Walk to the Sea
David Buchbinder's Odessa/Havana
We say: Jewish and Cuban traditions come together for these Klezmer-Cuban allstars.
You might have overlooked the Jewish-Cuban musical connection — it really is not that obvious — but this is what trumpet player David Buchbinder and pianist Hilario Durán are exploring here on Walk to the Sea, working on the roots of both mambo and klezmer to find a little sonic commonality. Certainly, there are common threads that run through both traditions — an emphasis on improvization, strong earthy rhythms, and a pronounced spiritual element. Put into practice, it works like a dream: the two traditions combining quite seamlessly in an upbeat jazzy framework.
It is a formula that is already tried and tested, as Buchbinder released a previous CD Odessa/Havana, much along the same lines, back in 2007. Effectively, this is more of the same, and nothing wrong with that. As then, this features a talented mix of Canadian and Cuban musicians, who clearly relish the challenge. This time round, there are also a few songs inspired by the Ladino tradition, a tradition that came from the Jewish Diaspora of Spain's Andalucía region, the same region that also has a strong connection with the musical traditions of Cuba.
But let's put aside theorizing: the music here is sheer delight—swinging, melodic, upbeat and exciting, with great musicianship throughout. Every track is great but the standouts for me are those that feature the soulful vocals of Maryem Hassan Tollar, like "La Roza Una," "La Roza Dos" and the final track, "Conja". Having said that, "Landarico," a traditional Sephardic tune with arrangement by Durán, and "Calliope," which features excellent sax by John Johnson, are pretty exceptional too. Either way, there are no fillers here or anything to spoil the flow of a great collection of tunes. Far more than just a one-off, feel-good cultural exchange, this is a musical marriage that will stand the test of time.
Juaneco y su Combo
Juaneco y su Combo
We say: Early 70s psychedelic cumbia from the Peruvian jungle.
The cover shows a group of South America indigena musicians gathered in a jungle clearing looking just a tad self-conscious in their garb of feathers and robes. Clutching electric guitars, they appear geared-up, ready to play, although it really does not look as if they'll be able to find anywhere to plug in. The photograph is of its time, of course, and the time is the early '70s.
The shtick here is so-called "jungle cumbia," a musical genre that in later years would become better known as chicha. This re-release of two original recordings made in 1970 and 1972 claims to be the first recorded example of the genre. Jungle cumbia is not a bad definition: unlike the airy cumbia peruana of the Peruvian coast and mountains, this music — a thin soup of organ, percussion, guitars and vocals — clearly belongs to the tropical lowlands and the result is a slightly odd take on traditional cumbia that might best be described as borderline psychedelic. It's jungle with attitude (and, with a few Andean resonances thrown in, maybe altitude too).
Although there are a handful of Cuban-style boleros and guajiras in the mix, the subject matter tends to follow jungle themes, with songs about native wildlife and jungle fruits to the fore. "La Aguajerita" is about a palm fruit, while "El Llanto del Ayamama" concerns the cry of the Great Potoo bird. "Lamento en la Selva (Jungle Lament)" is about a tragedy in which 92 people, mostly from the band's home city of Pucallpa, died on a Christmas Eve jungle plane crash. This sad tale is grimly prescient as five of the nine members of Juaneco y su Combo would later die in similar circumstances in 1977.
We say: Rock n' Roma from the Belgrade suburbs.
Kal, a Serbian Roma band with a youthful outlook and a distinctly modern sound, have been around for quite a while now. Since their formation in 2006, the band have played hundreds of live gigs and been regular crowd-pleasers at European festivals like Fusion in Berlin, Budapest's Sziget and, of course, Serbia's very own Novi Sad EXIT festival. It is easy to see the appeal: what Kal do sounds far more contemporary than most of what we usually hear from East European Roma musicians — there's little in the way of trumpets (apart from a guest appearance on the last track "Papuruga") but, instead, plenty of fast-elbowed violin and accordion along with guitar, bass and drums.
The sound may be modern but the songs on Romology mostly reflect traditional Roma themes. Almost all are composed by band leader Dragan Ristić, while a few are arrangements of traditional tunes. There's a healthy dose of irreverent humor throughout. "Bibi" controversially suggests that while your uncle may be a blood relative, your uncle's wife is not and so can be considered fair game for a little extramarital affection. In the same vein, and some way off the scale in terms of political correctness, is "Spunky Man," which sort of speaks for itself. Anti-Roma racism is confronted head-on: "Nazen E Gadze" is a playful take on the fear that Romany people engender among non-Romany people, while "Gadzo DJ" concerns itself with non-Romany DJs sampling Romany beats and appropriating their music for profit. Stylistically, there is a fair amount of variation too. "Negro" invokes the spirit of erstwhile French anarcho-rockers Mano Negra and manages to sound quite like the band. "Run Brother Run," which has a pronounced ska feel, is sung in English — a clear sign that Kal's ambitions are truly international.
Where Here Meets There
Mr Ho's Orchestrotica
We say: Cool retro vibes and flute but who is Mr Ho?
"Who is Mr Ho?" you might well ask, "and what on earth is an Orchestrotica?" Both fair questions really but willful obscurity such as this is merely a means to create a make-believe back story for a musical era and genre — a sort of imagined proto world music — that never really existed in the first place.
The whole musical shebang of the "Orchestrotica" is led not by a fictitious Mr Ho but by real-life vibraphonist Brian O'Neill. The other main melodic role is taken by Geni Skendo on flute, while Jason Davis and Shane Shanahan provide able support on double bass and percussion respectively. The result is a sort of kitsch exotica, a dreamy retro-sounding chamber music that might have been made in the late 1950s or early '60's. It is hard to pin it down precisely but what I hear is a little of the Pet Sounds instrumental interludes mixed in with work influenced by modern American composers. There are obvious cool jazz influences too, albeit of the sort that does not swing too fiercely.
Imagine Thelonius Monk, Moondog and Brian Wilson thrown together to write the soundtrack for an industrial training film. Imagine them roping in Cal Tjader to try out a few Gershwin preludes… there, you have it. Well, sort of.
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.