Saturday, March 3, 2012

In review--Mali Meets Middle East

The Touré-Raichel Collective
The Tel Aviv Session

With so many Malian-music collaborations to choose from these days, it is still not a cliché to introduce yet another.  Malian blues guitarist Vieux Farka Touré teams up with Israeli pianist Idan Raichel.  From what I can tell from the press notes, neither musician has collaborated on an acoustic jam session previously that combines the earthiness of Malian music with Middle Eastern modes.  In fact, these musicians are superstars of world pop and rock, but The Tel Aviv Session, sounds more new age than anything else (new age in a good way).  I find this album deeply relaxing alternating with invigorating.

On the opening track Azawade, Raichel’s piano arcs over Touré’s bluesy chord progressions, reminding me of angels descending to the red earth.  Backed by Yossi Fine on bass, and Souleymane Kane on calabash, the only other musician that comes to mind is Taj Mahal, who also weds the truly sublime to bluesy progressions.  For those of you not yet familiar with Malian blues, it celebrates the human spirit and in comparison to the more cathartic American blues, Malian blues uplifts without taking you through the mire first.  Of course, Tinariwen and other Tuareg blues bands from Mali perform a more devastating blues, then what appears here.  As far as I can tell, the only agenda Touré and Raichel had was to exchange musical ideas in a studio setting to see how far they could take it.

There is enough groove here to keep the world music fan hooked, but also enough sophistication and innovation to excite the music academics.  While I am not going to wax on about chord progressions, modes, and Middle Eastern scales, I leave it to the savvy listener to buy the CD.  Everything from Frédéric Yonnet’s harmonica solo on Touré to Malian chanteuse Cabra Casay’s soaring vocals on Ane Nahatka, listeners are in for a one-of-a-kind musical experience.  The entire album provides magical moments, leaving me breathless at times.  I think 2012 is already the year for spectacular music, but world music fans and journalists will talk about this seminal album 20 years from now.  Some albums changed lives and some albums change the course of music history--this is one of them.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

In review--Greek shepherds find their nymphs

La Nuova Musica
David Bates
Handel’s Il Pastor Fido
Harmonia Mundi

Love is a complicated matter for Italians.  Remember the star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet?  Still, in another era, Italian troubadours roamed from court to court singing about unobtainable love.  During the classical era, Italians fumbled their way through courtship in Mozart's operas.  However, for George Frideric Handel during the Baroque era, nymphs and Greek shepherds endured Cupid’s painful arrows.  Two couples appear at the center of the baroque opera Il Pastor Fido (The Faithful Shepherd) along with an early predecessor of the femme fatale who has her own plans.

Amarilli (soprano Lucy Crowe) is in love with Mirtillo (soprano Anna Dennis), but betrothed to Silvio (countertenor Clint van der Linde).  However, Silvio made a vow to Diana, goddess of the hunt and he only has one thing on his mind.  Dorinda (mezzo-soprano Madeleine Shaw), has fallen for Silvio and pursues the obsessed hunter.  Meanwhile, Eurilla (soprano Katherine Manley), delivers a deceitful plot to rid of her rival Amarilli so she can claim Mirtillo as her lover.  Now, I’m not sure why the male role of Mirtillo is performed by a soprano, but perhaps no one else could sing the stratospheric arias except a soprano.  Back in Handel’s day, doctors performed a certain procedure on boys so that they could sing these high notes well into their adult years.  Honestly, I don’t know the story behind this quirk, but I guess I’m supposed to suspend belief that a macho shepherd would have such a lovely feminine voice.

While the story itself falls on the pastoral side with a few dramatic moments, such as Silvio mistaking Dorinda for a wild animal during a hunt, or Eurilla framing Amarilli leading to her death sentence, the music delights. By the way, the performances on this recording dazzle.  Handel did not compose music for the average person to sing.  The heavily ornamented arias on this recording leave me with goose bumps. Baroque opera has different challenges than modern opera, where the singers carry the entire story, without special effects, or gigantic eye popping sets.  These vocalists acted out their roles in a recording studio where they delivered a rich palette of emotions from giddiness caused by requited love to despair of a broken heart.  The result is an entertaining opera that runs over two hours.

I would feel hard pressed to choose a favorite aria from this opera since Handel composed gorgeous arias that challenge vocalists.  However, I will mention a few that deeply moved or delighted me.  For an evil woman, Eurilla’s premature triumphant D’allor triofante si cinga provides a shining moment.  Dorinda’s Se m’ami, oh caro offers a sweet lament from a woman who believes that she’s dying in the arms of her lover.  Silvio’s guilt-ridden lament (he accidentally shot an arrow at Dorinda), Tu nel piagarmi il seno certainly feels heart-wrenching. 

It’s not often that I listen to an opera.  Reviewing an opera takes more work than reviewing other types of classical recordings.  First, you have to read the text, read about the musicians, and the composer.  Then you need to sit down with the actual music, and give it a thorough listen.  However, I enjoyed spending a Sunday afternoon exploring Handel’s opera. I also feel honored to discover the young talented ensemble La Nuova Musica and it’s director David Bates.  While you can read accolades this ensemble received in British press, you are better off listening to the recording and allowing it to pleasure all your senses.  Who doesn’t enjoy a good love story sung in Italian?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

In review--Mali in shades of banjo blue

Leni Stern
Independent release

I sometimes wonder when the Malian musical star will fade out, but it just grows brighter each year.  With western musicians such as Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, Corey Hart, Bonnie Raitt and Leni Stern collaborating with Malian musicians, not to mention the prominence of Malian musicians worldwide, the excitement just keeps growing. 

Guitarist-songwriter Leni Stern (German-born), has already lived a musically exciting life that would make any cultural creative proud.  She has collaborated with Peruvians, performed at the Festival of the Desert (Saharan Desert, Mali), and jammed with the stellar lights of Malian music.  And now, she’s released a blues album featuring the n’goni (grandfather of the banjo) performed by herself and Haruna Samake from Salif Keita’s band, with another Keita band member, Mamadou Kone brings percussion to the session.  The result is the haunting Sabani--Malian blues with a feminine twist.

I have a collection of Malian recordings and none of them sounds a like.  Stern’s recording represents a jam session in Salif Keita’s Mouffou Studio in Bamako, with Keita’s bandmates--pretty impressive.  Malian chanteuse Ami Sacko (voice), her husband Buba Sacko (n’goni), and Zoumana Tareta (voice and sokou-bowed instrument) also drop in for a musical visit.  Highlights for me are The Sorcerer (dan sogo) that tells a story, the instrumental The Cat That Stole the Moon that rollicks along with bluesy electric guitar conversing with the n’goni’s cadence, the chilling Like a Thief, and the Malian blues I Was Born (Ibe Keneya).  Take a listen to Ami Sacko’s solo. Papillon features poetry that reflects on the natural world, sung over bouncy n'goni and acoustic guitar.  Actually, the entire album begs for multiple lessons. 

It seems that Mali has planted its feet firmly on the world’s musical map, exploring roots of the distant past, while bringing its music into the contemporary stage and studio.  By now, everyone, including our grandmas, have heard the sounds emanating from the West African nation.  You think this alone would bring us world peace.