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?