Lord Mouse and the Kalypso Katz
We say: Retro calypso out of Berlin — much better than you might think!
Take a bunch of seemingly diverse components—Caribbean music from the first half of the 20th century, musicians from all over Europe, a white American-born singer, a Berlin record label, and an English producer. What do you get? A great summer record, as fresh as an onshore breeze and as heady as a chilled daiquiri.
Lord Mouse and the Kalypso Katz— a band that features six girl singers, a four-piece brass section, two percussionists, and even a ukulele — have been around for a few years now, entertaining audiences in their native Berlin and beyond. Calypso, which these days is just a distant musical memory for those of more mature years, may be due a revival but the ultimate selling point of this 17-piece collective is that all band members are white and European rather than black and Caribbean. This does not seem to matter: given the quality of the music, such a fact seems purely academic.
Go Calypsonian is the band's second album and on this occasion English musician Colin Bass (aka Sabah Mustapha Habas of Three Mustaphas Three fame) has been brought in to produce. Although they throw a few cover versions into the mix like "Limbo Song", "Goombay Drum" and "Edward VIII," a somewhat simplistic take on King Edward's abdication back in 1936, most of the songs performed here are original compositions. Lyrically speaking, there's nothing too cerebral: "Calypso Hipshake" and "Snake Charmer" describe dance crazes and femme fatales, while "Pussycat" with its outlandish chorus is unashamedly tongue in cheek and fun-loving. Go Calypsonian also takes inspiration from further afield: "Chunga, Chunga," sung in Russian, originated as a Soviet-era cartoon show theme. And for those who ask the obvious question — what is a young white man doing singing old school calypso? — "White Boy Calypso" addresses that very same question with passion.
Although the music here goes under the umbrella of calypso, it's a broad church really, with elements of ska, Latin-jazz and Cuban son and mambo also to the fore. It's none the worse for that: if Lord Mouse stuck to replicating Trinidadian hits from the 1940s then he might find himself marginalized as this was pretty much a niche market the first time round. Rather than simply reproducing a genre, Go Calypsonian aims for the spirit of that music and era—sunny, sexy, cheeky carnival music with the emphasis on fun.
The Ultimate Guide to Spanish Folk
We say: Flamenco is not the only fruit.
Mention Spain's indigenous music and most will think of flamenco. This is understandable, as Andalucían flamenco is by far the highest profile music to leave that country's shores. Flamenco goes along with other clichés of course: white hill villages, bull fights, oranges, sherry, big skirts and the impassioned stamping of feet. This may be true of the country's Deep South but Spain is a large country by European standards and its folk music is as varied as its landscape — you certainly won't find orange groves or white villages in places like Galicia or Asturias.
Eager to demonstrate this diversity, there's barely a flamenco track here. Instead, we kick off with "Isué" by Mercedes Peón, a gaita (bagpipe)-propelled stomper from rain-soaked Galicia in the northwest. Much of the music here hails from Spain's northernmost regions: "Ven a Veme" by Anabel Santiago from Asturias, "Neskato Gazte Tronpatia" by Aintzina from the Basque Country and "Quisiera Entrar en tu Cuarto" by Naheba from Cantabria. Other tracks represent Spain's center and west: "El Gazpacho" by Manu Sequera from Extremadura (essentially a song-recipe— "mucho ajo, mucho ajo")and "La Llave de la Alegría" by Eliseo Parra from Castilla/Madrid. Further offerings come from Spain's island outposts, the Canary and Balearic Islands. The country's Sephardic tradition is represented too, with "La Cantiga del Fuego — El Viaje" by Ana Alcaide, a track from La Cantiga del Fuego that was reviewed here back in December 2012, and the very Middle-Eastern sounding "Tanye la Kemane" by Xurxo Fernades.
Despite this album's title, don't expect anything too folksy. "Rootsy" would probably be a better description as many of the samples in this collection, whilst respectful of regional musical traditions, have a distinctly contemporary feel. All in all, this is an enjoyable collection that goes some way to prove that Spain's musical legacy is richer and broader in scope that the oft-perceived castanets and clicked heels cliché.
In the Gallery
Jason Seed Stringtet
We say: String chamber music that comfortably straddles the folk-classical fence.
Centered on the acoustic guitar of composer Jason Seed, "Stringtet" is an appropriate name for this quintet as stringed instruments are all we have here—guitar, cello, double bass, violin and viola— with not a trace of percussion, keyboards, woodwind, or vocals to be found.
In the Gallery is essentially modern chamber music with world music and jazz influences. A distinct tango influence emerges in places too, especially (and unsurprisingly) on "Tangoesque," which also claims to be inspired by Bill Frisell's "Strange Meeting". Elsewhere there are hints of Eastern European ("Goulash Rag," "Krakow") and Middle Eastern ("Ishtar") influence to be heard. Some of the tunes work as vehicles for lush and spirited solo work, particularly on violin, as on "Krakow."
Despite a lack of percussion there is no dearth of rhythmic inventiveness. "Where the Corners Meet," which might well be influenced by Thelonius Monk, has Chinese pipa of guest musician Yang Wei engaged in a complex polyrhythmic dialog with the other players. There's no shortage of melodic and thematic variation either: "Caterpillar Kif" is a taut, twisting piece that boldly displays its jazz roots, while "In the Right Light" is a gentle lyrical composition that has cello to the fore. Lyrical, free-flowing and elegant — In the Gallery is the sort of music for which close listening pays dividends.
We say: Tex-Mex rock 'n' roll and modern border ballads from San Antonio.
The Krayolas from San Antonio, Texas have their own distinctive Tex-Mex style. Hardly typical of that genre, what they play is more Mexified rock 'n' roll than anything else and this is exemplified on "Quiero Ser Tu Novio," their Spanish language cover of the Ramones "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend," which they cover in English too just for good measure. While much of what they play is straightforward bar-room rock 'n' rock, the Mexican side of things is highlighted by Spanish vocals on some songs and the guest appearance of well-respected accordionist and one-time Ry Cooder sideman, Flaco Jiminez, on several tracks.
Tormenta is a generous slice of The Krayolas recorded output, with a running time of over 75 minutes and a total of 21, mostly short, tracks. There's plenty of variety on show: after a few rock 'n' roll opening tracks and the lengthy "Wall of Accordion," "Under One Roof" heralds a change of pace —an acoustic ballad dedicated to Woody Guthrie that while well-intentioned sounds more like a demo than a finished product.
A minor gripe is that there seems to be little fluency to the overall running order and there are occasional fillers too, like the studio tomfoolery of "LaLa La LaLa," which doesn't really warrant repeat listens. What work best are unadulterated Mexican-flavored corridos like "Twelve Heads in a Bag," a cool and understated telling of a grisly drugs cartel massacre. "Tony Tormenta" is another chilling cartel ballad, an affecting song that documents the horror of the internecine drug wars of the Mexican borderland. While such dark tales might seem at odds with the lightweight jukebox rock found elsewhere these are undoubtedly the most impressive songs on Tormenta. As they say, sometimes less is more.
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.