Staff Picks: Music

Welcome to Mali

The Malian duo Amadou & Mariam have been in nearly constant rotation on my ipod and home stereo since I became aware of their music with the 2005 release of Dimanche a Bamako. I knew little of the couple’s inspiring story then, but responded immediately to the music they create. Singer Mariam Doumbia and guitarist/vocalist Amadou Bagayokothan, who are both blind, met at the Institute for Young Blind People in Bamako, the capital of Mali, 30 years ago and have been making amazing and infectious music ever since. Already huge stars in West Africa and Europe; in recent years Amadou & Mariam have gained a large following in the indie rock world where they have become a show stealing staple at large festivals, which has helped spread their popularity across the glode. The duo’s latest title, Welcome to Mali, has received almost universal, and I would say very well deserved, critical acclaim and I can't stop listening to it. Even without the faintest clue as to what the lyrics of the songs are saying (the couple sings primarily in French), it is easy to hear why the global spread of Amadou & Mariam's hypnotic sound cannot be stopped.


Welcome to Mali      

In Concert: Culture

Kalamazoo’s annual Island Festival always features some of the finest reggae acts in the world. This year’s festival features a very special performance – Saturday night, Jamaica’s legendary roots reggae harmony trio Culture takes the festival stage. Creators of dozens of brilliant singles and long players since their formation in the 1970’s, they would be hailed as legends even if they’d never released anything beyond their very first LP, Two Sevens Clash, widely considered one of reggae’s true masterworks.

Culture’s lead vocalist Joseph Hill wrote the title track after having a vision of the year 1977 being a year of judgment on Earth (based on prophecies made by Marcus Garvey). A devout Rastafarian (along with his fellow band mates), Hill translated his vision of apocalypse into a song which became a massive hit in his home country in the early part of ‘77. So profound was its effect on listeners that, on July 7th, 1977 – the day of all sevens clashing - many Jamaican businesses stayed closed, and residents refused to leave their homes for fear of being swept up in the coming apocalypse. Though the infectious bounce of the song’s groove and its joyous musical hooks might strike non-believers as running counter to the subject matter, the celebratory sound really underscores the message of liberation that followers of Rastafari believe will come at the world’s end. That mixture of devotional lyricism and upbeat music and rhythm flows throughout every song included on the album.

Though Joseph Hill has passed on, his son Kenyatta has taken his place as Culture’s lead vocalist, alongside original harmony vocalists Albert Walker and Telford Nelson. Kenyatta has proven to be as dynamic a stage presence as his father, so Culture’s legacy will surely continue to grow, even as Two Sevens Clash has already guaranteed their place in the pantheon of reggae greats.


Two Sevens Clash

Clannad (The Essence of Family)

Members of the Irish band Clannad have been making music individually and collectively since the mid-1970’s. Deeply rooted in traditional Irish and Celtic folk tradition, Clannad (Gaelic for “the family from Dore”) have expanded over the years to define the contemporary Irish genre. Purists will recall the aural simplicity of their early albums, which were very much in the vein of such contemporaries as Pentangle and Planxty. Their scope (and popularity) expanded greatly over the years, however, to include elements of worldbeat, jazz, adult contemporary, new age, pop, and progressive rock. U2 fans were introduced to Clannad during the mid-80’s when the haunting “Theme from Harry’s Game” was used as a concert pre-show opener. The same tune was later featured the film Patriot Games. The current popularity of Irish mega-shows like “Riverdance” (and Flatley’s spinnoff “Lord of the Dance”), Celtic Woman, and others owe much to Clannad’s groundbreaking work.

From the KPL collection, their Grammy Award winning Landmarks (1997) is typical of the latter-day Clannad style, combining elements of Irish folk with contemporary jazz and pop themes – think Sting meets Dire Straits somewhere in County Kerry. After nearly a decade of independent projects, the original members of Clannad reunited for a brief UK tour in 2008 and are reportedly working on a new album.

brennan-whisper-100.jpgApart from the collective Clannad, individual members have achieved a significant degree of success on their own. Lead singer Moya Brennan (Máire Ní Bhraonáin) has achieved a great deal of acclaim as a contemporary vocalist. Máire’s style very much mirrors the band,  but further emphasizes her lush vocal harmonies. From the KPL catalog, Whisper to the Wild Water is a terrific place to start.

enya-watermark-100.jpgAnd in case Máire Brennan's voice and cover image seem somehow familiar, rest assured, there’s good reason. Though she left Clannad early on to pursue a solo career, Máire’s sister Enya (Eithne Ní Bhraonáin) should be no stranger to anyone who is a fan of contemporary Celtic music. KPL holds the majority of Enya’s solo works, including Paint the Sky with Stars, a compilation released in 1997. Call me old school, but for me, Watermark (1988) still remains the essential (quintessential?) Enya recording.

Bain sult as. (Enjoy!)


"Landmarks" by Clannad

Big Blue Ball

Big Blue Ball began in the early 1990s as a collaborative project between Peter Gabriel and Karl Wallinger (World Party, Waterboys). The project draws from three separate recording sessions (1991, 1992, 1995) at Peter’s Real World Studios, a two hundred year old watermill in Wiltshire, UK, which has been converted to a state of the art recording studio. 75 artists from 20 countries participated in the famed Recording Weeks at Real World, with the idea of bringing artists together from a wide variety of cultures to find common ground through collaborative writing and performing. These sessions, all painstakingly recorded though without a clear project in mind, were essentially swept under the rug as other projects took priority. The tapes finally saw the light of day during a studio “house cleaning” project and were at last released just last year on Real World Records (distributed domestically by Ryko).

According to Peter, “The Big Blue Ball was a working name for a project that would pull in elements from all around the world. The title came from listening to an astronaut describe his experience of looking back at the earth. All other divisions seemed ridiculous and arbitrary, because there’s the planet, the whole thing — and that idea seemed to make a lot of sense for this project.” In an interview for NPR last year, Peter went on to add, “...there were musicians from all over the world — songwriters, poets, all thrown together — and all sorts of connections happened.”

Akin to scope and spirit of WOMAD, the result is a diverse musical landscape with a uniquely lush blend of styles – vocals (America, UK, Congo), percussion (Japan, Senegal), strings (Egypt), flutes (China), you name it — musicians from Ireland to Budapest, Alabama to Tanzania, writing and performing simply for the sheer joy of it. Funny, isn’t it? How despite our differences, we all seem to speak the same language after all? If you’re a fan of complexly layered rhythms and interestingly diverse instrumentation, you won’t be disappointed.

And if simply listening isn't enough, you're invited to add your own spin to one of the tracks from Big Blue Ball, "Exit Through You," via Real World Remixed. Simply visit the Real World Remixed site, download the specially prepared multi-track samples, add your own vocals, backing tracks, instrumentation, whatever, then upload your version back to the Remixed site for all the world to hear and comment on. What a small, flat, wonderful and exciting world it is.


Big Blue Ball

Miles from India

Searching through the music section at Central Library is akin to a treasure hunt – no matter how many times you’ve visited, there always seems to be something new and exciting lurking in the shadows just waiting to be discovered. Such is the case with Miles from India, a double set from last year that features the music of (and inspired by) Miles Davis performed by a cross-section of Miles’ alumni in collaboration with some of the top musicians from India. The result is (as the cover states) “a cross-cultural celebration of the music of Miles Davis.”

Miles was greatly moved by music from other cultures. Non-Western influences permeated his music at every stage of his career. Miles constantly seemed to pull new ideas and sounds from around the globe and blend them into something unique and new. From his earliest recordings with ‘Bird’ in the 40’s, through seminal sessions over the following four decades, Miles took his music to the world, then brought it back to us in ways we had never heard before (or since, for that matter). Miles in Tokyo, Miles in Berlin, in Warsaw, in Paris, in SwedenFilles de KilimanjaroAghartaNefertitiSketches of Spain, On the Corner

Miles from India is a remarkable effort. Recorded November 2006-July 2007 and nominated for a Grammy in 2008, the sessions gather more than a dozen members of Miles’ bands, including Gary Bartz, Ron CarterChick Corea, Michael Henderson, Dave LiebmanJohn McLaughlinMarcus MillerWallace RoneyMike SternLenny White (you get the idea…).  Add to this an all-star lineup of key players of traditional and contemporary music from India and mix thoroughly at the skillful hands of Grammy Award winning producer Bob Belden (with executive producer Yusuf Gandhi) and you get more than two hours of surprisingly essential world fusion. (There’s a good article on PRI about the project, including an interview with Gandhi.)

And the really nice thing about this set... it comes off feeling authentic and real, not like some sort of cheap imitation. In my opinion, Miles would have loved this record, and that alone should say enough.

Here’s a clip of the album's opening track, “Spanish Key,” right from Bob Belden himself. Recorded last summer in LA (at a concert produced by Yusuf Gandhi and Bob Belden), it features some hauntingly Miles-drenched trumpet by Wallace Roney



Miles from India

Maximum Minimalism

My first encounter with the American composer Philip Glass was several years ago and honestly, one of shock and awe. Clearly, at the time, I wasn’t ready for his brand of repetitive music structures strung together with an odd assortment of instrumentation and vocal textures. Now several years later, Glass’ eerily minimalist symphonies, hauntingly beautiful film scores (The Hours, KundunFog of War), Eastern inflected rhythms, and evocative ensemble compositions have become some of my favorite classical tracks to listen to.

John Adams is another wonderful composer whose work I’ve recently embraced. His music is often thrown under the heading “minimalism” along with Glass and notable avant-garde musicians Stephen Reich and Terry Reily. Adams’ music, like Glass’ work, tends to generate its melodic color from alterations or subtle tweaking of a foundational harmony. Both deeply expressive and at times jarringly dark, Adams' music has been both widely honored and praised for its humanist themes and boundary-expanding nature.


The Dharma at Big Sur