Tuesday means it's time for Tuesday Reviewsday, our weekly new music segment. This week music journalist Steve Hochman joins A Martinez in the studio with releases from around the world.
Artist: Dom La Nena
Songs: "Vivo Na Maré," "Llegaré"
Notes: Brazilian Portuguese may be the most musical language there is, with all those soft, sensual shhh and jhhh sounds. So it’s a bit of a shame that Brazilian artist Dominique Pinto — a.k.a. Dom La Nena (Dom the Little One) — sings only three of the 11 songs on her new album in that language. There are five in Spanish and one each in French and English.
But then, though she was born in the coastal Brazilian town Porto Alegre, her family split time between there and Paris and she spent much of her teen years studying cello in Spanish-speaking Argentina. And all of those places, all that experience, figures heavily into her music in delightfully impressive ways. Pinto, just 25, has an imaginative sonic touch, building on the more cello-centric approach of her 2013 debut Ela to piece together various melodic and rhythmic elements into songs of both beauty and depth. And that is very Brazilian.
She gets compared to Joanna Newsom and Cat Power and even Brian Wilson, and has in the past covered a song by the National. But she fits into the Brazilian tradition of putting together native rhythms, be they from the rain forest, the beaches of Bahia or the streets of Rio, with styles imported from Europe and North America: Heitor Villa-Lobos bringing in Bach and modernism. The bossa nova lilt of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto. The psychedelic touches and social commentary of Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The more recent pop-electronic hybrids from Bebel Gilberto and others.
Dom La Nena’s music is, on the surface, more pop. But just under the surface, Brazilian rhythms are readily found. On “Vivo Na Maré,” one of the Portuguese songs, the shakers and light drums shift and shuffle, with Pinto’s voice dancing and skipping along, a distinctive mix of joy and melancholy. If you don’t understand the words, the joy may seem more prominent. With a translation it skews the other way: “I have no home,” she sings. “I live in the tide.” And the theme continues, whatever the language. In “Llegaré” she sings in Spanish “If I want to rest, I cannot think where, when, how I will come.”
And there are other juxtapositions. “Carnaval,” describing the very Brazilian festival just passed, is the one she chooses to sing in English. And the French one is “Juste Une Chanson” — “just a song.” Just? Nothing here is “just” a song, whatever the language.
Songs: "Oya," "River"
Notes: Twin sisters Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz, just 19, go well beyond their Cuban-French roots on their debut album under the duo name Ibeyi, which is creating considerable buzz both in world music and international pop circles. They sing largely in English, with voices somewhere between young Billy Holiday and a more-restrained Bjork. They use contemporary production to shape the songs’ enticing atmospheres. They’re not by any means doing traditional music of any sort.
But the roots are the strong foundation, and crucial to the striking artistry. Their father was Cuban percussionist Anga Díaz, part of the global sensation Buena Vista Social Club. When he died at just 45 — they were only 11 — they took up music together, learning percussion and the folk songs that came to Cuba from the Yoruba culture of West Africa in the slave trade era and remain core to local sounds. (Ibeyi means twins in the Yoruba language.)
You can hear that in the swaying undercurrent of “Oya,” understated as is much on this album, but somehow more powerful for that subtlety. Over that, the French part (the twins live in Paris) comes via the quiet sophistication of the music and voices, a breezy, confident calm to it all, but carrying with it a richness of emotions. “Mama Says,” a muted portrait, very much evokes Holiday, via Angelique Kidjo, perhaps. And “River,” with its bass drum pulse and cricket-like touches, finds a place between African and Caribbean village songs and Bjork, not unlike some of Merrill Garbus’ music as Tune-Yards. The images of water are as something providing both comfort and dread, a sense captured in the simple but indelible, and slightly disturbing video. It’s indeed a duality, but then what else should we expect from twins.
Artist: The Sway Machinery
Album: "Purity and Danger"
Songs: "Magein Ovus," "My Dead Lover’s Wedding"
Notes: In 2010 a rock band from New York trekked to Mali to appear at the famed Festival of the Desert and collaborate with some of the top Saharan artists. Noteworthy, but not that unusual. But, oh, did we mention that the band bases the bulk of its material around centuries-old Jewish Cantorial music?
That continues to be the defining moment for the Sway Machinery, those clashes of cultures now refined into an enticing, exciting mix on the band’s new, third album, Purity and Danger. The thing is, with the vision of founder and leader Jeremiah Lockwood, whose grandfather was in fact a famed New York cantor, there are no clashes at all.
Such songs as “Magein Ovus” show how natural a fit this combo is — surprising maybe to some, but not at all to those who know of the intertwined cultures the spread for centuries from the Mediterranean up through Europe and down through the northern part of the African continent. No shoehorning was needed to get the Jewish melodies (which are, of course, related to Arabic and African melodies) to mesh with the skittering modern African rhythms.
It helps that the band was assembled with an elastic embrace in mind. The core includes musicians who have been part of the Brooklyn Afrobeat ensemble Antibalas, with such other contributors as sax player Matt Bauder, who has worked with artists from avant-garde composer Anthony Braxton to Arcade Fire.
This is also an American rock band, though, so Lockwood finds a place for some harder guitar sounds, some foursquare drive and even some punk/metal/alt-rock in his adaptations of the spliced styles. The overdriven surf guitar that opens “Longa” is like Dick Dale goes to the Sahara. Or the Kibbutz. Or Coachella. Or all three at once. Hey, that sounds like fun! As does “My Dead Lover’s Wedding,” despite the ominous title. Here the Sway Machinery obliterates borders not just of cultures and eras, but of sensibilities. There’s a lot to be appreciated in the seamless combinations. Or you can just enjoy the grooves.