Saturday 5 November 2011

For a few months now I have been writing reviews for Bellbottom magazine. I thought I might park them here once they've been in the mag....

Solomon Robson's CD of the Month Feb 2011


This is a project that was first attempted back in 1996. Nick Gold of World Circuit wanted to bring Cuban and Malian musicians together in a studio in Havana to see what alchemy might result. Unfortunately visa problems intervened, the Malians never made it to Cuba and the studio time was instead used to record the Buena Vista Social Club, which became the top selling World Music CD of all time.
The concept was revisited in 2009 when the Malian Kora player Toumani Diabate, still grieving from the loss of his long time collaborator Ali Farka Toure, enjoyed a jam session at his Amsterdam hotel with Cuban guitarist Eliades Ochoa, one of the surviving members of the original BVSC team. The result was a recording session in Madrid during which 17 songs were recorded in the space of 5 days.
Ochoa brought along his Grupo Patria from Cuba, with drums, double bass, trumpet, accordion and beautiful chorus vocals. Diabate brought the legendary Mande griot singer Kasse Made Diabate, electric guitarist Djelimady Tounkara (from Mali's famous Super Rail Band) and the respected ngoni (Malian banjo) player Bassekou Kouyate.
The African tendency is to relax and just jam with long solos. The Cubans usually thrive on very tight arrangements. In spite of these opposing natures, the joins between the two cultures are seamless: Cuban music has its own roots in the African slave trade and back in the sixties the socialist president of Mali forged links with Castro's Cuba which meant that many of the Malian musicians grew up listening to Cuban sounds on the radio.
From Toumani Diabate's sonorous Cuban flavoured opener "Mali Cuba" to the sublime closing track - an accoustic rendition of "Guantanamera" the alchemy is apparent. The playing is so self-assured and laid back, the meeting of musical minds meaning that the interpreters present were somewhat redundant. As Eliades says: "Afrocubism is more than a's the merging of two such strong powers. It's the musical big bang".

Solomon Robson's CD of the Month - March 2011
Rango - Bride of the Zar

If you were one of the lucky ones able to enjoy this year's Womadelaide, no doubt you will be returning home with vivid memories and tales of Rango. This is both the name of a group of Egyptian & Sudanese musicians taking the world music circuit by storm, and the name of the ancient xylophone-like instrument (with dried gourds acting as resonators below the wooden keyboard) which is the centrepiece of their performance. There are only three such Rangos in existence, and the one played by group leader Hassan Bergamon is 190 years old. It is said to be inhabited by the spirits of previous Zar ceremonies at which it has been played. The Zar is an ancient East African mystic healing ceremony which involves trance-inducing music, wild gyrations and  participants becoming possessed by these spirits.

Repetitive masculine call and response chants and trance-like beats might not be everyone's cup of tea and the retrofitting of simsimiyya and tanbura lyres with electric pickups and rustic amplification give the music an abrasive, almost punky edge that is very much an acquired taste. Standout track on the CD is "Free Mind" when we switch from Sudanese Zar (using pentatonic scales) to Egyptian Zar (Arabian modes and scales) and where the powerhouse singer Sheikha Zanieb takes over the microphone with a fiercely delivered song about the suffering of women. One can easily imagine the instrumental "Baladia Wey" being belted out at ear-splitting volumes on a Rango sound system at a particularly joyful wedding celebration in Egypt.

If you search on the Net for "Rango" and "Zar" you'll come up with a YouTube clip that will give you an idea of the wild and uninhibited energy that pervades Zar music ceremonies. We are assured in the liner notes that "no chickens were harmed in the making of this album  and no entities from alternate dimensions manifested during the recording process", which is nice. We are also warned that "Illegal file sharing and unscrupulous downloading will...enrage the Sudani spirits and other entities that reside in the Rango gourd resonators. Do so at your own risk. We did warn you."

Solomon Robson's CD of the Month - April 2011
"Laru Beya" Aurelio

In the Seventeenth Century two boats carrying slaves from West Africa were shipwrecked off the Caribbean island of St Vincent. The survivors settled amongst the Callinago people who lived there (themselves a Carib / Arawak mix) and Garifuna culture was the result. British colonisers later forcibly moved Garifuna people to the coast of Central America where nowadays, enclaves exist throughout Belize, Honduras and Nicaragua. There is also a sizeable Garifuna diaspora in New York.

In 2007 Stonetree Records had a runaway worldwide success with their Andy Palacio CD "Watina". Sadly Palacio died of heart failure, way too young, soon after it's release. One of the members of his Garifuna Collective, the Honduran Aurelio Martinez has now taken up Palacio's mantle and with "Laru Beya" he will be assured of similar worldwide acclaim.

The languid guitars and shuffling punta, paranda and hungu-hungu rhythms of the Garifuna drums evoke the lapping waves of the Caribbean Sea; The glorious Garifuna women's choruses invoke a joyful sense of community; And one can hear the fruits of Aurelio's Rolex mentorship award which entailed an extended visit to work with Youssou N'Dour in Senegal. As well as N'Dour, two members of Orchestre Baobab also make guest appearances on a couple of the standout tracks - the sublime title track and the beautiful "Bisien Nu".

With the addition of young Senegalese singer Njaaya, Dakar-based Rapper Sen Kumpe and the West African instrumentation of Kora, Wolof drums and Xalam, Aurelio achieves his aim of taking Garifuna music full circle back to its roots in Africa. The subject matter of the songs covers the gamut from bittersweet love songs to edgy political comment; from a lullaby for an AIDS orphan to one extolling the virtue of Garifuna youth keeping up the tradition of baking Cassava bread. My own favourite is one of the tracks featuring Youssou N'Dour: "Wamada" - a note perfect, measured and uplifting tribute to Palacio written and first recorded at the beachside Caribbean sessions in the wake of his unexpected death.

Be prepared to hear this CD in cafes and shops wherever you go in the next few months!

Solomon Robson's CD of the Month - June 2011
Mariza - Fado Tradicionel

The website defines Fado, the urban Portuguese folk music as "A shawl, a guitar, a voice and heartfelt emotion". This musical genre dates back to the early 19th Century and has historically been very much a working class tradition, a vehicle to express feelings of "saudade" or longing.

The best known modern-day fadista, shawl and all, is a singer of Mozambiquan and Portuguese heritage called Mariza. She grew up in her parents' Fado tavern in Lisbon and the essence of Fado pulses through her veins. For ten years she has experimented (to great critical acclaim worldwide) with different and interesting ways of performing her Fado. The crowning glory of her ascent came five years ago when she performed the famed "Concerto em Lisboa", in the floodlit hilltop castle with a full orchestral accompaniment and an adoring audience.

Her last Cd, 2008's "Terra" saw her coming back to Earth in the company of a veritable UN of famous and extraordinarily talented musos. Now her new release, "Fado Tradicional" sees her going back to basics, returning to the small ensemble of double bass, portuguese guitar and fado viola ( played by musicians who are no less talented, just not so famous) and the warm unamplified ambience of the small, late night taverna. An array of vintage analogue equipment was used in the Lisbon studio to achieve this feel.

Not all Fado music is sad. The Generals who controlled Portugal for such a large part of of the last century kept a strict control over the Fado houses, where satirical critiques of their dictatorial regime were hidden in the lyrics of songs. There are several quite jaunty, jolly numbers on this new Mariza CD as the singer runs through one after another of the old Fado classics she would have heard when growing up.

But Mariza really does come into her own when expressing that innermost "saudade" with such controlled passion and vocal dexterity. This is exemplified on a song first recorded by the 20th Century most renowned Fado legend Amalia Rodrigues. It is called "Ai, Esta Pena De Mim" which translates as "Oh, This Pain of Me" and covers a miserable childhood, lost loves, great anxiety, a general lack of peace and a lack of belonging. Indeed this is the stuff that great Art is often made of and it is delivered with Mariza's unique, heart-wrenching panache.

Solomon Robson's CD of the Month - Aug 2011
"Blind Note" by Emre Gültekin, Vardan Hovanissian, Malick Pathé Sow, Osvaldo Hernandez, Karim Baggili, and Talike Gelle (Muziek Publique 003)

Of the 37 million blind people in the world, 90% live in developing countries and 75 % of all these cases are treatable by relatively simple means, which makes the statistics even more shameful. The Belgian NGO "Light For The World" carries out great works caring for blind children in sub-Saharan Africa and this month's featured CD is a fund-raiser for them.

If that wasn't enough reason in itself to buy this CD, the music contained therein is diverse, virtuosic and utterly sublime. It's a record of a concert for 400 people held in the plush Moliere Theatre in Brussels in
late 2010. It features half a dozen musicians from Turkey, Armenia, Senegal, Mexico, Madagascar and Belgium and involves a musical journey through all of their homelands, guided on our way by the unique sounds of their national instruments.

We begin our journey with a traditional Armenian tune "Chiraki Par", and Vardan Hovanissian summoning up a nation's painful memories on the duduk, a wind instrument crafted from the wood of the Apricot tree. The tone and timbre of the duduk imparts a particularly wistful, haunting feel to the proceedings. For this gig at the Moliere Theatre and other subsequent live performances of this music, both audience and musicians are in complete darkness. Listening to this music in the dark helps us to focus entirely on the harmonies unearthed by these six musicians, each of whom has a successful international career in his or her own right.

The tunes and songs that make up the rest of this concert / CD take us to Madagascar, through Talike Gelle's gorgeous compositions and vocals; to Senegal with Malick Pathé Sow's ancient hoddu flute and rustic calabash; to Anatolia with  Emre Gültekin's saz and bendir; to Mexico with Osvaldo Hernandez's discrete percussion on cajon and maracas; and to the Middle East with Karim Baggili's ever so atmospheric oud.

What could so easily have become a mish-mash of disconnected cultures is instead - due to the immense respect and space that the musicians give to each other and the sumptuous accoustics of the old theatre - a work of sublime beauty. The standout track for me is the closer, "
Andao Ene Holy", a gorgeous uptempo, uplifting mix of soaring Madagascan vocals and Andean style guitars, flutes and percussion that must have sent the Moliere audience off into the Brussels night with a renewed bounce in their stride.

A wonderful aesthetic touch to the CD package is the braille on the sleeve. All round, a fabulous release from a young and innovative Belgian record company called Muziek Publique.

Solomon Robson's CD of the Month - Sept 2011
"In Trance" by JuJu (Justin Adams & Juldeh Camara)

It most certainly lives up to its name. It's Psychedelic. It's improvised - done and dusted in a series of seven one take wonders. It's a convergence of age-old folk and cutting edge techno. It's the new, third release from Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara (now called, rather more snappily for promoters everywhere, JuJu) and, with hints of Tinariwen, Led Zep, Hendrix and The Clash through a fully dubbed up Jamaican Sound System, it certainly delivers the advertised trance-like experience.

Their 2007 debut as a duo "Soul Science" and its equally feted follow-up "Tell No Lies" were both mesmerising in their own rights. But this new one is simply breathtaking. It's the addition of the rock steady rhythm section of Billy Fuller and Dave Smith that makes a world of difference and takes their collaboration to a whole new level of true juju.

From the heady rush of "Night Walk", through the knock-your-socks-off Trance of "Djanfa Moja" and on to the wide open North African Desert Soundscapes of "Deep Sahara" every track on the album is a cracker. At the core is the soulful, symbiotic musical bond that has developed between the two main protagonists. Adams' chunky, very African-sounding Les Paul really strikes a chord for the master Gambian Ritti player Camara, whose plaintive Fulani vocals soar above the layers of rhythms and melodies that the four musicians have woven below.

The Ritti is a one stringed African instrument, a bit like a fiddle and played from the hip with a rustic bow. Never has the sound of one string playing sounded so good. You can check out Camara's irrepressible punk energy and attitude (pork pie hat, suit, shades and all) for yourself in the following YouTube clip

Solomon Robson's CD of the Month - Oct 2011
"Strange Birds in Paradise", the documentary movie by Charlie Hill-Smith and accompanying soundtrack CD featuring music by David Bridie and Arnold Ap (performed by the growing Melbourne-based Papuan diaspora) was released in August.

The film is not for the faint-hearted as it documents the atrocities carried out by TNI (the Indonesian military) in the name of preserving the integrity of the Indonesian nation. In reality they are tenaciously guarding their vast illegal logging concessions and their open-cast mines, which so pollute and scar the pristine and precious Papuan rainforest. The scale of the Freeport Gold mine defies description, the largest open cut mine on the planet. Any hint of separatist sentiment can result in the most summary of injustices. The shootings, torture, environmental degradation and disappearances are documented in graphic detail.

Thankfully, these horrors are somewhat balanced by Hill-Smith's own journey and his attempts at understanding the Papuan psyche in light-hearted moments while enjoying the phenomenal hospitality offered by ordinary Papuan villagers and refugees. Inevitably, the tendency of Papuan people to burst into heartfelt choral harmonies that sound like they're piped direct from heaven features to the fore, the talented band of refugees (led by Donny Roem and Jacob Rumbiak) coming together to artfully recreate the songs of Arnold Ap back in Bridie's Melbourne studio.

Close your eyes listening to the glorious, soaring and particularly angelic vocals of Hein Arumisore on "Apuse" and you are transported directly to the Highlands. Most poignant of all though is the song "Mystery of Life", the last song penned by Ap before his murder by TNI soldiers. He was a musicologist and curator of the Museum of the Bird of Paradise in Jayapura. He saw it as part of his job to collect and preserve Papuan songs, language, stories and arts. The military saw him as a threat and accused him of writing songs that encouraged the OPM separatist struggle. He was arrested and shot "while trying to escape" - but not before he had recorded this one last sad song on a cassette and smuggled it out to his wife. It says an awful lot about the way music and art permeates Papuan lives that their national hero is a martyred singer / songwriter.

One can only hope that the consciousness-raising aspect of this production will bear fruit. Given that one fifth of the entire Indonesian tax base comes from West Papua it is hard to envisage the Indonesian government granting full independence. In 2001, the elected leader of the Papuan Presidium Council (PDP), Mr Theys Eluay, was assassinated by the Indonesian military. But the changes that have taken place in Indonesia in recent years and the self-determination and autonomy granted to East Timor and Aceh make some small glimmer of hope possible. For our part, we can put pressure on our politicians here to do the right thing. We can write emails. We can put on fund raisers. As the byline says, "music can rise above tyranny" - MERDEKA!

Solomon Robson's CD of the Month - Nov 2011

Earlier this year, the Shrewsbury Folk Festival in England brought together eight of the finest folk musicians around - a Scot, a Canadian, an American and five English people - and set them up in a Shropshire farmhouse for a week to collaborate on an opus aimed at celebrating the life and song-preserving endeavours of Cecil Sharp, with particular reference to Sharp's travels in Appalachia at the time of the First World War.

The resulting CD and DVD are both hugely entertaining and educational in equal measure. Linguist Bill Bryson has written of how certain olde English colloquialisms that have died out in England have survived, quaintly intact in the New World, as if in a time capsule from the Tudor era. A beautiful example is the very American and olde English invitation to the audience to use the interval to "get more libated".

The same is true of English culture generally, and when Sharp travelled in Appalachia he was looking for examples of the English folk songs and dances that had been long forgotten back in "Mother England". Which, coincidentally, is the title of one of the first and best songs in this collection, collected by Sharp closer to home in Somerset and sung by the beautifully understated Jackie Oates. Another such transplanted and rediscovered gem is the tragic old English ballad, "Earl Brand", here sung by Oates' brother Jim Moray, with her own harmonies again adding extra, exquisite layers of emotion.

The success of the Project lies in the canny choice of the Ensemble. There is a distinct lack of ego. The harmonies between the voices are sublime; the brilliant balance of genders, nationalities and instrumentation leads to a whole heap of fun being had by the performers...which means fun for us, too. Someone who is most definitely not understated is manic Banjo player extraordinaire, Canadian Leonard Podolak. He brings Stateside irreverance in spades and countryside harvest hoe-down hilarity to a couple of the songs collected by Sharp in Appalachia - "The Coo-Coo Bird" and "Ol' Groundhog" - as well as one written by the group about Sharp's difficulty finding any vegetarian fare along the way, "Veggie In The Holler". Cecil notes with horror in his diary that the locals thought a chicken was a vegetable. Always the live wire, Podolak's "Hambone" dance and body percussion lessons are a sight to behold on the DVD.

The bookends of the project are ably provided by Steve Knightley, centre stage - the singer / guitarist with Cornish duo "Show of Hands" and elder statesman of the group. First up is "Mining for Songs" hammered out by Knightley on a battered old Appalachian dulcimer with the refrain "I search for songs in America like strangers pan for gold. I'll sift and sort or throw away. Others gently hold."

And at the end, in Sharp's voice from his death bed, is Knightley's "Ghost of Songs": "I must sleep, my work is over. From this land I'll go no more. Now the night will be my lover but there are ghosts around my door." He is haunted by the many people he has met along the way who have been so hospitable and gladly shared their treasured folk traditions with him, their names and songs sombrely read out to great effect by American Caroline Herring.
"They haunt me still from distant places, in a thousand songs and a million words. A hundred names, forgotten faces that still live on while they are heard."

For an encore, after a quick Morris Dance and Appalachian footstomp, the eight return for the light-hearted and slightly bawdy "Maud & Cecil", which casts crude aspersions about the true nature of the relationship between Sharp and his young assistant. After his demise, Maud Karpeles carried on Sharp's good work with a book about him and a solo song-collecting trip to Newfoundland. She was also ultimately responsible for the creation of Cecil Sharp House, home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.