July 2019 Album of the Month: Real Vocal String Quartet

Real Vocal String Quartet
Culture Kin

Have you noticed how many classically trained musicians cross musical borders these days? Call it the Yo Yo Ma Effect. It's not exactly accurate to say that the San Francisco-based Real Vocal String Quartet (RVSQ) is treading new ground as well. It has always been a genre-defying group that, when the mood strikes, is a chamber music ensemble, a jazz combo, or a world music lineup. On Culture Kin, though, RVSQ outdo themselves. The basic idea is to explore connections between San Francisco and its 8 "sister" cities: Abidjan (Cote D'Ivoire), Amman (Jordan), Barcelona, Caracas, Cork, Osaka, Sao Paolo, and Seoul. This means bringing aboard international collaborators to play along with the RVSQ core: Irene Sazer (violin), David Langley (cello), Sumaia Jackson (violin), and Sam Shahan (bass).

I'd give Culture Kin an album of the month nod even had I heard just "Holding an Eye." Irish singer and bodhran artist Máirtin de Cógáin performs it and I am ready to proclaim it the song of the year. It has everything I love in music: a gorgeous melody, skillful vocals, deliberate pacing, and lyrics that will rip your heart from your chest. A lively fiddle jig bridge serves to suggest hope that will be dashed. Yeah, I'm a sucker for Celtic weepies, but listen before you judge me!

Fely Tchaco
This is an album that takes you places, though you're not always sure where. "Woul Le M'en Fe" has a cool cello bop that sets the table for violin explorations that are like a blender mix of Balkan keening, Irish verve, and Appalachian sparseness. Cote D'Ivoire's Fely Tchaco's vocals stay within this hard-to-label feel. "Seasons Song" and "Bright Sun, Shade of a Tree" both opt for a minimalist vibe. The former features Korean violinist Soo-Yeon-Lyuh, who turns an Appalachian vibe inside out and makes it cry in ways only Asian music can. "Bright Sun" is harder still to describe. It's an unusual piece, perhaps even a bit odd until you get caught up in its intrigue. "Ananta" is another in that vein. It uses percussive cello to frame bird-in-flight fiddles, shifts into a punch/counterpunch groove, and segues to moody fiddle that skirts ominous boundaries before allowing the dominant melody to sneak out for a soft landing. "For Choro" and "Aurora" take us inside Latin traditions, the first a quirky waltz that chases itself around a bit and comes off as evocative of, say, a 1940s film score. The second opens with tango bass lines and funereal-like strings. It has been said that the passion of tango burns with such fire that when it ends, it's as if life's candle has been snuffed. This tune is a bit like that. In a related fashion, "Exist"is a watery and reflective tune enhanced by the hang drums of Sicily's Laura Inserra.

If you're looking for something that's way beyond what the ordinary, this is one to check out. It made me wonder why radio play is so formulaic when explorers such as RVSQ take us to far better spaces.   
Rob Weir

Hang Drums, in case you wondered!


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