06 Pot Pourri 03 Sarah PeeblesDelicate Paths – Music for Shō
Sarah Peebles; with Evan Parker, Nilan Perera, Suba Sankaran
unsounds 42U (unsounds.com)

For some quarter century the Toronto-based American composer, improviser and installation artist Sarah Peebles has conducted a musical love affair with the shō, the Japanese mouth organ. Ever since studying its foundational repertoire embedded in the music of the antique gagaku, performed by the orchestra of the Japanese court, she has sought to explore the shō’s sonic strengths. She has particularly identified with its ability to produce microtonal and psychoacoustic effects reifying sound, often unfolding leisurely over time.

There is yet another key element on this album. Bees. Peebles’ installation art practice explores the lives of wild bees, pollination ecology and biodiversity, a branch of BioArt. This concern not only explains some of the titles of the works here – i.e. Resinous Fold – but it is also reflected in the synergistic relationships between mouth organs and the resinous production of bees. Tropical stingless bees secrete a resin which has been gathered from wild nests for millennia and applied to many human artifacts, including mouth organs. The shō is no exception. You can view a number of fascinating photos, of both bee habitats and the delicate shō reeds for which their products are an essential ingredient, on the web page for Delicate Paths hosted by the “unsounds” label.

Peebles’ music employs both improvisation and composition, embracing acoustic as well as digitally processed performance. While shō is clearly featured, the album invites other musicians into the music making. On Delicate Paths she has included three star improvisers: a familiar reed instrument, a string, and a voice. Free jazz-rooted saxophonist Evan Parker, prepared electric guitarist Nilan Perera and multi-genre vocalist Suba Sankaran join Peebles. They are canny choices. Each effectively supports, contests and offsets her shō’s melodic long tones and clusters, providing welcome musical tensions, cultural reframings, as well as textural and timbral richness.

Slipping the CD out of its handsome black trifold case I was delighted by its striking, subtly translucent honey-coloured appearance. Repeated listening revealed music of refinement, occasionally graced with a gentle aural sweetness, which in my imagination at least, resonates with a key component of the shō’s inner workings.


06 Pot Pourri 01 Kiran AhluwaliaSanata: Stillness
Kiran Ahluwalia
Independent MTM-CD-930 (kiranmusic.com)

The release of Indian-Canadian singer and songwriter Kiran Ahluwalia’s sixth album Sanata: Stillness, provides copious confirmation that her songs are “one of global music’s most interesting adventures.” Ever since Ahluwalia‘s first CD in 2001, it seems each new album marks new regions of personal musical growth, accompanied by evolving instrumentation and stylistic components. Recorded in Toronto, Sanata, as does her touring group, features some of the city’s top world musicians. Among them number percussionist maestro Mark Duggan and bassists extraordinaire Rich Brown and Andrew Downing.

In my September 2014 WholeNote cover feature on Ahluwalia, I observed that her geo-musical expansiveness is a result “of her careful listening to yet another [geo-cultural] zone of our world. She has [further] shown a continued eagerness to contest the borders of her musical comfort zones in live performance.”

Sanata provides ample proof of that process of exploration and synthesis at work. We hear Ahluwalia’s signature masala of her unique interpretation of Indo-Pakistani ghazal and Punjabi folk song, rendered in her expressive yet unstrained vibrato-less voice. It’s hung on a solid backbone of years of classical Hindustani musical training. Her gift for crafting catchy melodies is evidenced in her songs; I’m guessing a key feature in their audience appeal.

Another significant strand is the addition of pungent echoes of Saharan blues guitar, as in her award-winning 2011 CD Aam Zameen: Common Ground. It grounds the title track and also propels “Hayat” with a swaggering groove at just the right tempo. The superbly supple electric guitar accompaniments are provided by her American husband Rez Abbasi, who is also the album’s arranger and producer. Abbasi gets a chance to show his ample jazz guitarist cred in his “Tamana” solo and elsewhere.

While the album is carefully woven together with jazz-forward and sometimes rock-infused arrangements, “Jhoom” and “Lament,” the two songs in the qawwali tradition, return the album’s musical topography and transport the listener – via many transcontinental byways – to the Subcontinent.


06 Pot Pourri 02 TagaqAnimism
Tanya Tagaq
Six Shooter Records (tanyatagaq.com)

This album is a profound exploration of transcultural confrontation and transformation as expresed through the magical qualities and healing power of sound. Featuring the brilliant vocalism of Inuk avant-garde throat singer Tanya Tagaq, Animism synergistically merges her indigenous rights activism with the expressive force of her art. Not simply a typical “wordless protest album” however, its release promptly caused significant critical acclaim. To cap it off, Tagaq won the 2014 Polaris Music Prize, presented annually for the “best Canadian album regardless of genre or sales,” becoming its first indigenous recipient.

To be sure, the involvement of the polished improv-based musicality of her regular accompanists, Toronto drummer Jean Martin and the B.C.-based violinist, producer and arranger Jesse Zubot, is essential to every track.

Tagaq’s vocal art lives in zones of layered, multiple hybridity, a foundational feature of which is her free improv performance strategy. Paradoxically however, this CD’s first song is a cover of the Pixies’Caribou” (1987) sung in a “standard” (that is non-throat singing) voice by Tagaq and masterfully arranged with the addition of synth, horn and string parts by Zubot. Comparing it to the original Pixies’ recording, I prefer this album’s extended version, still rocking in sections yet musically convincing us without strumming a single guitar chord.

The pop-orientedCaribou” is an exceptional case here, however. Other songs like Rabbit propose an almost cinematic soundscape. Atop field recordings of northern soundscapes by Michael Red, and Zubot’s significant contributions, Tagaq’s vocalise transforms itself effortlessly from human to animal sounds and back.

The music on the innovative Animism, though sonically and emotionally rooted in the arctic, is nevertheless poised to move audiences no matter where they live.

autorickshaw album coverThe Humours of Autorickshaw
Tala Wallah Records TW 005 (autorickshaw.ca)

The JUNO-nominated world music ensemble Autorickshaw’s delightfully exciting fourth album is a rich record of a particular transcultural Toronto musical masala. Make no mistake; The Humours of Autorickshaw is no parochial product however. Rather its achievement resonates across other communities of musicians forging other new musical hybrids. In its ambitious aspirations—adventurous genre mixings, and in some of its lyrics touching, contentious reaches of the human condition—it will resonate with select global audiences.

07 pot pourri 01 marco poloThe Musical Voyages of Marco Polo
Maria Farantouri; En Chordais; Ensemble Constantinople; Kyriakos Kalaitzidis
World Village WVF 479092

Italy to China in Marco Polo’s footsteps, interpreted stage by stage by local music, inspired Kyriakos Kalaitzidis to coordinate and to compose a virtual journey along the Silk Road.

Early music enthusiasts will get their eye (or ear) drawn in with the well-known Lamento di Tristano which weaves its sedate course by bringing together Western European and Middle-Eastern instruments. This same combination forms Kalaitzidis’ choice for one of his own compositions, the equally sedate Marco’s Dream. What a contrast then with his second composition, Gallop, which conjures up Marco Polo confidently and swiftly crossing the Silk Road on his mission.

As Marco Polo moves eastward the music escorts him, as its style changes. In Migrants Circles lyrics by the 14th century Iranian poet Hafez are inspired by a Chinese melody. Kiya Tabassian (sitar and voice) brilliantly conveys the winding and demanding nature of Marco Polo’s journeyings.

 Then the traveller reaches Uzbekistan for perhaps the most impassioned song on the CD: Ey Dilbari Jonomin (Oh, my heart-stealing beauty) where the voices of Kalaitzidis and Nodira Permatova are allowed to express the song’s haunting quality, accompanied only by oud, viola and violin. All too soon we are back on the road east with Five steps, a piece played on Nepalese sarangi to guide us to Mongolia, where Chandmani nutag evokes the latter’s grasslands and streams.

Finally, China. Yi Zu Wu Qu (dance of the Yi nation) is a thoughtful piece for solo pipa, contrasting with the complex seven-part Musical Voyages of Marco Polo. And then a final inspiration. Greek legend Maria Farantouri sings Xenos (the stranger), conveying Marco Polo’s feelings of being a stranger in a new life. Farantouri, long considered one of the foremost interpreters of Greek music, has lost none of her touch. Enjoy this expressive journey.


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