Category Archives: CD Reviews

Chill out

Compilasian, The World of Indipop
Compilasian, The World of Indipop

Compilasian, The World of Indipop (Narada World, 2003)

The release of Narada World’s Compilasian (The World of Indipop) comes as more of a sign of changes to come in the record industry than as the cutting edge music it boast.

For those readers not aware of the Indipop label, it is a cottage industry label created by producer Steve Coe who is also Sheila Chandra’s husband. Narada World recently licensed Indipop catalogue, including Sheila Chandra’s Indipop releases. And with the release of Compilasian, itself a compilation of unreleased tracks of the groups Monsoon, Sheila Chandra, The Ganges Orchestra, Jhalib and East West, comes with a piracy protection device, called Copy Control.

Only time will tell if this device actually puts more money in the hands of recording artists or acts as a trigger for more paranoia in the world.

The Copy Control actually comes with its own player and a symbol reflective of the big brother that is watching you. This could cause discomfort in even the most innocent record buyer, especially coming at a time when people believe that the government too is watching their every move. And by the way, as a journalist, I am here to get the word out on musicians and I do not condone piracy. However, I will also say that there is too much fear in the world and I am disappointed that so many establishments succumb to fear instead of spreading love on the planet. Trust is a derivative of love.

Protection and security are derivatives of fear (a gentle reminder).Now that I have released my reservations for this technology, I will get on with the review of this compilation.

According to the CD liner notes, Steve Coe, small, but influential label has enjoyed three decades of fun and independence while introducing the world to its most popular vocalist, Sheila Chandra. Indipop receives credit for being the forerunner of the Asian fusion music fostered in the UK.

Steve and the musicians who recorded on his projects modernized Indian music so that Western ears could relate to it and Western feet could dance to it. However, having grown up in an extremely mainstream community where I heard and appreciated Ravi Shankar’s ragas it’s difficult for me to understand why anyone would need to modernize Indian music.

Fortunately, the musicians on the recording also chose to explore new musical territory that married studio wizardry with the essence of Indian music. And these musicians have a lot of fun blazing musical trails and taking advantage of the liberation provided to them when working with a small and experimental label. And in fact, Chandra’s innovative songwriting and lush vocals matured out of these experiments.

The tracks feel more like a musical laboratory than actual songs. Phrases are often repeated similar to mantras, on the track, Strange Minaret, Sheila sings backwards recalling the Beatles White album. Outtakes for Crescent Silver Scythe and Ever So Lonely have been rehashed and a few other surprises crop up on the compilation. 11 (a number with spiritual inclinations that comes up a lot in my life), provides nature sounds, a moody organ and Sheila’s lovely vocals.

In the end, Compilasian will take its listeners on an unusual inner journey, complete with a soundtrack that promises to expand frontiers.

Buy Compilasian, The World of Indipop

Share

The Scottish Harp

Wendy Stewart

Standing Wave (Greentrax CD TRAX242)

This is quite a sombre selection of Scottish harp music with the occasional equally sombre vocal track. The opening tune, Flowres O The Forrest, sets the mood, spare and melancholy, which the traditional, All Things Are Quite Silent, continues. A tale 0f press-ganging and break up of domestic life it has a memorable melody delivered with clarity by Stewart.

If the lamentation of the opening track needed further depths of melancholy then there is a track about the terrible foot and mouth crisis which devastated lands and lives in the UK recently. Rather than use words to convey some of the suffering Stewart lets Fires At Midnight tell its tale through musical imagery.This is perhaps even more effective.The leaving of a homeland has long been part of any nation’s lyrical tradition and her rendition of a clearance song, Now Draw Up Close And Hear My Song, draws on Gaelic words which in translation describe some of the feeling of loss:

From croft and glen down to the sea, those that I love are going.

The homes they leave are cold and cleared and under sheep run lying.

Notwithstanding the mournful nature of many tracks her various harps are also put to good use on traditional tunes and dances where there is both restraint and robustness in her playing. Try Down The Hill/Annan Polka or the final track which employs the delicate bohemian harp to good effect. She also uses the gut harp which has a slightly more powerful tone on her own composition, Jean Stewart Of Moniaive.

Overall, it is an attractive set of songs and tunes, encouraging reflective listening, which ought still to appeal to a wide audience.

Share

One for the Road

Harry Manx - Road Ragas
Harry Manx – Road Ragas
Harry Manx

Road Ragas (Salt Spring Island, Canada, 2003)

I have found that there is
little safety to be found from paint by number artists even in the world music or folk roots genres. Fortunately,
Harry Manx doesn’t paint by numbers and instead, he boldly leaps into the unknown. Equally at home in an
ashram or performing on a blues stage, he is the first musician that I have encountered who plays a raga (The
Gist of Madhuvanti) on a 6 string banjo and then classic blues on a Mohan Veena. Harry gives his listening
audience an earful of soulful blues which is evident on his live recording, Road Ragas.

Then again, you can’t contain some folks in a box. Among us, exist prodigal sons and daughters who flee
abroad to a foreign locale before the heavy weight of adulthood catches up to them and they busk for a living in
these far off places. A lot of folk or blues musicians get discovered this way, Harry on the other hand,
discovered himself in Europe, Japan and in India. In India, he succumbed to the temptations of the Indian way
of life and spent five years studying the Mohan Veena from the master and inventor of the instrument Vishwa
Mohan Bhatt. Eventually, Harry reinvented the blues while acquiring classical Indian flavoring to spice his
repertoire. Road Ragas distills the Canadian blues musician’s travels, life experiences and musical inventions into
transcendental blues. Harry who resembles a bohemian sage with his goatee and serene disposition, wheels
out traditional tunes from the American South including, Take this Hammer (he’s backed by the gospel choir,
Heavenly Lights), Sitting on the Top of the World, Reuben’s Train (which he performs on a Mohan Veena)
and he pays tribute to Willie Dixon (Spoonful) and Riley King (The Thrill is Gone). Among his favorite blues
classics, are original songs from his other recordings, including Wise and Otherwise, including, Bring the
Thing, Don’t Forget to Miss Me, Coat of Mail, Nat Bhariau, Sunday Morning Ascension (about the death of a
friend) and the love song, Lay Down My Worries.

Road Ragas goes beyond providing insightful cathartic moments that are normally associated with the blues
and instead the musical moments here allow us to transcend our troubles. Similar to an Indian raga, these
songs, delivered with a lot of soul would cause anyone’s heart to swell with universal love. But you need to ask
yourself if you are ready to soar above the mundane and sprout wings.

Share

East Meets East, North Meets South

K. Sridhar combines traditions from both sides of his family

By Teed Rockwell
India Currents Magazine

April 2001

K. Sridhar has lived his musical life by an important principle: If you’re true to your roots, you will be respected for what you are. One of the reasons this principle has worked so well for him is that, in his case, the roots extend very deep and far. His mother had trained her children in Karnatik classical music, and Sridhar’s brother, K. Shivakumar Shringar, became an accomplished Karnatik violinist. But Sridhar also received training in Hindustani Dhrupad music from the age of five, and eventually devoted his life to playing Hindustani music on the sarod. With a background that was both multicultural and traditional, he acquired both a respect for tradition and an open-mindedness that gave him the courage to be innovative.In his most recent purely classical album, Food for the Soul, Sridhar exhibits both his traditional and his innovative side by performing a Karnatik raga in a very pure Hindustani style. Raga Charukeshee is built on a scale that is not part of the Hindustani Thaat system. The top half is minor, containing komal Sha and Ni (flatted sixth and seventh degrees). But the bottom half is entirely major, which means that it changes radically in mood depending on where you play in the scale. Ali Akbar Khan created a raga in the same scale, which he called Alam Malaya, but the scale is all that the two ragas have in common. Alam Malaya had a five note arohi (upward pattern) and a seven note vakra avarohi (crooked downward pattern). Charukeshee permits any note to be played either upward or downward, which means it has to rely on other factors to give it its distinctive character.

Sridhar ingeniously starts his alap by only using the five notes, which create the top half of the minor scale. The impression he gives is that he’s going to be playing one of the Kanras, for he even uses some of the slow vibratos that are typical of that family of ragas. But when his alap has reached the upper register, he stays within the major half of the scale, and gives the impression that he is playing in a major thaat, such as Khamaj or Bilaval. Only when he picks up speed does he play sequences that include the entire scale, thus revealing its unique nature. The result is three distinct mood changes, which have an impact similar to the modulations from key to key used in Western music.

This effect however, is only a small part of Sridhar’s expressive palette. During the alap (rhythmically free opening), he uses a variety of quiet effects that create dynamic contrasts to the main melody notes. Sometimes he taps out four or five note phrases without plucking the strings at all. Other times, he uses slides that mark numerous distinct notes as they slowly decay, the vibrato varying in both speed and depth like a mournful cry. He uses a gamak technique (wide fast vibrato) during slow teental which actually seems to make the note get louder as it continues to vibrate. His sophisticated use of laya (variations in tempo against the underlying beat) requires the tabla player to do everything he can to simply hold the beat down. My favorite of these laya variations is a two minute barrage of amazingly fast trills, which are so perfectly controlled they seem paradoxically to be almost slow and stately, like the vibrating wings of a floating dragonfly. And he has one technique which I believe he invented: He keeps his fifth fingernail on his left hand almost an inch long, so he can actually play chikare (strums) with either hand.

Sridhar also has a history of working with an Arabian instrument closely related to the sarod — the oud. At first glance, the two instruments seem remarkably similar. Both have fretless fingerboards, and are played with flat picks. The main difference between the modern sarod and the modern oud is that today sarods have steel fretboards and metal strings, while ouds have wooden fretboards and gut strings. But even as early as a generation ago, sarods also had wooden fretboards and gut strings, and those sarods probably sounded very much like oud. Today, however, the sarod and the oud have both matured into noticeably different instruments that nevertheless share a common ancestry. Imagine a steel string guitar playing with a nylon string guitar (Andre Segovia and Leo Kotke, perhaps?), and you may get some sense of how these two instruments can highlight the differences in each other precisely because they are so similar.

Sridhar’s first collaboration with an oud player was a completely improvised album with Palestinian Adel Salemeh on Peter Gabriel’s Womad label. His second Arab fusion album, East Meets East, features a larger Arabian ensemble called Arabandi, that includes oud player Taiser Elias (who doubles on violin) along with vocals, Persian ney (flute) and Arabian percussion. There are many similarities between Indian and Arabic music that reflect their commingling during the Mughal invasion of India — the unusual time signatures, the emphasis on monophonic melodies that rely heavily on microtones. But the similarities are most obvious on Bint Elshalabia, the opening piece on East Meets East. It starts with a sarod solo, which sounds like an oud, until the real oud comes in and doubles the melody. When I compare the oud and sarod solos on that cut, I can only speculate as to who learned what from whom — the sarod sounds so natural combined with the Arabian drums and ney, and the oud playing has a rhythmic sophistication that I (perhaps falsely) thought was unique to Indian music. And without the liner notes I would never have guessed that the pieces Dawn and Hope are original compositions by Sridhar, and not traditional Arabian tunes.

Sridhar has clearly learned several of the traditional Middle Eastern melodies note for note, for he plays them in tight unison with the violin, the oud, and the ney. And when he solos on those melodies, the techniques he learned from his Karnatik and Hindustani teachers blend in so naturally that he seems to have been playing this style of music all of his life. Given the long history of cultural exchange between the Arab and Indian cultures, in a certain sense, he has been. But it is inspiring to see the process of separating and recombining continue into the next millennium — refreshing both traditions, as it has so often in the past.

For more information, please visit Sridhar’s website at www.sridhar.org.

Article submitted with permission from the author, Teed Rockwell.

Share

Party On!

Maxwell Street Klezmer Band - Old Roots New World
Maxwell Street Klezmer Band – Old Roots New World
Maxwell Street Klezmer Band

Old Roots New World (Shanachie, 2002)

Hailing from Chicago and named after the infamous Maxwell Street, (an area compared to New York’s Lower Eastside) and where Russian Jews immigrated during the last century, the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band ignites a party mood. However, I don’t know if I would use the word band to describe this orchestra size unit. One photograph that accompanies the CD, Old Roots New World sports 17 musicians that amounts to lots of strings, horns, woodwinds, percussion, two vocalists and a non-stop celebratory mood.

Most of the compositions included on the discs were written during the heyday of American klezmer music and during a time when swing was the newest trend in jazz music. Many of the songs are short in length with the exception of Klezmer Rhapsody that last 17 1/2 minutes and it plays more like a frolic than a rhapsody.MSKB, although larger and hailing from Chicago, draws comparisons with their New York counterpart, The Klezmatics. However, singer Lori Lippitz who founded MSKB in 1983 leads this band and along with her troupe of musicians has played stages throughout Europe and across America. I am not an expert on klezmer music, but I imagine that it’s rare to find a klezmer band of this size and importance led by a woman. Obviously Ms Lippitz is one extraordinary woman and musician.

The songs on the CD for the most part portray optimism and originate from films, weddings (Leah’s Saraband was composed by Artistic Director Alex Koffman for Lori’s wedding) and other celebrations. The actress-acrobat-dancer-songwriter Molly Picon is honored twice on the recording on the tracks Play Fiddle, Play/Yidle with the Fiddle that derives from a film that Molly appeared back in 1937 and the song You Should Only Be Well, written by Molly. The words to the song might offer hope to those folks currently struggling with their lives, “The air is free the whole world over…the sun shines just the same for the rich or poor…have a little fun, a little laughter, sometimes with friends.”

Springtime marks a Jewish tango that doesn’t speak of sexual longing, but over the anguish of losing a loved one. A woman mourns the murder of her husband. Ironically, the musician, Avrom Brodna who wrote the music for the tango, died in a concentration camp in 1943. On a lighter note, Live to Enjoy features Ralph Wilder’s spunky clarinet solos embellished by frenzied horns and snazzy percussion. Musicianship in general is highlighted here with plenty of clarinet arpeggios, sparkling horns, weeping strings and crystal clear soprano vocals. The musicians bring their love for klezmer music to this disc and they have a rollicking good time sharing their music with a deserving audience.

www.klezmerband.com

Share

Taj Mahal’s Hanapepe Dream

Taj Mahal

Hanapepe Dream (Tone-Cool/Kan-Du Records, 2003)


For those feeling a little listless and slothful in the grip of summer’s dog days, let me suggest Hanapepe Dream, the latest from Taj Mahal and The Hula Blues found on Tone-Cool/Kan-Du Records.


The follow up to their 1998 Sacred Island, Hanapepe Dream liquefies the Hawaiian, West African, Blues and Caribbean influences and pours them out perfectly blended. Heavy with lilting Hawaiian steel guitar, bright ukuleles, the slick wah wah of slack-key guitar and saxophone, it slides down cool and frosty like some exotic drink on a hot summer’s day.

But it is Taj Mahal’s voice that intoxicates – that voice that is smooth and silky one minute and rough and rich the next. “Black Jack Davy,” the charming duet “Moonlight Lady” and Mississippi John Hurt’s “Creole Belle” are testaments to Mahal’s powerful command over song lyrics. Set to a shuffling beat and playful sax, Taj Mahal entices the listener with a playfully naughty vocal seduction on “Baby, You’re My Destiny” that culminates with some scat vocals. Mahal even gets in a version of “All Along The Watchtower,” proving that Mahal refuses convention.

I do have to mention the liner notes for Hanapepe Dream. I don’t know who was responsible but – shame, shame, shame! There wasn’t a single mention about the musicians or any of the production staff. The musicians behind The Hula Blues include Carlos Andrade on slack-key guitar; Fred Lunt on Hawaiian steel guitar; Kester Smith on drums; Rudy Costa on saxophone, flute, kalimba and clarinet; Pat Cockett on liliu ukulele; Wayne Jacintho on tenor ukulele; Michael Barretto on baritone ukulele and Pancho Graham on acoustic guitar. These guys are just too good to not mention and proof is in the instrumental title track.


All-in-all Hanapepe Dream is a delightful elixir for those summer doldrums


 


————————————————————————

TJ Nelson is also a fiction writer. Check out her latest book, Chasing
Athena’s Shadow
<http://www2.xlibris.com/bookstore/bookdisplay.asp?bookid=34163>. Set in
Pineboro, North Carolina, Chasing Athena’s Shadow follows the adventures
of Grace, an adult literacy teacher, as she seeks to solve a long
forgotten family mystery.  Her charmingly dysfunctional family is of
little help in her quest.  Along with her best friends, an attractive
Mexican teacher and an amiable gay chef, Grace must find the one fading
memory that holds the key to why Grace’s great-grandmother, Athena, shot
her husband on the courthouse steps in 1931. Traversing the line between
the Old South and New South, Grace will have to dig into the past to
uncover Athena’s true crime.

Share

Klezmer Gypsies Take The Stage

Les Yeux Noirs – Live
Les Yeux Noirs

Live (World Village 4680190, 2003)

Led by classically-trained violinists Eric and Olivier Slabiak, Les Yeux Noirs created one of last year’s more memorable albums with Balamouk, a seamlessly brilliant Gypsy/klezmer blend that brought out the best in both styles, individually and collectively. This new live disc shows them to be just as tight onstage (in case you had any doubt), and though many of the tunes were also highlights of Balamouk, most are carried beyond their already substantial studio counterparts. A little extra jamming length here, a bit more tricky soloing there, and the result is a nimble and lively performance that is no mere rehash.

A tartly stomping “Cioara” kicks things off, with the crinkly tones of the cimbalom and dancing percussion bouncing to and fro between the rich violins as guitar, bass, cello and accordion lubricate the Balkan and Yiddish accents with loving grace. Faster pieces like “Calusul” and “L’Alouette” reach delightful frenzy without sloppiness, though the band’s softer side is evident on two versions of the tender “Lluba,” including a new take with a children’s choir adding depth to the traditional lament. In fact, the balance of fast and slow tunes give this disc a good sense of pace that many live albums lack. Then when you factor in solid versions of such originals as Balamouk’s Afro/Euro title track, you have a live set that delivers mightily in terms of innovation and exciting musical border-crossing. Listening to this will make your feet move and your heart ache. You’ll love it.

buy Live

Share

Preaching to the Choir

Cosmic Voices of Bulgaria - Mechemetio
Cosmic Voices of Bulgaria – Mechemetio
Cosmic Voices of Bulgaria

Mechemetio (Intuition, 2000)

Bulgarian choir music and folk dance drew awareness in the West when 4 AD Records released records by the choir phenomenon Le Mystere des Vois Bulgares back in the late 1980’s. While the world music genre was beginning to formulate around that time, it was the alternative music crowd, especially fans of Goth music that embraced Bulgarian choir music. A few years later, Kate Bush invited another Bulgarian vocal group, Trio Bulgarka to lend their talents to a couple of tracks on her release, Sensual World (Bush is one of those artists never mentioned for her contribution to world music).

Seemingly Bulgarian vocal music disappeared from public awareness even though other vocal-centered groups such as the Finnish group Varttina and the Italian a cappella quartet, Fauarella give homage to Bulgarian vocal music on their CDs. The Persian-American vocalist Mamak Khadem of Axiom of Choice studied Bulgarian vocal styles and this adds a unique flavor to her vocal palette. So it comes, as a bit of synchronicity that a CD of Cosmic Voices of Bulgaria, recorded in 2000, would cross my path at a time when I am discovering vocal music.Similar to the Mysterious Voices of Bulgaria (I am using the English translation), Cosmic Voices of Bulgaria features a full-fledged choir, including 21 of Bulgaria’s brightest vocal talent. Those folks who have been following Bulgarian music will recognize a few of the names of the vocalists, including Nadka Karadzhova, who once sang with the Mysterious Voices. She of course, appears as a soloist on the disc, but she shares soloing duties with a long list of vocalists. The album, Mechmetio was recorded at Hall 11 of the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, Bulgaria, reminding us that the Bulgarian government still exudes pride in one of their national treasures.

Vanya Moneva conducted the choir and Emil Minev produced the recording. The project pays tribute to the great Bulgarian choir composers and arrangers of the past and especially Philip Kutev (1903-82), the man responsible for the more innovative compositions. However, some of the tracks were composed more recently and by new composers. The performance although haunting to some extent also possesses playful elements. The harmonies add a unique dissonance and the songs are also peppered with whoops and crescendos. It’s a complex music that I won’t even try to explain nor could I without ever having studied it. Yet, I do find that it lends itself to a pleasurable listen. For anyone who wishes to delve further into Bulgarian music, I recommend picking up Rough Guides World Music, Volume 1 and read the insightful chapter on Bulgaria or peruse the liner notes that come with the CD.

Share

California Singing

Deborah Falconer - Brave like me
Deborah Falconer – Brave like me
Deborah Falconer

Brave like me (Ravish, 2003)

A life of singer-songwriter is a hard one. Any songwriter can come up with interesting chord progressions and insightful melodies, but the true test of a singer-songwriter comes with penning of lyrics. Poetry and universal thinking isn’t everyone’s forte and few songwriters have the talent of a Tom Waits, Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. Most songwriters, including Deborah Falconer with her CD release, Brave like me, write too personal of lyrics resembling something cribbed from a diary. She’s not alone of course, since I noticed a lot of self-absorbed lyrics coming from the rock and pop genres which is why I began listening to music sung in other languages.I do not know Deborah’s age or background, but I would suggests that she travel to other countries, get a broader view of the world, besides her own personal life. I suggests that she learn other vocal styles besides the heart-aching one that too often recalls Tori Amos or Ricky Lee Jones since this just doesn’t come across as authentic. I think as Deborah grows as an artist her song writing will mature into something more universal. At the moment she is playing it safe by sticking with the usual Western instrumentation and not stretching her vocals or emotions. She could learn a lot from her songwriting predecessors and contemporaries, Patti Smith, Ani DiFranco and Janis Joplin. In the meantime, Brave like me proves pleasant enough with sweet chord progressions embellished by strings, piano, pedal steel and electric organ. It’s the perfect CD for the white middle class college crowd that hasn’t crossed the bridge yet from me to us or from America to the rest of the world.

Share

Disco d’Afrique

Kaleta - Kaleta Jaa
Kaleta – Kaleta Jaa
Kaleta

Kaleta Jaa (Kaleta Music, 2003)

West African rhythms mixed with thumping disco beats and lots of programming, sadly has become the latest trend. This African pop extracts African dialects and styles then distills these elements in a tepid atmosphere of electronic drums and keyboards. Front man and masked musician Kaleta, born in the Republic of Benin and a veteran of the West African music community, has fallen into the trap of marrying modern technology with the musical heart of West Africa. Kaleta who leads the band with the same name sings in a variety of languages including Yoruba (Nigeria), Fon, Goun (Benin), Eur (Toga) as well as, French and English. He has also mastered various genres of music such as reggae, R & B, high-life, African JuJu and rock, while proving his prowess on guitar, percussion and vocals. And yet, despite all Kaleta’s talent, this CD fails to excite me.Kaleta isn’t the first West African musician to don a mask. Nigerian super star Lagbaja of the group with the same name also wears a mask, but for political reasons. And Lagbaja fronts a high octane group that is heavy on polyphonic rhythms played on African percussion, a hot and heavy horn section as well as, delicious call & response vocals. And this is still considered African pop. Kaleta who has performed with and recorded albums for Nigerian’s King Sunny Ade, and the Afro-Beat Fela Kuti, relies too heavily on American influences and he falls under the weight of an alien culture (he resides in New York). While he can master West African styles of music, his songs on Kaleta Jaa are clogged with electronic drumbeats, cheesy synthesizer and rock guitar solos that feel out of place.

On occasion, a hint of African percussion peaks through along with call & response vocals such as on the ending of the song, Magicien and the vocal tracks on Kaleta-Soukous come across as the most authentic music on this CD. I don’t wish to spoil Kaleta’s celebratory mood with my hunger for more ritualistic African music, but if I wanted to hear disco beats I could just turn on any commercial radio station. I want to hear African percussion in its purist form and maybe I am a lone wolf crying in the wilderness, but I will keep howling until my needs are met.

Buy

Kaleta Jaa
.

Share