05 SurkalenEthno-Charango
Independent (surkalen.ca)


Surkalén is a Quebec quartet of relatively recent vintage, which identifies its music as “ethno-fusion.” Three members of the band are Chileans who met in 2006 in Montreal. Claudio Rojas plays plucked strings, flutes and electric bass, the vocalist Sanda Ulloa also specializes on cuatro and percussion, while bass player Rony Dávila also plays guitar, cuatro and flutes. In 2009 the Russian-Canadian violinist Maria Demacheva joined them and Surkalén was born.

The album title refers to the charango, a small guitar-like instrument of the Andes, whose sound permeates the entire album. As the group explains it, their name is derived from several languages. The “Sur” stands for their South American birthplaces, and “kalén” means “different” in the Selk’nam language of the indigenous people of the Patagonian region of southern Argentina and Chile, a culture referenced on the last track.

While their geographies of origin define a significant part of their work here (particularly that of South America), Surkalén also embraces musical features of Europe, Africa, North India and the Middle East. These manifold transcontinental influences are at times startling, if not jarring, in their superimposition. For example the work Patagonia…, which at its core is almost new-age-y in its violin-led lyricism – played by Demacheva, who exhibits beautiful, secure classically-trained tone – is at one point disturbed by an aggressive rock-like fuzz-toned electric bass solo.

After repeated listing, it seems to me that despite referencing multiple geographically diverse musical performance aesthetic sources, Surkalén’s unifying feature is best characterized as a mix of vernacular music vocabularies and contemporary popular music studio values. It’s that approachable quality which probably accounts for most of the group’s warm reception and popular success.

Concert Note:  Surkalén presents "Ethno-Charango" on March 20 at Salle Claude-Léveillée Place des arts in Montreal.

06 Aly KeitaKalo-Yele
Aly Keïta; Jan Galega Brönnimann; Lucas Niggli
Intakt CD 261 (intaktrec.ch)

This record marks a kind of homecoming for the Swiss drummer Lucas Niggli and reed player Jan Galega Brönnimann. The two became childhood friends in Cameroon and later played together in numerous bands in Switzerland and France during their teenage years. In the 30 years since, Niggli has focused on free jazz and composition while Brönnimann has played electronic jazz and world music. Presented with an opportunity to work with Aly Keïta, Côte d’Ivoire master of the balafon, a marimba-like instrument with calabash resonators, Niggli invited his old friend to make this a trio.

The musical results are consistently remarkable. Niggli is at once one of the world’s most precise percussionists and one of the most creative, exploring a host of sounds from drums, cymbals and gongs while layering complex patterns and interacting with his partners. Aly Keïta has transformed the traditional balafon, crafting a chromatic version of the hyper-resonant instrument. Emphasizing his bass and contrabass clarinets, Brönnimann is as apt to play rhythmic patterns as traditional melodies. The parts all course together into a series of highly distinctive pieces, from the jazz-like beats of Niggli’s Bean Bag, to the piquant sweetness of Brönnimann’s wriggling soprano saxophone on Keïta’s joyously complex Abidjan Serenade, which gains layer upon layer of rhythm. Other fine moments include the sudden contrast of scraped cymbals and gritty contrabass clarinet on Brönnimann’s Bafut and the explosive riffing of Keïta’s Adjamé Street that concludes the CD.

The music resounds with the discovery of a new world, an Africa of the imagination that has coalesced in a Bern recording studio.

01 Inuit hymns

Pillorikput Inuit – Inuktitut Arias for All Seasons
Deantha Edmunds; Karrie Obed; Innismara Vocal Ensemble; Suncor Energy String Quartet; Tom Gordon
Memorial (mun.ca/mmap/back_on_track/pillorikputinuit)


Musicologist and pianist Tom Gordon, professor emeritus of the School of Music at Memorial University in St. John’s, NL has long been fascinated by the sacred music performed by the Inuit Moravians of Northern Labrador. Unlike other Christian denominations, Moravian missionaries not only placed a high value on personal piety and missions, but also particularly encouraged the place of music in worship. Digging to understand this music’s history, Gordon sifted through hundreds of manuscripts in Moravian church archives along the Labrador coast.

What emerged was a rich musical practice with roots back to the 1770s and 1780s when European Moravian missionaries founded settlements in Northern Labrador at Nain, then Okak and Arvertok, the first (of many more) Christian missions to the Inuit in what is now Canada. They came to preach Christianity and one of their prime tools – and legacies – was music.

Quite rapidly the music imported from Europe evolved, in the words of Gordon, as an “expressive practice re-conceived to reflect the spirituality and aesthetic preferences of Inuit musicians.” It was music heard almost exclusively within the modest clapboard walls of Labrador Moravian churches. There it remained, almost unknown to the outside world, until now.

From these communities’ extensive repertoire of brass music, congregational singing and choral music, Gordon has chosen 16 tracks of solo sacred arias and duets, reconstructing them from church manuscripts. The result is the impressively documented and performed CD Pillorikput Inuit (Behold, the People), true not only to the letter of the source manuscripts but also to the Inuit spirit of its performers and tradition-keepers. The music chosen celebrates key annual liturgical events like Christmas and Easter, as well as the community celebrations of Married People’s Day and Church Festival Day.

Featuring the classically trained Inuk soprano Deantha Edmunds and Moravian Inuit music expert Karrie Obed, both singing in Inuktitut, the repertoire includes music by two leading European composers of their day, Handel and Haydn. As expected, songs by lesser-tier yet fascinating Moravian composers such as Johann Daniel Grimm (1719–1760), the American John Antes (1740–1811) and the English clergyman Christian Ignatius Latrobe (1758–1836) are also well represented. Organ, wind and string instrumental accompaniment, and the Innismara Vocal Ensemble from St. John’s provide suitable period support throughout.

What is unique in these performances? It’s not so much the repertoire or the conventional instrumental forces employed. It is rather the deeply heartfelt renditions of these European songs in Inuktitut representing a hybrid Inuit performance practice dating back over 225 years in Canada’s North that I find so moving. It seems to me Pillorikput Inuit represents the tip of the iceberg of the rich Inuit musical heritage the rest of us in the South are just beginning to discover, and enjoy.

09 Rebirth of a NationDJ Spooky – Rebirth of a Nation
Kronos Quartet
Cantaloupe CA21110

If ever there was a potent time to release this masterfully crafted new soundtrack to the D.W. Griffith classic, Birth of a Nation, it would be now during the tumultuous rebuilding of post-George W. Bush America by its extraordinary protagonist Barack Obama. Oblique parallel lines could be drawn through the similarities of situation, except that the country is not fighting a civil war to – among other things – end slavery. However a sharply divided people and flare-ups of discrimination along racial lines, unpopular wars and a dramatic decline in civility towards the presidency might be a likely background for such a soundtrack to what DJ Spooky, the irreverent composer aka Paul D. Miller, calls the Rebirth of a Nation.

The Kronos Quartet seem to be a perfect fit for this musical adventure and the quartet seems to come to terms with DJ Spooky’s mindset as if they were one and the same brain. Their transcendent musicianship, a result of great empathy between the players, provides not just memorable accompaniment to the dramaturgy of Griffith’s visuals but also discreet, seductive and eloquent continuo for Spooky’s own musical instruments that remain stark and dominant throughout the unfolding visuals. Yes, visuals! The soundtrack is accompanied by a wonderfully produced DVD so it is possible to hear the music work in conjunction with the original silent moving picture as well. I like, also the laser-bright instrumentation by Spooky.

01 Daniela Nardi

Daniela Nardi; Espresso Manifesto
eOne REA-CD-5826 (danielanardi.com)


Toronto singer Daniela Nardi continues the Espresso Manifesto project with this latest album, Canto. Espresso Manifesto originated with a collection of Paolo Conte songs (Via Con Me) released in 2012, which Nardi recorded in Umbria with mostly Italian personnel. Canto on the other hand is a celebration of Italian songwriters from a range of eras recorded in both Naples and Toronto with a mix of Italian and Canadian musicians. The other new aspect of Canto is the addition of producer Antonio Fresa who lends a fresh yet often retro sound to the tracks with his inventive arrangements. Wurlitzer, clarinet, trumpet and a string section all enrich the album and Nardi's warm expressive voice.

On the opening track, Punto, the flute doubling the vibes evokes mid-century whimsy but there's also a little Afro-Caribbean flavour stirred in. Surprising touches like these thread their way through the album – songs are reworked in French and English and there's even a little Brazilian style added with a cool Bossa Nova treatment of Gira e Rigira and Vinicius De Moraes' songwriting on Sensa Paura. The exceptional Canadians, Kevin Barrett, Mike Downes and Ron Davis (Nardi's husband) come to the fore on Amami Ancora arranged by Downes and co-written by Nardi in emulation of the great song tradition of her heritage. View a video on The Making of Canto at danielanardi.com.

02 Judith LanderFrom My Life
Judith Lander
Independent (judithlander.com)

Vocalist, composer and pianist Judith Lander has achieved wide international acclaim as a consummate classical cabaret and theatrical performer. With the release of her debut recording (produced by Lander and bassist Tom Hazlett), she achieves a level of meaning that can only be reached through rich life experience and the intuitive use of a profound emotional vocabulary in symbiosis with fine musical compositions. Lander has wisely selected material here that not only wraps around her warm contralto perfectly, but also reflects her career and pays tribute to some of the legendary theatre artists with whom she has worked, such as Jacques Brel and Lotte Lenya. Included in the collection are potent tunes by Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, Kurt Weill, Brel, Michael Leonard, Lennon and McCartney and Lander herself.

Most beautifully rendered are Weill’s haunting September Song (rarely performed from a female perspective); a particularly lithe and graceful take on Sondheim’s title tune Anyone Can Whistle (arranged by the great Gene DiNovi) and Jacques Brel’s La Chanson des Vieux Amants, sung “en duo avec” Ghislain Aucoin. Weill’s My Ship is a true stunner, with a clever, fresh arrangement and first rate trio work from Bruce Harvey on piano, Tom Hazlett on bass and Tom Jestadt on percussion. Also of note is Stephen Sondheim’s heart-rending ballad of longing and loss, I Remember (originally heard in the 1967 black-and-white television production of the musical Evening Primrose). This gorgeous, well-produced and well-conceived CD is not only the auspicious (and long overdue) debut of one of our most treasured performing artists, but a must-have for any serious devotee of cabaret and musical theatre.

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