Category Archives: CD Reviews

Good Things by Paco de Lucía

Paco de Lucia - Cositas Buenas
Paco de Lucia – Cositas Buenas
Paco de Lucía

Cositas Buenas (Universal Music Spain/Verve-Blue Thumb 80001939-02, 2004)

It has taken five years for the renowned Flamenco guitar master from Spain to release a new album and it has been worth the wait. After living several years in the Mexican coast, de Lucia has returned to Spain. He has moved to the historical city of Toledo, about an hour south of Madrid, and he has reconnected with Spain’s thriving Flamenco scene and gotten inspiration from Toledo’s ancient Christian, Arabic and Sephardic musical roots.

Cositas Buenas (Good Things) includes several bulerías, one of the most difficult to perform flamenco styles for guitar players. Although mainly instrumental, some of the pieces include some of the hottest young Flamenco vocalists, such as Montse Cortés, Potito, Diego El Cigala, Tana and Paco.Thanks to CD recording technology, the buleria “Que Venga el Alma” has united the voice of legendary singer Camarón de la Isla (who passed way a few years ago) and the guitars of Paco de Lucía and Tomatito. Gypsy guitarist Tomatito is another legend in the world of flamenco guitar. He was Camarón’s accompanist for many years and is one of Spain’s most famous guitarists.

Paco de Lucía plays lead Flamenco guitar on all the songs, accompanied by percussion, including palmas (Flamenco handclapping) and cajón (the Afro-Peruvian box instrument that has been adopted by many New Flamenco artists in Spain). Nevertheless, he also plays other stringed instruments, which are less common in Flamenco music, such as the Spanish lute, bouzouki and mandolin.

The last track on the album is “Casa Bernardo,” a rumba that shows another of de Lucía’s passion: jazz. It features American trumpet player Jerry González, who now lives in Madrid.

Buy Cositas Buenas


And in This Corner of the Sahara…

Various Artists – The Rough Guide to the Music of Morocco
Various Artists – The Rough Guide to the Music of Morocco (World Music Network, RGNET 1128 CD, 2004)

Malouma – Dunya
(Marabi Productions 46806.2, 2003)

Closely following their Rough Guide spotlighting Egypt, World Music Network now crosses the Maghreb to give Morocco a likewise hearty once-over. Morocco is where northern Africa meets southern Europe- not only in a literal geographical sense, but via centuries of artistic and cultural exchanging. Though a
foundation of Berber indigenousness remains ever strong, Morocco’s music also benefits from the riches of Arabic, Jewish, Spanish and other influences. Those riches are evident in all 71 minutes of the disc, from fusionists Nass
(who manage to seamlessly fuse Brazilian percussion and Bulgarian fiddle with Gnawa trance music) to the rebel mysticism ofNass El Ghiwane and the almost dangerously hypnotic percussion-and-voices
offering by Bnet

The obligatory rap-flavored track by U-Cef and Dar Gnawa has an odd but effective sense of time and space, but most of the tracks emphasize traditional over modern. A wise approach, considering how profound an impact events like the 1492 expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain have had on Moroccan music. (The liner notes, always very informational in the Rough Guide series, go into greater detail on such things.) While a truly exhaustive musical overview of Morocco would be the stuff of multiple volumes, the condensed look this cd brings will both bliss you out and prime you for further exploration. Recommended.

Not far south of Morocco lies Mauritania. There’s not a lot of Mauritanian music readily available, though the work of such artists as Dimi Mint Abba, Sedoum Ehl Aida and Aicha Bint Chighaly has seeped out here and there. Malouma Mint Moktar Ould Meidah (who thankfully goes simply by Malouma) is a Mauritanian woman whose grinning countenance on the cover of her album Dunya seems both shy and enticing.

At first glance you feel as though some very special music must lie within, and as it turns out, it does. Throughout these songs you’ll hear the same sort of African blues shuffle prominent in the sounds of neighboring Mali, percussion not unlike that which propels music of the Senegambian regions and
the recurring use of an instrument called an ardin, which sounds and looks like the Mauritanian equivalent of the kora. In other words, those who know and love west African music will find much to love here.

So what sets it apart? Well, the pop touches are integrated well- electric guitar solos are curtailed at the right moment, modern keyboards stay in the background, etc. And then there’s Malouma’s voice. It’s an imperfect one, and she does not have the same reach as many notable African divas. But that’s what I like about it. Whether she’s belting it out punchy and direct, intensely overlapping with her backup singers or wailing in classic Islamic-rooted style, she sounds unfailingly real and sincere. And since she’s the composer and/or lyricist of much of the material, the reality that she’s singing from the heart is that much more apparent.

Dunya is just plain great contemporary African music. Recorded in the Mauritanian capital of Nuakchott and mixed in Paris, it achieves that right blend of tradition and cutting edge and makes it sing.


Ninna Nanna: Children\’s Lullabies

Monserrat Figueras

Ninna Nanna (Alia Vox AV 9826)

From the moment a baby is born, lullabies are a mother’s indispensable ally in soothing her child for whom everything in the big, wide world in new and frightening. The baby recognizes in the song his mother’s voice, her presence and her expression. The intimacy of the moment creates a space rich in ancestral symbols, in which words and music create a bond of pure emotion and truth. It is in this space that the child experiences his first dialogue, his first story, his first contact with the teachings of tradition, experience and culture, which over time build into an essential part of our collective memory.

Whoever sings a lullaby is moved by a desire to give of their very best, which in itself is an expression of love, and so the child begins to experience the essence of life.
–Monserrat Figueras, Nina Nanna artist’s introduction

Figueras’ words constitute one of the best distillations in pure emotional terms of the meaning and purpose of the children’s lullaby as a musical form.This is another extraordinary recording by Montserrat Figueras, the extraordinary Spanish vocalist who specializes in medieval music. Here she has produced–with an ensemble composed of most of the members of Hesperion XXI–an album of children’s lullabies from around the globe: Portugal, England, Greece, Morocco (Sephardic), Algeria (Berber), Estonia, Israel, Spain and others. The origins of the songs range from the 16th to the 21st centuries. Figueras’ voice is an amazing instrument, pure, strong, high and lively. On this album, her performance is front and center and the musicians play supporting roles, which is entirely appropriate for an album focusing on the pure simple melodies of the children’s lullaby.

In response to my glowing review of Hesperion XXI’s Secular Music of Christian and Jewish Spain: 1450-1550 (Virgin veritas x 2) published at Rootsworld, an academic expert in Sephardic music took me and Figueras to task for her “operatic” vocal style, which would have been far removed from the simple, unadorned folk performance style these songs would have originally enjoyed. No doubt this criticism may be true. But I am as interested in aesthetic beauty as I am in cultural authenticity. And Figueras’ performance is masterful and convincing (at least to me).

One of my favorite songs is Nani, Nani, a Berber lullaby from Algeria. Figueras uses her most sprightly vocal cadence to convey the lively melody of a song whose lyrics are quite mournful:

I met my brother, Sleep
And he asked me:
‘What do you carry on your back?’

The moon is very sad.
I asked her:
‘Where is happiness?’
And she answered:
‘Happiness is with others.’

I carried the moon on my back
And I walked and wept.
‘Moon, you are hungry,
You are sleepy,
All of nature shivers with cold.’

I met Sleep,
And he asked me
What I was carrying on my back.
I answered that I carried
Nothing but the moon.
And he said:
‘Rock her to sleep, rock her to sleep.’

The following Sephardic lullaby (from pre-1492 Spain, but first collected later in Morocco) is actually a song about marital infidelity cleverly disguised as a lullaby:

Lullaby, lullaby
Hush little child.
Mam’s little boy
Will grow up tall.

Go to sleep my sweetheart,
Sleep, apple of my eye.
Your daddy is coming
And his spirits are high.

Open up, good wife,
Open the door,
For I come home weary
From ploughing the fields.

I will not open up.
For you are not weary.
I know that you come
From another new love.

She is no more lovely
Nor worthier than I,
And the jewels that she wore
Are no better than mine.

This brings us to another element of the lullaby. The lyrics in an otherwise simple melodic form can take on great subtlety and complexity when they belie (as they do above) the simplicity of their musical accompaniment. Above, the mother begins with the conventional soothing words to her infant. But her last two verses reveal an unstable family relationship beset by infidelity. What is striking here is that the mother in the midst of lulling baby off to sleep is giving voice to her deepest insecurities, fears and sorrows; emotions that the child cannot begin to understand. In a way, the lullaby is the child’s introduction to the pain and complexity of adult life. It is the beginning of a life’s education. Joachim Steinheuer’s album notes comment that this lyric is an:

introspective monologue on the part of the singer as she evokes her own personal circumstances in the presence of a young child who does not yet have a command of language is a frequently recurring theme in the lullabies of many countries.

Another example of this is William Byrd’s Come, Pretty Babe:

Come, pretty baby, come, pretty babe,
Thy father’s shame, they mother’s grief:
Born as a doubt, to all our dole,
And to thyself unhappy chief:

Come lullaby, come lullaby,
And wrap thee warm.
Poor soul, thou think’st no creature harm,
Poor soul, thou thinks’t no creature harm.

Alas, here is a child surely born to a world of woe. Yet somehow the beautiful melody of the song will ease the pain and suffering to come.

A 19th century folk music collector quoted one particular Piedmont mother characterizing the lullaby thus:

each mother sings in her own way, guided by her memory and the inspiration of her own heart (a sa memoria, e cunforme na’ su coro).

Beautifully put.

One of the most beautiful melodies on this CD belongs to Arvo Part’s contemporary (2002) Christmas lullaby in which he sets Luke 2:2 to music. The melody is stately and gorgeous. The interplay among the musical accompanists (viola de gamba, psaltery, triple harp and santur) and Figueras is wonderful to behold. What is especially interesting about this song is that it was one of two specially commissioned by the album’s producers for inclusion on this record.

On reading the liner notes for the song Numi, Numi Yaldati (‘Sleep, Sleep My Child’), the Hebrew text has inexplicably been converted from its proper left-to-right direction to an incorrect right-to-left direction. The Hebrew text also completely omits the final verse (while the other translations of the same song do not). I don’t understand how a production which sought the authenticity of quoting the original Hebrew text could not muster enough skill to display the text properly in the liner notes. To understand how this appears to a Hebrew reader, imagine how English text would look if it was turned on its head to read left-to-write. It would read like gibberish.

But let no one say that this mistake detracts in any way from the supreme grandeur of Figueras’ musical accomplishment on this recording. If you enjoy lullabies, children’s music or just plain wonderful music, buy it.


It’s a Black Peruvian Thing

Peru Negro – Jolgorio
Peru Negro – Jolgorio (Times Square Records TSQ-CD-9035, 2003)

Olga Milla – Caricia (Olga Milla OM120256CD, 1996)

The extent to which Africa played a role in Peru’s musical roots has only in recent years become apparent to the rest of the world. Susana Baca is Afro-Peruvian music’s most widely known performer, but as the Luaka Bop compilation The Soul of Black Peru, Afro-Peruvian Classics in 1995 and 2002’s The Rough Guide to Afro Peru (World Music Network) showed, she’s far from the only one.

Peru Negro have been around since 1969 and initially found favor through a military government concerned with preserving genuine Peruvian culture. The heartbeat of Peru Negro’s music is the cajón, a wooden box drum with origins that date back to when slaves were forbidden to possess conventional drums and made due with what they had.Original Peru Negro leader Ronaldo Campos was a cajón player with a fondness for rhythms specifically African, later incorporating Afro-Cuban percussion into the group’s mix.

The popularity they enjoyed during their first decade ended with the Maoist shakeup of 1980, though they continued performing for tourists in restaurants and nightspots. Because of their on-again, off-again fortunes they’ve only managed to make four albums in their 35-year existence. One of these was 2001’s Sangre de un Don (World Connection/Times Square Records), which helped bolster the current interest in Afro-Peruvian music. That disc was a feast of guitars, bass, conversant percussion and vocals that combined Spanish lilt with African call-and-response. As good as it was, Jolgoriois even better.

Voices and instrumentation are richer, more rousing, more emotion-drenched. The intricacy and tightness of the percussion grabs hold first, urging the guitars and voices to ever-higher heights that bring most of the songs to climactic endings radiant with inspired heat. Dance has always been an integral part of a Peru Negro performance, with choreographed moves meant to represent everything from the concerns of day-to-day life to mocking the colonial slave masters. Listening to the music without the visuals is abundantly delightful though, and you may well find yourself coming up with some creative moves of your own. Above all, there’s a sense of remarkably undaunted spirit in these crisp, shifting rhythms and strutting melodies. It’s music that feels as though many years of historical circumstance and celebratory defiance have brought it to where it is today, and you’ll feel blessed that it came along.

While I’m on the subject, I must mention a disc that’s been around for eight years but only recently came my way. Olga Milla was on that Rough Guide mentioned earlier, and while her sound isn’t full of the same fiercely layered percussion and blistering ensemble energy as Peru Negro, her album Caricia(“Caress”) is a soothing, quietly intense selection of ballads and traditional songs that uphold the Afro-Peruvian perspective on a smaller but no less genuine scale. Good for cooling down after listening to the Peru Negro CD.


Klezmer With An Edge

David Krakauer

Live in Krakow (Label Bleu LBLC 6667)

Any CD that kicks off with a mix of Klezmer clarinet aided by samples from a
beatbox then manages to throw in some tearaway electric guitar has got my
attention right off. The opening track has all of this plus snatches of older
Jewish music and it makes for a joyfully arresting start to an inventive and
exciting CD.
Krakauer’s clarinet style owes much to the music he has spent 15 years exploring
and reviving. It sings and cries distinctively, lovingly caressing the melodies
or equally sending out disturbing squalls of angry intensity. But mostly it is a
source of joy and exuberance. For example on ‘Dusky Bulgar’ he spars with
accordionist, Will Holshouser as the pair create a riotous blend of Klezmer and
wild improvisation, each pushing and encouraging the other.

One of the most beautiful tracks however is ‘Offering Nign’ which again
features both men. This time the clarinet explores every nuance of Krakauer’s
melody conveying rare depths of emotion. It is his offering to a city whose past
he clearly feels a strong affinity with. But it is not a sentimental journey,
rather a heartfelt and emotive response to place and culture. Every note counts
as he articulates through his instrument what words may not be able to express.
It really is a life-affirming and uplifting performance and guitarist Sheryl
Bailey and drummer Michael Sarin also deserve fulsome praise.

On other tracks Krakauer pays homage to jazz and the Polish/Jewish clarinet
music of Naftule Brandwine. Mixed in with this are more beats from Socalled and
lovely taut bass from Nicki Parrott who also provides some funky electric bass

The whole album has a truly live feel and I wish I could have been at the
Indigo Club where it all happened. The place is not far from Auschwitz which
makes it an emotionally charged venue, as Krakauer says. This is especially
evident on ‘Love Song For Lemberg/Lvov which voices a universal sense of
suffering by means of dark turbulent outbursts in what is otherwise a graceful
and elegant song.
I loved this mix of Klezmer, jazz and other genres as it creates music that is
vital and energizing. It is played with evident love and respect and well worth
spending some time with.


Rune Songs: Vainamoinen Returns

Ove Berg & Sinikka Langeland - Tirun Lirun
Ove Berg & Sinikka Langeland – Tirun Lirun
Ove Berg & Sinikka Langeland – Tirun Lirun (Finnskogen

Freya Aswynn – Songs of Yggdrasil (Llewellyn)

Why is it that when you become interested in a subject, you find that others have also been magnetically drawn to that topic? A couple of years ago, I became interested in exploring Finland and its pre Christian or more magical side. Since that time, I rediscovered JRR Tolkien’s books and read Finland’s national treasure, Kalevala Legends in which magic, music and poetry play key roles. I had
also heard groups that perform and record rune songs such as Hedningarna and Värttinä. Then I came across Skogfinn vocalist and kantele player Sinikka
Langeland’s 2002 CD, Runoja.

Sinikka’s CD delved into both healing and epic rune songs of the Finnskogen region of Norway. In the late 1990’s, the Swedish-Finnish group Hedningarna headed to a different region in search of rune songs (Karelian region of Russia). Before that time, the two Finnish vocalists would learn rune songs off of old wax cylinder recordings, but were given the chance to learn these ancient songs from Russian elders who still sang them. However, the repertoire that Hedningarna came across focused on Finnish epic poetry and not the healing properties of rune songs. That isn’t say that the songs in themselves aren’t gorgeous with their superb harmonies and quests of heroes and sorrows of maidens because the songs represent all of those things. But that’s just half of the story of rune songs
and the other half involves applied magic and healing performed by shamans and this in itself could be the stuff of legends. Or perhaps Vainamoinen coming to life.

Ove Berg (kantale) and Sinikka Langeland (vocals) join their talents in both interpreting rune songs and by offering field recordings (those wax cylinders recordings in action) on the CD, Tirun Lirun. The CD numbers 38 tracks of both healing and epic runes, many of them recorded between 1905 and 1926 as performed by shamans. The musicians provide us with academic liner notes as well, but unfortunately you would need to be able to read Norwegian or Finnish text to fully appreciate these carefully researched notes. So I visited the label’s web site where I at least found English descriptions of each of the tracks.

Contemporary tracks of Sinikka’s clear soprano vocals and Ove’s enchanting kantele appear along side scratchy and barely audible archival recordings of shamans Kaisa Vilhuinen and Puro-Juhoin Pekka. Yet, I get this feeling that in order to explore rune songs, you need to listen to the archival and modern
recordings. So I think the musicians made a smart choice here by bringing us an ancient practice that seems to be fading with time despite the public’s interests in the Kalevala Legends and groups such as Varttina.

A quote appears on the label’s web site of what shaman Puro-Juhoin Pekka told the last wise woman in Finnskogen, Kaisa Vilhuinen. “You must not place the sword in the hands of a fool; With sorcery both good and evil can be done.” And often is in both legends and reality in places where this sort of magic is practiced. The rune songs featured on this CD were once used to protect people
and their animals, to heal wounds and to cast a spell over bees (I’m not sure why anyone would need to casts spells over bees). And the rune songs find their roots in shamanism. The rune songs arrived in Norway with the Skogfinns in the 1600’s and grew over time as a living tradition.

However, the Skogfinns and the Karelians weren’t the only tribal people singing magical chants. The Sami were also chanting magic for healing purposes and sorcery and they called their chants, yoiks. And no doubt other Nordic tribes in the area had similar practices in which fell under the scrutiny and punishment of the Christian church which arrived in Finland in the 13th century.

The rune songs that appear on Tirun Lirun run the gamut of epic poetry, such as track 4, Vainamoinen (of the Kalevala Legends), to practical purposes, (the shamanic-inspired Rollota used to fire up the oven). Kanteleensoitto is an epic song that focuses on the musical instrument kantale (once created by Vainamoinen). Anfallsrune is an incantation against fits and Turskarune is an incantation against wounds. Jonnrune/Raudan jalgea can stop a wound from bleeding and according to Professor Timo Leisio, “The Skogfinn’s runes to heal open wounds are so remarkable that they should be the subject of comprehensive research.”

If you find you have an interest in the magical properties of rune songs, Freya Aswynn’s Songs of Yggdrasil, released by the metaphysical book publisher, Llewellyn is also worth a listen. This CD delves deeply into the actual chants performed by the Nordic shaman Freya.

According to the CD liner notes, “In shamanism one of the most valued techniques is the use of sound. There are two main techniques: chanting and drumming, which are combined with breath control and synchronized with a heartbeat. The main reason for employing these techniques is to achieve an
altered state of consciousness… There are two different kinds of trance states. One is exhilarating and leads to tremendous amounts of energy; in this state magic acts can be performed usually on the spur of the moment

Freya goes on to describe the second kind of trance which is a journey state and the shaman’s attentions are turned inward. The chants that appear on Songs of Yggdrasil recount the shaman’s journey and in this case the shaman journeys through nine worlds, where various Nordic gods/goddesses and entities such as Odin and Freya are evoked. In the past, I had read a book that described the
journeys of seidr (Nordic seers) in which the seidre would sit on a high chair and drop into a trance where the seidre would journey through the nine worlds bringing back information for those ceremonial attendees seeking answers. I’m not sure how Freya’s recording fits into this practice. However, the chants included on the CD represent particular runes and vibrations associated with those particular runes. Freya cites, “Through chanting the runes, one can express the meaning of that rune.” Her recording demonstrates the galdr technique.

Whipping wind and howling wolves accompany Freya’s chants. This creates a Gothic atmosphere and easily sends its listeners on an inward quest. Freya also explains what and whom she encounters on the journey as well as, performing various invocations and chants. Also note that the chants on this CD are not melodic. While drums appear on at least one of the tracks, this recording represents sound healing through the use of shamanic chants.

However, if you are interested in pursuing the sound healing aspects of rune songs and would like to explore the Northern Mysteries, then picking up Freya Aswynn’s Songs of Yggdrasil along with her book, Northern Mysteries and Magick (Llewellyn), will get you off on the right foot. Working with sound and loving intentions could transform the world we live in for the better. If you’re
strictly seeking a more academic approach, then check out Tirun Lirun.

I am certainly not an expert on rune songs and I can find very little in the way of books on the subject, at least ones written in English. I will say that rune songs are worth exploring as both a musical and a magical practice.


Armenia The Beautiful

Cascade Folk Trio - Old Street
Cascade Folk Trio – Old Street
Cascade Folk Trio

Old Street (Bandaz Records BZ 2764, 2003)

Before this disc came along, I didn’t have much in the way of music from Armenia. In fact, on giving the matter further thought, I’m inclined to think I didn’t have any. And since it’s a nice piece of work, I’m glad to have it not simply as padding for my world music collection but for the much more important concern of listening pleasure.

Armenia, a small country south of the Caspian and Black Seas near to where Europe and Asia meet, has a history as both a kingdom and a Soviet republic. That history has been troubled at times, particularly the genocidal actions of the Ottoman Turks against the Armenian people during World War One. It’s definitely modern music we’re treated to on Cascade Folk Trio’s Old Street, so the overall feel isn’t as “folk” as you may think. Nonetheless, the use of programmed rhythms and studio polish isn’t overly intrusive, letting the more specifically Armenian elements, including abundant dhol drums and double-reed duduk, provide the real kick. So delight in the way the opening “Gentle Boy, Graceful Girl” alternates bursts of traditional sound with choppy jazz phrases or the bright funk of “Wipe the Tears From My Eyes,” because there’s also songs here that don’t focus so much on fusion. And delight in the vocals too, because the name above the title refers to the three singers whose pipes bring it all together.

The lead singing is divided pretty evenly between a guy named Arman Aghajanyan and a gal called Ohanna Mtghyan. Their versatility, coupled with the varied exotic spark of the arrangements, can make you feel as though you’re listening to rai, Gypsy music or French cabaret, though the lamenting nature of many of the songs (evidenced by some translated lyrics in the liner notes and probably reflective of that troubled history mentioned earlier) will tug on new and different sets of heartstrings. Recorded in both Armenia and the U.S., the line this album walks is a fine one. It’s ultimately quite a good listen and leads me to believe that I must be missing out on a lot by not paying closer attention to the Armenian music scene.


Make Mine a Double

Habib Koite & Bamada - Foly! Live Around the World
Habib Koité and Bamada

Foly! Live Around the World (World Village 468021, 2003)

A live album by Habib
? Great idea. Making it a two-disc set? Even better. I saw Koité and his band Bamada in an outdoor concert on a summer night in Los Angeles a few years back, and there didn’t seem to be one person in the sizable crowd who wasn’t swaying to the sound. Koité was born into a musical family in the very musical country of Senegal and has lived most of his life in another very musical country, Mali.

Mali is arguably home to more great guitarists (Ali Farka Toure, Boubacar Traore, Djelimady Tounkara, etc.) than any other African nation, though it’s not
merely by geographical association that Koité is to be counted among them. His mastery of the acoustic guitar stems from how he brings shades of various playing styles and edifies them with a west African vibe in which every element feels right at home. Be it sounds of the Iberian Peninsula, the Arabic world or
transplanted blues, Koité never falters. His three studio albums–Muso Ko
(originally released in the U.S. by Alula Records and presently available on the
World Village label), Ma Ya and Baro (both widely released via
Putumayo)–show a growth of artistry and scope while retaining authenticity and

Foly! Live Around the World isn’t exactly what the title states- it was recorded in several European cities during 2001 and 2002. But Koité’s music does
indeed sound like it could move an audience anywhere. Each of the two discs is over 70 minutes long, giving Koité and Bamada ample time and space to stretch the songs into splendid jam sessions where layers of guitars, bala (played by the revered Keletigui Diabate), bass, drumset and percussion resound with wild
abandon and focused tightness.

The faster songs cook like Senegalese m’balax or Africanized flamenco, the slower ones allow Koité some expressive moments as a singer while still emphasizing the richness of the groove, and there’s not a dull or false moment to be heard. Koité’s best tunes are all here, including a stunning “Fatma” (love those ululations), a nervously beautiful “Sin Djen Djen,” the familiarly cocky “Cigarette Abana” and “Bitile” done lean and slinky.

Even if you have Koité’s previous albums, the way these songs are sent soaring into the African music
stratosphere simply must be heard. Very highly recommended.


A Little Brazilian Night Music

Katia Moraes and Sambaguru – Live at La Ve Lee
Katia Moraes and Sambaguru – Live at La Ve Lee (Kufala Recordings KUF0030, 2003)

Vinicius Cantuaria –  Live: Skirball Cultural Center (Kufala Recordings KUF0043, 2003)

Brazil’s music is as varied as that of any large country, and the land that gave us samba, bossa nova and countless regional styles is the object of many a global listener’s fancy. Throughout Brazil the sounds of African and indigenous rhythms are heard, as are melodies that originated with the Portuguese
colonizers who first laid claim to the vast region. Be they superstars or lesser-knowns, one characteristic of the finest Brazilian musicians is an ability to handle the complexities and nuances of the music not only in the studio but on the concert stage. Well, some very special elements are in harmony here, because we’re dealing with two double disc live releases by Brazilians who’ve got the feel righter than right and a label that specializes in recording hot performances and putting them out while they’re still fresh in people’s minds.

Vinicius Cantuaria is a guitarist and vocalist with a pensive, slightly brooding style that invites favorable comparisons to Baden Powell and Caetano Veloso. He performs some of the latter’s compositions on his live set, as well as songs penned by Gilberto Gil and Antonio Carlos Jobim and originals written
in conjunction with the likes of David Byrne and Arto Lindsay. Still, it’s not enough to have great songs at your disposal, and it’s clear from the excellence of the performance that Cantuaria knows how to make his mark.

His guitar work ranges from graceful to aggressive to evocative, his vocals suit the mood accordingly and he’s got a small but amazingly attuned band with him. The supporting players on violin, bass, drumset and percussion give the proceedings a celebratory air that seems delicate at times but often builds into bursts of pure musical poetry.

The music dazzles because of how skilled Cantuaria and co. are in bringing to each song a sense of soulfulness and rhythmic interplay that effortlessly conveys heartfelt joy from performers to audience. It’s a dandy mix of classic stylings, jazz and spirited looseness that adds up to one of the very best
releases (Brazilian or otherwise) of 2003. You’d be wise to get your hands on it as soon as possible.

But not so fast, because there’s still Katia Moraes and Sambaguru to deal with. Their double live has a few things in common with the Cantuaria album–great sound, tight rhythms,etc.–but it’s got more of a flat-out party feel. And that ain’t a bad thing, since this band has the chops to lay down sambas, bossa novas, songs flavored with salsa, reggae and funk, forro (a rootsy style from the north of Brazil) and more. They cool down the pace here and there, though for the most part the heat stays on. It’s pure bliss from the beginning of disc one to the end of disc two, all brought home with the fiery “Mae Africa” capping things off.

I’ve listened to both of these repeatedly since they came my way, and their freshness seems boundless. The Kufala label deserves high marks for these “authorized bootlegs,” which are not just a good idea in principle but in practice as well.


Murder, sex and glorious quests

Phonix - Pigen rengen
Phonix – Pigen rengen

Pigen Drengen (Go Danish Folk Music Productions, 2002)

When I first started exploring Scandinavian music, I discovered the Danish folk-rock group Sorten Muld and at the time, that group represented Danish folk-roots music for me. While I did enjoy the gothic lyrics gleaned from Danish folk tales and some of the acoustic instruments that the group touted, their techno-pop renditions of folk ballads left me cold. (Some groups are better at marrying
techno with folk music than others). However, now another Danish folk-roots group, of a different nature, Phonix (pronounced foon-icks) has crossed my path and the group’s lively acoustic-based tunes have piqued my curiosity.

With music this wonderful, I wonder what other Danish traditional groups are waiting in the wings? And will Denmark be able to hold its own against traditional groups from Finland, Norway and Sweden?

Phonix was born from a folk-roots revival that flourished across Europe during the 1960’s and 70’s because members of the group were first introduced to Danish folk dance music while growing up during the folk-roots revival hey-day.

Founding group member and clarinetist Anja Praest Mikkelsen accompanied her folk dancing parents to traditional events and accordionist Jesper Vinther Petersen can also boast a similar childhood, although taking place in a different region of Denmark. Although Phonix (originally named Fritterne with a name change occurring in 1995) has morphed a few times during the 1990’s and to the present
time, the current lineup includes traditional vocalist-composer Karen Mose Norgaard, bass clarinetist Anja Mikkelsen, accordionist Jesper Petersen, and percussionist Jesper Falch.

Phonix’s 2002 release, Pigen Drengen features an additional musician, Anja’s sister Katja Mikkelsen on flute, recorder and fiddle. While she penned many of the songs on the recording, she left the group in 2003 to pursue other interest. So essentially, I am reviewing a CD that portrays the group’s previous lineup. However, I feel that this group is solid enough to reinvent itself and
it has already done so many times over the years. And in fact, they might be called the phoenix that rises time and time again from the ashes leading to changes that force the musicians to stay on their innovative toes. And let’s not use the word innovative lightly here.

These musicians imaginatively recreate traditional folk music by marrying bass clarinet, flute, fiddle, accordion, percussion and emotive vocals. And they seem to have a lot of fun recording
these lively dance tunes laced with quests involving fickle marriage partners, murder, shape shifting and tales about trolls that would ignite the late fantasy author JRR Tolkien’s passion for Nordic tales.

The opener, Tyge Hermansen not only introduces listeners to the lively instrumentation they will enjoy over the course of listening to the CD, it also sets a dreamy atmosphere of folk tale characters pursuing heroic deeds. Of course, the songs are sung in Danish so if you don’t understand Danish, you will have to follow along with the English translations that accompany the CD. And it could get confusing if you don’t pursue the translations, since a lively tune such as Mangelus sports a tale about a troll that shape shifts into a beautiful maiden that lures her human prey to her mountain lair. In fact, most of the songs, with the exception of Drommen (Dream) are composed in a major key, yet many of the tales appearing in the songs, feature themes about death (usually avoiding it), sex, and murder. The same themes also appear in folk songs of other Nordic groups including,
Hedningarna (Sweden/Finland), Varttina (Finland), Garmarna (Sweden) and Sorten Muld (Denmark) just to name a handful.

Phonix offers a nice blend of instrumentals composed mostly by former member Katja Mikkelsen and songs with lyrics that are thoughtfully complimented by Karen Mose’s warm honeyed vocals. Accordionist Jesper Petersen’s instrumental Melgven showcases Jesper’s composing and performing talents. The song starts off with a dreamy accordion solo that is soon joined by Anja’s clarinet drone tones and Katja’s recorder then later percussionist Jesper Falch’s delicious beats. It’s a song that will change the minds of those that equate acoustic instrumentation with boring music.

This delightful recording will warm the hearts and bodies of its listeners. It’s the kind of music that will cause you to dance or cuddle up next to a toasty fire. Bring on another round of folk tales and dance tunes.