It's time for Tuesday Reviewsday, our weekly new music segment. This week music journalist Steve Hochman joins A Martinez with a list of new songs from some artists who've been around for a while.
Artist: Yo-Yo Ma & the Silk Road Ensemble
Album: “Sing Me Home"
Home? It’s where displaced Eastern European Roma musicians jam with American singer Rhiannon Giddens on the folk-jazz blues “St. James Infirmary.” It’s where Sarah Jarosz sings Pete Seeger’s “Little Birdie” accompanied by Chinese musicians. It’s where Bohemian composer Dvorak’s interpretation of an American spiritual is sung by banjo player Abigail Washburn, both in English and Chinese. Or where this album’s opening track, “Green (Vincent’s Tune), takes us, a trek starting on the Mongolian Steppes and then goes, well, everywhere at once, as directed by Chinese composer/pipa player Wu Man with arrangement by Russian-born New Yorkers Ljova and Johnny Gandlesman and featuring a truly global cast of folk and classical artists, including the adventurous vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth.
Cello star Yo-Yo Ma founded the Silk Road Ensemble in 2000, with Iranian musician Kayhan Kalhor (master of the kamancheh, a Persian fiddle played upright) his core collaborator and a vast international roster enlisted to explore the intersections of fluidly migrant cultures, ancient and modern.
This album, a companion to an upcoming documentary, “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble,” by “20 Ft. From Stardom” director Morgan Neville, expands the concept with some stunning results. What could have been a gimmick — a variety of guest singers and players placed into consciously juxtaposed contexts (think of how the guests approach grew tired over a series of albums by the Irish group the Chieftains) — proves anything but.
Rather, “Sing Me Home” is a vivid portrait of the modern world in which home is not a fixed point, and at times avery elusive concept, a world in which the notion of where we are and the notion of where we’re from are often in conflict. And with it, the notion of who we are. But the rich possibilities of this outweigh the conflicts.
Longing and belonging. Those are the dancing partners here, as in much great music, not to mention literature, through the ages.
While Ma, understandably, gets top billing, the Silk Road project has always itself been a fluid entity, building on strengths and chemistries of its various participants. This particular dance was choreographed, if you will, by producers Johnny Gandlesman (violinist of the groundbreaking Brooklyn Rider string quartet, itself a longtime core part of Silk Road) and Kevin Killen (who as producer and engineer has long worked with U2, Elvis Costello, David Bowie and many others). And in their hands, while the concept is key, it is always subservient to the music.
Artist: Alarm Will Sound
What Beatles song would you say is most unlikely to be covered by another artist? Probably the same one that routinely comes on top of “least-favorite Beatles songs” surveys — or even “most-hated Beatles song.” And yet in the last few years this writer has seen two different attempts at live renditions of “Revolution 9,” the polarizing-at-best musique concrete experiment by John Lennon and Yoko Ono featured on the so-called “White Album.” Both were as part of complete performances of that album, one by a group of kids studying at a School of Rock facility (spirited), the other by a duo mixing electronics, sampling and live processed vocals (rather impressive, it turned out).
But here it turns up in a seemingly very unlikely “classical” context, tackled by the chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound, always known for coloring outside the lines. Though maybe not really unlikely at all. Ono, of course was already a respected music/art modernist, a colleague of John Cage, well before she even met Lennon. And Lennon had already shown influence of Stockhausen and others in various tape loop and cut-up forays as he and his fellow Beatles sought to expand the concepts and language of pop music.
The thing here is that Alarm Will Sound does it without tape manipulation or electronics or sampling, but rather in an arrangement by horn player Matt Marks transcribes the sound collage into “real,” presumably replicable, performance, from simulated “backwards” sounds to the “block that kick” chants. And, of course, the somberly intoned “Number 9… number 9… number 9…”
This is not a novelty and certainly not a joke. AWS is neither mocking Ono and Lennon nor laughing at them. Laughing with them, maybe. It certainly sounds like they had a hoot performing it. But what the group is doing is presenting “9” as a true work of modernism, in the context of an album celebrating the very concept, this piece leading off an impressive array of “serious” works from respected composers. At the other end is a closing rendition of “Poeme Electronique” by Edgard Varese, a routinely controversial, challenging composer of the mid-20th century (and a favorite of Frank Zappa). Again, AWS strips it down to “acoustic” components, rendering a very warm, still-ear-turning performance — even the notorious sirens that feature in the original are simulated here with strings and voices.
Artist: Konono No. 1
Album: “Konono No. 1 Meets Batida"
The who of “Konono No. 1 Meets Batida” is interesting enough — the leaders of Kinshasa’s Congotronics movement, in which highly rhythmic, metallic Congolese rhythms were run through distortion-prone, jury-rigged amplification on the rough streets of the embattled city, have collaborated with a Portugal-based rising-star on the Euro-electronica scene. The where, though, may be what made it more than a mere bit of dance music tourism. This album was made not in Kinshasa, but in Batida’s Lisbon garage studio. And it sounds like it was quite the party — a raucous, joyous time with collaborative spirit free-flowing. It’s as if that garage was something a temporal bubble in which two nations, to cultures, not just co-existed, but combined.
Konono’s rise to international attention came in 2004 via “discovery” — a few decades into the ensemble’s existence — by French producers who brought in some European sensibilities, and there have been various remix projects along the way. But this new project takes the music to new places. The tracks here shift in the balance of the Congolese and European sounds, such highlights as “Yambadi Mama” leaning more to the former, “Kisumba,” with some nicely applied dub techniques, more to the latter. But the secret is that the latter always seems to exist to enhance, and never subsume, the former.
Not that the Konono sound is subsumable, the metal tongs of the electrified likembes (thumb pianos) plunked in complex polyrhythms, can transform any setting in wonderful ways— as has been demonstrated clearly with past collaborations with Bjork and Herbie Hancock. But Batida, born in Angola before being raised in Lisbon, comes in with what seems an innate feel for what spaces to fill and what to leave alone. The tracks wind and flow, each track feeling like it’s just a small slice of what could have extended on for hours without losing a bit of the exhilaration. And it’s not hard to imagine that’s exactly how it was in that Lisbon garage, as in the streets of Kinshasa, the party going on all night as if in a Konono world of its own.