We say: A Caribbean—West Africa two-way journey
The Garifuna have an interesting heritage. Descended from shipwrecked West African slaves that mixed with local Arawak and Caribs, they were eventually deported en masse to Central America’s Caribbean coast by British colonizers and more or less left for dead: an unhappy journey that is recorded in one of the songs here – Yurumei. These days, Garifuna are sparsely spread along the coastline of Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, although there are diaspora communities in the larger cities of the United States too. The artist in question here, Aurelio Martinez, grew up in a tiny Honduran village and learned sacred drumming from his family before graduating – if that is the right word – to home-made tin-can guitar. Adulthood brought with it a proper instrument and a growing reputation as a fine musician.
Aurelio’s precocious talent was sufficient for him to be adopted as a protégé of Youssou N’Dour in 2009, and the Senegalese singer appears on several tracks on this album, as do the almost equally prestigious Orchestra Baobab on two tracks. The West African influence can be clearly heard, as beyond the traditional Garifuna punta and paranda rhythms that lie at the centre of this music like a Caribbean heartbeat there are plenty of Senegalese-inflected ones too. To these ears at least, it sounds rather like what Cheikh Lô might come up with if he were to record an album in the Caribbean – certainly, there are echoes here of Lô’s husky voice and lopsided mbalax feel.
But never mind the mbalax, the Caribbean has its own role to play in all of this. Laru Beya was recorded at a small studio on the Honduran coast and the relaxed informality of the setting has paid dividends. There’s a languid goodtime feel throughout, with great drumming, inventive playing and gorgeous chorus singing by local village women who showed up at the studio. You can actually hear the incoming tide swashing the beach on one track and almost smell the sweet tropical air as the moon rises over the sea. OK, I am writing this on a cold English winter’s day...but I can imagine. Maybe it’s a soundtrack for someone else’s summer?
Ballake Sissoko & Vincent Segal
We say: Afro-European chamber music of great loveliness
Malian Kora player Ballake Sissoko has always delighted in improbable musical fusions. A veteran of several tasteful collaborations, his back catalog includes the wonderful New Ancient Strings with Toumani Diabate in 1999, and Silk Sound with Chinese pipa player Liu Fang and French flautist Henri Tournier in 2006. In many ways, this recording echoes the same sort of gentle lyricism that graced New Ancient Strings, and the result is transcendent, floating music of great beauty. Diabate, his companion on that recording, has long been lauded as the world’s number one kora virtuoso, so it is hardly an insult to describe Sissoko as the world’s current number two. French cellist Vincent Segal is no slouch on the fusion scene either: a conservatoire-trained musician who also performs with a dub/trip hop combo that goes under the glorious name of Bumcello.
However lame – or safe – the album title might seem, African chamber music is probably the only adequate way to describe this genre. In these ten compositions, the kora and cello weave around each other, each an equal partner in the warp and weft of the melody. The two instruments are occasionally supplemented by n’goni or balafon but, to be honest, this would have been an equally fine album if it had just relied on the interplay of the two key musicians. What is remarkable is that there are few obviously distinct Western or African elements at play here, and where they do exist they often appear to have swapped roles: Sissoko’s kora sounds very much like a traditional classical harp in places, while the cello of Vincent Segal toys with upper register harmonics and meandering melodic lines that effortlessly conjure up Sub-Saharan landscapes.
There is a single vocal track, Regret – A Kader, featuring singer Awa Sangho, that strikes a slightly different chord and sounds a little more mainstream Malian than the rest of this collection but otherwise the end product is seamless fusion with no fixed geographical abode. Recorded in Bamako’s Moffou studio, founded by Salif Keita for African musicians to record acoustic music, the dynamics are warm and the recording quality finely detailed. The result is refined, subtle and intense: highly sophisticated music of the first order.
Into the Shadow Garden
We say: Violin-driven flights of fancy that don’t always take off
Into the Shadow Garden is the debut album for this New York collective who claim inspiration from sources as diverse as Middle Eastern, Eastern European and Scandinavian music, indie rock and electronica. In this cross-cultural brew, violin and cellos rub shoulders with ethnic percussion, electric bass, and drums. The electronica element is actually pretty unobtrusive – just a swirl of keyboard here and there – with most of the interest focusing on the string players. At the center of this musical mélange is violinist, composer and vocalist Hannah Thiem, who attempts to give a musical interpretation of her recent European and North African travels through this collection of songs.
All the songs featured here are fairly lengthy workouts that allow time for things to develop musically. The violin and cellos are to the fore throughout, with slow haunting ethereal lines that swell, develop and repeat, although occasionally they do not appear to be going anywhere in particular. Thiem’s vocal contributions sound rather more forced than her violin playing as she sings somewhat self-consciously in English on one song and adopts spoken-word German on another.
Perhaps a musical journey is like any other – it’s the voyage itself, not the final destination, which is most important. Nevertheless, a change of tempo would be welcome now and again here, to step up a gear from the slow to medium pace that predominates most of the time. Much of Into the Shadow Garden has a live feel about it and you can’t help feeling that some of this material might work better in live performance than it does on disc. The visual component of the tribal belly dancers that Copal often incorporate in their stage act would probably add to the experience too.
We say: Sufi chants, South Indian style
Most recorded Sufi music tends to come from the northern reaches of the Indian subcontinent – Pakistan’s Punjab region especially, the spiritual home of the qawalli songs of the late great Nasrut Fateh Ali Khan and the sublime ghazal of Abida Parveen. This collection, in contrast, hails from the far south of that same landmass, from Nagore in Tamil Nadu, close to India’s southern tip. It is something of a hybrid, featuring dargah singers from South India alongside Middle Eastern percussion and northern Indian and Western instruments.
The three featured vocalists – Abdul Ghani, Ajah Maideen and Saburmaideen Babha Sabeer – are frequent collaborators that have known each other all of their lives, although it took the Chennai-based EarthSync team to get them together in the studio. All of the music here relates to the Sufi shrine in Nagore, to which the trio are adherents – the shrine of Meeran Sahib, a 16th-century saint who came to South India from the Middle East to spread his teachings. Indeed, the first track on the disc, Baghdad Guru, tells of this journey.
Most of the songs here are sung in Tamil, the lingua franca of this corner of India, but the instrumentation is anything but traditional. At the rhythmic centre of things is Turkish-Israeli frame drum player Zohar Fresco; color is provided in the shape of bowed sarangi by maestro Murad Ali Khan, a classical player from New Delhi, while the horns really are ‘horns’ and come from, of all places, the Tibetan Buddhist Tashi Lhunpo Monastery. Western musical elements like keyboards and electric bass complete the mix.
The Nagore Sessions sounds far more organic and natural than such a diverse mix of musical components might suggest and this is no doubt partly thanks to a sensitive production job by Patrick Sebag. One of the main premises of Sufi devotional music is that it must be capable of overcoming the barriers of language in its praise of God. Listening to this you cannot help but agree that both message and emotion come across loud and clear.
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 and a regular contributor to hidden europe magazine. His photographic website can be seen at www.laurencemitchell.com.
Buy Laru Beya online here: