Yasmin Levy
4QRecords FQT-CD-1821

Israeli singer Yasmin Levy has been performing since 2002 and for her latest release, “Sentir,” has somewhat cast herself in the role of musicologist. Taking up the mantle of her father, who was a cantor and Ladino preservationist who died when she was just a baby, Levy has collected and reinterpreted a handful of folk songs from that ancient culture. Ladino is a Judeo-Spanish language dating back to the 1492 diaspora that has been gradually dying out but is enjoying a bit of a renaissance as young musicians, such as the respected Israeli jazz bassist, Avishai Cohen, and local singer Aviva Chernick integrate these songs into their modern repertoire. Historical stuff aside, this is an album that can be enjoyed purely from a musical standpoint. And since the liner notes have the lyrics translated into English and French, we even get to understand what the songs are about, which, for the most part, is love and loss. The album has a pan-Latino/Middle Eastern feel to it as Levy and producer Javier Limon have fused many of the songs with flamenco attributes. Also there's a lilt to much of the music that reminds me of Argentinean tango and the more passionate moments veer into Portuguese fado territory. There’s even a Canadian component on “Sentir” as Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah gets reworked with Spanish lyrics and flamenco-esque touches, which, rather than adding fire, render it bland and easy-listening. In general, the instrumental work on the album is precise and pretty, so what gutsiness there is comes from Levy as her warm, emotive voice alternates between a purr and a plea.

01_gamelan_java _5Gamelan of Java - Vol. 5: Cirebon tradition in America
Various Artists
Lyrichord Discs LYRCH 7461 (www.lyrichord.com)

This is a unique album. Cirebon is an old city and cultural centre located on the north coast plains of the island of Java, Indonesia. This CD is the first commercial recording of all five types of traditional gamelan music still practiced in the courts of the Cirebon Sultans today. For most listeners it will be a fresh window on the aristocratic and ritual music of a 500-year-old culture little celebrated or known even in its own home country.

As we hear on this album, Cirebon gamelan music is made primarily by an ensemble of tuned and un-tuned percussion instruments, occasionally embellished by the suling, the bamboo ring flute. Vocalisations by the musicians also sometimes delightfully peek through and enliven the instrumental texture. Overall the voices of these gamelans are more intimate than either of its larger and better-known South Central Javanese or Balinese gamelan cousins.

The Californian musicians of Gamelan Sinar Surya under the skilled and dedicated direction of Cirebon gamelan expert Richard North (he has been playing this music for a remarkable 35 plus years) bring out the best in each type of repertoire. They provide a welcome variety in mood, emotional value, sound quality, tonal organisation, tempo, timbral texture and note density. More than providers of entertainment, some gamelan (sets) represented here are valued for their deep spiritual associations. Such sets include the Gong Sekati, the Gong Renteng, and the magically imbued gamelan called Denggung on which is played the outstanding track Wawa Bango.

If I were forced to pick a single favourite track, it would be Pacul Goang (Chipped Rice Hoe). It is full of the sort of vibrant musical life I associate with gamelan Cirebon performance, the hallmarks of which include the dynamic playing of the kendang and larger bedug (drums), the characteristically sweet suling riffs in the soft slower sections, and the alok vocalisations of the musicians imbuing life and special Cirebonese flavour to the instrumentals.

Being the first CD to lift the musty, dusty tarp off this special gamelan repertoire, it is a requisite for any world music course, world music student or casual enthusiast.

02_sounds_of_HIVAlexandra Pajak - Sounds of HIV
Sequence Ensemble
Azica   ACD-71260 (www.azica.com)

I have to admit – at first, expressing nucleotides of the genome of a virus as pitches of the melodic scale struck me as a gimmick. Yes, one could draw a connection between adenosine and A, between cytosine and C and so on, but to what end? Once the music started, however, this approach became much harder to dismiss. Applying scientific rigour to music is nothing new and has been done in the past with math (both Satie and Bartok used the golden ratio for their works), so why not with biochemistry? Alexandra Pajak, native of Athens, Georgia studied both composition and sciences and her work reveals a fascination with both subjects. Then there is a general sense of unease, creeping in. This undeniably beautiful music expresses HIV, a virus responsible for the destruction of much beauty and art. On one hand, it’s tempting to assume that nature’s creations achieve a high level of symmetry and beauty and a virus should not be exempt from that principle. On the other hand, what terrible beauty is there to be found should we glimpse inside the genome of the plague, syphilis, smallpox or even flu? These ruminations tend to accompany listening to this oddly-concordant composition, performed with aplomb by the Sequence Ensemble. A special mention goes to Timothy Whitehead, whose piano decodes the protein connections with an astonishing clarity. This strange and disturbing recording reveals itself to be much more than just a mere gimmick!


03_cassandra_wilsonSilver Pony

Cassandra Wilson

Blue Note 509996 29752 2 3

“Silver Pony” is the latest in a long line of releases in the varied oeuvre of singer Cassandra Wilson. Getting a new Wilson disc made me feel a little like a kid on Christmas morning, but this wasn't exactly the pony I was expecting to find under the tree. Wilson is at her best when she takes rock and pop tunes and, along with her always innovative band mates, reworks them into atmospheric beauties. Her version of Neil Young's Harvest Moon from the Grammy-winning “New Moon Daughter” with Toronto guitar alchemist Kevin Breit, being a prime example. While “Silver Pony” has a few studio-recorded trademark Wilsonisms - like the funky Forty Days and Forty Nights and Watch the Sunrise, a duet with John Legend — what dominate the album are the live tracks. With many of the songs weighing in around the seven-minute mark and extended soloing from piano player Jonathan Batiste, drummer Herlin Riley and guitarist Marvin Sewell, there's a lot of hay to chew on. Wilson's voice is as deep and nuanced as ever and the interplay between the musicians is a lesson in developing ideas on the fly. Anyone who likes their tunes in nice, neat A-A-B-A packages should probably hitch their wagon to some other horse, but if you want to hear veteran performers giving free rein to their creativity, saddle up and ride.

02_duo_pipa_violinAlong the Way - Duo Pipa & Violin

Liu Fang; Malcolm Goldstein

Philmultic PMPCD809 www.philmultic.com

This double album reflects what appears to be a mini trend: skilled performers of disparate instruments and music genres who once never would have thought of sharing the same stage, coming together in collaborative un-scored improvisation.


The violinist Malcolm Goldstein (b. 1936) is an American born composer and violinist, specialising in free improvisation. Active in the new music scene since the early 1960s, he has developed a totally individual and original approach to violin playing, one which on first hearing sounds distinctly unorthodox. Goldstein’s approach is not to make the violin sound as it “should” in a conventional sense, but to explore making music on it from scratch. Far from being a naïf however, his approach is solidly rooted in the 20th century avant-garde music mainstream and also in Eastern European violin playing traditions.


Based in Montréal, the pipa soloist Liu Fang (b. 1974) has shown a commitment to crossing boundaries. Having obtained a solid foundation on her plucked lute-like instrument at the Shanghai Conservatory for Music, she has performed throughout the world and released 10 albums. In addition to her repertoire of Chinese traditional music Liu Fang has also embraced the culture of her adopted homeland. Her premieres of works by Canadian composers including R. Murray Schafer and José Evangelista demonstrate that. Along the Way is the latest installment of what she calls her “Silk and Steel” projects in which she collaborates with leading non-Chinese musicians from various traditions.


These two master musicians first performed together in 2003 and their years of mutual respect and musical understanding is audible on this album. They seem to be aiming to create 15 very different nature-referenced soundscapes in their improvisations. On track 1, CD 2, the predominant mood is dramatic, while on others it ranges from furious to quiet and silent, to sections sounding disputatious, furious, even bellicose. The dominant texture however is an eloquent musical dialogue with occasional virtuoso flourishes on both instruments; some on the violin would not be out of place in a European 20th c. concerto.  Make no mistake, this is sophisticated, richly layered music


04_katrina_songsKatrina Ballads

Ted Hearne

New Amsterdam Records NWA011 www.katrinaballads.com

With events such as Richard Nixon’s China visit the subject of modern operas, why not 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which nearly destroyed New Orleans? That’s what composer Ted Hearne has done with this 70-minute song cycle. It’s scored for five singers and 11 musicians, including horn and string ensembles and a rock rhythm section.

Winner of many awards since its premiere at the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, Katrina Ballads is a mature work that belies Herne’s age of 28. Witty as well as inventive, the libretto consists of vocalized versions of transcribed sound bites from New Orleans residents, reporters and officials. Almost every track is given a finer point by the arrangements which adapt variants of notated, jazz, and pop musics to the program.

There are many standouts, including Herne’s zippy and jivey repetition of George Bush’s infamous “Brownie You’re Doin’ A Heck of a Job”; and “Barbara Bush”, where the ex-First Lady’s saying the underprivileged don’t mind uprooting is mocked straight-faced by mezzo-soprano Abby Fischer accompanied by faux C&W fiddling and honky-tonk piano. There’s poignancy as well. “Hardy Jackson” sung by baritone Anthony Turner is a parlando lament for a victim’s missing wife. There’s also tenor Isaiah Robinson’s fully orchestrated gospel-like recasting of the statement that George Bush didn’t care about black people by rapper “Kanye West”.

Impressively as well, Turner and soprano Allison Semple’s musical recreation of an interview between “Anderson Cooper and Mary Landrieu” is an operatic-style recitative highlights swift-tongued talents, while cracklings with the reporter’s indignation towards the platitude-spouting Louisiana senator.

Back to top