03 ShantiesShanties! Live
La Nef; Chor Leoni
Leaf Music NEF0003 (chorleoni.org/product/shanties-live/)

There could be nothing more eminently singable and danceable than sea shanties – those apparently unforgettable work songs from the 19th century. Fortuitously – perhaps even providentially – proud Canadians (particularly of the Scottish diaspora) continue to keep the cultural flame of the shanty alive. There is much to choose from; shanties – creations of the peripatetic merchant mariner – grew out of the French “chanter” fused into boisterous barn-dancing songs, merrily sung by British mariners into a pint of lager across the ocean to North America. Many have made it to this outstanding live recording. 

Two celebrated traditional music groups – Montreal’s La Nef and Vancouver’s Juno-nominated Chor Leoni, came together for a one-night-only performance of brand new arrangements of these work songs on the resplendent Shanties! Live. It would be a minor travesty to suggest that all praise for this performance accrues to members of La Nef, albeit the fact that the ensemble’s fame is owed to their iconic soundtrack for Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed video game. The participation of the iconic Chor Leoni has – together with arrangements by Seán Dagher and the Chor directed by Erick Lichte – turned this rare collaboration into something truly special. 

Rip-roaring shanties such as Haul on the Bowline and the stomach-churning Stormalong John provide thrill-a-minute excitement. Meanwhile the profound beauty of Lowlands Away, Shallow Brown and Le 31 du mois d’août, and the sublime fidelity of the recording make this classic sea shanties disc truly spectacular.

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04 Hypnosis NegativeThree Corners
Hypnosis Negative

Hypnosis Negative is a collaboration between Canadian Robert Alan Mackie (violin) and Estonian Katariina Tirmaste (flute, jawharp). The duo explores the roots of dance in their modern original interpretations of international and traditional repetitive dance music with inherent trance-like “hypnotic” listening and movement qualities.  

The ten-track debut release includes their modern renditions of some Estonian dance tunes they found in folk music archives, which I appreciate as a Canadian musician of Estonian parents. The first track – Hi (Mardi Tandi Polka), and  last track – Bye (Kuldimuna Lõikaja) – are each under 50 seconds, opening and closing the release with two shorter version repetitive rhythmic and melodic Estonian polka interpretations. Track 2, Buffalo Gals, (Kuldimuna Lõikaja), from the “common repertoire” Estonia, is its longer version. This upbeat rendition has many melodic repetitions with flute harmonies, quasi atonality and a waltz midstream, with a legato violin countermelody to an abrupt “time to stop dancing” accented ending. Guest percussionist is Juan de la Fuente Alcón. His subtle background beats in the calming waltz Sõrmõlugu from Estonian Jaan Palu’s repertoire, support high-pitched flute, violin held notes and astoundingly tight lyrical unison instrumental passages. Three southeastern United States square dance interpretations show a surprising traditional folk-dance similarity to them. There are Spanish cultural flavours with tight violin and flute playing over percussion grooves in the more contemporary sounding Cantiga 181 by Alfonso X El Sabio.

Hypnosis Negative is creating a brilliant traditional music future here, both on and off the dance floor!

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01 Balkan ConfluenceConfluence – Balkan Dances and Tango Neuvo
Zachary Carrettin; Mina Gajić
Sono Luminus DSL-92256 (sonoluminus.com/store/confluence)

Confluence marks the second release for the acclaimed Sono Luminus label by husband-and-wife duo, pianist Mina Gajić and violinist Zachary Carrettin. The pairing of Marko Tajčević’s folky Balkan Dances with the contemporary tangos by Ray Granlund may seem risky at first glance but it works very well and is a reflection of the cultural influences that are meaningful to these two performers. Here we have a flowing together, a merging of two different compositional languages, coming from regions that are geographically distanced but complementary with their distinct rhythmicity and melodic flavour. 

The selected tangos were written for Carrettin and it is obvious how much he enjoys playing them. The passion and lyricism, mixed together in both the writing and interpretation, are truly engaging. Granlund leaves room for improvisation and plenty of interpretative choices, and Carrettin thrives on the explorative freedom the tangos are providing. His sound is mellow and intense at the same time, as if he is daring us to get up and join him in dance. 

Tajčević’s Balkan Dances, written for solo piano, are not as exuberant but they have an absolutely relentless rhythmical drive, reminiscent of Bartók, and the melos and sturdiness of Balkan music. Gajić brings the percussiveness to the forefront and she does it with both grace and conviction. TangoNometria, one of the pieces on the album, easily links all the aspects of the music and performances on display here – ever-shifting rhythms, visceral melodies and thrilling interpretations.

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02 Lamia Yared OttomanOttoman Splendours
Lamia Yared; Ensemble Oraciones
Analekta AN2 9176 (analekta.com/en)

Diverse does not begin to describe the musical heritage of the Ottoman Empire. Full credit then to Lamia Yared, who has assembled a suitably diverse CD, drawing on Sephardic, Turkish, Hebrew and Greek music. Full credit to Didem Başar for her plaintive settings of most of the songs on the CD.

The backbone of the collection comprises a group of Ladino songs, some of which feature melodies that would not be out of place among the courts of medieval Europe; Dicho me habian dicho is a case in point with the haunting singing of Yared and its vivacious string accompaniment.

Ensemble Oraciones’ interpretations of the Turkish songs bring home the liveliness of this tradition; for example, Niçin gördüm seni highlights all the Ensemble’s players, one by one, in a spirited performance enhanced by Yared’s yearning voice.

Perhaps the most eccentric tracks on the CD are the songs written by Greek composers. Kouklaki mou (My Doll) begins with a clarinet intro by Yoni Kaston in full accordance with the rebetiko tradition of the Greek underworld. The tune may have been borrowed by Judeo-Spanish musicians but Kouklaki mou has its own place in Greek music – performed by women singers delivering their song within the hashish dens of Athens (the little doll is not the sort of woman you would want to bring home to any Jewish mother.)  

Mention should certainly be made of the instrumental contributions, for example the staccato drumbeats of Tres morillas eventually interweaving with the urgency of the kanun part. The versatility of the kanun is in fact proven by Başar’s own playing.   

The performers were very brave in condensing music from a whole swath of Europe onto one CD – which demonstrates how right they were to amalgamate their exceptional talents. 

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03 Les ArrivantsHome
Les Arrivants
Analekta AN 2 9175 (analekta.com/en)

Les Arrivants is a positive COVID-19 pandemic creation. The three musicians -- Amichai Ben Shalev on bandoneon, Abdul-Wahab Kayyali on oud, and Hamin Honari on percussion -- independently settled in Montreal between the summers of 2019 and 2020 where they met and found a musical common ground playing together as an ensemble. They each draw on their personal backgrounds, resettlement experiences and respective musical expertise of Argentinian tango, classical Arabic music and traditional Persian rhythms with Montreal contemporary/traditional/improvised music and life during COVID to make unique music 

Each musician is also a composer. Title track Home (Chez Soi) by Honari has his repeated percussion rhythm grounding the bandoneon’s modern wide-pitched, held notes and chords midstream, then an oud solo and a closing upbeat group build. Kayyali’s Burkaan (Volcan/Volcano) is fast and fun, more traditional oud music, with the band members doubling and answering the oud lines. Each member performs a solo track. Shalev’s bandoneon composition Solitude is a musical contemporary storytelling take on the tango genre with swells, held notes and wide-pitch ranges. Special guests Reza Abaee on gheychak, and Pierre-Alexandre Maranda on double bass, appear on select tracks like the closing Nava by Parviz Meshkatian, showcasing the band’s world, improvisation and popular style musicianship.

Special thanks to artistic residency support from the Montreal-based Centre des Musiciens du Monde in collaboration with Analekta for this album. Les Arrivants’ tight seamless blending of styles and instrumentals creates accessible, colourful, world/popular music for all to enjoy.

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01 Dance with MeDance With Me
Barbara Hannigan; Lucienne Renaudin Vary; Berlage Saxophone Quartet; Ludwig Orchestra
Alpha 790 (naxosdirect.com/search/alpha790)

Music and dance are rooted deep in the human condition. Canada’s favourite soprano-conductor Barbara Hannigan, directing the musicians of the Ludwig Orchestra and Berlage Saxophone Quartet, celebrates the popular music of the 20th century on Dance with Me. Covering 12 dances ranging from Viennese waltz to foxtrot, tango to quickstep, rumba to one-step, from slow dance to samba, salsa and jive, this well-recorded album is engineered to get your feet shuffling.

In some ways it feels like a follow-up to their 2018 Grammy Award-snagging Crazy Girl Crazy, the collaboration with composer-arranger Bill Elliott. This music has a personal resonance tinged with nostalgia for Hannigan, who stated that she “was thrilled to go back to this aspect of my musical roots, to reawaken special memories of singing and playing keyboards with a dance band in Nova Scotia.” 

Hannigan sings four songs on the card. She brings a girlish charm to I Could Have Danced All Night, emotional drama to Moonlight Serenade and a pouty sexuality to Fluffy Ruffles. One of her signature near-operatic interpretations takes centre stage: Kurt Weill’s dramatic, wistful minor-key tango-habanera, Youkali, is an ideal vehicle for her portrayal of the universal yearning for paradise lost.

I should mention Elliott’s accomplished orchestral arrangements for the Ludwig Orchestra. This fun album tickled my latent ballroom genes. Trigger warning: it may well tickle yours too.

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