01 RakkatakSmall Pieces
Rakkatak
Independent RA017 (rakkatak.com)

Toronto tabla player Anita Katakkar founded Rakkatak as a solo project in 2009. Abetted by a laptop and sequencer, hers was a mix of classical Hindustani music and electronica performed with a pop-music aesthetic. For Small Pieces, Katakkar invited into the studio bassist Oriana Barbato, sitar player Rex Van der Spuy who’s been playing sitar in Toronto since 1989, plus eight guest musicians. Collectively they represent a cross-section of what has been tagged the Toronto Gharana – local musicians pursuing music rooted in the classical Hindustani tradition. The larger ensemble on the album also effectively broadens Rakkatak’s aesthetic focus to embrace a more inclusive sonic palette.

Of mixed Indian and Scottish ancestry, Katakkar noted that “I heard plenty of Indian music growing up from my grandmother.” She began studying tabla with the Toronto Tabla Ensemble’s Ritesh Das, and later in California and Kolkata with the pre-eminent tablist Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri. As she matured as a creative musician Katakkar found she “had stories to tell.” Eesha’s Song, track five on Small Pieces, featuring the sitar of Joanna Mack and violin of Jessica Deutsche, was meant as an elegy to a friend’s daughter who passed away much too young. In it, Katakkar’s tabla solos “were inspired by running up a big hill and barely being able to keep up, sort of like Eesha’s heart.”

The album closes with Riffing on 9, a solo for Katakkar, bringing the album back to her early career working with just tabla and laptop. It’s a stripped down salute to the Asian Underground movement that initially inspired her on her fascinating creative journey.

02 Taiko torontoToronto Taiko Tales
Nagata Shachu
Independent KNE013 (nagatashachu.com)

On several occasions I’ve written about the Toronto group Nagata Shachu in my WholeNote World Music column. “Nagata Shachu is one of our city’s musical treasures,” I wrote in one, “…its performances invariably filled with a high level of ensemble musicianship coupled with mental and corporeal discipline.”

Canadian-born percussionist Kiyoshi Nagata, the group’s founding artistic director, has composed and performed taiko-based music for theatre, film, dance and radio. He’s also collaborated with musicians practising many genres of music, including most recently the Toronto Tabla Ensemble.

Nagata Shachu’s Blu-ray release Toronto Taiko Tales shows the group in top form. The concert video footage shot in 2016 at Aki Studio Theatre, in Toronto’s core Regent Park neighbourhood, not only captures the group’s usual lofty musicking but also its inventive choreography. In that category I include playful deployment of drumsticks, and intense physicality in performance, all attractively captured in medium shots, close-ups and in clear audio.

The well-crafted compositions are by Kiyoshi Nagata and associate artistic director Aki Takahashi, who is also the founder of the Japanese folk ensemble ten ten. Takahashi offers a welcome palate cleanser in contrast to Nagata Shachu’s drum-centric repertoire, with a moving rendition of her song Zare Shamisen, which she sings accompanying herself on the shamisen.

I also enjoyed the peaceful footage of Toronto’s natural landscape as it passes though the seasons, artfully interspersed throughout the video. It’s a welcome reminder of the rhythms of nature pulsating in the multicultural city we all call home.

03 Danielle BasselsWhat About Wool Wishbags
Denielle Bassels
Independent DEN001 (reverbnation.com/deniellebasselsquintet)

Denielle Bassels is a fresh new voice on the Toronto scene. This is despite the fact that she borrows from some well-established styles like trad jazz and gypsy jazz. Yet her songwriting and singing approach make it all sound rather modern and at times surreal. Bassels’ appealing voice is reminiscent of a few indie pop singers, like Corrine Bailey Rae and Feist, who have had an influence on the latest generation of vocalists. And her solid range and technique serve the tunes well.

The arrangements and instrumentation also lend a fun quirkiness: ukulele, percussion, clarinet, horns and violin bounce along through most of the tunes. Bassels’ writing and production partner Mike Mathieson plays a number of the instruments and joins core rhythm players Andy Mac, guitar, Scott Hunter, bass, and Joe Ryan, drums.

The songwriting is consistently upbeat throughout, or at least has a veneer of positivity, despite a few thought-provoking lyrics. Spiders Kiss is a 3/4 time, Euro-tinged lament with a je ne regrette rien attitude and Silly Lion seems to be about betrayal, but it’s hard to fathom. The title track has a wacky, stayed-too-long-at-the-carnival feel to it. Perhaps the best approach to What About Wool Wishbags is to not take the words too literally and simply enjoy the album as a light-hearted lark.

05 Qu4rtzA Cappella 101
Qw4rtz
Analekta AN 2 8860 (analekta.com)

Members of Qw4rtz, Louis Alexandre Beauchemin, François Pothier Bouchard, Philippe Courchesne Leboeuf and François Dubé, began singing together in the boys’ choir of Les Petits Chanteurs de Trois-Rivières and burst fully realized onto the professional stage in 2010. With the release of their debut CD, this remarkably skilled a cappella vocal quartet has presented the listener with an irresistible potpourri of musical motifs, including material from the worlds of jazzy-pop, alternative/indie, rap as well as their own takes on classic French Chanson. Not since Blossom Dearie’s Blue Stars of Paris has such a superb, Francophone vocal ensemble emerged (a cappella or otherwise).

Clearly influenced by groups as diverse as The Four Seasons and Manhattan Transfer as well as musical theatre, these talented artists see no stylistic boundaries and specialize in blurring the lines. Qw4rtz’s two tenors, frequently arranged in unison, effortless contrapuntal commitment and solid, relentless bass lines, lend a dynamism to all of the clever and complex arrangements found here.

The 13-track CD kicks off with the bombastic Julie – Les Coocs and segues into the delightful Fais-moi un show de boucane (Give Me a Show of Smoke). Nearly unbearably beautiful are Hymne à l’amour (Hymn to Love), written by the “Little Sparrow” herself, the great Edith Piaf, and her protégé Charles Aznevour’s Emmenez-moi (Take Me). A rollicking and joyful stand-out, Boum boum boum/Elle me dit (Boom Boom Boom/She Tells Me) is guaranteed to please, as is the emotional and energetic closer, Papaoutai.

06 Hogtown BrassIntroducing…
Hogtown Brass Quintet
Independent (hogtownbrass.com)

This short disc (23 minutes) by the Hogtown Brass Quintet reinforces my enthusiasm from their concert last year at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church’s Lunchtime Chamber Music series. As the name suggests, these Hogtowners combine excellence with wit, in a tasty six-piece program featuring compositions and arrangements by trombonist RJ Satchithananthan. His inventive, Spanish-inflected Solea and bluesish Stray Goat avoid clichés of their styles, taking off in unexpected directions as the latter’s title suggests. As a composition student I was advised not to use “too much tuba” in a brass quintet. Tubist Andrew Nowry belies that nostrum with well-controlled dynamics and endurance in Solea and an exuberant solo in Stray Goat.

The setting of Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered features Satchithananthan’s own lyrical trombone. With light syncopated staccatos and interlocking accompaniment figures from trumpeters Tristan Tye and Matthew Ross, Nowry’s agile tuba bass line and Jason Austin’s sustained horn background gluing it all together, this is fun and first-rate work. An arrangement of Mascagni’s Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana by Satchithananthan works surprisingly well because of the players’ sensitive shaping of melodies distributed among instruments.

Of two pieces arranged by others, J.S. Bach’s difficult Contrapunctus IX from The Art of Fugue sounds well on brass, but there are a few places where intonation or evenness could be better. After the disc’s close with an affecting A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, I was left awaiting more from the Hogtown Brass Quintet!

08 Kobo TownWhere the Galleon Sank
Kobo Town
Stonetree Records ‎ST-302 (stonetreerecords.com)

Calypso: with roots in African, European and Caribbean rhythms, melodies and instrumentation, the highly hybrid music genre originated last century in Trinidad and Tobago. The music made by the JUNO-nominated Toronto-based band Kobo Town, founded in 2004 by Trinidadian-Canadian songwriter and singer Drew Gonsalves, illustrates calypso’s evolution in the 21st century, staying relevant with global audiences.

Keeping it real, Gonsalves named his band after the Kobo Town neighborhood in Port-of-Spain, its putative place of origin. Early in life he was attracted by the allure of calypso music as well as by its charismatic bards, relating that he “was blown away by the cleverness and the wit of these calypsonians and also their engaging interplay with the audience.”

The very assured album Where the Galleon Sank places the poetic narrative of Gonsalves’ lyrics front and centre. And his music also shows respect to the roots of calypso, while at the same time inventively mixing other Caribbean music influences including ska, dancehall reggae and dub. It’s all narrated by his rich Trini-accented voice and layered acoustic-centred instrumentation. The supporting horn section of trumpet, trombone, and the meaty baritone sax lines played by Linsey Wellman particularly caught my ear.

Gonsalves has addressed his idiosyncratic – to a certain degree made-in-Canada – take on the received calypso tradition. “It is calypso inspired and derived, but it’s a conscious departure from the way it developed back home… For me, the calypsonian is a singing newspaperman…with an attitude halfway between court jester and griot.”

For me, much of Where the Galleon Sank qualifies for my definition of “infectious music.”

 

Back to top