Siân James is the most important folk singer in Wales. Coming from a small village in heart of Wales Siân James was brought up in a Welsh speaking family steeped in the traditions of music and poetry. She sings and accompanies herself on her harp and is passionate about the unique and gentle nature of Welsh songs. Siân feels that it is time for Welsh musicians to get the same audience and recognition as the musicians from the other Celtic nations and regions.
Siân performed and competed in eisteddfodau from the age of three started to play the piano at six and the harp at eleven. She gave solo concerts starting at age eighteen and during her university years performed with a folk rock band Bwchadanas which continued to be popular in Wales for over ten years.
The first of Siân’s albums Cysgodion Karma (1990) is a mixture of traditional and original songs. It was followed by Distaw in 1993 showcasing more of her songwriting ability. Gweini Tymorwas released in 1996 and the culmination of twenty years of Siân’s interest in traditional music. The fourth CD Di-gwsg is made up of original music in Celtic style with a slightly more contemporary sound. Birdman her fifth album was commissioned as a soundtrack for a BBC miniseries of the same name. Album number six was released in 2000.
Siân has toured in other Celtic countries playing festivals in Brittany Ireland and Scotland and further afield for festivals and concerts in Spain, Italy, Japan and the United States. When Wales opened their new National Assembly, Siân was one of the musicians invited to celebrate the occasion at Voices of a Nation concert.
In 1996 she sang on the film score for The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain and the CD of the soundtrack was released by Miramax. Siân has considerable experience as an actress on Welsh language television and in 1998 she was given a six part series where she performed with her own band and presented guests such as Capercaille, The Saw Doctors, Frances Black and Alan Stivell.
Cysgodion Karma [Karma Shadows] (Sain, 1990)
Distaw [Silent] (Sain, 1993) Gweini Tymor [Serving a Term] (Sain, 1996)
Di-Gwsg [Sleepless] (Sain, 2153)
Birdman (BBC Records, 2000) Pur [Pure] (Bos Records, 2000)
Y Ferch o Bedlam [The Girl from Bedlam] (Bos, 2005) Cymun [Communion] (Recordiau Bos, 2012)
Savourna Stevenson has been a leading figure in the renaissance of the Celtic harp in Scotland. An outstanding virtuoso and inspiring performer, she has pushed the boundaries of the harp. In her music she identifies strongly with her Scottish roots while breaking through stylistic barriers between world music, traditional, jazz and classical. Her prolific output shows versatility writing for theatre (Royal Lyceum Edinburgh Dundee Repertory Manchester Library Theatre) for film TV and dance.
Savourna has several CDs.Touch Me Like the Sun includes her acclaimed harp quintet (premiered at Celtic Connections Millenium Festival) and licensed for use in the popular American TV series Sex and the City. As a songwriter, she has collaborated with lyric writers including Liz Lochhead and Michael Marra writing songs for artists including Eddi Reader and June Tabor.
Stevenson is also becoming a rising star in the Scottish contemporary classical music world since the resounding success of her symphonic premiere Misterstourworm & The Kelpie’s Gift for Children’s Classic Concerts in 2003. This exciting orchestral tale for children based on Scottish myth and legend was the result of a Scottish Arts Council Creative Scotland Award in 2001 which not only honored her inspired project but acknowledged her already outstanding contribution to Scottish music.
Her CD Persian Knight Celtic Dawn unites many facets of Savourna’s remarkable career in collaboration with Iranian percussion ensemble The Chemiranis. It features her striking new settings of texts by the Lebanese-born poet and artist Kahil Gibran author of The Prophet and a leading figure in New York’s 1920s avant-garde.
Robin Huw Bowen was born in a Welsh family settled in Liverpool, England. He is passionate about the Welsh triple harp and its music. Of the few harpists worldwide who can play the triple harp, he is the only professional now specializing solely in this particular field. He is recognized internationally as the leading exponent of the Welsh national instrument.
As a teenager, Robin was fascinated by the music of the renowned Celtic harpist Alan Stivell. In 1979 he received a degree in Welsh Language and Literature from the University College of Aberystwyth Mid-Wales.
He began his pursuit of the Welsh triple harp in 1980 while employed at the National Library of Wales Aberystwyth. He seized every opportunity to research into the music and techniques of the old Welsh harpers by studying many of their old manuscripts and publications. He was also able to extend his research beyond dusty archives gleaning tunes and techniques from several elderly harpists. By 1986 he had mastered the instrument well enough to pursue his musical career full-time.
He has performed extensively around the globe as a member of the Welsh folk group Mabsant and since 1989 as a solo performer. Between 199 and 1996 he also performed and recorded with Cusan Tan.
While not touring Robin is able to continue his research into the Welsh harp tradition. In 199 he set up his own press Gwasg Teires to typeset and publish books of traditional Welsh music. His publications include collections of Welsh dance tunes and harp music.
His first solo album was Cyfarch YDefyn (Honor the Harp) released on Sain Records. In 1991 he released on his own label Teires his highly acclaimed second solo album Telyn BerseinioIfyNgwIdd (The Sweet Harp of My Land). This album was released in the United States on Flying Fish Records and is the first recording from Wales that was readily available to Americans. His album Hunting the Hedgehog features music of the Welsh gypsies and Harp Music of Wales his third solo CD was released on Saydisc in 1995.
Although Robin’s repertoire closely reflects that of the Welsh harp in its heyday (mid-17th to the end of the 19th Century) his playing and interpretation of the music emphasize his awareness that he belongs to an unbroken tradition. His music is far from being a mere museum relic from a past culture. His pioneering research and passionate promotion of his country’s national instrument have earned him great respect and generated a renewed interest in both the Welsh triple harp and its music wherever he performs.
Trwy’r Weiar – Through the Wire, with Mabsant (1987) Telyn Berseiniol Fy Ngwlad – Sweet Harp of My Land (1991)
Cusan Tân – Kiss of Fire, with Cusan Tân (1992)
Hela’r Draenog – Hunting the Hedgehog (1994)
Cerddoriaeth Telyn Cymru – Harp Music Of Wales (1995)
Esgair – The Ridge, with Cusan Tân (1996) Hen Aelwyd – Old Hearth (1999)
Crasdant, with Crasdant (1999)
Nos Sadwrn Bach – Not Yet Saturday, with Crasdant (2001)
Yn y Gwaed – In the Blood, with Rhes Ganol (2004)
Dwndwr – The Great Noise, with Crasdant (2005)
Y Ffordd i Aberystwyth – The Road to Aberystwyth (2007)
Harp Music of Wales – Cerddoriaeth Telyn Cymru (2011) Iaith Enaid (2015)
Roberto Perera was born in 1952 in Montevideo, Uruguay. His romance with the Paraguayan harp can be traced all the way back to 1964 when the 12-year-old aspiring musician enrolled at the Conservatory of Modern Music in his hometown of Montevideo the capital city of Uruguay.
His multicultural beginnings not doubt played a part in his decision to embrace the 36-string Paraguayan harp and transform the native Indoamerican instrument to incorporate the influences of Latin, pop, jazz, Brazilian and Afro-Cuban music styles. “The Paraguayan harp was considered an instrument merely to play folk music,” says Perera.
His complex technique includes precisely bending the strings to create sharps and flats, while gliding across the harp in a seemingly effortless fashion, giving little indication of the tremendous skill and discipline that’s required.
Roberto Perera’s professional career did not begin until 1973. After completing his course of musical studies, Perera moved to the United States in search of wider musical opportunities.
Perera’s point of entry was New York City, where he worked before moving south to Florida. Miami had a burgeoning Latin music scene at the time and Roberto quickly gained status as one of the hot musicians around town.
By the time his self-produced debut Erotica was released by Epic Records in 1990 (re-released by Heads Up in 1997) Perera had already earned a reputation as a pioneer of the electro-acoustic harp.
Perera began his association with Heads Up International in 1991 with the release of Passion, Illusions & Fantasies an album which received overwhelming critical acclaim throughout the Americas and Europe.
The following year Perera released Christmas Fantasies. On his three subsequent releases for Heads Up: Seduction (1994) Harp & Soul (1996) and In the Mood (2000) Perera continued to explore the lush musical landscapes.
“My goal has always been to approach the harp in an unorthodox manner – to stylistically play ideas not normally associated with the instrument,” Perera says. “About the time I started playing harp the Beatles were very popular. I listened to a lot of Brazilian music pop from the U.S. tango and folk music. What I really liked was the folk music from Paraguay and soon started mixing using the techniques of folk music to play Beatles tunes.”
Erotica (Epic Records 1990/re-released by Heads Up International in 1997)
Passion, Illusions & Fantasies (OXCD 313 1991)
Dreams and Desires (OXCD 318 1992) Seduction (Heads Up International, 1994)
Christmas Fantasies (Heads Up International, 1993)
Harp & Soul (Heads Up International, 1996)
In the Mood (Heads Up International, 2000) Sensual (Heads Up International, 2002) Magical (Heads Up International, 2010)
Rachel Hair is one of one of Scotland’s finest players of the clarsach, the Scottish harp. Originally from the Highland village of Ullapool, Rachel was introduced to the clarsach through the work of the Feis movement. She has since graduated with a first class honors degree in Music from the University of Strathclyde where she was also awarded the Alexander Stone Prize for Outstanding Performance in her solo clarsach recital.
Rachel has been going from strength to strength as a professional musician and has steadily begun to gain recognition as a performer and a composer. Over the past year she has played several times throughout Europe India toured twice throughout the USA as well as playing regularly throughout Scotland and the UK. She has also performed on the infamous BBC Hogmanay Live show with top musicians Eddi Reader, Phil Cunningham, Karen Matheson, Michael McGoldrick, John McCusker and Aly Bain as a soloist at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the much coveted Edinburgh International Harp Festival.
Rachel is a member of the harp trio Starlit 3 (Rachel Hair, Jennifer Port and Rachel Newton) whose exciting new approach to traditional music on the Scottish harp has gained critical recognition. Their debut album came out in early 2006.
Her debut solo album, Hubcaps and Potholes, was released in 2006. In 2009, Rachel released her second album, The Lucky Smile, with a trio format, featuring jazz musicians Paul Tracey on guitar and Andy Sharkey on bass.
No More Wings, released in 2012 include original compositions together with traditional and contemporary pieces from Scotland, Ireland, Brittany (France), Asturias (Spain) and Sweden.
Maggie MacInnes sings and plays the clarsach. She was born in Glasgow and now lives in Ayrshire. She comes from a long line of Gaelic singers from the small island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland and learns most of her songs from her mother the highly acclaimed traditional singer Flora MacNeil, M.B.E.
Maggie has been involved in various groups over the years such as Ossian Fuaim and Eclipse First and has traveled widely with her music touring in many parts of Europe U.S.A. and Canada. She also appears frequently on Radio and Television and has made various recordings over the years.
Autumn 1998 saw the release of Maggie’s first solo CD Eilean Mara on Dunkeld Records which was co-produced by Dougie MacLean and received great critical acclaim. In 2001 Maggie released her second solo CD which is called Spiorad Beatha – The Spirit of Life and features some of Scotland’s finest musicians such as Charlie McKerron (of Capercaillie) Brian McAlpine (formerly of Iron Horse) Sean O’Rourke (formerly of JSD Band) Marie Fielding Paul Jennings and Keith Easdale along with her mother Flora on backing vocals.
Maggie followed up the release of the record by performing at various festivals at home in Ireland and in Italy as well as being invited to Russia for the 1st International Festival of Celtic Music and Dance of Moscow where she was accompanied by the flute and saxophone player Sean O’Rourke and the percussion player Frank MacGuire.
In 2002 Maggie performed at the Celtic Connections Festival and The Edinburgh International Harp Festival and she was one of those chosen to take part in a two week tour of Scotland with Scottish Women which involved Scots and Gaelic singers coming together to showcase some of the finest songs from the two traditions with a backing band of some of the finest Scottish musicians under the musical direction of Brian McNeill Head of Scottish Music in the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
Maggie also produced and directed a new show/concert called Burns and the Gaels which looked at the links between the works of Robert Burns and Gaelic music and poetry. This event combined music poetry and song and featured Maggie along with Sheena Wellington Rod Paterson Ishbel MacAskill and Finlay MacDonald amongst others. Burns and the Gaels and Scottish Women were both performed at Celtic Connections Festival in January 2003.
Maggie was chosen by the voting public as Best Gaelic Singer of the Year at the 2004 Scots Trad Music Awards.
Singer and harp player Gwenan Gibbard is a talent musician, part of the Welsh folk scene. Her debut album Y Gwenith Gwynnaf features freshly-wrought arrangements of traditional dance-tunes, airs, ballads and poetry.
Singer, harp player, composer and arranger Corrina Hewat was born in Edinburgh on December 21st, 1970. Over the past years Corrina has attracted attention with her original mix of traditional jazz, folk and classical music in formats ranging from solo to a 31-piece “folk orchestra.”
Corrina grew up in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands where her parents were both folk music fans and amateur performers themselves . After a few years learning fiddle and piano Corrina started playing the Scottish harp (clarsach) at 12, and was soon performing at local festivals and ceilidhs.
After a year studying classical harp with the late Sanchia Pielou at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Corrina switched to a BA degree in Jazz Popular and Contemporary Music at the Leeds College of Music, becoming the first ever harp player to take the course and graduating with honors in 1993. It was during this time that she met her musical partner and now husband pianist David Milligan with whom she played in an extra-curricular jazz-funk band.
Corrina turned professional early in 1994 launching her new duo with David Bachue (then Bachue Cafe) at the inaugural Celtic Connections festival. Ever since then Corrina has found herself in increasing demand as a skilled harp player, vocalist and prestigious composer.
In 1998 she formed the band Shine that features Corrina on electroharp and vocals; Mary MacMaster on electroharp and vocals; and Alyth McCormack on vocals.
Corrina published a music book with accompanying CD titled Scottish Harp that received critical acclaim from teachers and pupils alike. It comprises of traditional-style pieces and compositions for solo harp.
Her projects include a duo with Kathryn Tickell exploring the Scottish and Northumbrian Borders traditions and vocal trio Grace, Hewat, Polwart with Karine Polwart & Annie Grace.
A Certain Smile with Bachue (Culburnie Records CUL114D, 1999) Bachue Caffe, with Bachue (Highlander Music HRMCD1)
Primary Colours, with Chantan (Culburnie Records CUL18D)
The Dunedin Consort – Silhouette by Corrina Hewat (Tob Records TRCD15)
Photons In Vapour (Tob Records TRCD7)
The Sea King’s Daughter (Saltire Society SSACCD1) My Favourite Place (Footstompin’ Records FSRCD1719, 2004) The Sky Didn’t Fall, with Kathryn Tickell (Park Records PRKCD88, 2006)
The Butterfly with Bachue (Big Bash Records BBRCD15, 2006) Harp I Do (2008) Live in Scotland, with The Unusual Suspects (Foot Stompin Records CDFSR1727 2011) Big Like This, with The Unusual Suspects (2014) Sugarcane, with Shine (2014)
Fire and Frost, with Shine (2015)
Award-winning Norwegian artist Tone Hulbækmo was born in 1957 in Tolga in Østerdalen. She’s a vocalist with broad repertoire, ranging European medieval and renaissance music to Norwegian folk modern songs. Hulbækmo bases her vocal style on old traditions Østerdalen that she has modernized given personal twist.
She’s also active as an instrumentalist, composer and arranger. Tone Hulbækmo has given new life into the Norwegian harp tradition, and developed her own style. In the group Kalenda Maya she plays medieval renaissance music from Spain, Italy, France, Germany and Norway.
Tone Hulbækmo has collaborated with folk musicians all corners of globe, leading to exciting musical combinations and tours throughout world. Hulbækmo introduces Østerdalen electronic loops as well as fiery dance rhythms.
* Kåmmå No (1983, reissued in 1999 by Grappa Musikkforlag HCD 7024)
* Medieval and Renaissance Music, with Kalenda Maya (Grappa Musikkforlag PSC 1017, 1985)
* Svevende Jord (Grappa Musikkforlag HCD 7040, 1986)
* Langt Nord i Skogen (Kirkelig Kulturverksted FXCD 78, 1989)
* Norske Middelalderballader (Kirkelig Kulturverksted FXCD 82, 1989)
* Folk Music from Norway (Grappa Musikkforlag HCD 7078, 1993)
* Norsk Folkemusikk 3 (Hedmark) (Grappa Musikkforlag GRCD 4063, 1995)
* Konkylie (Grappa Musikkforlag GRCD 4095, 1995)
* Pilegrimsreiser, with Kalenda Maya (Kirkelig Kulturverksted FXCD 184, 1997)
* Jol, with Hans Fredrik Jacobsen (Via Music VCD 375, 1998)
* Wizard Women of the North, with various artists (Grappa Musikkforlag HCD 7138, 1998)
* Kyrja (Grappa Musikkforlag HCD 7147, 1999)
* Nordic Woman (Grappa Music, 2012)
* Stifinner (Heilo Records, 2016)
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
Your Connection to traditional and contemporary World Music including folk, roots and various types of global fusion