Category Archives: CD Reviews

Touch of MacMaster’s Hand

Natalie MacMaster - Blueprint
Natalie MacMaster – Blueprint

Natalie MacMaster

Blueprint (Rounder Records, 2003)>

Two tunes on Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster’s latest recording, Blueprint succinctly describe the power behind the 30-year old musician’s feisty gift. They are “Touch of the Master’s Hand,” based on a poem by Myra Brooks Welch; and the love song, “My Love, Cape Breton and Me,” which ends the recording. The first tune cites, “From the room far back a fair-haired girl came forward and took the bow. Then she wiped dust from the old violin and tightened up the strings. She played a tune so pure and sweet you could hear the angels sing.” I would bet that Natalie could also transform a tired old instrument into the stuff of angels.

Natalie’s cousin Bob Quinn wrote the second tune for MacMaster’s marriage to fiddler Donnell Leahy that took place on October 5, 2002. Quinn’s 18-year old daughter handled vocal duties at the wedding and on the recording. The song which was recorded in Halifax and produced by Natalie and her husband, speaks of the simple things in life and also about returning to one’s roots.

Natalie’s roots go deep into the heart of Canada’s Cape Breton. She was born into a fiddling community and is related to fiddling royalty, yet she relocated to Ontario after her wedding, giving the song a lasting poignancy.

The remaining 12 tracks were recorded in Nashville, Tennessee with “new acoustic” producer Darol Anger at the helm and embellished by an array of stellar bluegrass talent. MacMaster teams up with Bela Fleck (banjo), Jerry Douglas (dobra), Victor Wooten (bass), Alison Brown (banjo), John Cowen (vocals), Sam Bush (mandolin), Bryan Sutton (guitar), Edgar Meyer (Arco & Pizz bass) and her regular band mates to create a masterful marriage between traditional Cape Breton repertoire and new grass. They even toss in a few bluesy chops and jazzy bits here and there. However, besides this rich line up of musicians, what strikes me the most is being able to hear joy welling up in Natalie’s heart when she performs.

Her musicianship boasts both technical brilliance and absolute soul fullness that shouts integrity. If only there were more Natalie MacMaster’s in the world, I believe we would live in peace.

The tracks on Blueprint range from the pastoral “Eternal Friendship” to the tricky “Devil and The Dirk” with its alternating fiddle textures (staccato and sweet lyrical) and everything in between. Natalie’s fiddle kicks into gear on Gravel Shore then the musicians take turns at solos while building off of each others’ creative impulses. I am surprised to find Swedish guitarist Roger Tallroth’s (Vasen) “Josefin’s Waltz” on this recording, yet a few similarities between Swedish traditional music and fiddle music of the Americas do exist. Bela Fleck chips in Bela’s Tune and Natalie pays homage to her parents with the romp, Minnie & Alex’s Reel.

The musicianship is extraordinary on this spirited disc. Natalie plays straight from the heart and expertly turns musical phrases. She has toured the world and shared stages with such luminaries as Carlos Santana, Luciano Pavarotti, Alison Krauss and The Chieftains. And now she stars in her own show, accompanied by some of the hottest bluegrass musicians. Certainly her latest recording is a blueprint for success, but it also a CD filled with longing for one’s home. Whether or not you make your home in Cape Breton or elsewhere, finding your way home will be less complicated after listening to this heart-felt recording.

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Feathered friends

Mary Youngblood - Beneath the Raven Moon
Mary Youngblood – Beneath the Raven Moon
Mary Youngblood

Beneath the Raven Moon (Silver Wave Records)

Mother of four children, Aleut and Seminole Indian, award winning flautist Mary Youngblood offers us her third release on Silver Wave Records, Beneath the Raven Moon. Inspired by the wonderful spirits that have walked with Mary on her journey through life and based on her poem, Beneath the Raven Moon, this CD features an array of styles from blues to traditional to classical in which each song title represents a line in the poem. “Cama-I/ Walk with me/ beneath a raven moon/ and we shall dance/Laugh with me/caress the smile/within my heart/and we can love/dream with me/above the Mother Earth/and we will fly/Ipiluni.”

This peaceful music comes at a time when many among us fear the planet’s extinction. Yet, when Mary’s voice and flute flow through a room, hope also presents itself. Her music is as stunning and haunting as the infamous Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai, another musician that has successfully blended European and
Native American traditional music. Mary’s music differs from Nakai’s compositions in that it possesses a feminine edge that travels straight to the womb of Mother Earth. At times her songs hover above us and at other times they soars past us, always spirited, sometimes mirthful and at other times, tranquil.

Similar to her label mates, Joanne Shenandoah and Lawrence Laughing, producer Tom Wasinger comes on board offering his musical talents on a variety of instruments, Beneath the Raven Moon also marks the first CD in which Mary offers her sultry vocal talents. Joanne Shenandoah had enlisted her vocal talents on Youngblood’s CD, Heart of the World leading Youngblood on a new direction. Beneath the Raven Moon showcases Mary’s multiple gifts and her vocals can be heard on Walk with Me and Caress the Smile.

Walk with Me features bluesy guitar which is seduced by equally bluesy flute. The title song falls into the classical realm with flowing guitar, violin and flute. We Can Love is a beautiful chamber piece in which Youngblood’s flute caresses the strings that augment the composition. Two traditional Aluet songs, Piluni and Cama-Igrace the album while adding a timeless sacred quality to Mary’s inspired poem

Youngblood dedicated her heartfelt recording to those human beings in which she has loved, “To walk with another human being on life’s journey is a courageous endeavor.” One might say the same thing about recording and performing music that comes from the soul. And in that respect Mary Youngblood is a courageous musician here to offer us peace through her music.

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Marimbas and Flamenco Mestizo Sounds

Ayatana

Ayatana (Ventilador
Music CDA 035, 2003)

The Ventilador label has become Barcelona’s essential label for new world
music talent. Ayatana is an unusual group that falls into the growingly popular
“mestizo” (hybrid) category. It’s unusual because the veteran musicians combine
flamenco, world percussion and jazz using instruments that most flamenco and
mestizo artists rarely use. The most intriguing is the use of the marimba, an
instrument rarely (if ever) used in Flamenco. The foundation of Ayatana is percussion (palmas, cajón, shakers, frame drums,
etc.), and marimba combined with the harmonies and melodies of the archilaúd, an
instrument derived from the lute that has a much longer neck and resonance box.
There are also Flamenco and Gypsy rumba vocals throughout the album by singer
and dancer Vicky Romero.

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Hurdy-Gurdy Man

Gilles Chabenat & Alain Bonnin -  Trame
Gilles Chabenat & Alain Bonnin – Trame
Gilles Chabenat & Alain Bonnin

Trame (independent release)

The piano played a pivotal role in the history of jazz. Many jazz pianist luminaries such as Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington come to mind. However, with a few exceptions, the traditional French instrument, hurdy-gurdy has not played a starring role with jazz ensembles. When I performed a web search on the hurdy-gurdy’s role in modern jazz, three performers’ names appeared including Matthias Loibner, guitarist/hurdy-gurdy player for the Austrian jazz/rock/folk fusion ensemble Deishovida, a Swiss musician-composer Mani Planzer and Gilles Chabenat of the jazz duo Trame. Certainly a case could be made for the versatility of the unusual French instrument which fits in equally well in jazz and traditional or folk-roots music. Yet when it comes to jazz, it takes a bit of imagination and a lot of musical technique to pull this fete off. Fortunately, French musician Gilles Chabenat brings those qualities to his instrument and to his
compositions.

French pianist Alain Bonnin and Trame’s other half also brings his musical gifts to the table. Alain and Gilles met while recording with the Corsican vocalist I Muvrini (another musical innovator). Alain and Gilles realized that they had many musical things in common and formed Trame. And although Alain wrote 4 of the 14 tracks that appear on the duo’s self-titled CD, it’s hard to tell where one musician ends and the other begins. The instrumental tracks often veer off on tangents similar to a person embarking down one street then changing their mind and racing off to another street. The music here is quite complicated and exasperating at times, yet in the end listeners are taken to a new place and one they probably hadn’t even considered. It’s as though the musicians’ intuition works over time and this instinctive quality colors this recording.

Alain’s Septembre comes off as a warm jazz standard. But his track, saccages takes on a faster pace with hurdy-gurdy ripping through Alain’s carefully anchored piano and the musicians venture into a funky territory. Similar to other tracks, le fil/Mab feels melancholic and reminds me of a desolate snowy scape and recalls music by Finnish accordionist
Maria Kalaniemi and other Nordic jazz composers. On the whimsical couleur par couleur the piano and hurdy-gurdy weave a musical tapestry with each instrument representing its own unique color and texture.

La pierre tres-unie features Gilles performing a solo piece which fuses John Cage-inspired experimental music with the feel of a French circus troupe. And Gilles explores every nook and cranny of his electric instrument. Alain solos on terre et fer and les pays decouverts while uncovering a variety of musical themes. Noir animal alternates between the heaviness of rock music and a light lyrical mode, but again veers off in a new direction, growing darker and dissonant then returning to the light lyrical mode.

It takes a lot of brain power to compose intricate music, yet, the duo render their music seemingly with little effort. Although at first the music might sound familiar, it does take a few left turns and spins its listeners around. It is music for brainy and intuitive people alike, with plenty of Gallic charm to spare.

Compliments of Cranky Crow World Music.

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I am what I am – A Simple Man

Burning Sky - A Simple Man
Burning Sky – A Simple Man
Burning Sky

A Simple Man (Canyon Records)

A Simple Man is Burning Sky’s follow-up to their GRAMMY nominated and NAMMY-winner Spirits in the Wind. A Simple Man features the signature folk-rock guitar and haunting flute that can be heard on the duo, Aaron White and Kelvin Mockingbird’s previous Burning Sky CDs. This time around bassist/guitarist John Katz joins Navajo-Diné Kelvin (flute) and Aaron (guitar) on this serene and poetic recording.

I suppose poetic is a strange adjective to describe an instrumental recording (lyrics/vocals only appear on the titular track), yet the songs here often conjure up images of coyotes roaming through a desert at dusk. And Kelvin’s soaring flute with flutters, trills and breath glides with eagles. The music here might be called pretty by some, haunting by others and certainly it is powerful. I am reminded of R. Carlos Nakai’s traditional and Mary Youngblood’s bluesy folk recordings (two artists that also appear on this site).

Wisdom’s Keepers opens the CD with guitar-picking and serene flute. The song begins a musical dialogue with its human listeners and the natural world (the birds around my home love this music) that continues through the last track.

John Katz brings in an electric guitar on Blood and Faith while also giving the song a folk-rock appeal. The electric guitar comes in again on the guitar piece, Season’s End and Hand in Hand. The solo flute track, Twilight in Your Eyes captured my ears with its spellbinding qualities. Land of Lightening possesses a great deal of passion with the musicians letting loose and the titular track with its catchy chorus and guest vocalist, Martha Redbone certainly makes turns heads with its provocative lyrics and upbeat music.

The lyrics ask about future generations in hope that they will survive and transform the current madness that has taken over the planet. “I try to live my life as a simple man–’cause I try to live my life as a peaceful man.” And the lyrics are even more fitting as we approach the end of one year and the beginning of another. Listening to soul-centered music can certainly lead us in a healthier direction.

There are many roads that reach the same conclusion. And this includes a variety of music from Tibet, India, China, the African continent, the Americas and other parts of the world. In the end, peace comes from within, yet it doesn’t hurt to connect with musicians that exude serenity. In fact, if enough of us find each other through this music, we can calm the beast in us.

Buy A Simple Man

Compliments of Cranky Crow World Music

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The Son of Man, Mon

Mark Mohr and Christafari- Gravity
Mark Mohr and Christafari- Gravity (Lion of Zion LZD-6527, 2003)

‘Imisi- Visions of the Father (Lion
of Zion LZD-6528, 2003)

Reggae is so often affiliated with Rastafarianism that it can be a bit jarring to hear a different spiritual ideology expressed via the music’s familiar choppy rhythms. But there is a Christian reggae scene out there, and you need not be a follower of fire-and-brimstone prophecy or or fast-talking TV evangelists to enjoy it.

Contemporary Christian music does not hesitate to to embrace current trends, so it’s no surprise that Christian musicians with an ear toward Jamaica are much more likely to adopt dancehall over roots. Both of these releases have more of the latter than the former, and both will appeal to reggae listeners
regardless of religious affiliation.

Christafari has come a long way in glorifying Jesus through reggae. The name pretty much applies to front man Mark Mohr as well as the band that supports him, and Mohr’s dreadlocked appearance goes well with his evangelical fervor and knack for creating inventive reggae. On Gravity he’s a defender of the faith from varying perspectives, blasting the “Hypocritical System,” taking refuge in the Almighty as a “Hiding Place” (which, interestingly, follows a song called “Cannot Hide”) and pleading for unity as eloquently as any reggae personality on “Broken-Down Communication.” Vocally, Mohr shifts easily from straightforward singing to DJ-style chat, riding the mixture of roots, dancehall, techno, dub and hints of global-reaching fusion.

The sonically odd intros and outros that crop up between songs actually disrupt the very continuity they’re likely seeking to build, but the songs themselves are a nicely satisfying lot.

‘Imisi (“Image”) is a Christian reggae band that includes members from the Pacific island of Tonga, and their warm, breezy roots sound is reflective of both their geographical origins and firm but gentle spiritual message. There’s a guest shot by Christafari on the title track of Visions of the Father (the song also appears on Gravity, in fact) and the album was co-produced by Quino (from California reggae band Big Mountain) and Mark Mohr.

‘Imisi keep their pulsating tunes clean and uncluttered, with just a tinge of pop sensibility in the vocal harmonies and instrumental layering. Like Christafari, they don’t seem to feel the need to drench every song in overwrought tent-revival emotion, giving tracks like “Babylon System” and “Go On (the Conflict)” the power to speak for themselves and achieve sufficient impact because the subject matter isn’t shoved down anyone’s throat. Other high points include the peppy “Into Zion” and “Everything,”
which packs a jumping groove reminiscent of the Jamaican rocksteady era.

Make no mistake- these releases don’t pull any punches in pointing to Jesus Christ as the only means of salvation. But if you’re the easygoing type (as most reggae fans are), that ought not discourage you from checking these out. Good reggae is good reggae, and this stuff fits that description.

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Get With The Beat

Airto Moreira - Life After That
Airto Moreira – Life After That (Narada 70876-18077-2-1, 2003)

Babatunde Olatunji – Healing Session (70876-18132-2-7, 2003)

Airto Moreira and Babatunde Olatunji both have solidified reputations as master percussionists, trailblazers in the percussion realm and pioneers of global music. They teamed up from time to time as well, on each other’s projects and on such milestones as Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum album. Olatunji’s death earlier this year marked the passing of a true legend. I’m betting it’s more than a coincidence that his first posthumous album is emerging at the same time as a new release from Airto (on the same label, no less), but speculation on that point is far secondary to the fact that we have two stunningly good percussion-based discs here.

There’s nothing Airto Moreira can’t do with percussion. In decades of solo and group work with jazz fusionists, experimental musicians, rock and rollers, traditionalists and beyond, he’s been able to take even the most deceptively simple-seeming gadgets and make magic with them. And no wonder. He grew up in Brazil, land of imported African beats and a place where the rules of percussion have been rewritten repeatedly. Nonetheless, Life After That is a surprising stunner even for Airto. Some of his work has been more about creating moods and environments centered around percussion and vocal sounds than conventional drumming pieces, but this latest is the best of all worlds. It’s a near-perfect balance of feverish drum jams, rhythmic soundscapes, brilliant symbiosis of melody and beat and lots of just plain fun. Smack dab in the middle is ten minutes of Airto soloing on the Brazilian tambourine known as the pandeiro, and before and after that such guests as fellow percussionists Giovanni Hidalgo and Michito Sanchez, vocalist Flora Purim (Airto’s wife) and didgeridoo specialist Stephen Kent add to the festivities. A smattering of guitars, bass, piano and winds sometimes adds refinement, but this is a percussionist’s utopia through and through. Still, global music listeners across the board are likely to groove to what’s here, be it the Olatunji tribute, the sprawling “Ritmo Do Mundo” or the human beatbox-with-Jamaican-accents track “Let It Out Let It In,” which my kids have lately been singing around the house quite a bit.

Babatunde Olatunji - Healing Session
The words “healing session” could be applicable to just about everything Olatunji did in his life, given the shamanic quality of a performing, recording and teaching career that began with the unprecedented success of his Drums of Passion album more than 40 years ago. Some of his discs were pure percussion, some added other instruments for a more fusion-geared sound, and he too collaborated with many notable music makers in his day. Longtime fans may be taken aback with the relatively low-key Healing Session, especially if it’s the hard, fast, intensely polyrhythmic Olatunji they’re used to.

The intricacies of layered African percussion are present, although the slower, unfolding nature of the tracks show an intimacy and meditative aura not often associated with Olatunji’s sort of drumming. But it works, wonderfully. Steady, hypnotic beats are embellished with further rhythms that both comply and contrast, taking their time to build to blissful convergences of percussion and chants that seem to sway in and out of some misty, otherworldly place. If that description sounds like new age blather, forgive me. The track-by-track specifics in the liner notes (written by Olatunji himself) state the case much better. Suffice to say that this cd has the same sort of depth as the mystical music created by, for example, similarly inclined indigenous peoples and Gregorian monks- longing, hopeful, reassuring, ultimately striving to make this world a more beautiful place. Immerse yourself.

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Standing at the crossroads: From historical to technological

Alan Lomax - Popular Songbook
Alan Lomax – Popular Songbook
Alan Lomax – Popular Songbook (Rounder Select, 2003)

Oriental Garden (vol. 2) (Soul Star Records)
Compiled & mixed by Gulbahar Kultur

Musically speaking, the last century brought us a variety of technological advances including everything from recording devices, tape manufacturing and digital technology. The infamous and now legendary ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax who began collecting field recordings of what is now called Americana as well as, preserving several European traditions experienced these technological
advances, first hand. According to the liner notes that accompany Alan Lomax’s Popular Songbook released on Rounder Records, “Throughout his career, Alan employed the most-up-to-date technologies in the task of diversifying the cultural content of our communication network. He anticipated new developments, and, as they emerged, he had purpose for them as conduits for voices of the world’s diverse peoples–singing, dancing, talking and telling us their dreams.”

Alan’s first encounter with new technology occurred in 1933, when his father John Lomax was given a cylinder recording machine. Before that time, folk tunes were transcribed with paper and pencil, leaving out the nuances of an audio medium. As the years rolled on this technology was replaced by various tape formats and then eventually, the digital format of today.

Musical genres evolved as well. Bluegrass developed into country western, blues into jazz and rock music, but even more important, many of Alan Lomax’s field recordings of folk, blues, blue grass and other genres were crucial to the evolution of popular music. For instance, popular artists such as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, Brian Wilson, Frank Sinatra, Pat Boone, Bryan Ferry, Johnny Cash and Nat King Cole just to name a handful were inspired by or covered songs that appeared on Lomax’s field recordings. Alternative pop artist Moby infused the earthy recordings of blues singer Vera Hall’s Trouble So Hard, Willie Jones and Joe Lee Rock as well as, Bessie Jone’s Sometimes with electronically enhanced music.

The 22 tracks that appear on the Popular Songbook fall mostly into the American blues genre. However, folk singer Woody Guthrie (Do Re Mi and Going Down the Road Feeling Bad), the Spanish Alborada De Vigo, the calypso standard, Ugly Woman and Caribbean folk song, The Histe Up John B.’s Sail (Sloop John B) are also featured on this disc. The recordings although recently digitally enhanced, sound a bit scratchy with voices fading in and out at time. I see this as a symbolic reminder as we rush forward into a technological future that in my opinion lacks soul power of the historical recordings.

Alan Lomax embraced rock n’ roll in a statement from 1959, “I’m sticking up for rock and roll because even though some of it is destructive and crude, it is essentially a creative American impulse. It’s made by young people for young people. It’s a rebellion against the puritan ethic which has decreed from the beginning of our society that Americans are not allowed to have pleasure.”

However, Lomax has proven like most of us to be a complex individual. And he wasn’t too pleased when American folk singer Bob Dylan switched from acoustic to electric-driven folk rock in the early 1960’s. And even though Lomax has embraced computer technology, especially as a tool for researching and analyzing musical origins (cantometrics) and his interactive media project, The Global
Jukebox
, he didn’t care much for mechanical beats.

In his Urban Strain study with Roswell Rudd, “Alan was concerned about the potentially dangerous effect of mechanized, metronomic beat–a beat that doesn’t breathe like a human being…He felt that essentially human qualities of music were at risk.” In a conversation between Alan and Roswell, Alan remarked, “I believe the principal difference is that the music that they are
trying to imitate is genuine dance music, and in Africa that means that the orchestration is playing with dancers…it’s the dancer that supplies the extra excitement. So the dancer is really in command of the music—the music is background for the dancer. But in this disco stuff, the whole thing has been
reversed, the music is in command of the dancer
.”

This remark took place during the 1980’s and both men noted that more music was being produced with repeating loops and driven by mechanical clocks. Not much has changed over the years with the exception of a few sensitive DJs that breathe some human qualities into this mechanical setting. However, a trend has developed that has taken music once held sacred from varying traditions from
India, North Africa and other parts of the world and given those sacred songs electronic beats. And mostly to market this music to popular taste or to take the sacred and to a mundane dance club atmosphere. Perhaps this is why world electronic groove music disturbs me so much. My soul spits it out and if someone were to lock me in a room and forced me to listen to mechanical beats for 8
hours, they would have to remove me with a straitjacket. Due to the fact that I am shamanic my body circuitry is overly sensitive and the older I get the less I can tolerate synthetic beats, especially in regard to music from spiritual practices. And this does include synthesized new age music as well. Why not listen to the real thing instead?

Oriental Garden (the world of oriental grooves), a 2 CD set featuring some of the world’s hottest artists, sets off alarms in my head and heart. Granted some exquisite musicianship and vocals appear on the discs and a few tracks are undeniably gorgeous including Kostas Pavlidis’s Spread Your Wings and
Souad Massi
‘s Ghir Enta. I enjoy hearing glimpses of exotic instruments such as the sitar appear alongside other Silk Road instrumentation, but all of this is tarnished with thumping bass and mechanical beats. What I am sure was thoughtful creativity on the DJ’s part to me sounds like the type of music one would encounter in a shopping mall. It’s the kind of music that lulls listeners
into a trance so that they find themselves standing at a cash register purchasing an item against their best wishes. It’s pop wearing the guise of world music.

Now I am unsure of the origins of the tracks that appear on Oriental Garden. Many of them carry a spiritual aura, but they could have easily originated from Arabic pop or alternate folk traditions. I have searched the web and found little written about the tracks on this compilation. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if Indian ragas and music derived from the Sufi tradition appear somewhere on this collection. Without proper liner notes, I have little knowledge to make this assessment. And of course I recognize a few of the artists as coming from the world groove or dance genre including
Khaled, Natacha Atlas and hosts of DJs that appear here.

It’s not so much the musical fusion that bothers me, but the fact that in some cases, sacred music has been taken out of context and given over to a commercial mentality. Some artists recognize the sacredness of the music they perform and enhance the sacredness with electronic instruments. The Sami yoiker Wimme is a musician that comes to mind, but his music derives from his own cultural and
spiritual tradition. And I am sure there are other artists that fit this bill and who truly honor their cultural traditions. But adjectives such as sacred, shamanic and tribal have been tossed about for marketing purposes when the people using these words probably unaware of the power behind an authentic spiritual experience. At least Oriental Garden doesn’t outwardly make that claim. However, a poem by the premier Sufi mystic Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi is printed on the CD jacket and this compilation has little in common with the mystic poet, unless people connect to God by dancing to mechanical beats.

There are people who will tell me that nothing is sacred any longer, but I would disagree. Sacred music still resonates with me and I wish that others would respect the sanctity of this music. Also I wasn’t born during the digital age, but in the analog age so I realize that I must practice tolerance to those music audiences who were literally spoon fed digital music during this sped up technological era in which we find ourselves immersed. And by coming from a different mindset, perhaps younger generations encounter the sacred on the dance floor. I have no way of knowing otherwise. Perhaps this is a new way of expressing spiritual intentions, but I kind of doubt that since dance clubs also
feature the consumption of alcohol and other stimulants. Even when a shaman goes into a trance, he or she is consciously aware of both their body and soul.

However, I still believe that we must stay aware of our motives when purchasing, promoting and listening to music. Does it really feed our souls or our wallets? Are we listening to it only because the media considers it to be hip or are we really embracing the music for the sake of music? Is this music a passing trend or will it completely obliterate the music that came before?

As we stand at the crossroads of our musical past and musical future we need to open our eyes and take a hard look at where we are heading? Our souls are at stake and are easily given to the lowest bidder. And when sacred music is fused electronic heartbeats it’s like building a large structure in front of a majestic forest. There might be a party going on in the new structure, but ultimately the sacred can only be met in the original forest setting. And if we choose to decline the call of the sacred we are left with nothing but empty vessels we call bodies.

Buy Popular Songbook and
Oriental Garden, Vol. 2

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From sea to shining sea (2 divas from the Americas)

Natalie MacMaster - Live
Natalie MacMaster – Live

Natalie MacMaster – Live(Rounder Records, 2002)

Mariana Montalvo – Cantos del Alma (Putumayo, 1999)

Occasionally I dig through the shelves of world music CDs at the public library. Lately, the mail has been slow and I have found myself with too much free time on my hands so I decided to unearth two gems of women vocalists from the Americas. Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster will need little introduction since this well-known performer born of Cape Breton fiddling royalty has been recording for 20+ years while getting tired bodies out of their seats and kicking their heels to her lively jigs and reels. Chilean musician and vocalist Mariana Montalvo is a relative newcomer releasing her first album, Cantos del Alma on Putumayo in 1999. As far as I know and beyond my comprehension, Montalvo hasn’t released any recordings since that time.

So I thought I would have a little fun and I hope you will join me in first journeying to Canada’s Atlantic coast to explore Cape Breton fiddle music. Then we’ll drop down south all the way to Chile that borders on the Pacific Ocean and lies close to the South Pole (in case you have forgotten your geography lessons).

I had read about Natalie MacMaster’s recordings in the Rough Guides World Music Volume 2, but I hadn’t actually heard her music until I picked up her Live CD released on Rounder Records (2002). Ironically, MacMaster performed in Seattle a week ago and sadly I missed the concert. Judging from the concert that took place at the Living Arts Center, Mississauga, (Ontario) on July 31, 2001 and appears on this 2 CD set, I missed a spectacular event. The CD set also features a down home square dance event in which Natalie performed along with guitarist David MacIsaac and pianist Joel Chiasson at Cape Breton’s Glencoe Mills Hall. This event took place in 1997. Certainly CD 2 showcasing a romping stomping good time while offering a slice of Cape Breton life, yet CD 1 outshines the 1997 recording.

CD 1 features a lively backing band including pianist Allan Dewar, guitarist Brad Davidge, bassist John Chiasson, drummer Miche Pouliot, keyboard player Kim Dunn and percussionist Daniel diSilva who adds that Latin tinge to the performance. And in fact, the third track Torna A Surriento provides Latin groove and sweaty fiddle licks. A repeated performance occurs later in the concert on The A Medley in memory of Paddy LeBlanc, a man most likely dancing in his grave given the funk bass and Latin beats that Natalie and company blend with fiery reels.

And the fresh-face and long-legged fiddling lass kicked into high gear on the opener, The Farewell. It’s easy to wonder where she gets the energy to step dance and fiddle her way through this performance. However, she does allow some breathing space now and again, with slower tracks such as the first tunes that appear with the medley Tullochgorum, or the song, Blue Bonnets, but she only
allows for a couple deep breaths and then its off to the races once again. On the encore, she invites audience members to not be shy and to dance in the aisles. It’s surprising that they wouldn’t have already stormed the stage, but then Canadian audiences tend to be extremely courteous, at least from what I have witnessed from my limited experience.

MacMaster has joined the ranks with other international fiddling talents from Norway’s hardanger fiddler Annbjorg Lien and an array of Canadian talent. Here she offers a relentless fiddle workout that is sure to please even the most discriminate listener. This lovely disc appears on Rounder Records.

Mariana Montalvo - Cantos del Alma
Mariana Montalvo – Cantos del Alma

Chilean musician-songwriter Mariana Montalvo spent a great deal of her life exiled in France (she fled from Chile in 1974). Similar to Chilean author Isabel Allende, Mariana fled Augusto Pinochet’s regime, but kept the Chilean culture intact. You can hear Chilean and Argentinean folklore as well as, quena (pan-flutes) and charango sifting their way through Mariana’s solo debut recording, Cantos del Alma (Songs of the Soul). These South American instruments appear along side French violin, Parisian café accordion, Afro-Latin percussion then topped off by Mariana’s silky vocals. She draws comparisons with other South American vocalists such as Afro-Peruvian Susana Baca, Peruvian Tania Libertad as well as, Mercedes Sosa. Yet, she arranges her songs in a refreshing manner while performing double duty on guitar, cuatro, charango and chorus vocals.

The music is further enhanced by Mario Contreras (guitar, Puerto Rican cuatro, charango, cavaquinho and percussion), Juan Manuel Forero (percussion), Osvaldo Torres (quena), Josè Almeida (bass) French musicians Jacques Descamps (accordion), Dominique Praquin and Pierre Bluteau (violin) and Charlotte Tournel (chorus).

Overall, Cantos del Alma is a stunning recording featuring a marriage between Chilean folklore with French music. Mariana revisits Serge Gainsbourg’s classic, tu color café (your coffee color). She also adds her own unique arrangement of Calderòn de la Barca’s If I Looked at You with a whimsical result. M. Duras’ India Song backed by quena (pan flute) and guitar portrays erotic lyrics, “Perhaps I will tell you about her. About the burning fire of her skin, of your skin, of love and volcanoes of love and flames.”

Hermana (sister) a song written about Mariana’s sister who died many years ago acts as a gorgeous tribute with its sweet lyrical French violin augmenting nostalgic lyrics reflective of a joyful childhood. Cieba (silk-cotton tree) is spiced with call and response vocals, Afro-Latin rhythms and French accordion. Danza (Dance) recalls Susana Baca’s repertoire and is backed by soulful percussion. However the swirling accordion sets it apart from Baca’s work.

I have had the pleasure of listening to this CD several times over the years. Each time I wonder why more people haven’t heard of Mariana Montalvo? Cantos del Alma was released on Putumayo label (1999) and is still available on the label’s web site. If you have trouble finding it in your local record store, buy it at Cantos del Alma.

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Navajo-Dine Songs

Delphine Tsinajinnie  - Mother's Word
Delphine Tsinajinnie – Mother’s Word
Delphine Tsinajinnie

Mother’s Word (Canyon Records)

Multi-talented Delphine Tsinajinnie (pronounced sin-a-jinee) is a descendent of the traditional Blessingway and Nightway medicine men of the Nihookáá’ Dine’é. This is the name the Navajo people call themselves. While many American Indian traditions have been lost over the years due to assimilation into the mainstream culture, you will still find elders and younger tribal members keeping the songs
and traditions alive. Besides her talent as a tribal vocalist, Delphine earned a bachelor of Science degree in biology, she has performed in television and film productions, authored children’s literature in her tribal language and has taught at Arizona State University as a faculty associate. Her recording, Mother’s Word, features 18 songs associated with various facets of the
Navajo Diné culture. She includes lullabies, dance songs, work songs and even a jig and a soldier’s birthday song.

According to Delphine, “my purpose in sharing these songs with the world is implanted in my hope for global harmony via symbiotic respect of all world cultures…” The songs are mostly a cappella accompanied by drum and other percussion. Basket Dance Song features veteran American Indian performer, Ed Natay (the first artist signed to Canyon Records, 1951) and First Voice features
Delphine’s father, Leroy Adison Tsinajinnie. Each song comes with a story or description of it’s tribal use. A Soldier’s Birthday Song was written for a mother of a soldier sent away to the Gulf War and who wanted to honor her son’s birthday.

Recorded in 2000, Mother’s Word feels timeless as it preserves traditional songs and features original compositions. Delphine takes her listeners on a musical tour of tribal life that is sincere and compassionate. And because of these virtues, this recording could easily become a favorite. It’s educational, provocative and features stunning chants that would be lost if it weren’t for artists like Delphine.

Buy Mother’s Word.

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