Saturday 31 October 2015

Jayme Stone's Lomax Project

Canadian Banjo player Jayme Stone read a biography called "Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded The World" (by John Szwed) and, realising that the centenary of Lomax's birth was approaching, had a light bulb moment in which he envisaged a centenary project to pay tribute to Lomax's many and varied field recordings.

At various folk festivals and musical gatherings he began to workshop re-imaginings of some of the vast array of music that Lomax recorded in the latter two-thirds of the Twentieth Century across the North American continent, the Caribbean and the UK. A Kickstarter project ensued and enthusiastic fans helped Stone's fabulous vision to take shape.

Starting in 1933 with a Model A Ford, an Edison acetate disc-cutter, a stylus made of cactus needles and a microphone, Alan Lomax began a life's work (continuing that of his father) of creating an aural record of the Folk traditions of America for the Library of Congress and The Smithsonian. As he wrote in the official record of his 1937 trip around the rutted, unmade back roads of Kentucky "A collector of folk song lives and works by the kindness of the people in the localities to which he goes." This kindness still shines through in these performances by Jayne Stone and his accomplished collaborators.

Margaret Glaspy and Tim O'Brien contribute a vocal tenderness, and the instrumentation throughout (banjo, accordion, fiddle, guitar, bass, drums, mandolin) is in sympathy with the original Lomax recordings. The virtuosic improvisations of the modern day musicians take these songs or tunes to new places but stay very true to the originals. The Lomax Project manages to find the perfect balance between inheritance and invention.

There are some jaunty instrumentals here, and some soulful accapella ("The Devil's Nine Questions is outstanding). There are some sea shanties (I never knew that "Shenandoah" came from French-Canadian voyageurs and tells the story of a Missouri river trader who courted the daughter of Native American Chief Shenandoah for seven years). There is some truly magnificent Appalachian Bluegrass playing, some Southern Blues inspired by Lomax's recordings of Leadbelly, Fats Domino and Muddy Waters and some African-infused working songs from the days of Slavery. There is a Travellers' Song from Scotland and even a Calypso, "Bury Boula for Me", from Trinidad given perfect voice by fellow Canadian Drew Gonsalves of Kobo Town.

Many folk ballads that one hears in the "New World" travelled from Britain to the lumber camps of Nova Scotia or the Appalachian Mountains providing something of a time capsule. One of the songs in this collection can be traced back to Child Ballad No. 1 from Francis James Child’s collection. The earliest version can be found in a handwritten manuscript from 1450 housed at the Bodelian Library in Oxford. As Stone points out in the sleeve notes, "The songs come from sea captains, cowhands, fishermen, homemakers, prisoners and farmers: extraordinary, everyday folks making homemade, handmade music."

The honesty and generosity of these extraordinary people were captured so well for posterity by Lomax's recordings, and Stone makes me want to track down Szwed's biography to find out more about the life and adventures of Alan Lomax and the people he encountered along the way.

Saturday 25 July 2015

XAOS "Chaos"

Rarely has a musical release been so sweetly timed. Billed as "Post-Troika Hellenic Trance Music", this latest collaboration by Nick "Dubulah" Page (of Transglobal Underground, Natasha Atlas, Dub Colossus and Syriana renown) called "Xaos" (the Greek word for Chaos) is one that has been gestating for about ten years.
Being half-Greek, Dubulah has long wanted to celebrate the musical traditions of his mother's homeland and, to that end, has been working on "Xaos" with Greek (but Australian-born) electronic musician, artist and composer Ahetas. The project has taken shape in fits and starts, as and when circumstances have allowed some of the finest Greek players of traditional instruments and the two main protagonists to be in the same place at the same time.

There are some common misconceptions around Greek musical culture. Most people outside of Greece would think of Bouzoukis, Nana Mouskouri, Zorba - and perhaps at a pinch Rebetiko. But Greek music has a rich five thousand year history. The instrumentation of "Xaos" reflects this perfectly with a Nay (Nose flute), Bul Bul (double flute), a Clarino (Greek clarinet), haunting Gaida (Greek bagpipes) and the exquisite Pontic Lyra. All of this is topped off with traditional Greek and modern-day Junk percussion,  a Double Bass, Dubulah's guitars, Ahetas' old-school ARP keyboards and both of their digital wizardy.

As one might expect from a piece of work that's taken ten years to come to fruition, the nature of the music is that it is not in a hurry to go anywhere. The lapping of the Mediterranean and some extraordinary chanted scales start us on our way on "Pontos Blues", with cameos by some of the aforementioned traditional instruments. This feeds beautifully into "Poreia Processional" which takes us on a slow march through ancient streets, the hypnotic music taking us to another place by virtue of an ever-evolving theme with minute microtonal changes along the way.

By the time we get to the dramatic "Antigone stin plateia syntagma" ("Antigone in Constitution Square") one can start to feel the tension in the air of the inevitable, imminent popular unrest at the crazy, punitive counter-productive austerity measures insisted upon by the Troika. How refreshing that this masterpiece of a CD arrives at a time when Greek society is under so much pressure to re-evaluate its relationship with Europe.

There is a peace and a confident beauty in this music. By the last three somewhat more ambient tracks it is anything but Chaotic, rather it achieves a certain serenity. The seemingly effortless fusion of ancient and modern Balkan ideas, tones, melodies and instruments echoes none other than the work of Mercan Dede on the other side of the Bosphorus. Maybe it is time for Greece to turn its back on Europe and re-discover its true cultural strengths and identity elsewhere?

Mbongwana Star "From Kinshasa"

Every now and then, an act emerges that blows away any preconceived ideas of "genre" and creates something bold and shockingly new.

Mbongwana Star from the Democratic Republic of Congo is one such act and their debut CD "From Kinshasa..." is blowing away critics and audiences alike as they leave the poverty of their shanty-town homes in Kinshasa and begin their extensive world travels to promote it.

There are distorted amplification and repetitive beats here that are redolent of earlier exciting Congotronics projects, with thumb pianos and electric guitars put through all manner of electronic effects boxes made from old car parts and other junk. Indeed Congotronics' Konono#1 feature on the irresistable standout track "Malukayi".

Here are also the heart and soul of Congolese rhumba and soukous: Beatific, heavenly harmonies which give way to insistent, hypnotic, brooding rhythms and a bass that is sometimes bubbly and bouncy and sometimes so distorted it sounds like it's emanating from the very core of the Earth itself.

This mob emerged from the wreckage of Staff Benda Bilili: 60-odd year old Coco and 50-odd year old Theo plus three young and energetic Kinshasa neighbours have joined up with Irish Paris-based producer Liam Farrell aka Doctor L to create what the website blurb describes as "a trans-global barrier-busting sound machine".

The video for "Malukayi" is up on YouTube and well worth a watch - it features the one-kid walking art installation "Congo Astronaut" in his spacesuit of found objects, amid grainy black and white footage of the part disabled, part able-bodied band's manic neighbourhood musical "happenings". The resulting footage is like something from a David Lynch movie - unsettling, intriguing, insistent.....images and sounds that most certainly look to the future rather than dwell in the past.

Friday 24 April 2015

The Unthanks "Mount The Air"

Ever since Rachel Unthank & The Winterset (as they were back then) released "The Bairns" in 2007, they have won critical and audience acclaim wherever Rachel, her younger sister Becky and their various cohorts have ventured.

They have always been very much part of the "Folk" scene - being born and raised in a folk music family and being partial to the whole folky business of communicating common stories of birth, life and death from one generation to the next.

They will also forever be quintessentially Northern English - with their 12th Century Newcastle Unthank family roots and their sense of place on Tyneside, as well as their unmistakeable lilting Geordie dialect, how could they ever be anything other? But this new Unthanks project "Mount The Air" has a broader, more worldly sweep to it's canvas than any of its predecessors.

There are a couple of instrumentals here and much virtuosic musicianship, which merely make those sweetest of sibling harmonies sound ever stronger when they do chime back in. The opening, ten minute title track is an epic statement of intent. It's an old Dorset folk song of a woman's intention to find her lost lover wherever he is in the world, with much conscious borrowing from Miles Davis circa "Sketches of Spain". It's a statement of a group of musicians intent on throwing off their communal musical straightjacket.

We return to the Geordie vernacular throughout. There is a charming rendering of a Charles Causley poem "Hawthorn". There is also a tender almost-accapella (apart from drone) version of the traditional "Magpie". But then there is another swirling, epic tale of lives and loves lost in "Foundling" with more langorous piano and violin, and another melancholy jazz-infused soundscape.

The Unthanks recently collaborated with the Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band on a series of re-interpretations of their back catalogue. There are several moments throughout "Mount The Air" where that emotion-laden, archetypal Northern English Brass Band sound washes over the listener only for us to then be taken to a whole new unpredictable, slightly warped place.

In recent years The Unthanks have toyed with many directions - covering music by Robert Wyatt, Antony & The Johnsons, King Crimson and Tom Waits. These eclectic and esoteric influences, together with their avowed indebtedness to the storytelling styles of performers such as Nic Jones or The Watersons, give us a bit of an inkling as to where they might be headed, intent on carving their own, uniquely Newcastle niche wherever they go.

Sunday 1 March 2015

Linsey Pollak "Mrs Curly and The Norwegian Smoking Pipe"

If you attended any of the Bellingen Global Carnivals of yesteryear, chances are that you saw or heard Linsey Pollak in one of his many musical incarnations. You might have seen him alongside Ross Daly as one part of  "Slivanje" or as one half of his duo with Tunji Beier "DVA" . It might have been his "Frog Music" interactive performance piece in which the audience themselves could randomly trigger the tuned sounds of endangered frogs with water guns.

Or, like me, you might have been awestruck by "Knocking on Kevin's Door" in which Kevin the Roadie (Linsey, of course) wandered around the stage creating surprisingly wonderful, soaring sounds from mike stands and gaffer tape which were then put through digital loops. Another memorable show, "The Art of Food", featured Linsey as a French Chef, making wind and percussion instruments from fruit and veggies, his use of a drill to fashion a clarinet from a carrot causing a buzz around the festival.

From 1990 to 2014 Linsey toured the world with these solo shows featuring the live looping of music made from all manner of found object instruments, from feather dusters to watering cans, hose pipes to rubber gloves, from bicycles to the kitchen sink (literally). But for forty years now, away from the stage and back in his workshop, he has been honing his skills as an instrument maker. Inspired by the Hungarian tarogato he has made and perfected the saxillo, a conical bore wooden soprano saxophone. He has also invented and crafted "Crow", a narrow bore bass clarinet made from an Australian Rainforest timber called "Crow's Ash", an instrument which has an other-wordly depth to it's sound. Then there's the clarini - a keyless clarinet made from the Australian timber Gidgee, which lends itself well to Linsey's more ethereal pieces.

The tours de force in Pollak's armoury of instruments would have to be "Bella", "Donna" and "Mrs Curly", the glass instruments he has created in collaboration with the extremely talented glass artisan Arnie Fuchs. Looking like spiral equipment made for scientific experiments, in Linsey's hands these narrow bore glass inventions become contrabass clarinets of the deepest profundity imaginable.

This CD and accompanying 40 page book are a joyful (and educational) combination of all of the fabulous creations Linsey has come up with over the years. A fruition, if you like. It is evident that a lot of love has gone into this self-published, crowd-funded project. The 16 tracks of music are all seriously good. The recordings are top quality. And the musicians who make up the ensemble are seriously talented. On "plucked strings" is Philip Griffin (his bass playing is sumptuous); Louise King contributes some cello-playing that takes Linsey's music to a whole new level; and, as always, Tunji Beier plays his South Indian and Sri Lankan percussion to perfection, and surprises with his sensitive dexterity on a full drum set. His cymbal solo in "On Alert" is simply exquisite.

This last piece features the Norwegian Smoking Pipe of the title, the most recent addition to Linsey's family of instruments. Some long-lost Norwegian cousins recently caught up with Linsey and presented him with the ornate smoking pipe that once belonged to their and his great great grandfather, knowing full well what would be it's fate. He widened the 4mm bore to 8mm, thereby removing many years of nicotine tar. With a soprano sax mouthpiece and some perfectly placed holes (Pollak only had one go at getting it right!) it is now a thing of sublime musical beauty.

If you would like to make contact with Linsey about this fabulous new release, his website is the place to go: - However, a word of warning - make sure you go there when you have plenty of time as you might get lost in the maze of Pollak's zany creativity and totally caught up in the playfulness of it all.

Tony Allen "Film of Life"

Every now and then, while filtering and sorting through new music for 2BBB's weekly two-hour Local Global Show, I come across a track or a CD that leaves me totally gobsmacked. From the fresh perspective of the New Year, one such discovery has firmed up as the undoubted album of 2014, in my books.

It is "Film of Life", the recent masterpiece from septuagenarian Nigerian legend Tony Allen, who was the percussive force behind Fela Kuti and who is the drummer accredited with introducing Afro Beat to the world in the sixties and seventies. He's the man who has been referred to by Brian Eno as "possibly the greatest drummer the world has ever known".

He is one of those more remarkable artists who has never stood still. Always open to collaborations, always shape-shifting through assorted musical genres (from dub, to space jazz, to international pop) but always firmly rooted in his native Yoruba and other Pan-African rhythms. Early on, as an 18 year old technician at Radio Nigeria, and later playing with Fela Kuti in various groups, he developed a unique understanding of the western drum set. Inspired and informed by American Bebop drummers such as Art Blakey and Max Roach. His use of cymbals, snare and tom toms has a trademark unhurried, laid-back quality that runs right through this new, 10th solo release.

The sunny, uplifting AfroBeat backline is there; The funky brass lines; The insistent, jagged rhythm guitar; The tinkling, cascading keyboards: All of these combine to dare you to stay still. In Allen's own words "I’ve always thought of my drums as an orchestra. I like to create a melody with my drums when I play. I like to make them sing" .For "Film of Life" he certainly succeeds in this. He's joined by an array of renowned and supremely talented musicians, young and old, African and European. Manu Dibango and Kuku are among them.

His long term friend Damon Albarn is also heavily involved, lending his lead vocals to one of two tracks on which Allen implores potential refugees from Africa to think again before taking that perilous "Boat Journey" across the Mediterranean, rather to "Go Back" to work within their local communities to try to make things better. The production team, a trio of Paris musicians by the name of the Jazzbastards, create a mix of crystal clarity, the mass of voices and instruments always separated beautifully.