Vanguard Music Boulevard (46 mins)
Åkervinda are a Swedish and Danish quartet of female vocalists. Trained in jazz, they also have a deep love for Scandinavian folk music. On their second album, Förgänglighet (which roughly translates to “transience”), the group goes fully a-capella, while exploring a darker sound world. Their decision to completely dispense with instrumentation is a brave one, but at times the results are truly spectacular. ‘Lär mig du skog’ is, for me, the finest track on the album, and a perfect example of the way in which Åkervinda have diversified and expanded their sound.
For lovers of Scandinavian trall singing (wordless ‘diddling’), there’s plenty on the album to get stuck into. ‘Jag har ett äpple uti min lomma’ contains a particularly beautiful trall by the Danish fiddler Kristine Hebøll. The more contemporary and experimental tracks on the album meanwhile, such as ‘Improvisation’ and ‘Min ros min lilja’, lend artistic depth. Although I still occasionally find myself craving some instrumental accompaniment, there’s no doubt that Förgänglighet casts a sophisticated and alluring spell.
(Review, originally published in Songlines Magazine, issue 143, December 2018).
Kittel & Co
Compass Records (61 mins)
Jeremy Kittel’s last album, Chasing Sparks, is one of the most perfect fiddle albums you could ever hope to hear. Since its release in 2010, I’ve been waiting for a follow-up – and here it is! Whorls is the debut album by Kittel’s contemporary string quartet Kittel & Co. Once again, Kittel shows that he’s a master of navigating an ideal route through many genres. It’s one thing to seek a space between classical and folk, bluegrass and jazz, but it’s another thing altogether to make it seem effortless. Kittel’s quartet, comprising mandolin phenomenon Josh Pinkham, guitarist Quinn Bachard, cellist Nathaniel Smith and hammer-dulcimer wizard Simon Chrisman, do just that.
Throughout the record, interplay between the musicians works stunningly to create, release and recycle tension. This is evident from the outset, with opening track ‘Pando’, which bristles with nervous energy. All of the instruments, however, have moments where they come to prominence. On ‘Chrysalis’, for example, it’s the hammer-dulcimer that gives the track all of its character. The final track ‘Nethermead’, on which Kittel shows off his singing expertise, has the lazy feel of a river reaching the end of its course. Whorls traverses multiple genres and hits a sweet spot.
(Review, originally published in Songlines Magazine, issue 142, November 2018).
Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino
Ponderosa Music Records (44 mins)
The superstars of pizzica are back. Canzoniere (“Songbook”) is the nineteenth album from Puglia’s famous Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino (CGS). The cover art, which features a Coca Cola bottle filled with homemade tomato sauce, provides an apt visual metaphor for the record and its contents. Produced by Joe Mardin (Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston) and recorded in New York and Lecce (Italy), Canzoniere marks a new chapter for CGS, as ambitious band leader and violinist Mauro Durante goes about the unenviable task
of combining home-grown and international sounds, without reducing the power of the original recipe. With multi-cultural influences present, as well as electronica and hip-hop elements, the album might be a disappointment to many pizzica purists. Judged on its own merit however, this is a record that gets better with every listen - even if I’d have liked the scales to have been tipped slightly more in favour of the local over the global. Tracks like ‘Mio’ and ‘Lu Giustacofane’ achieve an impressive synthesis between these two extremes, while Giancarlo Paglialunga and Alessia Tondo’s distinctive voices retain all of their
authentic charm. Brave and bold, Canzoniere is the sound of pizzica opening out to the world like never before.
(Review, originally published in Songlines Magazine, issue 134, January 2018).
Fabiano Do Nascimento
Tempo Dos Mestres
Now-Again Records (43 mins)
Brazilian classical guitarist Fabiano Do Nascimento released his superb debut album Dança do Tempos (“Dance of Time”) in 2015. With Tempo Dos Mestres (“Time of Masters”), he cements his reputation as one of Brazil’s most exciting young musicians. The title is ambiguous on a number of levels - is he paying homage to the past masters of Brazilian
music, or putting himself forward as a master of the present? On the evidence of his first two records, it could legitimately be either.
Although Tempo Dos Mestres is centred around Nascimento’s mesmerising guitar work, other elements add much in terms of texture and imagery (although I do miss the particular percussive sensibilities of Airto Moreira, who featured heavily on Dança do Tempo). On the glorious ‘Louva-a- Deus “Mantis”’, for example, layered percussion, sounds of water and lilting flute are used to evoke the insects' tropical home. Another highlight for me is the love song ‘Já que tú’, which contrasts the ‘clean’ sound of Nascimento’s guitar with a ‘buzzy’ kalimba bassline. My favourite piece on the album however, is Nascimento’s re-arrangement of ‘O Tempo’. The famous lyrics to this traditional song also give a final clue to the album title: “time is the master that taught me to heal”.
(Review, originally published in Songlines Magazine, issue 131, November 2017).
Wimme & Rinne
Rockadillo Records (65 mins)
Wimme Saari is one of Finland’s most celebrated joikers, known for combining joik (the Sámi’s unique vocal tradition) with contemporary improvisations, techno and ambient sound. Human is the second album by Wimme and Tapani Rinne, a highly revered Finnish experimental musician and producer. Mixing traditional joik, electronica and jazz, it’s a genre-defying tribute to the raw beauty and occasional madness of the human condition. Some of the record’s most delicate moments come from Norwegian joiker Elle Sofe Henriksen, as on the stunning opener, ‘Elle’, where she’s joined by Rinne on bass clarinet. As for madness, look no further than the title track, ‘Human’, an astonishing blend of thumping Kraftwerk-esque electronica, joik, saxophone, clarinets and whistles.
For all its crossover appeal, Human remains rooted in certain core aspects of traditional joik. Longstanding connections between joik and the Arctic environment, for example, are represented through the incorporation of bird-like sounds on various tracks (‘Wind / Biegga / Tuuli’, ‘Womb’ and ‘Sounds of Snow’). This echoes previous joik masterpieces like The Bird Symphony (1994) by the late Nils-Aslak Valkeapää.
Many traditional joikers claim that their art - which lacks a clear beginning or end - is cyclical in nature. This might be true, but joik also has a cutting edge, and Wimme & Rinne know how to find it.
(Review, originally published in Songlines Magazine, issue 131, October 2017).
Zion Music (52 mins)
Many Songlines readers will know Radik Tyulyush through his long term involvement with the Tuvan throat-singing ‘super group’, Huun Huur Tu. Although he spent the early part of his career playing for Tuvan rock bands such as Yat-Kha, Tyulyush has since embraced a more traditional side of Tuvan music. In 2005 he recorded his first solo album, Tuva: Spirits of my Land, with the help of Cambridge-based ethnomusicologist, Carole Pegg. Agitator is Radik Tyulyush’s third solo album, and the second released under the banner of his Chalama project (the word “chalama” refers to coloured ribbons that appear tied on the branches of sacred trees, or at sacred places in Tuva called ovaa). While its predecessor was recorded using entirely Tuvan instruments, Tyulyush finds a way on Agitator to maturely balance his different impulses for tradition and modernity. Modern elements such as fretless bass (MIDI) and subtle electronic programming sit effortlessly alongside old Tuvan instruments including igil (a two-string, bowed
instrument), shoor (an end-blown flute) and byzaanchy (a four-string spike fiddle). For the most part the music remains unmistakably Tuvan, with most of the tracks on the album being new arrangements of traditional songs. Tyulyush’s sublime throat-singing, used sparingly enough for it to seem special every time it appears, is of course one of the major highlights. Overall, Agitator is the sound of an assured and inspired artist who has found his ‘line of best fit’.
(Review, originally published in Songlines Magazine, issue 127, May 2017).
Mercury KX (CD & DVD, 33 mins)
Island Songs is the latest project from BAFTA-winning Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds. It sees him travelling to seven different towns in Iceland and collaborating with local artists from each location. The album attempts to reveal the ‘unknown heroes’ of Iceland’s musical
landscape; church organists, choirmasters, and others who quietly and faithfully serve their communities.
Island Songs begins with ‘Árbakkinn’, built around an Icelandic poem beautifully read by Einar Georg Einarsson, a poet from the small town of Hvammstangi. Arnalds provides sparse accompaniment on solo piano, allowing the piece to swell and grow, with sweeping strings reminiscent at times of Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’. While Arnalds is
often referred to as an ‘indie-classical’ composer, the only truly ‘indie moment’ on the record (and also a departure from the ‘unknown heroes’ narrative) comes in the form of ‘Particles’, which features impressive vocals from Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, singer in the chart-topping folk-pop band, Of Monsters and Men.
An accompanying DVD features videos for all seven collaborations from acclaimed director, Baldvin Z. While some of the films work well, others come across as a little pretentious. The video for ‘Dalur’, in which Arnalds plays piano in a cosy living room while some chronically
bored-looking individuals drink tea and try not to smile (despite the brass band and horse in their garden), is perhaps the worst offender. These small reservations aside, Island Songs is a peaceful, personal and often superb musical portrait.
(Review, originally published in Songlines Magazine, issue 125, March 2017).
Six Shooter Records (48 mins)
Tanya Tagaq’s music somehow manages to feel completely out of this world, and at the same time deeply plugged into the earth. While she might accurately be described as an “Inuit throat singer”, Tagaq’s output challenges us to reevaluate what, in the 21st century, this can mean. Although her vocal style is based around traditional throat singing (katajjaq), her music is just as likely to be admired by metal-heads as by fans of ‘world music’.
With Retribution, Tagaq has succeeded in making a record that is both more accessible - and more explicitly political - than its predecessor, Animism (winner of the Polaris Music Prize in 2014). The album’s overarching themes are rape and exploitation, not only of indigenous
women and girls in Canada who have endured decades of violence, but also of the wider communities to which they belong, and the natural environment on which such communities depend. With the title track’s menacingly delivered warning that “retribution will be swift”, the
record overall evokes an eerie feeling of karma about to unleash itself.
Embracing a range of musical forms including rap, rock, and Tuvan throat singing by Radik Tyulyush, this is Tagaq’s most ambitious and exhilarating work to date.
(Review, originally published in Songlines Magazine, issue 124, January 2017)
Smithsonian Folkways (59 mins)
Although throat singing exists in many parts of the world (there’s even a throat singing tradition among the Thembu AmaXhosa of South Africa), nowhere is more synonymous with the art form than Tuva. In this small republic of southern Siberia, a style of throat singing called xöömei has long been the region’s most recognised export. Alash Ensemble are one of the most active xöömei groups today, regularly performing in the
United States, the UK and elsewhere. The trio’s third studio album, Achai (“Fathers”) is dedicated to Kongar-ool Ondar, one of the great xöömei masters and a “musical father” both to Alash and to a whole generation of Tuvan musicians (Ondar tragically passed away in 2013 at the age of fifty one).
While their overall sound remains unmistakably ‘Tuvan’, Alash have never been afraid of breaking new ground. Having previously collaborated with Sun Ra Arkestra and Béla Fleck, Achai features the Baltimore-based beatboxer Shodekeh on three tracks including a duet
(‘Flute Box’) with Tuvan overtone flute, murgu. Personally I find the beatboxing a little unnecessary, but with old favourites such as ‘Mezhegei’ and the beautiful ‘Kosh-oi and Torgalyg’, this album has something for everyone.
(Review, originally published in Songlines Magazine, issue 123, December 2016)
Nordic Notes (41 mins)
In the old Karelian culture of Finland, illatsus are festive evenings that combine music and dance. The Finnish duo, Puhti, which translates as “vigour” or “vitality”, take inspiration from this tradition. A collaboration between the musician Anne-Mari Kivimäk and dancer Reetta-Kaisa Iles, Puhti have been performing and experimenting since 2001. Their new album, Komia, combines accordion, vocals, clapping, kumaja (stomping box), and touches of double bass and harmonium. Rooted in Finland’s folk music, the duo also claim to be suitable for those ‘allergic to tradition’. Whether rapping traditional lyrics (on the song 'Ei meillä ole
hätää'), performing their own version of ‘God’s Gonna Cut You Down’ (a folk tune made famous by Johnny Cash), or engaging in the more timeless art of stomping wildly to old Finnish melodies, Puhti’s latest offering succeeds for the most part in sounding both ancient and modern. It's a much more stripped down affair compared to their last album, Pahan laulu (2014), and even contains one a capella song - the haunting 'Helevetin saaria' ('Islands of Hell'). There are still moments however, when the album seems to capture the raw energy of a traditional Karelian illatsu in full swing. Succinct and slightly mad, Komia gets better with every listen.
(Review, originally published in Songlines Magazine, issue 120, August 2016)
Pedro Soler and Gasper Claus
InFiné (58 mins)
Even without the different surnames, you'd be forgiven for not realising that Pedro Soler and Gasper Claus are father and son. Soler, currently in his late 70s, was initiated into flamenco guitar by exiled Andalusian refugees who arrived in Toulouse after the Spanish Civil War. Considered a master of the genre, he has worked alongside some of the true greats including Pepe de la Matrona, Juan Varea and Enrique Morente. Claus, meanwhile, having survived early classical training, is now a leading experimental cellist, reminiscent at times of Tom Cora and Ernst Reijseger. Despite speaking different musical languages, Claus and Soler have, in recent years, found a new way to communicate.
Following their impressive debut, Barlande (2011), Al Viento, recorded partly in Iceland, allows this conversation between father and son to reach new extremes. Towards the end of the opening track, 'Cuerdas al
Viento (Por Malagueña)', for example, Claus launches into a crunching, screeching cello section that leaves you almost begging for mercy. Both rough and delicate, perhaps what we are really glimpsing on Al Viento is a shared connection with the wild heart of flamenco.
(Review, originally published in Songlines Magazine, issue 119, July 2016)
Sumé - The Sound of a Revolution
Ánorâk Film (DVD, 73 mins)
Part music documentary and part Greenlandic history lesson, Sumé tells the story of an indigenous peoples' battle for political freedom and cultural expression, and how a young and fearless rock band helped give voice to the injustices of Danish colonial rule. Sumé were
formed in the early 1970s by a group of Greenlandic students studying in Copenhagen. Although their music was catchy and mellow, the band's charismatic lead singer, Malik Høegh, was determined to draw attention to the experiences of Greenland's Inuit population and to advocate a political awakening in their homeland. Sumé became the first rock group to sing in the Greenlandic language, and their music quickly struck a chord with many liberal Danish students. Shocked initially by the boldness of their message, Sumé's music soon gained popularity among Greenlanders too, and before long their music could be heard in
every town and village in Greenland.
With new interviews positioned alongside archive footage, director Inuk Silis Høegh connects the past to the present. A portable, red speaker works like a time machine, playing Sumé's music to fans and friends of the band and taking them back to a poignant moment in Greenland’s history. At one stage, Sumé's former manager clenches his hand in a tight fist, struggling to hold back tears while simultaneously reminding us of the defiance with which Greenlanders first rose up against the colonial powers.
Upon their full return to Greenland, Sumé's members, whose home villages are hundreds of miles apart, went their separate ways. Although not all their hopes for Greenland have been realised, the band undoubtedly influenced an era and helped to bring about the
establishment of Greenlandic home rule. This hugely entertaining film offers a fascinating insight into how they did it and the power of music as a vehicle for social change.
(Review, originally published in Songlines Magazine, issue 117, May 2016)
Traditional Greenlandic Music Vol.1-5 (1906-1989)
ULO (5 CDs, 280 mins)
This impressive edition was compiled by the ethnomusicologist Michael Hauser, and Karston Sommer, a well-known figure in Greenland’s music industry. Together they sifted through 800 hours of material, selecting a little less than 5 hours for inclusion.
The first two CDs in the collection contain recordings from Thule in the northwest of Greenland, while the third focuses exclusively on Thule’s most famous qilaat (frame drum) singer, Imîna Imîna. The final two volumes cover music from the east and west coast, with the fourth CD brimming with characterful recordings from eastern Greenland where missionaries did not arrive until the early twentieth century. Detailed sleeve notes provide a wealth of extra information, including translations and photographs of the performers. The collection also draws attention to the way in which songs have traditionally been used - woven into the fabric of everyday life. We hear, for example, kayaking songs, songs of the angakkoq, or Greenlandic shaman, and song duels (in which the aim is to ridicule one’s opponent).
These CDs are a beautiful and lovingly compiled document of Greenland’s musical heritage and a real treasure trove
for anyone interested in Inuit culture.
(Review, originally published in Songlines Magazine, issue 117, May 2016)