Wednesday, September 17, 2008

In Review--R. Carlos Nakai's 25th Year Celebration

R. Carlos Nakai
Canyon Records

Twenty-five years ago, a friend gave R. Carlos Nakai a Native American flute to see what the former jazz trumpeter could do with it. Over the years, Nakai along with Kevin Locke, Mary Youngblood and other stalwarts had brought Native American flute to mass consciousness. But similar to an artist such as Mary Youngblood, Nakai took the indigenous flute into new realms, (European classical, jazz, and ethnic world sounds). The 62 year old flautist even journey into the realm of electronica on a couple of his albums.

Nakai's 25th anniversary release (with Canyon Records), Talisman travels full circle and we find Nakai once again performing on solo Native American flute on every other track. You will also find flute duos and the thoughtful Sunrise Prayer in Beauty. Talisman harks back to Nakai's first recording with Canyon Records, Changes. And true to its name, listening to Changes certainly brought much needed transformation to my life.

It's easy to imagine Nakai standing alone on the rim of a canyon playing his flute to the rising sun while perhaps an eagle or a falcon flies overhead. Nakai's repertoire whether performed in a symphonic hall, museum, or on someone's boom box, conjures the natural world. The title Talisman suggests this type of nature-base magic, something mysterious and alluring. Yet, something people living in the mundane world surrounded by too much stuff and emotional baggage cannot fully appreciate. You cannot hear the call of the wild and consumerism in the same breath. At some point a crossroads is reached and we must choose.

Listeners can still appreciate the haunting beauty of Nakai's flute as he performs songs with titles, Coyote Calling, Celestial Realm, and Cedar Breeze. But I suspect in listening to any heartfelt and soulful indigenous music, that the natural world will come calling and it will exact a price which will eventually lead to freedom and universal oneness.

As you can see, this is not an average music review. I am standing at that crossroads now as I receive more of Nakai's musical gift--his offering to us. Nakai picked up the indigenous flute 25 years ago to see where it would take him, and each of us, must take up our unique path to see where in 25 years it will take us. And starting today, make a choice to ensure that the planet is still around in all of its beauty 25 years from now and beyond.

Monday, September 15, 2008

In Review--West African Kora Meets...

photos: from Rock Paper Scissors

Jayme Stone and Mansa Sissoko
Africa to Appalachia

Independent Release Canada

Seckou Keita SKQ

TheSilimbo Passage

World Artventures UK

Like some of you that visit this blog, I am also a huge fan of West African griot music and especially the West African harp, the kora. I am also keen on cultural exchange between West African countries and folk music of North America (blues, Appalachian, traditional folk). Not long ago I read an article on World Music Central regarding the banjo and its ancestor, the West African n'goni. I was fascinated with the article and through synchronicity, I would encounter Jayme Stone and Mansa Sissoko's exploration of the ordinary banjo--not so ordinary at all.

While the banjo has been a staple of bluegrass, folk and other types of North American musical genres, it has also suffered a bad reputation as an instrument that can't seem to stay in tune and in some corners it might just seem rather outdated or nerdy. Even Ruth Moody, (Wailin' Jennys) made a joke recently in concert about her choice of instruments (banjo and accordion), and how she took those up to annoy her bandmates. Next she laughed, "I'll take up bagpipes."

So another bit of synchronicity, the producer of the fabulous Wailin' Jennys, David Travers-Smith also can be listed as a key player in this remarkable journey of the banjo--and we are not talking Duelin' Banjos. So the story goes, Jayme Stone (a banjo player) meets the kora player Mansa Sissoko and they sense musical kismet. Stone went to West African to immerse himself in the griot tradition, and to learn the history of the banjo--"I became particularly about what kind of music did not make it across the ocean..."

Meanwhile, Sissoko relocated his family to Quebec. So through a connection of Bamako to Quebec and Ontario, this album, of "banjo" music, Africa to Appalachia manifested. The shimmering kora tones, soaring griot vocals and the ngoni feel right at home with the North American banjo. And since each song tells a story of one kind or another, listeners can feel immersed also in the griot tradition or where the crossroads between African-American folk meets with West African traditional music. (Oh, and I need to mention that Stone is a white Canadian bluegrass musician).

Each seamless song proves that music is indeed universal. The musicianship rises above the occasion and Travers-Smith produces yet another sharp album that is going to turn a lot of heads. This project fits under exquisite music and cultural exchange. I also think you cannot go wrong with kora since it does uplift the spirit. Although this is a modern production, it feels ancient, primal and healing.

So now let's hop over to the United Kingdom where Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita collaborates with an Egyptian violinist, an Italian double bassist and his West African relatives on the CD, The Silimbo Passage. There is no getting away from the West African griot sound even if this group explores music outside the "Afro-Mandinka" kingdom such as European jazz, classical and soul music as mentioned on the CD cover.

The opening track, Bimo features a gorgeous duet with Keita and his sister Binta Suso. Samy Bishai's violin snakes along and we can also hear Kieta's cousin, Surahata Susso hammering away on those calabashes. This intriguing track whets the appetite and sends listeners' ears on a sonic adventure.

Mande Arab has both a European classical and Arab-Andalusian feel to it. Suso shows off her vocal range and talent in a remarkable fashion as her brother's kora shimmers delicately in the background and a lonely violin conjures images of camels traveling across a vast desert. The gossamer Chelima features a beautiful dance between violin, bass and kora. And each of the album's songs comes off as polished musical gems, carefully crafted and sustained by cultural exchange and a passion for exotic music.

These are CDs that I will keep around to listen to when the world feels too dark. I find this music uplifting and I promise myself to get a healthy dose of it now and in the future. I will also listen to the CDs when I already feel good.

To learn more you can visit, rock paper scissors,

Sunday, September 14, 2008

In Review---Gyuto Monks Choir

Tibetan Chants for World Peace
The Gyuto Monks Tantric Choir
White Swan Records

The first time I heard, more or less, experienced a Tibetan monk choir was back in the 90s when I attended an event at the University of Washington's Kane Hall. Tibetan consciousness had surfaced among the Buddhists and New Agers. At the time, I did not equate the choir with a musical experience, but a religious experience and a cultural exchange. My friends and I attended the concert out of curiosity, but did not know what to expect. And even though some of us had been exposed to Tuvan throat-singing, the guttural vocals of the monks came off as startling.

Fast forward to several years of having been exposed to the music of Yungchen Lhamo, Nawang Khechog, various types of throat singing and various types of spiritual chants, I still find the Gyuto Monks Tantric Choir startling. Here I am at a loss to describe the sound and the experience. Even the producer of Tibetan Chants for World Peace, former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart thought he was listening to electronic music when he first came across a recording of these monks. And his first experience eventually led him to produce Tibetan Chants for Peace with members of Gyuto Monks Tantric Choir.

In practice, a hundred monks or so sing in bass guttural tones--amazing polyphony. These chants which date back to the medieval era when the Gyuto Tantric Monastery University was inaugurated. In 1959, when the 14th Dalai Lama was forced into exile, the monastery included 900 monks.

According to the liner notes, "Every monk, no matter what the range of his 'natural' voice, learns over many years to chant in the extraordinary low bass tones needed to produce the multiphonic sounds heard only at Gyuto. Chants and practices are to this day handed down from elder monks to young initiates, as has been the way of Tibetan Buddhist teachings for centuries." The liner notes also mention why it is so important to preserve traditions of a "highly endangered culture."

I am not sure that these chants will appeal to everyone, however, I do find them transcendental and deeply spiritual. Proceeds from the sale of the CD go to support Gyuto Tantric University and White Swan Records will donate additional funds to the preservation efforts of Tibet House in New York City. If you are both curious and compassionate, you would do well to pick up this recording and share it with your friends.

White Swan Records, Mickey Hart, gyuto Center

In Review--Rare Tappa Music from India

Tappa Journey
Sense World Music

I just received a large package of CDs from the U.K. based label, Sense World Music. So over the next two months, I will be reviewing these recordings on this blog. Many of the performers are women, which lifts my heart. I will be reviewing women who play tabla, sitar, violin and sing. And I am sure this will be a delightful journey for all of us. Of course, I will be reviewing extraordinary men musicians too.

I started the journey with a new artist to my ears, Sasha, a proponent of Tappa. According to the CD Tappa Journey liner notes, Tappa is rarely heard in the West and hails from the Silk Road. It possesses a legacy of camel drivers and Punjabi influences. Passionate almost blazing vocals find themselves embellished by Derek Robert's guitar, an Indian string orchestra and traditional Indian percussion. I would even go as far to say that this music, although rarely heard in the West until now, compares to Bollywood music in that it is readily accessible to our ears.

Sasha dazzles and delights. According to the liner notes, "she also has a clear and reedy timbre perfect for the music." Her journey with the Sense World Music label and production team began in 2005 and no doubt this journey will continue for many albums to come. She has joined a superb roster of Indian classical vocalists already on the label. Similar to Ghazal and Khayal singers she too sings about love, romance and longing.

This album tends to energize the body and spirit. I recommend it for middle of the day or maybe even to jump start a day. It would fit in well with recordings of Ghazals, Punjabi gypsy, and even some Bollywood recordings. Certainly this exciting CD is going to turn some heads and probably reap a lot of critical praise on the former Silk Route and beyond.

Sense World Music

In Review---Native American Classical

Gabriel Ayala
(Music for Classical Guitar)
Canyon Records

According to the Canyon Records website where Yaqui classical guitarist Gabriel Ayala is featured, classical guitar playing takes much dedication. Not only that, to learn the techniques which must later be augmented by a palette of musical emotions, involves many lonely hours of just getting it right. However, any loneliness an artist feels would be compensated by performing such luxurious music.

On his debut Canyon Records album, Portraits (Music for Classical Guitar), Ayala performs challenging compositions and does this so well that it seems natural and easy for him. His dedication has paid off in numerous ways. First he chose a wide canvas in which to express himself that includes French composer Erik Satie's popular Gymnopedia No 1, Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz's Leyenda from Suite Espanola, J.S. Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D minor and the Celtic Wild Mountain Thyme, among other classics. Then he deftly moves through this musical territory leaving some listeners breathless, no doubt.

Ayala's approach bypasses pyrotechnics found in some classical or flamenco guitar work, and instead follows a steady and thoughtful course. Ayala plays from his heart, but his mind also navigates. And in fact, this approach comes off as holistic in that Ayala plays with mind-body-soul intact. This music feels healthy to my body and I highly recommend it, especially as morning music.

The CD might be musically-challenging for the performer, but is easy for listeners to immerse themselves. This enjoyable repertoire, colored with many emotions and expertly rendered, can leave listeners feeling relaxed and clear-headed. This music lends itself well to work that involves focus concentration, such as writing blog articles.

You can learn more about Gabriel Ayala at or