Songs From the Silk Road
Banco de Gaia
We say: Eclectic electronica for inhabitants of Ferengistan
I'm a sucker for anything to do with Central Asia — been there, got the T-shirt etc — so anything titled Songs From The Silk Road is likely to appeal. This new collection from Banco de Gaia (aka British DJ and eclectic electronic wizard Toby Marks) promotes itself as a cross-pollination of house and world music. I'll admit right here of having a certain wariness of anything labeled house/dance music, but overall Banco de Gaia seem to get things about right — effectively this is beats with global coloring, electronica with exotic sampling.
Farewell Ferengistan, the track that kicks off this compilation of nearly 20 years of hits and remixes, has a vaguely Persian feel to it; "Ferengistan" being a name dubbed for the strange country that Westerners (ferengi) hail from. "Last Train to Lhasa," which was recorded live at the Glastonbury Festival back in 1995 (long before there actually was a train to Lhasa) — features sampled Tibetan vocals and what sounds suspiciously like steam trains. "Sheesha," which follows, is even earlier, dating from 1994, and precociously claims inspiration from Bach, JFK and a bit of William Burroughs, although the proximity of the Silk Road seems rather distant. "Glove Puppet (Dreadzone Remix)" is a remix of "Igizeh," itself a re-recording of an earlier dub-flavored instrumental with the addition of slightly anguished vocals by Jennifer Folker. "Not in my Name" from 2004 gets more political; inspired by the Iraqi invasion in 2003, it's noisier and more aggressive than anything else here and starts with a heavy dub bass line and sampled voices of war before segueing into a more elegiac Celtic-sounding groove.
All in all, this is a pretty good collection of remixes for those who like their music fashioned by computer. Don't take the "Silk Road" tag too seriously though.
A Hawk and a Hacksaw
We say: Trans-Balkan romance straight out of New Mexico
Well it's Balkan, Jim, but not as we know it. A Hawk and a Hacksaw, conveniently acronym-ed to AHAAH, actually hail from New Mexico, not that you'd really guess that from this recording. Despite its American provenance, Cervantine does manage to sound wholly authentic, not just musically but sonically too, with warm retro production values that bring dusty vinyl and 1970s Yugoslavian state-sponsored folk recordings to mind.
AHAAH have certainly worked hard to develop their art: recording with Roma brass band musicians Fanfare Ciocarlia in a rural Romania, busking in Amsterdam and performing at Jewish weddings in Pittsburgh. This admirable thirst for authenticity rings true in their music — nothing here sounds forced or included to merely fill CD space. It is to their credit that they also manage to wear their obvious musical virtuosity lightly.
Many of the tunes are pan-Balkan favorites played with a range of local flavorings. The classic song "Uskudar" has Turkish/Greek resonances (there are Bosnian variants as well, and a Klezmer version too), and if it already sounds familiar it may be because the tune is not a million miles from that of ('Ra- Ra-') Rasputin by those Germanic-Caribbean world music pioneers Bony M.
Hailing from New Mexico as AHAAH do, there is also a dash of chili and a slice of lime in the mix: "Españolo Kolo" is a Serbian circle dance that has a hint of mariachi brass — there again, plenty of Serbian tunes already have a Mexican feel to start with. There are a couple of unmistakably Greek-sounding melodies here as well, like "Mano Thelo Enan Andra," which is sung in rembetika style so convincingly by Stephanie Hladowski that you can imagine an eastern Mediterranean waterfront back when Izmir was called Smyrna and they could still remember the last Ottoman emperor. Likewise, the closer of the eight tracks, "Xeftilis (The Loser)," is a Greek bouzouki instrumental that successfully conjures up images of a life-weary drunk in a dockside kafenion.
Surely, authentic "world' music" is meant to speak to us like this: it's not simply a matter of lifting ideas and tunes from a wide range of global sources but more to do with the presentation of aural settings that clearly evoke a different time and place. The music contained here is warm and satisfying, and in just the right quantity for easy digestion: Cervantine is just 40 minutes long — the equivalent of two sides of vinyl back in the days of yore.
We say: Norwegian song sculptures that defy labeling
This is difficult to pigeon-hole: world music, ethereal Norwegian tone poems — you decide. It must be said that on first examination of the song titles this collection does not look to be a barrel of laughs: "Death Will Come," "The First To Die," "Black Dog," "The Darkest Hour" — it sounds like a fantasy Leonard Cohen set list. There's nothing wrong with exploring the musical dark side of course but perhaps it is a matter of "show don't tell." In actual fact, the songs here are rather more cheery than you might expect, albeit full of icily detached whimsy.
Pheadra is not really a group but rather the musical vehicle of Norwegian singer, songwriter and installation artist Ingvild Langgård. Polymath Langgård, who has worked with film, photography, field recordings and installations in the past, sings softly but mellifluously in vaguely American accented English and also plays guitar and piano. She is backed here by a group of musicians who between them play a fairly standard range of traditional pop/rock instruments as well as oddities like mbira, glockenspiel and musical saw.
As I said at the outset, this is hard to categorize. It is best perhaps to think of chamber music, song cycles and tone poems rather than straightforward songs. The Sea is undeniably lovely though: shimmering late night mood music that seems removed from place or time. It probably sounds better lying down. The Sea might almost be a lost classic from the Elektra label's more experimental output at the end of the 1960s, not that it doesn't sound fresh and contemporary. "Psychedelic folk" might come somewhere close — the Incredible String Band, Buffy St Marie, Sigur Ros all spring to mind, although Phaedra does not really sound like any of these.
Langgård's voice is clear and well-enunciated yet lies far enough back in the mix for these old ears to find it difficult to follow the vocal narrative. Perhaps that is the intention, as the voice works very much as another instrument rather than flouncing around center-stage. Still, Ingvild Langgård is best known in Norway as an artist and this unusual collection of eights songs does somehow come across as more of a sort of sound installation than a run-of-the-mill album. Interesting stuff; it's a grower too, which is always a good sign.
Hozzam Ramzy and Phil Thornton
We say: Funky fusion straight out of Giza
Egypt has had a very high profile in the news of late. Now is probably as good a time as any for people to discover a little about the music of that country, which has always stood center-stage in Middle Eastern culture. Perhaps a British-Egyptian fusion project might be a good place to begin?
The CD cover of Egypt Unveiled does not seem like an auspicious start: a New Age-style rendition of the Giza pyramids, men on camels, Arabic writing exploding from a star-studded sky — it's all a bit cheesy to be honest. The song titles, too, sound like chapters in a hastily written Egyptology book destined for the bargain bin: "Cleopatra's Secret, " "Pharaohniest," "Sett in Stone," "Khofu's Return." Presumably this "mystical Pharaoh" approach was seen as preferable to that other timeworn Egyptian cliché — generously proportioned belly dancers.
Ignoring the cover, the music contained within is actually rather good. The tunes here are collaborations between British-based Egyptian percussionist Hozzam Ramzy and Phil Thornton, a musician responsible for a large output of ambient, electronic and chill-out albums as well as collaborations with tribal musicians from all over the world music map. Egypt Unveiled is Thornton's fourth Egypt-themed album with Ramzy, the first to be recorded in Cairo using local musicians. It's an experiment that works most of the time: a powerful hybrid of traditional tunes and instrumentation underpinned by strong rock drumming and funky bass, reminiscent in places of Paris's Mahgreb collective, Orchestre National de Barbes, minus the vocals.
What helps it succeed is the use of traditional Egyptian instruments throughout: mizmars, arghul and kawala (all types of flute) add color to tracks like "Planet Egypt" and the quarter-tone feel of Egyptian string players on tracks such as "Pharaohniest (A Slight Return)" also contributes towards the oriental atmosphere. Central to all of this is Hozzam Ramzy's driving percussion. Think Cairo night club rather than New Age mumbo-jumbo and you'll get a better idea of what to expect. Belly dancers welcome (although not essential).
Laurence Mitchell is a British travel writer and photographer with a special interest in transition zones, cultural frontiers and forgotten places that are firmly off the beaten track. He is author of the Bradt Travel Guides to Serbia, Belgrade and Kyrgyzstan, Slow Norfolk & Suffolk and a regular contributor to hidden europe magazine. His website can be seen at www.laurencemitchell.com and his blog at eastofelveden.wordpress.com.