Saturday, May 7, 2011

In review--The Sacred Road of the Drummers

Kevin Yazzie
Love (Songs of the Native American Church)
Canyon Records

Porcupine Singers
Alowanpi-Songs of Honoring
Lakota Classics: Past and Present, Vol. 1
Canyon Records

I’ve reviewed Dinè songwriter Kevin Yazzie’s CDs in the past so I’m going to give a brief review of his latest, Love (Songs of the Native American Church).   Similar to another Dinè traditional songwriter Louis Gonnie, Yazzie’s vocals possess a strong spiritual resonance, especially when he sings in the lower register.  He offers 7 sets of songs or sung prayers to life, his family, his children, and to love.

Unlike some peyote song recordings, the water drum and shaker don't sound jarring here, but still creates a sacred atmosphere in which the singer delivers his harmonized vocals.  I’m listening to the first song set as I type this review and I feel alert instead of spaced out.  I find this recording accessible and someone who has never listened to peyote or harmonized songs can feel comfortable listening to it.  Remember that this music and the passing of the holy peyote are sacred and handled with great reverence.  The music here also honors the spirit realm in a respectful manner.  I think this is the Grammy nominee’s best work so far—beautiful and intelligent.

While harmonized songs fall on the relaxing side, pow-wow songs invigorate with the thundering heartbeat of the collective pow-wow drum and call and response vocals.  The Porcupine Singers, past and present offer up Lakota honoring songs on Alowanpi.  If you’re like me and you’ve not heard of the Porcupine Singers, you can read the extensive liner notes that give a historic overview dating back to 1963 when the late Severt Young Bear, Sr. founded the drumming and singing group.

The best place to hear pow-wow songs is live at an actual pow-wow drumming competition, but if that’s not possible, you can pick up any number of CDs featuring popular pow-wow groups.  However, it’s not as powerful an experience as watching the drummers, dancers in regalia, and singers in action.  And like any live performance, the musicians feed off the energy of the crowd of their peers, family, and onlookers (non-Natives).  You don’t want to miss out on this spectacular experience of seeing the colorful and vibrant dancers in their feathers and beads. You don’t want to miss out on watching drummers passionately pound on the large drums.  But in the meantime...

You can hear much of that excitement on Alowanpi-Songs of Honoring from performances of the original Porcupine Singer lineup and the current lineup.  I guess if you wanted you can compare and contrast the songs of the past and the present.  And while you wouldn’t be traveling on the pow-wow trail as these musicians would, you at least get a glimpse from the liner notes and the music about an important aspect of Native American cultures, and the preservation of traditions. And if you’ve never heard pow-wow songs, you’re in for a treat with this fiery disc.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

In review--Three Brothers, Three Ouds

Le Trio Joubran
As Far (Asfar)
World Village

In 2008 I interviewed Wissam Joubran for an arts and entertainment publication in Washington State and I felt deeply moved by his story.  I was scheduled to attend a Le Trio Joubran concert, but in the end I missed the concert.  This was a real shame because the Palestinian oud-playing brothers’ performance on their studio and live recordings prove nothing short of mesmerizing, even flawless.  The brothers don’t just deliver seamless performances (imagine three ouds in sync or playing counter melodies), they perform with their hearts dangling on their sleeves and in a live DVD that I watched, trails of tears on their faces.  Granted, even though the musicians are blessed with an incredible musical gift and hail from a lineage of oud players, Palestinian life is rife with tragedies. So the musicians have a huge palette in which to draw from when composing and performing music.  At times the music feels heart wrenching and at other times, redemptive.

The brothers currently reside in Paris where they have been knocking out one recording after another, all exceptional portraying both fiery and deeply heartfelt moments.  Someone listening to the latest recording, As Far (English title) or Asfar (Arabic) can hear where flamenco drew its roots. Imagine the same Arab-Andalusian passion performed on a trio of ouds and backed by percussion.  On the new recording, we are also treated to the vocals of Dhafner Yousseff who sings on 2 tracks, Zawâj El Yamâm (displays a wide vocal range), and Douja (in which the singer sounds ethereal).

Dawwâr El Shams reminds me of Ravel’s Bolero with its slow melodic motif that repeats mantra-like, while gradually picking up speed.  Alternately, it also reminds me of a train pulling out of a station.  Percussionist Yousef Hbeisch provides a bass hypnotic beat on his frame drum.  On the track Sama Cordoba we hear the low end (bass) of the oud which introduces a motif.  Then a second (and third?), oud comes in playing the same motif an octave higher while adding ornamentation—the result is spectacular.  And on every track the brothers perform with confidence while unleashing their powerful musical gifts.  They give their all to their listeners, not holding back anything.

The brothers end on a hopeful note with Masâna, which to me feels like the sun peeking through heavy clouds.  Again this track starts out on a subtle note and builds in intensity, especially after the percussion drops in at the halfway point.  I know that I won’t be disappointed with a Le Trio Joubran recording because these musicians go from strength to strength.  It’s not just the technical effort or even the love of their culture, homeland or instrument, but their humanity which comes through in every note.  Sure this music most likely appeals to sophisticated audiences, those who love poetry expressed through both words and musical notes. But if more people listen to music of this caliber, I believe that IQ levels of both the mind and the heart would increase tenfold. There will be some of you reading this who will have never heard of Le Trio Joubran.  I hope you do something to change that.

In review--Soaring Continents

Amjad Ali Khan
Scottish Chamber Orchestra with David Murphy
World Village

I’ve heard diverse European classical fusions with classical music of other cultures.  But the bridge between traditional Indian classical and European classical music provides a blissful experience that travels beyond words.  When you consider that European music is currently based on a well-tempered scale with basically 7 notes (an octave repeats a note) and Indian music possesses 12 note scales with microtones, it seems like a miracle that these 2 languages can actually converse musically.  Traditional Indian instruments were created around the 12 note scale and the European classical instruments were created for the rigors of European classical music.  But that didn’t stop Indian master sarod player Amjad Ali Khan from teaming up with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra laboratory from exploring Indian ragas and employing 2 musical systems to achieve this goal.

Khan is quoted in the liner notes of Samaagam, “I understood the vastness and the oceanic depths of music.  I feel that the twelve musical notes are powerful and vibrant like the sun, and all the harmony around it, are like its rays.” The title of the recording, Samaagam refers to union and in this case the union between Eastern and Western music.  But this recording provides more than a bridge where musicians try out each other’s scales and modes.  You can actually hear the western musicians performing ragas (those lovely microtones) on their western instruments.  And you hear the sarod coming on as the solo instrument of this exotic concerto.  Oddly, the recording is presented as a world music CD and not a classical one.  Does this give a new definition to “world music”?

The recording opens with three ragas performed on the traditional sarod and table. Listeners are introduced to the warm tones of the sarod and the textures of a raga.  Later the sarod adopts a melodic style that mirrors a western definition of melody and the orchestra will adopt South Asian modes and motifs while performing a series of chromatic phrases.  In fact, you hear a lot of movement with both the orchestra and the sarod alternating with impressionistic passages that recall Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun.

The actual concerto begins on track 4, Ganesh Kalyan and will continue through ragas divided into 3 sets of 3 and culminating in the invigorating morning raga Bhairavi (which fans of classical Indian music will recognize right away).  Track 4 opens with an orchestral wash then the ethereal sarod gently delivers its warm throaty voice joining the conversation with the orchestra.  Track 5, Subhalakshmi, journeys on a more introspective path and is followed by Swar Samir, a lively raga that highlights the sarod with many solos and takes the orchestra on a South Asian journey.

In the next set of ragas, track 7, Maarva, opens with horns vibrating in the low register and the sarod now framed by a birdlike flute, performs an alap with its melody gently unfolding.  The following track Durga travels deeper into the inner terrain with its meditative and pastoral tones.  Intensity increases as the orchestra instruments engage in a raga conversation, speaking South Asian dialects.   Next we hear the familiar (to many of us), Malkauns where the sarod dominates and the orchestra mirrors Chinese classical music.  Amjad Ali Khan puts down the sarod and sings on tracks 10 and 11, and he delivers mesmerizing vocals that true to a raga build in intensity until the fiery raga’s end.  Next we hear short staccato clips of Kalavati, Basant, and Megh, thus ending the second set of ragas.

The final set begins with the lyrical Khamaj.  The orchestra plays a gentle lilting melody with strings dominating and conversations between bassoon, clarinet, and flute engaging the sarod.  The pace quickens halfway through and listeners are treated to a wild ride. And speaking of wild rides, Bhupali swirls like a waltz on steroids causing listeners to feel that they are spinning around the room.  The sarod takes on a Rajasthani folkloric quality which contributes additional playfulness to the raga.  Finally, the recording closes with the morning raga Bhairavi, running over 10 minutes and ending on a frenzied note.  In fact, I recommend listening to tracks 1 to 15 in the evening and saving the final track for the next morning.  It’s too invigorating to listen to near bedtime.  I can attest to that.  And in India where ragas are performed throughout the night, Bhairavi salutes the new day.

I know it’s still early in the year, but Samaagam is easily the most exquisite recording I have reviewed in 2011.  I’m a fan of both European and Indian classical music so hearing them performed together in this seamless way delights me.  Here you have the gorgeous timbres of western instruments engaging with their exotic cousins.  It feels so much like two worlds coming together, building more bridges, and manifesting peace in hearts and minds.  This is soulful music that I’m sure enriches every cell in our bodies and prepares us for life on a harmonious planet.  This is the music of the planets and spheres, and the oceanic depths that Amjad Ali Khan refers to in the liner notes.