Archive for the ‘Roots Music from Out There’ category

Mali Obomsawin: Sweet Tooth

September 20, 2022

Sweet Tooth is the debut album from Wabanaki bassist, composer and songwriter Mali Obomsawin who has an eclectic musical background in roots, jazz, and indie rock. It is being described as ‘a suite for indigenous resistance’. As such it should be of interest and relevance to Okinawans whose own history has been marked by oppression and colonialism.

The album blends Wabanaki stories and songs passed down in Obomsawin’s own family with tunes addressing contemporary indigenous life. The music conveys both gentle and aggressive moods. There is one especially effective track featuring field recordings of relatives at Odanak First Nation. It also tells a larger story of the Wabanaki people whose domain stretches from Eastern Canada to Southern New England.

Obomsawin was raised on ancestral land in Maine and Quebec on the Odanak First Nations Reserve, and while studying jazz at Dartmouth College discovered the voices of ancestors locked away in the college archives in field recordings of Odanak songs and stories. This revelation led eventually to the creation of Sweet Tooth.

The six tracks are divided into three movements and joining Obomsawin are other musicians on vocals, drums, guitars, saxophones, cornet, and flugelhorn. The music is impossible to pigeonhole even if it was desirable to do so, as it has many influences and flows in numerous directions. While mostly instrumental, with free jazz as an important reference point, there are also hints of blues, hymns, folk songs, and native culture.

Says Obomsawin: “Telling Indigenous stories through the language of jazz is not a new phenomenon. My people have had to innovate endlessly to get our stories heard – learning to express ourselves in French, English, Abenaki…but sometimes words fail us, and we must use sound. Sweet Tooth is a testament to this.”

Mali Obomsawin (Photo: Abby and Jared Lank)

The track that begins the album ‘Odana’ – already released as a single – is an arrangement of an old Obanaki ballad that tells the story (in the Abenaki language) of the founding of Obomsawin’s ancestral village and of why these people survived.

The album ends with its longest track ‘Blood Quantum’ which concludes with a Penobscot language chant written by Obomsawin and relatives from Penobscot Nation celebrating the matriarchs of their communities. It’s intended as ‘a direct address to violent and misogynistic policies in North America written to tear Indigenous communities apart’.

Mali Obomasawin is obviously a passionate musician and activist. Sweet Tooth is not an easy first listen, but it is well worth making the effort to investigate such an innovative and ultimately uplifting suite that creates art in the harsh face of colonialism. It ought to resonate in the Ryukyus. It’s certainly an album unlike any other you will hear this year.   

Sweet Tooth will be released on digital and LP by Out of Your Head Records on 28th October.


Kate Rusby: 30 Happy Returns

May 20, 2022

English folk singer Kate Rusby previously released both a 10 and a 20 album to mark her years as a musician. (20 was reviewed here on its release). Now comes 30 Happy Returns, a new album to commemorate and celebrate three decades of music making.

The new album has a generous 16 songs, including bonus track ‘Secret Keeper’ a song featuring the Royal Northern Sinfonia and commissioned by Newcastle Gateshead Initiative for the Great Exhibition of the North. The rest of the album contains revisits to earlier glories and some new arrangements as well as contributions from a variety of guest singers.

Two things are immediately apparent. The first is how Rusby’s sound has subtly changed over the years in a natural development to embrace more instrumentation with the appearance of electric guitars, drums, Moog, and synths. The other is that no less than eleven of these tracks are completely original songs despite her reputation as a purveyor of the traditional. The original compositions stand up very well and are testimony (if any were needed) to her evolution as a songwriter.

Once criticised for a lack of adventure, there can surely be no complaints about any of this. The influence of husband, fellow musician, and producer Damien O’Kane would seem to be one of the reasons. The appeal of Rusby’s amazing voice and her way with a song is never compromised. However big they are, the arrangements always fit perfectly, and the guests never overwhelm. She could probably sing the phone book (if such books still exist) and sound compelling but the songs are also the stars.

‘We Will Sing’ features Ladysmith Black Mambazo in a South Africa/South Yorkshire collaboration (see video). The traditional ‘Fairest of All Yarrow’ returns in a busy revitalised arrangement with cornet and flugelhorn driving it along. The glorious ‘Let Me Be’ is almost pure pop and has Rusby sharing vocals with KT Tunstall. And the new ‘Blooming Heather’ (with Sam Kelly) easily surpasses the version on her Awkward Annie album. 

In her notes she says: “By nature, I have never been ambitious, just rolled along with the world hoping not to get flattened! There have been highs and some lows, thankfully the lows are far outweighed by the happy sunlit highs! I have been given awards and accolades, two honorary doctorates, a Mercury Music Prize, opportunities to play with musical heroes. I have shyly rolled along with it all, always thinking Do they actually mean me? Perhaps they’ve got this wrong and they’ll realise before it’s too late!!”

This new collection of songs will not just please her fans but also offers many rewards for anyone who cares to listen. Regardless of her professed lack of ambition, this is another step forward for Kate Rusby and for her team at the Pure Records family business.

30 Happy Returns is out now on Pure Records.

Victor Kinjo: Terráqueos

May 5, 2022

Last week I was invited to the We Are Okinawa!!! concert at Music Town Otoichiba in Koza. This was a fascinating meeting of different singers, musicians, and cultures, with a strong emphasis on the connections between the Ryukyus and South America. One of the main featured artists was Okinawan-Peruvian singer Alberto Shiroma from the band Diamantes. Another was visiting musician Victor Kinjo whose second album Terráqueos is released this week.  

Kinjo is a fourth generation Okinawan-Brazilian singer. He is also a songwriter, researcher, and producer who is based in both São Paulo and New York. Following the release of his first album he was nominated for a best singer award at the 2018 Brazilian Music Awards and his vocal artistry is very evident on the new release.

Terráqueos is a short but ambitious statement. The album aims for a champloo musical journey in which Kinjo “melts sounds and languages of the world in a planetary statement for nature, diversity, and peace.” The eight tracks take us through a wide variety of styles with acoustic guitar and sanshin sometimes mixed with other instrumentation but always with the vocals at its core.

It all begins with a short vocal track in which a poem in Tupi (one of the indigenous languages of South America) is fused with the well-known traditional Okinawan song ‘Tinsagu nu Hana’. This is sung in Uchinaguchi, the language of Kinjo’s grandparents.

The album then takes in new interpretations of songs by composers such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil as well as some original songs by Kinjo sung in Portuguese, English, French, and Uchinaguchi. The album concludes with his original song ‘Uchina’.

One of the songs on the album is ‘Vem Pro Rio’ (Come to the river) and last year he released this as a single and music video (see below). It was recorded in an artistic and scientific expedition from the source to the mouth of the Tietê River in Southeast Brazil. As part of his continuing research, he has recently been investigating the contamination of Okinawan rivers by US military bases.

It was very good to meet Kinjo last week and talk with him about his projects, both environmental and musical, as he spoke of his work and the activist musicians who have inspired him, from Pete Seeger to Shoukichi Kina. His album is well worth checking out, but the last word goes to Kinjo himself:

“There is a shimanchu teaching that says ichariba choodee, which means we are siblings when we meet. In these times of pandemics, climate emergency and war, we must, at the same time, overcome historical injustices and rescue our common ancestry as Terráqueos (Earthlings) made by land and water. I believe music has the power to unite different peoples, identities, and cultures in harmony.”

Terráqueos is released digitally on 6th May by Brazilian label YB Music:

Victor Kinjo will be performing in Tokyo at a release concert for the album on Saturday 7th May. See website for details:

Mama’s Broke: Narrow Line

March 31, 2022

Narrow Line is the new release by Canadian duo Mama’s Broke. It’s the second album from Amy Lou Keeler (vocals, guitar, banjo) and Lisa Maria (vocals, fiddle, mandolin) who are often described simply as a ‘folk duo’. In truth this doesn’t do justice to their music which draws influences from near and far (their website says they are “based out of nowhere and everywhere”) and all the compositions on their new album are originals – not traditional.

Despite all this their main connection is with Eastern Canada and in particular Nova Scotia. The two met in 2014 when Amy Lou gave Lisa Maria a lift from Montreal to Halifax and so began the idea for Mama’s Broke. Both women had already travelled the world, and their musical adventures encompass Quebecois, Balkan, Appalachian, punk and more. They’ve since toured Canada, the USA, Ireland, the UK, and Europe as a duo (though we’re still awaiting them in Okinawa…)

The album is breezy at 33 minutes but within that relatively short time they pack in as much as possible and it’s a superb listen from start to finish. The two are joined by guest musicians on only three tracks (on bass and dobro) and so for the most part it’s just Amy Lou and Lisa Maria singing and playing all the instruments. Everything is beautifully recorded and sounds so fresh it’s as if they’re in the room sitting next to us.

Close attention to the lyrics reveals a darkness in their songs as they sing about the vicissitudes of life while their tunes sometimes shift in unusual and unexpected directions. At times they recall fellow Canadian Kaia Kater, and their harmony vocals even hint of the Everly Brothers, but the soundscapes that emerge are both old-timey familiar and uniquely new.

Mama’s Broke (Photo: Blanca Chavez)

The opener ‘Just Pick One’ was written in Amy Lou’s uninsulated cabin in rural Nova Scotia at the height of a lockdown and has a haunting melody that unfolds to show off their blend of old and new. ‘How It Ends’ is a broken song of lost love, its catchiness almost turning it into a potential country hit as they sing: “Even when it was bad, you were the best I’ve ever had.”

The poignant title track is a song about borders and boundaries that obliquely touches on such things as climate destruction, violence against immigrants, and wealth disparity. Never mind all the implied weightiness, it’s a really rewarding listen. The same goes for ‘God’s Little Boy’ which addresses (but never too obviously) terrorism by angry young men looking to take their rage out on women. 

There is also a sublime a capella rendition of the hymn-like ballad ‘The Ones That I Love’, and a sprightly instrumental with some lively East European fiddling by Lisa Maria. Overall, the album is a fine testament to the still evolving talents of these two women. With roots music producing little gems like this it deserves a much bigger audience.

Narrow Line was recorded in Montreal and produced by Bill Garrett and Mama’s Broke. The album will be released by Free Dirt Records on 13th May.

Lily Henley: Oras Dezaoradas

March 3, 2022

Lily Henley is a US singer, composer, and musician who up to now has been best known for her work in American roots and traditional music. For this new album she turns to her Sephardic Jewish heritage and has come up with a collection of songs drawing entirely on that tradition and sung in Ladino – an endangered language that fuses old Spanish with Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish elements.

The Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain in the 15th century on penalty of death but kept their culture alive as they moved throughout North Africa and the Ottoman Empire. Some of the ballads here date from those early times and Henley sets them to new melodies as well as writing three original songs in Ladino.

She explains: “There are so few young musicians in this song tradition, “and, to me, doing an album of the old melodies, re-recording what people have already recorded, didn’t make me excited. This feels inspiring because I’m creating music that feels really authentic and original to me and I’m adding to this tradition that is very endangered.”

All but the last of the ten tracks have music she composed and some of the old songs have words adapted by her. Henley sings and plays fiddle and guitar and is accompanied by Duncan Wickel (violin, cello, guitars, octave mandolin, piano, background vocals) and Haggai Cohen-Milo (double bass). She travelled to Paris for the recordings and was welcomed there by the largest Sephardic community in Europe.

Lily Henley (Photo: Ally Schmaling)

She has a strong, clear voice and the arrangements are very engaging. None more so than on the opening track ‘Duermite Mi Alma’ in which guitar and fiddle are joined to very tasty effect by bass and piano as the song builds. Another standout is her composition ‘La Galud’ with its attractive melody, and there is even a hint of a wider affinity with the Basque songs of Maider Zabalegi.

The folk songs on Oras Dezaoradas are drawn from living sources, old archives, and medieval love poems. They all have a strong female emphasis as much of the music was kept alive by the women who, in doing so, were going against standard gender roles. Unusually, the women in these Sephardic songs displayed a powerful independence as they sang of their daily thoughts and concerns.

Lily Henley has created a valuable work in the Sephardic song tradition. She manages at once to keep these ballads alive and to render them completely up to date for a modern audience as well as adding some new ones of her own. The CD booklet contains the original Ladino song lyrics alongside English translations.

Oras Dezaoradas will be released by Lior Éditions on 6th May.

Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves: Hurricane Clarice

January 28, 2022

Hurricane Clarice is the second album by American stringband musicians Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves. It contains a mix of songs and tunes strongly rooted in traditional old-time music with de Groot playing banjo and Hargreaves on fiddle.

The pair recorded this in Portland, Oregon in the middle of a global pandemic and were encouraged by producer Phil Cook to weave their own family histories into the project by including audio recordings of their own grandmothers. The album became in their words “a direct infusion of centuries of matrilineal folk wisdom, a fiery breath of apocalyptic grandmother energy.”

It gets off to a fine start with the song ‘The Banks of the Miramichi’, out now as a single. This is followed by two instrumentals: the flowing melodic ‘Wellington’ by de Groot, and the faster foot-stomping ‘Nancy Blevins’. Next comes ‘Each Season Changes You’ a country song about seasonal depression. The album’s title track is an instrumental composed by Hargreaves and inspired by the surreal world of Brazilian author Clarice Lispector.

The cracking pace and virtuosity of the musicianship continues right through until the ninth and final track ‘The Road That’s Walked by Fools’. This simple song about life as a touring musician provides the perfect ending after all the fireworks that has gone before.

The timeless character of the music is reinforced by the fragments of spoken word recordings but most of all is achieved by the sheer immediacy and spontaneity of the performances. This seeming spontaneity, however, comes as the result of astonishing skill and commitment by two musicians with an obvious love for these songs and tunes.

Allison de Groot (right) and Tatiana Hargreaves (Photo: Tasha Miller)

The album was recorded as if it was a live show and it certainly appears like that to the listener, though the unusual process, with a minimum of overdubs, was not that simple. The time in the studio was demanding and different, but Hargreaves says: “We aren’t perfect and we don’t want our album to sound perfect”.

The inspirations behind these pieces come from various sources including history, family, literature, and the environment. It would be easy enough to talk about moving traditions forward but interestingly de Groot adds: “I’m tired of the perceived goal being to push the music forward. I don’t think that means that much and it’s a capitalist idea; a desired goal but not necessarily a positive thing.”

She makes a good point. What really matters is just the uplifting experience of listening to these musicians who are so obviously at the top of their game.

The album is available in CD and LP formats as well as digital download and the notes contain detailed information on each of the selections.

Hurricane Clarice will be released by Free Dirt Records on 25th March.

Floating Room: Shima

November 15, 2021

Floating Room is the musical project of Uchinanchu-American Maya Stoner whose Tired and True EP was reviewed here last year. Now she and her band are back with a new recording, the four track EP Shima.

Stoner is from Portland via the Ryukyus and although Floating Room’s sound is not at all ‘Okinawan’ on first listening (and is more punk than roots) she has an empathy with and understanding of her own ancestry that soon reveals itself in the songs she writes. This time she signposts her background by titling this short set Shima.

The bright opening track ‘See You Around’ is driven by some jangly electric guitar alongside Stoner’s voice. This is followed by ‘I Wrote This Song for You’. It’s a song that is hard to place in time: it might seem at first a throwback to the 1960s with a few twists and turns reminiscent of Love’s Forever Changes. But it’s also bang up to date and with a raw edge that ends in feedback and a screamed vocal.

‘Firetruck’ is a gloriously catchy slice of pure pop and then the EP ends with its most crucial song ‘Shimanchu’ (Island People) in which Stoner directly addresses her connections to the Ryukyus and the ambivalence and angst that accompany it, as she sings: “Don’t call my island paradise / I’m an islander / Your silence disturbs me”. She manages to pull off the remarkable feat of displaying all her strength as well as her vulnerability in one song.

The band describe the song ‘Shimanchu’ as a paean to Stoner’s Uchinanchu heritage and a retort to the condescension she faces daily as an Asian American woman. The lines repeated throughout are: “I’m an islander but I’m away from my island, so I am the only island here.” Of course, she ends up screaming again.

This is another fine outing from Floating Room who go upwards on a path quite unlike anyone else’s. The tracks were recorded in a single day in Oregon and were produced by Mo Troper who also played guitar, bass, and drums. Maya Stoner and her band are currently at the start of an extensive tour of North America that goes on until just before Christmas. If only they would come to Okinawa in the future.

Shima is out now on digital and vinyl and is released by Famous Class Records.

Spiers & Boden: Fallow Ground

September 21, 2021

It’s been ten years since the last Spiers & Boden album The Works but now, after forays into other projects – most notably with the folk big band Bellowhead – the pair are back with this new album of songs and tunes, Fallow Ground.

The highly regarded Bellowhead established themselves as England’s folk super group (and were also enthusiastically reviewed on the Power of Okinawa). The band decided to go their separate ways in 2014 but two founding members, John Spiers and Jon Boden, had been playing as a duo for a long time before that and have now been making music together for 20 years.

And it’s great to have them back with this new album recorded during the UK lockdown. In fact, it’s a sheer joy and shows how important they are and how much their duo work has been missed. Right from the start there are two superb performances by an older, wiser, and better than ever John Spiers (vocals, melodeons, and concertinas), and Jon Boden (vocals, fiddle, and the occasional stomp).

The first of these is the Australian song ‘Bluey Brink’ learned from the great Norfolk traditional singer Peter Bellamy. It’s a wonderfully rhythmic and jaunty tale with excellent use of light and shade. More fun immediately follows with ‘Butter and Cheese and All’ another song recorded by Bellamy who learned it from Norfolk fisherman Sam Larner.

The title track is a love song while ‘Yonder Banks’ is another standout that deals with memories of lost time. There is also an atmospheric version of what is probably the best-known traditional song, ‘Reynardine’. It’s most familiar to me from Sandy Denny’s version sung with Fairport Convention all those years ago. Although it’s the most ominous and potentially dramatic of the selections, Boden sings it with admirable restraint and the arrangement breathes new life into a song of brooding menace.

But let’s not forget the tunes, as Fallow Ground has plenty of them and the album comprises seven instrumental tracks mixed in with the six songs. They include Morris dances, jigs, and hornpipes – see the video below. My own favourite though is the slower, melodic original piece ‘The Fog’ by John Spiers with its beautiful interplay of fiddle and melodeon. It almost brought me to tears (in a good way).

A slightly surprising thing – this being English folk song – is the absence of the usual doom-laden ballads of murder and death. The overall tone is far more upbeat, and Jon Boden has commented: “I guess we were looking for songs with a sense of fun.” On this they have succeeded and then some. With only the two of them and a bunch of songs and tunes, they have made an intoxicatingly vibrant noise. They are at the top of their game.

Fallow Ground is out now and is released by Hudson Records.

Joe Troop: Borrowed Time

July 14, 2021

Joe Troop’s name should be familiar to readers as leader of the band Che Apalache. Two years ago, their album Rearrange My Heart featured a Japanese folk song from Nagano impeccably sung by Troop and given its premiere by the Power of Okinawa. The album went on to receive worldwide acclaim and a Grammy nomination.

Now Troop is back with his first solo album. As an openly gay man who grew up playing bluegrass in the American South, he has been chased off stages and threatened for his radical songs. Undeterred and eager to pursue his beliefs, his new album is a collection of self-composed protest songs plus a couple of instrumentals. The dominant sound is that of Troop’s voice and banjo and to this he adds some gifted musicians on the various tracks.

This tells only a small portion of the story because the album is much more than that. There are songs sung in English, and in Spanish, and sometimes Troop slips effortlessly between the two languages on the same track. Although almost everything is banjo-driven, there are hints of many different styles and genres incorporated into some glorious mixes. The two instrumentals alone display a remarkable eclecticism with ‘Sevilla’ creating a new genre of banjo flamenco.

But the songs and their messages are at the heart of the album. ‘Love Along the Way’ is a positive life-affirming manifesto that sets the tone in a kind of throwback to the spirit of Woody Guthrie. It contains the album’s title, and the recording features Tim O’Brien on mandolin and vocals.

‘Red, White and Blues’ is the most country with its guitar and mandolin, while the message of gay pride on ‘Purdy Little Rainbows’ is delivered with a laconic laid-back vocal reminiscent of Willie Nelson. Meanwhile the lilting ‘Prisionero’ has a Spanish vocal and some great banjo. ‘Mercy for Migrants’ begins like a sombre hymn and Troop is joined for this by the renowned Béla Fleck on banjo and Abigail Washburn on vocals. A song of empathy for migrants and of mercy for all.   

Joe Troop (Photo: Kendall Bailey)

The album’s final track is ‘Heaven on Earth’, and it typifies everything that is so warm, vital, and adventurous about this set of songs and instrumentals. The first half of this plea for togetherness is played and sung in old-time style and then it segues into a completely different Latin rhythm to provide the perfect upbeat ending to a wonderfully successful album.

Protest songs do not have to be earnest or dour and this is something Borrowed Time gets exactly right. It may be almost too eclectic to satisfy everyone with its mix of language and musical styles but those with open ears and hearts should be very entertained and perhaps educated a bit too along the way.

The final word goes to Joe Troop: “What is generally lacking in this country is solidarity. The ruling elites chose to divide and conquer, they pitted us against each other. Ideologies wither fast when enough people realize they share a common oppressor. We don’t have to convince everyone to join us, just enough. Besides, music with a good cause is way more fun.”

Borrowed Time will be released by Free Dirt Records on 20th August.

JP Harris’ Dreadful Wind & Rain: Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man

June 22, 2021

JP Harris sings and plays fretless banjo with Chance McCoy (fiddle and backing vocals) on this ten-track album. The pair give themselves the unlikely name JP Harris’ Dreadful Wind & Rain and it’s their debut recording of traditional Appalachian ballads, square dance tunes, and old-time music.

Harris was born in Alabama and brought up in the punk underground. He left home at an early age to travel on the road as a teenager and is now based in Nashville where he works as a carpenter building recording studios and restoring historic buildings. He is also known as a country singer, and as a powerful banjoist playing handmade instruments.

Meeting up again with Chance McCoy (from Old Crow Medicine Show) the two decided to record these songs – and one instrumental – at McCoy’s studio in an old barn in the mountains of West Virginia. McCoy produced. Says Harris, “You are hearing the real me, shoeless in cutoff jeans up in the mountains, playing old music with an old friend.” The story of how this all came about is told by Harris in an illuminating essay in the notes to the album.

The songs were learned through oral tradition and antique songbooks with a nod to many of the musicians who have helped to keep them alive. This being traditional music, there are tales of murder, devils, adoration, love lost, and all manner of weirdness. Among the best-known ballads is the classic ‘Barbry Ellen’ learned from recordings by Jean Ritchie.  

There is also a fine version of ‘Old Bangum’, a playful piece that Harris learned from a cassette recording of children’s songs by members of the Seeger family, sung by Peggy Seeger. The song was revived in recent times by Rayna Gellert, and Harris mentions listening to the version played by her father Dan Gellert.

It’s perhaps no surprise that – Harris being a carpenter in his other incarnation – it is the well-known ‘House Carpenter’ that opens the album, and later on there is the sombre ballad ‘The Little Carpenter’ which is a bit less familiar. There are also some lively hints of bluegrass on a couple of tracks, ‘Closer to the Mill’ and ‘Otto Wood’. 

JP Harris (Photo: Libby Danforth)

There was no detailed plan of how the album should evolve, and in this case, it obviously worked out as the results of just the two of them playing music and seeing what happens are totally compelling. New life is breathed into the songs by Harris and McCoy who play around with different ways of telling the stories and expressing old truths.

The last word should be with JP Harris who concludes his personal essay like this:

“I could write pages about the many facets of this music; why it is still relevant, its impact on various communities’ and individuals’ lives, the problems with its past and the reason we must ensure its future, if not possibly in a different light. But I will leave these thoughts to you, the listener, and hope that if nothing else, you can feel the connection to this uniquely American sound; born of migration, violence, compassion, fear, love, and pure unbridled joy.”

Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man is released on 25th June by Free Dirt Records.