- September 04, 2020
- Devon Léger
- Album Reviews
by Devon Léger, Folk Alley
As Americans, we’re more isolated than ever and it’s not just because of the global pandemic. Even before COVID, our punishing performance visa system has either rejected many great artists looking to tour in the US or has made the rates so high that it’s no longer financially feasible to tour over here. The result is an impoverished cultural scene that rarely looks outside our own borders for musical inspiration. That’s too bad, since there’s so much amazing folk and roots music being made right now all around the world.
Expand your horizons and pick up one of these albums this Bandcamp Friday. Each Friday of each month through 2020, Bandcamp is waiving their admin fees to help artists, so this is the perfect time to try out a new band.
The state of Rajasthan in India has long been at the crossroads of the world. The Silk Road once passed through here, and even today Rajasthan has a long tradition of nomadic peoples based around its deserts. The music of Rajasthan is no less eclectic, blending Hindu, Muslim Sufi, and even proto-Gypsy traditions into a colorful swirl of wild rhythms. For a little bit in the late 90s, American audiences discovered and fell in love with the raucous music and crazy outfits of India’s Rajasthani Gypsies, mainly through the work of the band Musafir. SInce then I hadn’t heard too much about Rajasthani music, so it was a great joy to fall back in love with the rhythms of this music via the new Barmer Boys album dropping today. A live album recorded a few years back in Berlin, the music here crackles with electricity, fueled by cascading melismatic singing tied to the Muslim Sufi tradition, some wild morchang (Indian jaw harp) solos, machine-gun fire dholak drumming, and even beatboxing. This trio–Mangey Khan, Rais Khan, and Magada Khan–come from the Manganiyar community of Rajasthan and if the sound of the harmonium and the power of Indian classical vocal training seems familiar, it likely has similar ties to Sufi qawwali music (the last track on the album is “Mast Qalandar,” well known in the qawwali tradition). The beatboxing may be new, but fusing new traditions with old ones has long been the key to Rajasthan’s rich world of music.
BONUS: Speaking of Muslim Sufi music, I’m very much looking forward to the new album, Pakistan Is for the Peaceful, coming next week from Ustad Saami, the last master of surti, a precursor to Pakistan’s qawwali tradition. His previous album, God Is Not A Terrorist, was spectacular.
L’île de la Réunion, or Réunion Island, is a large island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagascar. A French colony and part of the French Republic, the people of Réunion historically come from around the world: Europe, Africa, India, Madagascar, and Asia. The music is a mélange as well, and the music featured here, maloya music, retains deep ties to its African roots. Born from slavery in Réunion’s sugarcane fields, maloya music features rolling drum rhythms, call-and-response vocals, and instruments like the kayamb, a shaker made from sugar cane reeds and canna seeds. Maloya has been likened to the blues, not that that’s a solid comparison, but it was considered so controversial that it was banned by French authorities into the 1980s (because of its roots in protest music and its roots in trance rituals the Catholic Church hated, and also because the Communist party loved it). Ti’kaniki is a collective of musicians from the French city of Lyon. Formed around their love of maloya music, Ti’kaniki began putting on kabars, or music gatherings in the city. This live recording was taken from a performance they did at Lyon’s Opera, chosen in part as a way to desacralize a performance hall dominated by white classical music traditions. Half the band is from Réunion, including the wonderfully powerful lead singer Océane Gado and percussionists Luc Moindranzé Karioudja and David Doris, with the rest of the band drawn from eclectic Lyon ensembles, including Colombian drummer Hadrien Santos Da Silva from the Mexican band Kumbia Boruka. The album Maloya à l'Opéra is a blast to listen to, with great singing and drumming and a full band sound. Standout tracks include the Creole French of “La Réunion (Troupe Didi)” and there’s an especially powerful moment when the group recontextualizes an old ballad, “Le Luneux,” from Bas-Poitou in Western France (made popular by French folk revival band Malicorne).
I first heard of the Hauka music of Niger from the insane and controversial film Les Maîtres Fous by French ethnologist Jean Rouch that I watched it as a young budding ethnomusicologist. It’s a mind-bending and disturbing film that shows the trance possession rituals of the Hauka as they either steal or emulate colonial figures. The trance possession contorts the human body in terrifying ways and I’ve never been able to get the sight of the “train conductor” out of my mind. I’d never heard of these rituals again until this album of Hauka music from Lingo Seini and his band that just dropped in August. Seini is a ritual musician who regularly accompanies priests from the same possession ceremonies featured in that film. The music here is spectacularly well recorded for a field recording with just one microphone. No surprise since this is yet another stellar release of North African music from my favorite label, Sahel Sounds. Labelhead Chris Kirkely travels frequently to Niger and North Africa to record artists and is one of the most forward-thinking labelheads in global music (he’s a great music writer too, check out his travelogue about this recording). His Niger recordings brought us blazing guitarist Mdou Moctar, but this is a whole other side of Niger’s music that I hadn’t really heard before. Powered by heavy drumming and the spinning melodies of the one-string kuntigi, Seini’s voice soars over the desert landscape. Evidently this is one of the first full-length recordings of this tradition of Hausa music, so jump in and learn more!
I met Kaethe Hostetter at a West Coast fiddle camp that she and her family have attended for years, but I got extra excited when she told me about the music she’s been making in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. An early member of Ethiopian-American diaspora group Debo Band, Hostetter moved to Addis Ababa some time back and was participating in music salons and learning the traditions of the country. Now she’s brought together a team of ace musicians for a new group: QWANQWA. Their new album drops next week and it’s a joyous romp through different traditions from the region including Eritrean and Somali inspired melodies plus some of Ethiopia’s tribal music. Hostetter’s five string fiddle meshes beautifully with the lightning-fast speed of band member Endris Hassen’s one-string masenqo fiddling. As a special note, Hostetter brought out one of my favorite global experimentalists Shahzad Ismaily to engineer the album in Addis Ababa; just another example of how some of America’s best musicians are moving more globally than we might think.
Arabic music and keyboards, synths, and pianos go back a long ways, even though these are not necessarily instruments designed to fit well with the music. Arabic music makes use of scales or maqams that fall outside the Western scale structures. Musicians who move between both worlds are adept at adapting Western instruments to Arabic microtones or quarter-tones, like jazz trumpet player Ibrahim Maalouf, whose father invented a microtonal trumpet for the music. Pianos were altered or retuned in the early 1900s for Arabic music (I love the music of Lebanese pianist/piano tuner Abdallah Chahine that reflects this history), and the subsequent waves of accordions coming after were also retuned to Arabic scales, but it was with the electronic keyboard that the piano was fully embraced in Arabic music across the world (Egyptian keyboardist Magdi al-Husseini is often cited as a pioneer). It’s become such a typical sound and few scholars seem to view the keyboard very seriously as a traditional instrument, despite the fact that the Middle East is full of interesting keyboard traditions. Enter Golan Heights synth band TootArd who are dedicated to reviving the lost sounds of 1970s and 80s disco, synth pop, and keyboard gymnastics in the Arabic world. These two brothers, Hasan and Rami Nakhleh, grew up in occupied Golan Heights playing around with their family’s Arabic synthesizer. Their new album Migrant Birds is a fever dream of Middle Eastern dancehalls from the 1980s, so full of hairspray and disco balls you can almost envision the crazy music videos that would have gone with each of these tracks. The album’s a joy to listen to, but it’s also an examination of the statelessness of occupied Golan Heights. Like migratory birds, the brothers left their home to live in Jerusalem, Haifa, and now Europe, each time looking for freedom.
BONUS: Not to keep mentioning Sahel Sounds, but they do have a great new monthly series on Bandcamp: Music from Saharan Whatsapp. Each month they feature an EP of North African music recorded on a cellphone, transmitted via Whatsapp, and uploaded to Bandcamp. This month is an EP from Nigerien synth master Hama that burns like fire.
Québécois folk musician Bernard Simard was a member of so many bands over his long career that it’s hard to keep track of them all! He was an early member of the biggest Québécois folk band of them all, La Bottine Souriante, and he’s on some of my most favorite albums from French Canada and France, including Manigance and Gwazigan. Tragically, Simard passed away in March 2020 at the far-too-young age of 60, leaving a huge hole in Québec’s folk music scene. His honeyed voice and thoughtful interpretations will be missed by all, and it’s hard to see one of the great lights of the folk revival go out. Two months before his death, Simard completed a new recording of solo material with renowned producer Eric Beaudry of De Temps Antan at his home cabin recording studio in the village of St Côme in Québec (the studio’s right above the trapper workshop of Eric’s dad). To finish the recording, Beaudry brought out some of the very best French-Canadian folk musicians to create a huge band sound behind Simard’s voice, including members of Le Vent du Nord, De Temps Antan, Réveillon, and La Bottine Souriante. It’s a joyous celebration of the legacy of one man who gave so much to the tradition. The songs on the album were sadly and presciently thoughtful about death’s passages. The traditional song “La fille d’un boucher” includes heartfelt instructions for the burial of a true love, and the opening song “La route,” from Michel Léveillé is a rare French Canadian trucker song that speaks of leaving the road and coming back home.
BONUS: Canadian Polaris Prize winner Lido Pimienta is an absolutely fearless voice in Canada’s landscape calling out racism and mysogny anywhere she sees it. Don’t sleep on her new album, Miss Colombia. It’s not folk per se, but it’s not not folk either and Pimienta is one of the boldest voices coming out of Canada now.
I’ll be honest, I can’t quite figure out the connection between Cuba and Paris, musically or historically. There’s something there though that I first found in Cuban/Parisian hip-hop group Orishas, then again with the amazing rapper and musician La Dame Blanche. I just happened on the new album from Cuban cellist and singer Ana Carla Maza and again there’s a Cuba-to-Paris tie since she’s lived and studied in Paris for years. Born to Chilean pianist and composer Carlos Maza and Cuban guitarist Mirza Sierra, she grew up in Cuba and absorbed the roots of Latin American music there before becoming known in Europe for her work in jazz, classical, and pop. Her new album, La Flor, is a stripped-back, vulnerable, and just plain beautiful homage to the Latin American folk music, from Brazilian bossa nova to Cuban habanera, that she first fell in love with. Just voice and cello, the music here is uplifting, thoughtful, and passionate in the subtlest of ways. The album reminds me for sure of Leyla McCalla’s sublime cello-and-voice recordings of Haitian roots music.
BONUS: I mentioned La Dame Blanche and if you haven’t heard her before please do check her out. She’s got two new singles so far in 2020. She melds Cuban roots music with hip-hop in such a refreshing way. She’s also the daughter of Jesús "Aguaje" Ramos, musical director of the famed Buena Vista Social Club!
I’ve definitely left one of the most interesting albums for last here. I’m a huge fan of Washington State experimental musician Arrington de Dionyso, from his work with indie rockers Old Time Relijun to his lengthy series of improvised field recordings from Indonesia and especially his indie-meets-ancient-Indonesian project Malaikat Dan Singa. But his new project is one of his most ambitious yet: he traveled to Morocco to work with the legendary Master Musicians of Jajouka. These Berber musicians were really some of the first “world music” stars. Embraced by Beat poets like William S. Burroughs who were staying in Tangiers, and famously discovered and recorded by Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones, the Jajouka musicians were possibly the first introduction for many in the West to trance music. Known around the world, their music is a heady blast tunnel of ghaitas (double reed oboe-like instruments played with circular breathing). It’s intense, abrasive, and famously transformative while stoned (for Westerners). Like many others, de Dionyso fell under their sway in college. After meetings at festivals, de Dionyso struck up a friendship with Jajouka bandleader Bachir Attar that led to him traveling to their hometown in Morocco to record with them. De Dionyso was inspired less by the hashish-fueled vision of Jajouka that the hippies and the Rolling Stones wanted and more by their work with free jazz icon Ornette Coleman. In that spirit, he joins in on alto and bari sax, crossing rhythms and flowing beneath the endless river of reeds that is the Master Musicians of Jajouka. It’s a wild ride, akin to rafting a strange river, but de Dionyso has the musical vision to pull it off and the love of Jajouka’s legacy as well. Note that all proceeds from this album’s sales go straight to the Master Musicians of Jajouka who have been without gigs thanks to COVID for months now.