Saturday, February 9, 2013

In review--Portuguese Love Songs

Maria Ana Bobone
Fado & Piano
Arc Music

I would think by now fado has become a household word around the world with the international fame of Mariza and Ana Moura.  If you’re searching for a queen of fado, you’ll find yourself wading through an ocean of talent.  While Amalia Rodrigues still inspires the Portuguese people and younger generations of fado singers, the younger singers realize that folk traditions live on through innovations.  Maria Ana Bobone though is the first fadista I have come across who plays piano while she belts out fados.  She’s not the first to innovate or to bring in new instruments to a traditional setting since Cristina Branco has included piano on her recordings while also bringing in jazz elements, and Mariza has performed with orchestras or ensembles featuring trumpet and keyboards such as on her album, Fado Curvo.

Honoring her generation of singers, Bobone keeps her instrumental arrangements simple and allows space for her vocals.  Her album Fado & Piano features subtle but powerful vocals, and the rich timbres of the piano, framed by double bass and sometimes guitar and Portuguese guitar.  These aren’t vast canvases, but detailed miniatures where poetry and voice show up in the foreground.  Bobone, in alignment with her musical genre, conveys moods from heartache (Melancolia) to delight (Fado Xuxu) to hope (Enigma), and spirituality (São Bentinho).  The majority of fados are sung in Portuguese, except for Love Ballad (which sounds like a folk-pop song) and Twilight.

I had not heard of Maria Ana Bobone until finding this CD on the Arc Music website, however, I feel like I found a real gem in a treasure hunt.  I know little about Portugal with the exception that one of the country’s hottest imports is fado recordings.  Who’s going to argue with melodic voices backed by warm acoustic instruments and filled with heartfelt emotions? Fado means fate in Portuguese, but when we listen to fados, we realize that all our fates entwine as one.  To be human is to feel.

In Review--Maiden Rising

Perunika Trio
A Bright Star Has Risen
Arc Music

In the late 1980s, Bulgarian choir music reached international audiences when Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares and Trio Bulgarka enjoyed popularity among world music fans.  Trio Bulgarka appeared on Kate Bush’s Sensual World which introduced Bulgarian vocal music to pop and rock audiences.  Further more, Philip Koutev, an arranger and composer also enjoyed popularity while western ears were introduced to open-throat singing and folkloric music of Eastern Europe.  Closer to home, San Francisco-based Kitka also includes Bulgarian folk songs in its repertoire that also includes Balkan, Russian, Ukrainian, and Hungarian songs.

Bright, young and beautiful, the women vocalists who comprise Perunika Trio sing polyphony complete with the exclamatory whoop.  Lead by Eugenia Georgieva, the women hail from Bulgaria and Serbia originally and now make their home in the UK where they have won the hearts of world music audiences.  The songs on A Bright Star Has Risen speak of maidens, mothers, new love and the pain of separation (on the song Farewell Mother).  The songs are both pagan and Christian with plenty of metaphors and symbolism, and references to nature.

But it's the ethereal vocals that captivate the senses.  Listen to the haunting vocals on Farewell Mother that contrasts with the mirthful vocals on Village Dance.  The drop dead gorgeous Harvest opens with a solo voice then the other vocalists fill in the contours.  I can see why the wheat flourishes in the fields.  The titular track, also moves at a dreamy pace while the a cappella vocals play leapfrog.  The religious hymn Adoration of the Virgin features Greek Orthodox scales and modes. This comes as no surprise when you read about the origins of Bulgarian choral music in the liner notes.
Overall, I’m reminded of my favorite women a cappella singers such as Faraualla from Italy, Kitka, and Värttinä of Finland (when this band performs a cappella). I can’t think of a better album than A Bright Star Has Risen to usher in late winter/early spring.  I can already see the crocuses pushing through the hard winter soil.

Friday, February 8, 2013

In review--Orpheus' Carnival!

Nilson Mattas
Black Orpheus
Motema Music

The Greek myth featuring the love story about Orpheus and Euridice has captured the attention of music and movie makers. In 1956, the Brazilian play, Orfeu da Conceicão hit the stages and the sound track, record players.  In 1959, French filmmaker Marcel Camus released the Academy Awards-winner Black Orpheus.  And the Brazilians hadn’t their last word.  Brazilian director Carlos Diegues brought us Orfeu in 1999 (which I have seen).  And this month, Brazilian bassist Nilson Mattas pays homage to the legend-love story with his CD Black Orpheus.

Featuring 16 musicians performing both original songs, and Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonfá and Vinícius de Moraes’ samba and bossa nova classics (from the Brazilian play and French movie) and it feels like Brazilian carnival has marched into my apartment.  Equal parts romantic, and effervescent, Black Orpheus feels like a spot of sunshine.  The overall sound feels warm, with tender piano conversing with trumpet, flute, clarinet, double bass, jazz drums, and Brazilian percussion.  Leny Andrade’s soulful vocals on Felicidade portray the aches of romantic love.  Manhã Carnival moves to a Brazilian jazz groove whereas the short percussion interlude, Batucada calls to the feet and hips to dance and to celebrate life.  Too bad the interlude lasts only 37 seconds! Gretchen Parlato sings in a voice that burns with passion and longing on Eu E O Meu Amor/Lamento No Morro and Valsa De Eurídice.

The entire album comes off as seamless while paying tribute to a famous love story that promises to get under every listener’s skin.  This story of redemption, loss, and romantic love no doubt will end up on future canvases, movie screens and music devices. But for now, enjoy this carnival of Greek legends and Brazilian music makers in your home. And don't be surprised if you visit the movie classics too.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

In review--Aye, es Bueno!

Best of Buena Vista
(An homage to Buena Vista Social Club)
Arc Music

In 1999 when I sat with my film colleagues and a film festival audience to watch Wim Wender’s documentary Buena Vista Social Club, I fell in love with Cuban son.  Coming from a background of youthful rock music, I felt in awe as I watched the octogenarian musicians that comprised Buena Vista Social Club perform sweet songs with total abandonment.  I realized that it takes multiple generations to preserve and perform music.  Since that time, several of the Buena Vistas died, including Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Rùben Gonzalez.  However, the spirit of Cuban son and Buena Vista Social Club is alive and well, as it appears on Best of Buena Vista.

This CD features Pio Leyva, Juan De Marcos (musician responsible for the formation of Buena Vista Social Club), Puntilitta  Licea, Ruby Calzado, Maracaibo Oriental, Josè Artemio Castañeda, Raul Planas and Sergio Rivero.  However, these musicians don’t perform in the same band and instead appear in a compilation format.  It doesn’t matter since the listener can just use his or her imagination while listening to these delicious dance songs and boleros.  Better yet, the listener could just dance with wild abandonment while playing this CD.  It would be hard not to.

Soneros De Verdad opens the compilation with the spicy A Buena Vista and the sizzling Changüi a revè.  Compay Segundo’s nephews chip in Chan Chan (a well-loved Cuban song).  Musica Cubano performs the soulful bolero Desvelo de Amor with its sultry muted trumpet and shimmering très (Cuban 3-string guitar).  Then Castañeda’s band heats up the room with the son-salsa number Yamile which features horns and flute set over a background of Afro-Cuban percussion.  Raùl Planas’ A quièn no le gusta el son, Pio Leyva’s salsa-son Yo no soy mentiroso (with its rapid vocals), Castañeda’s sweet bolero Imposible vivir sin ti and Planas’ Lágrimas negras round off my favorite tracks from the compilation. But really, they're all favorites now.

Some of these sons will sound familiar to anyone who has danced to traditional Cuban music, listened to world music radio shows, Putumayo compilations, or watched the documentary Buena Vista Social Club.  True fans of Cuban music will most likely know all the songs.  This compilation also provides a lovely way to pass the music on to younger audiences.  These sons sparkle and haven’t lost their luster over the decades.  In fact, like a good wine, the songs aged gracefully, just like the octogenarian musicians.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

In review--Galician Samba

Sērgio Tannus
Son Brasilego
Folmusica (Spain)

When I received a parcel from the Galician label Folmusica, I wasn’t expecting a Brazilian multi-instrumentalist CD.  Yet, Sērgio Tannus Son Brasilego reminds me of the proximity between Galicia (Northwest Spain) to Portugal.  The Gallego language of the Galician people also shares roots with the Portuguese language so even though Brazil is across the world from Spain or Portugal, Brazilian music shares connections with Galicia.  Besides, some of Galicia’s hottest folk musicians teamed up with Tannus on this sunny recording.  And not only that, I was surprised to see two artists (Ceumar and Antonio Zambujo) whose CDs I reviewed in recent months, sing on the songs, Água Quentinha (Ceumar) and Bethoven Tinha Razão (Zambujo). No wonder their voices felt like a deja vu experience.

I much prefer the slower, more sensual pieces, but the samba pieces have me wishing for time on a sunny South American beach. Plenty of vocal duets appear on the songs, and plenty of acoustic guitar, Portuguese guitar, violins, and trans-Atlantic percussion.  I describe the album as zesty, a word I almost never use.  The songs feel warm, inviting, and intimate, as if I have entered a private jam session. 

Choro Alegre delights with Uxía handling lead vocals, 100% features a young upcoming Galician vocalist, Sonia Lebedynski in an ethereal duet with João Afonso and the titular track pays homage to Galician folk music with its multiple singers, but we also experience Brazilian flavors.  The strangest track, Vó Genézia weds Brazilian samba to Galician bagpipes.  I think it’s an intriguing idea, but to my ears the effect is a riot of sounds.  Overall, I sense that the musicians came together in the spirit of cooperation and sharing musical talent and styles.  If the aim of world music is to explore the world, this recording covers a lot of air mileage. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

In Review--Setting the Mood (Valentine's Day Jazz)

Catherine Russell
Strictly Romancin’
World Village/Harmonia Mundi (2012)

A follow-up to her World Village CD, Inside This Heart of Mine Catherine Russell’s Strictly Romancin’ sizzles with nostalgia.  Opening with New Orleans jazz, Under the Spell of the Blues and then following that with the sultry ballad, I’m in the Mood for Love, why not revisit the album this Valentine’s Day? I admit, I’m reviewing the album a year after its release, but that just proves the staying power of this recording.  Russell has style to burn and she seems equally at ease belting out a bluesy piece as she does in conveying heartfelt emotions with the soulful ballads.  She kicks up dust with Wake Up and Live, which will cause listeners to wake up and dance.

I enjoy watching Russell’s videos on YouTube too.  Check out her version of the saucy Kitchen Man or any of the promotional pieces from her World Village recordings.  On Strictly Romancin’, Russell teams up with a tight horn section, accordion, piano, clarinet, and jazz drums.  A lot of care goes into the arrangements and at times I recall Duke Ellington’s orchestra with its colorful players with musical tricks up their sleeves.  Listen to the soloists on Ev’ntide with all the razzmatazz of New Orleans jazz--dang, is it carnival time already? Romance in the Dark showcases Russell’s blues range when the singer sets her voice loose. For anyone who enjoyed Madeleine Peyroux's interpretation of No More, (Careless Love) will enjoy Russell's hearty version too (she cranks up the volume).  In fact, Russell excels when singing jazz and blues classics and in the process she provides listeners with melodic jazz that sets moods.
For anyone who already has this CD in his or her collection, dust it off in time for Valentine's Day.

In review--Peaceful Prayers for Mali

Ballaké Sissoko
At Peace
Six Degrees Records

West African kora, cello, guitar, and balafon (a West African xylophone) comprise Malian kora player Ballaké Sissoko’s At Peace.  After the success of his duo project with French cellist Vincent Segal, Chamber Music, the musical partnership remains strong.  However, At Peace is clearly Sissoko’s spotlight recording with Segal, Moussa Diabate (guitar), Aboubacar Diabate (guitar) and Fassery Diabate (balafon) coming aboard as guests.  During a time when Mali experiences war and oppression, At Peace comes as a sweet breath of air.  During a time when the brightest stars of Mali (the country’s musicians) have been shut out, this music ripples throughout the world.  To put it mildly, the warring factions banned music and musicians in Mali.  However, that hasn’t prevented the musicians from gathering and recording CDs and videos which you can find on YouTube.

The musicians chose the perfect name for this recording since its peacefulness floats out my window to reach the singing birds who hang out on the limbs of a tree.  For anyone who thinks of instrumental music as prayers will feel at home listening to this CD.  The kora itself which finds its roots in the Mandinka Kingdom and the griot tradition of West Africa has seen the best and worst of history in that region of the world.  The balafon has also traveled the distance while the guitars and cello represent a bridge between Europe (former colonialists) and West Africa.  The language of music here speaks in tongues of cooperation, harmony, and loving solidarity.  While this album hardly represents a March on Washington or a headline about another country overthrowing a corrupt government, it does represent the longevity of tribal cultures and musical traditions.  It sends out whispers of hope rather than screams of rebellion.  It reminds us of the beauty humans can create when they give up greedy and manipulative agendas and go instead with the flow.

The track N’Tomikorobougou features interlocking blues guitars reverberating off the delicate kora.  The opener, a solo chamber piece, Maimouna, feels soothing while giving off a fragrance of vulnerability (in the way that gentle solo music usually does).  For anyone wishing to revisit Chamber Music, Kabou intertwines kora with cello, whereas, Badjourou, and Kalata Diata features the ensemble of musicians.  Fassery’s balafon adds a nice touch.  When we listen to this stunning music, we can consider all of the uplifting music Malian musicians have brought to us over the years.  It’s not a time to take Mali or its musicians or people for granted.  I send prayers of peace and envision Mali as a harmonious, healthy, and vibrant country where not only musicians come together in harmony and the spirit of cooperation, but all Malians share in this peaceful manifestation.