Jaro Milko and the Cubalkanics

Cigarros Explosivos!
Asphalt Tango Records 4614
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Let's see–a Czech expatriate living in Switzerland who plays grunge-laced surf guitar and fronts a band specializing in Balkan music by way of Cuba, Jamaica, Brazil, and Peru. It's a mashable world, baby. The opening track is called "Cumbia Griega," but though cumbia hails from Colombia, you can be forgiven if this tune makes you think Dick Dale was hijacked by a group of belly dancers. It's followed by "El Topo," with fuzzed-out guitar and rolling organ notes evocative of an electric Kool-aid acid test somewhere south of the border. Milko really has the surf music/reggae thing going on in "All the Past," serves up mariachi-influenced blaring brass in "Belly's Bounce," and turns to some tongue-in-cheek Django jazz in "Nah Nah Nah." If you're looking for the Cuban parts implied by the band name, you'll find it in the swaying chorus of "Miseria," but you'll also hear some dance hall and studio tricks thrown in to keep you slightly off stride. Once he's got you there, he knocks you completely off your pins on "Danza Mentirosa," which comes across as intergalactic experimental music. Even the cover art and album title signal that Jaro Milko is more interested in making a joyous, offbeat record than in pleasing purists. If there is a downside, it's that Milko sometimes goes too far. This is particularly the case with his growly vocals; he's either trying to lampoon Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello, or he simply can't sing a note. But we can overlook this on an album that covers more ground than National Geographic. 
Rob Weir


Colleen Raney's Stunning New Release

Here This is Home
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In a sea of Celtic chanteuses, Portland (OR)-based Colleen Raney floats to the surface. Hers is a voice both youthful and muscular, capable of fragile beauty ("The Boys of Mullaghbawn"), but also of dark tones ("The Nightingale"), or sheer exuberance ("The Granemore Hare," a bouncy hunt song). What she doesn't do is whispery little girl voices, something she signals out of the gate with a killer cover of the Nic Jones version of "Canadee-i-o." She is literally poetic in places, gracefully interpreting Irish poet Vincent Woods' verses in "Stand Up for Love" and "Sanctuary," both of which guitarist Aidan Brennan set to music. Brennan also produced the album and that alone ought to be an endorsement–Brennan has worked with heavyweights such as Kevin Burke, Johnny Cunningham, Alaisdair Fraser, and Loreena McKennitt, and Susan McKeown, which is to say he's particular about the projects he chooses. Among the many remarkable features of this, Raney's fourth release, is the interplay between musicians and singer. In addition to Brennan we find folks such as Trevor Hutchinson on bass, Steve Larkin on fiddle, Aaron Jones on bouzouki, and Johnny B. Connolly on accordion. Add percussion and keyboards and it's an ensemble that could take down the roof. Instead, both instrumentalists and Raney are in perfect control. Though it sounds an oxymoron, the feel is at once bold and subdued. Exile songs such as "Craigie Hill" are sufficiently wistful, but never dreary. Overall Raney strikes a wonderful pop/trad balance that makes even familiar songs fresh, especially in "Cruel Brother," which she converts into a hoppy number. Here This is Home is one of my favorite recent releases. One can but wish Ms. Raney the success she so richly deserves.   Rob Weir


Invention of Wings a Superb Historical Novel

Sue Monk Kidd
Viking, ISBN 978-0670024780, 384 pp.
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If you took Kathryn Stockett’s The Help out of the 20th century and set it during slavery, you might end up with something like The Invention of Wings and you’d get a much better book in the bargain. Sue Monk Kidd’s novel is similarly based on an improbable black/white friendship. She takes us to Charleston, South Carolina in 1803, the year the 11-year-old daughter of a wealthy plantation family received an unorthodox birthday present: her own slave, 10-year-old Hetty (known as Handful in the slave quarters). The birthday girl in question was Sarah Grimké, who shocked her family by trying to free Hetty on the grounds that it was immoral to own slaves. At 11, Sarah was too young to carry out her will, as she would be in adolescence when she insisted she wanted to be a lawyer, but as an adult Sarah Grimké would become a pioneering abolitionist and feminist.

Kidd takes us inside the slave quarters, where we feel the horrors, smell the smells, and vicariously experience yearnings for freedom. There is no happy slave pabulum in this novel; its very title references an African story told by Hetty’s mother Charlotte of how their ancestors developed wings to fly from danger. Charlotte is the Grimké family seamstress and she screws on her compliant face around Mary, the tyrannical mistress of the Grimké household, but privately she reminds Sarah that she promised to free her daughter and intends to hold her to that promise.

The novel shows how Sarah and Hetty developed an unbalanced friendship—one in which it’s not always clear if Sarah is being true to her principles when she does things such as defy the law by teaching Hetty to read, or merely using Hetty as an outlet for a rebellious spirit she’s too scared to exercise around her strict parents. The theme of real versus imagined rebellion is driven home though the overlapping story of Denmark Vesey, a free black man who tried to start a slave uprising in 1822. Coming just three years after Sarah accompanied her dying father north against her will, we begin to wonder if she is all talk and no action. Up to that point, her single biggest act of free will was to insist that she unconventionally be named her sister Angelina’s godmother when the latter was born in 1805.

We know, of course, that Sarah does break out. After numerous trips back to Philadelphia she became a Quaker minister—an act of feminist pluck that sabotaged her marriage plans—and, in 1827, went back go Charleston to take Angelina away from the South and into a life of abolitionist and feminist agitation. (Angelina married another famed abolitionist, Theodore Weld.) This part of the story is documented; Kidd’s skill lies in imaging the lives of the slaves left behind based on fragmentary evidence, and in stitching history and imagination into a brightly colored fictional quilt that both enlightens and entertains. (A quilt plays a key part in the novel, by the way.)

Among the novel’s many revelations is its focus on the slave culture: its inner codes, its folklore, its acts of everyday rebellion, and the lengths to which slaves went to preserve dignity in the face of barbaric injustices. Without knocking us over the head, Kidd also challenges the ingrained Southern myth that Stockett perpetuated in The Help—that many black people came to love and cherish their masters. Hetty and Charlotte, for example, knew that even as a child Sarah wanted the best for them, but they also knew you couldn’t trust white folks and that there were huge structural obstacles in the way of good intentions. Again without being overt about it, Kidd raises the question of whether true friendship is even possible when power relations are skewed—something Sarah discovers in her life among male Quakers, who were sure that slavery was wrong, but were pretty comfortable with patriarchy.

Let me emphasize that this is a novel, not a history book. Kidd demonstrates great skill in developing scenarios, inventing dialogue, and filling in history’s gaps. The novel runs over 380 pages but, like the wings in its title, it flies. Add this book to other recent efforts such as The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair, and it’s clear that Ms. Kidd is poised to take her place among the leading ladies of letters.—Rob Weir

Warning: I did not read or listen to the Oprah Book Club version of this novel, but there are many warnings that it should be avoided. Apparently Winfrey interjects her own commentary to the print and audio versions in an intrusive manner that breaks the narrative. Look for versions that say “unmarked” or “without commentary.”