Tag Archives: Nexus

Tradition and Getting Around it

Being a self-styled traditionalist doesn’t mean my musical tastes are so staunch that I shun any sonic adventurousness that steps over traditional boundaries. Cross the line into an over-reliance on gimmickry (which can take the form of too much technology or pop pandering for commercial purposes), and you’ve lost me. Taking chances by mixing traditions or styles in ways that leave musical integrity unscathed? You’ve got my attention.

 

Aziza Brahim - Abbar el Hamada
Aziza Brahim – Abbar el Hamada

 

Aziza Brahim, a Sahrawi woman who was born in an Algerian refugee camp as the war over the Western Sahara region was raging, doesn’t exactly go in for traditional Sahrawi music on Abbar el Hamada (Glitter Beat, 2016). Having lived and studied in Cuba and currently a citizen of Spain, some of her songs have an expected, and very welcome, Iberian and Latin edge. She even sings in Spanish for much of the album, the title of which refers to rocky desert landscapes and subject-wise deals with activist concerns like the ongoing plight of the Sahrawi.

The disc also digs into a measure of the “desert blues” sound that many Saharan musicians have become known for, as well as a few galloping rhythms that suggest a more laid back version of Senegalese m’balax (which has always had its own Latin flavors).

 

 

Brahim isn’t as frequent in her use of wailing, undulating tones as a lot singers with Arabic roots tend to be. Her approach is more pensive, but she sharpens her tone when needed, and partly because she also plays the bowl-shaped tbal drum while she sings, her voice fits the grooves as naturally as the grooves themselves, be they acoustic or electric. A stunning release all around.

 

Ana Alcaide - Leyenda
Ana Alcaide – Leyenda

 

She’s already a groundbreaker for use of the Swedish nyckelharpa (keyed viola) in the music of her native Spain, and now Ana Alcaide takes things a few steps further with Leyenda- World Music Inspired by Feminine Legends (ARC Music, 2016). Female folkloric characters from various cultures (including Spain, Mexico, China, Scotland and Alcaide’s own imagination) are celebrated in songs that range from lullaby-like softness to ritualistic and pulsating.

Nyckelharpa, baroque guitars and bouzouki are sweetened with other strings, reeds, percussion and celestial production values that surround Alcaide’s gracefully penetrating vocals and construct a pair of instrumentals that seem to tell otherworldly tales without any words at all. This is music that could serve as a soundtrack for any ancient or modern fantasy worth conjuring, or bring about just enough of a dream state to take you blissfully away from reality for a while. Either way, it’s stunning.

 

Money Chicha - Echo En Mexico
Money Chicha – Echo En Mexico

 

Chicha, the Peruvian-originated, organ-tweaked, fuzz guitar-laden psychedelic style of music with similarities to Colombian cumbia and Jamaican dub, continues on its revival path courtesy of Austin-based band Money Chicha. Their debut album Echo En Mexico (Vampisoul, 2016) is an irresistibly throbbing beat fest where unyielding layers of Latin percussion support keyboards, guitars and bass that are as trippy in their wall of sound as they are intertwined in their tightness. And tightness is indeed the key.

The chicha sound is one that must not lag in its skipping rhythms or spot-on melodic mesh that weighs in somewhere between surf rock, alternative Latin, Andean tradition, the ghost of Arsenio Rodriguez and music that simply wouldn’t appeal to polite society in Lima, Bogota or, well, Austin. Money Chicha go their own way by eliminating vocals entirely and giving the tracks a subtle funk push with a little extra breathing room among the instruments, resulting in a disc that satisfies to the frenzied max.

 

Nii Okai Tagoe - West to West
Nii Okai Tagoe – West to West

 

Lovers of African drumming and African music in general will happily tune in to West to West (ARC Music, 2016) by Nii Okai Tagoe. He’s a master of many a drum and percussion instrument affiliated with the Motherland and treads a beaten (beating?) path away from tradition by lacing his danceable pieces with horns, keyboards, violin, harp, bass and guitar.

Some unexpected turns are taken with arrangements as well, such as the blues sway of “3 Monkeys.” Not surprising for a gent who’s played with outfits as diverse as Baka Beyond and African Head Charge. This sort of thing has been done before, but Tagoe certainly does it spot-on.

 

Baird Hersey & Prana with Nexus - Chiaroscuro
Baird Hersey & Prana with Nexus – Chiaroscuro

 

A very different take on percussion and its relationship to the human voice can be heard on Chiaroscuro (Bent Records, 2016) a collaboration involving Baird Hersey & Prana with Nexus. Nexus is a virtuosic percussion ensemble; Prana is a group of singers who all specialize in singing two pitches simultaneously. That dual pitch knack helped inspire Garry Kvistad of Nexus to invent the vistaphone, four octaves worth of chimes gathered into one instrument and the perfect companion to the harmonic series scale of notes that the singers use to achieve their second level of vocal prowess.

The grandiosely-titled tracks on the album (“The Rituals of Dusk,” A Crown of Radiant Fire,” etc.) combine orchestral drums, gongs, glockenspiel, marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, voices and the debuting vistaphone to create music that I can only describe as equal parts refined and primal, rhythmic and atmospheric, structured and seemingly spontaneous, eerie and comforting, earthy and not of this earth. Repeating patterns of percussion and wordless voices ascend to mesmerizing heights and hover there, exploring in sonic terms the disc’s titular concept of light and dark contrasting yet harmonizing.

The three concluding compositions (including a mind-and-ear-altering Balinese monkey chant) are voices unaccompanied and lose nothing in the absence of their percussive counterparts. So is this disc the pinnacle of traditional music, the complete lack of it or something else altogether? Get it and decide for yourself. And prepare to be spellbound.

 

9Bach Anian
9Bach – Anian

 

I don’t know a great deal about traditional Welsh music and thus can’t say how closely 9Bach adheres to it with their latest release, Anian (Real World, 2016). But I am quite taken with the shimmery emotiveness of singer/pianist/composer/lyricist Lisa Jen’s lead vocals, as well as the sparse yet very sturdy support her bandmates offer on guitar, bass, percussion, harp, hammer dulcimer and harmonies.

 

 

While some of the instruments used reportedly stray from tradition, the end result is a perfect fit, with modern production adding a kind of cool mist to softly enveloping music that often has a melancholy, longing feel offset by pure beauty. Anian is one to savor repeatedly.

There’s also a bonus disc, Yn Dy Lais (In Your Voice), that features Welsh-influenced poetry and storytelling rendered in English by the likes of Peter Gabriel and Rhys Ifans. It’s meant to make the nuances of the Welsh language more accessibly artsy and is worth a listen, but the lovely sounds on the first disc are the true reason to get this album.

 

Roddie Romero and the Hub City All-Stars - Gulfstream
Roddie Romero and the Hub City All-Stars – Gulfstream

 

A world away but still bringing tradition to a different level, Roddie Romero and the Hub City All-Stars take music with roots as old as the Louisiana bayou itself and jolt it full of rock, soul, blues, zydeco and funk energy. Gulfstream (Octavia Records, 2016) is a swampy, sultry, swaggering, sizzling slab of deep-south musical gumbo that will delight anyone who loves the celebratory sounds of New Orleans and Lafayette and appreciates the need to cool down for a ballad like the Aaron Neville-ish title track. It’s a party, albeit from the heart.

 

Richard Bona - Heritage
Richard Bona – Heritage

 

Richard Bona, the “African Sting,” melds his smooth Cameroonian roots music with the sounds of Afro-Cuban band Mandekan Cubano on Heritage (Qwest Records, 2016). African and Latin musical traditions have been best friends for a long, long time thanks to their shared origins, and Mandekan Cubano’s piano, dual percussion, trumpet and trombone lineup expertly underpins Bona’s joyous salsa-infused numbers and his softer side. Primarily a bassist but adept on numerous instruments, Bona adds unexpected touches like electric sitar to the range of Afro-Latin delights that comprise a very fine release.

 

Luisa Maita - Fio da Memoria
Luisa Maita – Fio da Memoria

 

Brazilian music, a familiar world staple for decades, has more recently been fused with electronica to degrees that some traditionalists have accepted and others rejected. Put me in the former category. It’s telling that Luisa Maita waited six years since her first album to put out a followup; perhaps she wanted to see how the Brazilian/electronica scene would play out in the interim. Her sophomore release Fio da Memoria (Cumbancha, 2016) has the breathy, sensual feel that’s nearly a given when it comes to female Brazilian singers, and the tunes roll out on a foundation of grooves rooted in samba, even if they’re not always rendered on organic instruments.

Maita’s steamy sentiments translate well, as the sung-in-English “Around You” demonstrates, and she’s got some stories of substance to tell, like “Na Asa,” a musical tale of dreams realized. Fio da Memoria is a keeper for sure, but Maita’s vocal mix of subtle and searing would benefit even more from backing that likewise balances real and electronic sounds equally.

 

Various Artists - The Rough Guide to Ethiopian Jazz
Various Artists – The Rough Guide to Ethiopian Jazz

 

If you need a reminder of how well traditional Ethiopian music meshes with jazz, The Rough Guide to Ethiopian Jazz (World Music Network, 2016) will handily serve. Trailblazer Mulatu Astatke kicks off with the horn-heavy proclaiming of “Gamo” and things jump ever further back into the Swinging Addis feel of the 60s and 70s from there.

While at only 9 tracks the collection can’t cover the whole spectrum, what you get is choice. Serpentine instrumentals are the bulk of it, including NYC’s Budos Band providing impressive overseas translation of the sound, but the soulful vocal thrills of Tlahoun Gessesse and Gabriella Ghermandi show just how large a role male and female voices also played (and play) on the scene. A superb sampler.

headline photo: Richard Bona

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Chiaroscuro

Baird Hersey & Prana with Nexus - Chiaroscuro
Baird Hersey & Prana with Nexus – Chiaroscuro

Baird Hersey & Prana with Nexus – Chiaroscuro (Bent Records, 2016)

For music junkies looking for something off the beaten path, you might want to check out Chiaroscuro, a recording out now on the Bent Records label. It’s a collaboration between harmonic singing group Baird Hersey & Prana and the Toronto-based percussion group Nexus led by Garry Kvistad.

Mr. Baird is behind such recordings as Waking the Cobra, Vocal Meditation on the Chakras and Gathering the Light with Krishna Das.

Mr. Kvistad and Nexus have an extensive performing, touring and recording history that includes such recordings as Paul Horn and Nexus, Changes, Origins, Toccata, Lullaby, DrumTalker, Rituals and Out of the Blue.

As luck would have it that this collaboration came out of a new instrument built by Mr. Kvistad– the vistaphone. The vistaphone is a set of chimes that are tuned to the same harmonics and scale to the second higher pitch used by harmonic singers. Add in the vibraphones, xylophones, orchestral drums, glockenspiel, Chinese gongs, Balinese gongs, marimba and the Balinese instrument the gender used in gamelan music and immerse the lot into the singers and harmonic singers of Prana and you turn out Chiaroscuro.

Borrowed from an art term and defined as the effect created out of intense contrast of light and dark, Chiaroscuro delves deep into contrasts of light and dark, the ancient and the contemporary and East and West.

From the very opening of “A Splinter of Dawn” through tracks like “The Rituals of Dusk” and “A Vast Expanse of Sky,” the listener is lulled by a charm of ethereal vocals, the tang of bells and gongs and the reedy turns of harmonic singing.

While this recording might not be to everyone’s taste, this combination explores the music wholly through percussion and the human voice. Tracks like “A Crown of Radiant Fire” and “Luminous Ocean, Rising Waves” build on that contrast between light and dark even by way of track sequencing.

Falling further down the rabbit’s hole, listeners get the full force of Prana’s singers by way of tracks like “We Are All in the Garden,” “The Wheel of Impermanence” and “The Lord of the Monkeys” in the Vox Pulsaitio section without percussion on the recording.

While some might pass off Chiaroscuro as a little too avant garde for easy listening, it’s always good to step out of one’s comfort zone. The performances on Chiaroscuro are as impeccable as they are impressive. Those into meditation are sure to enjoy the contrasts of the first seven tracks with their ethereal light, harmonic singing and gamelan influences and those listening for vibrancy the bare bones interworking of vocals are truly stunning.

Buy the digital version of Chiaroscuro

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