04 Vietnamese ZitherThe Art of the Vietnamese Zither – Đàn Tranh
Tri Nguyen

ARC Music EUCD2826 (arcmusic.co.uk)

This album features the subtly expressive Vietnamese plucked zither đàn tranh, which belongs to the widely distributed family of Asian long zithers. Its cousins are the Chinese zheng and qin, Japanese koto, Korean kayageum, as well as the çatkhan of the Khakass of southern Russian Siberia and the kacapi of the Sundanese of West Java, Indonesia.

Born into a family of literati in South Vietnam, Trí Nguyen began his music studies at an early age on the piano with French-trained teachers, eventually continuing them in Paris. His family however was strongly attached to its ancestral Vietnamese culture and also arranged đàn tranh lessons for Nguyen with the noted master Hai Bieu. Nguyen’s bi-cultural training positions him well to pursue his goal of taking traditional Vietnamese music to international audiences, combining Vietnamese musics with global genres and instruments. His approach has already garnered success: his 2015 debut album Consonnances won the Global Music Award Gold Medal for world music.

In The Art of Vietnamese Zither, Nguyen draws on this bi-musicality, presenting the đàn tranh in a transcultural context. The closing tracks are up-tempo nods to a world-music style aimed at broad audience appeal in which he adds other Vietnamese instruments, the oud and darabuka (goblet drum).

The most impressive aspect of the album however is the suite presented in the first nine tracks. Effectively arranged for his đàn tranh and Western string quartet, they feature melodies borrowed and adapted from the six schools of traditional Vietnamese music he inherited from his master Bieu.

01 Rupakerias Front Cover high resRupakarias
Nicolas Hernandez
Independent (nicolashernandez.com) 

Nick Hernandez is a beautiful guitarist who generally keeps a low profile. The Toronto-based musician is an accompanist to flamenco dancers and singers, as musical director of Esmeralda Enrique’s Spanish Dance Company, and for the last dozen or so years, his main gig has been accompanying another fine guitarist, Jesse Cook. Now he’s stepping into the spotlight somewhat with his second album in 13 years (time flies!), Rupakarias.

Filled with original compositions in traditional flamenco song styles like guajiras and tarantas, the album also has some non-traditional elements such as South Asian drums, courtesy of Toronto tabla master Ravi Naimpally.

The title of the album is a portmanteau of two song styles – flamenco bulerias and the Indian classical tala, rupak. The song Rupakerias is an artful mashup of the two styles with tabla blending beautifully with the guitar and vice versa. The jaleos (calls) and palmas (hand claps) at the end give the song a traditional touch.

The gorgeous Mociones y Emociones is one of the more accessible songs on the album. Its Gipsy Kings-esque sound – a rumba style, which I think of as the pop music of the flamenco world due to the group bringing the style to prominence and global airplay back in the 80s – gives it a ring of familiarity.

The fiery bulerias Recordando a Cesar, will get your heart started with percussionist Rosendo Chendy León Arocha’s cajón playing and palmas driving the tempo. Dos Mundos is a bit of a departure with its searing electric guitar work, courtesy of Kevin Laliberté. Re Mi Sol is a sunny and evocative closer to this fine album.

02 Ladom EnsembleThe Walls are Made of Song
Ladom Ensemble
Independent (ladomensemble.com)

The much-anticipated second release of local instrumental group Ladom Ensemble features tight, infectious, energetic and virtuosic performances by each member. Pianist/composer/arranger Pouya Hamidi, accordionist Michael Bridge, cellist Beth Silver and percussionist Adam Campbell play both as soloists and ensemble musicians in the wide-ranging musical genres performed.

The four classical arrangements for Ladom show respect for the original work while exploring new sounds in the transcriptions. Of note is the entertaining Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No.5 in G Minor featuring rapid accordion melody lines with tremolo bellowing, and contrasting dramatic fast and slow sections. The first movement of Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No.7 in G Minor is an interesting approach with contrapuntal lines against more modern, almost party-like rhythms. The stylistically accurate East Coast Medley featuring the “fiddle” parts on cello, a straightforward rendition of Piazzolla’s Libertango, and an orchestral flavoured cover of Radiohead’s Weird Fishes/Arpeggi bring welcome sonic contrasts. Vocalist Brenna MacCrimmon sings on two tracks. Her clear, beautiful vocals on the traditional Azeri Lullaby are supported by held notes to the final “falling asleep” cello pluck. Three original works are performed. Hamidi’s The Walls are Made of Song is a slower tonal soundscape with dramatic build and dynamic contrasts while his Gift is more a reflective almost mournful piece. Maziar Heidari’s Summer in Tehran features well placed short ideas.

Ladom Ensemble is an exciting, evolving group with musicality, technical acumen and an overwhelming sense of joy in playing.

Listen to 'The Walls are Made of Song' Now in the Listening Room

03 Romina di GasbarroRisorgimento
Romina Di Gasbarro
Modica Music MM0022 (romina.ca) 

Multitalented Canadian vocalist/composer/instrumentalist Romina Di Gasbarro stretches her musicianship to the limits in her third CD release. She weaves together ancient and modern music such as folk, jazz, opera, art song and pop, in both Italian and English, to tell old-to-current cultural and political stories. Other than a few text and musical references throughout, such as from Verdi’s Rigoletto in 1000 (Viva V.E.R.D.I.), all music and lyrics are written by her with a self-described recurring theme of freedom and control.

This is unique music touching on contrasting styles with something for every taste. The opening Cantu is a short almost chant-like vocal solo with nice tonal modulations translated into English from the Sardinian poem by Grazie Deledda. Kings is more theatrical and operatic in nature, with moving string interludes and plucked string sections leading to English/Italian lyrics driving the storyline. Radio-friendly pop song A Place in the Sun features vocal swells and upbeat rhythms. Taranta is a toe-tapping Italian flavoured tarantella-like song highlighted by held notes and detached rhythms. Dramatic English-language ballad-like Bedouin features Di Gasbarro’s enchanting vocals, modern key change modulations and instrumental solos, all supported brilliantly by bassist/producer Roberto Occhipinti.

Di Gasbarro sings with a clearly articulated rich quality in her native English and Italian languages. The recording features acclaimed Canadian instrumentalists too numerous to mention here whose performances add to the detailed artistic musical merits of Risorgimento.

(I) Les vents orfèvres;
(II) Les entrailles de la montagne
Jean-François Bélanger
Les Productions de l’homme Renard (jfbelanger.com)

01a Belanger 1Jean-François Bélanger is a specialist in period and contemporary string instruments. Between 2015 and 2018 he completed an enduring diptych dedicated principally to the Swedish folk instrument the nyckelharpa. However, unlike Olov Johansson of the Swedish group Väsen and renowned exponent of the three-rowed nyckelharpa, the music created by the Montréalais Bélanger seems to fuse a myriad of musical idioms, drawing from Swedish and Celtic ones, on his single-rowed instrument.

The first of Bélanger’s diptych of recordings is Les vents orfèvres, a piercing journey into the interior landscape of the artist’s mind, “dedicated to matters of the spirit,” as Bélanger explains. There is an astonishing variety of music here, from the spine-tingling and airy Ouverture tirée à quatre épingles and Le pensoir with their eloquent silences punctuated only by the sound of the keys as they are depressed, to serve as frets to change the pitch of the string, to the knockabout Suite norvégienne with its highly theatrical and dance-like gestures that closes out this disc.

Throughout we hear music-making of great vividness and immediacy; the songs seem to traverse not just time, but also a musical topography infinitely more vast than the relative insularity of the instrument. It bears mention too that Bélanger also plays numerous other stringed and percussion instruments and is accompanied by 12 other virtuoso musicians who play a staggering range of instruments from the Jew’s harp and the Brazilian caxixi to the Indian bansuri and the viola da gamba.

01b Belanger 2The second part of his celebrated diptych Les entrailles de la montagne is infinitely more adventurous. The music unfolds and with it the metaphor of the mountain takes shape. As the disc progresses the music seems to pour out of the instruments in a proverbial volcanic mix that melds opulent orchestral arrangements with a percussive folksy theatre that seems to crisscross the earth’s music. But to describe it as such gives the impression of overcooking when in fact the whole project is a masterpiece of subtlety.

Somehow Bélanger’s nyckelharpa appears to give way more frequently to other instruments from his pandora’s box that even includes the sitar and tampuri-swarmandal. Here too, Bélanger is accompanied by 15 musicians plus a string quartet, each deeply attuned to his vision. The surprises, when they come, are effective but discreet: a gamelan-like riff played as pizzicato harmonics and a delicate curlicue of a bass line that sounds like a Gaelic lament and, as in La brouseaille – Chemin de traverse, a close-knit passage that develops from a single phrase. Small wonder that Bélanger received the Instrumental Solo Artist of the Year prize at the 2018 Canadian Folk Music Awards for Les entrailles de la montagne.

Listen to 'Les vents orfèvres' and 'Les entrailles de la montagne' Now in the Listening Room

02 Alicia HansenBefore You
Alicia Hansen
Independent (aliciahansen.com)

Alicia Hansen does not write party music. What the Vancouver-based singer and piano player does write are artistic, original and harmonically complex songs. Her propensity for minor keys and stark lyrics make her latest album, Before You, feel a little dark at times, but her beautiful voice and vulnerability more than make up for it.

Hansen’s third studio release comprises 11 tracks all written by her and produced by JUNO Award-winner, Jesse Zubot, who also plays violin on the album. Zubot and cellist Peggy Lee’s string work add to the haunting quality of many of the tunes, such as Who I Am or the opener Disintegrating Heart which explores themes of love and relationships, as many of the songs do. Other themes are emotional growth, self-acceptance and the rejection of standards set by others. In Fame and Glory Hansen writes, “So I hope that you’re not waiting for me, to turn into something that I’ll never be.” And that sums this record up well. Hansen’s work is worth exploring for anyone tired of formulaic pop offerings and keen for fresh, interesting, yet accessible songs.

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