The Mountain Music Project
We say: Flaming fiddles and blazing sarangis—Old Time music Appalachia meets the Himalayas.
When you slot this into your CD player the music that springs from the speakers sounds at first to be straightforward old timey Appalachian. "Cluck Old Hen", which begins proceedings, could be something that was recorded on a Virginia porch after the neighbors had dropped round with their fiddles and mandolins. What makes this a little more unusual is that two of the neighbors just happen to be Nepali musicians who play sarangi (a Himalayan fiddle) and madal, a wooden hand drum. This multicultural aspect becomes far more obvious on the next two tracks, "Sita Rani Bonai Ma (Queen Sita in the Forest)" and "Deri Phul Paareko (So Many Eggs)", which are both down-home Himalayan mountain tunes sung by Nepali singers. Traditional Nepali they may be, but they still have a pretty strong Appalachian ring to them.
What comes as a surprise is the similarity between some of the tunes regardless of the tradition they stem from. As the sleeve notes observe, "Going Across The Sea", a traditional Appalachian fiddle tune, bears quite an uncanny resemblance to "Deri Phul Paareko", the preceding track. OK, it is easy to understand how some West African music resembles US delta blues and vice-versa but to my knowledge there has never been much musical cross-fertilization between the Himalaya Mountains and Appalachia—or the latter music's roots in Celtic lands. Maybe it is simply that mountain musicians the world over bow down to the same muse?
The Mountain Music Project does well to show these similarities in style, and this nicely executed selection of tunes demonstrates warm, relaxed playing from all concerned. Not only group performances either. Solo pieces like "Das Avatar (Ten Faces of God)" played on sarangi, and "Going Across the Sea", with just fiddle and vocals, complement the ensemble pieces beautifully and help the flow of the musical narrative.
One thing: will the sarangi ever become a bone-fide Appalachian instrument? It is, after all, just a lump of wood with strings attached like any home-made fiddle. Stranger things have happened: the Indian sitar was successfully adopted for pop music by the Beatles' George Harrison, and Greek bouzoukis have been strumming along to Irish folk music for decades now. Speaking of the Emerald Isle, the final track, "Paina Khabara (No Message from You)", another traditional Nepali song, actually sounds quite strikingly Irish despite its Himalayan origin. The Irish influence is already there in Appalachian music, of course, but maybe it takes outsiders—Nepali musicians for example—to bring it to the surface?
The Mountain Music Project is themed as a 'musical odyssey' and for those interested there is also a film available that documents the Himalayan journey of Tara Linhardt and Danny Knicely, two of the principal musicians behind this recording.
We say: Trumpet-based fusion from the mountains of Lebanon.
Ibrahim Maalouf—Lebanon-born, Paris-raised—is careful to identify himself as a composer rather than just a trumpet player but he is clearly both, his smoldering trumpet—think early to mid period Miles—shaping much of the music here.
This is a slow-cooking album. Unhurried and hard to categorize, Diagnostic seems like chamber music one moment; a film noir soundtrack the next. On the introduction to "Your Soul", the elegiac piano sounds quasi-classical, somewhere between Bach and Bill Evans, while "Everything or Nothing", the next track, begins with loud Goran Bregovic-style vocal chorus and thumping percussion before concluding with a lengthy melancholic trumpet and piano passage. Elsewhere, there are moody tangos, and strident Balkan brass that morphs into exhilarating Latin salsa ("Maeva in Wonderland"). "Never Serious" is another strongly Balkan-influenced piece. Maalouf is clearly no stranger to the work of the Markovic's (see below), although his trumpet style is very different from that of the Serbian horn-players: more Oriental with quarter tones, more fluid, less clipped and precise.
Mood changes are rife throughout. "Douce" has a languid French voice-over before the trumpet riff develops into something quite spectacularly heavy. This gentle-to-heavy approach is used again to good effect on the lengthy bonus track "Beirut", which, reaching its angry and cathartic conclusion, becomes almost Led Zeppelin-like in its intensity. Elsewhere, "All the Beautiful Things" begins with Ry Cooder-style guitar and Romany accordion before taking an extensive detour that leads to the long trumpet solo that both closes this piece and introduces "Diagnostic", the eponymous title track.
In addition to the influences and resonances mentioned above, some of Diagnostic—"All the Beautiful Things" in particular—puts me in mind of the work of Turkish Sufi fusionist Mercan Dede. This is no bad thing in my book, and Lebanon is really not so very far from Turkey.
Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar
We say: Serbian brass band frenzy given a modern twist.
Vladicin Han in southeast Serbia must be a difficult place to get a decent night's sleep. By some quirk of geography—and Balkan history too—the town has somehow emerged as an important center of Roma brass band talent in the country. The fact that it has a large indigenous Roma population—natural musicians who are much in demand as musical entertainers at feasts and weddings—is, of course, one important factor. Vladicin Han has been churning out homegrown trumpet wizards ever since the mid 19th century when brass bands first formed in the region as soldier-musicians made use of their decommissioned brass instruments for purposes of entertainment.
Of all the virtuoso players to emerge in Serbia, it is Boban Markovic who is the undisputed star. A household name in his own country, and so talented that he has long been barred from entering the hugely popular trumpet competition held annually at Guca in central Serbia, Markovic appears to have made a start on founding his very own trumpet dynasty by way of his son Marko.
Golden Horns is an unashamed 'Best of' collection that showcases both generations of the Markovic clan. There's a wide range of material here, some traditional and well-known like "Hava Naguila" and "Ederlezi", which was made (relatively) famous by its use in the film Time of the Gypsies by Emir Kustarica (Boban himself appeared in Kustarica's later opus Underground). There are quite a few Boban and Marko Markovic originals here too, like "Rromano Bijav (Romany Wedding)", "Obećanje (Promise)" and "Šljivovica (Plum Brandy)", which coincidentally is the recommended alcoholic accompaniment to this boisterous style of music.
One criticism of Serbian čoček music is that it can all start to sound a little bit the same after a while. But for dance music—for that is what this is essentially—played on a limited range of brass instruments, some similarity of pace and melody is perhaps inevitable. Nevertheless, there is a good range of tunes here and for those seeking a comprehensive introduction to this enjoyable musical genre Golden Horns is as good a place as any to start.
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.