Archive for the ‘Roots Music from Out There’ category

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.


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.

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.

Guy Sigsworth: STET

April 10, 2019

STET is the new album by UK producer, composer and musician Guy Sigsworth. In fact, it’s his first solo album and he is better known for his contributions to the work of other artists. The list is a very long one and includes a wide variety of musicians from Talvin Singh to Imogen Heap and from Bjork to Madonna. He came to Okinawa in 2015 and gave a concert with Norway’s Kate Havnevik and has maintained a long interest in Okinawan music.

This new 16 track album contains a mix of songs and instrumentals. All the music is composed by Sigsworth who plays celesta, clavichord, piano, triangles, ring modulator and synthesiser. There are also some co-written songs including three with Anil Sebastian, who also sings, and one with Okinawa’s Mika Uchizato.

What does it all sound like? Well, STET is viewed by Guy Sigsworth as a modern ‘classical’ album with underlying Ryukyuan influences. On the one hand it is probably best listened to in its entirety as a complete album as the tracks evolve to create a distinctly atmospheric musical journey but there are also some standout songs that hold their own with the very best in pop music.

The album begins with ‘Sing’ a track that builds gradually with the introduction of a vocal and a melody that stops, starts and turns unexpectedly in the manner of the band Dirty Projectors. It’s followed by the best pure pop track on the album ‘Barely Breaking Even’ with a vocal by Anil Sebastian. He sings again on ‘Lydian’ a song that could have escaped from Bjork’s Vespertine.

There are hints of and excursions into pop, jazz, classical, electronica and experimental music but nothing gets too cluttered or unfocused and the production (naturally by Sigsworth) is beautifully clear and precise. And just when the instrumental tracks seem in danger of becoming a little too ambient we are presented with ‘Night Song’ a piano-led composition with a wonderfully sad and haunting melody that sounds as if it should be on a movie soundtrack.

The Okinawan influence is signalled by ‘Nirai Kanai’ and comes fully into its own on the two final tracks. These are the instrumental ‘Mono No Aware’ and the song ‘Shurayo’ with lyrics in Uchinaguchi by Mika Uchizato but sung here by British singer and long-term Sigsworth collaborator Imogen Heap.

‘Mono No Aware’ plays with light and shade, and the jazzy discord is juxtaposed with rich melody and a very Okinawan feel. Better still – and probably the outstanding track on the album – is its final song ‘Shurayo’. It could all have gone perilously badly but Imogen Heap does a great job with the Okinawan vocal while the stirring addition of cello and violin to Sigsworth’s superb melody fittingly ends the album on a high note. (‘Shurayo’ and another song co-written with Uchizato is planned for separate release as an EP with Mika’s original vocals).

Because of its breadth and ambition this could have been a risky undertaking but STET overcomes the potential pitfalls with style.

STET will be released by Mercury KX on 7th June.


Michael Chapman: True North

March 6, 2019

A couple of years ago Yorkshire-born English singer-songwriter-guitarist Michael Chapman made the album 50 (reviewed here) to celebrate half a century as a professional musician. With 50 he achieved a late career high and some attention from a new younger audience. It was a fine album of new and reworked old songs recorded for the first time in America with a small band of musicians including producer Steve Gunn.

Chapman first gained a formidable reputation as an innovative guitarist on the UK folk club scene though he was never a typical folkie and was more influenced by American jazz, blues and roots music. Along with Richard Thompson he has a guitar style that is instantly recognisable and all his own. He is also a gruff-voiced singer with a gift for creating poignant songs about love, loss, regret, and life on the road.

50 seemed a fitting end to a long career but Chapman obviously had other ideas and he isn’t finished yet. At 78 he is back now with a new album recorded this time in rural West Wales but with Steve Gunn returning as producer and guitarist. Also on board are Bridget St. John (vocals), Sarah Smout (cello) and B.J. Cole (pedal steel).

True North follows a similar formula with recordings of new songs plus a few older ones and there are also a couple of guitar instrumentals. The album is more atmospheric and minimalist and is generally not as loud or intense as its predecessor. The addition of some lovely colours from cello and pedal steel really brings out the best in allowing the songs to breathe and in complementing Chapman’s vocals and guitar.

No-one coming cold to this album would be entranced by the vocals on first listen but this is Michael Chapman and his admirers know exactly what to expect and rightly wouldn’t want it any other way. His laconic phrasing is exactly what’s needed and then there is always that gorgeous deep acoustic guitar sound which gets under the skin whether on the instrumentals or on the melodic and melancholy songs

Not surprisingly Chapman’s concerns here are most often focused on memory and regret and there is an elegiac and reflective note as he comes to terms with it all. Titles such as ‘It’s Too Late’, ‘After All This Time’ and ‘Youth is Wasted on the Young’ tell their own tale. On ‘Vanity and Pride’ he sings: “if only time were on my side” but this and another song ‘Hell to Pay’ are in fact re-imaginings of songs from his 1997 album Dreaming Out Loud.

Despite the sombre tone this is never a depressing album, rather it’s an uplifting one as Chapman really gets into his inimitable stride. The longest track ‘Truck Song’ is the centrepiece of the album and in its lyrics and languid rolling guitar phrases it encapsulates everything that is great about the man and his music. Its images evoke a Giorgio de Chirico painting of lengthening shadows and the distant sound of a train. True North is his strongest work for a couple of decades and stands up there with the very best of his many recordings.

True North is out now on Paradise of Bachelors.

Kaia Kater: Grenades

October 30, 2018

Grenades is the third album by Toronto-based singer Kaia Kater. Both of her previous albums were reviewed here and the second, Nine Pin, was one of my favourite albums of 2016. On that album Kater sang a mix of originals and traditional songs from North America, her speciality being her banjo playing and her emerging talent as an interpreter of Appalachian songs and music.

With Grenades she rightly doesn’t rest on her laurels but instead delivers an album quite different from previous recordings. The sound is very accessible and almost lush at times as she surrounds herself with a small band of musicians and the lap steel of Christine Bougie is prominent on several tracks. Kater adds acoustic guitar to her familiar banjo skills and nearly all the songs are her original compositions. The album is produced by Erin Costelo.

What sets this apart most of all is the thread running through the songs which all have poetic lyrics and an underlying connection to Kater’s upbringing and heritage with musical influences evident from Quebec, the Caribbean, and Appalachia. The themes are concerned with personal identity, memory and discovery and they form part of a journey that Kater made between her home in Canada and her roots on the island of Grenada where her father was born.

In the album’s booklet she writes: “My father’s story of immigration was omnipresent in my childhood, in his teachings and counsel. He was quiet but firm in insisting that I had a warm and vibrant home and a plethora of family far from Canada’s wintry grasp. Yet like many people, I have felt alone and out of place for most of my life, stumbling forward blind and rootless. I wrote Grenades to trace the life line from my palm and trace the way home.”

In addition to the eleven songs there are three brief narrative interludes in which Deno Hurst, her father, speaks of the complex situation in Grenada that led to his arrival in Canada as a very young political refugee. In one he speaks of the sheer terror posed by the invading American forces and it’s an oddly chilling reminder of what Okinawans must have felt when American military power landed on Okinawa in 1945.

Despite its serious themes this isn’t a difficult album at all. Kater has grown as a songwriter and creates the most gorgeously melodic choruses, as on ‘Canyonland’. She sings in French and English on a traditional Grenadian melody for which she has written new words, and completely unaccompanied on another song, ‘Hydrants’. There are a couple of slow soulful songs, a masterly title track and there’s ‘Meridian Ground’ which contains lines reminiscent of some of Paul Simon’s best storytelling – “My auntie died in a one room house on the top road / With the candles cold and a smile upon her face”.

Grenades marks Kaia Kater’s continuing development as singer, musician and songwriter. It will make you want to learn more about Grenada but is first and foremost just a great listen.

Grenades is released by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

Trad.Attack!: Kullakarva

October 16, 2018

It’s easy to forget that Trad.Attack! are a trio and not a big band. Last weekend the Estonians won over their audience at Sakurazaka Theatre in Naha with an astonishing display of virtuosity on the final concert of their Japan tour. With all acoustic instruments they filled the hall with glorious sounds and pulsating rhythms at times reminiscent of a rock band.

It wasn’t just their singing and musicianship that impressed. The trio managed the remarkable feat of totally engaging the Okinawan crowd with traditional songs sung in the unfamiliar Estonian language. That they succeeded so well says a lot about their great openness, friendly attitude and willingness to learn about and engage with Okinawan culture.

Kullakarva (Shimmer Gold) is their second and latest album. It was recorded last year and is now receiving a very welcome first release in Japan. Many of the songs and instrumentals from their concert in Okinawa are included on the album.

The trio comprise Sandra Vabarna on Estonian bagpipes, jew’s harp, zither and a variety of whistles; Jaimar Vabarna who plays 12-string acoustic guitar; and Tõnu Tubli on drums, zither and glockenspiel. All three share vocals. Crucially, some of the songs sample archival recordings of the traditional singers of the past and these include Jaimar Vabarna’s great-grandmother.

Technology that might have been thought of as the enemy of traditional song is used here to bring the old singers back to life by allowing these recordings of their voices to be listened to by new audiences around the world and in new and often thrilling musical settings. Trad.Attack! also add new music and arrangements to traditional folk songs as well as composing their own originals. It’s impossible to see the join.

The album’s opening track ‘Talgo’ (Working Bee) sets the tone with an energetic work song not unlike some of those found in Okinawan music. ‘Kabala’ verges on rock but is, in fact, based on a traditional song and melody. ‘Imepuu’ (Magic Tree) is another that uses archival vocal recordings and it drives along into what appears to be a hard rock workout until Sandra Varbarna’s bagpipes come in and lift us into another dimension. They can be gentle too and ‘Sade’ (Spark) is an original instrumental of spellbinding beauty.

Kullakarva is simply a wonderful album. It is also worth mentioning that the CD version of the album is extremely well packaged and contains information in Estonian, English and Japanese. The Trad.Attack! website is exemplary too with many videos of the band and information in no less than seven different languages. It stands as an example to those in Okinawa of how to promote music overseas.

Kullakarva (Shimmer Gold) is released in Japan by Meta Company.