Saturday 9 November 2013

Shellie Morris and The Borroloola Songwomen - "Ngambala Wiji Li-Wunungu - Together We Are Strong"

The cultural importance of this ABC release cannot be over-estimated. Shellie Morris's paternal grandmother, the celebrated Hilda Muir, was a proud Yanyuwa woman from the Borroloola region, and a member of the Stolen Generations. Shellie herself was adopted by a non-Aboriginal family and brought up in Sydney where, after some troubled teenage years, she found redemption in music.

After some operatic training she became a singer with the Black Arm Band. Parallel to this, she has spent many years touring Aboriginal communities, learning fourteen indigenous languages along the way and running countless workshops to encourage indigenous people young and old to record their stories in song. In 2011, Shellie was invited to take part in the Song Peoples Sessions - to go back to her grandmother's country in Borroloola and record traditional songs from her grandmother's extended family. Nannas, aunties, sisters and daughters came together to share their language and songs with Shellie.

She in turn composed new songs entirely in Yanyuwa, songs which pay respect to ancestors, totems and identity, songs of life, celebration and survival in the Gulf Country. There are two discs in this release - the first is made up of Shellie's own Yanyuwa compositions, performed with the Borroloola Songwomen and embellished with a lush string ensemble and great beats and atmospherics from Tim Cole (ex Not Drowning Waving) and Wantok's Airileke Ingram. The ten songs bring us a seamless soundscape of life in the Top End, celebrating the elements and the seasons and a way of life. The standout track would have to be "Ngabujiyu a-Kuija (Nanna Song)", which neatly encapsulates the emotional roller coaster that Shellie embarked on with this very emotional musical homecoming. The second disc is a priceless socio-historical document.

It brings us the pure, unembellished field recordings of the Gulf country Songwomen. Sung in Yanyuwa, Marra, Garrwa and Gudanji languages, these songs reflect everyday events and the flora and fauna that give life to the land's custodians. Songs about Rising Tides, Lightning, Seagrass, Turtles, Black Plums, Green Plums, Red Parrots and Torres Strait Island Pigeons. Songs that document a Wife Driven Away or that tell stories of Ancestral Dreaming Women who rose up out of the sea, like mermaids. These Songwomen are the social historians of their communities, and these recordings are National Treasures.



Saturday 28 September 2013

David Bridie "Wake"

It's a crying shame that Bellingen is missing out on David Bridie's 2013 tour to promote his recent release "Wake". He has been here before in several incarnations to great acclaim, most recently a couple of Global Carnivals with Frank Yamma and George Telek.

Apart from being a prolific artist in his own right, Bridie has long championed indigenous music from our region through the Wantok Foundation and record label. It is good to see him now in his own solo career, circumventing the tyranny of the Record Company A&R people by using crowd-funding to help finance the creation and recording of "Wake".

Instead of the album that the record company thinks he should create, here we have the one that he's been threatening to make for years, the one that's totally from his heart. It is a thing of beauty, even down to the artful sleeve and liner notes. In promotional interviews, he has explained that he chose the title for its many meanings.

We can be awakened, we can have a wake when someone dies and we can be in the wake of someone or something. Bridie's previous three solo Cd's, as well as a bunch of "Not Drowning Waving", "My Friend The Chocolate Cake" and Soundtrack albums have always featured quirky wordplay, and subject matters that make you think about issues. This new release is in the same vein. Intriguing titles such as "Dr Seuss is painting in the sky", "The shortest day of the year" and "Stoned in Kabul" draw the listener in, and Bridie gets to wax lyrical about such varied matters as wars on foreign soil, lovers growing old together, dementia and our nation's shameful treatment of refugees.

The video for "Delegate" is challenging stuff, with a Department of Immigration public servant becoming so distressed at having to deny refugee status to so many that he sets fire to himself in the office to the horror of surrounding work colleagues. For this CD and tour, Bridie has teamed up with his fellow "Not Drowning, Waving" band member John Phillips and it is Phillips' abrasive guitar work that gives the more angry songs their emphatic edge. On several of the songs it appears that Bridie has completely relaxed and discovered new registers to his voice, a Nick Cave-like depth to his voice that lends itself to much more varied tones and textures than we have heard in the past. Apart from a host of indie stars helping out, there is also a sign of things to come with young Stella Bridie providing sparkling backing vocals that complement her Dad's so perfectly on four of the songs.

Not least of these is the CD's closer, and probably my favourite track just for the impish sense of fun that imbues the recording - made in a log cabin out in the Victorian bush, it features the banjo picking of one Anthony Morgan and is a haunting reinvention of the old Hank Williams classic "I'm so lonesome I could cry". Sure, David Bridie can still pen a tune that you find yourself singing several times a day. But it is the sign of a confident and mature artist that he can create such nuanced colourful soundscapes by what is left out. It is the silences and spaces that mark this album's greatness. I get the feeling that in years to come this will be regarded as an Australian classic.

Jackie Oates "Lullabies"

There is something about a good lullaby that can have a very primal, calming effect. English Folk singer and musician Jackie Oates has long been fascinated by them, being struck by the way that adults can hear a lullaby and have very strong childhood memories and feelings. This new album is a collection of her favourite lullabies and sleep songs, found in old song collections, books and recordings - and, particularly if you have small children to calm down in the evening - I can heartily recommend investing in a copy.

Jackie Oates has long been a firm favourite on the Local Global Show. She has folk music in her DNA and first came to world-wide attention with Rachel Unthank & The Winterset. Between 2006 and 2011 she released a series of four solo albums to great critical acclaim - "Hyperboreans" and "Saturnine" being the most recent and most feted. Along the way she has won an array of awards and been involved in a number of side projects, two of which have featured in these pages before.

She was an integral part of The Cecil Sharp Project and is now a permanent member of The Imagined Village, re-inventing English Folk with an infusion of multiculturalism. But with this new solo project, she has really come into her own. The intrumentation is always gentle and sparse and she has chosen some great musicians to accompany her on this journey. There's Belinda O'Hooley on piano and Barney Morse-Brown on cello as well as an Icelandic string quartet which creeps in from time to time to great effect. Oates herself plays violin, viola and shruti box.

The CD opens with a cracker: "Dream Angus" is a well-known Scottish lullaby about Angus, the Celtic god of dreams, and the arrangement is quite beautiful. We then have two short "Dandling Songs" of Swedish origin - to be sung while dancing your baby on your knee. Next up is "Waiting For The Lark", one of her own childhood faves, often sung by her folkie family. There are also a couple of sublime Icelandic lullabies contributed by guest musicians during dark winter's night recording sessions in Reykjavik.

Oates has found and dusted off some real gems that have long been hidden away in historical song collections, and she uses the words of Shakespeare, AA Milne and Thomas Hardy to great effect in three songs. There's even a fine traditional Australian lullaby "Little Fishes / The Rainy Day Fisherman".

One of the most successful - and surprising - song choices is the quirky and insightful "Junk" by Paul McCartney, written while he was in India with The Beatles and recorded on his 1970 solo album. While not strictly a lullaby it has a lilt and rhythm that seems designed to soothe and calm and it's a perfect fit for this collection.

The strongest, most arresting song is the Cd's closer - "Sleepers Awake", sung with great tenderness by Oates and the talented Chris Sarjeant. It is acapella apart from the hum of the shruti and is a brilliant rendition of the 1969 Incredible String Band classic. I imagine you'll be enjoying some peace and quiet by the time you get to the end of this CD. I'd be very surprised if your little ones weren't asleep halfway through "Dream Angus".

Sunday 7 July 2013

LAU "Race The Loser"

They're not massively well-known here in Australia, but LAU were one of the stand-outs of this year's Womadelaide Festival during their brief foray to these shores to promote their latest CD release "Race The Loser". This year's BBC Radio 3 Folk Awards have yet again recognised them as the best UK Folk band around, adding to a swag of accolades and awards they have accumulated since their inception in 2004.

What started as three friends sitting around a kitchen table in Edinburgh to play a few tunes together on fiddle, guitar and squeezebox has developed into something quite extraordinary. Their previous studio CD's "Lightweights and Gentlemen" and "Arc Light" established Messrs Drever, Green and O'Rourke as musicians' musicians with a tendency to push the envelope and bring elements of Jazz and Improvisation to the world of Folk.

But it is their teaming up with legendary Nashville-born Producer Tucker Martine (noted for his work with Sufjan Stevens, The Decemberists, R.E.M, Abigail Washburn and Laura Veirs) and the incorporation of sound-effects, tricks and techniques learnt through a collaboration with ambient electro pioneer Adem which have taken this CD to a whole new level. As Martin Green (who now somehow simultaneously plays accordion, keyboards and manages loops and sound effects in the live show) explains
"We learned an awful lot from Adem. Folk music can be quite conservative at times, but he worked in such a different way it opened a lot of things up and gave us permission to do anything. We have these additional tools and writing compositions that include laptop, effects and loops has become part of the process."

"Race The Loser" has more changes of pace and atmospheric flourishes than its predecessors. Aidan O'Rourke's fiddle is multi-tracked to great effect and Green's keyboards brought more to the fore in the mix. Kris Drever's Guitar and Vocals are used more sparingly and to much greater effect than ever. The somewhat sparse opener "Saint Monday" paints a sombre picture of a post-industrial wasteland. This gives way to a driving "Far from Portland" that - through it's use of percussive sound effects and a sonic meltdown - is unlike anything Lau have done before and is totally engaging for it's whole 8 minute duration.

"The Bird That Winds The Spring", "Save The Bees", "Torsa" and "Throwing Pennies" are all the sorts of Lau songs / tunes that you find impossible to get out of your head after listening to them a couple of times. But it is as a Live band that Lau really come into their own. In full flight, they are quite epic to behold - virtuosic and experimental in the extreme. Their mutual musical understanding and respect have created a unit that leaves audiences spellbound. Roll on the day when they get back here for a proper visit to share their awe-inspiring talents with a wider Australian audience. In the meantime the CD's will have to do.

Billy Bragg "Tooth & Nail"

I've always been a fan of Billy Bragg's shtick. Those early 80's solo shows introduced us to his uniquely unselfconscious abrasive electric guitar style and his ever-so-clever lyricism - sometimes poignant, sometimes funny, often political and always incisive.
Anyone who can get away with rhyming "unrequited" and "a party to which I was never invited" is in my book a great lyricist. His poetic genius has been confirmed many times over the years - not least on 1988's "Workers Playtime" when he sang of his girlfriend telling him
"No amount of poetry would mend this broken heart,  but you can put the Hoover round if you want to make a start".

So Bragg has set a very high bar for himself. Maybe that's why it's been five years between drinks - 2008's "Mr Love & Justice" was a somewhat patchy affair with some real gems and some that didn't meet the high expectations he has created. With the release of "Tooth and Nail" it is apparent that here is a man in his mid-fifties who is absolutely at the top of his game. He's taken control of the means of production and using the internet to communicate with and sell directly to his loyal and extensive audience. He's taken off to the Californian sun and recorded a bunch of great songs with top producer Joe Henry and a bunch of very talented, mainly accoustic musicians. Greg Leisz's pedal steel guitar gives the project a genuine bluegrass feel that suits Bragg's present persona perfectly.

He revisits the Woody Guthrie songbook for "I Ain't Got No Home", a biting and highly relevant critique of the plight of the dispossessed worker in the depression. He penned "There Will Be A Reckoning" to express his disgust at the Neo-Nazi merchants of hate who tried to run for political office in his home town of Barking, Essex. He tries to sum up his own socialist beliefs by borrowing from the Bible in "Do Unto Others". "Noone Knows Nothing Anymore" tries to make sense of the "atoms spinning round and round deep down in the underground" and ends with "one head being banged against a wall".

He bemoans the fact that he can't be the handyman his partner wants him to be: "Don't be expecting me to put up shelves or build a garden shed, but I can write a song that tells the world how much I love you instead" is a line which must surely have won him brownie points with Juliet. But it's his wrestling with, and trying to get to grips with, the emotions that come with the ups and downs of a long-term relationship that are the most compelling songs - "January Song", "Swallow My Pride", "Your Name On My Tongue" and "Chasing Rainbows" all draw the listener back for more plays to peel back the layers of meaning. It's great to see and hear Billy in such fine form. He could even be talking to an Australian election year populace when, in the CD's closer, he sings "To the misanthropic, misbegotten merchants of gloom....Tomorrow's Going To Be A Better Day, we're going to make it that way"

Tuesday 7 May 2013

Lo'Jo "Cinema El Mundo"

In September 2011 the members of Lo'Jo gathered at their farmhouse - "La Fontaine du Mont" - in the Angers countryside in the West of France. It was time to put together a record to celebrate thirty years of playing genre-defying music and travelling the world together, and what better venue than the place they had used as a communal base for so many of those years.

Special friends were invited: Stephane Coutable with his bassoon, Vincent Segal and his viola, Guo Gan and his Chinese erhu, and Andra Kouyate brought his n'goni. Assorted singers and percussionists, guitarists and brass and woodwind players showed up. As did Robert Wyatt with that golden voice. Friends from Tinariwen even dropped by. One of the groups founders, Denis Pean had written some fine poetry for the occasion which he delivered with his own totally uniquely French, alternately whispering and growling voice. Pean's delivery was balanced as ever by the haltingly, serenely beautiful harmonies of the Nid El Mourid sisters, Nadia and Yamina.

Between recording sessions, round the giant table in the kitchen, sumptuous feasts of rustic peasant food and wine were enjoyed by all. The assembled musicians, singers and storytellers take us on a journey all over the Earth, as if re-tracing their own global experiences of the last thirty years. It is such a cliche to call music filmic, but with this album it is hard not to. I don't know whether the title "Cinema el Mundo" came first or whether it seemed the obvious title for such a collection of vignettes, but filmic it most certainly is. The chosen (often sparse, sometimes lush) instrumentation gives each piece its own unique sense of place - with "Vientiane" and "Alger", for example, we are right there, within the first few bars.

Each of the fifteen songs tells its own story, like a self-contained short film, with Pean's masterful poetry to the fore - "Tout est (All is) fragile, important, fugitif. Tout est eternel" The "Marseillaise en Creole" is a mad and glorious look at all that is great about multicultural modern-day France Reciting poetry in perfect French, Robert Wyatt opens the CD. He returns to sing on the sublime title track. My own favourite is "African Dub Crossing the Fantoms of an Opera" which features the ensemble at their dance-able best.

With musicians from all over the place and all manner of genres visited, Pean describes this venture as "an affaire of the world, collective, sometimes extreme, but also engaged and political" He is often compared to Tom Waits, largely because he stands outside the mainstream of the music "industry", remaining true to his own self and free to create whatever he chooses at his remote farmhouse. This latest creation is a fine way to celebrate thirty years of doing just that.

Saturday 30 March 2013

Jama Ko - Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba

I've been featuring the music of Bassekou Kouyate and his group Ngoni Ba on 2BBB's Local Global Show for five years now. Ngoni Ba's first two releases, "Segu Blue" and "I Speak Fula", were amongst the most feted releases to come out of Mali in recent times, with the focus on the Ngoni being of great interest to musicians and audiences far and wide.

 When Bassekou was 18 and playing music with Bamako's famous Rail Band, he made his first solo trip to the USA at the invitation of Taj Mahal. On visiting an African-American Museum, he saw that early slaves had taken the Ngoni with them across the Atlantic, only for it to evolve (with the addition of machine heads and other adjustments) into what we call a Banjo. The original Ngoni is like a hollowed out cricket bat with strings and Ngoni Ba were the first to experiment with a larger, bass version of the instrument as well as other sizes and tunings.

 Bassekou Kouyate comes from a long line of griots who have specialised in the art of playing the Ngoni, and he is now obviously enjoying the fact that his own sons are of an age when they too can join him and their mother, the beautiful, talented and renowned Malian singer Amy Sacko, on stage at festivals and concerts all over the planet. One of my favourite tracks on this new CD is the closer "Moustafa", written by Moustafa 'Vieux' Kouyate in which he thanks his Mum and Dad for putting him through school and teaching him the Ngoni. He and his brother Madou, who plays the Ngoni bass, are only in their early twenties but they've been playing the instrument ever since they could pick one up and carry it.

 The new family-oriented line-up - with father, mother, two sons and a nephew in matching colourful traditional robes - blew audiences away recently at Womadelaide with their totally-in-synch togetherness. They are as tight as any band I have ever seen and with this new CD "Jama Ko", there has been something of a shift, with performances being taken to a whole new level. There is now a far greater use of electronic effects, in particular the wah-wah on Bassekou's lead Ngoni which lends an air of breathless excitement and urgency.

 Perhaps it is a reflection of the circumstances in which the album came to be recorded in Bamako in March 2012. Producer Howard Bilerman (renowned for his work with Arcade Fire) had been flown in from Montreal and Studio Bogolan booked, only for the city and country to descend into utter chaos as an unexpected military coup took place, ousting Kouyate's friend and supporter President Amadou Toumani Toure. Shots rang out barely a kilometre from where the recordings were taking place, with the radio station being the centre of the fighting. The coup changed the mood of the country overnight but somehow, between power cuts, fuel shortages and daily curfews, the recording still took place.

 It is best exemplified by Bassekou's insistent "Ne Me Fatigue Pas" (Don't wear me out) a fast-paced, trance-like put down of all the shenanigans taking place around them. The chaos in the capital meant that things also changed rapidly in the North of Mali, with Islamist insurgents taking advantage and taking control, to impose sharia law and ban music in a country where music is in the blood. The title track "Jama Ko" means 'a great meeting of people' : Bassekou explains the meaning thus: "There are over 90% Muslims in Mali, but our form of Islam here has nothing to do with a radical form of Sharia: that is not our culture....If the Islamists stop people making music, they will rip the heart out of Mali". If you would like to discover the heart of this incredibly diverse and highly musical nation, you should track down a copy of this CD.

The Life and Times of....... - The Hot 8 Brass Band

If you have ever watched "Treme" (the latest much-lauded HBO TV show from the makers of "The Wire") you will have seen the Hot 8 Brass Band in action. It is a fascinating series that documents people returning to post-Katrina New Orleans to pick up the pieces of their lives. Much of the action centres on the lives of the musicians and it vividly portrays just how central music is to the everyday life of the city.

Whether playing in the "second line" New Orleans parades, at a traditional Jazz funeral, or in a crowded bar in the Treme area, the Hot 8 grab our attention because they are so young, so talented and so together musically. Most have been playing in bands since starting High School and their youth means they bring an energy and a "street" / hiphop feel to whatever tunes they play. They do a couple of covers on their new CD: The Specials' "Ghost Town" (very redolent with meaning with post-flood New Orleans in mind) and Basement Jaxx's "Bingo Bango" - and they make both tunes very much their own.

There is a real sense of Joie de Vivre in their music that belies the hard times they have been through. Three founding members died as a result of handgun violence, with one of them killed by the often brutal NOPD with his hands in the air and in possession of little more than a trombone case. Another member was lost to drugs. A third band member gets around in a wheelchair after getting out of one car and into the path of another speeding vehicle. Many of the group struggle with health issues, with youth obesity and diabetes being such epidemic killers in their part of the world, particularly amongst African American working class neighbourhoods

"War Time" struts along, angrily propelled by the heavyweight Sousaphone and Bass Drum, with some wild Jazz saxophone, trumpet and trombone letting rip. But we're having a Party here, with a capital P, so the wild solos always give way to the catchy refrain. This is eminently dance-able music. The hiphop chants in this and "Let Me Do My Thing" illustrate their immense self-belief these days. They are now signed to TruThoughts Records in the UK and are making waves far and wide. There is a touch of the swagger of Funk and Stax Soul about the songs on this CD.

The track I keep coming back to for the Local Global Show is "Steamin' Blues" - a truly riotous piece, swinging along and featuring virtuosic displays by all of the ensemble in the best Jazz traditions but with a thoroughly modern day street-oriented take on proceedings. Further emphasising this, the sleeve is adorned with an array of amazing graffiti artworks created by Banksy in New Orleans after the flood, which cleverly satirise the social issues facing the Hot 8, their neighbours and the other inhabitants of Treme.

Friday 25 January 2013

Archie Roach "Into The Bloodstream" This new CD from one of Australia's living national treasures is an absolute revelation. I've always appreciated his work - his breakthrough "Charcoal Lane", his atmospheric soundtrack for "The Tracker" movie and his last release "Journey" are testament to Roach's strong song-writing and story-telling abilities. But I've never really enjoyed his music. His pain was so transparent - and for very good reason, given his stolen childhood and his struggles to cope as an adult - so that his music often made for very uneasy listening. In the liner notes to "Into The Bloodstream" Roach reveals that his own attitude to Pain was transformed during the making of this latest album. He used to think that letting go of his Pain was the only way to get over it, but he came to understand that the Pain may always be there, and that a different attitude to life, some good medicine and the creative process of writing songs about it gave him ways of coming to terms with it. To say that he's had a challenging few years is something of an understatement. First, he unexpectedly lost his soul mate Ruby Hunter. Then, during his grieving, he suffered a debilitating stroke. While recovering from that, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and had to have half a lung removed. Little wonder that he was initially finding it hard to find his muse when first trying to gather ideas for "Into The Bloodstream". The opening title track is familiar territory to those who know his work. But there are hints of a positivity and a lightness that we haven't heard before. The next track "Song To Sing" is a full-blown Gospel number that simply soars. Check out the video for it on YouTube and I defy you not to shed tears of joy. Shot with an indigenous choir and a large ensemble in St Brigid's church in Archie's hometown of of Killarney, it is truly inspirational. "Mulyawongk" is a beautiful tribute to Ruby and her many virtues. "Wash My Soul In The River's Flow", though penned by Roach, sounds like a New Orleans standard and allows Archie to revel in his discovery of whole new registers to his voice. "We Won't Cry" is a gorgeous duet with his old mate Paul Kelly. "Hush Now Babies" (with Emma Donovan) and "Old Mission Road" are touching tributes to his much missed Mother and Father, celebratory without being maudlin. There is so much to like about this album. All I can say is get down to your local record store and BUY IT - without further ado. As Archie says in the sleeve notes (and what lovely artwork too): "Doing this album has been good medicine for me! I hope listening to it will be the same for you!"