and reeds, Romano never comes across indulgent or showy. Instead she wields her chosen instrument with a combination of finesse and fire that’s unbeatable.
Build Music (Luaka Bop, 2017) is the latest by Brooklyn-based Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang, and the music they’ve built is based on the ancient sound of Sierra Leone’s bubu horns, bamboo instruments used to accompany Ramadan processions. The bubu tones are recreated on keyboards and applied to modern Afropop arrangements topped with Nabay’s dryly infectious vocals. Lively, catchy and danceable though the results are, the programmed instrumentation that dominates gets a bit annoying after a while. It’s good, but it could have and should have been better. Recommended for those who prefer electronic over organic by a wide margin.
The musician’s collective it represents is appreciably larger, but on Jinja (Zambaleta, 2016), The Nile Project is comprised of 13 players and singers from seven nations (Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda) that are among those spanned by the world’s longest river. The project’s first album was a live set from their 2013 debut concert, and this, their second (named for the Ugandan city in which the collective most recently gathered), is an assemblage of recordings from both proper and impromptu studios. In the end it matters little whether the music was laid down on or off the fly, because it’s seamless and brilliant.
The basics are easily described: melodies provided by the oud, krar and adungu (Arabic, Ethiopian and Ugandan lutes respectively); ample support from bass, saxophone and qawala (Egyptian flute); vocals traded between countries and genders; galloping percussion from across the spectrum and once in a while a specific element like the ikebme (lamellaphone) arising prominently. Musically, it’s tougher to find descriptive words.
Anyone familiar with Egyptian raks sharki or the increasingly well-known strains of Ethio-jazz will find common ground goodness here, as will those who can appreciate combined Egyptian and Sudanese love song sentiments, the embellishing of an Ethiopian Christian hymn with sounds straight out of the Muslim world, multilingual singing with shared passion as an unbreakable link, the beauty of acoustic instruments bursting forth unencumbered by overproduction or the way the whole disc comes across as how you’d imagine the perfect soundtrack accompanying a visit to the Nile’s 4000-plus miles would sound. And I’m barely marring the surface in relating the many pleasures to be heard.
If combining oud and kanun (see above) with piano isn’t entirely new, it’s still not the sort of combination you hear every day. And what some might find truly radical about Andalusia of Love (Nagam Records, 2016) is the fact that Marcel Khalife, a Lebanese Christian, sets to music the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), a Palestinian who championed the cause of peace between Palestine and Israel.
The elder Khalife (on oud and vocals) is joined by his sons Rami (piano) and Bachar (percussion) and Gilbert Yammine (kanun). The foursome work together with an energy that builds and separates much like the nuances of poetry: musical passages correspond to the rising and falling of sung stanzas supported by variations in tone, feel and speed to emphasize what I can only assume are changes in mood, intent and subject matter.
One need not understand the language to appreciate the unity-espousing feel of music that ranges from traditional to experimental. The savory concluding track “Achikain,” which tapers to a trickle after a flood of inspired group dynamics, is a fitting end to a wonderfully rendered cycle of music.
It’s not likely I’ll ever get a handle on just how many great African musicians are out there, despite over three decades of loving and collecting music from the continent that’s arguably the root of all things musical. Recent arrivals at my doorstep have numerically favored new (to me) artists over those I’ve long loved listening to. No problem- the more African music I get wind of, the happier I am. And I don’t anticipate the well running dry.
South African born and presently based in Montreal, Lorraine Klaasen offers up a rousing helping of Township-influenced music on Nouvelle Journee (Justin Time Records, 2016). The production is modern but the feel is traditional, complete with rich call-and-response vocals, lots of rim accents on the drums, guitars that ring out strong and a clear jazz influence on some tracks. That last is not surprising, given that Lorraine’s mother Thandie was a renowned jazz singer.
The younger Klaasen sings in multiple languages and a corresponding number of moods ranging from pensive and personal (“Polokwane”) to renewed vigor (the title track) to cautionary (“Where to Now”). Electric and acoustic musical backing frames Klaasen’s classy vocals to perfection, helping to make this a new day you’ll be glad you woke up to.
Montreal also appears to have been the main recording site for Melokaane (Pump Up The World, 2015) by Senegalese singer/composer/percussionist Elage Diouf, who laid further tracks for his second album in Toronto, Paris and Dakar. Diouf’s brand of Afropop is similar to that of Youssou N’Dour, though his vocals are more mellow than muezzin. I’d peg him as a kind of African Peter Gabriel even if he didn’t cover Gabriel’s “Secret World” (in Wolof) on this disc, given his skill with musical hooks that are both melodic and melancholic.
Touches of reggae, Latin and more recognizably Senegalese styles (such as m’balax) figure into his arrangements, which are brought to life by a tasteful blend of real instruments and programming. Anthem-like tributes to Nelson Mandela, Patrice Lubumba and Thomas Sankara stand out most on first listening, but the balance of ambient and organic sounds that support Diouf’s sagely vocals make the whole thing a treat.
The mischievous grin that Sierra Leone’s Seydu sports on the cover his CD Sadaka (Fol Musica, 2016) might make you think he’s up to no good. But really he’s looking to both preserve and expand upon the palm wine style of music for which his native land has long been noted. The disc’s title translates as “The Gift,” and it’s one given with laid-back charm and grace.
Seydu has the voice of a musical storyteller and his songs speak of essential things like lending a helping hand, appreciating beauty, remembering your roots and preserving tradition. Percolating, slightly insistent beats propel the tracks, with an overlay of acoustic and electric sounds sweetening vocals that don’t try to raise the roof and don’t need to. This music permeates slowly but completely, and guest turns by Lokua Kanza and Mariem Hassan add to its unfaltering beauty.
A new release by Jose Adelino Barcelo de Carvalho, better known as Bonga, the king of Afro-Portuguese music, is always a reason to rejoice. The impact of his landmark Angola 72 album during Angola’s struggle for independence from Portugal cannot be overstated. Although these days he’s making music with less of a freedom fighter aesthetic, his grandly grainy voice is still one of the most distinctive on the planet.
Recados De Fora (Lusafrica, 2016) is something of a look back, with Bonga covering influential songs by B. Leza (“Odji Maguado”) and Alfredo Ricardo do Nascimento (“Sodade, Meu Bem, Sodade”) as well as paying lyrical tribute to the African and Portuguese dualities that shaped his musical outlook.
The upbeat tracks are laced with acoustic guitar, bass, piano, accordion and chattering percussion (even some fairly uncharacteristic horns here and there) while the slower, sparser ones are no less classic in their showcasing of Bonga as a balladeer influenced equally by Angolan pride and those vestiges of colonialism that were worth keeping. It’s all Bonga at his finest, which is to say you won’t want to be without it.
headline photo: Seydu
Your Connection to traditional and contemporary World Music including folk, roots and various types of global fusion