World Music: Asaran Earth Trio, Akshara Ensemble, Tribalistas, Safron Ensemble and More


Global Music Gems and Rocks

Looking for something unique for the holidays? Put down those generic CDs from interchangeable one-name pop tarts and give the gift of world music. I've included a few projects that didn't connect with me but might fit your tastes.

The promo for the Asaran Earth Trio jokes that "a Brazilian, a Croatian, and a Hungarian walked into a bar…." That bar is in New York City, where the three have made their mark in various jazz ensembles. I can't imagine that anything they do in those groups parallels the beauty of their collaborative project Why Should Your Heart Not Dance? Sometimes modern recording is too damn slick for its own good. Not here. These three women—Anne Boccato (Brazil), Astrid Kuljanic (Croatia), and Artemisz Polonya (Hungary)—use only hand drums and claps to color their voices and they often don't bother; a cappella singing shines on its own with three gem-like voices such as these. Asaran spotlights global traditions, songs, and styles. "Foreign Lander" is a plaintive song that was once part of Jean Ritchie's repertoire, but is rendered by the trio in ways suggestive of The Wailin' Jennys. Eclecticism is the order of the day. "Viva o Jackson" is creative noodling with jazz scat and complex inter- and cross-weaving backing vocals. A cover of the standard "Bye Bye Blackbird" is also scat-enhanced." The jazz wrappers contrast with a song such as "Patacoada," which comes off as a Brazilian nonsense boasting song crossed with a yogic chant. In others shift, there are the  joyous village feel of the Italian folk song "L'Amante Confessore," and the darker more soulful Hungarian offering "Szeki Lassu." It's hard, though, to imagine anything more stunning than "Kis Kece Lányom," which is actually a Hungarian children's song but here sounds like a madrigal round in a Gothic cathedral. This amazing recording epitomizes the idiom, "You could have knocked me over with a feather." ★★★★★

Akshara Music Ensemble features Carnatic and Hindustani music as filtered through Western and classical traditions. Carnactic music is common to Southern India and is usually sung or played in singsong instrumental patterns, which is what Akshara mainly does. As in much Indian music, their pieces develop in movements; there are just five tracks on In Time, but the recording is over 46 minutes long. This East-meets-West musical feast brilliantly realized was composed by Bala Shandan, who is also one of two percussionists. "Mind theGap" has a bang-the-can sound, even though the percussion is traditional. Like others on the album, Jay Gandhi's Bansuri (flute) gives the piece air through which instruments such as hammered dulcimer, violins, cello, and tabla float. "Mohana Blues" is actually more pastoral than bluesy and has segments that evoke the calmness of Japanese music; that is, if Japanese music also featured kecak chants. (Think the Balinese monkey chant sequences in films such as Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi.) There is so much that impresses on this release: the chase-its-own tail outro to "Opus in 5," the build and drama of "Shadjam," the bell-like tones matched by growling cello in "Urban Kriti…." It is a rare blend of ancient and fresh." ★★★★

If you think the term supergroup is an American thing, think again. Tribalistas brings together three Brazilian artists whose names are as familiar there as Elvis in Memphis. Singer/composer Arnaldo Antunes made his mark in movies, punk, and rock (Titans); singer/percussion wizard Carlinhos Brown in various Afro-Carib styles; and many consider Marisa Monte to be the second greatest popular music singer in Brazilian history. Their album Tribalistas (1) is a genre-confounding collaboration that's somewhere between rock, pop, folk, and jazz. The synergy is obvious, as is their veteran professionalism. Watch the clip of "Diaspora" and you'll see Antunes literally orchestrate the piece, but listen to what happens on its own, including a very cool tempo shift and Brown's subtle keening. If "Fora da Memoria" recalls something Sergio Mendes might have done, it's because  Brown was once part of his band. "Trabalivre" is energetic and edgy, with small, gritty pushes at the ends of stanzas nudging the music to another level. In "Um só" the three sing with and against each other and connect everything with catchy melodic hooks. Learn why these superb artists have enough Latin Grammys, MTV awards, and other hardware to open an Aubuchon. ★★★★

I have no idea what to make of Noaccordion, the brainchild of Oakland-based Onah Indigo. Let me quote her album PR : "Balancing trap's gritty edge with serene vocals and dubbed-out accordion licks, Gurukula ripples with energy, yet radiates calm, as the sounds of bhajans and songs in Kannada entwine with an atmosphere of unfolded paradise, with its organic beat." Huh? Trap is a hip-hop style that evolved in the South, bhajan is a South Indian religious song, and Kannada is a language/ethnic group. That said, pieces such as "Goalie" and "Oonana" are essentially a series of beats, unusual electronic sounds, and submerged echoing vocals. "Response" is rare in that we hear a discernible South Indian melody. Listen; maybe you'll what I'm missing. Is this hypnotic or performance art quirkiness? I lean toward the latter.

Onah Indigo attempts what the Saffron Ensemble accomplishes. Their album Will You also seeks universal connections through unique channels: a coming together of American, Canadian, Indian, and Persian musicians whose compositions incorporate the poetry of Rumi, a 13th century Iranian poet, as filtered through Indian grooves, Western jazz, and a saxophonist (Tim Ries) who has toured with The Rolling Stones. If, on your screen, this looks to be convoluted, listen and you'll find coherence. I was hooked from the first notes of "Sweet Caroline" (not the Neil Diamond hit). Kevin Hays' delicate piano notes set the mood for trance instrumentation that dance to Dibyarka Chattersee's tabla beats. Pieces such as "If I Can't" and "Quiet Turbulence" evoke the ambience of 1950s beatnik clubs in which poetry was read atop quiet background music, but if you're tempted to dismiss non-English spoken word as dull, listen to passion in Katayoun Goudarzi's voice. It is as if she accesses the unifying stillness that counters the cacophony of human differences. If that doesn't impress you, listen when she sings. Her tones are ornamented and mellifluous. Listen to how she comes in later to build s "A Thread." The mix of sitar (Shujaat Hasain Khan), piano, tabla, flute, sax, and vocals thrum to global vibes, even on "Void" in which the silences are as important as the sounds. ★★★★★  

Astrid Kuljanic (of the Asaran Earth Trio) has her own band, the Transatlantic Exploration Company. It's much more of a soft jazz ensemble, one in which she's backed mostly by accordion and bass. Sample the moody café style version of the Croatian traditional "Oj vi Mlade,"the faintly Latin twist she puts on the Dizzie Gillespie standard "Night in Tunisia," the free form "Portrait," and the sultry, sparse "Wild in the Night" from the Ensemble's album Riva. This album isn't really my cup of tea, but it might be yours. ★★ ½

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