07 Minyeshu NetsaNETSA
mcps EUCD2945 (arcmusic.co.uk)

The path stubbornly antithetical to globalism is often littered with civilizations that remain almost supernaturally mysterious. One such civilization and culture is the land of Ras-Tafari and, double-entendre, an amusing example the latter ensconced in a sign at Addis Ababa airport that says: “Welcome to Ethiopia, Centre of Active Recreation and Relaxation.” A scrunched-up brow, no matter how deep the furrows, provides no respite. Neither might the repertoire on Netsa by the eminent effervescent vocalist, Minyeshu Kifle Tedla. 

The great Bill Laswell – in typically Homeric manner – first approached Ethiopia through what he famously described as “cultural collision”. It was Laswell who enabled us to peer – magically, through a glass darkly – into the ontological works of Hakim Bey, the Moroccan sojourns of Paul Bowles and Brion Gysin. Laswell’s cultural collisions also presented the ancient-future of the ineffably brilliant Ejigayehu Shibabaw – and with her mystical music the washint and the kirar (ancient Ethiopian flute and harp respectively), the latter of which was believed to be played by King David when he composed the Psalms. 

Minyeshu, to her enormous credit, has brought the ancient-future of Ethiopian music – indeed Ethiopian culture – to a kind of wonderful artistic maturity. Her majestic vocal ululations propel, with irresistible kinetic energy, music redolent of colourful tone textures and transcendent rhythms to conjure a kind of musical magisterium formed – as it were – out of the vivid red clay of the land of Ras-Tafari. Maddening seduction is imminent.

01 Cats CradleCat’s Cradle
Arnab Chakrabarty
Independent (arnabchakrabarty.bandcamp.com/releases)

Musicians from around the globe have chosen to make Toronto home ever since the days it was colloquially tagged for hogs and muddy streets. Virtuoso sarod player Arnab Chakrabarty, a representative of the venerable Hindustani raga classical music tradition, is a relatively recent and welcome addition to the ranks of Toronto-area music professionals.  

No novice, over the last two decades Chakrabarty has played hundreds of concerts on stages around the world. Indian newspaper The Hindu reported that Chakrabarty is “known both for his emotive virtuosity and cerebral approach,” believing not in “simplifying music to cater to popular tastes as much as revelling in ‘manipulating the operative rules of the ragas to create interesting expressions.’” 

Chakrabarty aims to make classical raga performance accessible to today’s audiences without compromising its fundamentals. And his third full-length album Cat’s Cradle, featuring sarod renderings of five classical ragas, reflects this balanced approach. Eschewing flamboyant ornamental passagework, he rather focuses on the core values of the raga at hand which come to life in the alap, the introductory melodic improvisation.

The gat, a melody set in a specific raga and tala (time cycle) the latter rendered on the tabla, follows. On this album the gats are Chakrabarty’s compositions. They in turn inspire improvisation, the outcome of a spirited dialogue between set rules and the musician’s imagination freed up.

Cat’s Cradle gives full scope to Chakrabarty’s in-depth understanding and imaginative exploration of each raga complex, plumbing their signature phrases and emotional tenor while never losing sight of the rich Hindustani traditions of raga performance practice.

02 Pacific GamelanVessel
Gamelan Pacifica
Independent 002 (gamelanpacifica.org)

Led by composer Jarrad Powell, for over 40 years Seattle’s Gamelan Pacifica has been one of the few ensembles specializing in the intersection of Southcentral Javanese gamelan and international experimental music. Its new release Vessel extends that approach in new directions, bookended by two works by group musician and composer Stephen Fandrich. Laras Chopin and Difference both evoke a sound world of electronic clusters, or perhaps of bowed glass bowls, supported by occasional powerful bass tones. Yet Fandrich creates that soundscape using mostly acoustic sounds coaxed from bowed metal gamelan instruments, deep gongs, and a piano played with an electromagnetic bow. The effect is magical.

Fandrich’s Iron Tears explores regions between the Western harmonies rendered by the Del Sol string quartet and indigenous gamelan tunings. They’re allowed to interweave for 12 minutes before cadencing in a surprising A Major chord. 

Powell’s Tsuki features the brilliant Javanese-inflected singing by Jessika Kenney of an English text by Zen Master Doĝen urging us toward direct experience, the path to spiritual awakening. In her challenging work Scar, composer Kenney aims to “unlearn Javanese vocal timbres and melodic patterns without relearning centering whiteness.” She explains the work is a “prayer which intends to reject the violence of white imperial privilege, and also to unlearn [the] Javanese vocal tradition” in which she is so fluent.

Finally, Ketawang Panembah by Darsono Hadirahardjo features an emotional rebab (2-string bowed lute) solo masterfully played by Jesse Snyder. Originally meant to evoke a prayer for divine blessing, this moving music – and much of the album – reminds us of the healing power of music in dark times.

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.

Listen to 'Shanties! Live' Now in the Listening Room

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!

Listen to 'Three Corners' Now in the Listening Room

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.

Listen to 'Confluence' Now in the Listening Room

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