Archive for the ‘Roots Music from Out There’ category

Shura: Forevher

August 20, 2019

Forevher is the second album by English/Russian singer and songwriter Aleksandra Denton better known as Shura. Born in Manchester, she played football as a youngster for Manchester City before deciding to pursue a career in music. Football’s loss is music’s gain as the talented Shura has come up with a very assured successor to her debut Nothing’s Real which was listed here as a favourite album of 2016.

Up to now she has been best known for her electro-pop style with its echoes of the UK of the 1980s. For this album, recorded in London, there is a slight change musically as the synths are still there but there is also piano and generally a much broader sound palette. She borrows from various musical styles but updates these in ways that make the new album both very contemporary and uniquely Shura.

Lyrically too the concerns have shifted from the angst-ridden songs of three years ago to a more confident celebration of life and love. Some weighty topics are touched upon throughout, not least religion and death, but the overriding themes are to do with falling in love and the logistics of maintaining long-distance relationships. Clearly these have been triggered by Shura’s own relationship with her girlfriend in New York.

At the heart of the album is a trio of outstanding tracks. ‘BKLYNLDN’ is a love song that drives along infused with that wistful long-distance theme as she sings: “This isn’t love, this is an emergency”. It’s followed by ‘Tommy’ a song inspired by an 89-year old widower met in Texas and opens with a minute of his spoken word sample. It’s a touching, moving piece that flows along with a lovely melody.

Then comes ‘Princess Leia’ a reflection on death and more that all takes place while the singer is nearing the end of a plane trip. (Flight is another motif that appears on more than one song). The craft and precision of the song’s execution is reminiscent of Paul Simon. Only after listening did I realize the coincidental connection – Carrie Fisher, referenced in the song, was once married to Simon.

Elsewhere the (almost) title track ‘Forever’ begins as if it could be an outtake from ABC’s classic The Lexicon of Love while ‘Religion (u can lay your hands on me)’ is gloriously blasphemous with nuns kissing and smoking cigarettes in the official music video. The album’s cover image evokes Joni Mitchell with its shades of blue.

This is a very fine album that pays its dues to pop if not roots history while being refreshingly original. There are a couple of songs from Nothing’s Real that are just as good as anything here, if not better, but this is a real album to be listened to from start to finish.

Forevher is released by Secretly Canadian.

www.secretlycanadian.com

www.weareshura.com

Advertisements

Dori Freeman: Every Single Star

August 7, 2019

Every Single Star is the third album by Appalachian singer and songwriter Dori Freeman who grew up in Virginia where she still lives. The album was recorded in New York and produced by Teddy Thompson (son of UK folk rock icons Richard and Linda Thompson) who also joins Freeman to share vocals on one of its ten songs.

Freeman’s self-titled debut album came out in 2016 when she announced herself as a bright young American singer-songwriter with deep family roots in the old-time tradition that she grew up with but with a formidable new presence as a chronicler of contemporary issues.

This new release focuses in part on her life as a mother and there is a strong emphasis in many of the songs on the lives of women. Despite the slight thematic shift from her previous work and a more optimistic outlook she is still a forthright singer who writes in a shrewd observational style about women’s lives. As Freeman herself says: “I think there’s always been a streak of resistance in Appalachia and maybe this is the next generation of that.”

The biggest musical influence seems to come from classic country and the musicians backing her play guitars, bass, drums, piano and fiddle. But there are diversions and different styles too and some of the songs are closer to pop and rock while there are others with just Freeman’s voice accompanied by her acoustic guitar.

Dori Freeman (Photo: Kristen H)

The first track ‘That’s How I Feel’ is a cracking way to start. The blend of country and pop immediately evokes words such as sparky, catchy and shiny, and it contains some glorious melodic changes. Riding on top of this is Freeman’s vocal which is strong, clear and emotive both here and throughout the album. It’s such a good opener that it’s a tough one to follow. She never quite tops it but doesn’t faulter either as each of the ten tracks have their own merits and attractions.

‘All I Ever Wanted’ was apparently inspired by Linda Ronstadt but also sounds like something that could have been sung by Roy Orbison. Meanwhile ‘Like I Do’ is an emotional song about the joys of motherhood, but she never becomes too sentimental when singing about her child as it’s so obviously heartfelt and the music is bouncy and upbeat. ‘2 Step’ is a laid-back country duet with Teddy Thompson. The acoustic guitar songs show off Freeman in more usual singer-songwriter mode and one of them ‘I’ll Be Coming Home’ is a fitting way to end the album.

It all clocks in at just 32 minutes during which time she covers some different musical approaches but always with a strong grounding in Appalachian and country music and everything hangs together very well. Every Single Star is very accessible – it kicks in quickly, gets the job done with great style and never overstays its welcome.

Every Single Star will be released by Blue Hens Music on 27th September.

www.dorifreeman.com

Che Apalache: Rearrange My Heart

July 14, 2019

Rearrange My Heart is the debut album by Buenos Aires-based string band Che Apalache. Their musical style has been called ‘Latingrass’ as one of their aims is to mix American roots and bluegrass with Latin music. They are led by singer and fiddler Joe Troop, originally from North Carolina, while the other musicians are from Argentina and Mexico. The album is produced by the renowned banjo player Béla Fleck.

It’s an unusual blend and the band have been getting very positive feedback from their live shows. The vocals are in English, Spanish and Japanese. Yes, that’s right. For tucked in amongst all the fiddles, guitars, mandolins and banjos is a song called 春の便り (The Coming of Spring). This is sung in Japanese and sounds very much like a folk song with origins far away from Buenos Aires or the mountains of Appalachia.

The band’s much-travelled leader Joe Troop has lived in Europe, Morocco and Japan where he was able to explore lots of different music and culture before moving on to Argentina in 2010 where he eventually formed the current band.

Troop explains the choice of the album’s Japanese song, on which he is also the vocalist: “For two years I lived in Kamimura, a 600 person village in the Japanese Alps that preserves a very ancient traditional culture. This song is greatly influenced by the music I encountered in rural Japan. It paints the portrait of the coming of spring in a small mountainous village in southern Nagano Prefecture. There’s a lot of weird string exploration in this one: playing behind the nut and bridge on the non-bowed instruments, using the guitar like a cajón, false harmonics played on fiddle in unison with whistling.”

Che Apalache (Photo: Mauro Milanich and Andrés Corbo)

The album begins with a traditional greeting in the Uruguayan murga style and then the musical fun gets going. But there is a serious theme too and at its heart is the song ‘The Dreamer’ based on the story of Troop’s friend Moises Serrano who was the subject of a documentary ‘Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America’. It contains the verse most relevant here: “Now, you and I can sing a song / and we can build a congregation / but only when we take a stand / will we change our broken nation”.

Also, very much to the point is ‘The Wall’ with its brutally honest lyrics lamenting Trump’s ridiculous rhetoric. Another powerful song and musical standout ‘Rock of Ages’ is a gospel-laden bluegrass-style warning against politicians who use fundamentalist religion to bolster their campaigns.

A stated aim of the band is to create a real musical union between North and South America. Troop’s fiddle is influenced by elements of flamenco, jazz manouche, and swing as well as the bluegrass he has been teaching in Argentina and whenever he takes the lead the temperature rises. His fellow musicians are Franco Martino (guitar), Martin Bobrik (mandolin), and Pau Barjau (banjo).

This is a fine album that draws in the listener with some great musicianship and then subverts the narrative from within with songs tackling topics of immigration, hate-filled politics and more, plus that unexpectedly entertaining detour into Japanese minyo.

The Power of Okinawa is pleased to be able to give a premiere here to the song 春の便り (The Coming of Spring):

Rearrange My Heart will be released by Free Dirt Records on 9th August. Che Apalache are currently touring the USA. Details of live dates are on their website.

https://freedirt.net/

www.cheapalache.com

Rauma: Deep Ocean

June 28, 2019

The new album Deep Ocean (Fukai Umi) is a collaborative project by the duo known as Rauma. Both musicians are based in Hokkaido and the album was recorded and mixed there in Sapporo. However, they both bring some very different influences from outside Japan to the eleven mainly instrumental compositions here.

Hiroko Ara is an accomplished, award-winning kantele player. The kantele is the best-known traditional plucked stringed instrument from Finland. Although very different in conception, its sound has some echoes of the Ryukyu koto in Okinawa. On these recordings Ara plays a 39-string concert kantele as well as the 5-string and 10-string versions of the instrument.

Her partner on the album is Haruhiko Saga, an experienced musician with many recording credits to his name. He plays morinkhuur (horse-head fiddle) on most of these pieces and provides some rather unobtrusive throat-singing on three of the tracks. Together the pair manage to seamlessly combine the music of Finland, Mongolia and more.

The album generally has a slow, relaxed atmosphere, bordering at times on the ambient. The selections contain both traditional Finnish and Mongolian compositions and there are also three original pieces. It all begins, however, with a version of Ireland’s ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ which provides a fine introduction and is one of the highlights.

The title track is a traditional Mongolian urtin duu or ‘long song’ and is a meditation on the deep ocean and ‘a prayer for the happiness of all living things’. Nevertheless, it somehow manages to squeeze in a snippet of the Okinawan song ‘Tinsagu nu Hana’ as well. The album ends with ‘Red Bird, Blue Bird, White Bird’ which puts together a Japanese nursery rhyme and a Finnish kantele melody.

Perhaps best of all is ‘Night Flower’ an original composition by Hiroko Ara. This is a simple, evocative and haunting melody on which the musicians find the perfect blend of emotion with their instruments.

Deep Ocean is released by Green Pigeon Music.

http://tarbagan.net/saga/RaumaDeepOcean.html

Kishi Bashi: Omoiyari

June 3, 2019

Omoiyari is the fourth album by singer, songwriter and musician Kishi Bashi who was born Kaoru Ishibashi to Japanese immigrants in America and currently lives in Athens, Georgia. His previous albums have featured both sweeping orchestral pop and more experimental loop arrangements blending the singer’s vocals and violin.

The new album finds him at his most accessible as well as his most melodic. At the same time this is an ambitious work in terms of theme. It resulted from his reflecting on history and on the state of things today. He says: “I was shocked when I saw white supremacy really starting to show its teeth again in America. My parents are immigrants, they came to the United States from Japan post-World War II. As a minority I felt very insecure for the first time in my adult life in this country. I think that was the real trigger for this project.”

Kishi Bashi’s songs were inspired specifically by the unjust forced internment of Japanese-Americans during the war and he visited former prison sites to listen to the stories of survivors. The ten songs feature his distinctive vocals and violin and they veer from the lighter pop sounds of opening track ‘Penny Rabbit and Summer Bear’ to the heavier almost classical opening of ‘Violin Tsunami’.

‘Marigolds’, ‘A Song for You’ and ‘Summer of ‘42’ are all outstanding but this is a timeless album with songs that are heartfelt and often irresistibly catchy. The closest he gets to American roots music is on the final track ‘Annie, Heart Thief of the Sea’ a fiddle and banjo-driven song that sounds as if it could have come from a 1920s jug band. It’s also one of the biggest successes.

Joining Kishi Bashi along the way are many other musicians and we find banjo, bass, cello, guitar, organ and flute all represented as well as a group of string players with violins and violas. Despite all the extra help it never becomes too cluttered and all hangs together with a lightness of touch produced by the singer.

It’s all too common, especially in Japan, for musicians taking on ‘serious’ political subjects to churn out earnest but ultimately dire songs while thrashing away on guitars. By contrast Kishi Bashi’s music is big and emotionally uplifting and his lyrics are full of themes of empathy, compassion, and understanding, hence the album title.

To return to Kishi Bashi for the last word: “Omoiyari is a Japanese word. It doesn’t necessarily translate as empathy, but it refers to the idea of creating compassion towards other people by thinking about them. I think the idea of omoiyari is the single biggest thing that can help us overcome aggression and conflict.”

Omoiyari is out now on Joyful Noise Recordings.

www.kishibashi.com/

Hedy West: Untitled

May 21, 2019

Hedy West has been mentioned many times on this blog and here she is again. The American singer and banjo player from northern Georgia died prematurely in 2005. Largely forgotten at that time, her reputation as one of the very finest interpreters of traditional Appalachian folk songs has since undergone a huge reappraisal beginning with the release of the award-winning Ballads and Songs from the Appalachians in 2011.

Other re-releases followed and last year’s From Granmaw and Me kept the ball rolling. Now comes the rather lamely titled Untitled which is previously unreleased and was recorded in the late 1970s when she was living in Germany. There are contributions from Eloise and Tracy Schwarz (New Lost City Ramblers) but it’s mostly West singing and playing her familiar banjo and occasionally guitar.

West drew heavily on the repertoire of songs handed down by her family and her best work is found in the old songs and ballads that she knew so well. Unlike some of the more popular big city-based folk singers of her generation she really was closer to the lives she describes and that she sang about in a plain uncompromising style.

Untitled is more varied than her other albums. It contains some traditional ballads but also tracks by modern songwriters and a wider range of musical styles. There is also a song sung in German. This is ‘Der Graben’ (The Trench) a pacifist, anti-militarist song by Kurt Tucholsky who died in 1935. A strong social and political thread runs through the album. ‘Bush Whacker’ is another pacifist song from the Civil War collected in North Carolina. ‘On the Rim of the World’ is a 1960s composition by Malvina Reynolds (of ‘Little Boxes’ fame) that sympathises with people living on the street, while ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’ is a well-known Depression era song containing the lines:

I know the police cause you trouble / They cause trouble everywhere / When you die and go to heaven / You’ll find no policeman there.

This leads nicely into ‘There’ll Be No Distinction’ a 1929 song from West Virginia described by West as “A happy rollicking country gospel hymn, a celebration of justice in at least the afterlife.”

This being folk song there’s the obligatory story of incestuous rape (but no murder) in ‘Queen Jane’ which also has the best banjo playing on the album. And then there’s the delightful ‘The Three Friends’ learned from Leslie Haworth of Cheshire, England who created the song by adapting a story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. On the surface it’s a fairy tale with animals (and a sausage) but with a philosophical edge and is sung and played wonderfully by West with a great contribution from Tracy Schwarz on fiddle.

Untitled is short with the eleven tracks running to around 35 minutes but who cares when we’re able to listen once more to the inimitable Hedy West. The late singer and scholar A.L. Lloyd believed that of all the women singers of the 1960s American folk song revival she was “by far the best of the lot”. Years later the continued unearthing of these recordings just reinforces that view.

Untitled is out now on Fledg’ling Records.

http://www.fledglingrecords.co.uk

Small Island Big Song

April 22, 2019

Small Island Big Song is an 18 track album of songs recorded in the field on many different islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It was released at the end of last year and is the fruit of a project by Australian music producer and sound engineer Tim Cole and Taiwanese producer and project manager BaoBao Chen.

This mammoth undertaking involved the pair meeting and recording local musicians in diverse places over a period of three years. The resulting album contains traditional and original songs from Taiwan, Madagascar, Singapore, Indonesia, Vanuatu, Tahiti, Malaysia, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Hawaii, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Torres Strait Australia, and Aotearoa, New Zealand.

The idea evolved initially from Cole and Chen’s concern about climate change and they wanted to travel to some of the islands under threat and to investigate the continuing existence of indigenous seafaring cultures and their music. They followed some of the paths taken by ancient seafarers who left Taiwan to travel the oceans. The songs they recorded were then mixed in a cultural mash-up with the artists contributing to each other’s music. The producers explain:

“We invited them to share a song in their language played on the instruments of their people, a song they are proud to represent their homeland with and to sing it in nature, a place with meaning to them, and then in the spirit of celebration overdub something onto other songs shared by musicians such as themselves.”

Around 30 artists are featured in the songs and a total of a hundred musicians were involved. What is most striking is the immediacy of the songs and their accessibility. This has been achieved without the interference of outsiders who might well have dabbled too much in trying to make the songs palatable to a worldwide audience. In fact, it’s quite the opposite as the natural surroundings and music create a very authentic and vibrant sound.

With so many artists sharing their music it’s perhaps pointless to single out individual songs but a favourite is ‘Sacanoy’ which begins as a lullaby and then takes off in other directions while managing to somehow combine a Madagascan composition by Tarika Sammy and a vocal from Ado Kaliting Pacidal in Pangcah, Taiwan.

Some of the Madagascan and Hawaiian music might be more familiar and elsewhere there are hints of reggae and rap but for the most part this is music that will be new to many listeners. And all played on acoustic instruments. It sounds great and listening to these songs just confirms that the ocean doesn’t separate these people but instead unites them.

Small Island Big Song has already been nominated for awards including best album in the UK’s Songlines magazine Asia & Pacific category and some of the musicians have already toured together to give live performances around the world.

Producers Tim Cole (third from left) and BaoBao Chen (right) answer questions at the Okinawa International Movie Festival.

Last week a ‘visual album’ was given its world premiere when it was screened as part of the Okinawa International Movie Festival in Naha. The producers appeared at the screening to talk about their project and answer questions. One obvious omission is the music of the Ryukyu Islands. It seems the producers were not aware of the wealth of wonderful songs from these islands and there were also financial constraints. Perhaps that will be put right in a future project!

The Small Island Big Song website contains a huge amount of information concerning the artists, their songs, and the project in general. There are also many photos and videos.

www.smallislandbigsong.com