Music Round Up: Vanessa Peters, Modeste Hugues, Mags McCarthy, Lia Sampai and More


Vanesa Peters

Modern Age



Ahh! A full-throated, toss-the-head-back and let-‘er-rip female vocalist. Vanessa Peters has won praise before on this blog for her Foxhole Prayers release, and Modern Age is another winner. This Covid-delayed release–she and husband/bandmate Rip Rowan were in Italy when things shut down–was worth the wait. Maybe the final track “Still GotTime” says it all: Well, get a hold of yourself/’Cause the world isn’t ending yet. Modern Age is a high-octane release. Peters opens big with the title track, a memory song and a lamentation on current values–As soon as it’s made, it gets thrown away–and a call to get back to things that matter. Peters occasionally lets the production get the better of her–there’s too much going on in “Make up My Mind”–but she has the capacity to smash through any mix when she puts her mind to it. For instance, she punches through the thump, thump percussion of “Crazymaker” and orchestrates the mix on “Never Really Gone.” There’s a Patty Griffin vibe to “The Weight of This” and a soulful-without-being-soul feel to “Valley of the Ashes.” I really liked this record, though it could use more change of pace such as we hear in “The Band Played On,” but the energy… the voice…



Creole Sounds from the Indian Ocean




I’ve always enjoyed hearing Cajun and Creole music live because of its rumbustious ardor and its invitation to bust loose. It is, however, a difficult genre to capture on recordings. When we listen, we hear sloppiness. I was curious to see what Sakili would bring to the table. The trio is from Rodrigues Island, a speck that’s part of Mauritius, which lies 350 miles to the west. Their Creole Sounds from the Indian Ocean is aptly named in that they speak a pidgin French/English blend and draw upon various musical styles: polkas, waltzes, two-steps, mazurkas, East African traditions…. They are not, however, for all tastes. Two tracks will allow you to decide what you think. “Mové piti” is a simple tune with hand drum, box guitar, and accordion, the latter driving the melody. It evinces a beach party more than a studio production. Also try “Flanbwayan Laval” from the linked live show in Brussels. You can see the vibe they’re after, but the vocals are occasionally sour and the composition more jam than polish. I’m sorry to say that Sakili quickly lost my interest. 


Modeste Hugues and Kilema

Green World: Songs from Madagascar

★★★ ½ 




I couldn’t help but compare the previous release to this one. The title is meant to be taken literally. These two gentlemen hail from the big East African island of Madagascar. Large is no protection against climate change, the subject of many of their songs. It might be a good thing if you don’t speak Malagasy or hear the French buried in the instrumentation, as the sunny nature of the melodies is a respite from the seriousness of their themes. “Ala mainstro” is a blend of soft lead vocals from Hugues with contrasting the sharper toned but precisely fingered zither from Kilema. The combination produces a swaying, hypnotic sensation. The instrumentation in “Tambanivolo” has a rain-like quality and the groove so smooth that it’s easy to lose yourself in it and fail to notice that Hugues and his guitar lie in wait and unleash short, subtle runs and barres that texture the piece. “Holy hiroro” is an instrumental with a resonant and redundant opening, but the composition commands careful listening as it gets richer in small steps. “Kaseseky” is another in the same vein. The only downside is that this recording can sound like much of a muchness if swallowed whole. But there is no denying the duo’s skill and professionalism.



Short Cuts:


Mags McCarthy
is Irish and plays the fiddle, but she made the leap from Cork to Nashville, where she is trying to gain traction as a country performer. If verve alone can do the job, hers is a name to watch. Her video for “Bump” won’t win any PC awards, but is has so much high octane that it threatens to combust. There’s also just enough Celtic flair to it to make it unique in a town of sound-alikes. Ditto her cover of Dolly Parton’s “Light of aClear Blue Morning.” The cow milking in this video is no gimmick; she grew extracting fluids from bovines. If you still doubt the power of her voice, “Strong Enough” ought to convince you. We still have Dolly, though, so one hopes McCarthy will be comfortable being Mags instead.


It’s late summer, but if you like pensive music, check out Baluji Shrivastav and his Voice of Flowers: Spring Ragas from India. This 70-year-old Indian/British musician has been an exemplar of musical distinction for so long that he was awarded an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire). If you’re not familiar with ragas, they are a classical Indian form that is formal in structure but allow for improvisation. Such pieces take their time to take shape and are not for the impatient. Shrivastav is a master of sitar, dilruba (a bowed sitar), surbahar (bass sitar), and various percussion instruments. Try tracks such as “Raga Shuddha Vasant (Ecstasy of Spring)” or “Celebration” and see where they take you. He often put me in mind of the late Ravi Shankar.


If you like glorious female voices, you’ll love Barcelona’s Lia Sampai. Her recent EP Amagatalls de Ilum translates “Light Hiding Places” and comes from “La Nina,” a song she penned with musical partner Adrià Pagès (guitar). It is a fragile, sometimes sad, ditty about a girl hiding in the light and longing to break free. It is a metaphor for becoming a woman and ends on a happy note. Try also the joyful “LaCaixeta” in which we hear Sampai’s bell-like vocals, percussive thumps from Pagès that give way to skillful melody lines on Spanish guitar, and (eventually) a circle of hand clapping to accompany Sampai’s dramatic and intimate vocals. Hers is a clear, powerful voice that will stay with you long after the last note fades. 


 Rob Weir


WÖR: Artist of the Month August 2021



About Towers



Let’s travel to Belgium for our artist of the month. WÖR–I think it’s Flemish for “word,” but you try finding a Flemish-to-English dictionary–is a quintet that does retro music. Its new release About Towers is subtitled “New Energy for Old Belgian Music.” By that they mean, really old; an earlier album was titled Back to the 1780s. They are so retro that even though some of their music sounds faintly Celtic or even ambient in a New Age sort of way, all 14 tracks on About Towers have been arranged for chamber music and one tracked it titled “Aria.” The closest analogous band in recent memory that pops to mind is the now-defunct French ensemble Malicorne, which was anchored by Gabriel Yacoub and recorded on Elektra, which was gobbled up in 2004 .  


WÖR is an all-instrumental outfit that amplifies instruments that don’t conventionally go together: banjo, nylon-string guitar, accordion, fiddle, Flemish bagpipes, musette, and baritone and soprano saxophones. Electrification allows softer instruments to compete with the brass, but it also allows WÖR to bend pitches. For instance, on “Beyaert.” Pietererjan Van Kerckhoven’s pipes evoke a hurdy gurdy and Breton music, though neither is the case. In another what-are-we-really-hearing scenario, banjo and guitar notes sound like gentle rain on “Ketting,” but the soprano sax like a recorder. The piece is a chamber music/court dance mashup until Fabio Di Meo comes in with robust baritone sax and Joroen Goegebuer lets loose with some unrestrained fiddling. Yet the same piece is like numerous WÖR compositions in that it takes us from pastoral to lively and back to pastoral. Whenever WÖR need to anchor compositions in ways that many bands do with bass or percussion, they turn to the baritone sax or amped foot stomps.


Climate March” is indeed a march, but a layered one. It’s not really a suite, but its structure suggests one. Another in a similar vein is “Jolies Filles,” which is drifting in a good way. As I type this, summer is winding down a bit but “Jolies Filles” put me in mind of celebrating the lightness of spring. It’s like the flip side of “Ketting” in that it unfolds slowly, gathers pace, tamps down the tempo, then builds it up again. Another I really liked is the soothing “Cecilia.” Jonas Scheys’ banjo rings like a bell and Bert Ruymbeek’s accordion sprays are as sweet as those from the musette. (The musette is not blown like many bagpipes and this makes it more akin to an oboe than to, say, the Highland bagpipes.)


Towers is a breath of fresh air at a time in which too many bands sound alike or draw from the same bag of tricks. At present there are a limited number of audio/video clips from the new album, but if you’d like to get a sense of what WÖR sounds like live, try “Marcel” from the 2016 Shetland Folk Festival, a live performance of “VB7ibis,” or a clip from Folk at the Froize. These three sets are not on “Towers” and have more stage energy, but they give an idea of the styles and compositional twists from this talented Belgian band.   


Rob Weir


Interior Chinatown Brilliant and Moving



By Charles Yu

Pantheon Books, 271 pages.




Charles Yu won the National Book Award for Interior Chinatown, an honor well deserved. This book is many things: a tragedy, a black comedy, a love story, a script, a family saga, a character study, an extended metaphor, and an imaginative work that blurs fiction and reality. Somewhat controversially, it’s also a backdoor poke at the Black Lives Matter movement in that it communicates complaints from yellow, red, brown, working class, and female Americans collectively crying out, “What about us?”


Lest you think the last remark insensitive, consider Yu’s novelistic device. He follows the trials, temporary triumphs, and return to travail of Willis Wu, a Chinese-American actor who eventually lands bit roles and a short-lived part in a TV series titled Black and White. It’s one of those ubiquitous shows/movies/plays in which a white and black character are thrown together, crack denigrating jokes, and eventually discover their common humanity. Think as you wish about the premises of such productions; Yu’s goal is to remind us that Asians are often dumped into stereotypical baskets. His character grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown and both of his parents were also actors. Willis details the kind of roles they performed, a veritable stock character sampler whose labels say it all: Generic Asian Man, Pretty Oriental Flower, Background Oriental Man, Young Dragon Lady, Waiter, Old Asian Woman, Wizened Chinese Man, Kung Fu Master…. The last of these, in Wu’s mind, is the ultimate status, a shorthand for saying the character is respected and feared. He longs to become “Kung Fu Guy.”


The author trades in stereotypes for the purpose of shedding light on them. Yu divides his novel into seven “acts,” as much of the book is written as if it were script material from Black and White, a show in which those of other hues are either invisible or exist only to accentuate the show’s title—as if America is biracial rather than multiracial. It’s all very confusing for Willis, who only knows he’s “yellow” when someone points it out to him. It becomes even more baffling when his actress girlfriend (and later, wife) Karen Lee gets the same treatment, though she is staggeringly beautiful and appears ethnically ambiguous. It’s not a reveal to say that all of this serves to undermine the most enduring Asian stereotype, the “model minority.” It would be difficult to be a harder worker than Willis, but worldly success is another matter.


As in many novels, Yu gives us a multivalent title. That is, his “interior” Chinatown can be understood as a geographical location, a set of historical circumstances, a locus of memory, mental baggage, and a ball and chain he can’t loosen. It’s no wonder that Willis has a love/hate relationship with Chinatown. It’s a place where his ethnicity is accepted, but if he accepts it in return, he can’t be fully “American.” Imagine the burden and imagine again the toll it could exact.


Actually, you don’t have to; Yu’s tale will spell it out for you. He’ll even offer some easy-to-digest sociological theory to add depth. Yu peppers his work with quotes from Erving Goffman (1922-82), a symbolic interactionist scholar who studied rituals, social dramaturgy, and signs long before they became fashionable. Goffman’s appearance signals (if I might!) that among the things that dazzled the National Book Award committee is that Yu’s book doesn’t fit snuggly into conventional fiction pigeonholes. As noted above, some of it is written as script material from Black and White, but it’s also peppered with quotes, court case material, and invented-but-rings-true dialogue. Overall, it reads as a template for what stream of consciousness writing ought to be rather than the incomprehensible mess it too often is.


Apply any descriptor you wish. Interior Chinatown is an important book, a beautifully written one, an emotional experience, and an unforgettable journey.


Rob Weir