Saturday, 17 December 2016

Kefaya "Radio International"

Kefaya have variously been described as "internationalist music", "guerrilla jazz" and "global protest music". They are a loose collective from London that was started in 2011 by guitarist Giuliano Modarelli and pianist Al MacSween and has grown over the years through their international travels to collaborate with renowned performers from the worlds of Flamenco, Indian classical and Arabic music. They take their name from the Arabic word for "Enough" which became the catch cry for a movement for change in Egypt during the Arab Spring uprising.

Each track on the CD is effectively prefaced by a spoken word snippet from various radio stations around the world, and from different moments in history. Themes of equality and liberation are woven throughout. The opening Ethio Jazz infused track "Indignados" is a cracker, taking inspiration from the Spanish movement of the same name and letting rip with some wild saxophone riffs along the way. On "Intifada" ( with fabulous Oud solo, massed chanting voices, and the sound of choppers overhead) one can easily imagine oneself in the midst of the Palestinian struggle for a secure homeland.

"Bella Ciao" is a brilliantly upbeat, ska version of the classic Italian anti-fascist anthem. "New Routes" references the problems of so many refugees and migrants arriving in such overwhelming numbers in places like Lampedusa and could easily have been recorded in Kingston, Jamaica. It layers the beautiful Italian Solento vocals of Alessia Tondo over some seriously heavyweight dub reggae. "Manush" (featuring Deborshee Batacharjee) and "Symphony" (featuring the soaring vocals of Nicki Wells) both take us to the heart of ethnic and economic struggles on the Indian sub-continent, through sublime sounds that Nitin Sawhney would have been proud of creating (Sawhney himself describes Kefaya as  "a unique voice" and Wells has lent her voice to his music in the past)

"Protesta Flamenca" revisits Spain with some classy flamenco guitar and plaintive Gypsy vocals to pull on our heart strings, and "Whistleblower" brings a touch of sinister electronica (Edward Snowden's exploits come to mind as the possible inspiration) and dubstep beats to finish the set with a flourish. As a debut release, they don't come much stronger than this.

In the face of recent dispiriting political developments worldwide, many of us could easily feel somewhat dejected about the lack of a future for our offspring. But if we wish to gain some inspiration, and to feel reconnected to the ongoing global struggle for peace, tolerance, equality and justice for all, we can invest in a copy of "Radio International".

Friday, 28 October 2016

"A Bit Na Ta" George Telek, David Bridie & The Musicians of Gunantuna

"A BIT NA TA (The source of the sea)" is a stunning new project developed through the Wantok Musik Foundation as part of a Queensland GOMA Exhibition of the Modern Art of PNG  - "No1 Neighbour" (on until early 2017)

Visitors to the installation in Brisbane are immersed in a 30-minute sequence of songs and atmospheric sounds accompanied by five video projections. It is a Tolai response to change in East New Britain Province between 1875 and 1975 and captures key events that have shaped that century around Rabaul from the perspective of the local peoples. The songs tell of how the area’s history intersects with major world events including two devastating World Wars, the processes of colonisation and political self-determination, with cataclysmic volcanic eruptions along the way.

Tolai musician George Telek and his Australian collaborator of thirty years David Bridie have reconnected with the energy and excitement of Not Drowning,Waving & Telek's groundbreaking 1990 release "Tabaran". Their expansive Papuan soundscapes conjure up images of rainforest meeting sea, of waters lapping in mangroves with broody volcanoes looming in the near distance. It's probably the sweetness of the ukelele, but the whole project seems infused with the scent of frangipani and coconuts.

As Bridie observes in an interview for the Exhibition: "Music is everywhere; men sing on the road side, women sing working their gardens, kids sing on the beach. . . music underpins ceremony . . . every village has a string band . . . birds, frog and insect sounds are symphonic at night". The ambient sounds give way to the log drums and chants of a singsing - all bark shields, dancing crowds, spears a-waving, bodies adorned with feather head-dresses and crazy birdlike masks and costumes.

Then there's the Missionary-inspired stringband-accompanied harmonies. Several new uplifting choral songs from Anslom, Moab, Amidal & Gilnata Stringbands were recorded in makeshift island studios by Bridie and Co over a six week period. My favourite is "Jack Emanuel", which tells the story of how in 1971, Australia's District Commissioner was murdered at Kabaira Bay by the Baining over a land dispute. PNG was shocked into grief and disbelief and 10000 people attended Emanuel’s funeral.  

In addition, the Matupit John Wesley Lotu choir and a group of Tolai elders contribute a range of customary songs which fully situate the project within a Tolai cultural and historical context. Two beautiful old women, Bung Marum and Revie Kinkin sing an ‘Apinpidik’ which takes us back to the 1960s and says “nau meri i laik sanap wantaim ol man” (Its time for women to stand up and be equal to men)

All of this is interspersed beautifully with that growling, prowling, ominous fed back John Phillips / NDW electric guitar which heightens and changes the dramatic effect so well. If this CD is anything to go by, the "No1 Neighbour" exhibition will be well worth a trip to Brisbane just to immerse oneself in this sense of "plis" of Blanche Bay, Rabaul.


Sunday, 25 September 2016

Linsey Pollak & Lizzie O'Keefe - "Dangerous Song"

"Once upon a time there was a planet called Earth. During many millions of years a rich, complex and beautiful ecosystem developed with an incredible variety of lifeforms. Over time one of the animal species in this ecosystem became dominant and their impact on the planet was so massive that many of the other species could no longer survive and became extinct. We take up the story during this extinction period, but the story is not told with words, as words have fallen on too many deaf ears for too long and people have stopped listening."

This is a very timely, very important, deeply immersive work of truly inspired art. The live performance involves colourful images (still and moving) being projected onto a black box theatre containing a musician and a singer, both dressed in black, The musician uses Live Looping and a midi wind controller where breath, lip pressure and fingering control real animal call samples, the voices and sounds of a sonic Ark of endangered and extinct species. Thus a cast of hundreds is conjured up, among them the Kauai Oo and the Mexican Wolf, a Carnaby’s Black Cockatoo and a Blue Throated Macaw, a Ring Tailed Lemur and a Tasmanian Devil, a Blakiston’s Fish Owl, whales of varying shapes and sizes, a host of frogs and toads and the odd gibbon or two

The piece is part structured and part very much improvised. It combines the human voice with these sounds of endangered and extinct animals The human and the animal morph into one The singer weaves her voice through the musical landscapes and seascapes. This is ambient music in it's truest sense - when I listen at home with the doors and windows open, the sounds of the Australian bush outside seem to meld with the recorded music. Our dog jumped up and barked at one point, thinking the house was being invaded by strange wildlife

At it's core, "Dangerous Song" gives voice to a deep, deep sadness, distress and horror at what we humans are doing to the ecosystem we rely on for our existence. But the voice runs us through a gamut of emotions: From this deep sadness to the tender yearning of a Balkan Gypsy, and on to the operatic, ecstatic sounds of embodiment, a celebratory calling out to the void - together with the echoes back from the rainforest wilderness: "I am alive!" "So am I!"

 The musician is Linsey Pollak, the singer Lizzie O'Keefe. Hopefully this Maleny-based duo and their fantastic technical and artistic support team will be able to bring their show to Bello one day soon. Ultimately, this piece is by Gaia itself: It is an inter-species, inter-being choral work, and these beings are singing for their very lives. If their calls don’t affect us then nothing will. More info: 


Saturday, 30 July 2016

Warsaw Village Band "Sun Celebration"

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the absorption of the countries of Eastern Europe into the Western Capitalist fold, the various anarcho-punk members of the Warsaw Village Band came together with a manifesto to explore Poland's cultural traditions and make them relevant again: To "create a new cultural proposition for the youth in an alternative way to contemporary show-biz".

With that in mind they have gone from their first CD "People's Spring" of 18 years ago to this, their seventh album "Sun Celebration" and along the way they have successfully fused their traditional sounds (dulcimer, fiddles, hurdy-gurdy, frame drum and abrasive choral female vocals) with modern-day electronica, instrumentation and production values. One of their releases along the way was even a reggae / dub remix album ("Uprooting") of many of the WVB classic tracks thus far, which worked surprisingly well.

On the last CD ("Nord") the band paid tribute to the traditions of the frozen tundra to their North. This time they have presented us with a package that refers to certain universal dualities, with the two discs being labelled "Sun" and "Moon".  "Sun Celebration" paints a picture of a musical journey around the Earth, following the Sun and breaking down cultural, religious and ethnic boundaries as we go.

For this excursion, WVB have enlisted the support of some truly luminous talents. Featuring on the stunning openers "Fly My Voice" and "Midsummer Rain Song", as well as "Viburnum Orchard" later in the piece, is avant-garde Galician musician Mercedes Peon. With her arresting voice, breath, electronics, Galician bagpipes and percussion, this is a match made in heaven. Then there is Kayhan Kalhor, the Kemanche genius from Iran, on "Bride's Wreath" and "Perkun's Fire", the latter also featuring the Indian Saranghi legend Ustad Liaquat Ali Khan, who lends his soaring vocals to "She's Been at Kupala" and more Saranghi to two Lullabies on the Moon CD.

Add in some scratches and electronics from DJ Feel-X ("legendary wizard of the gramophone"), some tabla and harmonium from the Dhoad Gyspsies of Rajasthan and some of the WVB's trademark punk-jazz double bass, trumpet and flugelhorn, as well as some accomplished production over a three year period from Studio AS One in Warsaw, and this extraordinary package is complete. It's been a few years between drinks, but well worth the wait. Let's just hope that their travels following the Sun - and promoting this fine album - bring them to Australia in the not-too-distant future!

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Stanley "Gawurra" Gaykamangu - "Ratja Yaliyali"

Being as they are from the same Yolngu territory and distantly related, the comparisons with Gurrumul are inevitable. But such lazy pigeon-holing does no justice to Gawurra's own unique talents as a singer, songwriter and musician. For here is a debut CD from a major new Australian talent, someone who will, I am sure, go onto great things worldwide as audiences far and wide begin to hear his voice and music. On ABC Radio, Clare Bowditch has described his music as "Glorious" and the rave reviews keep coming from publications such as Rolling Stone and The Sydney Morning Herald.

The language he sings so passionately in is Gupapungu, and he is equally passionate about passing on his people's traditions to the next generation. Although now resident in Melbourne to further his music, he is still firmly rooted in his traditional culture, songlines, stories and history. The songs have an ethereal quality, addressing totemic plants, birds and animals and the natural cycles of life - "Diving Duck", "Kingfisher", "Green Weeds from Fresh Water", "Small Dancing Tree" and "Yellow Sunset". The traditional, accoustic folk / country collides beautifully with modern electronica courtesy Top End Producer Broadwing. His found sounds and samples make "Guwak - Little Black Bird" one of the standout tracks.

To my mind though Stanley's more introspective, autobiographical and spiritual writing brings out his best. "Gurrupurungu Ngarra - Poor Man", "Bundurr - Story of Myself" and the title track "Ratja Yaliyali" - which translates as "Vine of Love" - are the most memorable. The latter is a well-known Yolngu Songline from way back and it refers to the thread of love that keeps everything and everyone connected. There is a very heart-warming, beautiful multicultural youtube clip to accompany it's release as a single. It aims to promote a feeling of oneness and family, whatever one's gender or age, or.the colour of one's skin might be. With all of the mayhem we see on the nightly news these days, that's got to be a timely message for us all! Head to to find out more

Friday, 22 April 2016

Afro Celt Sound System "The Source"

There are discoveries being made in the care of people with Alzheimer's which involve cherished music from a person's past being used to unlock memories. The faces of dementia sufferers often light up with an almost ecstatic recognition and re-remembering of places, faces, events and emotions when they don headphones and hear sounds which bring a long-lost past back to life for them.

When I heard about this, I headed to Spotify to create a playlist of sounds that resonate with redolence for each era of my own life, in case I should ever lose my marbles. The Afro Celt Sound System feature very heavily around the mid Nineties. My partner and I and our two kids had moved to Bello, and finally managed a deposit on a block of land here in town on which to put down roots, grow a permaculture garden and build the house we'd dreamt of building for so long.

In the videos of that period, made to capture our growing young family, home and garden for grandparents in the UK, as the wild afternoon storms roll through the Valley, it is often the sounds of the Afro Celts that ring out. We were so enamoured of their music that we drove half way across Australia on a whim one long weekend to see them play at Womadelaide.

Thus there is much anticipation in the air as this new Afro Celt Sound System CD "The Source" wings its way by snail mail from England. Their first studio recording in ten years, it's also a 20th Anniversary release, and the core members of this ACSS incarnation have revisited many of the magical musical connections made in that time. First impression, the cover art is stunning. The colourful mandala-like designs by Jamie Reid go full circle back to their debut, "Volume One: Sound Magic".

The opener is "Calling In The Horses": The sound of an ocean lapping, the West African call and response, Moussa Sissokho's talking drum, Simon Emmerson's feedback guitar and Davy Spillane's wistful Uillean Pipes and Irish whistles. Over a rumbling, earthen bass, N'faly Kouyate's voice reaches the heavens.and before we know it we are into "Beware Soul Brother", with the soulful sweet spot being reached by Rioghnach Connolly's ethereal vocals and flute. She's from Ireland but here sounds almost Indian in the phrasing. By track three, "The Magnificent Seven", Johnny Kalsi's Dhol Foundation rejoin the clan and big, emphatic, celebratory noises are being made.

When the Afro Celtic cross-over experiment was first being formulated at one of Peter Gabriel's Real World gatherings twenty years ago, Shooglenifty were recording next door. Their master musicianship featured on that first release and here they are again in the thick of it on "The Source". The novel Gaellic rap, Highland pipes and whistles of new band member Griogair are a revelation. His jazz bagpipes on "Where Two Rivers Meet" are something else altogether. Female vocal groups from both Scotland (Urar) and West Africa (Les Griottes) and some gorgeous singing by Griogair's fellow Highland Crofter Lucy Doogan add a certain serenity to the proceedings.

On "Child of Wonder" there is some intriguing spoken Scottish word by the young writer Pal, and on several of the thirteen tracks there's some great production / programming / beats by long-time collaborator Mass, who brings a touch of dubstep to the proceedings and has his funky Kick Horns brass section in tow to add to the mix.

 This epic eighty minute album finishes with "Kalsi Breakbeat" - a supercharged Shooglenifty/Afro Celt/Dhol Foundation jam session that will go down a storm with Northern Hemisphere festivals this summer. "The Source" brings us the ACSS sound we've known for twenty years, but the fresh additions take things to a whole new level. As it says on the tin: "A Time for Magic"


Friday, 1 April 2016

Zulya & The Children of The Underground "On Love & Science"

At one of the early Bellingen Global Carnivals I was one of many to be awestruck and enchanted by the crystal clarity of Zulya Kamalova's voice. Fronting big crowds with solo voice and accoustic guitar, she was a very assured performer with a winning sense of humour and self-effacing nature. She was freshly arrived in Australia, migrating from her Tatar homeland in the recently broken-up USSR and she told us she felt very much at home here in appreciative Bellingen.

Our six year old son, ever the artfully discerning and unpredictable Chrysalis kid that he was, resolved to spend his Global Carnival pocket money on Zulya's debut CD "Journey of Voice". Like her show it took us on a journey from the deserts of Rajasthan to the Gypsy Jazz and Chanson bars of Paris, via the folk traditions of the Central Eurasian Steppes. Like the rest of us in the audience, he was transported by Zulya's voice.

Since then, Zulya has settled in Melbourne, returned once more to the Global with a group of seriously talented musicians in tow, released several CDs, toured Australia, Russia and Europe to great acclaim and won several prestigious awards. 2016 sees the release of her most adventurous project thus far. As well as her band, she has teamed up with the talented Tatar artist Dilka Bear to release a sumptuous hard-cover book with a CD inside. Dilka's gorgeous drawings accompany Zulya's songs and her sparse and pithy poetic prose to perfection.

Kamalova's recent involvement in several theatrical projects shows through with this new release. From the "Mise-En-Scene" featuring not just a bass clarinet but a thumping contra-bass and assorted sounds from piano, jew's harp and found objects, to the equally quirky and brooding "Epilogue", we are in Bertolt Brechtian / Kurt Weilian / Tom Waitsian territory. There is a beautifully illustrated story going on here with several clever dramatic twists and turns.

Our heroine is a singer called Alma ("Her name simply means apple in Turkic languages, loving one in Latin, girl with beautiful lips in Arabic.") and she is adored by "The Chemist". His love is unrequited, as is her own adoration of an Astro-Physicist, "The Stargazer", whose "dreams were focussed upon unravelling the riddles of the universe using numbers and logic".

I don't think I'm giving too much away when I tell you that there are alternate endings in parallel universes. Along the way, we are treated to some highly intricate, nuanced jazz. The Children Of The Underground have never sounded better. The addition of clarinettist Aviva Endean is a revelation and the many years that these musicians have now been playing together is apparent in the tautness of their sound, and the grace with which they allow each other space, and allow Zulya's crystalline vocals to shine through.

I can't recommend this one highly enough - you can download the music and a pdf of the book from Zulya's bandcamp page, but better still, hassle your local bookshop and / or record store to order some copies in. If I gave stars for reviews, this one would be as stellar as could be.

Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood & The Rajasthan Express "Junun"

In the early eighties,  I purposefully got myself lost one evening in the back streets of Kathmandu and came across the sounds of harmonium, tabla and a chorus of chanting voices. I was beckoned up a narrow staircase and squeezed into the back of an attic room, crammed with a dozen or so ecstatic, devotional Sufi singers reaching to the heavens with their voices - and a bunch of rapt, smiling onlookers like myself.  The soaring spirituality of the Qawwali music I encountered in that attic room was something completely new to me. I came across it again when Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan became one of the first big "world music" stars of the nineties. And now, here it is again through The Rajasthan Express and this exciting new "Junun" project.

Shye Ben Tzur is an Israeli musician who has for many years been living in India and immersing himself in its musical traditions. He composes and performs Qawwali songs in Hindi, Urdu and Hebrew, thus transcending ethnic and religious boundaries through the unifying force of music. For this collaboration he has brought in Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead fame on guitar, bass guitar, drum machine & computers, keyboard and the ancient French electronic instrument Ondes Martenot, along with Nigel Godrich as producer (also of Radiohead fame). They were hosted by the Maharaja of Jodhpur in his 15th Century Mehrangarh Fort, and they lined the wooden walls with mattresses and brought together an amazing array of Indian musicians. First, a Rajasthani Brass Ensemble with trombone, trumpets and three tubas to create the biggest, fattest brass sound when required. Next a Qawwali Chorus lead by Zaki and Zakir Ali and extended family, with obligatory Harmonium, Saranghi, Khartal and Dholak as accompaniments. 

"Junun" translates as "madness of love", and Ben Tzur takes the romantic poetry of the Sufis, which often portrays an intimate relationship with God through language normally reserved for lovers. He and the whole group of musicians and singers reach for - and most definitely attain - something entirely new. Several of the tracks are raucous, rambunctious and celebratory. Others are more pared back, introspective and experimental. To give you an idea, in English the track titles are "Dance", "He", "Let's Go To That Land", "Ascetic", "Beloved", "Let Go" and "Grateful". Then there is the short, left-field ambient piece "There Are Birds in the Echo Chamber" which captures the birds that insisted on flying in through open windows and participating in the recording. The ecstatic, three week-long party in the old Rajasthani Hill Fort was beautifully captured by film-maker Paul Thomas Anderson in the film of the same name "Junun - the madness of love", trailers and excerpts of which are available on youtube. This is as exhilarating as music gets.   

Fatoumata Diawara & Roberto Fonseca "At Home"

The musical and cultural ties that bind Cuba to Mali have been explored by quite a few projects over the years. The original concept for Buena Vista Social Club was to take a group of Malian musicians to Cuba to see what wonders of cross fertilisation might result. Unobtainable visas proved to be the downfall of that project at the time but it was revisited eventually with the fabulous 2010 release AfroCubism.

One of the ace musicians who played with BVSC over the years - Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca - traced his own musical heritage back to West Africa with his last solo release, "Yo". The standout track on that album, "Bibisa", featured the up and coming Malian talent Fatoumata Diawara as guest vocalist and higlighted just how well Cuban and Malian musicians meld together. She has one of those often soft, occasionally abrasive African voices that soars. He plays the most audacious Cuban Jazz piano chops that leave audiences - and fellow musicians - in awe.

The two have now started combining their respective bands and playing together on a regular basis at Festivals and Halls all over the world, to massive acclaim. This new CD was recorded Live at Marciac Jazz Festival in France in 2014. The YouTube video to promote the pair features the opening track "Sowa" (a Diawara original) and the looks they exchange on stage tell a story. As Fonseca has explained, they are "in love, musically" and it's plain to see. The Cuban rhythm section is as tight as can be and they and the Malians, with guitars, ngoni and kora, fit together perfectly, like fingers in a glove.  Fonseca, alternates between his Steinway and a Stevie Wonder-style synth (sometimes playing both at once) really taking things to a whole new, funky level. Fatou's delight is apparent as her music becomes truly transcendental.

The songs on this CD are all quite long pieces, with lots of improvised meandering down musical alleyways to allow each of the perfomers to shine - one of Fonseca's songs, the epic "Connection", clocks in at fourteen minutes - but none of the songs become dull. The Jazzness of some of the tunes can be quite dense at times but, hey, music that requires repeated listens to fully unpick always seems to give the most long-term joy.

Even on the audio recording, it is Diawara and Fonseca smiling beatifically at each other that shines through, as they revel in what each brings to the other's music. The band leave the pair on stage for a sensitive, plaintive piano and vocal rendition of their new co-written song "Real Family" before the ensemble returns for rousing versions of Fatou's songs "Neboufo" and "Clandestin" - dedicated to clandestino refugees the world over.

I really can't wait to hear what musical progeny might result when this lot spend a bit of time in a recording studio, and I do hope they make it down here sometime soon! I know I'm dreaming, but wouldn't that be a great Mem Hall show?