Bale Seni Megasari
Java: Kecapi Suling
A kecapi is a Javanese plucked zither of which there are several types, and a suling is a bamboo flute. Aside from the main use of kecapi instead of a gamelan, the pieces on this album follow the soothing, meadering outlines of degung music. The overall timbre of the string accompaniment is mellower than for an all-gong orchestra, and the "out of tune" octaves in the bass zither generate an intriguing beating effect. Unfortunately, the recording has both tape hiss and poor high-frequency response that muffle the sound. At times the rhythmic impetus of the ensemble stumbles, as if lethargy had momentarily crept in. The scant liner notes are also a minus.
World Music Network
It's been a good season for African musicians making their comeback after years of absence from touring and recording. First it was Samba Mapangala coming alive with the celebratory Ujumbe; now Eyuphuro has returned with the kaleidoscopic Yellela. Despite its folk origins, the music assembled here is varied and, in parts, quite sophisticated. Underpinning it all is the plaintive contralto of Zena Bacar, with her trademark catch-in-the-throat inflections, which is showcased in the yearning cut "Othiawene" ("My Faraway Love"). There are echoes of the Caribbean in the Cuban swing of the aforementioned song as well as in the calypsonian vocal lilt of "Ayaka" ("My Husband"), while Mahamudo Selimane's multitracked minor-key electric guitar lines invoke a melancholy Iberian sensibility. A rolling 6/8 beat is used on some cuts, which, together with the close third harmonies provided by Issufo Manuel (who composed half the songs), calls to mind Malagasy music. The lyrics of Manuel lament the problems afflicting much of Africa, while Bacar delivers stinging feminist messages in hers. The only glitch here is the severe intonation problem of the sax solo on "Ethuila Exeni"--the producer should have caught that one. Otherwise, this is a very fine and thoughtful album.
The Rough Guide to Franco
World Music Network
The ever-expanding anthology series by the Rough Guide kicks off its single-artist category with the undisputed giant of African pop, Franco. Fortunately, they commissioned Graeme Ewens, biographer of Franco, to put it together, and we are treated to a well-considered collection of Francophilia. The cuts are chosen for their historical context (as well as their popularity), with succinct liner notes to help us connect the dots. The first cut from 1956 shows off Franco's already solid guitar work at age 17, then we are taken past such landmarks as "Infidelite Mado" and "Mario," only to arrive at the cautionary 1987 AIDS song "Attention na SIDA," a consciousness that, alas, came too late for Franco himself, who died in 1989. This album is an excellent starting point for anyone wishing to discover the musical legacy that Franco left for the world.
A very "conscious" band with a theme of environmentalism and historical preservation. Perhaps it's partly the studio recording, but there seems to be a certain distance between the musicians and the music, what one might call the folklorist's approach to song writing and playing. The sound is also dominated by the guitar of the leader, Rola. Some of the expansive acoustic guitar solos reminded me of Egberto Gismonti. If you are hoping for something with one of those infectious Malagasy rhythms that would get you up on your feet and dancing, this is not the album.
Moon Rise Over the Silk Road
Ghazal is an ongoing collaboration between Kayhan Kalhor, an Iranian kamancheh (a vertical, four-string fiddle) virtuoso, and Shujaat Husain Khan, a sitar master. This is Ghazal's third album in what has turned out to be an entirely successful fusion of two ancient classical musics: Persian and Hindustani (north Indian). By successful I mean that the casual listener not necessarily well-versed in the subtleties of either tradition can appreciate and enjoy the results. On one hand, the two streams, although developed separately in parallel, have a great common basis in the primacy of improvisation, leading to a very natural collaborative framework. On the other hand, the distinct differences in the built-up repertoire of raga and other prescribed patterns call for a common denominator, which, perhaps, lead to a performance that is more accessible to the ears from other traditions. No doubt, though, it is the particular skills of these two great players (accompanied by Swapan Chaudhuri, a tabla expert) and their growing familiarity with each other that has produced such satisfying results. Track 1, "Fire in my Heart," is especially evocative of the Silk Road of the CD title, with a loping rhythm suggestive of a moving caravan, the intensity slowly increasing around a simple melodic motif, building up to a climax driven by some passion that is driving one from point A to B in the geography of desire.
Where Young Grass Grows
Huun-Huur-Tu is making the inevitable move toward globalization that comes with worldwide touring and collaboration with foreign musicians, but so far they have managed to retain their own unique identity and remain firmly rooted in Tuvan traditional sounds. By now the novel aspects of multitonal throat singing do not need to be featured to help sell their work. Compared to their previous albums there is a richer harmonic (in the traditional Western sense) texture, and such Tuvan anomalies as the harp, Scottish pipes, and synthesizer make their appearance. However, they remain unobtrusively in the background (the synthesizer is used to generate a virtual wind storm), and one gets the sense that the quartet has a mature, rooted sense of where they want to go with their music. The highlight for me, though, are the excerpts of field recordings made by ethnomusicologist Ted Levin (Smithsonian Folkways's Tuva, Among The Spirits, reviewed below) of throat-singing while on horseback. The music, restored to its physical context, suddenly makes so much more sense.
A group leader since forming Katoure in 1987, Marie-Line Dahomay, a vital voice from Guadeloupe, brings us back-to-roots gwo ka with her new outfit, Kalindi-Ka. Gwo ka, along with the Martinican chouval bwa, is the musical basis on which the globally popular zouk developed. Traditionally led by male singers, Dahomay has claimed gwo ka as her own; she and her call-and-response female chorus bring to us the joys and sorrows of being a woman in the Antilles. A festival music from the hills of Guadeloupe, gwo ka is a participatory voice-and-drum music with rich, layered harmonies reminiscent of South African iscathamiya combined with West African style polyrhythmic drumming. Dahomay (the name itself evocative of Mother Africa) has a mature, commanding voice with a tempering vibrato that effectively leads and anchors the group's sound. There is more than gwo ka here, as the album contains cuts ranging from Dahomay plaintively singing solo (accompanying herself on the ektara, an Indian one-stringed instrument) to a piece that incorporates a jazzy muted trumpet. The traditional ka drum is joined on some numbers by djembe, conga, and bata for a more pan-Afro-diaspora feel. The studio reverb distances the CD from the context of festival, and at 43 minutes it is on the short side, but overall it is one that I can recommend highly, especially to those who want to explore the roots of zouk.
I was pleasantly surprised by this CD. Judging from the cover art, which is an obvious echo of Etoile de Dakar's Thiopathioly's wooden-skiff-on-beach scene, one might have expected a Youssou N'Dour copycat attempt. True, Kassé's voice is a dead ringer for N'Dour's in the upper registers, and the synth-padded mbalax numbers are reminiscent of Super Etoile de Dakar after Set. However, there are other influences discernible in the sound such as the melodicity of Xalam and the scurrying horn breaks of early Dande Lenol. There's just enough originality to make Kassé sound not quite like anyone else, and the album is quite enjoyable, but he has yet to achieve a truly distinctive sound to call his own. Actually the CD is a bit too polished--I'd like to see him in concert to see if he stretches out more with his crackling percussion players in front of an audience.
The first solo outing by Hedningarna's Finnish female singer and kantele player. Those familiar with Hedningarna will recognize her laser-steady, vibratoless voice, and the preoccupation with heathen, animistic images in the lyrics. Although none of the other members of the group were apparently involved in this project, there is still a great deal in common with Hedningarna's mixture of medieval modes and modern rock sensibility. Kurki-Suonio favors a lighter texture, with a bouncier, dancehall feel in the uptempo numbers rather than the drone and heavy-metal ponderousness of Hedningarna. This music is danceable in the fun sense rather than in the ritual sense evoked by Hedningarna.
Samba Mapangala and Orchestra Virunga
Virunga Volcano, the 1980s work of Samba Mapangala and Orchestra Virunga released by Earthworks in 1990, has endured as a classic of African pop music. Although originally from the Congo and a purveyor of the dominant rumba Lingala, Mapangala migrated eastward to Kenya and began incorporating elements of the local pop music and language to create a melange that became a distinctly East African sound. The big hit from that collection, "Malako," was all rapid feet-on-fire bass, chattering teeth hi-hat, muted guitar, up-front sax, and airy vocals floating over the stripped down instrumental assemblage. No synth wash or hardly even a snare or tom-tom run to fill the empty sonic spaces between the polyphonic lines. It was a minimalist approach that distinguished it from other rumba-derived musics coming out at the time. Mapangala has migrated some more in the meantime (he now resides in the U.S.), and has put out Ujumbe after a four-year hiatus from touring. Although this new album retains the spare instrumental approach, the production is more conventional and filled out (i.e., more typical of a Parisian soukous release), not surprising given that the co-producer is Bopol Mansiamina of Quatre Étoiles fame. The music itself is more of a return to Mapangala's Congolese roots, albeit with a good deal of variety. "Dunia Tuna Pita" ought to get considerable air play as an exemplar of the classic Congolese rumba form, while "Umoja Ni Nguvu" starts out right away with a banging sebene section. There is even a tasteful acoustic number ("Muniache") à la Jean Bosco Mwenda, a pioneer of the Congo-Kenya musical connection. The uniformly high level of song writing throughout the CD makes one suspect that Mapangala has been building up a collection in his head since the last release. In summary, even though some old fans may be disappointed that Ujumbe is not a continuation of Mapangala's Kenya-era sound, it should stand on its own as another successful milestone in the peripatetic musician's career.
Gopal Shankar Misra
Out of Stillness
With a range of five octaves, fretless board, four main and five secondary (drone) strings overlying thirteen sympathetic strings, the vichitra veena is a complex and flexible instrument. Set horizontally atop two resonant gourds, its timbre is reminiscent of the better known sitar. The veena family of chordophones is said to predate the sitar in Indian musical history. Following in his father, Lalmani Misra's, footsteps, Gopar Shankar took the vichitra veena out of its northern Indian classical music confines to a wider audience. On this recording, however, he goes back to its roots and plays accompanied only by a tanpura and tabla. Impeccably recorded at RealWorld Studios right after a WOMAD appearance, this CD, sadly, is his final recording. Shortly after it was made, Dr. Gopal Shankar Misra died at a concert dedicated to his father. This album is a fine showcase for Misra's virtuosity and sensitivity as an ensemble player and leader. The raga are played with a tasteful mix of deliberation and spontaneity, with a satisfying emotional arc that characterize top-rank Indian classical performances. The sound quality and balance are excellent throughout.
Aliakbar Moradi and Pejman Hadadi
Aliakbar Moradi and Parvin Namazi
Kurdistan is a cultural and ethnic zone of identity with transnational boundaries encompassing Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and small parts of Armenia. Officially stateless for centuries, the Kurds nevertheless number an estimated 25 to 30 million and ranks as the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East. They suffer persecution and discrimination to varying degrees in their respective "countries" and their musical traditions have likewise been subject to differing levels of restrictions. For example, Kurdish music was banned until recent years in Turkey, and prominent Kurdish musicians like Sivan Perwer had to live in exile and issue releases abroad. The horrific attacks on Iraqi Kurds by Saddam Hussein has been well publicized in the Western media. By comparison, treatment of the Kurds by the Iranian government has been generally less brutal, perhaps moderated by the closer ties between the Kurdish and Persian languages and cultures.
In these two CDs, Aliakbar Moradi, a Kurdish master of the tanbur, teams up with Pejman Hadadi, an Iranian percussionist living in the U.S., and Parvin Namazi, an Iranian singer who became interested in Kurdish music. Whisper is a follow-up to Moradi and Hadadi's 1999 album, Fire of Passion. Here Moradi's instrumental chops shine throughout with unrelentless intensity. The tanbur is a long-necked lute made of mulberry wood with three metal strings running over fourteen gut frets, with the top string serving as a sympathetic string. Despite its limited dynamic and pitch range, Moradi manages to coax an amazing variety of tonal textures from his tanbur using a combination of picking and strumming (or shorr, meaning "the pouring of water") techniques, which imitate scenes from nature in such cuts as "Partridge's Gait" and "Butterfly's Ascent." Hadadi's accompaniment merges seamlessly with Moradi's playing through all the meter and tempo changes and matches Moradi's axe speed with rapid-fire fill-ins of his own. Although divided into fourteen cuts, this album of 48-minute duration should be enjoyed as one continuous piece.
Kurdaneh is the more accessible of the two albums. Essentially a fusion of Kurdish melodies and lyrics with a particular mode of Persian urban traditional music, each song has a distinct feel. The backing ensemble produces a richer sonic texture with a wind instrument (ney), Moradi branching out on setar, bass tar, and dohol, plus tombak and daf players providing the rhythmic underpinning. The breathy, wispy ney is an effective foil for Namazi's full-throated alto, especially over the rolling caravan beat of the opening song "Komel Kah." Just sit back, relax, and let her voice carry you to the land of the Kurds.
This is a high concept folk music album--and your reaction to it will probably be determined by whether that sounds attractive or slightly oxymoronic. The songs are meant to sequence through "a whole year for the inner self of an urban man." If you are a folk purist, then it is best to seek other sources for traditional Latvian music. If you don't mind generous doses of synth washes and world-beatification through the addition of bongos, djembes, balafon, and kalimba, then no problem. Did I mention Enyaesque echoing plucked arpeggios? The best moments are when environmental sounds like wind and thunder are used effectively to evoke a desolate landscape against which the melancholy songs develop.
Hüsnü S¸enlendirici and Laço Tayfa
Rom (gypsy) music would appear to be ideally suited for fusion with jazz, given the emphasis on instrumental chops and improvisational proficiency. This album provides evidence that there are other factors to consider. My conclusion is that this melding of styles works best when one sticks to modal improvisation. Jazz based on chord progressions, especially when the harmony is laid out explicitly on, say, keyboard, rather than sketched out implicity by a bass line, yields a jarring, incongruous tonality when juxtaposed with traditional Rom modal riffs. The cuts on this disk that avoid background sythesizer chords work better. Although the clarinet takes lead throughout, some of the best moments come when the kanun (trapezoidal zither) is given free rein. It's a worthwhile experiment that has yielded mixed results.
Tai Tu Nam Bo
Saigon: Masters of Traditional Music
A chordophone lover's delight, the pieces on this CD showcase various combinations of eight different kinds of Vietnamese lutes, fiddles, and zithers accompanied by vertical and transverse bamboo flutes. The one constant throughout is the clack of the song lang, a block slitdrum played by foot, that marks the long cadences of this musical genre called don ca tai tu. Often mistranslated as "amateur music" this "music of the talented" emerged during the war-induced migration of refugees to southern Vietnam in the latter half of the 19th century. The mixing of various formal musical traditions brought by refugees from different parts and the collapse of any hierarchy associated with the original traditions led to a freer form of entertainment music that was more accessible and syncretic. Informal gatherings in townhouse gardens and on boats in the comfort of the cool evening breeze were the settings for the soothing, freely improvisational repertoire sampled here. Each instrument has a specific timbre that evokes comparisons to other familiar instruments such as the Chinese pipa or the Japanese koto, but the bau, a single-string box zither, has a truly unique, out-of-this-world sound that could only be likened to the proto-electronic theremin. The sound quality of the recording is excellent and the illustrations of the instruments in the liner notes are helpful.
Master of Shakuhachi
A shakuhachi is a vertical bamboo flute of varying length with five fingerholes, which was only allowed to be played by a Zen Buddhist sect of itinerant monks in 16th and 17th century Japan. Although long secularized, the traditional repertoire still retains the original religious emphasis on meditation. Pieces move along slowly in apparently free rhythm with the length of a breath the basic temporal unit. Although the instrument is structurally simple and pentatonic in scale, much subtle variations in timbre and microtonal modulations with embouchure change, head movements, and breath control are effected by a master such as Tajima. The selections on this generous (72-min) album are all solo. Excellent for relaxation/meditation.
Do not be misled by the mention of joiking, historical recordings, and shaman frame-drums on this CD. Transjoik is to traditional Sami (Laplander) joiking what Steve Tibbetts's neoprimitivist sound collages are to traditional West African percussion and call-and-response chorals. That is, don't buy this album if you want to hear joiking in its original context--an expression and assertion of individual identity within the vast openness of the Arctic landscape by the chanting of a lone voice. Transjoik perhaps intended their joiking here set against a vast techno-industrial ambient soundscape to be interpreted as the modern Sami trying to preserve and assert his historical identity within the complex din of urban life (they were funded by the Norwegian Sami Cultural Support Organization). Clearly the intent is serious; and yet it seems to miss out on an essential aspect of the joik: joy.
The Uyghur Musicians of Xinjiang
Music From the Oasis Towns of Central Asia
This would be a fun CD to play a game of "Guess the Music's Origin" with your fellow world music enthusiasts. Drop the laser "needle" on Track 1 and you are greeted with a drum and double-reed processional that places you in the lead-up to a raucous wedding celebration in Turkey. Moving on to Track 2 you are surrounded by a pentatonic ensemble of bowed and plectrum-plucked strings topped by a swooping, glissando vocal that plunks you down in rural China somewhere. On the all-instrumental Track 3 you feel the entrancing drone of sympathetic strings in the lutes that tug you back toward the Indian subcontinent. The meditative solo singing accompanied by open diatonic strumming on Track 4 flashes a wide-screen view of the vast Mongolian steppe in your mind's eye. The microtonal inflections in the fleet-fingered steel-stringed lute passages on Track 5 wafts an aroma of Persian spices into the room.
Xinjiang-Uyghur is currently an autonomous region in China's extreme northwest. It is sometimes called "Chinese Turkestan" and has seen its share of violent conflict between the largely Muslim Uyghurs and the national government that has encouraged the transmigration of the majority Han Chinese into the region. Tracing their heritage back to Central Asian Turkish people, the Uyghurs' music owes much in terms of structure to Arabo-Persian maqams (modes and melodic patterns). The strings and woodwinds are also obviously descended from Middle Eastern instruments. However, as one notes from listening to this sampling of Uyghur music, it is clear that harmonic and melodic elements from the neighboring Hans and Mongolians have been incorporated into certain categories of music over the years, making for an entertainingly rich melange that defies easy pigeonholing by visiting ears.
Of course, comparisons to Huun-Huur-Tu are inevitable. Although Tuvan throat-singing is threatening to become the next pygmy polyphonic chant or Bulgarian women's chorus in terms of most-appropriated-world-music vocals, there still aren't _that_ many musical groups from Tuva to have hit the international circuit. In fact, the two groups are not unrelated as leader Albert Kuvezin was a founding member of HHT. The difference between the two ensembles can be summarized by one instrumental sound: distorted electric guitar. This statement is disingenuous since the harp-like yat-kha is prominently featured by the eponymous group, but it does point out the philosophical difference in their approach to "popular" music. While HHT has followed a more folkloric (preservationist/revivalist) path and is more of a "roots" group, Yat-Kha has forged ahead and out by embracing the use of drum kit and electric guitar. This is not to say that they have abandoned or diluted their musical roots. And I have no gripes about non-Western musicians appropriating Western music much like Western musicians did to others in the past. It's just my own cultural bias, I suppose, that makes me cringe when a fuzz-tone electric guitar sound pops up between loping beats of a shamanic drum and the ghostly overtones of throat singing.
Poems of Thunder: The Master Chinese Percussionist
This CD contains both percussion-only set pieces and music from other arenas (such as Beijing Opera), where the percussion accompanies a larger orchestra. Despite the title (in Chinese the cover reads "Number One Drum"), the pieces where the drum plays a supporting role outshine the "show-off" numbers. The problem with the percussion-only pieces is that they sound too precise, composed, somewhat sterile. The tasteful studio sound does not help. The more raucous orchestral numbers, especially the final cut, "Triumphal Return of the Fishing Boats," are much more exhilarating. The skimpy notes are a minus. It's impossible to get a good grasp of the context in which these pieces are played. It is essential to have informative notes when the album contains a diverse range of styles as on this one.
Land of the Sufis: Soul Music from the Indus Valley
This CD smacks of record company opportunism. I imagine an executive saying, "Oh my god, Nusrat is dead! We need someone from Pakistan to replace him as the driver of the hugely successful qawwali qrossover bandwagon!" So a recording team is dispatched to Lahore to scout out an undiscovered megatalent. An open invitation is sent out to the community and musicians line up to take their crack at international stardom. I may be excessively cynical about the motivation, but the m.o. for this recording was largely done in this way. The positive aspect is that this recording reveals the multiplicity of Sufi music in Pakistan beyond the by-now-familiar genre of qawwali to Western ears. There is some wonderful instrumental work here, although the recordings are suffused with too much reverb, giving them a studio sheen that detracts from the sense of raw discovery that is the raison d'etre of such a project. The liner notes are also heavy on colorful personality sketches and light on musicological low-down. But despite the problems, the album serves as a tantalizing appetizer to those seeking a more balanced musical view of Sufism in Pakistan than provided by all the qawwali recordings that have come out in recent years.
Anthology of World Music: The Music of Islam and Sufism in Morocco
The ambiguous status of music in Islam as a religion and a culture is well displayed in this reissued installment from Alain Danielou's Anthology of Traditional Music of the World. Beginning with the mandatory call to prayer, common to all of the Islamic world, and a solo Quranic chant, the recording moves on to sounds more peculiar to Morocco. An ensemble chant from the High Atlas region, for example, shows traces of Berber influence in the interlocking percussive breathing and pentatonic modes. Straying further away from conservative orthodoxy, Sufi trance music incorporates instruments (which are forbidden inside mosques) such as the herrazi (a ceramic vase drum) and the wailing ghaita (a double-reeded oboe-like horn). One of the highlights of this CD is the full ambient village sounds captured during such a trance performance that transports you to the dusty heat of northwest Africa in your armchair. There is also a track of Gnawa ceremonial music, which clearly has deep roots in sub-Saharan Africa as evidenced by the call-and-response patterns and triple-on-duple rhythms. Although relatively short (it was transferred from two sides of an LP) with uneven recording quality (some tracks have poor high-frequency response characteristic of many old analog tapes), the album provides a diverse sampler for those seeking an introduction to the spectrum of Islamic sounds found in Morocco.
Anthology of World Music: The Music of Vietnam
This is another in the series of reissues from Alain Danielou's Anthology of World Music compiled between 1968 and 1987. The selections vary from court and ritual music (including Buddhist chants) to music meant purely for entertainment (but not extending to the Western-style pop music prevalent among today's boombox-toting youths). Traditional Vietnamese music has strong roots in Chinese music, with traces of Indian influence discernible in improvisational preludes and certain drums. A highlight for me in this two-CD set was discovering the monochord, a peculiarly Vietnamese single-string zither, that produces eerie, bowed-saw-like tones. The intense ornamentation on the wailing, ghaita-like oboe (which could be described more as macrotonal rather than microtonal modulations) is also a tonic in the second CD, which focuses on South Vietnam. The sound quality is only fair, with plenty of tape hiss and abrupt cutoffs at the end of pieces, and the notes are heavy on technical detail but lacking in cultural context. The collection is nonetheless a valuable survey and an excellent introduction to Vietnamese musical traditions.
La Route des Gitans (The Gypsy Road)
Since the cinematic success of Latcho Drom, tracing the historical geographical routes of the Roma (Gypsy) migration through musical illustrations seems to have become a cottage industry. For example, currently a 30-member troupe called the Gypsy Caravan is touring the U.S., featuring musicians and dancers from India, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, Hungary, and Spain. This CD is a high-concept compilation along the same lines, raiding Auvidis's catalog of recordings back to 1978. Although the level of musicianship is uniformly high, with emphasis on technical virtuosity typical of Rom music (the same cannot be said for the recording quality), as a pedagogic exercise it must be deemed a failure, with barely a paragraph of loosely allusive notes to accompany it. Here was a chance to educate listeners, both musically and culturally, about the oft-misunderstood (and maligned) Roma, and they blew it. Too bad.
Living Art, Sounding Spirit: The Bali Sessions
If you think that Gamelan Gong Kebyar and Kecak pretty much sum up the state of music in Bali, then this three-CD set is for you. Producer Mickey Hart deliberately avoided the road oft traveled and has provided us with vistas of the wonderfully heterogeneous soundscape of Bali. The disc surveys traditional Gamelans: Selonding, an ensemble with iron gongs, the oldest (pre-Hindu) and most sacred on the island; Gong Suling, with end-blown flutes, an informal ensemble played for entertainment; Genggong, with sugar palm leaf jewUs harps, often used for plays and dances about frog characters; and Jegog, an ensemble of bamboo idiophones found only in a few villages in westernmost Bali, played at water buffalo races. Featured on the second disc are Gamelan Joged Bumbung, a twentieth century ensemble composed of bamboo xylophones, flutes, drums, cymbals, and a small gong, used for social dancing; and a Kecak (chant chorus) performance accompanying the telling of The Abduction of Sita. The third disc contains three contemporary compositions, each with distinctively nontraditional elements such as polyphonic singing, but with roots firmly planted in the Gamelan styles of the past. The recording quality is excellent and the liner notes are decent. If you have only one album of Balinese music and wish to hear more, this compilation is a great choice.
The Road to Kes¸an: Turkish Rom and Regional Music of Thrace
Impeccably assembled by musicologist Sonia Seeman, this CD presents wedding music as performed by a Rom (gypsy) ensemble in Kes¸an, which is in the tiny fraction of Turkey that lies on the European continent. Consulting the musicians regarding song selection and order to achieve an aesthetic sense that is true as possible to that of the local community, Seeman takes great care to put the music in context. Extensive notes, photos, and an anecdote about a holiday picnic provide us with a package that is not only exciting for the ears, but also enlightening for the mind. The music itself is a classic Rom combination of songs drawn from the traditional local repertoire and virtuosic improvisation. Odd meters with a stop-and-go feel abound for the dance numbers (9/8: 2+2+2+3, 7/8: 2+2+3), while ribald lyrics spike the drinking table songs for men. The melismatic clarinet is king here, not the shriller double-reed timbre of the zurna, which was the preferred instrument in older times. A violin, kanun (Turkish zither), cümbüs¸ (a banjo-like instrument), and drums (davul and darbuka) round out the ensemble. In a real wedding, there would also be requests for more urban genres such as arabesk and fantazi, but here the focus is on the traditional Rom selections. The only minor gripe I have is that this is a studio recording, which misses out on the ambient noise of a field recording (laughter, clapping, a rooster crowing, a drunk man getting sick) that really makes you feel like you are there in the midst of it all.
Saraca: Funerary Music of Carriacou
In the spring of 1962, the legendary folk musicologist Alan Lomax traveled to the Lesser Antilles, where many islands were in the midst of the exciting transition to independence from Britain. The recording sessions that Lomax held, therefore, had a political dimension, i.e., to discover and disseminate the cultural commonalities that might help form a basis for a unified pan-West-Indian nation. Although the dream of a postcolonial federation never materialized, the music and story-telling collected in this Caribbean Voyage series point out the various signifiers and motifs that are common to the region, and which illuminate their roots in African and European cultures. Lomax's analysis of this material is contained in the book, Brown Girl in the Ring. Carricacou is a small island in the Grenadines. Although much of this CD is devoted to documenting the Big Drum, a repertoire of song and dance that is believed to have direct antecedents in the ritual musics of specific West African ethnic groups such as the Temne, Manding, Ibo, and Cromanti, the Euro-African synthesis as manifested in the call-and-response renditions of classic Baptist hymns are also well represented. "Gone to Nineveh" is an especially fascinating example of this latter style, with circular harmonized singing driven by a form of rhythmic breathing called trumping that helps induce trance in the singers. Trumping is somewhat reminiscent of the periodic grunting heard in certain Balinese music, e.g., in the Ramayana Monkey Chant. There are also folk stories recorded here, as well as a previously unreleased interview by Lomax of Mary "May" Fortune with interjections by her common-law husband Ferguson "Sugar Tamarind" Adams, considered the "first couple" of music in Carriacou at the time. Not only do we get the rare chance to listen to the musicians talk about their music, but also to the field musicologist who normally remains discreetly off the record. We get a hint of the passion that lies behind the music and behind the man who dedicated his life to getting it all down for posterity.
Tuva, Among the Spirits
In 1987, musicologist Ted Levin became the first American to conduct ethnographic field work in Tuva, which was then a republic of the Soviet Union. The recordings he made, focusing on the traditional multitonal throat singing, khöömei, became the basis of the earlier CD Tuva: Voices from the Center of Asia, which anticipated the later export and popularity of the group Huun-Huur-Tu. Keeping in mind the threat of rapid Westernization effacing the role of music in the traditional Tuvan lifestyle, Levin returned to Tuva with the members of Huun-Huur-Tu to document the nature-mimetic aspects of khöömei. As mentioned above in my review of the Huun-Huur-Tuu album, listening to khöömei as sung on horseback is an ear-opening experience. The rhythmic amplitude and timbre modulations employed in certain styles of khöömei clearly must have originated in the gentle, periodic jolts that the horse's gait introduces to the singing. Levin also discovers that borbangnadyr, a gurgling sort of throat-singing, blends in well with the sound of a flowing stream, and that the singer is able to seek and match the characteristic modulations of the harmonics generated by the rushing water. There are other such sonic epiphanies included in this album, and my hat goes off to recording engineer, Joel Gordon, for having captured it all with great fidelity. This album provides us with insights about a musical culture that developed primarily in communion with nature rather than with human "civilization." Let's hope that it does not turn out to be a "historical" recording any time soon.
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