Sunday, October 17, 2010

In review--Women Power

Suzanna Owiyo
My Roots
Kirkelig Kulturverksted

Skruk and Mahsa Vahdat
In the Mirror of Wine
Kirkelig Kulturverksted

The Norwegian label Kirkelig Kulturverksted champions women and has been doing so for decades. In the few years that I’ve been reviewing recordings produced by KKV, I’ve come across several compilation albums that brought women musicians from around the world together to fight injustice and celebrate their womanhood. The women that appear on the label lean towards community organizing, championing worthy causes, and employing their musical gifts to better the world, especially their corner of it.

I’m thinking of Palestinian vocalist/composer Rim Banna who visits the refugee camps and loans her talents to furthering peace for the Palestinians, and I’m thinking of the Iranian sisters Marjan and Mahsa Vahdat who defied the ban on Iranian women singing in public and gave a concert at the Italian Embassy in Tehran (Songs from a Persian Garden). And I’m thinking of the African women musicians that teamed up with European musicians to bring to awareness the plight of African women and protest violence against women and female circumcision, for example (Women Care).

None of these projects are huge money-makers, but they do have the power to effect decision-makers who lead our nations into the 21st century. They do have the power to reach women who seek solidarity and men too through the healing power of music. And if labels such as KKV don’t take on these worthy efforts then who will?

Kenyan Suzanna Owiyo fits snuggly into the genre of empowered women. Like many of her African vocalist sisters, she sings about real issues and situations that challenge women throughout the world. She doesn’t flinch when it comes to using her musical talents to better the planet and I’m certain many women and men can sympathize with the topics of her songs. And while the lyrics with their weighty topics deserve attention, so does the warm, inviting, and stripped down production mainly acoustic guitars, African percussion and the Kenyan stringed-instrument, nyatiti, which was once forbidden to women that frame Owiyo’s empowered vocals.

The opening track Gonya features the lilting nyatiti and sets an atmosphere of gentle Kenyan grooves. Owiyo who possesses a maternal demeanor that alternates between comforting and cautionary delivers her text in a direct-to-the-point voice. While she doesn’t obsess about societal ills, she addresses them in the manner of a West African griot. For instance on the uplifting hip-swaying Anyango she advises a young woman to get an education first and marry later.

Owiyo possesses an ear for invigorating musical production too. On the track Osiepna (My Friend) she opens with effervescent a cappella vocals which are later combined with a warm percussive groove and backup vocals. On the track Don’t Lose Hope, we hear stunning interlocking guitars of Eric Desire Buchumi and Tobi Imani. The track Acceptance showcases a duet with Oliver Mtukudzi which contrasts his sandpaper vocals to Owiyo’s honeyed voice. The songs on My Roots flow together seamlessly, and yet each song possesses its own beauty and grace.

As mentioned earlier in this review, Iranian vocalist Mahsa and her sister Marjan Vahdat are among the most courageous women in the world. The sisters agreed to appear on a the compilation Lullabies from the Axis of Evil (Kirkelig Kulturverksted) a few years ago and more recently the sisters defied a ban in Iran of women singing in public when they gave a concert at the Italian Embassy in Tehran. Could we call it a miracle that the sisters’ vocals have been recorded for posterity and that many of us outside of Iran were given the opportunity to hear such beautiful soulful voices sing the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz?

The latest recording that offers this opportunity, In the Mirror of Wine brought the world-wise Norwegian choir Skruk lead by Per Oddvar Hildre together with Mahsa Vahdat in celebration of the ancient poetry of Hafiz and Rumi. The press notes describe the musical marriage as, a “powerful encounter between traditional Persian songs and Norwegian church music and jazz.” It sounds to me at times like Gregorian chants meeting Persian Sufi poetry. The lush choir and piano that frames Vahdat’s soulful vocals set a melancholic atmosphere that also leans towards spiritual transcendence.

The songs feel haunting yet meditative and anyone seeking a musical experience that speaks to the soul-mind-heart will find it on this recording. The album feels at home during this inner time of reflection when summer gives way to the poignant darker autumn months (in the Northern Hemisphere). Anyone seeking a spiritual experience through music will find In the Mirror of Wine deeply rewarding. And for others who enjoy applauding the efforts of courageous women, they’ll find listening pleasure as well.