December 31, 2007

Cuong Vu - It's Mostly Residual

Since much of what passes across a music reviewer's desk is the sonic equivalent of hyenas gnawing on the bones of long-dead jazz styles, the arrival of something new that's both original and great gives twice the reason to celebrate. Vu is capable of some intense, headlong improvisation, as is clear on the aptly titled "Expressions of a Neurotic Impulse" and "Brittle, Like Twigs," but his real strength is the extended, gorgeous lines that he unspools on the other cuts. The title track, in particular, offers a melody that seems to take measure upon measure to reach its culmination – it's stately, elegiac, and yet not in the least mournful; one could only describe it as the sound of someone looking back on a glorious love affair that has ended without bitterness. This is all a way of saying that Vu's playing has an emotional resonance that's rarely found these days without having to sift through layers of hokum.
"Edward Batchelder, Signal to Noise"

Cuong Vu - trumpet
Stomu Takeishi - bass
Ted Poor - drums
Bill Frisell - guitar
Like what you hear, buy it! And support the artists that really need it.

December 26, 2007

Rokia Traoré


When one gets lost in the West African country of Mali, the customary request for personal guidance is "Sila jira kan na," meaning "Show me the way." In the oppressively hot streets of the crowd- and dust-clogged capital city of Bamako, such entreaties from strangers are accepted as routine, since one market-swarmed street can resemble a dozen others. But in the sphere of contemporary Malian music, as in the world at large, the familiar appeal takes on a special poignancy, because the ability these days to offer confident direction is in increasingly short supply.

One of the finest records issued anywhere this year is "Wanita" (Indigo/Harmonia Mundi), the second album by Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré. The follow-up to her much-praised 1998 debut, "Mouneissa" -- which sold over 40,000 copies in Europe--the new release expands on the softly poetic but intensely persevering messages of a woman who is quietly but questfully altering the face of African music. On a planet seemingly rife with self-righteous anger, racial antagonism, and inter-family tension, she calmly petitions on songs like "Souba" for humility and reconciliation; and as modern societies increasingly exploit women via popular degradation while idealizing male brutality, she warns on "N'Gotolen" against the dangers of building either a boom economy or a cultural pecking order based on contempt for others.

"There is a trend for selfish individualism also in Mali, even though we're very far away from the situation with the United States or Europe," she says, smoothly shifting from French to her mother tongue of Bamanan, with sudden bursts of English. "But I'm singing this way because,from speaking with the elders in Bamako, there has been and still is a big human interest in the worth of family members, neighbors, and colleagues in our offices or workplaces. I'm very conscious that, with all the money some people have these days in the U.S. and other countries, there is an aggressive individualism that has catastrophic consequences. You can feel that this misguided individualism is part of this violent process today in many homes and streets. I'm telling on other songs on the album that if you have a conscience about the importance of life and your proper individual life, you can avoid the violence and killing. But the fact that we're allowing it to happen is still baffling to me," she adds sadly.

In Mali,whose hierarchical musical traditions are dominated by either the ceremonial drama of the often haughty male griots and jelis (storytellers) or of the vociferous jelimusolu (female praise singers), Traoré's own music is uniquely informal, personable, and tender. Her intimate-sounding acoustic accompaniment consists of balafon (wooden xylophone), kora (a highly resonant harplike instrument with 21-25 strings), ngoni (lute), and an occassional electrified bass, plus the guitar and percussion Traore splits with others during the lovely solo and choral vocals (the latter sometimes overdubbed by Traoré). The music grips listeners as it glides into a rich nether realm between tribal chant and folk chanson, prodding the spirit with ideas that are bluesy in their convictions but almost Asian in their plucked airiness. And because the subject matter is so boldly expressed, its passionate tug soon grows addictive.

A member of the Bamanan ethnic group, Traoré is descended from the noble warriors of the Traoré clan, but she is free by custom from the caste-oriented constraints of other tribes (like the Maninka) that relegate public vocalizing to the social strata of nyamakala (craftsmen). Unlike the Maninka ranks from which sprang such national musical stars like the magisterial Salif Keita or such so-called "divas from Mali" as Kandia Kouyate, Ami Koita, and Oumou Sangare, Traoré's grounding in music was casual and spontaneous.

"Besides singers from Mali, my influences are jazz, classical, and rock," she says. "I like Ella Fitzgerald, Tina Turner, and Joe Zawinul of Weather Report. And the bulk of the themes on the album are from everyday life--which means living with others, with its pros and cons. On songs like 'N'Gotolen' and 'Souba,' it just says that you need the others, the people that are in your background, and you should give them all the respect that they deserve."

As we struggle through a cusp-of-the-millenium era without progressive leaders, clamorous cowardice frequently passes for courage and selfishness for wisdom. In place of such decadent notions of what constitutes fit paths to fame and fortune, Traoré offers the title track of "Wanita," which she says is named for "an imaginary person, a sort of internal voice or conscience that gives me more and more will when the courage is not there anymore, so I will be able to get to the top of the tallest tree or mountain."

There's a potent sense of delicacy in the music that announces that human dignity must be a shared experience or it does not endure. And songs like "Yaafa N'Ma" (We must ask and grant pardon/All of you who count for me/Forgive me for to err is human") show great faith in the concepts that love is power and gentleness is strength.

"I have to think like this because I'm only 1 meter and 60 centimeters [5 fee, 4 inches] tall, and my weight is only 48 kilos [108 pounds]," she confesses with a laugh, "so I must believe this, or I would lose all the time."
Born Jan. 26, 1974, to diplomat Mamadou Dianguina Traoré and Oumou Traoré, his wife from the same clan, Rokia is the middle child of seven. She grew up playing beside the famed River Niger that bisects the city as it snakes its way through the central portion of West Africa, but she also spent portions of her youth in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, France, and Belgium because of her father's diplomatic postings. She was first encouraged in her career by Jacques Szalay, director of the French Cultural Centre in Bamako, and then championed by Northern Mali guitarist/singer Ali Farka Touré during the period when she copped the Radio France Internationale prize as African Discovery of '97.

Of all the artists covered in this column over the past eight years, Rokia Traoré, who tours North America this summer, is one of hte most original and inspiring this writer has encountered. Her brave music on "Wanita" is a mighty sword of hope, as soft as a feather but as real as steel.

"The role I might play is dependent on everyone else who hears my music," she says. "I have messages to transmit in the music, but then it's your turn to feel it. The guidance we need, the essence or soul of life that we all seek, only becomes reality through our relationships with each other."
(2000 BillBoard Magazine)



"An album is a wall to penetrate," says Malian singer Rokia Traoré, immediately establishing herself as a marketing exec's nightmare. The wall called Bowmboï, Traoré's third CD, is built from sounds unfamiliar to Western ears and lyrics sung only in her native Bamana, even though she's also proficient in English, French, German and Italian. "I asked myself if it wouldn't be better to do something easier," she says. "Maybe if you do something a little pop, it's easier to promote. I had a choice. But I prefer this." Thank goodness. Bowmboï is mesmerizing, casting its spell with virtuoso vocals, rich textures and startling diversity. If her 2000 album Wanita was her breakthrough, winning Traoré worldwide acclaim as a rising star, then Bowmboï is a stamp of the 29-year-old's growing musical authority.

Traoré's sound may be exotic, ethereal, otherworldly — all words trotted out to praise the good in the impossibly broad "world-music" genre — but her themes are universal. Déli is a meditation on friendship. The title track — named for a lullaby Traoré's mother sang to her — wrestles with child poverty. She even deals with politics, but insists she could never work in that language. She thinks of the complexity of Mali's relations with the International Monetary Fund as well as her country's cotton farmers and how they suffer because Western nations subsidize their own. Such topics "are not poetic," she says. "I may be thinking about the situation between developed countries and undeveloped countries, but you will never hear those words in my songs." So, on Kèlè Mandi, whose haunting admonitions make it a highlight, Traoré just sings about human interaction: "Give me a bit of what you are/ But do it with gentleness and tolerance."

Traoré's spare arrangements use a variety of instruments, including a calabash harp called the bolon, an African lute called the n'goni and, on two tracks, the strings of San Francisco's acclaimed Kronos Quartet. But the songs are really designed to showcase the range of moods and colors in Traoré's own voice. On Mariama, a stirring call-and-response duet with veteran Ousmane Sacko, she provides the velvety counterpoint to his rough edges. On Manian, a searching song about poverty in which she asks, "What have I done to deserve such a life/ Who have I offended in heaven?", she begins with a matter-of-fact resignation familiar to anyone who has spent time in Africa, then unleashes a spellbinding mix of urgent chants, mournful cadenzas and more quiet testimony.
She often sings as the outsider, a role she has played for most of her life. A diplomat's daughter, Traoré spent chunks of her childhood in Algeria, Belgium and Saudi Arabia. As a musician, she's had to fight for respect, since she was not born into the caste of griots, Mali's musician-bards. It's been hard "to make people accept you for who you are," she says. The outsider's refrain is a cry for acceptance, and she sings one now for developing nations like Mali, whose needs are often overlooked. "In Africa, we are not powerful," she says. "This music is just to say: we are not O.K. But — there is always a message of hope." Her most spirited missive is Niènafîng, a drum-driven salute to her homeland. "Who dares say that Mali
has nothing to offer?" she demands. After listening to Bowmboï, nobody would dare.


Like what you hear, buy it! And support the artists that really need it.

December 20, 2007

Sainkho Namtchylak

Sainkho Namtchylak is an experimental singer, born in 1957 in a secluded village in the south of Tuva, an autonomous Russian state bordering Mongolia. She has an exceptional voice, spanning seven octaves and proficient in overtone singing; her music enmeshes avant-jazz, electronica, modern composition and Tuvan influences. In Tuva numerous cultural influences collide: the Turkic roots it shares with Mongolia, Xinjiang Uighur and the Central Asian states; various Siberian nomadic ethnic groups, principally those of the Tungus-Manchu group; Russian Old Believers; migrant and resettled populations from the Ukraine, Tatarstan and other minority groups west of the Urals. All of these, to extents, impact on Sainkho's voice, although the Siberian influences dominate: her thesis produced while studying voice, first at the University of Kyzyl, then in the Gnesins Institute in Moscow during the 1980s focussed on Lamaistic and cult musics of minority groups across Siberia, and her music frequently shows tendencies towards Tungus-style imitative singing.
After graduating, Sainkho worked with several ensembles: the Moscow State Orchestra; the Moscow- based jazz ensemble 'Tri-O' (since 1989); School of Dramatic Art under the direction of Anatoly Vasiliev (Moscow), various orchestras in Kyzyl although (incongruously) as far as I am aware she has not worked with the Sayaan Ensemble, the Tuvan 'folkloric orchestra'- a far less sanitised example of folk baroque than, say, existed in pre-independence Kazakhstan- that has housed many of Tuva's other important singers. However, for several years Sainkho annually invited foreign musicians to Tuva to promote Tuvan culture. In 1997, Sainkho was horrifically attacked by Tuvinian racketeers which left her in a coma for two weeks. Again, sources regarding this contradict- others maintain that she underwent surgery for a severe malignant brain tumour; regardless, 1997 marked an appreciable change in her life. Since then, she has been resident in exile in Vienna, and has also recorded more prolifically as a solo artist- although she has released over thirty albums in the past twenty years, only seven have been entirely solo. in 2005 Italian publish house Libero di Scrivere released a book of poetry "Karmaland". In 2006 in Petersburg was published a book "Chelo-Vek" (in Russian, "A Human Being") in Russian, Tuvinian and in English.

Stepmother City
Sainkho Namtchylak walks on the edges of life. It would be cliché to say she plays music on the border between East and West, past and present. But she is one of those artists that exist outside of categories. The same could be said of any woman who combines Tuvan throatsinging, experimental jazz, classical, electronica, and Buddhism. Then again, she is the only woman on the planet that fits this description.
Her new album Stepmother City—to be released on Ponderosa Music by Harmonia Mundi in October 2002—demands to be seen from a spiritual perspective. The liner notes are the words of a Buddhist monk from the 5th century BCE. The CD is embossed with a maze of roads whose existential names like “Born to Discover” and “Your Inner Eyes” chart a city that lies somewhere between the heart and the mind.
Already known as Tuva’s most celebrated female vocalist, Sainkho takes her unique blend in a new direction. Transfixing audiences with her astounding seven octave range, Sainkho uses songs like “Tuva Blues,” “Let the Sunshine,” and “Lonely Soul” to explore lands that live beyond the confines of the East and the West. Sainkho courses between polar extremes, reflecting love and hostility. With her finely crafted overtone singing, knowledge of Siberian folklore, shamanistic ritual, and history in Russian folklore ensembles and free-jazz acts, Sainkho juxtaposes traditional styles of her Tuvan ancestors with the Western avant-garde, sailing from harmonious serenity to hissing, trilling, and wailing.
Based in Vienna far from her beloved homeland Tuva, Sainkho sculpted Stepmother City to reflect her ambivalent feelings about European metropoli. Calling herself “first and foremost a woman from the Steppes,” Sainkho’s first musical inspiration came from her nomadic grandmother, who would sing lullabies for hours. She grew up in a culture where people just sing when they feel like it—singing when they’re happy and singing when they’re sad. Denied professional credentials from a local college where her explorative nature led her toward forbidden male-dominated styles, Sainkho transferred to Moscow where she discovered Russian improvisation. She also studied vocal techniques of Siberian lamaistic traditions.
Audiences are astounded by the diversity of sounds Sainkho can produce with her voice, from operatic tenor to birdlike squawks, from childlike pleas to soulful crooning; which at various moments elicit comparisons to Zap Mama, Patti Smith, Billie Holiday, and Nina Hagen. Stepmother City blends the sounds of electric guitars and loops with folk instruments like the shakuhachi (a Japanese bamboo flute), doshpuloor (three-stringed banjo), and igil (a Mongolian horse-head fiddle connected with the spirit world), creating a synergistic blend of past and present.
Sainkho claims that music and spirituality are related by desire, or the tension that yells to reawaken people. Eager to take part in the process of remembering what has been forgotten, Stepmother City presents itself like a map, proposing routes to connect Western physicality with Eastern spirituality. Its seductive beats and wild vocals are sure to shock and inspire.
New Link

Who Stole the Sky ?
It's easy to understand why Tuvan Sainkho Namtchylak has been an avant-garde icon for a long time; she's remarkable at producing the unexpected. But unlike many in her field, she also possesses a strong ear for melody, which makes her music accessible to a much wider audience. Both those strengths are on display here, along with her feeling for the music and the throat singing of her native land (very notably on the title cut and "Ohm Suhaa"). She can take a traditional piece like "Kaar Deerge" and turn it into something resembling a Celtic ballad, stripped and completely gorgeous. Then she can turn around and make something rhythmically compelling like "Runnin' Tapes" or strange like "Digital Mutation." By exercising the different facets of her personality, Namtchylak builds her typical unusual album with Who Stole the Sky, running from the contemporary to the past easily and naturally, and even venturing into almost jazzy territory on "Electric City." She embraces the idea of taking chances, of using odd juxtapositions and instruments (such as ghaita), and of singing that ranges from the lush to the elemental. This is as much, if not more, of a musical future as all the genre-mixing beats you're likely to find. (Chris Nickson, All Music Guide)
Like what you hear, buy it! And support the artists that really need it.

December 16, 2007

Renaud Garcia-Fons - Arcoluz

French bass virtuoso Renaud Garcia-Fons has grown into a living legend, both for his breathtaking technique and intonation as well as his talent as a composer. A dazzling performer on five strings, he uses his instrument's entire range, thus dominating the music and making the bowed double bass sound rather like a cello or a violin. When listening to his percussive speed pizzicato or his sweeping arco flageolets, the breadth of his capabilities becomes evident immediately. As a composer Garcia-Fons likes to take the listener on a gypsy's journey through the Mediterranean area, especially Andalusia, then Brittany, Latin America, India, the Arab world and even into European classical music of the past. Although incorporating influences from far and wide, his compositions are always focussed and efficient and keep to the spirit of charming chamber music. As Nils Jacobson wrote about Garcia-Fons' last album, "Entremundo": "Each piece contains its own detailed narrative. Elements of the music might seem familiar, but just palpably so, and never in an obvious way. Just let the music ebb and flow, carrying echoes of places distant and not so far away. A beautiful experience."

"ArcoLuz", the first live album after six studio recordings on ENJA, powerfully captures the fire and emotionality of Renaud Garcia-Fons' vibrant concert performance. With the core trio of "Entremundo" -- including upcoming flamenco star-stringer "Kiko" Ruiz and drummer "Negrito" Trasante of Gipsy Kings-fame --, Garcia-Fons delivers seven of his thrilling Spanish-influenced pieces, four of them being brand new. His trio's highly inspired, forceful and expressive performance, caught at Germany's Schloss Elmau in summer 2005, is not only presented on a first-class CD recording but can also be seen on a 85-minute DVD video disc directed by Nicolas Dattilesi. With subtitles in four languages and bonus tracks included, the DVD is further proof for Renaud Garcia-Fons' and his trio's extraordinary musicianship and deep-felt emotions. "He's in a position to unite nations of music lovers" (

Renaud Garcia-Fons: 5-string double bass
Kiko Ruiz flamenco: guitar
Negrito Trasante: drums, percussion
Part 1
Part 2
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December 12, 2007

Michael Brook - RockPaperScissors

RockPaperScissors is Michael Brook’s new album, his third solo offering. When not recording in his Lavanderia studio located in the Hollywood Hills, Michael and his co-producer, multi-instrumentalist and arranger Rich Evans (of Peter Gabriel's band) traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria on behalf of this ambitious project, where they recorded local orchestral and choral ensembles. Into this mix, Brook introduced several vocalist/songwriters such as his former 4AD label mate Lisa Germano, Shira Myrow and Paul Buchanan from the Blue Nile.
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December 9, 2007

Ferenc Snétberger - Nomad

Three masters of their art have joined to form the new Ferenc Snétberger Trio. With natural ease they bring together choice compositions, technical skills, improvisational drive and musical fantasy of the highest order.
Hungarian-born Ferenc Snétberger is among today's outstanding players on his instrument, one "who can display intensity and passion even at a quiet volume" (Cadence). Going for a synthesis of flamenco, classical, jazz and samba, he melts all these influences into a very personal style full of surprise, warmth, wonder and emotion. One of the leading jazz bassists of today, Norwegian Arild Andersen is famous for his full-bodied tone and his elegant playing. He has recorded dozens of great albums with the likes of Jan Garbarek, Bill Frisell, Stan Getz, Pat Metheny and Don Cherry. Italian-born Paolo Vinaccia has been living in Norway for 25 years and is a household name on the most creative Scandinavian improvisers' scene. His imaginative and colorful playing could be heard with Nils Petter Molvaer, Bugge Wesseltoft, Terje Rypdal, Palle Mikkelborg and others.
A multitrack recording (24-bit, 96 kHz) engineered by Jan Erik Kongshaug at Oslo's Rainbow Studios, the trio's debut album "Nomad" hypnotizes the listener with breadth and clearness. When Snétberger, Andersen and Vinaccia start to play, it is like pure magic. Charming melodies, thrilling grooves, fiery improvisations, sudden turns and fragile moments evoke sceneries right out of dreamland. Founded in 2004, this unusual trio has quickly grown into a highly celebrated live act. Critics have called them "a triangle of pan-European inspirations, an amalgam of mysticism and joy of life, dream paths and clear laughs, trance and dance". The trio's music -- ranging from modern jazz drive and world beats to decent electronic sounds and vibrant lyricism -- catches the audiences by its sheer emotional power.

Ferenc Snétberger: acoustic guitar
Arild Andersen: double bass, electronics
Paolo Vinaccia: drums, percussion, electronics
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December 4, 2007

Trygve Seim-The Source and Different Cikadas

As you may have guessed ..., this isn't exactly dinner jazz, but neither is it a dry, difficult academic exercise. The writing is vibrant, witty and often beautiful. Throughout the cast of players shifts, giving each piece a distinctive character. ... But these guys can make it up as they go along just as well as they can write it down; the two free improvisations are stuffed with ideas yet marked by a restraint and a sense of space rarely found in jazz (except maybe on other ECM records). The closing "Tutti Free" finds the whole 11 piece slowly expanding and contracting as one with a sensitivity and power that's almost unfathomable. Beautiful.
(Peter Marsh, BBC Online)

Øyvind Brække: trombone
Trygve Seim: tenor and soprano saxo-phones, clarophone
Per Oddvar Johansen: drums
Henrik Hannisdal & Odd Hannisdal: violin
Marek Konstantynowicz: viola
Morten Hannisdal: cello
Frode Haltli: accordion
Arve Henriksen: trumpet
Christian Wallumrød: piano
Finn Guttormsen: bass
Part1 & Part2
Like what you hear, buy it! And support the artists that really need it.