Perceptive Travel World Music Reviews
April 2015 - By Laurence Mitchell

In this issue: Reinterpreted old Americana, Balkan clarinets, good Brazilian vibes, and African grooves from a half century ago via Nigeria and Ghana.





Jayme Stone's Lomax Project
Various Artists

We say: A stylish reinterpretation of half-forgotten Americana.

Alan Lomax, as you may or may not know, was an innovative folklorist and field recording pioneer who collected a vast array of original material throughout the United States between the 1930s and 1980s. He was also once married to iconic English traditional singer Shirley Collins but that's another story. Lomax's legacy is a rich and wondrous archive of recordings that have influenced everyone from Bob Dylan to the Beach Boys. It was Lomax, whose centenary it is this year, who scouted the plantations and penitentiaries of the American South to bring the work of hitherto unknowns like Lead Belly, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and the Reverend Gary Davis to a wider appreciative audience.

What banjoist Jayme Stone does here is to revitalize and renew this material with the help of collaborators like Tim O'Brien and Moira Smiley. There's a wealth of old style Americana to draw upon: spirituals, cowboy songs, sea shanties and the like. Some songs, like "Shenandoah," will be familiar while the majority, like the self-explanatory call and response gospel "Sheep, Sheep, Dont'cha Know the Road," are relatively unknown. There are also little known oddities from beyond the U.S. borders, like "T-I-M-O-T-H-Y," which comes from the Caribbean island of St Eustatius, and the Trinidadian calypso "Bury Boula." Perhaps most effective of all are the ballads, like the bittersweet "Goodbye Old Paint," a song learned in the late 19th century by African American cowboy Jess Morris, sensitively reinterpreted here by singer-songwriter Margaret Glaspy. Glaspy also performs a strong version of "What Is the Soul of Man," which sounds so contemporary with its jazzy instrumentation that it might have been written just last week. Freshly performed, with fine singing and good musicianship, such songs seem all the more timeless in this context, although a few like "Now Your Man Done Gone" work less effectively and seem a little over polite.

For those unfamiliar with the Lomax oeuvre this excellent collection might bring to mind several things. Obvious comparisons are the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? which utilized old-time country music to good effect, or the early albums of The Band that dripped sepia-toned Americana from every pore. I am even reminded of some of the eclectic psychedelic folk bands of the late 1960s like the Insect Trust that covered similar arcane territory. Whatever the resonances are for you, this comes highly recommended.






Many Languages One Soul
Balkan Clarinet Summit

We say: Clarinet tunes straight from the wood.

The title of this collection gives you a good idea of what to expect: a coming together of international musicians who all happen to sing from the same hymn sheet. Well, not so much sing as play clarinet. There's an easy mix of genre's here—jazz, folk, classical—from a number of Balkan countries that include Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria and the territories that once belonged of the former Yugoslavia. Some of the tunes like "Geamparale" come from the standard Balkan repertoire although here, rather than being performed in the usual sort of ensemble that features bass, accordion and fiddles, there is more of a chamber music feel to things that results from an all-clarinet line-up.

Many Languages One Soul is compiled of several live performances that run the gamut of Balkan clarinet styles. There's Greek Klarino ("Naoussa"), Serbian (the frantic "Pitagorino Oro") and Bulgarian (Severniaski Tanc"), the latter two with wobbly, foot-tripping time-signatures—as well as original tunes that lean more towards jazz like "Poéme" and the wistful "Colors of Istanbul." There's also "Snake Lick Jab," which makes a leftfield stab at demonstrating what strange noises can emerge from a clarinet if pushed. This is just plain odd and tends to interrupt the overall flow but perhaps that is it its intended purpose.

Nicely varied and beautifully performed, and with more clarinets than a Bulgarian wedding, Balkan Clarinet Summit offers plenty of entertainment for the ears even for those who are not normally great fans of the instrument.






Silencia
Ceumar

We say: Slick and silky Brazilian good vibes.

Brazilian singer-songwriter Ceumar has been around for some time now; this is her sixth album. Her music doesn't fit into any easy cookie-cutter category but it is safe to say that there are elements of jazz and bossa nova in most of her work and this is no exception.

Silencia is largely an acoustic affair, with Spanish guitar, double bass and mandolin leading the way along with flourishes of accordion, clarinet and ten-string guitar here and there. Most notable of Ceumar's accompanists is French cello maestro Vincent Ségal, who is an old hand at tasteful arrangements and sympathetic collaboration having been an integral part of a groundbreaking album with kora player Ballake Sissoko a few years ago (see Perceptive Travel world music reviews December 2010). The cello is especially lovely on "Penhor," which pulses and laps like the incoming tide.

Most of the songs here are either slow or mid-tempo and have a silky quality about them that is the aural equivalent of soaking in a soothing warm bath. Others, like the bossa nova "Chora Cavaquinho," are a little more up tempo but otherwise listening to Silencia is a pleasurably relaxing experience, which is not to say it is dull in any way. With good songs, dextrous playing, and inspired singing, there's really not that much that could go wrong. As with lots of Brazilian music there's a contagious sense of joie de vivre here and Silencia’s overall effect is rather like lying on a warm beach with the waves gently rolling in.






Highlife on the Move
Selected Nigerian and Ghanaian Recordings from London and Lagos 1954—66

We say: Golden era highlife from Anglophone West Africa.

In musical terms, the 50s and 60s were a golden era in the former British West African colonies of Ghana and Nigeria. This was a time of great musical cross-fertilization between West Africa and Cuba, with the then colonial capital London serving as the third point of the triangle. Highlife on the Move is a double CD, 40-track compilation that gives a flavor of the best of this period.

The Cuban influence is quite obvious on many of the recordings. "Niger Mambo" by Bobby Benson & His Combo wouldn't sound out of place on any mambo compilation from the other side of the Atlantic, while "Omo Africa" by West African Swing Stars sounds very late 1950s Cuba to these ears despite its title. It's not all Cuban flavored: another strong influence was Trinidadian calypso, especially on highlife music, well exemplified here by Lord Ganda & Rupert Nurse's Calypso Band on the track "Ghana, Forward Forever."

There's some early Fela Kuti here too, recorded long before he coined the term Afro-Beat and scandalized Lagos with his radical politics and multiplicity of wives. Even so, Fela Ransome-Kuti & The Highlife Rakers with "Fela's Special" and "Aigana" offer hints of things to come, as does "Nigerian Independence," a later recording credited to Fela Ransome-Kuti & His Koola-Lobitos. There are also several tracks ("Obaa Amponsa Pandongo" and "Abrokyiri Awo Yi") from The Ghana Black Star Band, who were one of the most influential Ghanaian bands of the period.

With forty tracks in all, this is a delight. Certainly, it sounds dated— that is all part of its retro charm—but Highlife on the Move provides a valuable vignette of African music that can still stand up and be counted with the best on offer today.






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.

See the last round of music reviews from Laurence Mitchell.



Also in this issue:


Jayme Stone's Lomax Project

Buy Jayme Stone's Lomax Project online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK



Many Languages One Soul

Buy Many Languages One Soul online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK



Silencia

Buy Silencia online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK



Highlife on the Move

Buy Highlife on the Move online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK




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