Tuesday, December 29, 2009

In review--Sweet Caribbean Breeze

Reynoir Casimir dit Nègoce and Signature
The Quadrille of Guadeloupe
Buda Musique/ Universal France

Gilzene and The Blue Light Mento Band
Sweet Sweet Jamaica
World Village

Those of you living in the far northern hemisphere will appreciate these two sunny recordings hailing from the French Caribbean Island, Guadeloupe and the former British colony, Jamaica. When many people think of the Caribbean, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic come to mind—meringue, soñes,bomba and plena or the rhythms that make up salsa music. The mention of Jamaica brings to mind ska and reggae—the home of the late Bob Marley.

I discovered the music of Guadeloupe and the French Caribbean last spring when I researched music of the French Diaspora for a course I taught. The Quadrille of Guadeloupe comes with hefty liner notes explaining the origins of this old world European dance quadrille and its evolution in the New World as interpreted by former African slaves. Similar music is performed on the East African Island, La Reunion, and echoes of these old couple dances can be heard in traditional Cajun and Quebecois music too.

The Guadeloupe quadrille involves a caller who raps more than sings in a raspy voice. Accordion, a scraper, shakers, a small frame drum-tambourine, triangle and guitar accompany the caller. The callers on The Quadrille of Gaudeloupe, Floriane Fèverel and Denis Clovis dit Boniface recall rap and hip-hop, though their syncopation sounds more Afro-Caribbean than continental American. And there is so much going on with this disc musically, you almost need a masters in Ethnomusicology to review it.

Although track five, an instrumental beguine certainly gets feet tapping and the heart pumping with the raspy scraper, lilting accordion and tinkling of the triangle. And I am reminded of Rene Lacaille who also plays quadrilles, beguine, zouk and other old world types of music on his accordion.

When I was teaching my music of the French Diaspora course, I enjoyed bringing in the comparisons between the French Caribbean, Quebec, Louisiana and La Reunion and finding origins in the French provinces such as Normandy and Brittany as well as, Central France. But it will be years before I train my ears to discern the subtle differences and my feet don’t get away from me. When I listen to this music, the last thing I want to do is sit behind a computer screen typing a review. I prefer to dance.

However, I enjoy discovering new types of music to my ears. Gilzene and The Blue Light Mento Band perform a traditional music that predates ska and reggae, two popular music proponents hailing from Jamaica. On their debut disc (World Village), Sweet Sweet Jamaica, the traditional quartet performs a style of music called mento. You can actually hear the roots of reggae in the guitar rhythm, but the banjo, shakers and rhumba box quickly announces that this is not reggae.

Unlike other Caribbean musical traditions of former African slaves, you won’t find call and response vocals, but harmonies that fall on the flat side. The defining features are the cross rhythms played on the rhumba box, shakers and guitar with the banjo playing lead. And as mentioned earlier the singers provide vocal harmonies to uplifting songs, though some of the lyrics tackle social issues.

According to the liner notes, “Mento which was born from the marriage of European melodies with African rhythms brought an intermingling of cultures that defined the colonial period, can rightly be hailed as the first form of indigenous Jamaican popular music to ever be recorded.” The Jamaican music industry of the 1940s and 50s was founded on this genre. But though popular in Jamaica, it never caught on abroad in the same way that calypso from Trinidad did. Mento did pave the way for ska and reggae which did become music of households all over the world. Who hasn’t heard of Bob Marley and the Wailers?

Gungu Walk offers a gentle introduction to mento with its uplifting sunny feel and hearty vocals. I wonder if Marley and other reggae superstars cut their teeth on this music. Certainly it’s fun to imagine their musical roots coming from mento. And while mento did not take off internationally in the 2oth century perhaps it’s time has finally arrived. Sweet Sweet Jamaica certainly an aptly applied title takes a little adjusting to, but once your ears pick up on its grooves, the music grows infectious and delightful on this long play disc.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

In review--Women Make a Village

Màrta Sebestyèn
I Can See the Gates of Heaven
World Village

Sofìa Rei Koutsovitis
Sube Azul
World Village

The label World Village provides its listeners with diverse women’s voices. From Peruvian Tania Libertad to Tibetan Soname and too many women musicians to name in this review, the recordings fall somewhere between comfortingly familiar to exotic, with many of the musicians falling into cutting edge. Some of the musicians such as Susan McKeown collect and preserve traditional songs and others such as the globe-trotting women vocalists in the French group Lo’Jo offer a musical stew.

Hungarian folklorist and musician Màrta Sebestyèn collects traditional Hungarian songs, and has been doing this since her childhood when she won a song contest. A photograph of her circa 1977 appears in the liner notes in which Màrta collects a field recording from a traditional elder vocalist. However, Màrta with her traditional vocals and ear for beauty is more than a song-catcher.

On her collection of sacred and secular songs of Hungary, I Can See the Gates of Heaven, the vocalist sounds almost otherworldly and at other times, downright global. She brings voice, tin whistle and a drum to the recording and is accompanied by Balàzs Szokolay Dongò on bagpipes, shepherd’s flutes, traditional Hungarian instruments, saxophone and overtone chants and Màtyàs Bolya on lutes and zither. And together this trio performs songs that echo other traditions. For instance, the vocals and musical arrangement on Heritage sound like they hail from Tibet or China. Invocation sounds oddly Greek and Armenian.

My personal favorites though are the Hungarian romp, Driving Away Sorrow and the gentle Flower Gatherers with its lilting rhythm strummed on a lute and lyrical flute (sounds Celtic). The entire album offers a delightful respite from the chaos of everyday life. As any musical tradition, this one feels nostalgic and no doubt, many traditionalists and Lomaxians will embrace this offering.

Argentine vocalist Sofìa Rei Koutsovitis fuses American jazz with Latin American genres from her homeland. Residing in New York City for several years, her love of Colombian rhythms and vocal styles, as well as music from Argentina, Uruguay and Peru radiates of this disc. Since I also love pan-Latin American music fused with jazz, I am all smiles listening to Sube Azul.

She opens with the Colombian-tinged Coplera with its gentle thumb piano, double bass and vocal harmonies that gracefully rise and fall in a dreamy cadence. Certainly this song provides a lovely way to awake in the morning. The titular track also flows at a gentle pace with minimum instrumentation and emphasis on carefully phrased vocals in this regard I am reminded of Brazilian Monica Salmaso’s (World Village), work. Instante de vos picks up the pace especially after the traditional percussion kick in and Sofìa raises the intensity of her vocals a few notches. She reminds me of Marta Topferova (World Village) and Marta Gomez on this track.

The beautiful milonga Segundo final with its jazz-tinged guitar and haunting violin offers just the right instrumental support for Sofìa’s stunning vocals. The jazz element comes out in the opening of the track, La Chongoyapana and Imaginaria but if you want to jumpstart your day, listen to the Colombian feast for the ears, El Mayoral.

These two women vocalists bring the world to our ears and I for one, am enriched from the experience.

World Village

Sunday, December 20, 2009

News--NYT Article on Healing Music

I want to thank Allan Tamm for forwarding this link to me.

Just three blocks from Lincoln Center, they arrived at the concert on Thursday night by shelter bus, not taxi or limousine. They took their seats around scarred, round folding tables. The menu was chicken curry and rice served on paper plates.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

In review--Taking it to the Yogic Mat

Laurie Madison, Maasa Craig & Doug Cox
Maitri (yogic chants)
Independent release (Canada)

Yoga chants, sung in Sanskrit have risen in popularity during recent years with the yoga craze in North America. I have heard kirtan chants or mantras sung in Hebrew, YofiYah’s Kabbalah Kirtan (Sounds True), authentic Indian devotional chants and an array of new age recordings. Fusing slide guitar and music genres of the West with yoga mantras though is new to my ears. A musical ensemble under the guise of Maitri, have done just that, created a mix of chants from the Subcontinent with bluegrass tinged harmonies (vande gurunham), slide guitar and other western instruments.

Mantra recordings provide music for a yogic practice or for musical meditation (singing the chants). The press notes that accompany the CD, mention Nelson (British Columbia) musician and yoga instructor Laurie Madison came up with an idea of combining Indian mantras with Western music, “A means of making yogic chant more accessible to the western ear.” And the musicians do take this concept further than Deva Premal who was among the first Westerners to westernize Indian mantras by adding synthesizer and acoustic guitar. The harmonies of Madison and her musical partner Maasa Craig recall bluegrass harmonies at time and with Doug Cox providing slide guitar, dobro, and banjo, these chants have the potential to reach more ears.  Saraswati with its gorgeous Indian vocals will satisfy the more traditional yogi.

So I had to try out the recording with my own yoga practice. I found that the chants energized and relaxed me, while providing some lovely beats. The harmonies of the women and vocalist Cassius Kahn lent themselves to a meditative space. The opener Shri Ram (a popular mantra) with the tabla beats, silky slide guitar and hearty vocals can entice even the laziest yogi to roll out the mat and get to it. Throat -singing and classical Indian vocals compliments of Ganesh Anandan and Kahn appear on Siva Mahyna.

I guess with this warming yogic recording, I have no excuse but to take it to the mat.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Decade of Musical Exploration

 When this new century and decade began I worked as a freelance film journalist.  I attended film festivals, screened films from around the world and interviewed dozens of film directors.  I thought I could avoid returning to writing about music or performing it, after leaving that endeavor in 1997, but when I watched those movies, I found myself focusing on musical elements, such as soundtracks.

In 1999, I saw two Canadian films that turned my ears towards classical music, The Red Violin and 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, (by the same director and writers).  In 2001, I attended the last WOMAD, USA, near Seattle.  I found myself immersed in world music and I quickly fell in love with the global feast for the ears and eyes.

Suddenly the world opened up to me.  I received recordings from Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas.  I heard music sung in many tongues and played on exotic instruments.  My feet danced to poly rhythms, I learned the different rhythms of Afro-Latin, African, Asian and European traditional music.  I started singing in French and Spanish, just for fun.  I dreamed of owning a variety of lutes, drums and percussion instruments.  I found something that I could sink my teeth into, something delicious and nutritious.

So I listened to all the recordings I could get my hands on, I delved into traditional, folkloric, classical, jazz and early music.  I listened to Gregorian chants and kirtan chants sung in Sanskrit.  I learned about Hindustani beat-cycles and Finnish runo-songs, Sami chants and Native American healing music.  Some doors flung open and I, a Lomaxian student of the world, ran inside this new world.

A decade later, I realize that I have found my mission, sharing this wonderful healing music with the world through this blog.  But I am certain that I will also record and perform music again, (my music career ended in 1997).  I am still seeking a new voice.  I do not wish to perform folk-rock music as I did in the past.  Latin music, jazz, and other genres call to me, even medieval troubadour songs.

So we all embark on our paths, musical and otherwise.  It is my hope that our paths cross often, that this musical dialogue never ends, that we preserve the music traditions of our ancestors, and discover what lies within our cultural DNA.  It is my hope that musicians keep spreading peace, keep embracing the other and keep this marriage between cultures alive.   I believe we will do just that because many of us realize the healing potential in music.  Many of us realize that sung words, melodies, and rhythms are the stuff of the soul and none of us wish to live in a soulless world. 

May the beat play on...

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

5 Ways to Relieve Stress with Music

1. Sing along with a favorite vocal recording

2. Sing while you work or play

3. Play music for a yoga or other exercise practice

4. Dance

5. Learn or re-learn to play a musical instrument of your choice

Perceive the entire world as musical.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Bach for Sheltered Dogs

Announcement from Pianist Lisa Spector/Through A Dog's Ear


We'd like your assistance on an important community program. Can you help us spread the word about the Through a Dog's Ear Shelter Program? For free, we offer two hours of clinically tested classical piano music to non-profit dog advocacy groups (shelters, dog rescues, service dog organizations, etc.). Currently, Through a Dog's Ear music is being played in 75 shelters in three countries. Please tell your local shelters about our program.
Go to http://www.throughadogsear.com/

Friday, December 4, 2009

Top Recordings of the Decade (2000-09)

A Decade of Music: Top Recordings from 2000-09

Lo'Jo, World Village
NPR (National Public Radio) came up with lists of favorite recordings from the last decade.  So I thought I would do the same, but what would be my criteria? Can I include albums produced in 2001 or 2008, if I received those albums years after the release date?

I actually have a lot more favorites than what you will see on this list.  All the recordings fall into the world music genre because that is the only genre that I have reviewed for most of the decade.  I started reviewing world music recordings in 2002 when I launched my first music website, Cranky Crow World Music.  Then I began contributing reviews to World Music Central in the spring of 2003.  I did come across older recordings (2000 and 2001), during my first few years of reviewing.  And yes, I am including recordings that I did not receive the same year they were released.  Two examples of that are Barbara Furtuna's In Santa Place (2008) and  the Galician recording Nordistina (2006), which I received in 2009.

Uxia, World Village, Folmusica
You will also find a few ties on the list.  I have reviewed hundreds of recordings in the past decade.  And if it was not for this huge exploration of music from around the world, I would have never learned about the healing aspects of music, mainly on myself, nor would I feel like a world citizen.  I learned geography, history, anthropology, and about diverse musical traditions.  On some days I relate to the Alan Lomaxes of the world.

So here's a huge salute to the past decade of music!  We made it this far, let's keep going.

2000--Gjallarhorn, Sjofn, NorthSide Records

2001--Vasen, Live at the Nordic Roots Festival, NorthSide
AND Barrio Chino, Mediterra Nostra, Tinder Records

2002--Lo'Jo, Au Cabaret Sauvage, World Village

2003--Varttina, Iki, NorthSide
AND Cristina Branco, Sensus, Decca/Universal

2004--Mariana Montalvo, Piel de Acceituna, World Village

2005--Jean-Paul Poletti & Le Choeur De Sartene, Terra Mea, Universal France

2006--Michel Camilo & Tomatito, Spain Again, Universal
AND *Abe Rabade, Guadi Galego & Ugia Pedreira, Nordistina, Falcatruada

2007--Mariza, Concerto em Lisboa, Time Square
AND Habib Koite & Bamada, Afriki, Cumbancha

2008--*Barbara Furtuna, In Santa Place, Buda Musique
AND Shastriya Syndicate, Syndicated, Sense World Music

2009--Uxia, Eterno Naviga, World Village

Thursday, December 3, 2009

In review--Norwegian Holiday

Mathias Eick, Pasha Hanjana and Ertan Tekin
The Three Wise Men
Kirkelig Kulturverksted

Stephen Brandt-Hansen
In the Light of Christmas
Kirkelig Kulturverksted

Since 2003 when I discovered the Norwegian blues musician Knut Reiersrud, holiday music released on the Norwegian label, Kirkelig Kulturverksted (KKV), has become a tradition for me. Founder of the label, Erik Hillestad and his colleagues produce holiday music with an ethnic edge, certainly the holiday records I listened to as a child did not feature Iranian nays (a reed flute) and Turkish instruments—I only wish that they had! A few years back, the Palestinian vocalist Rim Banna made her European debut on a KKV holiday recording. She would later follow up with three successful solo albums released on the label. For the 2009 holiday releases, trumpet Mathias Eick and tenor Stephen Brandt-Hansen set the stars in the firmament.

The Three Wise Men featuring three wise musicians hailing from Norway (multi-instrumentalist Mathias Eick), Iran (Pasha Hanjana on nay) and Turkish duduk (a reed instrument) player Ertan Tekin. They perform mostly familiar holiday classics, with a few exotic ones tossed in. Mathias’ arrangements of piano, trumpet, vibraphone, duduk and nay could be called exotic as well. In fact, listeners might feel tempted to light incense of myrrh and frankincense.

This beautiful global recording features traditional songs from Germany, France, England, Norway, Italy, and Palestine. The opener, a somber Scandinavian traditional song, My Heart is Always with Jesus with its East-meets-West arrangement, if you can imagine jazz trumpet backed by the nay and duduk. Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Silent Night and Little Town of Bethlehem would sound familiar to the typical American listener, whereas, listeners with global and early music interests will welcome the French traditional, Ave Maria Stella and the Sicilian O Sanctissima. Eick’s trumpet on Little Town of Bethlehem might have the late Miles Davis questioning why he didn’t produce a holiday jazz album—I am guessing.

The collection of songs could not be called rousing nor would I recommend playing this recordings as background music for a holiday party. The arrangements work best as contemplative music, curling up reading a book, meditating or reflecting over a cup of tea or hot chocolate. And this recording would be a wonderful introduction of Middle Eastern instruments to children of all ages.

Tenor Stephen Brandt-Hansen enjoys fame in Europe as a theatrical vocalist. His rendition of Silent Night, Oh, Holy Night, Noel, Noel and other favorites which appear on In the Light of Christmas are beautifully rendered. Any time I hear any version of Silent Night, I recall when I learned how to play the song on a little organ when I was a child—long before I knew about God or religion. I found the song exquisite then and I find it exquisite now. Oh, Holy Night with its vaulted melody that few people can sing well, and it must be sung well, wins the award of my favorite Christmas song. The jaunty Oh, Rest Me Merry Gentlemen with the harmonica kicks up its heels.

Brandt-Hansen goes beyond just doing justice to the song, he sings grace notes in the most difficult passages, almost giving it a baroque treatment and then when the choir comes into back his vocal phrasing, I doubt any listener will not shed a tear for the sheer beauty of it. Iver Kleive (organ/piano), Anders Engen (percussion), Sigmund Groven (harmonica) and a choir directed by Marian Lisland round off the stunning arrangements.

In the Light of Christmas (also the title of a song on the recording penned by Erik Hillestad), could be played in the background of a small dinner or sedate get-together, but it too falls into the contemplative listening scenario. Listeners that prefer vocally-led holiday music would relish this one, but the songs are sung in Norwegian and create a world music listening experience.

I wish everyone in Norway and beyond a happy holiday season. Let 2010 be the year in which we all come together and create peace on earth. Then the real healing can begin.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Whole Music Experience Top Ten Lists of 2009

The bulk of recordings I received in late 2008 and 2009 were of classical and traditional (world) genres. Since I had a large pile of classical recordings, some of those recordings ended up on the Top Ten Healing Recordings.

I received only a small collection of jazz recordings and some of the recordings I received in 2009 were actually recorded in 2008. Since my biggest discovery of the year was Galician (Spain) music, I included two recordings on the list below, a 2008 jazz recording and a 2009 world music recording. I feel fortunate to have received high quality recordings by some of the best names in classical, jazz and world music. The lists are random, meaning there is no number one spot—all being equal.

Best Jazz Recordings (2008-09)

1. New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, Book One, World Village
2. Mario Adnet & Philippe Baden Powell, Afro Samba Jazz, Adventure Music
3. Mathias Eick, The Door, ECM (2008 recording)
4. Vaamonde, Lamas & Romero, Vellas Artes, Falcatruada, (Galicia, 2008)
5. Ablaye Cissoko & Volker Goetze, Sira, ObliqSound, (2008 recording)
6. Benjamim Taubkin, Sèrgio Reze & Zeca Assumpcao, Trio +1, Adventure Music
7. Trio Ifriquiya, Petite Planète, World Village
8. Ithmara Koorax & Juarez Moreira, Bim Bom, Motema
9. Daniel Santiago, Metropole, Adventure Music
10. Tom Lellis and the Metropole Orchestra, Skylark, Adventure Music

Best World & Traditional Recordings (2008-09)

1. Toto La Momposina, Bodega, Astar
2. Marta Topferova, Trova, World Village
3. Uxìa, eterno navegar, World Village
4. Cesaria Evora, Nha Sentimento, Lusafrica
5. The Wailin’ Jennys, Live at The Mauch Chunk Opera House, Red House Records
6. Oreka tx, Nomadak tx, World Village
7. Maria del Mar Bonet, Raixa, World Village
8. Joana Amendoeira, À Flor Da Pele, World Village
9. Chango Spasiuk, Pynandì, World Village
10. Marina Rossell, Gran Teatre Del Liceu de Barcelona

The next category might surprise folks. My interpretation of healing music includes both physical healing and community healing. For instance “Playing for Change” represents community healing whereas, Marjorie de Muynck’s “Vibrational Healing Music” represents individual healing. Of course, any of the top jazz, classical and world recordings could easily fall into these catagories.

Best Healing Recordings (2008-09)

1. Marjorie de Muynck, Vibrational Healing Music, Sounds True
2. Barbara Furtuna, In Santa Pace, Buda Musique
3. Playing for Change, Songs Around The World, Concord Music Group
4. Anonymous 4, Four Centuries of Chant, Harmonia Mundi
5. Arianna Savall, Peiwoh, Alia Vox
6. Nancy Vieira, Lus, World Village
7. Louie Gonnie, Rhythms Within a Turquoise Dream, Canyon Records
8. Doug Cox & Salil Bhatt, Slide to Freedom 2, Northern Blues
9. Alex E. Smith, Cheevers Toppah and Nitanis Landry, Rain in July, Canyon Records
10. Symbiosis, Aotearoa (Beautiful Sounds of Nature from New Zealand), Symbiosis Music

Honorable mention: Songs across Walls of separation, Kirkelig Kulturverksted

Ten Best Classical Recordings (2008-09)

1. Till Fellner, J.S. Bach Inventionen und Sinfonien, ECM New Series
2. James DeMars, Guadalupe, Our Lady of Roses, Canyon Records
3. Rolf Lislevand and Ensemble, Diminuito, ECM New Series
4. Angela Hewitt, Plays Handel and Haydn, Hyperìon
5. Stile Antico, Song of Songs, Harmonia Mundi
6. Polyphony/Britten Sinfonia/Stephen Layton, Handel Messiah, Hyperìon
7. Isabelle Faust & Alexander Melnikov, Beethoven Complete Sonatas for Piano & Violin, Harmonia Mundi
8. Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Ravel Daphnis et Chloè, CSO-Resound
9. Richard Egarr & Academy of Ancient Music, Bach Brandenburg Concertos, Harmonia Mundi
10. Thomas Zehetmair, Niccolò Paganini 24 Capricci, EMC New Series

Honorable mention: Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent, J.S. Bach Jesu, deine Passion, Harmonia Mundi

Five Significant Labels of 2009

1. World Village
2. Canyon Records
3. Adventure Music
4. ECM Records
5. Harmonia Mundi

Honorable mention to Motema (For its fundraising efforts for healing music)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

In Review--Legendary Harp

Arianna Savall

I was never a fan of harp music until a few years ago when the editor of World Music Central sent me a sample of Spanish harpist and mezzo-soprano Arianna Savall’s music. Later, I acquired Arianna’s first solo album, Bella Terra, which also refers to her homeland in Catalonia, Spain. Arianna’s music cannot be easily described since it has absorbed elements from Arabic and Eastern music along with elements from European early music, in fact, the musician plays a baroque harp. She sings in Catalan, a Romance language nearly lost during the Franco era and related to France’s Provencal language, according to the DK Guide to Spain (Eyewitness Travel Guides).

Arianna with her choice of poetic text and performance of soprano vocals with harp gives off an angelic aura. Her music so carefully rendered with baroque instruments (lutes, percussion, harps) and mixed with traditional instruments such as Petter Johansen’s hardingfele (Norwegian fiddle) lends itself well to a relaxing and contemplative environment. She also provides her listeners with poetry translated into several languages. And I recommend reading the poetry, in this case, includes the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi (opens the recording), text by Federico Garcia Lorca, Saint John of the Cross, Rumi, and other illustrious wordsmiths.

Similar to Portuguese fado singer Cristina Branco, Arianna has an ear for heart-centered and sensual text, along with perfect pitch. Her vocals have increased in intensity and beauty since her previous recording, and already she possessed one of the finest mezzo-soprano voices singing early music today. She sails from Celtic fare, She Moved Through the Fair, to Persian, Rumi’s The Melody Sweetens to Gregorian-style chants Anima Nostre and Anima Nostre 2 as well as, storytelling in the titular track. While any musician can perform spiritual material note for note and with the right emotions, Arianna embodies her text and even on the instrumental tracks, such as Aurora, listeners get a sense of a woman on a spiritual quest. Why else would she choose text by St. Francis, St. John of the Cross and Rumi?

If you seek music with the dual purpose of healing and pleasurable listening look no further than this Catalan gem. I would recommend this album for hospice care, healing in hospitals, massage and energy healing practices and just to end a day on the right note. Arianna captivates ears and hearts--her music heals through personal reflection and the timbre of harp and vocals.

Arianna Savall

Saturday, November 21, 2009

In review--The Art of Relaxing Music

Updated review on March 18, 2013
Sea of Light (1999)
Symbiosis Music (UK)

Touching the Clouds (1995)
Symbiosis Music

Aotearoa (nature recording/New Zealand)
Symbiosis Music

When I recently wrote an article on the benefits of music for relaxation I came across Symbiosis Music’s website. Two of the recordings I requested were recorded in the 1990s, long before research about the brain and music surfaced into the mainstream and long before the PBS documentary Science & Song. Synthesizers were employed more generously during that era with new age and other types of relaxation music, though some music awareness people I know now including myself, find that synthesizers cause tension and other symptoms.

My opinion based on my own music and personal experience leans towards relaxation music performed on all acoustic instruments with overtones of these instruments providing musical washes and drones. However, I add that my body and emotions do not respond well to drones or washes and on occasion I have found that I feel depressed around music without strong melodic content whether heard in improvisational jazz, modern European classical, synthesized new age music, etc… So before I review the following recordings, I want anyone reading this review to keep all of that in mind.  Reviewers are human.

New research has taken in an in depth look at different ways our brains react to music and sound. People suffering from autism or dementia react differently to music than the average person, and differently than each other. Some people need music to stimulate them while others need music to sooth their nerves after too much exposure to electromagnetic fields and an over abundance of audio prompts heard throughout any given day. Some people need nostalgic music to relax, while others find nostalgic music invasive. Some people enjoy melodic catchy music, while others feel annoyed by it since it’s hard to wash from the mind over the course of a day.

Let's look at Sea of Light. A few of the tracks left me feeling tense. Overall, though I enjoyed John Hackett’s beautiful flute playing, the acoustic guitar, Andes flute, hammered dulcimer and gentle percussion. I preferred some of the Erik Satie-style solo piano pieces and the slower tempo and warming pieces. So here is the breakdown.

Deep Yellow—Warm, crisp acoustic guitar, resonating bass tones, even tempo with a hint of a melody.

Red—Slow moving, low-end flute, irritating pulsing bass rhythm, slightly dissonant. Since bass tones discharge the nervous system, I did not find this piece energizing as the color red would imply nor did I find it grounding even with the lower tones.  The dog reacted badly to this track, but neutral to the others.

Orange—Feels tropical, warming with an upbeat flute and gentle percussion. Though I could do without the synthesizer wash.

Pale Yellow—Slow tempo, Erik Satie-type piano, a lot of high end so it charges the nervous system even with the slower tempo. The dreamy piece also recalls another relaxation favorite, Revelry by Claude Debussy.

Green—This one feels melancholic even with the warmer tones played on the acoustic guitar. I could do without the synthesizer wash, but I like the wind chimes. The flute on the track recalls Native American composer Mary Youngblood’s work.

Blue, Indigo, Violet and Amethyst—too much synthesizer, felt cold and dissonant to me. I prefer to skip over these tracks.

Grey—Brings in a slow tempo breathy Andes flute, slightly melancholic, but I find it beautiful coming from Latin heritage. The other listener did not enjoy this track.

Apple Green—Melodic acoustic guitar with rich bass tones gives off a warming effect.

Deep Blue—This track left me feeling irritated and tense. It reminds me of a soundtrack for a scary movie.

Peach—Fortunately Deep Blue is followed by Peach, a beautiful full-spectrum solo piano piece that again recalls Erik Satie.

Turquoise—The synthesizer irritated my nerves.

Silver—I could do without the synthesizer wash at the beginning, though I enjoyed the lovely flute which warms up the piece.

Rose Pink—Slow tempo, relaxing and warming.

Gold—Gorgeous duet between hammered dulcimer and flute. Hackett delivers a beautiful performance on this piece and a great way to end the album.

Since each of us listens to music differently and some people respond positively to synthesizers and other electric instruments, I feel that it is best to visit the website and sample the music before purchasing. You can do so at http://www.symbiosis-music.com/

The 1995 recording, Touching the Clouds includes synthesizer along with flute, guitar, marimba and percussion. Although I normally do not respond well to electric instruments, I have found this particular recording relaxing and have used it at bedtime to fall asleep. Some of the tracks leave me feeling tense, but overall, I have experienced positive results.

Medical research at Kingston University (UK) showed some encouraging results as far as relaxing patients by slowing down body rhythms. Twelve recordings, including Touching the Clouds were used in an experiment. The recordings ranged from hard rock to European classical and new age music. Touching the Clouds tied with a Vivaldi track for the most effective recording in the research. For more information on the findings, visit http://www.symbiosis-music.com/ and click on the research tab.

So far I have tested this recording out for background music for yoga, relaxation and I worked at my computer with the music playing. Though this music relaxes me to fall asleep at night, it does not leave me feeling heavy when I work with the music playing in the background and it does not leave me feeling sleepy when I employ it for my yoga practice. I have also found the music non-intrusive when I play it in the morning when I meditate and journal.

The final recording, Aotearoa (Beautiful Sounds of Nature from New Zealand) provides listeners with pure nature and bird sounds, from surf to over-excited birds in the last track. What I enjoy about this recording is the absence of any musical instruments. It feels like an immersion in the natural world of New Zealand, not quite relaxing, but certainly I find this nature recording enjoyable. I highly recommend it for bird lovers. In fact, if you can’t afford a trip to New Zealand, you can put this one in the player and hear Bellbirds, Kaka, Tui and other species surrounded by crashing waves, a thunder storm and other natural sounds.  Though if you have a pet with a fear of thunder storms, play this recording at a low volume. We often forget the sensitivity of our animal companions, especially the ones with phobias.

Certainly this recording would be suitable for drowning out noises, for visualization, meditation and I have found it non-invasive for playing in the background while writing and performing other tedious tasks. Proceeds from the sale of this recording support the work of the ecological non-profit Tiritiri Matangi (New Zealand). And certainly folks, I don’t think you can get any closer to nature via a recording than this one.
Symbiosis Music

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Music Experiment--Take a Music-pause

In Pink by Patricia Herlevi
I have been thinking a lot about women suffering from emotional and mental symptoms connected to hormonal imbalance--with a focus on peri-menopausal and menopausal women.  Some of the symptoms I have experienced myself include irritability, heart palpitations with anxiety in the middle of the night, and an emotional rollercoaster ride, including bursts of anger in connection with standing up for myself.

So if any women reading this blog have experienced similar emotions and mental processes, I am including a few CDs here for you to try to alleviate some of the symptoms.  Experiment.

I also started drinking Tulsi (Holy Basil) tea to reduce my stress levels. I feel relaxed.

For insomnia I recommend:

"Relax and De-Stress" by Dr. Andrew Weill and Joshua Leeds, Sounds True
"Through A Dog's Ear" Volume One, Sounds True (Yes, this CD helps humans relax too and if your dog also feels stressed out, then you help the both of you).

These two CDs slow the body's rhythm down gradually until the music reaches 80 beats per minute--a full relaxed state. 

Clearing space after feeling strong emotions:

"In the Key of Earth" and "Vibrational Healing Music" by Marjorie de Muynck, Sounds True

Marjorie combines sound healing tools with musical overtones, natural sounds and jazz instruments tuned to the key of the universal ohm.  This music clears electromagnetic effects from your body and aura.  All the instruments are acoustic-based.

Catharis for anger and hurt (about issues from the past)

"The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster," Blue Corn Music
Or anything by Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, etc...

Ruthie sings the blues, old folk and gospel.  The themes of her songs reflect on healing past hurts, coming into one's own and other themes menopausal and middle age women experience.  The singing and production on this album lends itself well to getting stuff out of your system.  Dance to the music, clean house to the music or just listen to it through headphones.  I guarantee you'll feel better.

Uplift moods & relax nervous tension (without drowsiness)

"Nha Sentimento" Cesaria Evora, Lusafrica

"Lus" Nancy Vieira, World Village

Both of these CDs are new to my collection.  In fact, I just reviewed both of them in the last two weeks.  And I have been experiencing a lot of stress during this time too so these CDs were pushed to the limit and performed well.

The Cape Verdean sound feels warming, comforting and sedate.  The lyrics might reflect on sadness, but the rhythms, choice of instruments, etc... create a welcoming environment.  It might sound cliche to say that the songs feel like hugs from a friend, but they do.  Plus the two singers possess beautiful and deeply penetrating voices.

And if you need a happy song for dancing yourself into a frenzy

"Make a Better World" off of "Slide to Freedom 2" Doug Cox and Salil Bhatt, Northern Blues

These musicians provide music for my yoga practice.  I love starting out with this happy song and I end up feeling better about myself and my sporadic outbursts of anger. Who doesn't want to make the world a better place? Too bad I feel ticked off a lot.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

In Conversation with Marta Topferova

Storks, Poetry and the Human Spirit

 Around 2005-06, I heard vocalist and cuatro player Marta Topferova giving a radio interview in Seattle. After the interview, I acquired her recording, La Marea and I fell in love with its blend of old style Latin American music with a modern sensibility. That following Valentine’s Day I saw Marta with her trio at Jazz Alley (Seattle), and I felt swept away by the South American cuatro and Marta’s alto vocals. And I wasn’t the only one—many audience members stayed after the concert to meet the performers.

Later with the release of her second recording on World Village, Flor Nocturna, again Marta supplied her listeners with a collection of thoughtful songs performed in a “chamber ensemble” format. Some of the material felt melancholy, but so were the times in which I found myself listening to the recording.

Now, Marta awaits the release of her third World Village recording, Trova (see review below), which celebrates music of the Caribbean and South America. The songs tinged with poetic reflection, Latin percussion, cuatro, guitar, accordion, très (Cuban lute), and violin again speak of the times in which we live.

I caught up with Marta via e-mail for a conversation about the new album, Trova. While the music itself possesses a warm tropical feel, the poetry speaks directly to the times in which we live. Can we heal the world through our music and words?

WME: When I saw the title of your new CD my thoughts immediately went to the Cuban trova tradition and of course to the poetic troubadours from Spain in which Cuban trova found its roots. Now, you had lived in Cuba at one point where you studied Cuban music so is this where you found inspiration for this new album?

Marta Topferova: I visited Cuba 10 years ago and lived in Spain for 6 months in 1993. But most of my knowledge of Latin American music comes from playing with Latin American musicians in New York and my own studies throughout the years. For Trova, I wanted to go for a more upbeat concept and highlight Caribbean influences such as the Cuban son, bolero, Puerto Rican bomba, etc. I was always fond of the Cuban très and was lucky to find a très player (Aaron Halva), who knows the trova tradition very well, but is a versatile musician who can play many other rhythms and styles on the très. I also wanted to include some songs with 'coros' which are such a strong part of Latin American music.

WME: Trova acts as a departure for you from the Venezuelan-Colombian sound, even though half of this recording features the cuatro-based music. The violin, and bass is still present, but you have added more percussion, a très (traditional Cuban lute), and accordion, as well as, you bringing in acoustic guitar.

So what was your musical journey between Flor Nocturna, 2006 release to this new album?

MT: When I produced my last release, Flor Nocturna, I was working with a more chamber concept, partly because when I started touring, we played mostly in trio settings where I accompanied myself on cuatro along with just bass and violin or flute. I love this kind of subtle sound, but I found that I wanted to bring in a more energetic aspect to the performances, so I formed a group where percussion and coros play an important role.

WME: Poetry, both yours and other poets play a central role on Trova as you would expect. Would you like to comment on some of the themes, which delve into spirituality, nature, love and transcendence? (The Meadow, La Pradera, reminds me of Pablo Neruda’s poetry with its combination of natural beauty and human longing, despair).

MT: I like to write about many themes. The opening song is called Juligán or Hooligan, which is about a homeless guy. Homelessness is an unfortunate phenomenon we see frequently in New York City. My other songs are often inspired by nature or mythological symbols such as the song Vuelo de Cigueña or Flight of the Stork. I also like to share thoughts about society at times - for example in Madrugada (Dawn), I write, "What has happened to our power (as humankind), that has threatened what should be loved most." What I mean by that is that while our presence as a society in the world has been remarkable, it also brings with it serious difficulties such as global warming, pollution, extinction for many species.

Humanity is facing terrible dangers – commercialism is dominating more than ever, and we are not doing enough to care for nature, the poor and the vulnerable. This may sound old fashioned, but I am finding too much violence and vulgarity in our mainstream culture. So, I suppose I strive to offer a sort of refuge with my music, a place that is imaginitive, nourishing and beautiful.

WME: I remember reading in your biography from years ago that you studied the music of Spain, Cuba, and South America. How did this love of Latin and Spanish music start for you? I remember reading that you were a child living in the Czech Republic and that your family had Hispanic friends that drew you into Latin culture. Did this connection lead you in the direction of Latin American music?

MT: My first introduction to Latin American music was when I was 6 years old. My parents, both actors, worked with some Chilean friends who immigrated to Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. They gave my parents a collection of LPs by Inti-Illimani, a Chilean folkloric group who play music of the Andes. I fell in love with these records and played them over and over.

But there was no other Latin American music to be found behind the iron curtain back then. So the opportunity for me to explore my passion for this music didn’t come until I immigrated to the U.S. in 1987 with my mother and sister. It was in my adolescence in the U.S., where I came in contact with other immigrants like myself that my interest in the Spanish language and culture took off. I also finally had a chance to seek out a much broader variety of music.

WME: What comments would you like to make about the production of Trova, the new instrumental arrangements and new musicians on board for this album?

MT: Trova was recorded in a studio near Prague after a European tour. I did the arrangements for the album before we went on tour, but having a chance to play ten shows in a row and work on the music before recording made a big difference. The studio, "Sono" and engineer Michal Vaniš, turned out to be fabulous. We recorded the whole thing live in the main hall, which had amazing acoustics. I think the album has a very warm and organic sound, like older recordings.

The studio is an old farmhouse with a hotel and restaurant attached, so we stayed and ate there during the sessions. This created such a great and relaxed atmosphere for the making of the record. I also know each player quite well and the chemistry between the band members is great. The bassist (Pedro Giraudo) and percussionist (Neil Ochoa) have been playing with me for about nine years. The violinist (Roland Satterwhite) has toured with me a lot in the last three years. Aaron Halva on très and accordion is the newest addition. Aaron and I only started playing together about a year and a half ago, but I knew him on the New York scene for years and knew his musical tastes were very close to mine.

WME: Since you combine spiritual poetry with music, do you find composing and performing music to be a healing force in your life?

MT: Yes, music is a healing force in my life. Sometimes one forgets that – when one gets all caught up in the logistics that go into planning concerts, tours, and trying to make a living doing it. But then you have moments when you realize how much music means to you and the power it can have to uplift others.

WME: Finally what musicians, living and dead inspire you as a musician?

MT: My main inspiration has come from Camarón de la Isla, Paco de Lucía, Rafael de Utrera, Atahualpa Yupanqui, Mercedes Sosa (who passed away just recently), Guillermo Portabales, Los Compadres, Eliades Ochoa, Celia Cruz, Joao Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Vinicius da Moraes, Nereu Mocoto & Swing (a record called Power Samba), Lucía Pulido, Juan Carlos Formell, Zuzana Lapcikova, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and many more…

World Village

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In Review--Trovadores

Marta Topferova
World Village

Marta Topferova’s third recording for World Village, Trova focuses on the traditional Cuban sound—mainly sones and trovas, but makes a few excursions to South America. Marta returns with her cuatro while adding guitar and maracas on this recording. Aaron Halvo (accordion, très, vocals), Roland Satterwhite (violin, vocals), Pedro Giraudo (bass, vocals) and Neil Ochoa (traditional Latin percussion) round it off the sweet Caribbean (Come and Walk to the Hill), and South American sounds (The Fireflies).

Marta’s vocals sound warmer and lighter on Trova then on previous recordings—a mixture of honey and cinnamon. True to the trova and son traditions, poetry plays a central role either portrayed as Marta’s spiritual yearnings or the poetry of others reflecting on nature, love or transcendence over pain such as in the Pablo Raùl Trullenque and Carlos Carabajal’s Come to My Place without Knocking. The lyrical content radiates a wistful feeling, like clouds passing across the sky or the sun peeking through after a storm.

While many of the songs on the recording find roots in Cuban guitar and rhythms, Madrugada (Dawn) reflects back to Marta’s previous World Village albums, Flor Nocturna and La Marea with its cuatro tinge and Columbian-Venezuelan influences. The upbeat rebel-rousing Come to My Place without Knocking also falls into South American musical territory. I can imagine listeners kicking their heels up to this one with Satterwhite swinging away on violin and Ochoa bringing out a battery of Latin percussion, including a bombo and pandeiro. The vocal and guitar rhythms empower the song further. My favorite song, Mar y Cielo (the Sea and the Sky) ends the recording on a passionate note.

The songs are relaxing and even sedate with the exception of the rousing song in that falls in the middle of the recording. Listening to Trova certainly takes the rough edges off of the life experience. I have already listened to this advance copy several times and I feel delighted to add another one of Marta’s treasures to my collection. Kudos!

World Village