This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down
A sampling of reviews from the current issue
9BACH Tincian Real World CDRW202
Photo: Judith Burrows
It’s been five long years since the startlingly original interpretations of Welsh traditional songs on 9Bach’s eponymous debut album first alerted us to their immense potential. This new release marks the emergence of singer Lisa Jên as a songwriter, featuring seven entirely new compositions, two new musical settings of existing poems and just the one traditional song (Pa Le?
Recorded in Wales, and with all bar one of the songs sung in Welsh (the exception is in Greek) this music is “worked from the mountainous, mining landscape of Gerlan and Bethesda: the harshness and the beauty, its ever-changing moods and the solidarity of the people who live there.”
These are big songs which tell deep stories, and not all of them local in origin. There’s the aboriginal child snatched from her mother in Plentyn; the joys and anguish of childbirth in Lliwiau and Babi’r Eirlys; the grandmother under the shadow of death in Pebyll and the quarry man leaving his work for the last time in Ffarwel. Lisa Jên’s voice elevates these songs into something perhaps best described as a Cymraeg Fado, capable of transcending language barriers and transfixing the listener with her emotion and artistry.
While it’s easy just to eulogise that voice (which first caught my attention via Gruff Rhys’ Candylion), 9Bach is much more than a one-woman band. I once asked Martin Hoyland how he managed to play electric guitar all over traditional songs without ever giving-off the slightest whiff of ’70s folk-rock. I hope he took it as the compliment that it was intended to be! On Tincian his atmospheric, song-serving playing is nothing short of outstanding. Ali Byworth (drums), Dan Swain (bass), Esyllt Glyn Jones (harp, vocals), and Mirian Roberts (vocals) all play a full part in arrangements which eschew standard pop/rock structures while successfully incorporating age-old Welsh touchstone sounds of harp and male voice choir with an irresistible modern dance ambience. A brilliant, genre-defying album.
• www.realworld.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
MARTIN GREEN Crows’ Bones Reveal 036DDX
We are, of course, well accustomed to the Great Box Man of Lau going off on weird and wonderful tangents in collaborations with orchestras, brass ensembles, rock stars and all, but this is something else entirely.
Commissioned by Opera North to put together a show about ghosts, he co-opted Becky Unthank, Inge Thomson and Swedish nyckelharpa player Niklas Roswall and what emerged was this remorselessly dark and unsettling yet brilliantly crafted journey into the spirit world. The same collective subsequently went into the studio with Calum Malcolm and Portishead’s Adrian Uttley to restructure the project for a more permanent format, creating the type of music best listened on your own in an unlit room with phones and all human contact switched off.
Ghost tales are a staple part of the folk tradition – particularly favoured, it seems, by several among the newer generation – but Green’s musical architecture is a wonder to behold, offering a different perspective that uses starkness like an instrument of torture. Modern songs like the shuddering I Saw The Dead by Conor O’Brien (Villagers) and One December Morn by Sean Cooney (Young ’Uns) – Becky Unthank dragging out every syllable like it’s a piece of her flesh – fit naturally alongside more familiar traditional fare such as Three Ravens and a hymn-like treatment of Lyke Wake Dirge.
There’s also a very odd original piece called Some Living escorted in from the ether on a single insistent cello string apparently played on a log (a Green musical invention that he calls…The Log!); while there’s an unmistakeable feeling that Freddy Krueger is lurking in the garden and is about to cut off your head through Some Neither. Add in a Swedish bridal march and an ethereal finale titled Some Dead featuring the trio Ayakhaan from Yakutia playing an Eastern European form of mouth harp, plus some oddball harmonies between the very different, yet bizarrely complementary voices of Becky Unthank and Inge Thomson, and you have a very strange, disconcerting yet thoroughly engaging and somewhat hypnotic album.
With this around the place, every night is Halloween.
• www.crowsbones.com | • www.martingreen.tv | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
TOUMANI DIABATÉ & SIDIKI DIABATÉ Toumani & Sidiki World Circuit WCD087
Photo: Youri Lenquette
Toumani & Sidiki
From the opening statement of shimmering strings we enter a magical world. The high artistry of these two men, father and son, is immediately at work: the compelling grace of the rhythm, the exuberant departures from the base pattern, the ability to give form to feeling. In a way, the field is already won simply by the extraordinary sound of the kora, the 21-string West African harp. You can be moved to tears by a ramshackle beach bum in the Gambia playing a kora for coins.
Malian Toumani Diabaté is generally rated as the finest living exponent of the glorious instrument. Winner of many awards, he has collaborated with flamenco players, Brazilians and bluesmen – and, outstandingly, with the late Ali Farka Touré. His duet album with Taj Mahal is apparently Barack Obama’s favourite. His son Sidiki is 23, a hugely popular hip-hop artist, a stadium-filler in his own right. Yet he says he loves and respects his roots as a kora player, a member of a revered griot family: “It’s a dream to play with my father,” he says.
It wasn’t until last November that they played their first concert together, but the family link is clearly profound, a shared channel. In griot memory it goes back 71 generations. The understanding between the two is never less than intimate, frequently unbelievable. The way they manoeuvre, moving in and out, embellishing and accentuating, finishing each other’s lines, is marvellous: stately, playful, elegiac and powerful by turns.
The album was recorded in London, more or less spontaneously. Just two koras, some tracks recorded without rehearsal, and no overdubs. The pieces are a mix of ancient relics and better-known classics, but the intention is not to recreate the past. It’s to play ancestral music in a modern way, by men who live in the modern world. ‘The past,’ says Toumani, ‘meets the present for the future.’
In recent months many Malian musicians have made a point of standing up for their country in the face of disaster and chaos from a puritanical insurgency whose excesses include trying to stamp music out. With this album Toumani wishes to show the positive side of Mali, the depth of music it holds. He and his son succeed handsomely.
• www.toumaniandsidiki.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
BOULPIK Konpa Lakay Lusafrica 662252
Photo: Thomas Simoens
From Haiti, with banjos. Oh, you need to know something more…?
Anybody who loves old-style Caribbean (or Indian Ocean) Creole string bands will be blown away by this. Boulpik (aptly ‘hitting the bullseye’) are toubadou – troubadours – whose music is honed from playing on the streets. So their two-banjo frontline evolved because those instruments are louder and cut through public bustle better than guitars. The bass line is provided by maniboula – like the Cuban/ Dominican marimbula, a cross between a bass mbira and cajon box that the players sit on (very ancient readers back to our Southern Rag days may remember a feature we did on these); the rhythm section a single hand drum and claves. Their music is what used to be called ti djaz (little jazz) made by rural acoustic bands, based on the popular Haitian konpa that evolved in the 1950s with a bit of influence from cuban son.
But if that sounds nice and folksy, don’t anticipate a dodgily-tuned field recording. Leader Franckel Sifranc has been doing this since 1980 and this six-piece line-up, put together in 2004 with younger musicians, is tight and professional – literally now, since there’s hardly any other way to make a living in their depleted country. Strong lead and harmony vocals, a joyously infectious groove, and excellent production that judiciously slips in a few guest musicians on accordeon, violin and electric guitar on a couple of tracks for variety, all add up to a wonderful album that’s easy to have on repeat play with the volume up for much feelgoodness.
They’d clean up at Womad! Are you reading this Paula?!
• www.lusafrica.com | 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…
Lightnin’ Hopkins: Lightnin’ Strikes + Lightnin’ Hopkins (Soul Jam 600821)
Texas bluesman Lightnin’ was one of the most distinctive, rolling and rocking guitar players and confident singers of the post-war blues era. If you’ve not got anything of him, you need some and this pair of LPs from ’59 and ’62 on one CD set is a brilliant place to start. A legend at his peak. www.souljamrecords.com
Haddo: Borderlands (Lulubug LULUBUG002)
Not content with his harmonica virtuosity, Will Pound now exercises excellent melodeon chops in harmonious consort with viola-/fiddle-playing partner Nicky on Haddo’s second collection of tunes, invariably given fun treatments (love the Glen-Miller-morris!), with two Scottish songs now also tossed into the mix. www.haddofolk.com
Dobet Gnahoré: Na Drê (Contre-Jour CJ031)
Extraordinary airy-voiced Ivorian singer poorly served by clever, over-fussy production. Too many sound effects – police cars, children’s voices – go along with rhythms that chop and change in midstream, arrangements that don’t settle. www.contrejour.com
Belshazzar’s Feast: Belshazzar’s Feast Live! – The Whiting’s On The Wall (Unearthed EARTHOL004)
In celebration of two decades of Fishy Feasting, the two Pauls serve up an hour’s worth of harmonious live hilarity and serious musicianship, communicating with enthusiasm and wicked intelligence. www.belshazzarsfeast.com
If you follow the click through to Amazon from the links here and buy anything at their usual excellent prices, fRoots will receive a small commission. This is at no extra cost to you, and helps to support the resources on this web site.
There are lots more reviews in this month’s issue of fRoots. Subscribe!
This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down