Saturday, May 8, 2010

In review--Pan-Africa (Music of the Diaspora)

Lokua Kanza
World Village/Harmonia Mundi

With the kalimbas, flutes, percussion and soothing male vocals, Congolese Lokua Kanza’s solo album, Nkolo recalls the music of Ugandan Samite. However, Kanza’s covers more of the African Diaspora by bringing in gospel choirs (though more on the angelic than passionate side of things), and Brazilian fare. Gentle lilting guitar, percussion, bass, flute, and lush vocals appear on Dipano while Loyenge sounds like Congolese blues.

The press notes sums up Nkolo, “His voice dominates the ensemble. Sometimes it’s thrown into relief or highlighted by angel choirs, bells, whistles, drums, a child’s voice…” The emotions (without reading an English translation of the lyrics), also offer contrasts from melancholy to pure joy of living on the planet. The Brazilian sound on the album should come as no surprise since Nkolo lives in Paris and Rio, but he hasn’t forgotten his homeland.

“What I want to do through this album is convey the beauty and depth of the Africa of my childhood; but at the same time, I’ve added something else, a creative touch born of all the influences I’ve been subject to,” muses Kanza in the press notes.

I hear similarities between Richard Bona (a friend of Kanza) and Samite. The choice of Western and East and Central African instruments, the modern-sounding vocals coupled with a greater understanding of the world-at-large translates to an international audience. The danceable beats on the quicker tempo songs also translates to an international audience. Take a listen to Nakozonga and try not to groove to its rhythms. And in contrast try not to feel meditative when listening to Mapendo with its angelic choir and layered vocals.

World Village is touting Kanza’s new album as a landmark world music album. Only time will tell if this is true. But at the moment, it’s already feeling like a pan-African classic. The music feels healing, alternating between invigorating and relaxing. And even at its most passionate, the music still feels subtle enough that it won’t jar a sensitive listener. The lush music feels like encountering an oasis in the middle of a desert—refreshing.

Monday, May 3, 2010

In Conversation--A Man of the World

Have CD; Will Travel

Conversation with Putumayo World Music Co-Founder Dan Storper

Today with so many of us on restricted food diets or dealing with stress of abrupt changes that have taken place in our lives (unemployment, loss of loved one or loss of habit due to natural disasters), we find that we must find comfort and even moments of peace through simple pleasures. For people dealing with economic restrictions that usual afternoon cup of designer coffee might not even be a reality any longer. Or perhaps dreams of traveling the world have been put on hold.

One solution is to take a music break in the afternoon listening to a pleasurable compilation of exotic music. In the most extreme cases, it is my hope that some kind of healing music is present to help people deal with stress and trauma. We thrive with food, water, air and music.  We die without.

Most of us by now are familiar with the Putumayo World Music label. We have seen the CDs with the distinct folk art design of Nicola Heindl in boutiques, bookstores, coffee shops and specialty grocery stores. But what you might not know is that Putumayo started out as an ethnic clothing boutique as a brainchild of Dan Storper in 1975. While the clothing company sold in 1997, Storper and co-founder Michael Kraus founded Putumayo World Music label in 1993 with the motto, “guaranteed to make you feel good.”

While Putumayo presents tastefully produced groove and lounge compilations, I prefer its acoustic music compilations such as Acoustic Africa, but I’m also enamored with the 2003 compilation which presents a musical mix, French Café as well as, Mali and Women of Latin America. With an array of world and jazz music traditions, the compilations all share a “feel good” vibe. I have spent the day listening to over half a dozen compilations and the world has come alive for me. The warm and inviting songs that drift off of these compilations fill up the room. Think a hot and sunny day or a steaming cup of Chai with its spicy aromas and a vanilla scented beeswax candle burning in the background.

I recently interviewed Dan Storper for my food co-op’s newsletter, but I was only able to use two quotes from the interview in the 1,000 word article. So I’ve decided to include the interview here as a reminder to look no further than Putumayo for uplifting music. These days when that trip to Paris or Cuba seem to have dissipated like clouds, the songs on the compilations bring smiles our faces. You might even dust off those dancing shoes when listening to music from Cuba, Brazil, Africa and Latin America. Or perhaps you would rather chill to the sound of luscious women voices, Women of the World Acoustic.

Although the reasonably priced CDs are sold virtually everywhere, if dollars are tight see if your local commercial or non-commercial radio station broadcast Putumayo’s World Music Hour or you can stream the show at The label also produces a compilation series for children (Music Playground) so they too can learn about the world around them via the sounds of other cultures.

WME: Putumayo’s motto, “guaranteed to make you feel good” sums up the various Putumayo compilations and single artists CDs I have heard over the years. So how do you and the folks at Putumayo select the artists and the tracks to bring us the “feel good” effect?

Dan Storper: We try to select music that our staff of all ages and backgrounds in the US and Europe love with the hope that others will appreciate the songs as well. I sometimes call what we’re striving for as “the spirit of Bob Marley” because he’s the king of universal music.

WME: I also noticed on the website that you bring to the world little known music traditions, which preserves culture and provides culture exchange. What is the process in coming up with themes for the compilations, and selecting the artists and songs?

DS: We have developed an extensive list of more than 100 potential themes. Based on a combination of the music that is being collected which can evoke a theme, ideas that we’ve had for awhile or customers’ suggestions, we will pick a theme and try to collect enough exceptional music. Sometimes, enough great songs are found, sometimes not and we have to postpone or cancel themes.

WME: I have not seen the phrase “culture creatives” since I relocated from Seattle and then I smiled when I saw the phrase mentioned on your website. Of course it sums up your audience. Did this phrase even exist in 1993 when you launched the label? And were surprised by the growth of Putumayo compilations in the last 17 years?

DS: No, it didn’t. It was developed in the late 1990s by a sociologist, Paul Ray. We’ve been very happy with the US and international response to our collections. I always felt that this music was extraordinary and people would love it if they could only hear it. It certainly made me feel good.

WME: I noticed some single artists listed on the website. Is Putumayo releasing single artist recordings again? Wasn’t this discontinued two or three years ago?

DS: Yes, we discontinued single artists about 6 years ago. We have been collaborating with Jacob Edgar, our music researcher, who started his own record label called Cumbancha and are promoting his CDs which mostly are by artists who have appeared on Putumayo collections.

WME: Final questions, what is your favorite music region of the world? Which region of the world was featured on the 1993 compilation album that launched the Putumayo label?

DS: The first CD included music from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa especially but also had some songs from Europe.

In review--Global Music Consciousness

Around the World in a Day

Let’s sample 11 Putumayo CDs representing South America, the African continent, the Arab world, Europe and North America. We’ll start in 2009 and work our way down to 2003 creating a time capsule effect. And since compilations such as French Café and Italian Café bring out vintage performers, we will travel far and wide.

Putumayo Presents

Brazilian Café (2009)—This compilation presents a laidback Brazilian vibe. New and established artists perform traditional and not-so-traditional bossa novas and sambas. The right mix of female and male voices, lush horns, soft guitar and Brazilian rhythms make this the ideal music for a rainy day.

Café Cubano (2008)—I bet the food is spicy and the rum plenty in a Cuban café. I don’t drink so if I visited a trova house or café, I’d hope to hear sones and boleros sung by musicians preserving their musical heritage. And that’s exactly what you’ll hear on this disc. Veterans and newcomers perform that hip-swaying music associated with Cuba.

Acoustic France (2008)—The title alone grabs me. I’m both a fan of acoustic music and a Francophile. This compilation mainly represents the younger chanson singers such as supermodel-turned pop star Carla Bruni (she’s the wife of the current French President) and actress Sandrine Kiberlain. Sensuous men singers also appear on the CD, check out Thomas Dutronc’s track for an example. Ah, oui!

Acoustic Arabia (2008)—Arabic music has enjoyed immense popularity especially post 911. However, much of the Arabic music I’ve heard in the past ten years has sported heavy electronics and dance grooves. So this acoustic compilation feels heaven sent. Sporting a perfect balance of male and female musicians such as Rasha (Sudan), Souad Massi (Algeria), and Maurice El Mèdioni (Algeria), this compilation features belly dancing beats and standard songs with exotic instruments.

Women of the World (2007)—What’s not to like about an entire album devoted to varying timbres of women’s vocals. From the lush harmonies of the Wailin’ Jennys to the sensual Latin vocals of Marta Topferova and Marta Gòmez and the hot Cape Verdean vocals of Lura, this is a compilation you play when you need comfort and nourishment. (It would also make a nice Mother’s Day gift).  I can hear the compilation playing in the background of a women's get-together too.

Acoustic Africa (2006)—I reviewed this recording in 2006, along with reviewing a spectacular Putumayo Presents Acoustic Africa tour that featured Habib Koite and Bamada with Dobet Gnahorè (Vusi Mahlasela performed on some of the dates). The compilation mainly features music of West African countries, but South Africa, the Congo and Madagascar are also represented. I was mostly impressed with the guitar work, but the vocals warmed my heart too.

Acoustic Brazil (2005)—Acoustically-performed songs by some of the best songwriters, vocalists and guitarists in Brazil find a place on this compilation. Think Monica Salmaso, Teresa Cristina, Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso for starters. Beautifully performed, these urban bossa novas and sambas make a perfect companion on a lazy summer’s day.

Mali (2005)—Musically-speaking, Mali has represented a hotbed of talent for over 2 decades. The West African country is in the top of economically poor countries, but if music could be used as currency on the global market, the US would look impoverished in comparison. Certainly this mother country to various music genres (blues, jazz, rock and bluegrass since the banjo hails from Mali) possesses musical lineages (think griot) worth shouting out to the world. And it has with Tuareg rock (Tinariwen), Malian blues (Habib Koitè, Boubacar Traorè) and women vocalists with soaring vocals that give Italian opera divas a field day (Mamou Sidibè and Ramatou Diakitè). And if you need visuals, watch the live performance of Habib Koitè and Bamada.

Italian Café (2005)—Remember Fellini’s La Dolce Vita? Remember the jazz club in Nights of Cabriria? Italian Café waxes nostalgia by presenting Italian pop stars from the 1950s and 60s along with contemporary performers. Singer-songwriters including Gianmaria Testa (who I reviewed recently) appear alongside American jazz-inspired ensembles (Quartetto Cetra). That Roman café might be half a world away, but a shot of Italian Café has me using the handful of Italian words in my repertoire.  Think of it as coffee without the buzz.

Women of Latin America (2004)—It’s hard to believe that it has been 6 years since I attended Putumayo Presents Women of Latin America concert at the Moore Theatre in Seattle. While I had already been familiar with Chilean Mariana Montalvo (from her solo album on Putumayo), Afro-Peruvian Susana Baca and Mexican-American Lila Downs, this compilation introduced me to many new voices such as Colombian cumbia singer Totò Momposina and Mexican-American Lhasa, just to name 2. Easily my favorite Putumayo recording, these Latin women vocalists warm my heart on days when nothing else can—priceless.

French Café (2003)—My food co-op introduced me to French Café. I heard the suave tunes by Paris Combo, Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg while shopping for organic produce or when placed on hold when I phoned the store. While I don’t imagine that I’m strolling down the streets of Paris or hanging out in a sidewalk café, this collection of songs of old and new has me practicing my French. And when I phone the co-op I prefer to be put on hold as long as I can listen to Belle du Berry.

In review--Back from the Archives

Javier Perianes
Blasco de Nebra Piano Sonatas (1750-1784)
Harmonia Mundi

Baroque/classical composer and keyboardist Blasco de Nebra is only the second obscure Spanish wunderkind that has come to my attention in the last 2 years. The first one was a promising 19th century Basque composer Juan Crisòstomo Arriaga who died at a young age. De Nebra produced 172 compositions, but only 30 survived. The Andalusian composer died at the age of 34, not unlike his contemporary Mozart. But while Mozart has been celebrated to the hilt and loved worldwide, de Nebra has barely emerged from the shadows of obscurity. Certainly not for lack of talent or vision.

Pianist Javier Perianes, also an Andalusian, performs Keyboard Sonatas op. 1 (from Madrid) and sonatas and pastorelas from the Manuscript 2998 found in the archives of Montserrat. While the work would have originally been played on harpsichord and fortepiano, Perianes plays the sonatas on a contemporary piano giving these baroque pieces a modern sound. Though if you listen closely you can imagine the quicker passages played on a harpsichord.

De Nebra found his inspiration in the works of Scarlatti (who was of Spanish and Italian heritage). According to the liner notes (which I truly needed in this case), “A man of his time, a contemporary of Haydn, Mozart and the sons of Bach, Blasco de Nebra enthusiastically embraced the heritage of Scarlatti, who spent long periods in Seville between 1728 and 1733 during the Spanish court’s visits to the Andalusian capital…”

Similar to his father, de Nebra worked as an organist for a cathedral where he was also an ordained priest. Following the tradition of the baroque sonatas, each piece includes a fast movement and a slow movement. The faster movements, which recall Bach, provide intricate rhythms and counterpoint. In comparison the slower movements drift along offering ethereal moments and respite from the quick tempo flights of fancy.  Just when a listener sinks into revelry, the companion movement awakens them.

I listened closely for Andalusian or other Spanish influences, perhaps in the rhythm or overarching melodies. I found Spanish flavors in the pastoralas, especially on track 17, but I’m no expert on early Spanish music. However, I would love to see de Nebra garner more recognition and I hope Perianes’ recording of these luscious piano sonatas get the word out.

I recall reading an article once about how Vivaldi’s compositions wallowed in obscurity until the early 20th century when the Italian composer’s works were revisited and revived. Now, even people who don’t listen to classical music recognize Vivaldi’s pieces. JS Bach’s piano compositions nearly faded into obscurity until the late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould resurrected them in the 1950s and today Bach’s name is synonymous with early and classical music. Will Blasco de Nebra be the Bach of the 21st century? Only time will tell. But at least Blasco's out of the closet and his music liberated from the dusty archives.

Information on Vivaldi’s 20th century rediscovery:

Sunday, May 2, 2010

In review--Mozart, MD. (Magical and Divine)

Freiburger Barockorchester
Rene Jacobs
Mozart Symphonies Nos. 39 and 40
Harmonia Mundi

I came across information about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s connection to the Vienna chapter of the Freemasons recently and I wondered about the brotherhood’s influence on the magical aspects of Mozart’s repertoire. Mozart joined the Freemasons (was initiated into the brotherhood) in 1784 at the age of 28. As someone not versed or even knowledgeable about the Freemasons outside of the fact that the brothers practiced metaphysics, the only conclusion I reached was that the opera The Magic Flute definitely had metaphysical symbolism. And I also noticed over the years that music scholars would refer to the architecture of Mozart’s compositions. That statement now makes more sense in the light of the Freemason connection.

Sound healers, music therapists, and psychoacoustic practitioners, including the founder of psychoacoustics Dr. Alfred Tomatis (French ear, nose and throat doctor) have also commented on the healing power of Mozart’s musical compositions, though even the experts alter the music to suit medical needs. But what about listening to the symphonic versions (recordings and live)? I’m not a scientist, but I swear I healed a sore throat once listening to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto (recording) and I boosted my tests scores listening to Mozart in 2007 when I returned to college. Prior to achieving a higher GPA I felt skeptical towards the “Mozart Effect”; now I’m a believer.

Freiburger Barockorchester with Rene Jacobs at the helm, perform Mozart’s symphonies No. 39 and No. 40 in all their splendor and glory. Mozart composed the symphonies in 1788, four years after his initiation into the brotherhood. Whether or not the Freemasons had any influence with these works, I don't know. The liner notes reveal a more practical and get-down-to-business composer. Mozart was touring at the time and presenting his new works at prestigious events as well as, challenging himself artistically.

In the liner notes, the two symphonies are added to a triptych with the Jupiter Symphony. “…it might be said that Mozart attempted in these three symphonies to demonstrate every facet of his expertise as an instrumental composer. Variety and multiplicity, as displayed here, are certainly characteristic of a group of works of related content designed to belong together, an ‘opus’.”

Symphony No. 39 in E Flat major feels festive at times, but the forward thrust of strings coupled with urgent horns and woodwinds gives off a powerful effect, especially on the final movement. It possesses Beethoven-like broodiness and is in contrast to the regal opening with its horn blasts engaging in a call & response with the woodwinds. The second movement feels light and airy in an otherwise weighty symphony.

Symphony No. 40 in G minor begins with a wall of strings stating the theme with flute and woodwind flourishes that lighten the mood somewhat. The entire symphony feels like an urgent matter, but mostly in the first movement. Perhaps this is because I visualize one of the final scenes in the movie Amadeus when a carriage rushes across Vienna to dump Mozart’s body in a pauper’s grave (with this movement playing in the background). In fact, it’s a challenge not to hear music that appeared in the movie without recalling also the movie’s visuals, not to mention actor Tom Hulse portray Mozart’s laugh.

The symphony’s second movement possesses a romantic aura that feels soothing coming after the first movement. The higher range instruments such as a flute play a greater role while also adding a playful quality. The scales move upward so the music has an uplifting quality. Running over 15 minutes in length, I feel that Mozart must have given a lot of attention to the second movement. It certainly radiates natural beauty and perhaps even beauty of the natural world, not to mention, its exquisite craftsmanship.

The third movement is a short and lively minuet. However, the fourth movement returns to a heavier grave mood with a powerful call and responses erupting between the strings and horns. I often make the mistake of thinking of Mozart’s music as light and playful until I listen to his more serious pieces such as this symphony, but even it has its moments of enchantment.

Mozart was a lot of things; a Freemason, a musical genius, musical architect and a creature from another world. And if listening to the Austrian composer’s music also heals sore throats and raises IQ levels then we have even more reasons to luxuriate in Mozart’s large body of works.