Category Archives: CD Reviews

Masterful and Reverent Vietnamese Zither

Tri Nguyen – The Art of the Vietnamese Zither

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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World Music Inspired by Buddhist Philosophy

Sakya Tashi Ling Buddhist Monks – My Spirit Flies to You

The Buddhist Monks Sakya Tashi Ling – My Spirit Flies to You (Fundacion Prevain, 2006)

This is an ambitious world music album inspired by the Buddhist philosophy and musical chanting of Sakya Tashi Ling, a monastery belonging to one of four Buddhist schools from Tibet, the Sakyapa tradition. They later set up the first Buddhist monastery in Spain.

The orientation is mostly toward Western listeners, with the Buddhist chanting adding an exotic ‘Eastern’ appeal over the 14 smooth jazz and lounge tracks.

Our picks include the pleasant piece Emotions and the soaring I Wanna Fly. The music is generally a mix of pop and New Age music, architected by Sergio Medrano and Miguel González.

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Alluring Musical Journey to the Middle East

Various Artists – Journey to the Middle East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Elegant and Graceful Piano Tango


Hakon Skogstad – Two Hands To Tango

Hakon Skogstad – Two Hands To Tango (Avantango Records, 2018)

Norwegian musician Hakon Skogstad delivers an exquisite interpretation of tango through the prism of the piano, combining tango, jazz and classical music elements.

Skogstad extracts the passion, romance and longing feelings of tango with ease. The material includes eight tango classics, as well as two original pieces including a tribute to Astor Piazzolla.

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Ravi Shankar’s Vision of Peace


Pandit Ravi Shankar – Vision of Peace

Pandit Ravi Shankar – Vision of Peace (Deutsche Grammophon/Universal, 2000)

This double CD showcases some of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s international prowess. The first CD has Japanese-Indian collaborative tracks featuring Pandit Ravi Shankar on sitar and Ustad Alla Rakha on tabla, accompanied by Japanese musicians Susumu Miyashita and Hozan Yamamoto on flute and string instruments. Our pick on this CD is the energetic track, Rokudan.

The second CD is more traditional, with Raaga Jogeshwari and Raaga Hameer. In sum, a fine listen for an afternoon of relaxation.

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Refugees for Refugees, Pooling Global Musical Talent

Refugees for Refugees – Amina (Muziekpublique, 2019)

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

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

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

Refugees for Refugees – Amina

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

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

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

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

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

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Sheila Chandra Out on Her Own

Sheila Chandra – Out on my own

Sheila Chandra – Out on my own (Indipop, 1984, reissued by Narada//EMI in 2000)

This is a slender album by today’s standards, with 10 tracks just stretching over 40 minutes. But it is an important milestone in the musical path of Sheila Chandra, leading UK-based Indian-origin fusion artist from the 1980s.

As the liner notes explain, this was Sheila Chandra’s declaration of independence from pressure from her first label, after scoring a U.K. hit with the group Monsoon and the song, “Ever So Lonely.”


Sheila Chandra – Out on my Own, Narada reissue

Tablas, keyboards, guitar and sitars provide the backing for her strong experimental vocals. Our picks include the title track and the ambient ‘Prema;’ also check out the dreamy ‘From a Whisper.’

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Dynamic Salsa and Merengue

Son Real Orchestra – Salsa

Son Real Orchestra – Salsa (ARC Music, 20008)

The London-based Colombian band Son Real presents an excellent CD of vibrant, dynamic and very danceable salsa and merengue. The band has a funky rhythm section (percussion, piano, bass), a tight and bright brass section, and three female crooners who fill out the sound on the 13 tracks.

This is a must-have album for you Latin fans out there; our picks include the dancefloor tracks Aurorita, Corazon gitano and Ay papa ay mama. A perfect choice for your Friday and Saturday parties!

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Shamanic Sonic Paradise

Poranguí – Poranguí (Sol Creation Records, 2019)

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

Poranguí – Poranguí

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Glasgow Gets Hometown love from Mary Ann Kennedy

Mary Ann Kennedy – ‘Glaschu’ Home Town Love Song (ARC Music EUCD2833, 2019)

Scottish singer and arranger Mary Ann Kennedy (Màiri Anna NicUalraig) celebrates her hometown, Glasgow and her Gaelic roots in ‘Glaschu’ (Glasgow in Gaelic). ‘Glaschu’ brings together captivating song, insightful poetry and superb Celtic music from the Scottish and Irish traditions, featuring bodhran, whistles, and uilleann pipes.

Mary Ann Kennedy – Glaschu

Gaelic is spoken by an estimated 60,000 people in Scotland and Mary Ann Kennedy is involved in the promotion and safeguarding of the language. She sings beautifully in Gaelic throughout the album and the CD booklet includes the lyrics in Gaelic and English.

Mary Ann Kennedy goes beyond Celtic arrangements and instrumentation and incorporates classical chamber music elements, blues, mesmerizing folk ballads, evocative jazz (think of ECM), urban sound effects, and poetry readings.

‘Glaschu’ is a masterfully crafted recording enclosed in exquisite packaging. It is a tribute to the melting pot of Glasgow where various musical traditions and religions have coexisted for years. A wonderful place where Gaelic roots meets urban life.

Purchase Glaschu in North America

Purcgase Glaschu in Europe

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