Friday, February 25, 2011

In Review--From Dusk to Dawn

Cheevers Toppah
Renewed Spirit
Harmonized Church Hymns of the Kiowa
Canyon Records

Louie Gonnie
Breathe Deep the Dusk Fall
Songs of the Native American Church
Canyon Records

Antonio Woody
Old Style
Native American Peyote Songs
Canyon Records

I wrote an in depth article on the Native American Church and peyote songs several years ago which you can find on this blog (see links at the end of the review), so I’m not going into scholarly detail here. However, Kiowa Cheevers Toppah, Dinè Louie Gonnie represent the more prominent younger generation of harmonized peyote song singers recording these days. In fact, they’re prolific releasing at least one recording per year that showcases their talent and spiritual devotion. Antonio Woody, also from the Dinè people brings us the Native American peyote songs of his ancestors, performing them in the old style.

While I’ve never ingested peyote myself or attended a Native American Church service, I will attest to the psychedelic elements of the old style songs and Louie Gonnie’s approach to the harmonized songs on his recordings. Just take a look at the album cover images for Breathe Deep the Dusk Fall. But I don’t get the feeling that anyone’s tripping here, but practicing some strong Indian medicine and prayer. These musicians are steeped in spiritual and vocal training as they preserve these traditions for future generations.

Renewed Spirit, which features Kiowa harmonized church hymns (selected from the collection Kiowa Christian Songs, 1962) provides the most user-friendly spiritual hymns. The songs wed European style melodies with pre-Christian Kiowa song. Toppah overdubs his voice creating rich and beautiful harmonies. While the infamous Amazing Grace isn’t included among these hymns (it's not exactly a NA song), the overall feeling recalls that type of hymn. These songs also portray sincere love and passion for Jesus as well as, gratitude. Toppah sings a cappella and he possesses the voice to pull it off. The songs here sound straight forward with no psychedelic qualities, though they’re more interesting than the Lutheran songs from my childhood. I find the songs comforting and beautiful to my ears.

Louie Gonnie and Dinè Branson Emerson Gorman perform original songs of the Native American Church on Breathe Deep. Accompanied by rattle and a Native American water drum the songs feel nocturnal and a bit jarring. Gonnie composed the text and songs which reflect on the Earth Mother, smoke, fire, the cosmos, just to name a few themes. The text to the titular song read (English translation), “Inhale the coming night. The crickets beckon the dark, and shadows begin to fade away revealing endless stars…”

I’ve reviewed Gonnie’s past recordings and commented on his voice which slides between baritone and bass. His songs feel healing to me and I’ve found the songs comforting, if not grounding. The text here is personal, connecting family stories to the cosmos and the natural world. And to add a bit of variety, Transcendence and the Dawn reflects on the new day awakening. This is the type of song you’d expect to hear in the background of a new age shop, with its chirping birds and calling hawk, but the deep pulse of the water drum might feel strange to some folks. Gonnie’s songs (even sung in the Dinè dialect) create rich visuals that caress the heart, mind, and soul. Anyone seeking an authentic Native American spiritual experience would enjoy this recording.

For the uninitiated such as me, the old style peyote songs prove the most challenging to grasp emotionally, physically, and mentally. Chants accompanied by water drum and rattles provide psychedelic effects with or without peyote. Yet, these old style songs provide spiritual medicine to its practitioners, their families and communities. Antonio Woody performs “these ageless songs” on Old Style with the mission of preserving the songs for future generations.

According to the liner notes, “The songs recorded on this album traveled a long way from older uncles, some who are gone now and a few still here with us. I learned these songs as a young boy during ceremonies when they sang them over and over. My dad, brothers and cousins would tie drum and teach me songs as well.” In the tradition, this album features 6 sets which include 4 peyote songs each. The old style songs don’t have titles or themes, but possess power and voices of the ancestors.

If you would like to learn more about peyote songs, read the article I wrote several years ago

And visit interactive website.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

In review--Granite Voices & Clarion Horns

Paulo Fresu, A Filetta Corsican Voices & Daniele di Bonaventura
Mistico Mediterraneo

A lone lyric jazz trumpet, an Italian bandoneon, and Corsican vocals combine to create a haunting soundtrack for Mother Earth on the album Mistico Mediterraneo. In my opinion, this gorgeous recording will likely appeal to sensitives (which comprise only 30% of the population), and sophisticated music audiences. It’s not going to appeal to the average music listener who prefers the jangles of pop music. Corsican polyphony alone has the power to stop a listener in his or her track, but I’ve noticed that only more evolved humans gravitate towards this music. It’s as if you need to listen with an inner ear to fully comprehend it.

Sadly, much of what I review on this blog fits into this category because the most powerful healing music scrubs the soul clean, leaving it bare and vulnerable to daylight. Not everyone enjoys this type of musical journey. Too bad because this type of purging is exactly what the earth needs at this time. Listening to these 7 vocalists sing a cappella harmonies alone represents a transformational experience. Oddly, I discovered this Corsican vocal ensemble when I was recovering from an accident years ago. It was a dark time for me and the music provided the perfect soundtrack, haunting with a caveat of peace. It’s not exactly reggae, but this type of music transfigures the soul. A Filetta has captured my heart.

For those of you not familiar with A Filetta, the ensemble formed in 1978 on the French island of Corsica and has given voice to the ancient vocal tradition while also growing it along with modern times. You have heard the voices of this group gracing French composer Bruno Coulais’ movie soundtracks (think Winged Migrations). But what stands out for me is the way in which Corsican polyphony entwines with the earth’s energies. This music expands like fields of wild flowers and carries the weight of Corsican’s granite mountains. It’s a rebellion against oppression crying out, not in the night, but in broad daylight. Listening to it feels like you have entered a cave deep in the mountains, or a Cathedral with vaulted ceilings. You emerge transformed.

Sardinian trumpeter Paolo Fresu brings in his Miles Davis-inspired playing, clear as a bell with jazz syncopations. Daniele di Bonaventura’s bandoneon (not tango-style) plays a lesser role here, except on the tracks Da tè à mè which it takes on a circus feel, Corale and Sanctus which closes the recording.  Yet, the bandoneon offers an etherealness to the performance. A Filetta’s vocals steal the limelight, but the musicians create a balance between musical elements. The overall feel of the album falls on the pastoral and even whimsical side alternating with brooding secular and sacred music. Still, it feels wonderful to hear A Filetta take a lighter approach such as on the third track and Coulais' La folie du Cardinal, already mentioned.

Mistico Mediterraneo will appeal to sophisticated audiences who enjoy music for the sake of art. Listeners not afraid of feeling an array of intense emotions and who don’t over analyze music will best enjoy what these musicians offer. When listening to this disk just let your mind wander and don’t control its destiny. The music asks for total surrender and a leap into the unknown which in my opinion, speaks to contemporary times. Only the bravest hearts will answer the call.