A Story of the City...Constantinople, Istanbul
We say: Istanbul not Constantinople... actually it's both
This is a big undertaking: the musical history of a city, not just any city but one of the world's greatest — Istanbul, where continents kiss and cultures mingle. DÜNYA are a Boston-based musicians' collective and here they link up with the Schola Cantorum and Ensemble Trinitas to present a thousand years of the music that has been heard in this city where Europe and Asia meet. The driving force behind DÜNYA is Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, who came to the USA years ago to study classic music and ended up playing jazz (although there's not much evidence of that here). Sanlikol's interest in his native Turkish musical heritage came surprisingly late but he appears to have made up for lost time and now is an acknowledged expert on the genre commonly known as Janissary music or Mehter.
Istanbul started out as Byzantium, headquarters of the Eastern Orthodox Church and this Grammy-nominated collection kicks off with choral work of the Byzantine Greek Orthodox tradition before running more or less chronologically through the musical styles of the many and various occupants of this great city. The musical journey takes in millennium-old Crusader ballads, Central Asian folk tunes, Ottoman melodies and Jewish and Armenian compositions along the way, ending up with Sufi chants and even full-on saz-driven Turkish pop. Things start to sound more like what one might traditionally think of as Turkish by the 15th century, especially when we reach "Ceng-i Harbi", the last track on Disc 1.
By Disc 2 we are definitely in "Istanbul, not Constantinople" territory, with busy, complex Anatolian tunes that have a hint of Klezmer about them. Although this is not a dry or academic anthology by any means, there is an awful lot to take in and this double CD set is the sort of thing that repays repeated listening. This is music to savor and return to as the mood dictates — to listen to attentively or perhaps use as a background to reading something by Orhan Pamuk.
La Chiva Gantiva
We say: From Bogota to Brussels (by way of Lagos) -- get on down with this funky Belgian outfit
With a band centered on Colombian percussionists living in Belgium, and using an English producer, Richard Blair (who lives in Colombia), La Chiva Gantiva have a distinctive musical style that clearly reflects their South American roots (although overlooks Belgium, whose musical traditions are less well-known to the world at large). There's more than just cumbia here though: "Por Eso Canto," which begins proceedings, combines Latin roots music with Nigerian Afro-Beat, while "La Chiva," which follows, has elements of both cumbia and break-neck Colombian vallenato — the fast accordion music of the coast. Similarly, "Cosmeticos" starts out with a spacey bass before breaking into another very fast cumbia.
"Chofer" is another furious funky workout that makes good use of the Afro-Beat groove (which, of course, in its turn has its own debt to James Brown). Thankfully, "Pink Flamingo," the following track, slows things down with twangy retro guitar before more Tony Allen-style Afro-Beat drums join in for the title track, "Pelao." This party mood continues with "Apretao," another fast, percussion-heavy, lets-run-on-the-spot-while-we-play number. Overly cerebral, it may not be, but it's all very lively and undoubtedly good fun.
Very much a festival band, and probably even better to see live than hear on disc, La Chiva Gantiva bring to mind another Latino crowd-pleasing festival circuit band, Los de Abajo from Mexico. Pelao, which translates as "kid", "hairless" or "broke," has a recorded sound that suggests not too much agonizing over production in the studio but rather a play-it-as-we-would-do-live sensibility, which is all too the good.
After the Disquiet
We say: Violin, drums and electronic beats with an Indian flavor
This self-released EP consisting of four long tracks features just two musicians — percussionist Ravish Momin, and violinist Trina Basu. Typical of world music fusion, it's hard to categorize so let's stick to the PR spin of "boundary free," perhaps adding "electronica meets jazz with elements of Indian classical music and East Asian rhythms" just to help define the territory a bit. The rhythmic backdrop is set down by means of Momin's electronic loops, while Basu's electric violin saws out melodic lines over the top. Partly pre-composed and partly improvised, it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins, not that that really matters.
The melody of "Disposable," the first track, is based on a North Indian folk song. "Night Song," which follows, is more jazz-like in approach with something of a hip-hop feel. "Black Teeth of Trees" (a great title!) is improvisation, pure and not so simple, with swooping violin laying down melody over industrial percussion. The quartet of songs ends with "Hava," which is apparently influenced by Hawa Mahal ("The Palace of Winds"), an elegant, much-photographed Rajput building in Jaipur, India. If the ornate façade of this iconic building is all about the cooling flow of air then "Hava" reflects this with its sinewy melodic lines and a well-ventilated rhythm. It brings to mind the hammerings of construction work — musical fresh air, certainly, but with enough dust blowing about to make it interesting.
The overall sound is pretty sparse as you might imagine, having just percussion and violin to work with, and busy ears might occasionally hanker for another musical voice in the mix. Although the playing is good throughout, texturally — and tempo-wise — After the Disquiet is sufficiently musical homogenous (read "unvaried") that you might well argue that four tracks are quite enough for one sitting.
The Devil's Brides - Klezmer & Yiddish Songs
Yale Strom & Hot Pstromi
We say: A worthy Klezmer collection that tells a story
The Devil's Brides is a collection of recorded music from and inspired by the radio drama The Witches of Lublin, originally commissioned by the Michigan Festival of Sacred Music in 2007. The story tells of a family of witches that visited the Polish city of Lublin in 1797 (or Jewish year 5557) around the time of Passover when the threat of a pogrom was looming. Hosted by English actor Miriam Margolyes, who narrates a short introduction to many of the tracks relating the story behind the song, this release can come across as a little wordy and scholarly at times and you may want to skip the spoken introductions after a listen or two.
In essence, this is a Klezmer-fest that closely investigates the history and culture behind the featured music. The instruments used throughout are traditional: violin, tsimbi (hammer dulcimer), bass and accordion, with vocals on some tracks. With lyrics in Yiddish and Polish, there are quite a few curiosities here, like the instrumental "Shtayngart's Skotshne," a Polish dance that incorporated hopping, and the song "Getshinke" that features a Yiddish lyric by an unknown poet written to depict the plight of a young Jewish girl during World War I. In contrast, "Dire Gelt" ("Rent Money") is sung using a combination of three languages — Yiddish, Polish and Russian — while other tracks such as "Sofia's Song" and "Lubliner Tish Nign" were composed specifically for the radio drama but fit in well and sound completely natural here alongside the traditional material.
The Devil's Brides - Klezmer & Yiddish Songs is well-performed and a creditable effort but probably depends on a strong interest in Klezmer and Yiddish culture to really appeal on a purely musical level. Margolyes' fruity introductions, although informative and historically interesting, tend to interrupt the musical flow and seem a little unnecessary when they are perfectly good sleeve notes for those wanting to find out more. Still, there is always the skip button...
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.