Thursday, December 17, 2009

The 52nd Grammy Awards nominees: Contemporary world music

Nominees for "The Best Contemporary World Music Album--Vocal or Instrumental" are the subject of today's preview of the upcoming Grammy Awards, as distinct from the "traditional' cagegory in my previous blog.

The first album to be nominated is "Welcome to Mali", by Amadou and Mariam on the Nonesuch label. The couple met in the 1970's when they were both students in the Malian capital of Bamako at the Institute for Young Blind People, and have released well over a dozen albums since. This particular entry features a number of prominent guest artists, taking the album beyond purely Malian pop music. On one track, Amadou sings in French to the English lyrics of K’Naan, a Somali-born rapper now living in Toronto (he appeared earlier this year in the Kennedy Center's Arabesque Festival, and can be seen in a streaming video on their Website). Another cut features instrumental input from Malian kora master Toumani Diabaté (see the previous entry, in which his cousin and sometime disciple Mamadou Diabaté has also been nominated for his kora performance). Leading Nigerian guitarist and singer-songwriter Keziah Jones joins the duo on the albums title track. You can go to the Nonesuch Website to listen to excerpts from each of the 11 items

The protean master of the banjo, Béla Fleck is nominated yet again for a Grammy (he's already received seven) through his "Throw Down Your Heart: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, vol. 3 - Africa Sessions" on Rounder Records. The twelve tracks incorporate a wide range of African singing and isntrumental styles, and are apparently drawn from Fleck's preparation of a 2009 documentary film, "Throw Down Your Heart: Bela Fleck Brings the Banjo Back to Africa". Samples from this extraordinary CD, which was also nominated this year in the "Best Pop Instrumental Performance" category for the title track, can be heard here.

The African domination of this Grammy category continues with "Day by Day", by Femi Kuti, son of the late superstar Fela Kuti (1938-1997), who was a towering figure in the vanguard in the development of Afropop music, as well as a major Nigerian activist. Previously nominated for a Grammy in 2003, Femi Kuti presents 12 tracks with varied rhythms and instrumentation, and songs with lyrics carrying a range of messages, as in the title song: "Day by Day, by night by night, we work and pray for peace to reign . . . . " Tracks from the album, released by Mercer Street Records can be sampled here.

Next comes "Seya", by Oumou Sangaré, like Amadou and Mariam above, from Mali, and also on the Nonesuch label. An outspoken feminist and businesswoman, her original songs, while maintaining a strongly African character, embrace a range of styles and instrumentation, with frequent use of the traditional solo vocal call from Sangaré's powerful voice, and a chorus responding in unison. Further information on the album, as well as samples from each of the 11 tracks, is available on the Nonesuch Website. As noted there, Sangaré, like Amadou and Mariam above, collaborates with an international cast of guest artists, including a saxophonist, Alfred "Pee Wee Ellis", and a trombonist, Fred Wesley, who have both worked with James Brown, and Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, who was Fela Kuti’s musical director.

The final nominee in this Grammy category is "Across the Divide: A Tale of Rhythm and Ancestry" by Omar Sosa, on Half Note Records. While Sosa himself hails from Cuba, the titles of several of the tracks show a clear connection to Africa: "Promised Land", "Across Africa (The Dream)" and "Across Africa (Arrival), and "Ancestors". Brief audio excerpts from all the album's pieces, as well as a listing of the album's personnel, can be found here.

I am particularly pleased with the nomination of this CD, given that I had encountered it in the course of writing a previous blog on a totally unrelated subject, the music of Andalusia. Describing a fascinating one-man Website that I had discovered in the course of pursuing that topic, I wrote of one particularly obsessive experience on the Website, ("music from the road less traveled . . . "):

"The soundstream of the "Listen" tab [on the Web page] leads into a haunting song emerging mysteriously from the aether of the Internet, "Guide me O thou great Jehovah" (lyrics on!), sung in what sounds like a Scottish brogue against a slow ostinato of just two alternating clustered piano chords, presently joined by a languid drum set background accenting the third beat of four, then moving into a luminous improvisation on the piano of melting jazz harmonies. . . .

"The song takes possession of me, and my old compulsion resurfaces: I MUST find out who the artist(s) is(are). WHERE I can find the recording? WHAT inspired the artist(s)?"

Well, tonight I find out what that recording is, to my great delight. You can learn more about it by acessing a fascinating trailer on YouTube, posted on behalf of Half Note records, describing the origins of this remarkable album, which included the collaboration of ethnomusicologist Tim Eriksen, whose haunting recitation of the hymn had first seized my ear, and who is himself a performer on the banjo, among other instruments.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The 52nd Grammy Awards nominees: Traditional world music

Earlier this month, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) announced the nominations for the 52nd annual Grammy Awards. A number of the nominated recordings included examples of the general field of "world music", and two categories were specifically dedicated to that niche: "Best Traditional World Music Album--Vocal or Instrumental", and "Best Contemporary World Music Album--Vocal or Instrumental." Today's posting is on the first category.

I'm personally acquainted with one of the nominees--Amjad Ali Khan--and had corresponded and spoken in past years on the telephone with his collaborator, Rahim Alhaj; their joint album "Ancient Sounds" on the UR Music label, was the first item in the traditional category, and I'm eager to hear the complete CD; as noted below, audition of brief samples brought some misgivings.

Following the death earlier in the year of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Amjad Ali Khan is now widely recognized as the world's greatest living master of the sarod, a traditional Indian metal-stringed instrument with a skin head and a fretless metal neck. Rahim Alhaj, originally from Iraq and based since 1991 in the U.S. following the Gulf War, performs on the ancient Arab oud (also 'ud), or fretless lute (the western term lute in fact derives from the Arabic name al-'ud), which normally in the contemporary era has nylon or metal-wound-on-nylon strings.

The album consists of seven cuts, featuring the two musicians playing alternately in solo and duet. Brief samples can be heard here.

The second nominated album, entitled "Double Play", features Liz Carroll on the fiddle and John Doyle on the guitar in 13 expertly performed songs and instrumental pieces fashioned in the traditional Irish style. The music could certainly be classified as well in the folk music category, but perhaps was included here because of the fact that it is distinctly Irish in character, as opposed to indeterminate folk. The duo, who were both born in the U.S. and had well-established careers before joining forces, performed for President Obama on St. Patrick's Day in 2009. The Website for Compass Records, which released "Double Play", has a more extensive writeup on the artists (scroll down the main page). Click here for samples.

The third contending album in this category is "Douga Mansa", featuring Mamadou Diabaté from the West African nation of Mali, performing on a World Village release on the traditional West African 21-stringed kora, a harp-like chordophone whose sound body is made from half a calabash (bottle gourd) covered with a cowskin head. Excerpts of the CD's 13 cuts, which include a duet performance with a flute, can be heard here. I have been listening to kora music now for nearly 50 years (beginning with a treasured LP from my high-school days featuring Les Ballets Africain, established by the Guinean choreographer Keita Fodeba), and find the performances here both distinguished and accomplished examples of the kora tradition.

Next comes "La Guerra No", by the California-born John Santos and his El Coro Folklórico Kindembo, an Afro-Latin percussion and choral ensemble with extraordinary energy. Samples of all 13 tracks are on the album's Web page on CD Baby, the world's largest direct distributor of individually produced CDs (of which more in a subsequent blog posting).

Finally we have "Drum Music Land", an entry from a Taiwanese percussion ensemble, the Ten Drum Art Percussion Group, led by Taiwan-based producer Chin-tai Judy Wu, and recorded in several of the group's international tours by engineering wizard and Grammy Award winner Kavichandran Alexander, founder of the legendary audiophile label, Waterlily Acoustics, and to my good fortune, a personal friend for many years. Excerpts from the album's five tracks (with such evocative titles like "Riding Winds and Breaking Waves" and "Bragging Cock") can be heard on its CDBaby Web page, which also has a brief historical description of the group.

The five entries are certainly diverse in nature, both musically and geographically. I've not had a chance to listen to any of the albums in their entirety, but find the available excerpts certainly captivating--with the exception of the sarod-oud collaboration, which to my ear sounds oddly out of tune when the two instruments are playing together, given that Indian ragas and Arabic maqams scales are radically different in their intonation and melodic structures. The brief examples I was able to hear of the duet portions brought to mind the trenchant comment from the late Ustad Ali Akbar Khan: "fusion is con-fusion. . . . . " But I'll reserve final judgment until I've had the chance to listen to all the albums in their entirety.

Coming up: Nominees for the Best Contemporary World Music Album.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Music in outer space?

In 1977, two Voyager spacecraft were launched as interplanetary and ultimately interstellar probes for research. Both Voyagers also carried, among other representations of life on earth, a "Golden Record", which included musical selections from cultures around the world, as well as from the western classical, jazz, and popular traditions.

Over the weekend, an old friend was visiting as houseguest, and as we were discussing various things, I learned that, at the request of the late Carl Sagan, the late Robert E. Brown, a mutual friend and eminent ethnomusicologist, had made the selection of world music (Brown is popularly credited with coining the term) for the Golden Record from countries including Australia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, China, Georgia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Guinea, Peru, Senegal, the Solomon Islands, and Zaire, as well as the Navajo Nation in the U.S. As my friend and I discussed the music, I was pleased to learn that included was a recording of Kesarbai Kerkar, one of the legendary vocalists of Indian classical music. You can listen to her performance, in a morning raga, Bhairavi, from an old 78 rpm record, as well as to all the other selections, on the Website

In this blog's May Day Manifesto, we asked why music is such a central aspect of our day-to-day existence. As regards the Voyager mission, it is significant that, of all possible expressions of human culture and art, music was selected as being the most compelling manifestation of our civilization.

If you had the choice of recordings to be included in a subsequent such project, what would be the three musical examples at the top of your list?