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.

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