Archive for the ‘Roots Music from Out There’ category

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.

Joseph Spence: Encore

June 3, 2021

This is an unexpected release of ‘new’ recordings by the late Joseph Spence whose guitar playing has influenced generations of roots musicians around the world. Encore is subtitled Unheard Recordings of Bahamian Guitar and Singing, and it captures Spence in 1965 when he was still at the peak of his powers.

The live recordings were made in New York City when Spence appeared in concert along with other artists from the Bahamas. The show was taped by producer and engineer Peter Siegel who looked after Spence on his visit, and there are two further tracks made in Siegel’s own apartment. Soon after, Siegel visited the Bahamas to make field recordings at Spence’s home in Nassau. These three sources make up the 13 tracks on this album. 

Listening to Spence is a strange experience for the newcomer. His voice is anything but smooth and it makes Tom Waits sound like an angel by comparison. The press release puts it likes this: “As he sang, lyrics tumbled over exclamations, swaying between guttural interjection and fast-rhyming patter.”

It’s hard to identify exactly where he’s coming from as there are musical influences from a number of different places with everything underpinned by his inimitable acoustic guitar playing. He’s not quite blues, but he sings gospel, and at times he sounds almost Hawaiian – but the one constant is that he is always playfully experimental.

The album includes hymns he grew up with on the islands, as well as the fishermen’s songs he came to know well, and other pieces from further afield. Much of Spence’s work is grounded in the rare vocal traditions of the Bahamas and of the original Bahamian rhyming groups of which he was a part, while the guitar playing is always nimble and wonderfully expressive.

Joseph Spence (Photo: Guy Droussart)

There are classic Spence songs such as ‘Out on the Rolling Sea’, ‘Bimini Gal’, and ‘Give Me That Old Time Religion’. One of the most powerful is ‘Run Come See Jerusalem’ which tells the harrowing story of the sinking of the ship Pretoria in 1929 when the Bahamas was hit by a hurricane. Spence was just 19 at the time but remembers running to help and pulling bodies from the water.

Echoes of his legacy can be heard in many contemporary guitarists, from Richard Thompson to Michael Chapman to Sunny War. But no-one was quite like Joseph Spence, the most brilliant guitarist and interpreter of traditional song. His creativity lives on in these recordings.

Encore will be released by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings on 23rd July. The CD booklet has more than 30 pages with notes on each of the songs, essays, and rare photos. A vinyl LP release will follow in October 2021.

Sunny War: Simple Syrup

February 6, 2021

In those seemingly far away days before the pandemic, Los Angeles based singer, songwriter, guitarist Sunny War was making quite an impact with her album Shell of a Girl (also reviewed here) as well as a highly acclaimed appearance at an NPR Tiny Desk concert. Now she is back with a new album Simple Syrup.

She has kept busy during the pandemic by writing and recording the eleven new songs for this release. Not just that, she also founded a Los Angeles chapter of the non-profit organisation Food Not Bombs and gathered volunteers to distribute vegan food to the homeless. She also marched for BLM to protest police brutality.

Like the previous album, Simple Syrup was recorded at Hen House Studios in Venice Beach with producer Harlan Steinberger. The album goes for a looser, more live atmosphere, focusing on the interplay between the musicians. The core trio are Sunny War on vocals and guitar, Ayron Davis on bass, and drummer Paul Allen, and they are joined by a few other musicians when needed.

There’s a warm atmosphere on the opener ‘Lucid Lucy’ on which her fingerpicking guitar style is aided by some cello. ‘Mama’s Milk’ strikes a jazzy note with saxophone alongside the guitar, bass, and drums, while ‘Like Nina’ is also jazz infused but begins almost as if it’s going to be West African desert blues.  

The lyrics encompass everything from romance to politics. ‘Kiss a Loser’ is an ode to her own drunken self in relationships. But she shifts easily to weightier subjects, none more so than on ‘Deployed and Destroyed’. This is a song about a friend – a veteran of the Iraq wars – who fell apart, unable to get the care he needed and now homeless with severe mental trauma. It will resonate here in Okinawa with its huge military base presence.

Sunny War (Photo: Florencia P. Marano)

Sunny War has also experienced living on the streets and was a beneficiary of Food Not Bombs handouts. Of her work with them she says: “I can’t do much, but Food Not Bombs helps us come together as a community and realize that we are a community. Now I see people every week and we know each other. It’s also about not looking away when you see somebody in this situation.”

Despite some of its tortured themes, the album is delivered with an ease and simplicity that never overstates or overstays. Sunny War is looking to art to bring solace in hard times. As she says: “I want Simple Syrup to be an album of refuge. An album you can listen to when you want to get away.”

This is the stop-motion animation video for the song ‘Lucid Lucy’ – a meditation on the appeal of lucid dreaming:

Simple Syrup will be released on 26th March by Hen House Studios.

Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno

January 20, 2021

This self-titled album is the second release by American singer, songwriter, and musician Vivian Leva whose solo debut came out in 2018. For these new recordings she is joined by Riley Calcagno, a young musician who learned his trade on the festival scene. In fact, the pair are from the Appalachian string band tradition and Leva grew up in a rural setting in Virginia, the daughter of celebrated old-time musicians.

Their album was produced by Joel Savoy at his Louisiana studio and contains all original songs based on the music they grew up with but with fresh new melodies and singing. Of the eleven tracks, five are composed by Leva, one by Calcagno, and the rest co-written. Leva leads with most of the vocals and plays rhythm guitar with Calcagno on acoustic and electric guitars, fiddle, and banjo.

The press release describes it as ‘old-soul roots music to its core’ and that’s exactly what it is. When they are joined by musicians on pedal steel, piano, bass, and drums it moves into country music territory and this is most successful on ‘Biding All My Time’ and the closing track ‘Good and Gone’. By contrast, ‘You Don’t See Me’ has the more timeless air of a traditional folk ballad that is also reminiscent of Cinder Well.

Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno (Photo: Brendon Burton)

The lyrics of many of these songs explore themes of space, distance, and separation in uncertain times. They were working on the songs well before the arrival of Covid, while attending different universities separated by half the country. They would send each other voice memos, and work on songs during weekend visits.

“We would try to write music in these little spare moments,” Leva explains. “It’s so hard to communicate with someone over the phone. A song is a place that you can map out how you’re feeling and how you want to share your feelings.”

The two best songs are Leva’s ‘Will You’, and the melancholy ‘Love and Chains’ which they wrote with Sam Bailey. This delicate song, with the pair trading vocals, is a reflection on being in the moment even as a difficult parting is imminent. On these and some of the other songs the arrangements move in unexpected directions.

The addition of other musicians allows a bigger range but just listening to the pair on their own is perhaps the most rewarding of all. What cannot be overstated is the skill, care, and love that has been put into the making of this record by young musicians already steeped in a tradition way beyond musical fashions.

The album will be available on CD, LP, and digital, and is scheduled for release on 12th March by Free Dirt Records.

Araki Kodo: Hankyō

January 7, 2021

It’s not too often that Japanese music is featured here but Hankyō (Reverberation) is an interesting new album of shakuhachi music by Araki Kodo – the name given to Hanzaburo Araki a sixth generation Kinko-Ryu shakuhachi master based in Seattle, Washington.

The Araki family has been playing and passing down the skills and traditions of Kinko-Ryu shakuhachi since the 19th century. Araki began playing the Japanese bamboo flute when he was 17 and made his debut with his father soon after that in a concert in Shimonoseki, Japan. He has been performing now for more than three decades.  

The four pieces played here are mainly traditional and have a special significance for the family. One of them ‘Tsuki no Kyoku’ (Song of the Moon) was a composition of Araki’s great-great-grandfather after whom he is named. The album’s title also refers to the original name of a composition by his father, included here.

With no apprentice, Araki Kodō VI will be the last of the line. He decided to start recording in order “to preserve a style of playing that has been refined by six generations of experience, and to add to a family archive of the music that has been passed from father to son.” He adds: “I hope that you will hear the old stories in the music…and that you will also hear the story that is being written now.” 

For anyone interested in the haunting sounds of the shakuhachi, or in traditional music from Japan, this is an essential listen. Fascinatingly, in another incarnation, Hanz Araki also draws on his Irish heritage, and is known for his instrumental work on both whistle and flute as well as being a singer on Seattle’s thriving Irish music scene.

Seersha in Atlanta

December 16, 2020

It is always good to be contacted – sometimes out of the blue – by overseas musicians with strong connections to Okinawa. Seersha is one of those who I’ve been in touch with this year and is an American singer, composer, recording artist and producer based in Atlanta, Georgia.

The link to Okinawa is that she spent five years on the main island as a child, where she lived with her family in Urasoe, and she retains a great affection for the Ryukyus, its culture and its music. In fact, she first learned piano from a teacher on Okinawa and so the foundations of her own music go back to that time.  

Seersha’s own music emanates from her facility with composition and keyboards. It’s not overtly Okinawan in style but has instead been described as ‘moody indie synthpop’. The lush sound she creates also embraces more than a hint of retro-pop and of electronica in general.

Earlier this year her second EP Metaphors was released independently on her Fox Nose Records label. It contains the song ‘The Beach’ which can be traced back to those musical roots in Okinawa. The song’s video has some fascinating footage taken during her time as a child on the island. Her own family background is also diverse as her mother is from Jeju Island, South Korea, and her father from Indiana.

Bringing us right up to date, she has recently released a new song ‘Save Me Now’ which she says was inspired by Joan of Arc’s words and story. The video for the song is just out and was released yesterday (15th December).

This year has seen her concentrating on producing videos. ‘Lecture Me’ (also on Metaphors) is a particular favourite of mine, but an album may well be on the horizon for next year. In the meantime, more information can be found on her website below.

Floating Room: Tired and True

December 4, 2020

Floating Room is the musical project of Maya Stoner who describes herself as an Uchinanchu American artist based in Portland, Oregon. Tired and True is her new five track EP on which she is joined by a handful of other musicians. All the songs are composed and sung by Stoner who also plays guitar.

Her vocals are supported by guitar, bass, drums and keyboards, with some slide guitar on one track and a bit of trumpet on another. The opener ‘Freakshow’ is the most pop-like and is a bit of an earworm. For all its melodic catchiness, this is a song about frustration, disillusion, and insincerity – deep emotions bubble under the shiny surface of the music as she sings, “Everybody loves a freakshow / They don’t like the freak though”.

Tired and True (cover painting by Ona Greenberg)

What’s impressive is that every song here manages to create a lyrical and musical palette of its own and each track sounds quite distinct from the one before. ‘Held Open Door’ is presented as a ‘meditation on dimming innocence set to jagged guitar pyrotechnics’, ‘Dancer’ has another strong melody, ‘Warm Death (HIFI)’ flirts with shoegaze, and ‘Gun’ rocks out.

None of this sounds remotely Okinawan so I was keen to learn about Stoner’s connection with these islands after listening to her music, and then reading her astute and insightful contributions on social media where she often addresses Okinawan issues. So, I did the obvious thing and got in touch to ask her about it directly. She got back to me with this answer:

“My ojiichan (grandfather) and obaachan (grandmother) both play sanshin and I think that’s where I got my musicality from. My mother is from Okinawa and that half of my family lives there. Okinawan music never fails to cut straight to my heart in a visceral way. Even though my own music sounds very different from it, when I hear the traditional music of my people it just makes sense to me that it is an intrinsic part of me.”

Floating Room’s Maya Stoner

Stoner was happy to talk more with me about her background, and, like her songs, she has a lightness and ease that is very engaging but also a clear underlying passion and an uncompromising concern about her heritage. Of her time in Okinawa she says:

“One of my favorite Okinawa memories is when I sat across from Misako Oshiro in her minyo bar Shima Umui and watched her perform. Another formative experience was visiting tents where water protectors maintained a 24-hour presence to protest the new US military base in Henoko. I was asked by the activists to share my knowledge about the bases and history of US-Okinawa relations with other Americans. Though I do not have a huge following I feel a responsibility as an Uchinanchu American to always shed light on what is happening there and the atrocities my own grandparents have lived through.”

Despite some of the dark themes that run throughout her writing on Tired and True, listening to these songs is ultimately an uplifting experience. This is a fine thing. Now it will be interesting to see further developments when there’s a full-length Floating Room album. There might even be some sanshin next time…

Tired and True is produced by Mo Troper and Floating Room. The EP is out now and is released independently by Maya Stoner on digital and vinyl.

Contemporary Roots Music Mix

September 4, 2020

Based in Tokyo, K.O.L. Radio is an online channel with podcasts, DJ mixes, and other special programmes featuring many genres of music. The shows are introduced in both English and Japanese.

Recently I was asked to compile a Contemporary Roots Music Mix for one of the shows. The only guideline was that it should be a ‘non-Okinawan’ mix so this gave me the opportunity to indulge my interest in some of the other kinds of roots music that I’ve featured on this blog.

The playlist I came up with begins and ends with traditional songs from England sung by Shirley Collins. In between there is music from, or with connections to, the USA, Estonia, Ireland, Argentina, Japan, France, Taiwan, Madagascar, Canada, and the Basque Country.

The show is now online and here is the link to listen:

The playlist and order of songs is below. The albums from which these songs are sourced were all reviewed over the past year or so on the Power of Okinawa blog. For full reviews of the albums check the ‘Roots Music from Out There’ category.

Shirley Collins ‘The Merry Golden Tree’.

The Revelers ‘Au bout de la riviere’ (At the End of the River).

Jake Blount ‘Move, Daniel’.

Trad.Attack! ‘Tehke ruumi!’ (Make Room!).

Cinder Well ‘The Cuckoo’.

Che Apalache ‘Rearrange My Heart’.

Che Apalache   春の便 (The Coming of Spring).

Fanel ‘Inori’.

Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn ‘The Roving Cowboy / Avarguli’.

Hedy West ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’.

Ruper Ordorika ‘Zazpi Nobio (Zuzenean)’.

Agurtzane & Ion Elustondo ‘Ni Banaiz Zu’.

Kelly Hunt ‘How Long’.

Small Island, Big Song ‘Sacanoy’. Featuring Ado Kaliting Pacidal and Tarika Sammy, from the Indian and Pacific Ocean music project.  

Pharis & Jason Romero ‘Kind Girl’.

Shirley Collins ‘Barbara Allen’.

Many thanks to James Catchpole at K.O.L. Radio for asking me to do this. I hope to compile more shows in the future. Maybe it will soon be time for one on Okinawan roots music….

Kate Rusby: Hand Me Down

August 17, 2020

English folk singer Kate Rusby has appeared on this blog several times, mostly as the subject of album reviews but in another lifetime (or so it seems now) I met and interviewed her for a magazine in the early days of her career and the article is now in the Features Archive here.

For more than two decades she has been an integral part of the UK folk scene and it’s hard to remember a time when she was not at the forefront. On this new album, however, she departs completely from her traditional roots and comes up with an album of covers of some of the pop songs that have been important to her in her lifetime.

The selections include songs written by or associated with Coldplay, Ray Davies, Lyle Lovett, Taylor Swift, Cyndi Lauper, James Taylor, Paul Young, The Cure, and Bob Marley. There are also a couple of lesser known tracks from two television series. The whole thing begins with a version of ‘Manic Monday’ a composition by Prince that was a hit for The Bangles.

In explaining the album’s evolution, she says: “As a folk singer, it’s what I do, re-interpret existing songs, but usually the songs are much, much older. After playing a version of Oasis’ ‘Don’t Go Away’ on the BBC Radio 2 Jo Whiley show, about five years ago, it dawned on me that not just the very old songs are handed down through the generations, but also favourite songs of any age, of any generation. It was always the plan to make this album this year, lockdown just made it more intimate.”

The recordings were made at her home studio in Yorkshire and it’s all very much a family affair. Husband Damien O’Kane produces everything and plays guitars, there is some banjo and synthesizer, a few bits were recorded remotely, and there are some backing vocals from daughters Daisy and Phoebe.

Most importantly, the whole thing is a delight from start to finish. None of the songs are radically altered (though the bridge from the original ‘Manic Monday’ is dispensed with) but they are all given the Rusby treatment in the best possible way and a few of them could almost have been from one of her traditional albums.

Standout tracks will very much depend on the listener’s personal taste but James Taylor’s ‘Carolina On My Mind’, probably the oldest song here, shines like a beacon. More surprising perhaps is that her Taylor Swift homage ‘Shake It Off’ succeeds so well. And ‘Friday I’m in Love’ takes on extra poignancy with a slow sensitive rendition. It hardly needs to be said that everything is sung beautifully as ever in that Barnsley accent.

Hand Me Down is released by Pure Records and is available now digitally and on CD. A vinyl release is forthcoming.

The ‘homemade’ music video for ‘Manic Monday’ is here: