If you don't have time to keep up with the latest in new music we've got the perfect segment for you: Tuesday Reviewsday. Every week our music experts join our hosts in the studio to talk about their favorite new tunes. This week, music journalist Steve Hochman speaks with A Martinez.
Artist: A Tribe Called Red
Album: "We Are the Halluci Nation"
Songs: "R.E.D.," "Indian City"
The map says Canada. The cultural history is of the First Nations, those who have been there since long before European colonialists. But for A Tribe Called Red, it’s life in the Halluci Nation. That’s the land, and state of mind, where the Pow Wow meets the rave. And as the name suggests, it can be rather surreal. Or hyper-real.
The term Halluci Nation comes from Native American poet/activist John Trudell, who died a year ago but whose voice is heard in the opening and closing songs on the new album from A Tribe Called Red, a pioneering trio of Ian "DJ NDN" Campeau, Tim "2oolman" Hill and Bear Witness, who come from indigenous reservations in the Ontario province.
On previous recording and live work, the DJs have deftly crafted a mix of traditional drumming and chanting with pointedly used vintage pop cultural images of Native Americans and current news bits of the harsher realities into a powerful and often witty mix of music and commentary that has been dubbed "pow-wow step" exploring the depths and challenges of modern tribal life. On the new "We Are Halluci Nation," they bring in poets and performers from both the First Nations (Trudell, Canadian First Nations art-music innovator Tanya Tagaq, drum troupe Black Bear and singers Northern Voice) and the hip-hop nation (Saul Williams, Yaslin Bey — formerly known as Mos Def) as well as representatives of cultures encountered in their travels (Australian aboriginal EDM team OKA, Swedish-Sami singer Maxida Märak), both expanding and focusing a global-minded statement on the shared threats to indigenous cultures.
The result is greatly increased dimension both in content and music. "R.E.D.," featuring Bey, the Black Bear drums and rapper Narcy packs both sonic and observational punch worthy of M.I.A. or, well, Mos Def. The tone ranges from spare and stern, as in the Saul Williams spoken piece "The Virus," to frenziedly impressionistic, as in Tagaq’s typically out-there vocals on "Sila" and the twitchy electronics of OKA on "Maima Koopi, which also has chanting from the Chippewa Travelers.
Of course, they also don’t overlook the "D" of the EDM aesthetic around which they orbit, and with "Indian City" in particular, in which they form electronic beats to the contours of a chant by the Northern Voice ensemble, the pow-wow step is not a break with tradition, or even a new approach to it, but a true, grounded continuation.
Artist: Slavic Soul Party!
Album: "The Far East Suite"
Songs: "Tourist Point of View," "Blue Pepper"
The medieval Crusades were bloody massacres into the Middle East and Asia Minor launched in the name of religion. But there were some cultural exchanges in the process, including in music as instruments and sounds were brought back through Europe that had impact for centuries. Not that this excuses any of the horrors.
The 1963 tour by the Duke Ellington Orchestra of the Middle East, Asia Minor and the Asian subcontinent was a much friendlier adventure, but one left before completion due to the assassination of JFK. The music it inspired, "The Far East Suite," composed by Ellington and his collaborator Billy Strayhorn, is one of the essential late-period Duke works. But there’s also a sense of something not quite fulfilled.
At least, that’s how it struck percussionist Matt Moran and his cohorts in the band Slavic Soul Party!, the New York ensemble that, as the name suggests, embraces the sounds and styles of the Balkans and neighboring cultures, exclamation point inclusive. It’s not just that the Ellington tour was curtailed, but that there might be another side to the cultural exchange unrepresented. So with that as inspiration. SSP! reworked the "Suite" from a Balkan musical point of view, adapting the pieces for Roma-styled brass-and-percussion band and recording the whole thing in performance at the Barbès Club in Brooklyn.
Of course, Ellington and Strayhorn were aware of their perspective (if not geography, as really it was by and large a near-East trek), giving the opening song of the suite the title "Tourist Point of View." But if on the original 1966 album version Duke and crew offer this as a little traveling music, something they would have played on the way over, Slavic Soul Party! plays it as it might have come from a band welcoming the visitors on arrival — the same tune but with the springy Balkan bounce in the rhythms and flash in the brass. This is the point of view looking at the tourists, but in a very complementary, and complimentary, way. Find the original online for some compare and contrast.
Throughout the journey, though, it’s testimony to how well Ellington and Strayhorn did in borrowing themes that they adapt (or, perhaps, re-adapt back) to the Roma styles so readily, through the Persian-ate "Isfahan" and the Taj Mahal evoking "Agra" to the closing, extended "Ad Lib on Nippon" (the one reach to the real Far East, though inspired by a separate Ellington Orchestra tour of Japan). But it’s also testimony to the impact of Western music, jazz in particular, on Balkan brass over several generations. The Ellingtonian colors, those densely constructed brass charts, are hardly alien to even the regular Eastern European festival and wedding bands these days, while the ones that have reached global stages — Romania’s Fanfare Ciocarlia and Serbia’s Boban and Marko Markovic Orkestar among the best known — have added their own highly sophisticated sense of harmonic blends to the music of their cultures.
Never does this reworking feel the least bit forced or gimmicky, or like something done merely out of what-if curiosity. And in some cases, notably the hopping "Blue Pepper (Far East of the Blues)," it’s not really that far from the original. After all, both groups went from New York to the East — and back again.
Artist: Metá Metá
Songs: "Angeoulême," "Corpo Vão"
Sao Paulo, Brazil, has been quite the scene for exciting new music of late. Just recently we talked here about the wonderful young artists Luísa Maita, mixing modern and classic styles. But just what is the Sound of Sao Paulo? That is really hard to say.
It’s hard to say just what the sound of the group Metá Metá is in itself. On its 2011 debut, the group took a minimalist approach rooted in Brazilian samba-jazz, with some alternative twists. On its second, the next year’s "Metal Metal," the sound (hinted strongly by the title) got dense and heavy, some tagging it as Afro-punk — an impression furthered by a side-project collaboration with Nigerian Afrobeat drum legend Tony Allen.
The band’s third album, "MM3," takes it all. And takes it further. But…. where? Still hard to say, but it’s a very, very interesting place. The foundation is a greater embrace of African inspirations, the band specifically citing a love for music from Morocco, Ethiopia, Niger and Mali. Of course, the music from those lands covers a lot of variety. And the basic format for the band — the core trio of singer Jucara Marcal, sax player Thiago Franca and guitarist Kiko Dinnuci her expanded into a quintet with bassist Marcelo Cabral and drummer Sergio Machado — is jazz-rock, more or less, with both the adventurism and sophistication for which modern Brazilian music has been known.
Opening song "Três Amigos" starts out spare like the first album, but moves midway into raucous intensity, Marcal’s sturdy voice and Franca’s sax in particular pushed by Machado’s thunder. The jagged "Angoulême," the next song, starts with an image being watched on a cell phone screen and quickly moves to a trip and fall to the ground, a bloodied mouth and all. There’s modern life for you.
And modern love comes into view with "Imagen do Amor" ("Picture of Love"), the music swinging between quiet seduction and fierce shouting — love’s indoor and outdoor voices, if you will. Or ice and heat, maybe. It’s kind of exhilarating. And disturbing. Take the translation of the chorus, roughly:
The image of love
It’s not for anyone
Hurts unfaithful eyes
Drives the immortals
Hallmark Valentine’s Card stuff, huh?
And the art-rocky "Corpo Vão" (something like "Empty Body") is just about as cheery, with its images of insular paranoia. Yet — and here’s the key to the album as a whole — the music, regardless of the words (or whether we understand them or not) has a magnetism and even warmth that cuts through. It all plays out on the closing, 9-minute adaptation of the Yoruban song "Obá Kosô," through its several cycles of building intensity and release. Threading through it, through the album, is a sense of longing. And for the listener as well, not least of which is a longing to visit Sao Paulo.