World Music Releases: Neotolia, Janka Nabay, Nie Project, Rakkatak

Jazz can be too complex for its own good and come off more as a personal pursuit than something for mass consumption. But when it’s good, it’s transportive. Turkish-born/Boston-based vocalist Nazan Nihal and pianist Utar Artun are amazing in their own right, and when they join forces with world musicians from places such as China, Iraq, Finland, the USA, and the Near East, they are spectacular. Neotolian Song mixes Turkish song, originals, and jazz in an ethereal West-meets-East brew of everything from piano, cello, violin, guitar, and drums to Chinese flute and erhu (two-stringed fiddle) to Turkish ney (flute), oud (mandolin-like lute) and qunun (zither). Nihal’s vocal range is so wide that on the title track her high notes approach the pain threshold. By contrast, “Manastir T” is as delicate as a glass figurine, and her take on an ancient melody in “Lydianic” is bird-like. Thoughtful arrangements abound. The strings in “G + El Kuruttum” cry out like a muezzin over Artun’s rain-like piano notes. “Pendulum” swings like its namesake, with dancing vocals, pulsing instruments, and big cascades of piano; “Rondo Afro Turca” mixes vocal thrums and scat with a tune reminiscent of breezy Latin jazz; and “Degmen Benim” scurries with the suggestiveness of a tune chasing itself. This is a triumphant release. ★★★★★
@nazannihal #utarartun

Do you want to dance? Ahmed Janka Nabay fled the civil wars of Sierra Leone and now lives in the United States, but he’s still the foremost modernizer of Bubu music, which began life as ritual witchcraft music for the Temne peoples, but now beguiles in a different way; it’s played during Ramadan! Nabay takes it to the party on Build Music. Although songs like “Sabonay 2016” bear serious messages such as women’s empowerment and peace, the instrumentation would be more at home in a discotheque. Traditional Bubu melodies use bamboo flutes and blown metal pipes, but Nabay’s band mostly uses Casio keyboards. In fact, most of the album consists of three or four repeated notes that sound as if they could have been made on a child’s melodic. Add consistent beats and Nabay’s voice, which is at turns growly, polished, or winsomely sexy and is backed by a female chorus. “Santa Monica” is another that touches on weighty matters—his harassment by local police—but has a sunny feel. Most of the album is even lighter—“Bubu Dub” with its repeated lines “My baby loves to dance/she likes to sing… all she does is jump and dance;” or the Caribbean-like “Stop Jealous” with decidedly non-poetic lyrics such as: “Oh my baby, I really love you… Baby I love you… I love… My baby I love you.” Okay, so don’t look for a Nobel literature prize, but if you want to sweat and shake, this one will answer. ★★★

The world needs more folks like the dozen musicians in The Nile Project. Their new album Jinja is a follow-up to 2013’s Aswan and like it, seeks to unite and educate peoples who live in the eleven nations along the 4,258-mile-long Nile. The group brings together musicians from Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, and Uganda, sings in six languages, harmonizes voices, and blends various lyres, harps, flutes, and guitar styles. The sound is, at heart polyrhythmic and the percussion a complex marvel. That such things happen amidst songs that at first listen seem simple is testament to the musicianship. The harp on “Mulungi Munange” is so light that it evokes a balalaika, but suddenly electric instruments intrude with a big bump and female ensemble singing powers a piece in which the percussionists pound through, across, and into the melody. Later a male voice is added, but it’s like a knife slicing into the mix. The result is edgy, filled with nervous energy, and pop-like in feel without being like any pop you’ve ever heard. All sorts of modes emerge: the North Africa ambience of “Allah Bagy” with its trance-like and praiseful lyricism; the improv horns of “Tenseo” with a dramatic male voice that would be operatic were it not for its microtonal slides; the kora/saxophone/guitar/vocal conversations in “Biwelewle” that create a hooky melody; and the emotive vocals and muscular instrumentation of “Ya Abal Wuha.” Another amazing piece is “Uruzi Nil,” which is quick-paced and scurrying and its flute/electric mix reminiscent of Jethro Tull in places, yet is also jazzy and free-spirited. Kahlil Gibran once said that, “Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.” The Nile Project is certainly doing its best to make that true. ★★★★★

The term "fusion" often fails to live up to the hype. In the case of Toronto-based Rakkatak, though, it's appropriated and appropriate. The goal is to take Indian classical music, give it a contemporary twist, and knock down a few barriers along the way. The music is built around the tabla playing and occasional raga vocal scales of Anita Katakkar, and the dreamy bass of Oriana Barbato. Two women fronting an Indian music ensemble is just the start—Katakkar's heritage is Indian/Scottish/Canadian and Barbato is Chilean. Featured sitar player Rex Van der Spuy is of South African and Indian extraction and, when not manning the sitar, is a video game designer and prolific tech author. Small Pieces, Rakkatak's third CD, is as advertised—music designed to lull you into submission rather than impress through volume or showiness. "Medley" fuses a hypnotic groove with a segued cover into The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" and, like all nine tracks, takes its time in developing. Much Indian composition is built on the concept that music should "color the mind." To that end, "Dreaming" is a somnambulant stroll and "Thoughts of You" is drifty and introspective. My favorite piece is "Rain After Fire," composed in response to Western Canadian wildfires. Bass and tabla lurk in the background with quiet drama, with the sitar evoking on again/off again showers that spurt, drip, and fade to mist. Those who want a splash of loosely structured jazz should sample "XYZ" with its atonal flirtations, or the creative noodling of "Riffing on 9." ★★★★

Rob Weir

 Note: YouTube footage and album tracks often vary in presentation stye.


Christina Baker Kline's Triumphant Look at Christina's World


Christina Baker Kline
William Morrow Publishing, 325 pages.
★★★★ ½

A weathered frame house and farm buildings sit atop a timothy-covered slope, but our gaze is diverted to the lower foreground, where we see the back of a spindly dark-haired woman twisting her way up the hillside on thin arms and unmoving legs. Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World is among the two or three most famous American paintings of all time, but what do we know of its subject: Christina Olson (1893-1968)? A quick search reveals that she was nearly immobile by the time Wyeth completed the painting in 1948, a victim of Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease, a form of muscular dystrophy. But who was Christina? What was her family life like? What did she think and dream?

Christina Baker Kline snared me with this early passage in her subject’s voice:

People think the painting is a portrait, but it isn’t. Not really. He [Wyeth] wasn’t even in the field; he conjured it from a room in the house from an entirely different angle. He removed rocks and trees and outbuildings. The scale of the barn is wrong. And I am not that frail young thing, but a middle-aged spinster. It’s not my body, really, and maybe not even my head. He did get one thing right: Sometimes a sanctuary, sometimes a prison, that house on the hill has always been my home. I’ve spent my life yearning toward it, wanting to escape it, paralyzed by its hold on me.

This lovely passage sets the tone for the life that lay beneath Wyeth’s canvas—one marked by history, family, longings, lost opportunities, and seized relationships that give Christina Olson a breathing subjectivity that not even as draftsman as skilled as Wyeth could capture.

We learn about the house—built on Hathorne* Point, Maine by Captain Samuel Hathorne II in 1743, and remodeled by generations of Hathornes, all descendants of Salem witchcraft judge John Hathorne who fled to Maine to escape the ignominy of that surname. Christina’s mother, Katie, bore Hathorne blood, though her feisty nature might have gotten her in trouble had she been born in Salem 200 years earlier. It was probably fated that she’d marry a man whose name changed from Johan Olauson to John Olson. The Olsons would have been just another big farm family with its joys and tragedies had not Andrew Wyeth arrived in 1939—a dozen years after Katie died and four since John’s passing. By then, the only Olsons left in the house were Christina and her devoted brother Alvaro.

Kline fleshes out the deeper family histories in ways that remind us that frozen images are lies. The inherent sadness of a self-sacrificing brother caring for his crippled sister in a remote part of Maine tells us nothing about the various turns in people’s lives that led to one path being chosen rather than another. MD is a progressive disease. Christina had a hard life; she fell down a lot, but she didn’t always emulate a crab to move from place to place. As we learn from the novel, she even fell in love with a summer visitor—and it wasn’t Andy Wyeth, twenty-three years her junior, whose presence in Maine began with his courtship of a different Cushing local: his future wife, Betsy James, who knew the Olsons. Andy emerges as Christina’s kindred spirit—a young man who had been sickly as a child, understood Christina’s plight, and befriended her as an equal, not an object of pity. He spent thirty summers in Cushing, coming and going as he wished to a makeshift studio in unused second-floor rooms of the Olson house.

A Piece of the World is a novel that imagines dialogue, discussions, and circumstances, but it hews closely to what is known of its subjects. Kline hails from Bangor and knows Maine life too well to sanitize it. Her prose is lovely, but it’s not rose-hued—more like the somber earth tones Wyeth used. There is something inherently honest about this, with the joys shimmering brighter in contrast to the sorrow and the lonely family cemetery beyond where Christina is posed in the painting. It is a triumphant novel which, ironically, Christina’s World was not until much later. Wyeth called it “a complete flat tire,” and the Museum of Modern Art purchased it for just $1,800. Today its value would be in the millions. Wyeth’s relationship with Christina was a greater treasure, though; when he passed in 2009, per his will he was laid to rest in the Olson graveyard.

Rob Weir

*You will find various spellings of this name, including Hathorn and Hawthorn. Colonial spelling was not standardized.  



New Stuff: Edward + Jane, Treehouse Sanctum, Steve McComick, Mark O'Connor, Dreadnaught


Edward + Jane are actually Timothy and Emilie Carpenter, two folks who were born in Ohio, went to college in Chattanooga, married, stayed in Tennessee, and overcame the relocation blues by building an intentional family of friends. As Family We Gather is testament to the success of their endeavor. This is small gem EP in the best Americana tradition. Normally that’s just a label for those running from the term “folk music,” but in this case, it describes a music that’s a not quite folk, bluegrass, mountain music, or country but has echoes of each. It is a lovely harmony-driven EP that’s both intimate, but has a big sound. The latter is because of all those friends who now feel like family. You’ll hear lots of instruments in “We Will Meet Again,” but nothing gets in the way of their perfectly balanced harmonies. This is wholesome, energetic, goes-down-easy music. On “Days” they sing: There are things you don’t understand yet, but your family gets. And family is both who you are and who you find on the way. ★★★★

Treehouse Sanctum tells about a different Jane. In "Jack and Jane" this six-piece Denver-based folk rock band personalizes the age-old question of whether boy + girl = good pair, or bad match through a catchy tune, robust instrumentation, and the sharp-edge/soft-edge vocals of Sam Rymer and Danya Lynn Uptegrove. It's one of eleven amazing songs on Vivere, which means "to live" for those of you whose Latin is as lousy as mine. This band is new to me, but now that I know, I can't get them off my playlist. You name it and they do it right—splashes of trumpet of "Chacala," punchy 1-2-3 vocal combos, a magic moment, and shifts accurately described as "hush to howl." Rymer is a gifted singer in the sense of really knowing how to use his voice effectively. On "Rest of Me," for instance, he puts one in mind of Van Morrison without channeling him. It's the way Rymer uses his voice to punch through a big mix and then let it ride with the sequencing. About those big mixes, I mean rolling Hammond B-3, brass, and percussion-enhanced big. The title track uses the tale of Paul on the road to Damascus as a foil for the moment when life takes a 180-degree turn and, if you have any doubt about this band's IQ, some of the lyrics are indeed in Latin. The way in which the song builds is a marvel, with power chords, crisp drum beats, swelling sound, and mighty vocals marking the conversion. It's the sort of song that would called "signature," were it not for the fact that they top it with"Pilot and Crew," which recounts the true tale of a World War II crew of ten shot down over Germany that endured ten months of a POW camp. Check out what they do with snippets in the opening and close, and how well they evoke an aerial melee. Want more? "Shelby" is a bluesy jazz piece built around big-production piano. This CD is a dazzler. ★★★★★

Steve McCormick is one of those versatile "How 'ya want it?" musicians. Maybe it's because he's spent a lot of time doing sessions work in LA cranking out tunes for commercials, writing movie soundtracks (Felicity, Jack Frost), building high-end microphones, and collaborating with big name producers. Or maybe he's just eclectic. His new Noisetrade EP The Tripping Years showcases his many moods. He puts on detached hipster garb for "Say a Prayer for New York City," which unfolds to blue horns, robust bass, and attitude: Say a prayer for New York City….don't you dare show no pity…. At the other end of the spectrum is a country/pop cover of Townes Van Zandt's "At My Window," and a take on Lucinda Williams' "Fruits of My Labor" that milks emotion from keys and blue-eyed soul. In between lies the Delta/Chicago blues fusion of "Lying on the Bottom," which features grit, spit, grungy guitar and gospel-like female backup singers. Flip it again for "Hello, Hello," which is simultaneously melancholic and inviting—literally so with lyrics like: Come into my life my love/Don't you be alone. This is a really strong body of work that proves that McCormick can command the mic on his own. ★★★★

Anytime you see the name Mark O'Connor you want to pay attention. At this writing, O'Connor is about to drop Coming Home, a live CD that features his own genre-defining fiddle work with additional string work from his wife Maggie and his soon-to-be daughter-in-law Kate Lee, plus mandolin from son Forrest, standup bass from Geoff Sanders, and flat-picking from Joe Smart. How good are they? Three sample tracks told me all I need to know. "Those Memories of You" is a live track that leaves the station on a high, lonesome note and arrives with a full head of steam that needs to cool down after one of the best covers of “Johnny B. Goode” you’ve heard in ages. Among the passengers: sizzling fiddle work, newgrass jazz licks, bold slap bass, vocals delivered auctioneer-style, and sold-my-soul mandolin virtuosity. "A Bowl of Bula 14" unfurls with quick mando runs and five minutes later, you'll find yourself gasping for breath. Instruments break across each other's bows and wakes like they're in a mad dash to make it to harbor first. Do I even need to tell you that O'Connor paterfamilias is pretty damn good? "Macedonia" impresses in a different way. Forrest O'Connor uses his mando to set up musical conversations within a melodic structure punctuated by breakouts and swells. I've not even heard the rest of the album yet, but I'm already thinking five stars!
 Since 1996, New Hampshire's Dreadnaught—not to be confused with an Australian metal band of the same name—has cranked out what it calls “experimental prog-Americana.” It’s latest effort, Hard Chargin’, will be hailed as inventive by some and a big mess by others. I’m somewhere in the middle. Imagine a heavy metal band with the weirdness of Frank Zappa and his serious forays into jazz, and you’d get something like this. “Have a Drink With Dreadnaught” is like heavy metal cowboy music fused with pop. By contrast, “Mummies of Cobboseecontee” is a blender full of soundscapes, electronic pulses, jazz, and metal. “Bo-Leg-Ba” is both the title of a track and its entire lyric, and “Takin’ a Ride With the Fat Man (Fatta Fattta Puck Puck)” isn’t a whole lot more verbose. This one left me perplexed, as it struck me as an intriguing departure from the ordinary at one moment, and just an excuse to make loud noise the next. ★★