Music for December: Finch/Ni Bhriain, Gravet de Coulomb, Kumara, Powers, Earl



The term “Celtic music” is often more marketing than historical circumstance. Many of the progenitors of what we often now think of a single genre that features jigs, reels, airs, and sad songs were once played by parlor, castle, and dance hall musicians. Catrin Finch and Aoife Ní Bhriain remind us of the first two in a collaboration titled Double You. Finch is a highly celebrated harper. She has won major awards, recorded more than a dozen and a half albums, once served as the harper for the Prince of Wales, and teaches at both the Welsh College of Music and Dance and the Royal Academy of Music in London. Ní Bhriain is an Irish fiddler with an impressive collection of prizes of her own. Their instrumental duos also depart from associations of Celtic music with New Age music. Finch and Ní Bhriain find the intersections between classical and traditional music in nine serious compositions whose nod to Celtic humor is that all nine titles are one word beginning with the letter W. Most are also longer, because they take their time to establish themes and spin off from them. “Woven” begins with delicate fiddle with Finch’s harp acting almost like a drone in its repetitious delicacy. As if unfolds, though, it’s akin to a suite in several movements that open and close via Ní Bhriain’s bowing. “Wonder” has an appropriate air of mystery, almost as if the harp is walking us through a mist draped with repeated fiddle pulses that scaffold Finch’s precise harp notes and bell-like tones. The appropriately named “Whisper” is quiet, builds, and evolves into something more pastoral before it ends seven minutes later with a return to quiet music with space between the notes. If you watch the videos, know that the album sound is better balanced, but you can see from their respective intensity that Finch and Ní Bhriain are serious about what they do and how they do it. 




Le gravetat de Coulomb is a Catalonian trio that between them give a workout to a variety of flutes, accordions, drums, tambourine, and bass clarinet, and voices. Their latest project, L’efecte doppler, indeed involves changes in sound frequencies, but it also references a modulating style of flute playing. Most of the album is devoted to “Gypsy” dances. “El salt de la rata” might be the most familiar as it’s a joyous jota, a folk dance in ¾ time. “Tu” is a chotis but might also sound vaguely reminiscent; its three-voice call-and-response vocal evokes traditional Quebecois singing, though the instrumentation differs. “Una punxa al peu” has a celebratory village feel and invokes visions of a tune chasing its own tail. “Ottawa és més a la vora del món real que del Japó” is an unusual tune that changes flavor and tempo. It’s not on the album, but you can sample what they are like in concert. Hey, you try trying flute and percussion at the same time!



Kumara is the stage name of an interesting collaboration between Uganda’s Samite Mulondo, sessions violinist Sean Harkness, and chamber musician Shem Guibbory or, as Samite notes, a melding of African, jazz, and operatic music with “flow.” If you don’t recognize the plucked instrument on “River Crossing,” it’s a litungu, an eight-stringed Kenyan bowl lyre. The sonics in the background are a combo of violin and electric guitar. In a similar vein, the structure of “Adunga Jam” is set by the tune’s namesake instrument, an eight-stringed–they have anywhere from 7-10–­arch harp with wood and leather bodies. As you will hear, it sets a hypnotic pace for guitar and Harkness’ impressive violin work. You can hear splashes of Samite’s vocals on “Conversation in C Minor” and “Forest Music.” I emphasize, though, that this is mostly an instrumental album, not a Samite solo project. You might recognize the tones of the more familiar thumb piano on “Waxed Kalimba,” though the tune itself has a traveling feel. This project is intended as a post-Covid healing effort and the trio’s very name derives from Sanskrit and roughly translates  “higher self.” I’m not sure we are post-Covid, but the music has a decided calming effect.



Summerlyn Powers is an Alabama folk/country singer now living in Nashville. She’s young, but as her five-song EP The Hive indicates, she’s poised and ready. The namesake song is somewhere between rock and a boot kicker with Powers’ voice muscling its way through an electric mix. She turns to a bit of rockabilly on “Let’s Roll” and tamps down the noise for the soulful “Healing Like I Am.” The latter sports the line crying when need to/laugh ’cause you have to… hope you’re healing like I am. It’s kind of like Powers in that it’s straightforward but ambiguous–a relationship song that’s somewhere between breaking up and not being ready.  Ready or not, Powers is primed to arrive.



Ava Earl is a bubbly singer from Alaska who has been prolific despite her relative youth. Too Much falls into the category of acoustic pop and, to be forthright, just isn’t my bowl of cloudberries. Earl’s vocals are earnest but girly and her lyrics don’t always connect. What would you anticipate for a song titled “For Hell?” Having listened to it several times, it’s still not clear what she’s driving at. At its center is a woman who is five months pregnant, but after that I’m not sure where we’re supposed to go. There’s a musing on tall buildings as secular religion that leads to this: I can’t be too greedy/Cause it’s you that I need/Don’t break my heart. The whole thing is wrapped in a light orchestral backing. “Too Much” has good instincts–a young feminist’s message that it’s okay to be yourself–but it veers into bad luck at romance and hearing loss. (She also explores the latter in  “Ears Bleed.”) Yet it’s hard to derive weightiness in such a bright tune that seems to have the dance hall in mind. Moreover, lyrics such as I regret half the things that I said/ I know I talk too much/ I guess I’ll make a fool of myself, until you shut me up isn’t exactly in-your face defiance. In my estimation, message music and bouncy pop are seldom a good mix.



Rob Weir


Crook Manifesto: Part Two of the Harlem Trilogy




Crook Manifesto (2023)

By Colson Whitehead

Doubleday, 321 pages.



Crook Manifesto is a mild disappointment, if a work by a brilliant writer with two Pulitzer Prizes for Literature can be such a thing. It is the second book of a planned Harlem trilogy and, like many such efforts, has neither the wallop of Book One nor the anticipated resolutions of Book Three.


This one offers snapshots from three years: 1971, 1973, and 1976. Those familiar with New York City in the 1970s know that much about the Big Apple was rotten to the core: rampant crime, street corner hookers, bodies dumped in parks, arson, decay, and politicians as crooked as a shepherd’s herding tool. Things were especially fraught in Harlem, with the revolutionary ideology of Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army adding to the tension. Whitehead divides his book into three sections: “Ringolevio,” “Nefertiti T.N.T.”, and “The Finishers.” At its center is fulltime furniture dealer/part-time fence Ray Carney, whom we met in Harlem Shuffle.


Ray would dearly like to get out the moving stolen goods game and might have done so, had it not been for the Jackson Five. His daughter May wants to see them at Madison Square Garden with all her heart , but where’s Ray supposed to get tickets that much in demand, let alone pay for them? He calls upon Munson, the crooked cop who used to shake him down for protection money. Bad move. Munson is a mess–booze, marital discord, and the Knapp Commission breathing down his neck. Munson wants to blow town and will score tickets if Carney moves some hot stones for him. A bit too hot, as it turns out. The section title references a street game analogous to Red Rover involving hunters, prey, and “jail.” It parallels Ray’s forced journey with Munson who squeezes cash from every contact in Harlem. A few he kills and others he should have treated with more respect. The power of Chink Montague, Harlem’s reigning crime boss, is waning and that of Notch Walker is on the rise. Let’s just say it wasn’t healthy to mess with one of Notch’s men.


Whitehead switches gears and tone in Part Two. Former porn purveyor Aaron “Zippo” Flood is seeking to go semi-legit by making a Blaxploitation film titled “Nefertiti T.N.T.” that is being filmed in Carney’s showroom. It’s bankrolled by the estate of a white guy who adopted him and paid for his arts education at the Pratt Institute, but Zippo has a problem: his title role star Lucinda Cole has disappeared. Enter Pepper, a tough guy for hire who is unimpressed by Zippo, Cole, Chink, big-shot comedian Roscoe Pope, his manager, rising black politician Alexander Oakes, or anyone else–except Carney.  Pepper gives us the book’s title: “A man has a hierarchy of crime, of what is acceptable and what is not, a crook manifesto, and those who subscribe to lesser codes are cockroaches.” All of this happens at an inopportune time as Blaxploitation movies are on the way out and disaster films are all the rage. Heads will roll faster than the film reels and some won’t survive to see it.


Part Three is the arson chapter, “The Finisher” being the guy who actually lights blazes (broadly defined). Whitehead writes, “The city was burning… not because of sick men with matches and cans of gas, but because the city itself was sick, begging for it.” It is also the section in which we see how long Carney can burn the candle at both ends of the straight/crook spectrum. Elizabeth is supporting Oakes for Manhattan borough president, but Ray knows that he’s corrupt. Carney has survived by not taking sides or having someone else do the heavy lifting. Does he recede to the background or standup to the likes of Walker and Oakes?


Whitehead tells a thrilling tale, but his tripartite structure doesn’t always cohere. This is especially the case in Section II in which Carney nearly disappears. Though Zippo’s   cinematic dilemma and Pepper blowing the lid off Lucinda Cole’s glamorous cover adds a certain amount of historical heft, it feels forced and seems more of a detour along the road to Harlem’s slide into self-interest and dysfunctionality. We wait to see how it impacts Carney. I doubt Whitehead could write a bad novel, but Crook Manifesto smolders too long before it combusts.


Rob Weir




The Art Thief: Truth is Stranger Than Fiction



The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession (2023)

By Michael Finkel

Random House, 269 pages.





When Emily Dickinson wrote, “Fortune befriends the bold,” she didn’t have someone like Stéphane Guillaume Frédéric Breitwieser in mind. Boldness can be easily bent in untoward ways; few criminals have done so with the sheer moxie of Breitwieser. Between 1997-2001 he and his girlfriend Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus heisted 239 works of art from 172 museums in seven countries, an average of one every 15 days, though he often stole from the same museum more than once in the same day. Most items were pirated in broad daylight when the museums were open.

For the most part, his only tool was a Swiss army knife. He was arrested after trying to steal a 16th century bugle from the Richard Wagner Museum in Lucerne, Switzerland, and spent 26 months in prison. When he got out, he wrote a book about his wayward ways, but was far from being rehabilitated. In all, Breitwieser stole more than $2 billion worth of artworks. In The Art Thief journalist Michael Finkel recounts the boldness of Breitwieser’s spree and seeks to get into his mind. 

As Finkel notes, the very “story of art…is a story of stealing” that stretches deep into the past. The Babylonians stole (destroyed?) the Arc of the Covenant, the Vandals–from whom we get the term vandalism–plundered Rome, the Conquistadores hauled away Incan treasures, and imperialists such as Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, and State-sponsored tomb raiders filled museums with stolen goods. Picasso hired thieves to lift a few figurines, the Mona Lisa disappeared from the Louvre for two years (1911-13), and the 13 paintings taken from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 have yet to be located. Breitwieser isn’t the king monetarily speaking, but few if any larcenists have been as persistent as he.

Breitwieser insisted that he was an art lover who “liberated” works locked away in museums that didn’t appreciate them. He and Anne-Catharine dressed meticulously in secondhand designer threads and lived in two converted attic rooms in the Mulhouse, France home of Breitwieser’s divorced mother, Mireille (Stengel) Breitwieser that she averred she never entered. Profit was never Stéphane’s motive; he stole things he found beautiful and had a fondness for 16th-17th century Northern European art. Each venue was cased to see what sort of security was in place and how many employees were present. Many were remote, lightly-visited museums that lacked cameras, sensors, or large staffs At first, he removed smaller items that wouldn’t be missed immediately–chalices, rings, pistols, clocks–but his chutzpah led him to use a large coat to spirit away items such crossbows and helmets, or rolled up canvases zipped from their frames.

Soon his Mulhouse rooms were crammed with looted goods, including paintings from Brueghel the Younger, Lucas Cranach, David Teniers, and Antoine Watteau. When he was arrested the first time, he claimed he was merely “borrowing” the works, and that his mother knew nothing of his exploits. The latter is dubious as upon hearing of his arrest, Mireille destroyed 60 works. (She claimed she threw them into the Rhine Canal, though she probably shredded the paintings in her garbage disposal!) Anne-Catharine got off with just six months in jail by pleading she fell under the Svengali spell of her older (by 9 years) boyfriend. (Mireille served 18 months.)

As for why Breitwieser got such a light sentence, the answer seems to be that be bamboozled psychologists. Only a handful of writers had the courage to denounce him as a common thief. Armed with parole, a new girlfriend, a car bought by his mother, and $1000 worth of stolen clothing, he embarked on a book tour that was also a continuation of his pre-prison pilferage. He went back to jail for three years, was arrested a third time and is now required to wear a tracking monitor.

The Art Thief is a fascinating read, though more expert psychological analysis is in order. Put simply, the question of Breitwieser’s makeup remains unsettled. Is he an evil genius, a kleptomaniac, a spoiled rich brat protected by his mother, or just a punk treated with kid gloves because he’s suave and of bourgeois background? His is a fascinating tale, but the art world would be richer had he never been born.

Rob Weir