Sunday, 23 November 2014

Frank Yamma 'Uncle"

On the 30th November, there will be a very special garden concert at Osprey Drive, Hungry Head. It's another in the series of "The Global Vibe" gigs and we in Bellingen are indeed blessed, in that this one will feature one of Australia's foremost Indigenous singer / songwriters Frank Yamma. He's on the road to promote his new Wantok Music CD "Uncle".

He has played here before, performing a memorable gig with long-time collaborator / producer / mentor David Bridie at the Global when he was doing the rounds to promote his critically-acclaimed 2010 release "Countryman". His voice has such raw emotion that it can tear the listener's heart asunder, even when we are unable to understand his Pitjinjatjara language lyrics. He sings of love, travel, a sense of belonging and homesickness and the immense redemptive power of the songs on "Countryman" is repeated here on "Uncle". "I'll Be Back Soon" and "One Lonely Night" are two heartfelt songs that stand out immediately.

Frank is no slouch on the guitar, having as a small child absorbed his father Isaac's finger techniques. A batch of new street names were recently gazetted in Canberra to celebrate icons of Australian music. In amongst Amphlett Street, Slim Dusty Circuit, O'Keefe Avenue and Bronhill St is Yamma Way, to celebrate Isaac's contribution to Australian music. The elder Yamma regularly took his boys touring with him as he performed his popular indigenous language take on Country & Western music. So Frank is a natural performer from way back and it's great to see him at the top of his game and enjoying such well-earned success around the globe.

From the opening caws of a crow and the first bars of "A Blackman's Crying", to the unmistakeable early morning bush sounds of "Beginning of The Day", and the laughing kookaburra on the Cd's languid instrumental closer "Sunday Morning", we know exactly where we are - right in the dead centre of this land, going walkabout with Frank, which is what he dreams of doing when he's not busy touring  There's a quirky take on "Todd Mall" in Adelaide and a rolling, uptempo, joyful "Everybody's Talking" along the way.

While "Countryman" was something of a stripped-back classic, "Uncle" is much more of a polished, ensemble record. Apart from Bridie's deft touch on keyboards and production, there is the emotive cello of My Friend The Chocolate Cake musician Helen Mountfort plus contributions from leading Australian musicians Bart Willoughby, Michael Barker and Selwyn Burns. But it's that voice, that pain, those chords that ultimately get you every time.


Layla McCalla "Vari-Colored Songs"

For a debut album by a young musician who is not overly well-known, "Vari-Colored Songs" by Leyla McCalla is a surprisingly mature release, perhaps because of her diverse influences and experiences.

Born in New York City to Haitian emigrant parents, Leyla grew up in New Jersey. When she was 8 she told her parents she wanted to learn cello and by the time she was in her teens, she knew she wanted to be a professional musician. As a teenager, she spent a couple of years in Accra, Ghana before returning to New York to complete a degree in cello performance and chamber music at NYU.

After college, she moved to New Orleans and, armed with Bach's Cello Suites, played on the streets in the French Quarter to earn a crust. She describes her move to New Orleans as the best decision she ever made. She felt instantly at home and it was there that she met the Carolina Chocolate Drops, with whom she toured for two and a half years. She regards this experience as her Master's qualification, teaching her how to do interviews and perform on the radio, and how to take care of herself when constantly on the road.

She has developed a sound with her cello that is totally unique - apart from using the bow, she strums it, finger-picks it and smacks the body for percussion. Which brings us to this debut CD. The album, which has been several years in the making, was given a push after a successful Kickstarter campaign in which she surpassed her $5,000 goal by four times to ultimately raise over $20,000. It consists of compositions she has written to Langston Hughes poetry, Haitian folk songs and original pieces. When Leyla was 16 her father gave her a book of the poetry of Langston Hughes, iconic African American poet. She was also inspired by Hughes' two auto-biographies and she describes him as having "a beautiful way of bringing complex ideas and history and culture into words that are very human and very simple and very-relatable."

 There are many different moods evoked by the songs on this CD, from the dark introspective tones of "Girl", "Too Blue" and "Kamen Sa W Fe?" to up-tempo uplifting Haitian folk songs sung in the pidgin French of her parents' homeland, such as "Mesi Bondye", "Manman Mwen", "Latibonit" and "Rose Marie". The playing is always exquisite, with Rhiannon Giddens and Hubby Jenkins of the Carolina Chocolate Drops along for the ride, as well as New Orleans’ own Don Vappie on tenor banjo and Luke Winslow King on guitar. They all complement McCalla's own talents so well. But the standout piece is the opener, one of the Langston Hughes poems set to music called "Heart of Gold". It features a number of over-dubbed cello parts and simply gorgeous vocals by McCalla.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Malawi Mouse Boys "Dirt Is Good"

The Malawi Mouse Boys are thankfully back with a second CD, "Dirt Is Good". If you don't know them, a YouTube video of them setting up and performing in the dust outside a mud-brick hut in the rural centre of their land-locked South East African homeland is definitely worth checking out - it's called "Ndinasangalala - I was Happy" and is from their debut CD"He is #1". You will see them using bicycle cogs for hi-hats, and all manner of scrap metal for home-made drums, one string fiddles and guitars. You will also enjoy the eight of them - who have been singing and playing together since childhood - ripping into glorious reggae flavoured gospel harmonies.

Their stated aim is not to make their fortune but just to make people happy by bringing us their joyful, devotional Chichewa language Christian songs. The fact that their roadside performances come with a serve of the local delicacy - the rodent kebabs that are a local delicacy - is just an added bonus. In the Northern summer of 2013, four of their members finally managed to obtain visas and get on planes for the first time ever to sample what the West had to offer. One of the big successes of Womad, their barnstorming high energy frontman Zondiwe Kachingwe got audiences going wherever they played and, for very good reason, earned him comparisons with the young Stax singers of the sixties, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke.

Haling from one of the poorest nations in the world where male life expectancy is below 50, one can only wonder what is going through their heads as they marvel at the the bright lights and blaring music of a fairground while on tour in the UK(in another recently posted video for the track "Kufana"). Every day back home these four young men face the dangers of Black Mambo snakes and wild boars while hunting for mice to grill for passing travellers. It would appear that 50000 strong festival audiences are hardly a daunting prospect for them. The fare they bring us on this new CD is very similar to that on their first one. Rustic, sparse instrumentation, hands clapping, lots of whistles, strummed rudimentary guitars - sometimes fuzzily amplified this time around, to great effect - and glorious harmonies. Each song is short and sweet - there are 15 cracking tracks included here, although one is largely a heated argument over artistic differences, or so it seems, my Chichewa not being massively fluent.

Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars have just released their fourth superlative CD after starting from similarly humble beginnings several years ago in a refugee camp in West Africa. With each release they have become more and more polished, professional and produced but their original joie de vivre still shines through. It will be interesting to see where the Malawi Mouse Boys go with their sound, if and when the whistles and handclaps become more fulsome instrumental arrangements. For now though they succeed beautifully in their simple ambition to make people happy. "Dirt Is Good" will again help to lift many of us up above our own first world problems.


Thursday, 26 June 2014

Dub Colossus "Addis to Omega"

In another fine example of artists raising the cash required for recording through crowd-funding and releasing the resulting music direct to their audience from their own website, Dub Colossus have just unveiled their new "Addis to Omega" CD.

The release, somewhat cannily, is out just in time for the summer season of sun and festivals around the northern hemisphere - and it's also just in time to warm up cold mid-winter nights here down under. The Dub Colossus trademark brand of dub reggae music is guaranteed 100% sunshine this time around.

This is their fourth album (following "A Town Like Addis" and "Addis Through The Looking Glass" and a remix CD of both,"Dub Me Tender Vol1&2") and what started back in 2008 as a mix of Ethiopian and London-based musicians and styles has metamorphosed into a more Jamaican oriented project. This is largely due to the vagaries of costs and visa problems for the Ethiopian musicians, but the enforced change does give this new CD a tad more commercial appeal than its predecessors.

Since his days with Transglobal Underground and Temple of Sound, Nick "Dubulah" Page has been busy with projects such as Syriana and the Balkan infused Kabatronics and this incarnation of Dub Colossus is his latest brainchild. For "Addis to Omega" he's recruited the Horns of Negus, Jamaican veteran Joseph Cotton, PJ Higgins, Mykael S Riley (of Steel Pulse fame), Natacha Atlas and Winston Blissett. Just about every sub-genre of reggae is lovingly revisited: From Cotton's Dancehall opener "Book Ka Boom", to the sweeter Lover's Rock vocals of PJ Higgins on "Happy Face", with heavy dollops of Dub here and some Roots there.

The over-arching "theme" through many of the fifteen tracks is the GFC and the flagrant economic injustices around which the Occupy movement coalesced. Titles such as "The Casino Burning Down", "We Are The Playthings of The Rich", "Fight Back" and "Madmen" will give you the general gist of where we're headed here. The latter in particular features a tired, cynical but sonorous half spoken / half sung contribution from Dubulah himself, hopefully the first foray of many into the lead vocal realm.Its lyrics cleverly put the mad, bad bankers and speculators who so affect our food prices and daily lives to the metaphorical sword. But it's all done to the rootsiest, rockiest most joyful backdrop I've heard in a long time.

With the Horns of Negus (Flugelhorn, Tenor sax and all) at full bore, there are copious passing references to Funk and Motown. When the individual brass intruments are occasionally let off their leashes, there is a wild jazzy feel to proceedings. "Mi Dad" harks back to early eighties Brixton and the reggae poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson. Just about all of the ghosts of reggae past make an appearance and the production values remain firmly in the dub-style camp. For me "A Voice Has Power" is the absolute killer track featuring some fairly heavyweight insistent Dub and the utterly powerful, growling muti-tonal voice of legendary Tuvan Throat Singer Albert Kuvezin, before the sprawling dubbed and jazzed up "Orpheus Underground" brings things to a close.

As the promo single, you can download the ska-flavoured "Madmen" from the band's Soundcloud" page da nada. Here it is:

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Billy Bragg "Live at The Union Chapel" CD / DVD

Billy Bragg is like a bottle of Grange - thirty years down the track and he's maturing into the complete package. He's also become a fairly influential political figure, appearing on "Q&A" when he was over here recently and his opinion being sought out by media outlets far and wide when Thatcher died. This CD /DVD combo was recorded just after the demise of "the most divisive Prime Minister Britain has ever had" in the middle of 2013, when Bragg was touring all over the shop to promote his "Tooth and Nail" CD. The Union Chapel - a 19th Century Gothic church in Islington, complete with stained glass windows and ornate pulpit - is the perfect backdrop for this Thirtieth Anniversary celebration. His mix of pop and politics is nowadays infused with some fine musicianship and the timbre of Bragg's voice has changed for the better with age. His newer songs tend to be written in a lower key that suits his older voice well.

What you get here is a carefully chosen cross section of his back catalogue. From "There is Power In A Union" and "Between The Wars" of the Thatcher Years to the more personal political poetry of "Sexuality" and "Valentines Day is Over" from the Bliar Era - all given the Americana / Country treatment that so many blinkered critics have taken him to task for.  I'm not sure why - CJ Hillman's exquisite Pedal Steel and bottleneck National Steel guitar work are second to none, and perfectly matched with Billy's songs. As Bragg points out, there's the added bonus that the American can also pick up a Fender or Gibson and do a fine "Johnny Marr impersonation" for the rockier numbers. On the DVD you get some humorous and insightful commentary from the singer interspersed between the songs, as well as his increasingly droll and relaxed banter with the audience at the gig. Bragg's occasional sermons are laced with an endearing self-deprecating humour and an openness to the ideas of others, both of which give greater resonance to what he's saying. Most of the chit-chat is thankfully edited out for the CD.

What Bragg is saying is as relevant now in Cameron's Britain and Abbott's Australia as it ever was thirty years ago. Perhaps more so with the growth of inequity that we have seen open up. He speaks up for the downtrodden, pricks the bubble of the high and mighty and tries to inspire his audience to activism in the face of this ever-expanding inequity. He reckons that our major enemy is cynicism. His clever way with words and humorous insights, and his relentless optimism that "There Will Be a Reckoning" and "All You Fascists Bound To Lose" are powerful antidotes to such cynicism taking hold. The latter is one of three Woody Guthrie songs that are so wonderfully re-imagined here by Bragg and his comrades - the other two being "Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key" and the sad story of thirties dispossession at the hands of the Banks, "I Ain't Got No Home".

With Bragg there is no real boundary between the personal and the political - his song about the Hillsborough disaster which killed 96 Liverpool Football fans, "Never Buy The Sun", is as pithy a put-down of the execrable Murdoch Press and the British Establishment as you'll hear anywhere, and obviously heartfelt. "Do Unto Others" is an attempt at a distillation of what is necessary to live the Ethical Life, given a certain extra resonance by the ecclesiastical setting. The tear jerker "Tank Park Salute" pays tender homage to his dad - as does the amusing "Handyman Blues" in its own way - and then we are into the timeless rambunctious encore "Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards".

As a one of several bonuses on the DVD we are treated to the second encore, just Billy and his electric guitar revisiting the whole seventeen minutes of his very first vinyl record "Life's A Riot & Spy vs Spy" with classics such as "The Man In The Iron Mask", "The Milkman of Human Kindness" and "A New England" all rattled off in fine fettle. For the audio version unfortunately you have to shell out another few bucks for the official 30th Anniversary ReMastered Reissue - as the man says, "the Revolution is just a T-shirt away". And there's probably a T-Shirt of that at 

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Elephant Revival "These Changing Skies"

I've never been quite sure what qualifies as "Americana". Wikipedia tells us it is "contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound". This quintet from Colorado would seem to fit that bill perfectly. Elephant Revival have recently released their third album "These Changing Skies" to great critical acclaim in the Northern Hemisphere.

There must be something about the rarefied air of the Rocky Mountains that provides great inspiration for them. Their music, album artwork and heartfelt, mindful lyrics are all imbued with a strong sense of nature and belonging. From the CD's upbeat opener "Birds and Stars" (which is available for free from their website) to the closer "Rogue River" and the lovely "The Pasture" instrumental along the way, a strong sense of place seems to inform the sublime sounds they create. At times, if you close your eyes, you could be in a hippy Deadwood.

Elephant Revival play mainly accoustic instruments: banjo / mandolin, double bass, guitar and violin. The latter brings a jiggy, reely Celtic sensibility to what they do. The unique addition of Bonnie Paine's washboard, djembe, musical saw and stomp-box front and centre is what sets this mob apart from other "Americana" acts. Her affecting tremelo vocals, particularly on the philosophical "Remembering a Beginning", are reminiscent of Natalie Merchant. When the three guys take vocal turns, the sound is more like the Decembrists or Bon Iver. The group's close-knit harmonies are quite beautiful.

Several of the songs on the Cd are pure ear-worm material. Intricate enough musically to stand up to repeated plays but catchy enough to provide immediate singalong enjoyment for the listener. Three songs penned by guitar / banjo player Daniel Rodriguez ("Grace of a Woman", "Spinning" and the aforementioned "Birds and Stars") are ones that you find yourself singing as you go about your daily activities. Expect to hear them repeatedly on the Local Global Show on 2BBB in coming weeks!

Sunday, 6 April 2014

"The Gloaming" The Gloaming

One of the most fabulous aspects of the Bellingen Global Carnival over the years (and there were many!) was the way it would introduce us to previously unknown, but supremely accomplished and talented artistes. One of the most pleasant of such surprises came in (I think) 1997 when Irishman Martin Hayes and American Dennis Cahill came to town with their fiddle and guitar duo and left everyone I knew who saw their shows gobsmacked at their virtuosic musicianship.

When I heard that the two of them had teamed up with legendary Irish sean-nos singer Iarla O'Lionaird, whose emotive vocals grace the Afro-Celt Sound System CD's, I knew something special was afoot. For the debut CD of The Gloaming, they have been joined by Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman) on piano. When Bartlett was ten years old his family stopped off in Ireland for a break on their way to live in India for a year. Young Thomas was besotted with Hayes' music and discovered that he was performing soon after their arrival in Dublin. He persuaded his family to take him to the show, and to follow the fiddle player on tour around Ireland for the rest of the week. Hayes noticed his young stalker and his parents and they became firm friends.

As the make up of The Gloaming took it's highly unusual shape of vocals, piano, guitar and fiddle, Martin Hayes became concerned that his sole fiddle might become overwhelmed in the mix so he called in Caomhin O'Ragallaigh and his Hardanger fiddle as "back up". This Norwegian violin has eight strings rather than the usual four and creates the most achingly beautiful textured sounds. The music that has resulted from this combination of extraordinary talents and instruments is at once traditional and ground-breaking.

The rules of Irish music are often set aside by the transatlantic nature of the collaboration. There are jigs and reels aplenty ("The Sailor's Bonnet", the sprawling 16 minute masterpiece "Opening Set" and "The Old Bush" will get even the most resistant feet tapping) and there are introspective, moody pieces that are at times haunting ("Song44" - an ancient poem set to music),  mournful ("The Girl Who Stole My Heart") and at others simply serene ("Samradh, Samradh"). Another song with a literary source, "Freedom / Saoirse", literally soars on the wings of O'Lionaird's powerful vocal delivery.

What strikes this listener most about the project is that there is a very deep musical empathy and understanding between the five musicians. It is often the spaces that they leave for each other that speak loudest. They are not a in a hurry to go anywhere or prove anything - they are just transported by the music, as i am sure you will be if you invest in a copy of the CD. As Hayes said in an interview recently
"On a personal level, there are no tensions between us, there are no ego battles, because everyone gets to be themselves and gets complete freedom to express themselves fully"

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Bruce Springsteen - High Hopes

It was apparent at Bruce Springsteen's Australian gigs on last year's Wrecking Ball Tour that something was afoot. He normally puts on an exhausting three and a half hours for his fans and there tends to be a tingle in the air due to the feedback loop he creates with his somewhat devoted audience. For the Down Under leg of the mammoth world tour Steve van Zandt, his long-time lead guitarist and back-up vocalist, was otherwise engaged filming the latest series of his quirky TV show "Lilyhammer" in Norway.

Springsteen called up Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine) as van Zandt's replacement and creative sparks flew. With the likes of Jake Clemons (Clarence's nephew on saxophone) and Michelle Moore (backing vocals, occasional rap) already adding their youthful energy, the E Street Band avoided becoming a tired pastiche of itself and has instead evolved into something new and fresh altogether. The best example of this was the new, electrifying version of "Ghost of Tom Joad", which left audiences gob-smacked. Thankfully, here it is on "High Hopes" in all its glory.

This new CD has Morello's imprint on seven out of twelve tracks, providing exciting fresh production ideas and masterful guitar work. You would never have known it, but he talks of being terrified at having to learn Springsteen's entire back catalogue in a hurry, knowing that handmade request signs from the audience are always taken on stage and incorporated into the night's set list. One year on, he is now centre stage with one of his idols, seemingly a fixture in Springsteen's band.

"High Hopes" is billed as out-takes, covers and new versions of old songs, but for all that it does seem to hold together well. The title track is up first, a real barn-stormer of a cover which makes full use of the big brass section and massed backing vocals that were all so fabulously in synch, mid-tour when this recording was made. Then there's a driving, edgy "Harry's Place" with Springsteen's phrasing and characterisation reminiscent of "The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle" from back in the seventies, but with Morello helping to propel it very much into the present.

"American Skin (41 shots)" is up next, with its brooding beginning and anthemic chorus. it is the first time this old live favourite has been included on a studio release and again Morello's input gives it a fresh lease of life. It's a harrowing and salutory story of Amadou Diallo, an innocent young West African immigrant in the Bronx who was shot 41 times by NYPD plain clothes officers when he reached into his pocket for his wallet.

"Just Like Fire Would", the old Saints song is another great cover sounding like a Springsteen-penned singalong. Chris Bailey & Co will be fine with that, I'm sure, as the royalty payments pick up. "Frankie Fell in Love" is a big dollop of fun, and "Heaven's Wall" a full-tilt gospel workout which will undoubtedly play well in big arenas. The latter suffers from some over-simplistic imagery as does "This Is Your Sword", with its Irish folky Seeger Sessions sound (lovely Uillean pipes and all). But when did cheesy imagery ever worry Bruce or his audience? Ultimately, both are uplifting, affirmative inclusions - songs about the redemptive power of love.

"The Wall" is a contemplative look at the black marble Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, remembering and missing one of his old New Jersey mentors and buddies who went MIA in '68. "I read Robert McNamara says he's sorry" sings Springsteen. "Apologies and forgiveness got no place at all here at The Wall."

The CD closes with something quite unexpected - a harmonium's drone and lush strings: the atmospheric intro for Springsteen's popular cover of NY art-school band Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream". Pure ear worm stuff, which echoes in your brain long after the record has finished. Here is the youtube clip of it which features a collage of the emotion-charged faces of audience and band members from the Wrecking Ball Tour and gives us a preview of what's in store for lucky Australian punters with Bruce's return visit in February.