Monday, September 29, 2008

In Review---Julie Fowlis Preserves Scotch Gaelic Culture

Photo from
Photography by Ashley Coombes

Julie Fowlis (Scotland)

Shoeshine Records and Cadiz Music

Hailing from one of the westernmost points of Europe, on the island North Uist, vocalist Julie Fowlis shares ancient and contemporary Scotch Gaelic songs with an international audience on her recording, Cuilidh. This crossover artist and music-preserver prefers to sing the songs in Scotch Gaelic, a language spoken only by 60,000 people and on the remote island where Fowlis resides.

The Scotch Gaelic dialect bodes well for these lilting melodies reflecting on scandals, shipwrecks and defiant women who either walk out on their own wedding or marry someone against their parents' wishes. According to the press notes, the songs on this album range from 10 years ago to several 100 years ago. The songs are sung in a clear lyrical voice backed by traditional Celtic/Gaelic instruments and the songs range from rousing to melancholic ballads.

And also in the press notes, "North Uist is one of the few places in Scotland where this age-old song line has been broken and where a majority of people still speak Gaelic as their first language. Long denigrated by Scotland's overlords and neglected by modern cultural authorities, Scottish Gaelic was not recognized as an official language in Scotland until 2005…" As late as the 1950s and 60s, children were forbidden to use the language at school. Thankfully, these songs also keep the language alive and well along with stories of ancestors of the people living on North Uist--and what beautiful songs they are.

Some of the songs on Cuilidh (pronounced Kul'i), are working songs, for churning butter, rowing, hay making and other tasks. I even found that these working songs help with modern urban tasks like washing the dishes, typing reviews and whatnot. Since I like to do my chores with music playing in the background, I find Fowlis' CD contributes to joyfully completing my tasks.

In fact, this even brings up the idea that many cultures have songs that derive from various farming, milling, sewing and other daily chores. The Swedes even have a tradition where musicians accompany them while they go for strolls. You can collect these songs from Scotland, Ireland, Eastern Europe, Estonia, Finland and other places and then listen to the songs while you work.

I have often thought that blasting 70s and 80s hard rock while painting or doing chores is unhealthy so what if people listened to old working songs while completing those chores? Wouldn't this be a healthier route to go? Even shopping at natural food or grocery stores can drain my energy when nostalgic rock music blasts through the store sound system.

Two missions are accomplished when we adopt these old work songs in our daily routine. First these old songs are preserved for the future and two, we pursue the songs' intended uses.

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

In Review--Sultan Khan & Manju Mehta

Sultan Khan (Sarangi)
Manju Mehta (Sitar)
Sense World Music

Sense World Music has brought us several jugalbandi (duets) and ensembles featuring women and men musicians. Following this tradition, Umeed features the illustrious Sarangi Player Sultan Khan and the formidable woman Sitarist Manju Mehta. While I have heard few jugalbandi recordings featuring these two North Indian instruments, this pairing seems natural, yet exotic. Even better, this 2-CD set was recorded live at the Saptak Festival so listeners get to experience the spirit of the moment.

The musicians play their instruments in a singing style, imitating classical Indian vocals. To do this well, musicians spend years in intense training with gurus. By the time they reach the recital stage these musicians are versed in beat cycles, vocal styles, and mastership over their respective instruments. When they reach the stage where Khan and Mehta are, the musicians can literally leave you breathless when you hear their virtuoso performances. Hearing this caliber of performance can even lead you to an obsession, although healthy one, with classical Indian music.

The first CD features the musicians performing Raag Kaunsi Kanada. The slow and moody Alap unfolds gently as the Sarangi and Sitar explore the terrain. The musicians pick up speed and intensity on the Jhor and Jhalla. I get this sense of the musicians' enjoyment performing this duet. Two tabla players, Prithviraj Mishra and Hetal Mehta come on board on track 3 and while the mood remains somber, power builds. And this power is not released until the final track, Rajasthani folk song sung by Khan, who is also known for his vocal talent.

On CD 2, the musicians with Sukhvinder Singh on tabla, perform the livelier Raag Malkauns. Again the musicians deliver a powerful and thrilling performance that must have left audience members on the edge of their seats. Certainly the stellar musicianship coupled with sensitivity makes this CD set a mood lifter.

In Review---Gopalnath & Majumdar Stratospheric Music

Kadri Gopalnath & Ronu Majumdar

Sense World Music

This is not the first time I am hearing saxophone on a classical Indian music recording, nor will it be the last. Saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath and Bansuri flautist Ronu Majumdar unite their musical gifts on Evolution with spectacular results. Although Gopalnath has modified his saxophone to perform classical Indian micro-tones, it still has a jazz-like quality and so it gives off an otherworldly timbre in this Indian classical atmosphere.

Majumdar brings his own bamboo-wind pyrotechnics to this recording. The musician has phenomenal breath control which is essential to playing the flute and there are times when Majumdar leaves his audience members breathless on this live recording. For anyone who has heard earlier work of this musician will know just what to expect. Majumdar happens to be one of those musicians with the ability to take his listeners' minds straight to the stratosphere.

When combined this musical marriage between Carnatic and Hindustani traditions performed on Eastern and Western instruments by stellar talent leaves its mark on musical history. Although listening to classical Indian music never feels like something that happened in the past. The musicians with all of their intense training and Eastern mindset, perform in the moment. And even for those listeners who were not attending this live performance, a listen to this CD feels like a cosmic experience in that if you focus on the music, everything else, mundane or otherwise disappears.

The musicians, which also include, Patri Satish Kumar (Mridangam), Abhijit Banerjee (Tabla) and Rajshekar (Morsing--a South Indian jews-harp), perform Raga Hansadhwani. The musicians begin with a medium pace Alap in which themes unfold. Then the musicians perform a short Jhor/Jhalla before they launch into the composition, Hansadhwani/Pilu Gat in Addha taal. The musicians end the recording with a 17 minute percussion and Morsing solo.

Evolution offers exciting musical innovation, a rare collaboration between classical Indian musicians and all in a live setting. Recorded at the Saptak Festival in India, this recording will boost your energy level and assist you in staying in the moment. I wouldn't recommend it for meditation, but for listening enjoyment and cultural enrichment.