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Come Write Me Down
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This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down
A sampling of reviews from the current issue
TRAD.ATTACK! Kullakarva (Shimmer Gold) Trad.Attack! Music 4 742252 006244
Photo: Silver Tõnisson
Imagine folk music at the top of the charts. Imagine thousands of fans singing along with a rural refrain recorded decades ago. More than that, imagine bagpipes as a pop instrument. Well, it happened in Estonia, and Trad.Attack! did it on their first album. Now imagine having to follow that. But the Baltic three-piece have done it with admirable style, and built on that enviable start to create an album that breathes, dances, and keeps close to their love of archival songs. And yes, there’s still plenty of Sandra Vabarna’s Estonian bagpipes.
It starts where their debut left off, full-out and frantic on Talgo. Move on a little though, and it’s obvious they’ve expanded their sound, with more of Jalmar Vabarna’s twelve-string guitar, while Tõnu Tubil’s drums provide the powerhouse underpinning. The elements are the same as before, power-trio folk, but with a delicious twist of invention. Kallimale has old voices looped, a choir of them, while Metsa Kuldsed Kuningad is lyrical incantations against wolves (always handy). There’s the breathing space of the lullaby Unelaul, and by the time the title track appears at the close, it’s obvious that Trad.Attack! have let themselves breathe this time around – it last for twelve minutes, with a gentle rise of energy towards the end. Whistles, Jew’s harp, that indefinable Baltic sense of darkness and mystery always lurking just under the surface. And you also get a magic tree on Imepuu.
They’ve taken their time putting this album together, and the thought they’ve put into it all shows. And that sits very well alongside the energy and passion that seem part of their DNA. Can Estonia (and its bagpipes) be poised for musical world domination?
ROSIE HOOD The Beautiful & The Actual RootBeat RBRCD36
Photo: Elly Lucas
With a BBC Performing Arts Fellowship, a Folk Awards Horizon nomination and mentoring by Emily Portman already under her belt, Rosie Hood’s burgeoning career reaches another landmark with the release of this first full-length solo album. She can certainly sing, that’s for sure, delivering balladry with the assurance, confidence and composure of someone who has been immersed in traditional music most of her life, which in a way she has.
“Life and death, love and betrayal, beautiful melodies and hauntingly sad lyrics,” is how she describes the material here, which includes classic sagas like William’s Sweetheart (William Taylor), The Cruel Mother, The Little Blind Girl and Lover’s Ghost (a variant on Holland Handkerchief, which also appears in a very different form on the new Chris Foster album). Her delivery is straightforward, forthright and never over-dramatised or unnecessarily decorative. She tells stories and they stay told; while the arrangements are sparing, but interesting. Tom Wright provides some lovely lap steel (Lover’s Ghost) and banjo (The Red Herring); moody strings (from the Barber Sisters) pop up to add an air of menace at strategic points; Ollie King’s evocative melodeon is particularly effective on perhaps the most telling track, John Archbold’s Afghan narrative, The Hills Of Kandahar; Emma Smith’s double bass keeps it all grounded, taking centre stage on Dorothy Lawrence; and Jefferson Hamer – last seen in these parts doing wonderful things with Francis Child and Anaïs Mitchell – does a similarly captivating job with guitar and harmony vocals on Lord Lovel, which you can hear on this issue’s fRoots 64.
In some ways it’s an old-school approach, immortal songs allowed to speak for themselves with a minimum of fuss or artefact; but the production quality is admirable and the whole package assembled with obvious love and care.
Slightly reminiscent of Bella Hardy, Hood’s own writing – notably her tale of World War I reporter Dorothy Lawrence who passed herself off as a man to get to the front line – suggests that she has a long career ahead of her. In which case this will be a debut album she can always look back on with justifiable pride.
• www.rosiehood.co.uk | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
VARIOUS ARTISTS Zaire 74: The African Artists Wrasse WRASS349
Photo: Jak Kilby
The “African Artists” bit of the subtitle is the key. When Muhammad Ali and George Foreman went to Congo Zaire in autumn 1974 for the so-called ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, a big music festival was mounted alongside the face-banging event, starring some of Zaire and southern Africa’s hottest artists alongside American acts like James Brown, BB King, Bill Withers and the Pointer Sisters, produced by Hugh Masekela and his manager Stewart Levine. But needless to say, when the subsequent Oscar-winning film When We Were Kings was made for the American market, nearly all the local artists were excised. I mean, who’d be interested in music from that country called Africa where they all sing in African and probably bang drums in mud huts? Well, us for starters!
Finally, Masekela, Levine and Levine’s son Sunny recently got their hands on the original sixteen-track analogue master tapes, more than 40 years later, and set to mixing them for the first time. This resulting double CD will be a startling ear-opener to many. You get complete sets of staggering intensity from the justly legendary Tabu Ley Rochereau & Afrisa, Franco & TPOK Jazz and Miriam Makeba, and others less recognised by Western fans like the theatrical Abeti Maikini and hardcore proto-soukous bangers Orchestre Stukas featuring Lita Bembo.
All this – quality audio recordings and film – had been stuck in the vaults, tied up in boxing politics, and rarely has such liberating musical archaeology been more deserved. I thought I was fairly familiar with what Tabu Ley and Franco did, but to hear them so tight and on fire in front of a massive local audience is something else: the atmosphere positively rushes out of the speakers and shakes you with both hands. Of course, no mere recording can ever convey the ambience, the heat, the smell, the energy of a crowd, but in the annals of live concert albums this is right up there with the best, any era, any genres.
Deservedly well-packaged in a hardback double digipak with extensive notes by Robin Denselow and Masekela and Levine themselves, any lovers of ‘golden age’ music from the glory years of central and western Africa will find this utterly essential.
• wrasserecords.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
BILLY BRAGG Roots, Radicals & Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World Faber & Faber ISBN 9780571327744 Hardback, £20
Paul Fineberg, Little Bear Sutton, John Hasted, Russell Quay, Hylda Sims, Marion Amis, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Redd Sullivan at the 44 Club, 1956
In the small list of music books that count as ‘can’t put downers’, right at the top of the pile is Pete Frame’s utterly wonderful The Restless Generation about England in the 1950s. Bragg acknowledges Frame’s work as a major source and inspiration, yet has actually achieved what I would have thought was nigh-impossible – a companion volume that goes much deeper into one of its important threads, which is equally readable and adds immeasurably to the pool of research and knowledge. From here on in, this is the set text on the skiffle era, putting it into perspective as the vital phenomenon it was.
Somewhere along the line, Billy Bragg had the lightbulb realisation that Lonnie Donegan wasn’t simply a smooth cabaret act in a suit banging on about chewing gum and dustmen, and that trad jazz wasn’t all faintly embarrassing geezers in beards and bowler hats tootling away in pubs on a Sunday lunchtime. From this he discovered that the first catalyst for pretty much all British guitar-based rock music – let alone a large swathe of the mid-20th Century ‘folk revival’ and the 1960s ‘blues boom’ – was an obstinate, obsessive cornet player from Great Yarmouth called Ken Colyer (plus a large chunk of repertoire from a man called Lead Belly); that the early American roots of ‘Trad’ were far more dynamic and colourful than anything he could have imagined; and that Brit punk rockers of the mid 1970s were little different in attitude, politics and explosive inspirational influence on a generation from some of the skifflers and bohemians of 1950s Soho, apart from the volume they played at (and even then they shared the same three chords and the 100 Club as a venue).
Colyer and Donegan are central of course, along with the expected cast of key players like Chris Barber, Russell Quay’s City Ramblers with Hylda Sims, John Pilgrim, Wally Whyton and the Vipers, John Hasted, Karl Dallas, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Chas McDevitt, Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies, Johnny Duncan and many more. It’s also littered with legendary venue names like the Forty-Four Club, The Roundhouse, the Skiffle Cellar, the Princess Louise, the 2 I’s coffee bar, the Gyre & Gimble and Ballads & Blues that have resonated down the decades. But it’s in the small detail that the fascination grows.
Another fine thing is that not only was the era actually quite well documented in a random range of (sometimes obscure) contemporary publications including the nascent music press – if (big ‘if’!) you know where to look – but a reasonable number of the people involved are now elderly but luckily still with us and their marbles. Others had been interviewed before passing on. Either way, one can’t help feeling that this was timely research which would have been far less fruitful if left much longer. And gathering all that information up and stitching it together in such a coherent and reader-friendly narrative is a special skill. Those of you who’ve read Bragg’s previous fine works like The Progressive Patriot will already know his talents at stringing non-song words together: not bad at all for a punk rock skiffle busker.
Essential library addition for anybody interested in the roots of where we are today, and a brilliant read to boot.
• www.faber.co.uk | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
AND THE REST… The albums - good, adequate and plain bad - which didn't get the full-length treatment, contributed individually by a selection of our various reviewers cowering under the cloak of collective anonymity. For example…
Steve Wickham: Beekeeper (Man In The Moon)
Waterboys fiddler (and multi-instrumentalist) exercises his classical, rock and trad chops across some inventively original tunes. His intriguing songs (one spoken/sung by the man himself) feature an impressive cast of guest singers including Ger Wolfe and Mike Scott. www.stevewickham.ie
Youssou N’Dour: Africa Rekk (Sony Music 88985357092)
Sony France slipped this one out last November, completely unannounced in the UK, and one can see why. It’s as inconsequential as his previous attempted crossover releases got: lightweight, guest auto-tuned rappers, passages in poor English. Most of the Etoile De Dakar crew are present, but banging mbalax there is not: with one or two exceptions, one of the world’s greatest voices mostly soars over musical wallpaper.
Various Artists: Folk Awards 2017 (Proper PROPERFOLK18)
Annual compilation of BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards nominees, this year exhibiting an arguably wider geographical disposition and fewer ‘usual suspects’, although inexplicably omitting twice-winning Kris Drever and Daoirí Farrell. Also including bonus cuts from four Young Folk Award nominees. www.propermusic.com
Voodoo Love Orchestra: Inglorious Technicolour (Movimientos Records B01J71CKFU)
Brighton’s brass blasters VLO hit the sweet spot with their rumbustious blend of Colombian cumbia, Jamaican ska, US blues and New Orleans stylings. A joyous riot from start to finish. voodooloveorchestra.com
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This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down