The very names of the CDs I’m reviewing here (some, anyway) indicate that they’re looking to go to places that haven’t yet been fully explored musically. Ever-eager to hear new trails mapped out in the world of world music, I couldn’t be happier.
Tunisian Amine Mraihi is a wizard of the oud (Arabic lute). His brother Hamza has equally mastered the kanun (Arabic zither). Together they head up an impressive ensemble called The Band Beyond Borders and are looking to demonstrate as much on Fertile Paradoxes (ARC Music, 2017). You might think you have cause for concern about an opening track entitled “Spleen,” but have no fear. It’s as perfect a mood-setter as you could hope for, with Amine’s pensive riffing joined in due time by Hamza’s complimentary swirl, plus tabla, violin and classical Indian vocals. A meditative air soon jumps headlong into a stops-out jam featuring a chamber orchestra, layered percussion and solos galore, including saxophone, before settling back into the establishing calm.
The remainder of the pieces (shortest among them sporting a seven-and-a-half-minute running time) similarly blend serenity and thunder, tossing in a zesty accordion at one turn and a klezmer-like clarinet, flamenco flair or an abrupt jazz fusion passage the next. It would sound like a mess were it not for how precisely all the players are attuned to every nuanced change and how expertly they execute them. Whether it’s the evocative side or the supercharged moments that grab you most (or maybe the bridges between them), the sheer “wow” factor of this music makes it a must.
If the title doesn’t say it all, as in the case of Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues’ album Different Voices (Dawnserly Records, 2016), it might be necessary to add an explanation like “Blues Harmonica and Classical String Quartet,” which this one does on the front cover. Siegel’s blues harp is certainly the first thing heard, in the form of a mournful wail that ushers in violins, viola, cello and the saxophone of guest Ernie Watts on the cheeky drag of “Missing Persons Blues.” That one’s a head-bobber, and nothing that follows breaks the flow, be it the vocal contributions of Matthew Santos (who also does some handy beatboxing), blues vet Sam Lay or Marcy Levy (reinvigorating that old warhorse “Lay Down Sally,” which she co-wrote with Eric Clapton).
High marks also for the aching gospel tinges of Chicago folk trio Sons of the Never Wrong on “I’ll Fly Away” and subtle counterpunch of the tabla that adds a groove dimension throughout. The interwoven tones of harmonica and strings bring forward the roots of their respective traditions while keeping the blues undertow intact and allowing for experimentation such as the Central Asian-flavored “Galloping Horses,” a track which ends too soon. It all wraps up beautifully with “The Sky Will Fall,” a most heed-worthy lament; although I think music of this caliber can keep both sky and earth intact.
A different sort of blue and a different sort of harp (think stringed) lead the way on New Perspectives (independent release, 2017) by Amelia Romano. This San Franciscan gal has been playing the harp from a very young age, presently favoring the cobalt blue electric model. And yes, some of the delicately refined tones affiliated with the harp are heard on this disc. But Romano has an ear and a vision well beyond the expected (her time teaching music in a South African township is one reason for that) and she takes the harp in Latin, blues, flamenco, jazz and singer/songwriter directions without missing a pluck.
While the personal touch of the relationship tale “Smile” opens the album on an inviting note that shows Romano to be a fine singer as well, it’s her versatility on the harp that really makes the whole thing a gem. South-of-the-border familiarities abound with “Bésame Mucho” and “Joropo Ortiz” reminding us that the harp is as much a Latin folkloric instrument as anything else, and in her own compositions Romano works the harp strings like heartstrings, whether laying back for an emotionally ambient passage or skillfully jamming inventive arrangements including the title track. Joined by varying, mainly acoustic combinations of bass, percussion, curator, guitar, viola, cello and reeds, Romano never comes across indulgent or showy. Instead she wields her chosen instrument with a combination of finesse and fire that’s unbeatable.
Build Music (Luaka Bop, 2017) is the latest by Brooklyn-based Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang, and the music they’ve built is based on the ancient sound of Sierra Leone’s bubu horns, bamboo instruments used to accompany Ramadan processions. The bubu tones are recreated on keyboards and applied to modern Afropop arrangements topped with Nabay’s dryly infectious vocals. Lively, catchy and danceable though the results are, the programmed instrumentation that dominates gets a bit annoying after a while. It’s good, but it could have and should have been better. Recommended for those who prefer electronic over organic by a wide margin.
The musician’s collective it represents is appreciably larger, but on Jinja (Zambaleta, 2016), The Nile Project is comprised of 13 players and singers from seven nations (Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda) that are among those spanned by the world’s longest river. The project’s first album was a live set from their 2013 debut concert, and this, their second (named for the Ugandan city in which the collective most recently gathered), is an assemblage of recordings from both proper and impromptu studios. In the end it matters little whether the music was laid down on or off the fly, because it’s seamless and brilliant.
The basics are easily described: melodies provided by the oud, krar and adungu (Arabic, Ethiopian and Ugandan lutes respectively); ample support from bass, saxophone and qawala (Egyptian flute); vocals traded between countries and genders; galloping percussion from across the spectrum and once in a while a specific element like the ikebme (lamellaphone) arising prominently. Musically, it’s tougher to find descriptive words.
Anyone familiar with Egyptian raks sharki or the increasingly well-known strains of Ethio-jazz will find common ground goodness here, as will those who can appreciate combined Egyptian and Sudanese love song sentiments, the embellishing of an Ethiopian Christian hymn with sounds straight out of the Muslim world, multilingual singing with shared passion as an unbreakable link, the beauty of acoustic instruments bursting forth unencumbered by overproduction or the way the whole disc comes across as how you’d imagine the perfect soundtrack accompanying a visit to the Nile’s 4000-plus miles would sound. And I’m barely marring the surface in relating the many pleasures to be heard.
If combining oud and kanun (see above) with piano isn’t entirely new, it’s still not the sort of combination you hear every day. And what some might find truly radical about Andalusia of Love (Nagam Records, 2016) is the fact that Marcel Khalife, a Lebanese Christian, sets to music the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), a Palestinian who championed the cause of peace between Palestine and Israel.
The elder Khalife (on oud and vocals) is joined by his sons Rami (piano) and Bachar (percussion) and Gilbert Yammine (kanun). The foursome work together with an energy that builds and separates much like the nuances of poetry: musical passages correspond to the rising and falling of sung stanzas supported by variations in tone, feel and speed to emphasize what I can only assume are changes in mood, intent and subject matter.
One need not understand the language to appreciate the unity-espousing feel of music that ranges from traditional to experimental. The savory concluding track “Achikain,” which tapers to a trickle after a flood of inspired group dynamics, is a fitting end to a wonderfully rendered cycle of music.
headline photo: The Band Beyond Borders