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.
In this era of harsh voices speaking know-it-all rhetoric from various political, religious, cultural and elitist viewpoints, the need for musical voices to tame the beasts has never been greater. I’ve recently been treated to some releases featuring female voices that succeed in temporarily transporting me away from the madness and may prove even more antidotal in the long run.
Bosnian singer Amira Medunjanin immerses the listener in the depths of sevdah, the word used to describe the emotional intimacy of her native traditional music. Sevdah is to Bosnia what blues is to America or fado is to Portugal: an expressing via music of what the heart longs for and the spirit believes in. Damar, (World Village/Harmonia Mundi, 2016), Medunjanin’s latest, goes measurably beyond Bosnian tradition, giving her small unplugged ensemble the means to stretch out in a few jazz and pan-Mediterranean subtleties with acoustic guitar and piano most often leading the way.
Medunjanin’s beautifully faraway tones flow like lifeblood through love songs, sacred devotions and declarations of the indomitable spirit of Sarajevo and other recently troubled locales in her home region. Music seldom gets more up close and personal -or quietly thrilling- than this.
Her choice of costuming looks rather grandiose on the cover images that adorn her CD Songs of Resilience (Simrit Kaur Music, 2016), but Greek-born, South Carolina-raised singer/songwriter Simrit isn’t about to go over the top musically. Her influences range from Orthodox chants to African drumming and the rhythmic mantras of yoga, and while you might fear the results to be some kind of mystical mess, they’re not. Electronic textures do figure into the music but take a back seat to the kora, guitar, cello, bass, harmonium, piano and percussion that provide melody, strength and unhurried forward motion to the songs.
A steadily militant beat propels the opening “Prithvi Hai” as Simrit intones with both the intimacy of a coffeehouse singer and the authority of a shaman, enveloping the instrumental backing and building to a spatial climax that results in bliss the rest of the album sustains.
Simrit’s songs take their time; most of the tracks here clock in between 6 and 10 minutes. Still, the musical journey is well worth the investment. Understated rhythms are given just enough production value to skirt the line between ancient and modern, and Simrit’s dreamlike vocals (in several languages including English) similarly touch upon the here and now while seeming to reach for something beyond. If such wordiness leads you to believe this music is difficult to categorize, believe it. But rest assured it’s also a healing, calming experience and a substantial sonic adventure.
And then there’s Peia, a singer whose scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music was ostensibly for her to study opera. Instead, she found herself enamored with a myriad of global styles and set out to explore numerous connections between music, culture and the forces that have the power to preserve them.
Peia’s heritage is Scottish and Irish, and while some degree of that is evident on Beauty Thunders (Peia Song Music, 2016), she goes a good deal further. Moving seamlessly from Hungarian lullaby to Scottish reel, Peruvian proverb and poetic originals, Peia constructs a prayer-like cycle of songs that often permeate with hushed vocals and restrained melodies before adding grooves that edify and further mesmerize.
Declare yourself emotionally bankrupt if the singing, particularly the way Peia’s playfully angelic reach blends with the harmonies of Luna Marcus and Murray Kyle, doesn’t leave you spellbound. But by all means save ample appreciation for the unerringly earthy accompaniment, which includes Peia’s own charango and harmonium in addition to guitar, oud, bass, fiddle, Irish whistle, bagpipe and percussion.
Whatever thunders the title may bespeak, this gem of a disc is more about the beauty aspect: a delicate beauty anchored by the sort of hope expressed in the concluding song “We Will Rise Again” and affirmed by sweet, glorious music that leaves no doubt as to the truth of such a statement. (www.peiasong.com)
Being a self-styled traditionalist doesn’t mean my musical tastes are so staunch that I shun any sonic adventurousness that steps over traditional boundaries. Cross the line into an over-reliance on gimmickry (which can take the form of too much technology or pop pandering for commercial purposes), and you’ve lost me. Taking chances by mixing traditions or styles in ways that leave musical integrity unscathed? You’ve got my attention.
Aziza Brahim, a Sahrawi woman who was born in an Algerian refugee camp as the war over the Western Sahara region was raging, doesn’t exactly go in for traditional Sahrawi music on Abbar el Hamada (Glitter Beat, 2016). Having lived and studied in Cuba and currently a citizen of Spain, some of her songs have an expected, and very welcome, Iberian and Latin edge. She even sings in Spanish for much of the album, the title of which refers to rocky desert landscapes and subject-wise deals with activist concerns like the ongoing plight of the Sahrawi.
The disc also digs into a measure of the “desert blues” sound that many Saharan musicians have become known for, as well as a few galloping rhythms that suggest a more laid back version of Senegalese m’balax (which has always had its own Latin flavors).
Brahim isn’t as frequent in her use of wailing, undulating tones as a lot singers with Arabic roots tend to be. Her approach is more pensive, but she sharpens her tone when needed, and partly because she also plays the bowl-shaped tbal drum while she sings, her voice fits the grooves as naturally as the grooves themselves, be they acoustic or electric. A stunning release all around.
She’s already a groundbreaker for use of the Swedish nyckelharpa (keyed viola) in the music of her native Spain, and now Ana Alcaide takes things a few steps further with Leyenda- World Music Inspired by Feminine Legends (ARC Music, 2016). Female folkloric characters from various cultures (including Spain, Mexico, China, Scotland and Alcaide’s own imagination) are celebrated in songs that range from lullaby-like softness to ritualistic and pulsating.
Nyckelharpa, baroque guitars and bouzouki are sweetened with other strings, reeds, percussion and celestial production values that surround Alcaide’s gracefully penetrating vocals and construct a pair of instrumentals that seem to tell otherworldly tales without any words at all. This is music that could serve as a soundtrack for any ancient or modern fantasy worth conjuring, or bring about just enough of a dream state to take you blissfully away from reality for a while. Either way, it’s stunning.
Chicha, the Peruvian-originated, organ-tweaked, fuzz guitar-laden psychedelic style of music with similarities to Colombian cumbia and Jamaican dub, continues on its revival path courtesy of Austin-based band Money Chicha. Their debut album Echo En Mexico (Vampisoul, 2016) is an irresistibly throbbing beat fest where unyielding layers of Latin percussion support keyboards, guitars and bass that are as trippy in their wall of sound as they are intertwined in their tightness. And tightness is indeed the key.
The chicha sound is one that must not lag in its skipping rhythms or spot-on melodic mesh that weighs in somewhere between surf rock, alternative Latin, Andean tradition, the ghost of Arsenio Rodriguez and music that simply wouldn’t appeal to polite society in Lima, Bogota or, well, Austin. Money Chicha go their own way by eliminating vocals entirely and giving the tracks a subtle funk push with a little extra breathing room among the instruments, resulting in a disc that satisfies to the frenzied max.
Lovers of African drumming and African music in general will happily tune in to West to West (ARC Music, 2016) by Nii Okai Tagoe. He’s a master of many a drum and percussion instrument affiliated with the Motherland and treads a beaten (beating?) path away from tradition by lacing his danceable pieces with horns, keyboards, violin, harp, bass and guitar.
Some unexpected turns are taken with arrangements as well, such as the blues sway of “3 Monkeys.” Not surprising for a gent who’s played with outfits as diverse as Baka Beyond and African Head Charge. This sort of thing has been done before, but Tagoe certainly does it spot-on.
A very different take on percussion and its relationship to the human voice can be heard on Chiaroscuro (Bent Records, 2016) a collaboration involving Baird Hersey & Prana with Nexus. Nexus is a virtuosic percussion ensemble; Prana is a group of singers who all specialize in singing two pitches simultaneously. That dual pitch knack helped inspire Garry Kvistad of Nexus to invent the vistaphone, four octaves worth of chimes gathered into one instrument and the perfect companion to the harmonic series scale of notes that the singers use to achieve their second level of vocal prowess.
The grandiosely-titled tracks on the album (“The Rituals of Dusk,” A Crown of Radiant Fire,” etc.) combine orchestral drums, gongs, glockenspiel, marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, voices and the debuting vistaphone to create music that I can only describe as equal parts refined and primal, rhythmic and atmospheric, structured and seemingly spontaneous, eerie and comforting, earthy and not of this earth. Repeating patterns of percussion and wordless voices ascend to mesmerizing heights and hover there, exploring in sonic terms the disc’s titular concept of light and dark contrasting yet harmonizing.
The three concluding compositions (including a mind-and-ear-altering Balinese monkey chant) are voices unaccompanied and lose nothing in the absence of their percussive counterparts. So is this disc the pinnacle of traditional music, the complete lack of it or something else altogether? Get it and decide for yourself. And prepare to be spellbound.
I don’t know a great deal about traditional Welsh music and thus can’t say how closely 9Bach adheres to it with their latest release, Anian (Real World, 2016). But I am quite taken with the shimmery emotiveness of singer/pianist/composer/lyricist Lisa Jen’s lead vocals, as well as the sparse yet very sturdy support her bandmates offer on guitar, bass, percussion, harp, hammer dulcimer and harmonies.
While some of the instruments used reportedly stray from tradition, the end result is a perfect fit, with modern production adding a kind of cool mist to softly enveloping music that often has a melancholy, longing feel offset by pure beauty. Anian is one to savor repeatedly.
There’s also a bonus disc, Yn Dy Lais (In Your Voice), that features Welsh-influenced poetry and storytelling rendered in English by the likes of Peter Gabriel and Rhys Ifans. It’s meant to make the nuances of the Welsh language more accessibly artsy and is worth a listen, but the lovely sounds on the first disc are the true reason to get this album.
A world away but still bringing tradition to a different level, Roddie Romero and the Hub City All-Stars take music with roots as old as the Louisiana bayou itself and jolt it full of rock, soul, blues, zydeco and funk energy. Gulfstream (Octavia Records, 2016) is a swampy, sultry, swaggering, sizzling slab of deep-south musical gumbo that will delight anyone who loves the celebratory sounds of New Orleans and Lafayette and appreciates the need to cool down for a ballad like the Aaron Neville-ish title track. It’s a party, albeit from the heart.
Richard Bona, the “African Sting,” melds his smooth Cameroonian roots music with the sounds of Afro-Cuban band Mandekan Cubano on Heritage (Qwest Records, 2016). African and Latin musical traditions have been best friends for a long, long time thanks to their shared origins, and Mandekan Cubano’s piano, dual percussion, trumpet and trombone lineup expertly underpins Bona’s joyous salsa-infused numbers and his softer side. Primarily a bassist but adept on numerous instruments, Bona adds unexpected touches like electric sitar to the range of Afro-Latin delights that comprise a very fine release.
Brazilian music, a familiar world staple for decades, has more recently been fused with electronica to degrees that some traditionalists have accepted and others rejected. Put me in the former category. It’s telling that Luisa Maita waited six years since her first album to put out a followup; perhaps she wanted to see how the Brazilian/electronica scene would play out in the interim. Her sophomore release Fio da Memoria (Cumbancha, 2016) has the breathy, sensual feel that’s nearly a given when it comes to female Brazilian singers, and the tunes roll out on a foundation of grooves rooted in samba, even if they’re not always rendered on organic instruments.
Maita’s steamy sentiments translate well, as the sung-in-English “Around You” demonstrates, and she’s got some stories of substance to tell, like “Na Asa,” a musical tale of dreams realized. Fio da Memoria is a keeper for sure, but Maita’s vocal mix of subtle and searing would benefit even more from backing that likewise balances real and electronic sounds equally.
If you need a reminder of how well traditional Ethiopian music meshes with jazz, The Rough Guide to Ethiopian Jazz (World Music Network, 2016) will handily serve. Trailblazer Mulatu Astatke kicks off with the horn-heavy proclaiming of “Gamo” and things jump ever further back into the Swinging Addis feel of the 60s and 70s from there.
While at only 9 tracks the collection can’t cover the whole spectrum, what you get is choice. Serpentine instrumentals are the bulk of it, including NYC’s Budos Band providing impressive overseas translation of the sound, but the soulful vocal thrills of Tlahoun Gessesse and Gabriella Ghermandi show just how large a role male and female voices also played (and play) on the scene. A superb sampler.
Despite the persisting perception that Haiti is a place most readily associated with brutal dictatorships, impoverished masses and natural disasters, it is more so a land of great music. African and Creole roots have combined with varying levels of outside influence, evolving technology and a growing diaspora, resulting in a music scene that includes such globally renowned artists as Tabou Combo, Boukman Eksperyans, RAM and Emeline Michel.
The underlying African-birthed grooves of Haitian music give it a rhythmic flexibility that’s rife for fusion or simply being left to move you on its own indomitably spirited terms.
A multigenerational band calling itself Lakou Mizik takes a largely traditional approach on Wa Di Yo (Cumbancha, 2016). But despite being heavy on voudou drums, rara horns and melodies steered in no small measure by the Francophone sway of an accordion, the group also makes a few concessions to modern times in the form of electrified guitar and bass and even an occasional hip hop cadence in the vocals. Make no mistake, though. This crew, which formed in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, is mostly about passing along the music of the older generations to the younger ones.
Some tracks are traditional songs but as many are originals, and the fact that both are equally strong in terms of waist-winding infectiousness, joyously evocative singing and rhythmic forward motion is a testament to the mettle of those who created the music and the culture that created them. Highly recommended.
A title like Tanbou Toujou Lou: Meringue, Kompa Kreyol, Vodou Jazz & Electric Folklore From Haiti 1960-1981 (Ostinato Records, 2016) may be wordy, though it’s barely sufficient in summarizing the variety of richly superb music the compilation of that name includes. Through the course of 19 tracks from a shade over two decades, you’ll want to dance yourself into ecstasy as your ears absorb the ingenious ways in which the rhythmic and vocal cadences of Haiti blended with Afro-Cuban, Colombian, pan-Caribbean, mainland African, soul, jazz, psychedelic and big band influences, resulting in irresistible music that such terms as “melting pot” and “golden age” don’t describe the half of.
From the rumba-like percolating of Les Gypsies de Petionville to the Latin stew of Super Jazz de Jeunes and stirring majesty of Orchestre de la Radio National D’Haiti, the 75 minutes of music on this disc (which was the result of considerable scouring about in both Haiti and New York City by compiler Vik Sohonie) resounds with must-have essentialness from beginning to end. Simply amazing. (www.ostinatorecords.com)
The self-titled CD by Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra (Glitter Beat, 2016) benefits from the presence of Afrobeat drummer extraordinaire Tony Allen on the kit and a host of noted Haitian percussionists and singers recruited by vocalist and ethnology standard-bearer Erol Josue. They’re joined by Mark Mulholland (guitar), Jean-Philippe Dary (bass) and Olaf Hund (keyboards, electronics) on a set of crazy-cool jams culled from rehearsal sessions that were done in preparation for a live festival performance in Haiti a few years back. The raw tracks were given cohesive mixes, and the results hit the mark.
Allen’s chugging, serpentine drums blend seamlessly with multiple hand percussion layers above call-and-response vocals sung and chanted as bending, twisting waves of contemporary sound take everything on a wildly controlled ride. Haiti’s African roots are brought into the present and thrust headlong into the future, and though some moments are spliced a little too cacophonously, the album is an invigorating listen with a lot of inspiration behind it. Let’s hope the participants can get together again sometime.
Call me a traditionalist, call me a purist, call me a snob, call me a journalistic hack. (Okay, that last one is kind of beside the point.) But it’s a fact that since my musical tastes went global 30-plus years ago, I‘ve leaned heavily in favor of music that sticks closer to the roots. There may well be demographic reasons pertaining to my age, my race, my status or my upbringing that contribute to my preference, or maybe it’s just my concept of authenticity that guides me. Does that mean my choice of music has to sound as close to an Alan Lomax field recording as possible? Good heavens, no. Like most people, I simply have my own ideas, shared or not, about what it means to keep it real. And modernizing need not preclude reality in my worldview, even when it comes to my abiding love for African music. The pair of gents reviewed herein share not only a surname, but an apparent desire to expand their artistry without losing sight of it.
Mali’s Bassekou Kouyate is a wizard of the ngoni, a paddle-shaped traditional West African lute that comes in various sizes. It looks deceptively simple but in the right hands can unleash some mighty sounds. To say Kouyate’s band Ngoni Ba is all about the ngoni would be a misstatement, for although multiple lutes are the group’s mainstay, the songs on Ba Power (Glitter Beat, 2015) add amplified non-African instruments (guitar, drums, keyboards, trumpet). Despite the additions, it’s the wall of ngoni (with Kouyate’s own in the lead) that really grabs you.
Rockish paces on some tracks unleash the power the title promises, but as often as not the music is just as mighty at slower speeds thanks to the tart, twangy interplay of the small, medium and bass ngoni and the fact that they’re always prominent in the mix. Further power comes courtesy of Amy Sacko’s soaring vocals, the snap of the calabash (gourd drum) and the subtle application of electronic overtones here and there. Every song is a corker, but best of the lot is “Abe Sumaya,” on which Kouyate and his crew- Muslims all -assure us that the loathsome ideology of Islamist fundamentalism will never prevail in Mali.
Another Kouyate, namely Sekou Kouyate, hails from Guinea and plays the 21-stringed kora. He’s teamed with guitarist/vocalist Joe Driscoll (like me, a native upstate New Yorker) on Monistic Theory (Cumbancha, 2016). The two have been collaborators since 2010, and while matchups between African and Western musicians are nothing new, these gents have a particularly good spark. Kouyate’s fluid kora and airy vocals mesh with Driscoll’s snappy guitar and rap cadences minus any unnecessary interference from overproduction, commercial aspirations or canned beats.
The fairly minimal accompaniment of drums, bass and percussion provides a snug foundation for Driscoll and Kouyate’s bilingual discourses on love, unity and the power of music, and the mostly fast tempos inspire dancing to compliment the food for thought. What I really like about this disc is how unpretentious it feels. It gets to your heart rather than getting in your face, staying true to its titular theme of oneness and letting the music convey a positive message despite the troubles currently besetting mankind.
I‘ve long asserted that Latin music was the first “world” music to make its way into the mainstream. Arguable though that may be, there’s no doubting the variety of what can rightly be labeled Latin nowadays. Part of the reason for such variety is how the music has evolved; another is recognizing how much variety there was to begin with.
Vintage Latino (Putumayo, 2015) is a various-artists collection that steers clear of overly familiar names (no Tito, Tito or Machito to be found) and earns extra points for featuring some that were around in the early days as well as contemporary musicians keeping the classic sound alive.
So it is that the love songs of old time Cubans like Trio Melodicos and the rural roots of Venezuela’s Simon Diaz fit comfortably alongside contemporary revivers like the utterly charming Las Rubias del Norte from the U.S. and France’s excellent Republique Democratique Du Mambo. And if the best of both worlds is your thing, check the seamlessly splendid combination of Uruguay’s late great Lagrima Rios and acclaimed Argentinian composer Gustavo Santaolalla on the candombe-flavored “Un Cielo Para Los Dos.” Each of the 12 tracks is a gem, so count this one a must.
Should you be craving the sounds of a Brooklyn-based Mexican brass band, that craving will be more than satisfied by Banda de Los Muertos on their self-titled release (Barbes Records, 2015). Founded and led by Oscar Noriega and Jacob Garchik, veterans of jazz and classical music, Banda de Los Muertos’ brass and reeds attack is not just rousingly good fun. It’s also an impressive display of great musicians doing their thing.
The intertwined trumpets, trombones, alto horn, sousaphone and clarinets (plus a solid backbone of drums) are loaded with traditional Mexican flavors and sport nuances ample enough to appeal to fans of jazz, klezmer and big band music. And no hard feelings if you don’t dig the band’s instrumental cover of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” or the sexy, husky guest vocals by Mireya Ramos, though some serious self-examination might be in order.
Thoroughly modern but with a clear understanding of age-old grooves, Empresarios out of Washington D.C. give us The Vibes (Empresarios Musica, 2015) a hot mash of cumbia, reggae, dub, house, jazzy experimentation and hip hop. They combine real and programmed rhythms as deftly as they shift from sung to rapped vocals, and their subject matter likewise ranges from self-referencing celebration to social consciousness.
A thinking man’s party band, these guys likely won’t appeal to staunch Latin music purists. For everyone else, they definitely bring it. And the last two tracks (instrumentals “Rootsy Jam” and “Alegria”) are killer.
Not sure why, but I’ve recently been receiving a steady stream of music from the Fol label out of Spain. Some I initially put aside with the intention of getting to it later, only to have it seem to vanish in that strange manner that befalls neglected objects. So I set myself to being more attentive and more open-eared, and not surprisingly have been rewarded with sounds I’m enjoying very much. What follows are overviews of just a few, enough to make me realize how stupid I’ve been for not tuning in to the bigger picture. I promise I shall (or at least try to) from now on.
Guadi Galego is a sweet-voiced singer and pianist who straddles the vocal line between vulnerable and intense on what seems to be her second release, Luas de Outubro e Augosto. The songs are consistently low-key and beats of any sort are largely absent, and it doesn’t matter. With help from producer and multi-instrumentalist Pachi Garcia Elis, the disc is a short, entrancing flow of ballads that are sometimes minimally accompanied but often are built against walls of sonic ambience that, like Galego’s prominent vocals, carry a sense of both authenticity and experimentation.
Mixing largely acoustic instruments with tradition, plus hints of jazz and Celtic feel, Davide Salvado scores big on his album Lobos. Layers of percussion (some played by Salvado himself) underpin arrangements that range from melancholy to jaunty and are enriched with guitar, mandolin, sax, bouzouki, standup bass, accordion, violin, ocarina and harp. Salvado’s vocals are emotive yet understated, with an appealing everyman quality that goes straight to the heart and stays there. This one’s a definite keeper.
Salvado’s vocals and percussion are also part of a quartet called Rustica whose self-titled disc is a co-release with Zouma Records. (So why does my computer’s Windows Media Player display graphics that look Japanese when I put the CD in? I don’t know.) The other members of Rustica are Cristina Pato on gaita (bagpipe), Anxo Pintos on zanfona (hurdy-gurdy) and accordionist Roberto Comesaña. Traditional to the core, the music they create is spine-tingling, magical stuff that usually seeps its way along with a droning, shadowy mystique.
A few lively, danceable attacks break the spell as well as adding to it, and if I had my way, there’d be a higher quotient of fast moments to balance out the prevailing slow ones. Salvado goes more operatic here than on his own release, the musicianship is superb, and the album’s rather lean 31-minute running time doesn’t feel lacking.
I figured I would like La Banda Morisca’s Algarabiya when I saw the imagery the CD presented. On the cover are five guys walking a sandy landscape, one with a guimbri slung over his back. Better still, there’s the hamsa symbol in the band’s logo. Spanish music with ties to the country’s Moorish past is a particular favorite of mine, and it looks and sounds as if La Banda Morisca will go a good way towards filling the gap left by the demise of Radio Tarifa. The former’s combination of North African and Middle Eastern motifs with enhanced flamenco rhythms is a fiery delight that ignites every track.
JoseMari Cala’s undulating, serpentine vocals lead the way, and instruments that include oud, cumbus and the aforementioned guimbri recall Andalusian splendor while stirring sparks of Gnawa spirit. Oh, and what do you know- there’s guest player Vincent Molino, once a key member of Radio Tarifa, making the sound even more zesty with his superb reed work.
From the looks of the italicized small print, it seems the tracks were recorded in the far, far southern Spanish region of Tarifa as well. But La Banda Morisca aren’t simply imitators. (Most of their grooves are played on a drum set rather than hand percussion, for example.) What they certainly are is an incredibly tight band with an obvious passion for modernizing Spain’s rich musical past to just the right degree, and they do it very well.
Seems like a clear majority of releases coming my way nowadays are some kind of fusion music. It hasn’t been easy tearing myself away from specific genres I know and love, but this thing we call World Music is getting ever more, well, worldly, and being along for the sonic global ride can result in finding music that excites listeners as much as breathtaking sights thrill literal travelers.
You’d expect an album with a title like Planetary Coalition (Skol Productions, 2015) to be pretty far-reaching, and it is. Under the guidance of guitarist Alex Skolnick, a versatile axe man known mainly for dual identities as a thrash metal and jazz player, this sizable, ArtistShare-sponsored coalition shines on 75 minutes of sounds from many a corner of the world.
Skolnick’s string finesse trades off gracefully with the santoor of Max ZT on several tracks, matches the deft fire of Rodrigo y Gabriela on another, makes the textures of Yacouba Sissoko’s kora that much more heavenly, underpins Kiran Ahluwalia’s ghazal-influenced vocals with the proper mysticism and adds electricity to the tart tones of Adnan Joubran’s oud. And that’s barely marring the surface. There are Argentinian, Eastern European, Far Eastern and Latin Jazz ingredients here as well, and notable guest players aplenty. Yet this mainly instrumental set doesn’t overreach. It’s an ear feast that satisfyingly blends the familiar and the unexpected.
For the time being he’s put aside the Idan Raichel Project name and recording simply as Idan Raichel on At the Edge of the Beginning (Cumbancha, 2016). An Israeli keyboardist, composer, producer and arranger, Raichel has (apart from his acoustic albums with Mali’s Vieux Farka Toure) long blended Jewish, Arabic and African sounds with a worldly dance music sensibility. His new one finds him more introspective, starting off with a pair of chamber-like pieces that primarily showcase Raichel on piano.
Programmed rhythms fuel the tracks that follow but the feel stays rather whispery. The tracks are short and many have a lulling quality to them, reflective of Raichel’s recent identity as the father of two small children. Sparse instrumentation in the form of things like accordion, cello, saxophone and baglama stays on the supportive outer edges of the songs, which are delicate in their construction but have their own quiet strength. While not as groundbreaking as Raichel’s earlier material, his latest nevertheless gets to the heart of its matter by being touchingly low-key.
Karim Nagi has got a thing or two to say about Arabic culture and Detour Guide (Self-released, 2015) says it with percussion, spoken words, rap-like cadences and beat backdrops. Born in Egypt and presently based in Boston, Nagi is out to dispel myths, question stereotypes, recount history, impart truths and make both humorous and serious points about what it is to be of Arabic ethnicity nowadays.
He seamlessly mixes the cheeky with the sincere on titles like “What Arabs Do For Fun,” “Oriental Magic Carpet,” “Heart Full of Cairo” and “If I Were Hummus,” bringing so many observations to the table that you’ll have to listen to this disc multiple times to digest it all. It’s a kind of aural performance art that’s impossible to describe in any significant detail, but a rewarding listening and learning experience just the same.
A mashup of Balkan brass, stomping funk, Gypsy zest, punkish energy and Afrobeat syncopation, I Love You Madly by Washington DC’s Black Masala is a rousing fun burst of energy and true musical chops that’ll get you smiling and busting dance moves you didn’t think you had in you. While the music changes gears quite a bit, it does so rightly and tightly, such that the resulting songs are full of infectious instrumental and vocal passion rather than just one hot mess after another. Great stuff.
The musical connections between Moorish Spain, North Africa and the Middle East have been explored before, but seldom as grandly as the work of David Broza & The Andalusian Orchestra Ashkelon on Andalusian Love Song (Magenta, 2015). One of Israel’s most respected singer/songwriters, Broza here has a number of his tunes arranged for a 35-piece ensemble of strings (bowed, plucked and strummed), reeds, brass and percussion.
Improvised interludes set the mood between the songs, which range in feel from aching to celebratory (much like the ups and downs of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that often figures into Broza’s work). The vocals are richly emotive and the music, under the direction of conductor and arranger Tom Cohen, is unfailingly superb.
Avataar, a band led by Toronto-based saxophonist/flautist Sundar Viswanathan, achieves a crackling good mixture of Indian classical music, jazz and ambient frameworks on Petal (InSound Records, 2015).
Viswanathan’s reeds put forth the same sonic sweetness as Felicity Williams’ largely wordless vocals, and the expert support of Michael Occhipinti (guitars), Justin Gray (bass, mandolin), Ravi Naimpally (tabla, percussion) and Giampaolo Scatozza (drums) provides serpentine grooves, nimble melodies and unending pleasure. The music is intricate without being overbearing or showy, and the result is blissful.
I must admit I’m not fully up on all the latest emerging musical artists out of Africa. I can, however, call your attention to the most recent goings-on regarding three who’ve been at it for a long time, although one of the three has a new release that’s also, well, old.
Tony Allen, Africa’s best drumset player, was the main force that propelled Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat when it was at its peak. He’s done some very fine work under his own name as well, both in the polyrhythmic Afrobeat style and more experimental, minimalist fare. Film of Life (Jazz Village/Harmonia Mundi, 2014) offers both, lacing movers like the relentlessly funky “Afro Kungfu Beat” and “Koko Dance” with chilled modern textures high up in the mix and leaving others, including the self-referential opener “Moving On” to simmer with less assistance.
Allen has clearly listened to and gleaned from jazz fusion, dub, hip hop and other genres not as easy to peg, and he applies his perpetually percolating drums to the task of always keeping things organic at the core. Those enamored with more traditional Afrobeat will delight in such horn-sweetened tracks as “Ire Omo,” while anyone who appreciates a good groove that’s at once primal and contemporary is going to find even more to dig. An equally invigorating and mind-bending sample of the many sides of Tony Allen, Film of Life is monstrously magnificent.
He’s famous worldwide nowadays, but back in 1987 Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour was only beginning to become known outside West Africa. Many a live audience got their first real taste of him as Peter Gabriel’s opening act that year, and quickly understood why Gabriel had become a fan of N’Dour’s music and included his wailing Wolof vocals on the hit “In Your Eyes.” Fatteliku- Live in Athens 1987 (Real World, 2015) captures the young N’Dour in the act of starting to fuse the crackling, percussion-driven Senegalese m’balax style with Latin, funk and jazz elements to create an addictive, danceable mashup.
Accompanied by his Super Etoile de Dakar band, N’Dour tears through a skintight set of tunes that includes early gems like “Immigres” and “Nelson Mandela” and concludes with him joining Gabriel for the latter’s lengthy, stunning “In Your Eyes” encore (which I’m pretty sure is the only song from this recording that’s been previously heard and seen). N’Dour’s voice soars like a griot, a muezzin and an African soul singer rolled into one, the sound is as clean as a studio album, the audience is clearly appreciative, the musicians are spot on and this gem of African music history couldn’t come more highly recommended.
It’s a bit of a shame that the album reuniting Salif Keita with Les Ambassadeurs is only a four-song EP that runs roughly 20 minutes. But only a bit, because, oh my, what a glorious 20 minutes it is. Along with the Rail Band (with which Keita also sang for a time), Les Ambassadeurs defined post-independence Malian music. On Rebirth (World Village, 2015), everything that made them great remains intact, including the chiming guitars, the modernized rhythms and melodies that still bear the mark of tradition, the Afro-Cuban and soul overtones and the pure celebratory joy of Mali’s musical golden age.
Keita’s voice has lost none of its spine-tingling suppleness, and he’s ably backed by players that include Ambassadeurs vets like guitarist Ousmane Kouyate and keyboard player Idrissa Soumaoro (who also contributes mighty vocals of his own) and a horn section borrowed from the U.K.’s Soothsayers. The music is superb, and all proceeds from the sale of the disc will help fund the Salif Nantenin Keita Foundation, an organization that assists those who (like Salif and his Paralympic athlete daughter) were born with albinism.
Are world music fans (particularly those of us who are in, uh, a certain advancing age bracket) a bunch of stodgy purists that don’t appreciate it when purity is tainted for any reason? Methinks not. Okay, I teeter toward the purist mentality sometimes, but if I can have my cake and taste mostly authenticity, I’m going to enjoy it for the treat it was meant to be.
Combining the grandeur of a string quartet with the alternating lilt and melancholy you know and love from Celtic music, Ozere locates the middle ground on Finding Anyplace (self-released, 2015). Violin, upright bass, cello, mandolin and guitar are the primary instruments here, and band leader/violinist/singer/composer/musical traveler/visionary Jessica Deutsch, a denizen of Toronto, applies them like colors to a beautiful aural painting.
Imagine a folk music session where a few of the players showed up in tuxes without upsetting those who wore jeans, and you’re there. Instrumentals “Anyplace” and “Wind Tunnels” (which add percussion and piano respectively) have a chamber-like finesse, and the addition of singer Emily Rockarts brings a balladeer sensibility that draws you right into the middle of tunes like the traditional Americana “Wayfaring Stranger.” This is music that comforts and, in its own unpretentious way, thrills.
How the heck do you write about a band that’s laying down tumbling bluegrass one second and evoking the barren landscape of the Iraqi desert the next? Words like “eclectic” don’t begin to describe TriBeCaStan, whose music would make an ideal soundtrack for the most crazy-cool travel show imaginable. Their latest, Goddess Polka Dottess (EverGreene Music, 2015), finds the dozen-plus-strong NYC collective touching down in and grabbing sounds from the Balkans, Bollywood, the Caribbean, East Africa, urban and rural America and most prominently the mythical land from which they take their name.
They also expertly reference musical eras (swing, jazz, surf and psychedelic among them) and don’t even get me going as to how many instruments figure into the crafting of their bewildering but unfailingly tight and catchy sound. Global deities are the loosely defined theme of the album, so the band has even created one of their own, hailed on the consciously goofy title track. Helmed by multi-instrumentalists John Kruth and Jeff Greene and populated with players who possess the chops to make this sort of musical exploring sound so much more than gimmicky, TriBeCaStan may be the one band that can do it all.
I’m a great fan of Gnawa music, and I don’t mind that Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa add some rock, jazz and Senegalese strains to the trance-inducing, spirit-conjuring Gnawa foundation on Mazal (World Village, originally released in France on Geomuse in 2014). Sahmaoui was once a member of Orchestre National de Barbes, the Paris-based band known for jolting North African music into some fiery new directions. His quintet takes a more sparse approach, putting mandole or West African n’goni lute in the lead role atop a backbone of bass traditionally played by the three-stringed gimbri.
So the thump and clatter of most Gnawa music is downplayed. But guitar, percussion, kora and electric piano richly fill the space that the circular rhythms make way for, and Sahmaoui sings like he’s presiding over one of those all night spiritual cleansing sessions celebrated in Gnawa culture. Guest players show up brandishing such instruments as soprano sax, flamenco guitar and violin, bringing the same sort of fusion boldness that bands like Nass Marrakech pioneered a while back. Mazal simultaneously rocks and hypnotizes most splendidly at every turn. Looking for a university curriculum with an emphasis on musical harmony and pure invigorating joy? Got it right here. Enroll now.
Born in Armenia and based in Los Angeles, guitarist Vahagni combines the traditional music of his country with classical, flamenco, electronica and jazz influences. Imagined Frequencies (Vahagni Music, 2015) shows his musical imagination to be very vivid indeed and his fingers to have an almost supernatural delicacy and precision.
Highlighting spatial atmosphere as much as beats and melodies, the album mixes sound design and real instruments with very pleasing results. The organic deftness of Vahagni’s picking is given dramatic support from piano, bass, cello, percussion, duduk and dashes of studio processing to create pieces that are sometimes tight and snappy though just as often moody and pensive. Vahagni has served as guitarist in the touring band of Spanish singer Buika, and her guest vocals are one of many things that make Imagined Frequencies an engaging sonic adventure.
Brazilian music and programmed sounds have long enjoyed a good relationship, usually because the latter is incorporated with sufficient subtlety that frames and even enhances the real. Such is the case with Caieira (Zip Records, 2015), the third release by bossa nova/MPB singer Tamy.
Her voice has the sort of silky sensuality that’s borderline stereotypical among Brazilian female vocalists, which isn’t a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s great when a song like “Dava Pra Ver” unexpectedly comes out hitting harder than anticipated and really grabs you in the process. So let me reiterate: the disc is contemporary by virtue of some synthesized flavoring and remixes (plus you gotta love the drum accents on the title track that sound grafted straight from a Wailers album) but nails the best of both worlds via mostly flesh-and-blood instruments, guest turns by Lokua Kanza and Jacques Morelenbaum and vocals that don’t need studio artifice. In other words, it’s top notch.
The psychedelic influence on samba has been evident worldwide since the 1960s, when a good many Brazilian artists began electrifying and spacing out one of their country’s signature styles. Some of those compiled on the Rough Guide are from the more nascent era while a good measure show how the style has endured in recent times. A few tracks overreach, but the majority better ones (which to my ears include those by Marcos Valle, Alma Tropicalia, Zulumbi and Wal San’tana) really deliver.
It took longer for the wider world to realize the extent to which cumbia (particularly the Peruvian kind) was bitten by the psychedelic bug in the ‘60s. But it was worth the wait. The 18 Rough Guide selections are packed with the galloping Afro-Latin rhythms, stinging organs, surf-influenced guitars, shout out vocals and subversive spirit that make the music great. Some of the featured artists hail from places as far from the point of origin as the US and Germany, showing the global reach of such wild and wonderful music.
My first encounter with the music of Yabby You was back in the vinyl days of the mid-80s when I spotted his compilation One Love, One Heart at a small record store in Albany, NY. I’d never heard of him, but I chalked that up to having been only recently bitten by the reggae bug. Besides, no release on Shanachie Records (which this was) had yet steered me wrong. I bought the album, took it home to my basement apartment and had a listen. I was spellbound. The chant-like vocals, ominously biblical lyrics and unadorned pure roots reggae production values made me feel like I was hearing a prophet of old who’d somehow been transported into the modern world.
In those pre-internet times, it was hard to find further information on the man who was born Vivian Jackson in Jamaica in 1946 and took his stage name from what he heard as thunder and the voices of angels calling down from on high. But I looked where I could and pieced together some facts about him. He didn’t exactly have the happiest of beginnings: Yabby You’s younger days were marked by poverty and malnutrition that resulted in a lifetime of crippled legs and fragile health. Notwithstanding, he developed an unyielding spirituality and faith in Jesus Christ. His perspective alienated many of his Rastafarian acquaintances, who mockingly called him “Jesus Dread,” a nickname he chose to embrace.
As to the rest of his tale- his life as singer, songwriter, producer and figure of absolute uniqueness in reggae music -read all about it in the richly detailed booklet included with Shanachie’s excellent new triple CD set Dread Prophecy, subtitled The Strange and Wonderful Story of Yabby You. Indeed, there’s equal measure of strangeness and wonder in the way he was able to overcome obstacle after obstacle to create a body of work that never brought him massive fame or fortune but endures to testify to the power of reggae built from ingredients of heart, soul, spirit and commitment.
Yabby wasn’t a man of great vocal range, but his grainy, take-heed style and inflection gave his songs an authority all their own. Particularly when singing lead over the harmonies of Alrick Forbes and Dada Smith (the other two-thirds of a vocal trio known as The Prophets), Yabby’s voice dug deep and bore spiritual fruit in ‘70s roots gems like “Conquering Lion,” “Anti-Christ,” “Run Come Rally” and “Chant Down Babylon” all of which are included in this collection.
The riches don’t stop there, though. Yabby served as producer for a good many artists, putting his foundational stamp on reggae/jazz instrumentals by Skatalites saxophonist Tommy McCook (“Death Trap”), the chatting of deejay Jah Stitch (“Rock Man Soul”), suave crooner Pat Kelly (“How Long”), roots man Michael Prophet (“Love and Unity”) and others, and those featured tracks go a long way toward showing just how far the Yabby You vibe extended in reggae circles. Plus, the three songs from Yabby’s 1985 comeback album Fleeing From the City demonstrate that he wasn’t opposed to modernizing his sound just a bit while sacrificing his integrity not one iota.
And of course, no compilation like this would be complete without rarities. Disc 3 is jam-packed with them, including dub plates, previously unreleased new/old discoveries by U Brown, Half Pint and Patrick Andy and similar stuff that will delight hardcore collectors and ordinary fans alike. I lack the journalistic gumption to go into any further details, so just believe me when I say that Dread Prophecy is an absolute treasure chest for the reggae-minded. Yabby You passed away in 2010, but this assembly of his works will forever stand as a sonic testament to his greatness.
Another recent Shanachie release with a Yabby You connection is a disc’s worth of long-lost-but-now-found songs by Willi Williams, the vocalist best known for the classic “Armagideon Time.” Recorded in the turbulent political days of 1979 Jamaica, Unification: From Channel One to King Tubby’s has a dozen tracks laid down at the legendary studios name-checked in the title, with Willi Williams and Yabby You sharing production duties.
I recognized many of the riddims (like the arrangement of “Take Five” on the title tune) from corresponding dub versions that have emerged over the years, but the vocals give them the blaze of a newly stoked fire. Williams’ semi-spoken way of singing brings clarity to the lyrics, never burying the messages in patois or pedantic posturing.
These are songs of spiritual awareness, political and religious trickery, African repatriation and hope for a better tomorrow, and it’s no accident that the themes ring as true now as they did 36 years ago. Among the musicians involved are The Revolutionaries (under the guidance of Sly and Robbie), The Gladiators and Soul Syndicate, so the backing has just the right sort of roots sharpness. By the time Willi sings “I’m gonna need everyone to rock with me” during the opening “Rock On,” you’ll already be aboard for this invigorating reggae ride.