02 Beyond the PaleRuckus
Beyond the Pale
Borealis Records BCD245 (borealisrecords.com)

The acoustic Eurofolk ensemble, Beyond the Pale, has been an important voice on the world music scene in Toronto for nearly 20 years. Known for their ability to blend genres in interesting ways, the group continues on that path with their fourth release, Ruckus, their first in eight years.

Instrumental mastery is a hallmark of the album but it comes through in the musicians’ – Bret Higgins (bass), Aleksandar Gajic (violin), Milos Popovic (accordion), Eric Stein (mandolin), Martin van de Ven (clarinets) and Bogdan Djukic and Max Sennit (percussion) – heartfelt and cohesive playing rather than a lot of show-offy, lightning speed runs. That said, there are some displays of virtuosity here and there that really dazzle.

The disc contains a mix of traditional and original compositions, with most of the band members contributing originals in true ensemble fashion. The songs alternate between plaintive ballads and rousing dance and celebration songs. Being a sucker for a low clarinet, the opening track, Atlas Revolt, grabbed me right off the bat. Ruckus in Ralja with its evocation of dance halls of Eastern Europe and the moody restraint of Andale are other standouts.

The instrumentation is essentially the same throughout and although using a variety of techniques and approaches brings some distinctiveness, I have to say that about halfway through the album the songs started to sound somewhat the same. But fans of this style of music will no doubt find plenty to enjoy and will revel in the soundscape of the “Old World,” in the hands of inventive “New World” musicians.

03 An DanAn Dàn – Gaelic Songs for a Modern World
Mary Ann Kennedy
ARC Music EUCD 2737 (arcmusic.co.uk)

On this inspired recording, Glasgow gal Mary Ann Kennedy wears a number of exquisite hats, including vocalist, pianist, composer, arranger, lyricist and co-executive producer. The CD title, An Dàn, translates as A Song or perhaps the more apropos A Destiny. The project is comprised of 11 brilliantly arranged songs – some ancient, some contemporary – and all rendered in flawless Scots-Gaelic, with an array of traditional instruments and thrilling vocals in tow. It’s not necessary to be a Gaelic speaker to appreciate this collection, as the sheer musicality and emotional depth of the project transcend any cultural or linguistic barriers. An Dàn is a marvelous affirmation of the survival of Gaelic languages – even in the face of the most oppressive 19th-century imperialism and near cultural genocide.

The opening track, Seinn, Horo, Seinn (Sing!) is rife with gorgeous string lines as well as Kennedy’s lovely, diaphanous, pitch-pure, soaring soprano. Next up is Óran do dh’lain Dómhnallach (Song for John MacDonald) which features a poem by the 20th-century Gaelic literary giant, Irig MacDonald. Gaels have a real poetic tradition of both eulogy and elegy, and nowhere on the CD is this more evident than on this composition. A tribal, male chorus adds to the track, reflecting MacDonald’s postwar life in Ghana and South Africa. Kennedy wrote the song in that tradition, and she also utilizes a sample of a vocal sequence from the Tswana and Sotho Voices.

Dàn Ur do Fhlóraidh NicNill (A New Song for Flora MacNeil) is arranged with sophistication and dissonance, and invokes ancient, Iron Age musical motifs. Finlay Wells’ light and clear guitar work is enhanced by Jarlath Henderson’s pipes – and with the addition of the strings, a sort of Celtic wall of sound is created. Two other standouts include Grádh Geal Mo Chridhe (My True Love) – a complex and masterfully produced track featuring superb choral segments and Air Leathad Slèibhe (On a Hill-land Slope) with lyrics by another 20th-century Gaelic literary giant, George Campbell Hay. This heady tune conjures up a vision of ancient Celtic settlements enveloped in mist and magic, as well as deeply-rooted spiritual connections to Mother Earth and reverence for her cycles.

04 Ukranian CD coverFor You, O Ukraine
Ukrainian Youth Ensembles
Independent (ukrainianyouthensembles.com)

The Ukrainian Youth Ensembles are a Toronto-based group consisting of the Levada Women’s Choir, the Orion Men’s Choir and the Vanguard Concert/Marching Band. Music director Roman Yasinsky is ably assisted by choral conductor Zhanna Zinchenko. The majority of the 100 plus members trace their ancestry back to Ukraine.

This CD is a compilation of 25 selections all of Ukrainian origin, opening with the rousing Our Unseverable Kozak Ancestry with combined choirs and band accompaniment. And then there is a broad spectrum of combinations. The choirs are heard individually or combined with band accompaniment, piano accompaniment or a cappella. Seven of the selections are from the Songs of the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen, who were instrumental in recapturing Kiev from the Red Army in 1918.

Instrumentation of the band is somewhat different from what we normally find in a full concert band. There are no oboes, bassoons or bass clarinets, but the brass sections are augmented by instruments usually confined to brass bands. There are E-flat alto horns in addition to the French horns, and there are twice as many cornets as trumpets. Overall, the performances are excellent, as is the recording quality.

At first sight the cover of this CD might be intimidating for anyone who is not fluent with the language. However, it comes with a 24-page booklet, in both Ukrainian and English, containing photographs of the ensembles in addition to notes on the music.

01 RakkatakSmall Pieces
Rakkatak
Independent RA017 (rakkatak.com)

Toronto tabla player Anita Katakkar founded Rakkatak as a solo project in 2009. Abetted by a laptop and sequencer, hers was a mix of classical Hindustani music and electronica performed with a pop-music aesthetic. For Small Pieces, Katakkar invited into the studio bassist Oriana Barbato, sitar player Rex Van der Spuy who’s been playing sitar in Toronto since 1989, plus eight guest musicians. Collectively they represent a cross-section of what has been tagged the Toronto Gharana – local musicians pursuing music rooted in the classical Hindustani tradition. The larger ensemble on the album also effectively broadens Rakkatak’s aesthetic focus to embrace a more inclusive sonic palette.

Of mixed Indian and Scottish ancestry, Katakkar noted that “I heard plenty of Indian music growing up from my grandmother.” She began studying tabla with the Toronto Tabla Ensemble’s Ritesh Das, and later in California and Kolkata with the pre-eminent tablist Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri. As she matured as a creative musician Katakkar found she “had stories to tell.” Eesha’s Song, track five on Small Pieces, featuring the sitar of Joanna Mack and violin of Jessica Deutsche, was meant as an elegy to a friend’s daughter who passed away much too young. In it, Katakkar’s tabla solos “were inspired by running up a big hill and barely being able to keep up, sort of like Eesha’s heart.”

The album closes with Riffing on 9, a solo for Katakkar, bringing the album back to her early career working with just tabla and laptop. It’s a stripped down salute to the Asian Underground movement that initially inspired her on her fascinating creative journey.

02 Taiko torontoToronto Taiko Tales
Nagata Shachu
Independent KNE013 (nagatashachu.com)

On several occasions I’ve written about the Toronto group Nagata Shachu in my WholeNote World Music column. “Nagata Shachu is one of our city’s musical treasures,” I wrote in one, “…its performances invariably filled with a high level of ensemble musicianship coupled with mental and corporeal discipline.”

Canadian-born percussionist Kiyoshi Nagata, the group’s founding artistic director, has composed and performed taiko-based music for theatre, film, dance and radio. He’s also collaborated with musicians practising many genres of music, including most recently the Toronto Tabla Ensemble.

Nagata Shachu’s Blu-ray release Toronto Taiko Tales shows the group in top form. The concert video footage shot in 2016 at Aki Studio Theatre, in Toronto’s core Regent Park neighbourhood, not only captures the group’s usual lofty musicking but also its inventive choreography. In that category I include playful deployment of drumsticks, and intense physicality in performance, all attractively captured in medium shots, close-ups and in clear audio.

The well-crafted compositions are by Kiyoshi Nagata and associate artistic director Aki Takahashi, who is also the founder of the Japanese folk ensemble ten ten. Takahashi offers a welcome palate cleanser in contrast to Nagata Shachu’s drum-centric repertoire, with a moving rendition of her song Zare Shamisen, which she sings accompanying herself on the shamisen.

I also enjoyed the peaceful footage of Toronto’s natural landscape as it passes though the seasons, artfully interspersed throughout the video. It’s a welcome reminder of the rhythms of nature pulsating in the multicultural city we all call home.

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