Friday, September 24, 2010

In review--It's a small world after all

Rahim Alhaj
Little Earth (2-CDs)
UR Music

Miraculous, one of a dozen adjectives describes Iraqi oud player/composer Rahim Alhaj’s Little Earth. I say miraculous because musicians from mostly western musical traditions join the exiled composer on such instruments as accordion, guitar, Native American flute, and orchestral arrangements performing microtonal compositions with exotic rhythms foreign to most western listeners’ ears. And as the title of the recording suggests, the coming together of musicians from South America, the American southwest (Robert Mirabel), US, China, Cape Verde, Iran, Brazil, and Iraq certainly portrays a small world after all, (quoting the Disney classic song).

On the track, Missing You/Mae Querida, Cape Verdean Maria de Barros marries a mourna (Cape Verdean lament) to Alhaj’s maqam (Arabic mode/structure), and in contrast to this composition about loss, the guitar-oud duo (Morning In Hyattsville), with jazz musician Bill Frisell takes on the playful demeanor of a mockingbird. Equally spunky, include Fly Away which features the virtuoso guitars of Santa Fe Guitar Quartet married to Alhaj’s oud and sweet Athens to Baghdad that includes the guitar work of R.E.M.’s Peter Buck.

Serious global classical fusions take flight on Little Earth too, including compositions performed by pipa player (Chinese lute) Liu Fang, Rocio, featuring Roshan Jamal Bhartiya on sitar, and The Other Time featuring Yacouba Sissoko on the west African harp, kora. Most of the songs either have melancholic and fragile qualities or act as flights of fancy. I chose not to listen to Qaasim featuring didjeridu player Stephen Kent, not because it would lack beauty, but the gravity of the subject matter (death, lament, war), doesn’t appeal to my current stress level.

Brilliant musical performances, heartfelt moments, and a feeling of solidarity grace Little Earth. Rahim Alhaj is a man with a peaceful mission through the sharing of music. But more than that, his virtuosic performances, and gorgeous compositions, not to mention his openness to include musicians from other disciplines in the studio with him, provide some of the most moving music I have heard in a long while. Alhaj composes and performs from the depths of his soul and intense life experiences. His story of exile and rebuilding a music community in New Mexico alone provide a compelling memoir. And his music speaks for itself—miraculous, yes. Could this lead to peace between all nations and ethnic groups? I hope so. and

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

In review--Now, now pow-wow...

Cree Confederation
Pow-Wow Songs Recorded Live at Twenty-Nine Palms
Canyon Records

Bear Creek
Pow-Wow Songs Recorded Live at San Manuel
Canyon Records

Attending an actual pow-wow provides the best way to experience pow-wow drumming and singing. Recordings, even live recordings remove listeners too far away from the context and the dynamics of the drumming and singing, although present on recordings, acts as a poor cousin to watching the singers and drummers performing, sometimes under pressure of a competitive environment.

Having said that, pow-wow song recordings provide musical teaching tools for singers and drummers, as well as, providing archival material for ethnomusicologists. These recordings provide souvenirs for those folks who were unable to attend the pow-wow. Both Cree Federation’s and Bear Creeks’ live recordings feature DVD footage of songs performed in electrically-charged pow-wow environments. You hear the master of ceremony in the background, see relatives and friends of the drummers and singers filming them with their digital devices, and you witness the intensity of the singers and drummers. It’s ingenious to include this documentary or music video footage with the CDs. Now the musicians can share their techniques visually and people interested in Native American cultures can fully immerse themselves in the experience.

And what I’ve learned over the years listening to pow-wow song recordings is that each group has its own style and voice. I might not understand the nuances or get the NA humor (it flies right over my head most of the time), but I can appreciate the pride the musicians and Native American communities attach to these ceremonies, and musical gatherings. The competitions and pow-wow trail keeps a lot of young people out of trouble, by giving them expressive outlets, and respect of their peers. The older performers are given the opportunity to pass on their skills and knowledge as dancers, singers, drummers, and craftspeople. All around we can see how this provides a healing environment, even if listening to pow-wow songs doesn’t bode well with say a migraine or nervous disorder.

Both Cree Confederation and Bear Creek offer live in the moment documentary footage and a dozen or more pow-wow songs. Due to time constraints (I have a pile of CDs waiting for reviews), I prefer watching the videos to give me an idea of the singers’ and drummers’ style. Although I prefer not to draw comparisons between the two pow-wow groups, I will say that Bear Creek and Cree Confederation provide two different approaches. Bear Creek gives their all to the drums with passionate call & response vocals and the thump-thump heartbeat of the mother earth group drum. Cree Confederation employs a range of intensity in both drumming and singing, alternating quieter moments with more fiery ones and segueing smoothly between lead singers.

I’m pleased that Canyon Records has provided the DVD feature with the recordings. Makoche (record label) has been offering multimedia with its Native American recordings for several years. I enjoy this immersion approach since I lean towards a closet anthropology approach to life and especially towards music. And for all of you out there who have never attended a pow-wow or listened to pow-wow drumming and singing, not to mention watching the dancers dressed in their beautiful regalia now have an opportunity to witness musicians on the pow-wow trail.

In review--Mountain Spirits

(Tony Duncan, Darrin Yazzie and Jeremy Dancing Bull)
From Where the Sun Rises
Canyon Records

It has been years since I’ve heard a contemporary acoustic Native American recording such as Estun-Bah’s From Where the Sun Rises. Inspired by the work of R. Carlos Nakai and most likely Burning Sky, here we have warm acoustic guitar playing alongside a frame drum and lilting Native American flute. The sweet rolling melodies captivate my imagination and I find these tracks deeply relaxing. No doubt From Where the Sun Rises appeals to new age and Native American music listeners, but it could also appeal to those seeking warm and uplifting music that plays in the background as they go about their work (including me).

I don’t know the age of the musicians, but they look like they just graduated from high school. Though they’re musical talent reveals maturity, especially with the polished arrangements and performances. The three musicians hail from Northern Plains, Dakotas, and Southwestern tribes bringing intertribal influences to their songs. Together We Dance weds Darren Yazzie’s plaintive guitar strums and Tony Duncan’s sweet flute. The earthy In the Time of the Chiefs feels securely anchored with Jeremy Dancing Bull’s drum heartbeat. The musician’s unique abilities culminate in the song Mountain Spirit with a playful percussive groove, melodious flute, and lighthearted guitar. All the songs move at either a slow or medium tempo with plenty of moments to captivate imaginations. Perfect music is provided for visualization and light meditation or for taking a walk in nature.

No doubt this new young NA trio will be joining the ranks with Burning Sky, Robert Mirabel, Mary Youngblood, and other acoustic-based contemporary NA musicians. Estun-Bah’s fresh approach hopefully inspires other young NA musicians to perform acoustic-based heartfelt music. This one goes straight to the heart and leaves peaceful feelings behind.