40 years of ECM: Just Music

Just Music, the second ECM release

Forty years ago today the Mal Waldron Trio started to play in Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg.  They were recording the first album, Free At Last!, issued early the following year on the new music label founded by Manfred Eicher.   Since then, ECM has issued over a thousand albums spanning – and blurring the boundaries between – many idioms. Personally, I can’t imagine the last thirty-odd years of my own musical journey without ECM.

I remember the first ECM vinyl LP that I bought, in the days of independent record shop browsing, in the sadly-missed Decoy Records on Deansgate in Manchester. It was Folk Songs by the trio of  Jan Garbarek, Charlie Haden and Egberto Gismonti. I’d been going to the shop for a while, mainly to explore the blues, r&b and what’s now called Americana upstairs. But gradually I began to spend more time downstairs flicking through the jazz albums and educating myself in a genre that had opened up for me with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. The ECM albums, with their distinctive covers, drew me again and again; sometimes I bought one just because the cover art suggested that what was inside would be more of a certain sound I was searching for – like a landscape stretching to a far horizon. So titles like Paths Prints, Photo with Blue Sky and Places (that road snaking to the horizon!) were added to the collection.

Is there any other label like ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music)? Is there any other producer alive as significant as  Manfred Eicher?

Reading Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM, it seems that, as much as the label’s remarkable musicians have contributed to its success, the part played by Manfred Eicher is hugely important. Not only in defining the purity and clarity of the ECM sound, but also in bringing together musicians from differing geographical backgrounds and musical traditions – ‘ far-flung sound worlds’ – to create a truly new European contemporary music.

In Horizons Touched there is a perfect example of how such collaborations may come about, as told by Eicher himself:

‘I first heard the Officium defunctorum by Morales at Seville cathedral in the 1970s.  When I listened to it again twenty years later, while driving through the jagged lava fields of Iceland, I was enormously moved…The sky like ash or lead.  The luminous sound – night before one’s eyes.

While working…in Iceland, I listened alternately to the Hilliard Ensemble’s recording of Gesualdo’sTenebrae Responses and the chants of saxophonist Jan Garbarek. Suddenly Morales seemed like a southern continent with northern birds of passage skimming in broad circles overhead – on the shores of the basalt sea...What remained was the idea.

And that is how the recording of Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble in the Provostry of  St Gerold came about – Officium, a recording that presents new and far-flung sound worlds.’

ECM is renowned for its meticulous approach, not just to the recording process, but also for the distinctive quality and design of the album packaging. Eicher again:

‘I believe the producer’s role is to capture the music he likes, to present it to those who don’t know it yet. It’s a very important and difficult task, which must be dealt with reponsibility and integrity. If you work in that direction, caring for the sound, getting some precise information or inspired sleeve notes in a booklet, working on the pictures for the record cover, then a kind of symbiotic unity is at work, and people feel you have been producing the record for good reasons. So you can touch them, beyond cultural borders, they understand and appreciate what you have to offer them. It’s all about taking risks, but still being generous and rigorous.’

Hundreds of records made under his artistic direction include those of Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Dave Holland, Egberto Gismonti, Anouar Brahem, Pat Metheny, Paul Motian, Charles Lloyd, John Surman, Ralph Towner, Terje Rypdal, Bobo Stenson and Tord Gustavsen. Whilst for ECM New Series he has produced recordings by composers Arvo Pärt, Alfred Schnittke, Giya Kancheli, Heinz Holliger, Meredith Monk, Gavin Bryars, Steve Reich and John Adams.

Manfred Eicher

Manfred Eicher

Eicher’s own background, as a musician active in both jazz and classical music, gave him an unusually broad vantage point from which to survey the genres, and the producer has been credited with helping to bring form to improvised music and a sense of ‘improvisational’ flexibility to recordings of contemporary composition.

The label has documented jazz and improvised music from both sides of the Atlantic and brought together many musicians in new and influential combinations, amongst them the ‘Belonging’ band with Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen, and the ‘Magico’ trio of Charlie Haden, Jan Garbarek and Egberto Gismonti.

Scandinavian jazz was emphasized in the early years and Eicher is still finding musicians from the Nordic zone. The last decade has seen the arrival of Trygve Seim, Christian Wallumrød, Matthias Eick, Tord Gustavsen, Arve Henriksen, and others. Southern Europe has also been explored: Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava brought with him pianist Stefano Bollani, now also recognized as a major player. From Greece, Savina Yannatou has explored folk musics of the Mediterranean and the wider world, and ECM has produced the work of Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou, including the soundtracks for films by Theo Angelopolous.

The ECM tradition of cross-genre collaboration has opened my ears to many new musics. Apart from Officium, there have been albums by Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem, the jazz/poetry/folk collaboration of  Starflowers which brought together Finnish folk singer Sinikka Langeland with the jazz musicians Arve Henriksen, Trygve Seim  and Anders Jormin. And in 2009 there was the stunning Siwan, initiated by Norwegian pianist and composer Jon Balke, inspired by the music and poetry of medieval Al-Andalus, and featuring Moroccan singer Amina Alaoui, American trumpeter Jon Hassell, and baroque strings.

And finally, my favourite record of all time is also ECM’s biggest selling record: Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert.  This is the one I would want on a desert island. It is entirely wonderful, but what happens at 7 minutes 20 in is, I believe, the most transcendental moment in recorded music.

Birds without wings: the lost cities of the Levant

Birds without wings: the lost cities of the Levant

Last Friday’s World on 3 with Charlie Gillett was one of the best music shows I’ve listened to in a long while. As his studio guest, Charlie welcomed Yasmin Levy, whose music is a fusion of Flamenco and the Judeo-Spanish Ladino style. As well as performing songs from her forthcoming album, Yasmin also discussed her work and participated in Charlie’s radio ping-pong. Their choice of music, and the discussion – which ranged from Yasmin’s views on what makes for truly expressive singing to the challenges of translating Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (one of the songs on her new album) into Spanish and the revelation of singing the song in the Hebrew style of the synagogue and the cantor – made engrossing listening. Continue reading “Birds without wings: the lost cities of the Levant”

Oumou Sangere: On the Waterfront

Oumou Sangere: On the Waterfront

Oumou Sangare

Saw Oumou Sangare put on an electrifying show at On the Waterfront last night – a short series of free concerts in the spectacular setting of the Pier Head plaza. In the one-hour set, Sangare performed songs from her recent album, Seya (Joy) with a stripped-down band consisting of drums,  djembe, kora, flute, ngoni, electric bass, and two young female backing vocalists who dance and twirl calabashes, one of whom Oumou introduced as her daughter.

On an evening when the rain of recent days thankfully held off, but with a chilly breeze whipping in off the river,  the band drove the beat forward from the first number, Oumou’s voice soaring over the interweaving pulses and beats. One of the features of the set was how Oumou engaged directly with the audience, using French and her ‘not so good’ English to explain the lyrics of her songs. She is a champion of women’s rights, and she was at pains to get across how her songs express the problems that women face on a daily basis because of polygamy and arranged marriage in Mali, but also  the importance of love, the pain of exile, and the frailty of human life.

Oumou Sangare 3

The whole performance was relaxed and joyous, ending with an extended introduction, by Oumou, of each member of her band, bringing them to the front of the stage hand on their shoulder. Introducing the djembe player, she aked if anyone in the audience could play the hand drum; several hands went up and she invited one guy up on stage to briefly demonstrate his skill.

Oumou Sangare 2

Oumou’s songs are expressions of her own philosophy and wisdom, born from her experience growing up in a poor family in Bamako and being catapulted to stardom at only the age of 21. She has brought to the world the hauntingly beautiful music of her homeland: wassoulou.

Wassoulou music is based on the song and dance traditions of Wasulu, a remote and densely wooded region in southern Mali. In the 1950s, in the villages, the youth created this style out of the songs of the ancient hunters’ societies and made it their own. At first, the elders opposed it furiously, comparing the main instrument, the six-string harp, to a bed bug because of its nervous rhythms that made young people dance frenetically as if bitten. But by the late 1970s wassoulou had begun to emerge as a new popular style in Bamako among migrant communities from the region. It had strong, hypnotic dance rhythms and the lyrics talked about general aspects of life in contemporary Mali. But Sangare took all this much further with her debut album, Moussolou (Women).

Not only was there a new bold rhythm and musical colour but she also had a personal mission: to improve the subservient position of women in Mali.Her songs talked openly about subjects that had never before been expressed in public in a fundamentally conservative society, such as female sensuality, in her stunning hit song Diaraby Nene (The Shivers of Love).

This summer I’ve been listening to her great new album Seya (Joy).  This review from Pitchfork:

Sangaré gets a hand from a whopping 47 collaborators on the album, including master guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis, and Tony Allen. Most appear on a track or two, and mixed in with all the electric guitar, bass, flute, sax, and trap drums are a host of traditional Malian instruments, including the ngoni (a cousin of the guitar and banjo), the balafon (a type of marimba), and an arsenal of drums and percussion that give the album a diverse and always interesting rhythmic base. It opens with a blast of rhythmic balafon and dives into a fractured groove topped with an arcing flute, as Sangaré sings a forceful appeal for women’s equality in society and the home. Women’s rights are an issue she’s built her public life and much of her music around, and it’s a theme that crops up across the album.

“Wele Wele Wintou” sets dark female harmonies against a sharp sax theme behind Sangaré’s rapid-fire vocal, which speaks out against forced marriage. Subtle wah guitar burbles through the verses, and Tounkara takes one of the most unusual solos I’ve heard, playing far down the neck with a dark, blunt tone. You could probably listen to just the instrumental backing tracks to most of these songs and come away satisfied by the richness of the interlocking rhythms and the subtle harmonic shifts. Even slow tracks like “Senkele Te Sira”, which features another brilliant guitar part from Tounkara, have a dynamic, vibrant character that perfectly matches Sangaré’s sometimes towering vocals. She knows how to accent a phrase, unleashing a powerful wail at key moments to drive home a thought in a way that makes her passion clear in any language.

And this from the BBC:

Seya traverses a wide range of moods, from confident and celebratory to more austere, stripped down meditations. And while few artists give as good a groove as Oumou, the latter are often the best settings to appreciate her extraordinary voice; if Aretha Franklin had grown up in Bamako, she might have sounded something like this.

Apart from the declamatory Donso – an adaptation of a traditional Wassoulou hunter’s song – the material is all original as usual, and the basis of her distinctive sound remains the twitching, funky sound of the kamel n’goni(‘youth harp’), mostly played by ‘Benogo’ Brehima Diakité. But with fifty musicians taking part, there’s more variety of sounds and textures than ever. She’s used electric guitar before, but never with the kind of squealing rock treatments heard on Senkele Te Sira and Kounadya, which also features a great retro Hammond organ solo by co-producer Cheick TidianeSeck. There’s brass and the occasional deft use of strings, as well as guests such as flautist ‘Magic’ Malik Mazzadri and drummer Tony Allen, but none are allowed to overshadow the star.

Though it’s difficult to pick highlights from such a consistent album, the driving opener Sounsoumba and the radiantly joyful title track, with its lovely swooping chorus vocals, are the most instantly appealing of the more upbeat pieces.

Oumou Sangaré – Seya

Oumou Sangare ‘Sounsoumba’

Special acoustic version of the ‘Seya’ album opener filmed at World Circuit’s Livingston Studios, featuring Benego Diakite on kamelngoni.

Out of the Desert

Three albums that I’ve been enjoying in recent weeks originate from or are inspired by the desert lands of north Africa.

Joachim Kuhn: Out of the Desert

This review from Allaboutjazz:

Boundary busting and inventive though it was, Kalimba – the first album by German pianist Joachim Kuhn, Moroccan vocalist and guembri player Majid Bekkas, and Spanish drummer Ramon Lopez – ultimately felt like Kuhn’s album more than a fully integrated, cross-cultural group exercise. Two years on, the trio’s second outing, Out Of The Desert, offers a deeper mix—and an altogether more absorbing one.

Kalimba was recorded in Germany. For Out Of The Desert, the trio travelled to Morocco. In the regional capital Rabat, they teamed up with three local adepts of gnawa, a Moroccan trance music with roots in black Africa south of the Sahara. In the remote desert town of Erfoud, they recorded with five Berber drummers and percussionists.

As the recording locations and guest musicians suggest, Kuhn, Bekkas and Lopez were aiming for a fundamentally Moroccan fix to the sessions. And boy, did they deliver. There are six tracks on the album, and on the four featuring the expanded line-up, the group dig deep into traditional Moroccan music, with the tunes—two by Bekkas, two by Kuhn—based on a generic trance aesthetic. At the bottom are Bekkas’ percussive bass register ostinatos on the guembri (a kind of lute). At the top are the insistent iterations of the karkabou (hand-held cymbals). There are call and response vocals and, a signature element of Maghrebi trance music, the use of accelerating tempos once a tune has passed the halfway mark. On top of all this lies Kuhn’s piano, at times funky and lowdown—like that of longtime Moroccan resident and musical disciple, American pianist Randy Weston—at others more free and atonal, true to Kuhn’s “diminished augmented system” (that’s “minor keyed” in plain English).

The two remaining tracks feature the Beninese vocalist and talking drum player Kouassi Bessan Joseph, and add a more pronounced sub-Saharan flavor to the music. On Kuhn’s “One, Two, Three,” at 12:29 the longest track on the album (the others average about eight), and the one with the clearest “jazz” provenance, further diversity is injected via Bekkas’ kalimba and Lopez’s tabla—and an extended, free improv section featuring Kuhn on alto saxophone.

As befits trance music, Out Of The Desert is visceral and simple in structure, although some of the rhythms may at first sound complex to ears not attuned to North African music. All the more reason to check this music out—it’s jazz, Jim, but not as most people, at least in North America, know it. We’re going to hear more of this sort of genre-mashing in jazz, from all over the world, in the future. Bring it on.

The Guardian also gave the album a glowing review:

Joachim Kühn has been a hero of unconventional European jazz for 40 years, and he’s one of the few pianists ever to have negotiated a fruitful piano/sax conversation with Ornette Coleman. His roots are wide and deep – in the Jarrett/Tyner jazz axis, but also in the classical music that occupied his early career – so to find him in his mid-60s recording in the Sahara with Berber musicians is no surprise. This gripping session is far from a routine world-music banter between jazzers and chanters. The core partnership is between Kühn and Moroccan singer and guembri-player Majid Bekkas (it’s a revisit to a 2003 meeting between them), plus Spanish drummer Ramón López. Kühn’s jabbing, needling lines, often over pulsing left-hand parts and more ambiguous percussion undercurrents, testify to his formidable resources and intelligence, with his fiery diversions on alto sax a bonus. The music is half Bekkas’s traditional throaty singing over shifting grooves and Kühn’s sensitive improvisations, and half the pianist’s own wistful slow-build ballad/swing fusions, with their haunting, Abdullah Ibrahim-like atmospheres.

Tinariwen Imidwan

Tinariwen: Imidiwan (Companions)

BBC review:

Album number four from Tinariwen reunites the Touareg troubadours with producer Jean-Paul Romann for the first time since 2001’s debut offering, The Radio Tisdas Sessions. Following 2007’s acclaimed Aman Iman, this new 13-strong collection finds the Saharan seven-piece continuing to fire on musical cylinders souped up over the best part of three decades together. That it offers a more-of-the-same proposition that hypnotically blends Malian desert blues with twanging guitar-led Tichumaren agit-prop to create a sound altogether unique, is surely recommendation enough.

Romann takes a back-to-basics, don’t-get-in-the-way approach on Imidiwan: Companions that serves the material well. Opening track Imidiwan Afrik Tendam (‘My Friends From All Over Africa’) gets things off to a warm, quietly celebratory start before Lulla sparks into enticing sirenic life. There’s vitality and colour aplenty in the magnificent invocation of a desert deer, Tenhert (‘The Doe’), and in the swirling delirium of Kel Tamashek (‘The Tamashek People’).

Insinuating itself throughout is a dark beauty that hints at the political and cultural hardships of north African life, with Chegret (‘The Thread’) an unyielding but wistful interrogation of surviving on a shifting ocean of sand beneath burning sun. No less haunting is Assuf Ag Assuf (‘Assuf, Son of Assuf’) while Tamudjeras Assis (‘Regret Is Like A Storm’) scorches with its coruscating intensity before the radiantly beautiful Chabiba (‘Youth’) and otherworldly-sounding untitled hidden bonus track brings things to a mesmerising conclusion

Justin Adams & Juldeh Camara: Tell No Lies

The Guardian called this album ‘magnificent’:

It goes without saying that West African music is at the roots of the blues and has direct links with rock’n’roll, but it takes a duo as exhilarating and enthusiastic as this to make the connection seem obvious. Two years ago, the British guitarist and producer Justin Adams teamed up with Juldeh Camara, a Gambian griot and virtuoso on the one-stringed ritti fiddle, to record Soul Science, an album that deservedly won awards for its fusion of rock energy and traditional African influences. If anything, this follow-up is even better; it’s even more confident and refreshingly varied, with songs that echo the raw exuberance of the Clash, the rolling blues of Muddy Waters and the delicacy and grandeur of the ancient griot ballads. It starts with Keli Keli, in which Adams yells: “No passport, no visa,” as Camara matches the pounding guitar riff with wild fiddle work and Fulani vocals warning of the dangers facing illegal immigrants, driven on by female backing singers and the percussion of Salah Dawson Miller. Elsewhere, the interplay between the two sounds almost effortless as they switch from slinky Bo Diddley-style riffs to rolling blues with an African edge, and quieter trance-like songs. Magnificent.

It should be noted that this is a highly democratic album: Justin Adams lets his fellow-musicians take centre stage on most of the numbers. Juldeh Camara plays the ritti, a one-stringed fiddle and West African ancestor of the violin, and was a griot, taught by his father in the Fula traditionto be poet, praise singer and repository of oral tradition. While his instrument brings to mind Delta players like Big Joe Williams, as well as Ali Farka Touré, there is a lilt in his playing that hints at the ancient links between North Africa and the Celtic world. He describes magical shapes on his ritti; one minute it’s Blues harp, the next a Celtic fiddle, then a Saharan herdsman’s flute. It is hard to believe all this emotion, range and flexibility comes from just one string.

Justin Adams & Juldeh Camara Tell No Lies

Justin Adams has been at the cutting edge of world music since the 1990’s with Jah Wobble, Robert Plant (Adams co-wrote The Mighty Rearranger), Natacha Atlas, The Festival of the Desert, Tinariwen (producing their first and third albums) and LO?JO. Taking influences from African, Arabic and Irish traditions as well as rock and roll and the Blues, his distinctive, driving guitar style is the missing link between Bo Diddley and Munir Bashir. With Tell No Lies, Adams delves deeper into the African origins of black American music, following the roots of New Orleans and Mississippi soul right back to the Songhai, Fulani and Toureg peoples of West Africa.

“My original love when I was young was The Clash and dub reggae” says Justin. “I like to keep things raw and swinging so it never gets too pristine or too sweet. I love listening to cassettes of Moroccan music and Algerian music. I like trancey, circular rhythms and voices that are in between pleasure and pain, where it’s bittersweet.”

The reference points for this release are recordings from the 1950s by the likes of Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters. To achieve the rawness and slight distortion meant a live feel was important. “The way we’ve gone for that is to record in a very live way. You’ll hear the sweat and blood of the live performance, and all the scratchy bits” enthuses Justin.

His 2002 CD Desert Road was an inspiring mix of rock, blues and Saharan ambiences.It was Desert Road that caught the ear of Gambia’s Juldeh Camara, who discovered how well his playing of the ritti, a single-stringed spike fiddle, fit in with Adams’ work. The two hooked up, quickly discovered a musical kinship that exceeded mutual expectations and recorded Soul Science, a hard-hitting instant classic that made blues-rock and West African griot music sound like a perfect blend (just as many would rightly contend they’ve always been).

Justin and Juldeh are joined by Salah Dawson Miller, a veteran of North African percussion who has played with an extraordinary array of artists including Phillip Glass, The Drifters, Dr. John, 3 Mustaphas 3 and Jah Wobble, and who studied in Algeria, Morocco, Cuba and Brazil.

Justin Adams & Juldeh Camara: Montreal Jazz Festival 2009

WOMAD: Rokia Traore, Youssou N’Dour and Ethiopiques

WOMAD: Rokia Traore, Youssou N’Dour and Ethiopiques

Rokia Traore

Reading the reviews and listening to Radio 3’s coverage, it seems to have been a great year at WOMAD. For me, the outstanding performances were from Oumou Sangare (who I later saw perform in Liverpool at On the Waterfront), Ethiopiques, Youssou N’Dour and Rokia Traore.

Rokia Traore

The Independent said of the festival’s first night: ‘the star-making performance comes from Mali’s Rokia Traoré … It is when she dances, hips swinging half-way to Somerset, and straps on an electric guitar to lead her band in hard, dramatic rock, that she becomes potent with pride’. The Guardian agreed: ‘All good Womads rely on great Africans, and N’Dour’s set was equalled only by the frantic dance workout of a gloriously funky Rokia Traoré’.

I treasure memories of seeing Rokia Traore four years ago in a tiny venue in Oldham. At WOMAD, as heard on Radio 3, she gave a great performance of ‘Zen’ off her recent album, Tchamantche, with its wonderful lyrics:

The Angelus bell has rung
A dog is falling asleep at my feet
I have had the courage
To do nothing

The hourless hours
Over the horizon
Taking with them only this day,
I have had the courage
To do nothing

I am

Let the years pass by
Let time grow used to it
For me, it’s alright,
I’m getting rid of
These gluttonous hours
They eat me every day

Oh, how I am

I eat life and the wind
I dance in the rain showers
And in the mornings, tired
I fill my palms with dew
And let the sky settle on my eyelashes

Oh, how I am

Let time pass by
And the hours follow one another
Day after day
I will afford myself the pleasure
Of doing nothing

Oh, how I am

The Angelus bell has rung
A dog is falling asleep at my feet
I have had the courage
To do nothing

The hourless hours
Over the horizon
Taking with them only this day,
I have had the courage
To do nothing

Oh, how I am
Zen …

I am …

Rokia’s record label, Nonesuch, says this about the album Tchamantche:

Tchamantché stems from a simple inspiration—the sound of an old Gretsch guitar—and employs a traditional pop rhythm section. The instrumentation is often sparse, contrasting the Gretsch or the classic Silvertone guitar with subtle percussion effects provided by human beat box and hip-hop artist Sly Johnson, or the n’goni, the tiny, sharp-edged West African lute that has always been an integral part of her sound, played alongside the Western classical harp.

Traoré composed all the songs on Tchamantché, with the exception of the Billie Holiday classic “The Man I Love,” a song she first sang in a duet with Dianne Reeves during the Billie and Me tour in 2005. Known for her outspoken lyrics, Traoré covers a variety of topics on her new record. She discusses the problem of illegal immigration from Africa to Europe in “Tounka,” and, in “Dounia,” reminds Malians that they should be proud of the glories of their past. “Zen” is a song about having the courage to do nothing, and “Yorodjan” was written in praise of African street parties.

The daughter of a Malian diplomat who was posted to the US, Europe, and the Middle East, Traoré studied in Brussels and performed in a rap band before deciding to go back to Mali to create the music she wanted, which was to be “not pop, not jazz, not classical but something contemporary with traditional instruments,” as she says.

Traoré has explored a breadth of directions in her career. Her last album Bowmboï, which Time called “mesmerizing, casting its spell with virtuoso vocals, rich textures and startling diversity,” included collaborations with the Kronos Quartet, and in 2006, she wrote and performed a new work for Vienna’s New Crowned Hope Festival, which was curated by Peter Sellars in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birthday. In Traoré’s piece, Mozart was born as a griot in the time of the great 13th-century Mande ruler Soundiata Keita.

Traoré’s acclaim began before the release of her debut album Mouineïssa (1998), when she won the Radio France International prize for African Discovery of the Year. Her second album, Wanita, made numerous Best of 2000 lists including that of the New York Times. Traoré is equally celebrated for her live shows, which Time Out London says are “arguably the most exciting, most thrilling live African music show around.”

Youssou N’Dour

The Guardian review:  ‘This was a festival dominated by two great veterans and a whole lot of newcomers – and it was Youssou N’Dour, who first appeared at Womad back in 1986, who provided one of the highlights. His performance on the final evening, in a rainstorm, was a rousing reminder that he still possesses one of the greatest voices in Africa, capable of moving effortlessly from edgy, urgent mbalax dance songs to light, soulful ballads such as the glorious Li Ma Weesu and Birima. Then there was the “positive” ballad New Africa, a speech about fighting malaria, and a solo reworking of 7 Seconds. N’Dour is nearly 50, but he was on classic form’.

Youssou N’Dour: Probayako (WOMAD 2009)

Youssou N’Dour: New Africa (WOMAD 2009)

Youssou N’Dour: Mame Bamba (WOMAD 2009)


The Independent:  ‘The heavy rain that threatened Womad for two days fell solidly as the festival ended on Sunday. But closing act Ethiopiques made the downpour irrelevant. The result of the albums of the same name, which revealed the soul and jazz of early 1970s Addis Ababa to be sensual treasures, it brought lost stars from Haile Selassie’s last days to a Wiltshire field. Keen young musicians stand in for old Addis’s vanished bands. But it is the originals that matter, from saxophonist Gatatchew Mekurya in his Lion of Judah shawl, to Alemayehu Eshete’s James Brown screams. In a weekend of great voices, deceptively venerable, robed Mahmoud Ahmed’s may even be the best. Rising from an exotic, wobbling murmur to a roar, he leads this triumphant resurrection’.

Ethiopiques & Badume’s Band with Mahmoud Ahmed (WOMAD 2009)

Ethiopiques & Badume’s Band featuring Getatchew Mekurya (WOMAD 2009)

Ethiopiques & Badume’s Band featuring Alemayehu Eshete (WOMAD 2009)

WOMAD 2009: flyglobalmusic.com round up

Natacha Atlas and the Mazeeka Ensemble

Another excellent show in the Arabic Weekender from Natacha Atlas, whose background includes an Egyptian/Palestinian father and a British mother who converted to Islam, the singer herself brought up in a Moroccan suburb of Brussels and speaking five languages. Tonight she was at the Liverpool Philharmonic with her Mazeeka Ensemble, performing songs from her latest album Ana Hina, that finds her once again exploring North African and Middle Eastern music with an ensemble consisting of ney, violin, viola, cello, percussion, double bass and keyboards.

The band featured superb musicians from around the globe and from different musical backgrounds: particularly outstanding was Natacha’s cousin Alyel Minyawi (London via Cairo) on percussion who produced a fantastic solo on arabic percussion in the second half.

Abdullah Chhadeh

The first half of the show consisted of a performance by Abdullah Chhadeh and his Syriana trio. Abdullah Chhadeh plays the qanun, a 10th century oriental instrument. His work includes adaptations from the Syrian, Turkish, Azerbaijani, and Andalusian traditions.

Born and educated in Damascus, Chhadeh studied both Classical Arabic and Western music at the Conservatoire of Damascus. After a performance in London for the Syrian Embassy, he was offered a scholarship to study composition at the Guildhall School of Music, where he refined his skill as a composer and started to introduce the qanun’s distinctive sound to new settings.

On Thursday evening I’d been to FACT to see his film, The Sounds of Damascus which features Abudullah using music to explore the relationship between Damascus and the West. After years of playing the traditional Arabic instrument qanun in London, Chhadeh goes back to his hometown, revisiting friends and neighbours and discussing the gulf between western perceptions and the reality of the richness of daily life and culture in Damascus. I found the film rather disappointing as it did not really explore the music and culture of Damascus as much as I’d expected.

The Sounds Of Damascus Abdullah Chhadeh trailer

Abdullah Chhadeh: qanun solo, Rast

Abdullah Chhadeh: Al Salaam Alikum

Natacha Atlas & The Mazeeka Ensemble: Beny Ou Benak Eih (Between You And Me)

Live at the Rootsfestival in Amsterdam, 21-06-2009

Natacha Atlas & The Mazeeka Ensemble: Mon Amie La Rose

Live at the Rootsfestival in Amsterdam, 21-06-2009

Natacha Atlas & The Mazeeka Ensemble: Lammebada

Marktplatz, Stuttgart Sommerfestival der Kulturen 30.06.2009

The Clerks: Qudduson


Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah…

I arrived at St George’s Hall Concert Room for this event soaked by the rain and battered by the wind on a stormy night. The music presented by the Clerks and their collaborators was, however, serene and transcendent. The concert was the opening event of this year’s Arabic Weekender.

Qudduson – Sanctus – Holy: the word reverberates through the sacred music of East and West. In this new programme, The Clerks joined three singers from Syria, each a virtuoso in the music of their own community.

Exploring music within very different faith traditions, Qudduson set aside the boundaries between cultures and religions. ‘It is a conversation between Eastern and Western musical genres and techniques. What unites these traditions is the power and transcendence of the human voice’. Edward Wickham, the artistic director of The Clerks, read a short poem by Ibn Arabi, (1165 – 1240, born in Spain, settled in Damascus) Sufi mystic and philosopher, that Wickham said encapsulates the impulse behind this project:

A garden among the flames!
My heart can take on any form:
A meadow for gazelles,
A cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka’ba for the circling pilgrim,
The tables of the Torah,
The scrolls of the Quran.
My creed is Love;
Wherever its caravan turns along the way,
That is my belief,
My faith.

The programme has evolved from musical director Edward Wickham’s work with choirs in the Middle East, and consisted of the following sequences:

  • Sequence One: Quddus -including Sanctus from Missa pro defunctis by Pierre de Ia Rue, Qadishat (Syriac), The Beautiful names of God
  • Sequence Two: for Holy Week – including The Passion Narrative (Gregorian chant), Vexilla regis by Pierre de la Rue, extracts from the liturgy for Holy Week (Syriac), Kyries (Byzantine)
  • Interlude: Alleluia -various Alleluias from both western and Byzantine traditions, including pieces by Perotin and Alleluia in Syriac Fifth Mode.
  • Sequence Three: A Lament for the Children of Gaza -this sequence, compiled for an event at the Barbican in March in aid of the Save the Children Gaza Appeal, included Vax in Rama by Giaches de Wert and Hymn for the Holy Martyrs (Syriac).
  • Sequence Four: Secular Songs of East and West -including Arabic inuwashah and songs by John Dowland

From the programme notes:

In truth the primary impulse behind Qudduson is far more basic: a fascination with two different sound worlds which are linked by a fundamental ambition to worship through the medium of the voice. The juxtaposition of vocal timbres and melodic modes, of harmonic as opposed to melodic approaches to the elaboration of traditional chants, and of ‘composed’ and ‘improvised’ performance techniques: these are the tensions, the disjunctions that have made this project so stimulating. A further impulse — which one might describe as ideological with a very modest ‘i’ — is to create an aural analogy to the sound-world of many Middle Eastern cities, but in particular Damascus and Aleppo, where the Call to Prayer might receive an unwitting harmonisation from the pealing of Christian bells. Each musical tradition has its own discrete, proud identity and Qudduson is not intended as a reductive fusion of these distinct elements, nor of the faith traditions that inspire them; but rather as a celebration of the diverse and transcendent qualities of the human voice.

More from The Clerks website:

Qudduson presents Middle Eastern chant and Western polyphony side-by-side. The ancient Syriac liturgy of Aleppo – thought to be the oldest Christian chant repertoire in the world, the Islamic music of Sufism and songs from the Armenian community based in Syria are set alongside chant and polyphony from the Cathedral repertories of the Western Middle Ages and Renaissance.

East meets West

Melody is paramount in the sound-world of Middle Eastern vocal music, with its rich quarter-tones and virtuoso ornamentation. Musical forms are shaped out of the sophisticated elaboration of familiar melodies. Western church music likewise uses exuberant flourishes in the ecstatic jubilations of the Alleluia and other chants.

This fascination with melody and its elaboration lies at the heart of Qudduson. It reveals some astonishing parallels between East and West – between the improvisatory songs of Sufism and the highly decorative songs of late 14th-century France; between the formalised liturgical chants of the Syriac Orthodox Church and the structured cantus firmus mass settings of the 15th century; between the emotive songs of Armenia and the simple, declamatory power of the Renaissance anthem.

Religion and Music in Modern Syria

Contemporary Syria is an elaborate patchwork of religious communities and musical traditions. The chant of Greek and Syriac Orthodox churches can be traced back to the 3rd century AD. That of the Church of Hayy Surian in Aleppo – which traces its origins to the Church in Edessa (in modern Turkey) – is arguably the oldest continuous Christian chant tradition in the world. Its musical connection to medieval Sufi repertoire mirrors the close relations between Christians and Muslims in the region.

Syria is rightly proud of the way in which its religious communities, so antagonistic in many parts of the world, have sustained a long history of toleration. As 20th-century Armenian refugees have arrived with their own musical repertoires, the heady mix of influences on Syrian music continues to grow.

The performers:

Abdul Salam Kheir oud and baritone
George Qas-Barsoum baritone
Merit Ariane Stephanos soprano

The Clerks:
Lucy Ballard, Kim Porter altos
Roy Rashbrook, Nicholas Todd tenors
Ed Grint, Edward Wickham basses
Director: Edward Wickham

George Qas-Barsoum is a medical doctor and surgeon and bass soloist at the Church of Hayy Surian in Aleppo, which was built by refugees fleeing Edessa in the 1920s. His experience and knowledge of singing the Syriac Orthodox liturgy of this ancient community, some of the oldest Christian chant in the world, is unsurpassed.

Merit Ariane Stephanos is a Coptic Egyptian/German singer and composer, who draws on Arabic and Western classical contemporary influences in her music. She is particularly interested in exploring dialogue between people and musicians from different cultures. She sings regularly with medieval group Joglaresa, classical Arabic ensemble Al Farabi, her own Arabic/Jewish ensemble Jaljala, her duo Hjaz with pianist Alcyona Mick, contemporary modal group Troja Nova and as a guest singer with virtuoso string Trio Kosmos.

Abdul Salam Kheir studied music at the Lebanese Conservatoire, specialising in Muwashahat (classical Arab song) as a singer and oud player. There he also focused on composing in various musical idioms, which has enabled him to travel all over the world performing and promoting Arab music in live concerts and with ensembles of many nationalities.

The Clerks Qudduson Part 1

The Clerks Qudduson Part 2

Syriac choir of Nouri Iskander, Aleppo

Syriac Christian Orthodox sacred chant performed by the Choir of Nouri Iskander from Aleppo: an extract from a French documentary Le Silence des Anges – Terres et Voix de l’Orient Orthodoxe, by Olivier Mille and Jean-François Colosimo (France – Belgium, 1999). Nouri Iskandar was born in Aleppo in 1938. He has composed Syriac folk music since the early sixties.



I’ve just discovered this truly wonderful album – a gorgeous blend of Gharnati music from the Spanish Al-Andalus period (730-1492), Scandinavian improvised jazz and European baroque music.

Siwan, the title of keyboardist and composer Jon Balke’s latest album for ECM, is derived from a written language known as Aljamiado, which used Arabic script to transcribe Ladino, spoken by the Sephardic Jews of Al-Andalus. The word siwan means ‘equilibrium’ or ‘balance’  and Balke has created music that balances three cultures and time periods:

Magical music, trailing deep roots. The listener is at first struck by the power of Amina Alaoui’s voice, soaring above Jon Balke’s remarkable compositions for baroque ensemble – with soloists drawn from jazz, scattered improvisational traditions, and the world of early music. Behind this remarkable musical integration is a web of philosophical, historical, and literary interconnections, as Balke and Alaoui set texts from Sufi poets, Christian mystics, troubadours and more and – inspired by the tolerant and creative spirit of medieval Al-Andalus – ponder what was lost to the bonfires of the Inquisition. Setting new standards in transcultural music, Siwan shows what can be made today when artists of the most divergent background pool their energies. (ECM website)

Moroccan vocalist Amina Alaoui performs with Balke’s international group and the early music group Barokk Solistene. Balke’s band includes trumpeter Jon Hassell, violinist Kheir Eddine Mekachiche, percussionist Helge Norbakken, and zarb player Pedram Khavar Zamini.

The music is of almost indescribable beauty. Alaoui sings the poems of Al-Andalus poets, and is backed by a free-flowing group that combines the Arab violin tradition with the older Muslim Gharnati, the spacious, icy jazz of the far Northern hemisphere, and the classical discipline of the Baroque period, where improvisation intersects seamlessly with composition, where the theatrical and historical meld flawlessly and seem to grow from the same seed…Every track here reveals something unusual, brings something hidden and alien to the fore even as it beguiles the listener with its intimacy of secret histories and knowledge. Siwan is Balke’s masterpiece thus far, and will hopefully become as influential as it is groundbreaking. (Allmusic Guide)

Al Andalus was the area of Spain ruled by Muslims until 1492. In cities such as Granada and Cordoba Muslims, Christians, and Sephardic Jews lived in relative harmony and there was a free exchange of ideas and learning between scholars of all three faiths. It was from here that the ideas and knowledge that sparked the Renaissance spread to Italy, France, and other parts of Christian Europe.

Much artistic beauty and knowledge was lost when the Spanish Inquisition forced Muslims and Jews to either convert, flee, or burn. However, great poetry and music were preserved and passed on. It’s this music and poetry that provides the core of Siwan: nine tracks feature the work of poets from that region married to music inspired by the era. The earliest song, ‘Thulathiyat’ was written by the Sufi mystic Husayn Mansour Al Hallaj (857-922 CE), while Lope de Vega’s ‘A la dina dana’ dates from the era after the re-conquest: he lived from 1562 – 1635 and is considered one of the major voices of the golden age of Spanish literature for his plays and prose.

Amina Alaoui & Jon Balke: Ya Safwati


Farewell Cachaito

I was saddened to hear of the death of yet another member of the Buena Vista Social Club – Orlando ‘Cachaito’ Lopez. After the first BVSC album itself, I have found his solo album, Cachaito, the most enjoyable of the BVSC family of releases – and the most inventive and innovative.


He was born into an amazing musical family – all double bassists. His father, Orestes Lopez, played bass with the Havana Symphony Orchestra during the day, then played in the city’s clubs at night. His uncle, Israel “Cachao” Lopez, was an even more celebrated bass player who fame in the U.S. after choosing exile in Miami. Orestes and Israel are credited with inventing the mambo and the danzón rhythms. It was after his uncle that Orlando received the nickname “Cachaíto” (“little Cachao”).

As early as 12, Orlando Lopez began playing bass with Orquesta Riverside, a Havana dance band, whilst studying at Havana’s music conservatory, learning to sight-read and understand music theory. In the 1960s he formed the pioneering Latin jazz trio Irakere with the pianist Chucho Valdés and the saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera. He played bass on hundreds of recording sessions, most notably those of the popular Cuban vocal group Los Zafiros. In 1996 the young Cuban musician Juan de Marcos González hired Lopez as part of his Afro-Cuban All Stars. Later, when Nick Gold and  Ry Cooder turned up in Havana they employed González to put together a band of veteran Cuban musicians. He brought Lopez in on bass and the resulting sessions were called Buena Vista Social Club. Lopez’s Cachaito album won him a BBC Radio 3 World Music Award in 2002.

Performing ‘Tumbanga’


Best music in 2008

Bobo Stenson Trio

The Bobo Stenson Trio

It’s appropriate to begin with some live music highlights, because, for me, this has been a year of exceptional live music. The outstanding event of the year had to be Leonard Cohen at Manchester MEN. But Wayne Shorter and his quartet playing with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic at the Phil in January. I wish a recording was available!  Two other Phil highlights were McCoy Tyner’s trio, with Joe Lovano on sax and Eric Kamau Gravatt on drums, in May and the Brad Mehldau Trio in St. George’s Hall Concert Room in October. Also that month the Bobo Stenson Trio, with Jon Fält (drums) and Andres Jormin (double bass) were superb at the RNCM (a concert later broadcast on BBC Radio 3). This led to a major exploration of Stenson’s back catalogue – and his current release, Cantando, is a brilliant album.

Joanna MacGregor
Joanna MacGregor

Thinking back over the last 18 months we have seen Joanna MacGregor perform several times in different settings. The first was at the RNCM back in June 2006 with Andy Sheppard when they performed Deep River – their original improvisations on traditional gospel songs as well as gospel-influenced tracks by Mahalia Jackson, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and Nick Cave. That performance and that album are simply sublime (most especially, track 3,  Spiritual) . Since then we’ve had the opportunity to see her a number of times (she’s an Adjunct (sic!) Professor at Hope University), introducing me to a whole new repertoire of modern classical/avant-garde music, including this year Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and a stimulating programme of American Piano Music as part of the Cornerstone Festival. This year I bought Moondog – Sidewalk Dances, another collaboration with Andy Sheppard and a wildly joyous album, as shown in this YouTube clip:

For me the year in jazz has been dominated by further explorations of the Nordic Jazz scene.  Discoveries (not all 2008 releases) have included: the Tord Gustavsen Trio (especially the lyrical Tears Transforming, the opening track of The Ground); Marilyn Mazur’s collaboration with Jan Garbarek, Elixir; the work of bassist Arild Andersen, including his 2008 release Live at Belleville that also features Tommy Smith; Norwegian pianist Christian Wallumrod’s 2007 album, The Zoo Is Far; the ‘ice music’ of Terje Isungset (Iceman Is, Igloo) and, of course, Bobo Stenson. A grievous loss this year was Esbjorn Svensson, who died in a scuba-diving accident in June. E.S.T’s last album, Leucocyte, opens with the delicate piano solo Decade before moving into Premonition/Earth, a mesmerising 17-minute workout. Arve Henriksen has produced some ground-breaking work in recent years; this year I have been spellbound by his work on a truly magical album – Starflowers on which Sinikka Langeland, sings verses by the Norwegian poet, Hans Borli. There’s an interview with Sinnika Langeland here.

Here’s the official video of  Leucocyte from the E.S.T album:

In world music highlights included: Andy Palacio’s Watina (another sad loss this year), Toumani Diabate’s The Mande Variations, Dhafer Youssef’s Glow, Buika’s Nina de Fuego, and the compilation Desert Blues 3. But the standout was Tchamantche – another brilliant album from Rokia Traore.Here she is singing Dunia off the album:

In rock, blues and Americana there were some great albums this year, including Bon Iver’s For Emma Forever Ago and Fleet Foxes’ debut album – both of which sounded fresh and created their own distinctive aural environment. There was Seasick Steve’s I Started Out With Nothin’ and I Still Got Most Of It Left, Thea Gilmore’s Lifejacker (top tracks Old Soul and Dance In New York) and Rodney Crowell’s superb Sex and Gasoline -angry songs dissecting the gender divide and the representation of women. Open-heart honesty has always been characteristic of Crowell’s writing, but on Intelligent Design we get this: ‘If I could have just one wish/Maybe for an hour/I’d want to be a woman/And feel that phantom power/Maybe I’d want to stick around for awhile/Until my heart got broke/Maybe then I could find out if I’m a half decent man/Or if I’m just a joke…’.

Jim White‘s wonderful Transnormal Skiperoo helped me through a troubled summer.

Transnormal Skiperoo is a name I invented to describe a strange new feeling I’ve been experiencing after years of feeling lost and alone and cursed. Now, when everything around me begins to shine, when I find myself dancing around in my back yard for no particular reason other than it feels good to be alive, when I get this deep sense of gratitude that I don’t need drugs or God or doomed romance to fuel myself through the gauntlet of a normal day, I call that feeling ‘Transnormal Skiperoo.’ Jim White

Blindly We Go, A Town Called Amen and Jailbird were standout tracks

Blindly We Go is an unusual song for me musically, although the lyrics deal with a familiar preoccupation of mine—-the (for lack of a better term) unknowability of God. It’s something I find myself thinking about a lot. There’s that old Zen saying, “If you meet God on the road, kill him.” In the South everyone is always telling me about how God told them this and God told them that, and their recitations of divine contact always feel like constructs of hubris. I have little trust for people who tell me they talk to God and God replies in strangely anthropomorphic, culturally precise ways that exactly mirror the person’s mindset. Jim White

Towering above them all, Bob Dylan’s Tell-Tale Signs – a collection of unreleased material from Oh Mercy through to Modern Times.  The opener – a version of Mississippi with Dylan accompanied simply by Daniel Lanois’ guitar is a Dylan classic:

Every step of the way, we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine
Time is piling up, we struggle and we stray
We’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape

City’s just a jungle, more games to play
Trapped in the heart of it, tryin’ to get away
I was raised in the country, I been working in the town
I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down

Other highlights included a lovely Red River Shore, with accordion accompaniment, and Born In Time:

My reaction on hearing “Red River Shore” was the same as when I first heard “Blind Willie McTell,” this is the best Bob Dylan song in ages.

This, the eighth volume of The Bootleg Series isn’t only about outtakes, alternate takes, and songs never heard. It’s also about making the musical connections, connections that cover the wide canvas of American popular music. This is something that Bob Dylan has done not only during the 18 years this album covers, but for his entire career. Peter Stone Brown

Following on from that comment, it’s also worth noting that Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour went from strength to strength in 2008 – increasingly rich and fascinating, with Dylan more relaxed and humorous. ‘To listen to ‘Theme Time Radio Hour’ is to rediscover the sense of musical adventure that old-fashioned disc jockeys with strongly individual personalities offered in the days before big-money stations pinned their fiscal hopes to the rigid Top 40-style playlists that took the fun out of radio.’  Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal

Sinikka Langeland: Starflowers

Sinikka Langeland: Starflowers

I’ve been entranced recently by Starflowers, a haunting album by the Norwegian/Finnish singer Sinikka Langeland, with extraordinary accompaniment from Scandinavian jazz musicians such as  Arve Henriksen, Trygve Seim and Anders Jormin.

This is the extensive review of the album at All About Jazz:

ECM has always looked for new ways to interpret traditional music from different cultures. As far back as 1973, saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s Triptykon used a traditional Norwegian folk song as the starting point for open-ended improvisation.

Born to a Norwegian father and Finnish mother, singer Sinikka Langeland is in many ways Williamson’s Northern European counterpart. Her approach has gradually evolved towards original music that explores the dichotomy of her dual-lineage through more archaic forms, and the freedom of open-minded interpretation. Starflowers, her ECM debut, combines her cross-cultural, cross-temporal writing with the poetry of Hans Børli. Langeland has recruited, with the additional advice of label owner/producer Manfred Eicher, a group of Scandinavian/Finnish artists commonly associated with jazz, but who have all proven themselves capable of meshing in any context.

Langeland also plays the kantele, a 39-string Finnish table harp. It’s a lush yet fragile sound that defines much of Starflowers as does her voice, which possesses strength equally capable of subtly delicacy.

Starflowers reveals its breadth gradually. Opening gently, with only Langeland’s kantele and voice, it establishes a flexible time sense that’s long been a powerful interpretive device in solo performance, with Langeland stretching and compressing time as she pleases. The ensemble magic unfolds on ‘Den lille fløyten’, with trumpeter Arve Henriksen’s shakuhachi-like trumpet, Trygve Seim’s resonant tenor, Anders Jormin’s robust bass and Markku Ounaskari textural percussion working naturally in similarly elastic time. Slowly they move towards a firmer pulse for a hauntingly beautiful solo section, with Henriksen and Seim simpatico at the most subliminal of levels.

Langeland creates narrative continuity throughout the set by using the same theme on the melancholy kantele/bass/percussion trios of ‘Søl'” and ‘Støv’, the former featuring Jormin’s pizzicato, the latter his arco. ‘Støv’ leads into ‘Stjernestund’, which begins with a percussion solo that’s all color, ultimately returning to Langeland’s theme from ‘Sølv’ and ‘Støv’ as a vocal interpretation of one of Børli’s darkest yet most evocative poems.

There are moments when the ensemble approaches greater abstraction. ‘Elghjertet’ begins in darkness, with Langeland’s recitation supported by Seim and Henriksen, who continue to transform their instruments in unexpected ways. A kantele pulse finally emerges, but the approach remains free, even as the others begin to coalesce around it.

The album closes with the expansive ‘Hard du lyttet til elvene om natta’, which melds initial melancholy with a finale of greater optimism. It’s the perfect ending to an album that, in its allegiance to both modernity and antiquity, is one of ECM’s most appealing explorations of seemingly disparate concepts that ultimately feel completely at home with each other.

Track listing: Høstnatt på Fjellskogen; Den lillle fløyten; Sølv; Treet som vekser opp-ned; Salstein; Sus i myrull; Støv; Stjernestund; Langt innpå skoga; Det er ei slik natt; Vindtreet; Elghjertet; Har du lyttet til elvene om natta?

Personnel: Sinikka Langeland: vocal, kantele; Arve Henriksen: trumpet; Trygve Seim: tenor and soprano saxophones; Anders Jormin: double-bass; Markku Ounaskari: percussion.

Sinikka Langeland

Sinikka Langeland

This from Sinnika’s website:

Born in 1961 to a Norwegian father and a Finnish mother from Karelia, Langeland was given a Finnish name – Sinikka – and felt the pull of two nationalities and cultures from the outset.

After an early education in classical music she began to look at contemporary folk music and the singer/songwriter genre, but this was soon supplanted by an interest in older forms, intensifying as her research continued and underlined by a wish to “create an original music rooted in my own area, taking account of local possibilities and looking back into history to find out more.” She emphasizes that her particular musical journey has “always been about searching. I love folksong but I’m not exclusively a traditional folk singer. There were always influences coming from other places, too.” These included the local jazz club where, around 1980, she heard singer Radka Toneff, saxophonist Jan Garbarek and many other home grown improvisers. Although not yet putting definitions on her own music she identified with the “sense of space and nature and timelessness” reverberating in Garbarek’s sound in particular.

At 20 she switched from guitar to kantele, the Finnish table harp. She plays the 39-string concert kantele, with its five-octave range. “At first it was just an experiment – I thought it would be fun to have a Finnish instrument for one or two songs. But I became completely fascinated by it.” Meanwhile she was expanding her repertoire to include rune songs, incantations, old melodies from Finland and Karelia, as well as little known medieval ballads and religious folk songs.

Her work has flowed in several streams concurrently. She gives, for instance, solo performances with voice and kantele, and she gives duo concerts in churches, together with organist Kåre Nordstoga, in which old folk songs and Easter hymns are juxtaposed with J.S. Bach’s transformations of the same sources. And, since the early 1990s, she has been working – and recording – with jazz musicians as part of her ensembles.

Swedish bassist Anders Jormin has been a regular associate for more than a dozen years, joining her for the first time on the recording Har du lyttet til elvene om natta? (Grappa, 1995). And recently Sinnika has been playing regularly with drummer Markku Ounaskari, a mainstay of the Finnish jazz scene, who also makes his ECM debut here.

“One of the central issues of working with jazz musicians as opposed to traditional folk musicians is the different feeling for time. The pulsations of the old folk music, the organic, breathing, asymmetric rhythms that we have in the polskas are quite different from modern popular music which is nearly all in 2 or 4. So a lot of adjustment is necessary. Anders Jormin is very aware of this, and Markku Ounaskari is coming closer and closer to the true pulsations of the polskas, remarkably close for a jazz player. But at the same time I want to allow myself to be influenced by his way of hearing and feeling the music.”

On her last Norwegian-released album Runoja (Heilo Records) Langeland was joined by trumpeter Arve Henriksen. His services are retained, at Manfred Eicher’s urging, on Starflowers, the producer also bringing saxophonist Trygve Seim into the picture. Henriksen and Seim play together magnificently – as they have done on recordings including Seim’s Different Rivers, The Source and Other Cikadas and Sangam and the whole recording opens out to embrace much ‘jazz’ interaction inside the context of the songs. Trygve’s interest in the microtones of Arab music (Seim has been commuting between Oslo and Cairo lately) overlaps intriguingly with the use of microtones of the old Scandinavian music and makes us feel, once again, the interconnectedness of music from different places.

Of the album as a whole, Sinikka says, “I had a very clear plan of the structure I wanted and (producer) Manfred Eicher could go in and…refurnish it. Some of the pieces on the disc I have been playing for a long time and I was very happy to have Manfred help me see and hear them in a new way.”

All lyrics on the album are from the poetry of Hans Børli, a fascinating figure who came to the wider attention of the Norwegian public late in life. He lived as a woodcutter, writing his poetry by night, and his verse is alive with his experiences of the Norwegian forests. In a series of books, beginning in 1945, he wrote more than 1,100 poems. (Starflowers is also the title of a Børli poem.)

Sinikka Langeland championed Børli’s work for many years and it was in part due to her singing of his texts that the poet’s work was finally published in English. (In the introduction to the book We Own The Forests, published by Norvik Press, Norwich, in 2005, translator Louis Muinzer credits Sinikka’s influence). Børli, sometimes compared to Whitman and Thoreau, was a more authentic man-of-the-woods than either of those writers, while his symbols and images reach back to the roots of myth. Sinikka Langeland’s moving performance conveys the sense of wonder that’s alive in Børli’s verse.

Hans Borli

English translations of the tracks on Starflowers:

Autumn Night in the Mountain Woods  ( Hostnatt pa Fjeliskogen)

A dark humming of
subsiding wind
across each moor,
softly swinging sprigs of pine.
The earth seems to climb and climb,
lifting into the sky.
Then suddenly there’s calm. As when
the elevator halts
somewhere on the higher floors and
you take instinctively a backward step
to keep your balance.
Everything sinks away in
an ear-splitting silence.

It smells of burned-out candle in the darkness.
Are we already there?
Shall I climb out into the starlight
without hand-luggage?
Only with a heart in my breast,
a restless heart
heavy with dark blood.

The Little Flute ( Den lille fløyten)

You mend your instrument.
give it more and better strings,
a deeper ring –

but the little flute…

The little bone flute
till the bows are lowered
till the trumpets are silent
and the light goes out on the podium
it makes lonely music in the darkness by the backdoor.

A naked tone
as a bird-bone
in the bog wind.

There is No One playing.
The little bone flute.

The Tree That Grows Upside Down (Treet som vekser opp-ned)

The dream is a tree
that grows upside down:

Its roots fastened in the sky,
delicate root-hairs suck
strange nourishment
from the mouldy darkness between the stars,
while its crown spreads out its branches as
a resting place for the birds
in the boundless spaces of the human heart

Rock Salt ( Saltstein)

My heart is as old as the earth.
And it knows something. It knows something
from the time before all words.
It is silent. Rugged and worn like
the rock salt by the cattle-yard gate:
A rough tenderness
scraped over it,
again and again.
A hunger, a craving for salt,
there in a kingdom of too-sweet grass.

Whispers in the Cotton Grass (Sus i myrull)

Life isn’t always
a breathless footrace with death.

Life isn’t just
ten thousand plodding steps
towards petty goals.

No, life is rich enough
to be just whispers in the cotton grass…

Life is rich enough

to forget the hours and bread
and death.

But all these busy people –
with pay packets and wristwatches
and dining rooms of blond birch…?
They are so stingy with the minutes.

The cry from their hearts is drowned
in the noise of pistons and steel.

But cotton grass whispers in the south wind
the simple song
that their hearts remember on factory floors.

And lonely birds
sail in the sun,
sail in the sun and shriek…

A Moment of Stars ( Stjernestund)

The starlight smells
of new-fallen snow. I sit
with black bog-earth on my boots,
sit beneath singing spruces
and hear my heart translate for me
the wordless speech of the silence:
“Don’t fear
your coming evening.
The real life
awaits you in the west
behind all sunsets,
a happy homecoming to the life before your birth.
You must simply
die your way through
an earth-drawn human life first”.

It Is One of Those Nights ( Det er ei slik natt)

It is one of those nights
when the mist rests white above the brook beds
and the wind talks with rain-swept fields
about death.
Myself, I walk through the silence
and drag my life after me with
a hoarse gravelly sound. The signpost
with withered thistles around its base
also knows no way.

It is one of those nights
when loneliness stands with its back turned to everything
and its face frozen fast in the western sky.

The Moose Heart ( Elghjertet)

He cut the heart out from
the hot and steaming cavity
and threw it indifferently in the heather.

Gentle snowflakes
came slanting through the grey air
and settled silently, melted
against the reeking redness.

But before we’d cut the carcass up,
the heart was snow-covered.
Just a little hump in the whiteness.

And when we set off homewards
with big wet sacks
that scratched against green branches,
we forgot the moose heart…

Have You Listened to the Rivers in the Night? ( Har du lyttet til elvene om natta?)

Have you listened to the rivers in the night?
They speak of other things.

They send no laughter trickling over their sand bars,
hum no song about
girls’ brown bodies
that glide outward at the bathing place
or wide meadows with their curlew-cries
or the ferryman who looks at the clouds
as he rows.

They speak of other things.
Things that are homeless in the day,
things that are Never and without words.

If you listen long to the rivers in the night,
listen long,
it is at last as if your soul
is mysteriously remembering its future.

The Gold Lyre of Ur

This lunchtime I went to see the 4,500-year-old Gold Lyre of Ur on display and being played at the Anglican cathedral. This instrument predates the construction of the Pyramids and even Stonehenge.What we saw is an exact, playable replica of a damaged original, reckoned to be the earliest stringed instrument ever discovered. It has been painstakingly made from scratch, with genuine materials such as wood from Iraq, after the original was looted and badly damaged in the ransacking of Baghdad’s museum of antiquities following the US-led invasion five years ago.

The authentic cedar wood was donated by Muslim Aid in Baghdad to the artists and craftsmen working on the project, and brought to the UK by the RAF. The recreated instrument – similar to a modern harp – also has a strong Merseyside connection, as some of the work was done by Lairdside Laser Engineering Centre, part of the University of Liverpool. The whole five-year project was masterminded by Andy Lowings, himself a harp player and a civil engineering graduate from Liverpool, who has taken the instrument to several countries around the world. He played the lyre in the central nave of the cathedral.

Mr Lowings said: “Everything about it is, as far as possible, exactly the same as the original, including the wood, stone, and bitumen. It is also covered in gold worth $25,000.

The gold bull on the front was regarded as highly iconic and revered as a god. It’s a rather mysterious story that we tell: the original instrument was found in a grave dating from 2550BC in Iraq, along with 60 or so female attendants who’d all committed suicide with it. The last player still had her hand over the instrument.

“It gets its name because the underground chamber where the instrument was found is 50ft down in the ground in Ur – which was also the birthplace of Abraham – 200 miles south of Baghdad. The original one is now in bits. The replica has taken up five years of my life and is indicative of the importance of reconstructing something that was of significance to both Iraq and musicians. It also brought together four very different groups to work on the project – the UK-based artists and craftsmen, Muslim Aid, the Iraqi community, and the coalition forces. It’s a wonderful example of how art and music can do things that politics can’t.”

Eryl Parry, director of hospitality at Liverpool cathedral, said: “This is one of those magical things that ought to happen in Capital of Culture year. ”

About the lyre of Ur project