Saturday, December 9, 2017


Efrén López Sanz / Stelios Petrakis / Bijan Chemirani

Buda Musique, 2017

Taos's opening tune, Helicobtir, is easy to love, and a great choice for an opening track. As Efrén has indicated in the liner notes, the term "Helicobtir" is used in some Arabic dialects in Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria to indicate a dragonfly. Undoubtedly, it can also reference the flying machine, and the dualistic nature of the flying machine -- it is a wondrous flight that can evacuate you from trauma, but also, in this era of conflict, can rain down death and destruction. The melancholia of this tune's melody features some wonderful highlighting by Bijan Chemirani, and is ultimately punctuated by solos from both Stelios and Efrén. Efrén's solo features an intriguing moment of slides on fretless guitar (toward the end of the clip below), which seems to be executed by quickly moving within the same general area of tones, but across two different strings. Although Efrén's solo is steeped in sensibilities he's acquired through the study of music from the middle east, there also seems to be an artistic freedom, and an air to it that is reminiscent of beautiful solos in jam tracks such as Pink Floyd's "Cluster One".

Starting with a beautiful intro, the melody of 'Imeres Siopis' is given even more gravitas when it drops a whole step down and is accompanied by the other instrumentalists. Before long, 'flamenco link' that is discussed in the liner notes is apparent, as the structure of the tune is based on phrygian chord cadences well-used in flamenco music -- i-VII-VI-iv-V; in this case: D minor - C major - B major - G minor 6 - A major. The flamenco fire and duende is in full flow for the finale of the piece.

The first tune inspired by eyes (this time of cats),  'Sîn û zer', is awash with steel-string instrumentation, until it drops its tonic (from E down to D at 1:56) without changing its melody.  Just at the right moment, where the tune's melody evades phrasings in 5/8, the melody and pace leaps into a sprint like a startled deer in the forest.  With Petrakis's flashy Pontic-sounding melodies on the lyra, thus begins a riotous and progressive jam session full of exploration. A highlight of the album is here, in how Mr. Chemirani's wit with rhythm interacts with the melody line. To close the tune, the initial melody gets repeated under this new tonic, almost like a character in a movie plot that returns home a wiser man after many years of insane adventures and travels. It's not only a matter of genius musicianship and profound technique -- which all three of these musicians have -- but a matter of arranging that which makes a composition's nature sink its hooks in deep enough to never be removed.

Moving into the realm of Kurdish rhythms is 'To Katehon,' with the shuffle of the daf providing the backbone to the tune after a serene intro solo on the Afghani Rebab. Although the melody line has 4 parts, the real joy of the melody is the latter, where the wisdom of Efrén comes into play. Although it is the most sparse part melodically, it is the nature of the tremolo within a crescendo of volume that brings a sense of firmness and urgency to the melody.

Stelios' Pentozolis carries on the flame that Efren's Kontylies started, and brings it to newfound levels of riotous energy. The fire behind his bow is even fiercer than what he played when he was younger. Tracks like 'Sitia', from his 2003 album, Akri Tou Dounia, show plenty of speed, but without as much ornamentation as he plays here in his Pentozolis. A Pentozolis is a tune used to accompany a Cretan style of dance, and as such, I would highly recommend that you put any fine dining ware away before dancing. A tune this vivacious ensures that plates and glassware will get broken.

Efren's mastery and experimentation with the Hurdy-Gurdy has given me a respect for the instrument, which I didn't previously have. It's also worth noting the role it plays on the album: the hurdy-gurdy, combined with Petrakis's stringed instruments, offers a sound with a richness that is akin to a chamber orchestra. Although I'm not exactly sure how all the sounds of '100 Ulls' are created, it gives of the vibe of a heavy metal 'orchestra', with a stomping beat -- initially counted in threes, and accenting the first and last of those three beats, like a Scandinavian polska folk dance tune.

And by all means, if you considered the percussion as mere accompaniment, sink your teeth into 'Zayandeh'. Named after a river basin in Iran containing evidence of paleolithic hunters from some 40,000 years ago, Bijan Chemirani's composition on the zarb, daf, and riqq drums is a whirlwind of rhythms, seeming to float around counts of 15 beats. A composition of this depth can take a well-trained musicologist or drummer a couple of weeks to figure out. Efren and Stelios initially provide some nightmarish sounds to given the rhythm some suspense and further its intensity, which eventual culminates into a melody line, and an outro played by Efren on the harp.

Zayandeh's nightmarish atmosphere and storm of drums conspicuously leads to the dream landscape of 'Nekya' -- which is the album's masterpiece by Stelios. Although Stelios's playing is ornate by itself, there is just a moment toward the end of the tune where Efren's harp playing emphasizes notes that allude to a harmony upon the melody. Just a moment, though. Nothing could be a more suitable backdrop for a masterful melody than Chemirani's purring finger rolls on the zarb drum, which gives the tune a weary-but-resilient foundation -- all suitable for the myth of Odysseus, which inspired the tune. In the myth, Odysseus has a death and rebirth, receiving wisdom he needs to return home safely by talking to dead in the Underworld .  The act of consulting with ghosts of the dead is what a Nekya (often spelled "Nekyia") refers to.  One shade of that wisdom is the need to harness the vanity in one's own ego.   As Achilles tells him in the Underworld:
"Let me hear no smooth talk
of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils.
Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand
for some poor country man, on iron rations,
than lord it over all the exhausted dead."

The works of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung reference this myth (and other myths or folk stories like it), and indicate the importance of the transformational power that comes with self-awareness.  Such stories are almost always accompanied by a low point of "going deep within" -- a katabasis -- whether Odysseus in the Underworld, or Jonah and the whale, or Dante's Inferno. The immersion leads to the acquaintance with one's shadow, the shattering of some illusions about the self, and the resultant 'more whole' individual.  Within an individual psychological context, Jung had put it:

"Nekyia [is the] introversion of the conscious mind into the deeper layers of the unconscious psyche [...] [It is not an] aimless or destructive fall into the abyss, but a meaningful katabasis ...[with] its objective being the restoration of the whole man..."

During two of the 5 phrases of Nekya's lamentable melody, Efren's harp accompaniment goes silent -- a wise decision, as the modal nature of Stelios' tones ventures into microtonal waters. This also gives extra attention to all of the minute details in Stelios' style: faint ponticello, quick mordants, a fleeting moment of ghostly harmonics, and an attention to volume that is not easy to find elsewhere. Stelios' lyra cries alone, like Odysseus, for two portions of melody during the tune, which perfectly embodies despair. Nekya is a tune that seems to draw out a sense of timelessness -- a sense of old wisdom at work -- and to a certain degree it is reminiscent of Ross Daly's, "χελώνα στο βυθό του κόσμου μάθε με να κινούμαι αργά", or "Tortoise at the bottom of the world, teach me to move slowly."

One observation about the album is how the final tune, Nekya, and the first tune, Helicobtir, have the same tonic note, as if they were cut from the same thread of musical fabric. This also means you could play the album in continuity and feel that the 'story' keeps moving along -- a perfect analogy for the stories and ideas in the album's booklet which indicate where some of the inspiration for the compositions comes from.

Instrumental music may not be everybody's 'thing', but at a certain point in our lives, I don't think some of us listeners feel the desire to be told by a lyricist or vocalist what to think about -- in addition to the presented music. If you've got a good set of ears, the music itself is enough. In the hands of highly-polished, life-long committed musicians, the compositions speak for themselves, and yield a lifetime of enjoyment. In this era of international 'pop tunes' (often created by men in their 60's, sung & performed by women in their 30's, and with lyrics that appeal to the sensibilities of teenagers), I would like to think that we can take the bulk of that material and throw it in the trash, without being reluctant.  The soul and the craftsmanship in albums like Taos makes too strong of a case to be bashful about saying so. This will be yet another goldmine album (in a series of goldmine albums by the trio -- both individually and collectively) for those who reach it. 'Taos' is what results when folk musicians are in their prime.

-Seth Premo

You can find and get regular updates on the Trio of Stelios Petrakis, Efrén López, and Bijan Chemirani on Facebook, and their music is available digitally, but I would recommend buying hard-copies of their albums from the actual publishers, since the liner notes elaborate on the experiences and mechanics at work in the tunes.
Trio Petrakis/Lopez/Chemirani

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Trio Chemirani - Dawâr

Trio Chemirani - Dawâr
Harmonia Mundi, 2015

In the world of rhythm, one isn't hard-pressed to find an album of a soloist on percussion instruments.  In America, it is usually student dancers whom adore belly dancing that will seek out various compilations to practice to, like the best-selling "Bellydance Superstars."  Others who buy percussion albums (often musicians) acclimate themselves with world percussionists as a way of studying new rhythmic forms, with some aspiring to carve out their own niche and understanding in the world of hand drums.  The result of having mostly these two areas of public focus is that America gets a limited selection, and so we have a very limited understanding & appreciation of the social, spiritual, and historical role of traditional drumming throughout the world.  If you want proof of that, ask your average American what tabla tarang is, or what instruments are traditionally played in a Persian Zurkhaneh.

Of these two categories of percussion music we get in the west, the purpose-driven Raks Sharqi albums for dancers to practice to grow old fast, with their malfoufs in every tempo from 90 - 210 beats per minute.  But then again, the soloist's albums get old quick, too: their dizzying energies, endless finger tricks on drum heads, and excessive overdub result in the kind of experience that makes you want to shut it off after listening to a mere two or three tracks.  The album is so busy that you very quickly begin to appreciate the idea of silence.  These soloist albums can often feature very odd or complicated time signatures.  Although complex rhythms are great as a demonstration of skill, if a drummer isn't careful, a tune in a 22 or 9 1/2 beat cycle can be smothered of having any sentiment, as the oddity of it gives the audience nothing to latch on to or anticipate.

And then there's that other kind of album... where little knowledge or skillset is applied by neo-hippies who have fallen in love with the idea of themselves group-hugging the world through embracing its instruments.  Often in this context, a monotonous rhythm is played over and over again while singers lackadaisically chant something like:
"Peace, love, and toleraaaaance... Tolerance, peace and looooove...
Two heaping cups of peace with 3 tablespoons of looooove...
And don't forget to knead your toleraaaaaaaance...
While you preheat the peaceful oven of looooooove."
And then they pass out from hypoxia, slumping over their harmoniums and djembes, face-planting into their Chinese-made Persian rugs, almost knocking over their bong.  True story.  I tend to stay away from those albums.  One can usually tell (before purchasing) which albums have that flavor about them -- especially if you look at the back of the CD and see that the instrument(s) attributed to the percussionist(s) is in vague terminology like "hand percussion" or "drums".

Fortunately, The Chemirani Trio albums never have any of the above-listed problems, no matter what instruments they pick up, and no matter what albums they appear on.  It could be due to the fact that the senior member, Djamchid, is the father of the other two, and a master who had learned from a master while living in Iran.  It could be due to the fact that, over the last few decades, each member has collectively and individually been involved in projects that worked with masters of folk traditions all over the globe -- to such a degree that they might soon run out of actual folk musicians to work with, and they'll release an album of collaboration with Antarctic penguins.
Whatever the reason, the Trio have a way of making drumming that feels like poetry.  Similar to all of the albums that preceded it (but most comparable to the albums Qalam Kar or Trio de Zarb), Dawâr is the type of recording that commands attention.  Some tracks start with a base rhythm, but it is also common for there to be no static back-drop to the opening rhythms of the compositions.  In these compositions, the track starts as a bit of a mystery for the listener, with the goal being to find the rhythmic cycle, and watch it develop.

The idea of three people playing the zarb or daf (circular frame drums with brass rings hanging from the interior) at the same time affords interesting opportunities, even though the idea might sound a bit redundant at first.  Firstly, with the drums tuned differently (as in "Adjab"), little melodies emerge from the integration of rhythmic patterns passed back and forth between the drummers.

The fact that they're all playing an instrument with approximately the same register requires the Chemirani Trio to be very judicious in who is using what space, and when.  One might say that this is one of the dominant themes in their compositions: moments of syntony highlighted with elaborate interlocking patterns -- as evident in "Mochaéré":

Patterns unfold in layers of purring finger rolls, tonal pops, and klacks, like a soundtrack to the unraveling of an ancient clock, revealing elaborate wooden mechanical cogs.  These superimposed but differing patterns are used as a clever vehicle to switch a composition's main rhythmic motif entirely, as this excerpt from "Attar" illustrates:

Regarding the zarb (or tombak) drum itself, it is not a drum like the Egyptian tabla/dumbek or Turkish davul, loudly and instantaneously cutting through the air like a bullet.  Similar to the nature of a stringed instrument in a western orchestra, the stress of a zarb is audible when it's played loudly or carelessly -- usually evident in strong overtone ringing or an imbalance in the bass tone of the drum.  For best results, zarbs require a level of finesse, and to do the instrument justice on a recording or performance, they need to be well-mic'ed.  The Trio wield the drum's sensitivity as an asset, playing it like an instrument for chamber music.  As this excerpt from the 10-beat cycle of "Shékasté" demonstrates, Djamchid, Keyvan, and Bijan Chemirani are all very capable of cutting up a time signature, but they are conservative in their application of such soloist sensibilities.  They seem to prefer letting other elements of the music be illuminated: the empty spaces between phrases, a keen attention to dynamics, and witty interaction between the players throughout the drum patterns.  What starts off as a 10-beat pattern divided 3+2+2+3 migrates into 2+2+3+3 (at some point after this excerpt):

Although drumming is probably the first thing that comes to mind with the Chemirani, their projects over the years show a recurring theme of reverence for traditional Persian poetry, and the application of it within the context of their drumming.  For at least a couple of projects (dubbed "The Rhythm of Speech"), the Chemirani trio drew rhythmic inspiration from the poetry of Persian, Indian, and African traditions.  A taste of this exists in four tracks on Dawâr as well:

A few of the album's songs also feature saz and santoor, showing they are not reluctant to pick up their traditional stringed instruments when the time calls for it -- which is a very good choice of taste.  An album of compositions for only percussion would create a work suitable for a very limited and esoteric audience.  And as it turns out, one of melodies they play on saz, in "Sahar", is undoubtedly a gem of the album:

Pop artist Sting once opined, "Silence is the perfect music," and that one way of perceiving the goal of a musician is to create a framework around silence.  This backdrop of silence is very evident in a slow-moving baroque-era prelude on lute, or "saz va avaz" with a Persian kemancheh and a vocalist.  Within these forms is a kind of patience with one's own musical expression, evident when melodic phrases or chords are allowed to decay back to silence behind the tones and rhythms of our human ambitions, joys, sorrows, and wonderment brought into vibration. The utilization of silence is almost a reminder of the "nothing" which exists behind the threads of human thought.  Music seems to be at its most poetic when we are using silence instead of burying it.

In much the same way, I appreciate the Trio Chemirani's treatment of the zarb drum as a poetic instrument unto itself, and their use of silence.  This is apparent in every moment where (despite having three players) there may be a period of time where only one person is playing or developing the piece, or at times when the sounds of the drums are allowed come to a halt for a moment, with the tones decaying back to nothing.  This special attention suits the zarb, as the goblet shape of the zarb gives it much melodic potential, and its tones have an interesting wavering nature about them, oscillating slightly -- a quality which is not present in many other drums around the world.  Additionally, the use of natural skin heads gives their finger sweeps a certain texture not attainable on many of todays traditional drums which feature plastic heads.  And finally, I appreciate the Trio as composers who, though being percussionists, do not rush toward the finish line of a tune, subdividing the beat to exhaustion just because they know how to.  The wisdom of their compositions comes from knowing -- musically and artistically -- what should be said, not merely what can be done.
--Seth Premo

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Efren Lopez - El Fill Del Llop

Efren Lopez
El Fill Del Llop, Buda Musique

"The Son of Wolf" opens with the thunderous bass and lightning crack of a Turkish davul (bass drum).  No opening could be more fitting for an album titled such.  For the record, no fewer than 26 instruments are played by Lopez himself, and the album proves that his entourage of musicians are both sensitive and skilled in their craft as well.  "El Fill Del Llop" is hands-down one of the best recent catalogs of human sentience through instrumentation -- instruments which include those from medieval times, Turkish, Persian, Greek, and Arabian cultures, among others.

To develop a strong affinity for the slower-tempo Turkish-style compositions might take some time, but once you're there, nothing in the world is like it.  In this opening track, Kurtoğlu Zeybeği, the chording between instruments is sinister, and gives strong impressions of a heavy metal tune without the distortion.  There are many things to love about this composition, but one aspect which stands out is that the tempo and pace of the melody is just perfect: at times, as soon as the volume of a chord decays to almost nothing, the void is filled again with resounding bass and shimmering steel-stringed tones.  At other times, long trills crescendo to ensnare the listener in the melodic line's story.

Ironically, one of the brightest gems on the album, Lo Boièr, has the least flashy instrumentalism.  Its strength is in the arrangement -- in its growing width and depth of harmonic sophistication.  A medieval tune about the plight of the Cathars during France's Albigensian Crusade, a repetitious chorus of "A, E, I, O, U" is inserted in every verse.  This chorus of vowels resolves utilizing polyphonic texturing: parallel or opposing or otherwise entwined harmonies -- differently and progressively developing in each section of the tune.  The depth of the composition brings to mind both masterful pieces in the classical orchestral genre, and polyphonic folk-singing traditions such as that which Georgia, Corsica, or the Balkans are known for.

The final track, Abracadabra, is ripe with the Amazigh energy of northern Morocco in both the rhythms used and the frame drums with snares.  Efren's playing of the oud stands as the basis for all of the melody instruments -- which is not all that different sounding from the traditional Moroccan usage of the lotar.

The mark of many great artists is being able to use their skills creatively in various contexts -- but most importantly, to know when this amalgamation works and when it doesn't.  Despite the diverse nature of the tunes, there are no musical blends on El Fill Del Llop that don't work.  Lopez's implementation of Turkish instrumentation in a flamenco vocal context works well, as there is some crossover in the techniques employed by both cultures: the presence of a strong back-beat, and the golpe technique of tapping the soundboard of the instrument while playing, for example.  In addition to the instrument swap on Como al Pie del Suplicio Estuve, Raùl Micò's vocals are sublime, and culminate into a vaporous duende chorus toward the end of the track.

In the midst of an album of great ideas and blends, Asbi Sangi presents itself as a tune very much in the nature of monophonic Kurdish or Persian folk music.  What makes these tunes really enjoyable is in how the instruments are playing the same melody, but in their own style -- with a slightly different character, given each instrument's individual nature and capabilities.  In this tradition, one essence has many voices:

Aralik (Ferahfezâ) starts with a wonderful taksim (solo) on a tanbur -- one of the lesser-known Turkish instruments to the west.  It's obscurity might have something to do with the ergonomics of playing the instrument.  Google it:  it's like a bowed, microtonally-fretted flagpole... with a resonator at the bottom.  I'm no doctor, but it looks like a high-risk scenario for carpal-tunnel syndrome.  However, when it creates the sound that it does... then the risks are worth the rewards.  The intro is followed by the melody on qanun, ney, yaylı tanbur, bass yaylı tanbur, and oud.  It was smart to not include any rhythmic accompaniment in the tune, since having some kind of static sonic placeholder would've been a distraction.  Probably one of the hardest tunes for a novice of the world's musics to appreciate, the melody of Aralik is like a story.  Drifting freely through the psyche, the instruments' dynamics and modes used sonically paint memories -- fleeting shadows of various states and feelings: sorrow and vulnerability, definition and wisdom, ominousness or bitterness.  To a careful listener, all of these are embodied in various little moments of the composition:

The other good thing (which can't be understated) is that Efren knows how to make a good album, by hosting a range of diverse but connected energies.  There is a great mix of feeling on this record, from the vehemence in the explosive drums and intense dynamics of the first track, to the ethereal meditative ambience of Lo Boièr, and the 4 heaping cups of joy (with a pinch of melancholy) in Azinhaga:

Although it sounds like recorders create the harmonies behind the Turkish ney in Plaerdemavida, some live performances show the melody also played on the tanbur and and Indian dilruba, creating a bit of a different but equally beautiful feel with the meend-style slurring in the background.  Either way works wonderfully, and the recording's wind-instrument version with Efren's fretless guitar creates a dream-like atmosphere:

Lord knows a lot of work went into this album. The production quality is impeccable, and the instrumentation is the best of its kind.  Taking a look at the instrumentalists hands as they strum, chord, finger-roll, or otherwise play their instruments, it's easy to see the fine-tuned mechanics of seasoned players.  From a compositional standpoint, it's as equally easy to hear the years that Efren has put into his study of music from not only different places geographically, but also from different time periods.  The trouble with making an album of such a diverse, intense, and (perhaps) esoteric musicality is... how much of an audience is there to receive and appreciate all of it?

But that's beside the point.  No real artists I've ever met have done their art for the sake of appeasing the tastes of the masses.  El Fill Del Llop will be a goldmine for anyone with wise ears who finds it, and a bridge to the individual traditions which it derives some of its nature from.
-Seth Premo

El Fill Del Llop personnel:

For more information on Efren's related projects, see:
Evo, Medieval Music - on iTunes here
Mavra Froudia, Mediterranean Music - on iTunes here
L'ham de Foc, Mediterranean Music - on iTunes here

More detailed information can be found at Efren's official site:

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Niño Josele - (self-titled)

Niño Josele
(self-titled), Sony BMG

Although many Americans having found their way to Ottmar Liebert, Jesse Cook, or Strunz & Farah via PBS specials or the purchase of a discount cd, it is lamentable to think that probably a good number of them stopped developing their understanding of what flamenco music is not long afterwards.  The trouble is that the above artists often don't use much of the flamenco traditions.  The "rumba" for example, a rhythm that is often associated with flamenco (and which Liebert, Cook, and S&F use to exhaustion), is actually a Cuban rhythm.  Although some pure flamenco guitarists *might* use it (surely, Paco de Lucia got worldwide attention secondary to his release of a rumba tune in 1976 called "Entre Dos Aguas"), it is known to be on the periphery of flamenco.  Alongside their severely limited use of true flamenco forms and rhythms is their severely limited hand techniques: despite the art being largely noted for complicated techniques utilizing the fingers (a variety of rasgueados, picado, golpe, alzapua) Cook and Strunz & Farah use guitar picks.  And so, the actual "flamenco experience" offered by the above artists is somewhat comparable to one thinking they know what Italian cuisine is, on the grounds that they just ate an Oscar Mayer "Lunchables" pizza combination.

The problem for New Wave, New Age, and neo-pseudo-quasi-flamenco guitarists is that one knows little of flamenco by a guitar alone.  Without the guitarist's counterparts of the cantaore (singer) and the bailaores (dancers), much of the guitar work lacks purpose.  The singers and dancers of flamenco give the guitar its true utilization, and these vocal and dance forms are a large part of the reason why there is such a solid and long-held tradition for the guitar.  The flamenco experience was about families, gathering together in their cave homes in Spain.  If you couldn't play guitar, you might play percussion; if not percussion, then perhaps palmeros (a rather sophisticated rhythmic accompaniment through clapping, often involving 2 different patterns played simultaneously by two or more people).  If not las palmas, perhaps you could sing, and if not singing, perhaps you could dance.  If you can't dance, well then... there are always dishes that need to be done.

Another consideration is that a good number of purest flamenco rhythms are based not in the 4 beats, as a rumba, but are understood as 12 beats -- a system referred to as Compás. The 12-beat forms often have subdivisions of 2's and 3's, and specific emphatic points within that, making it much more complicated than what New Wave flamenco artists often attempt.  So much of the true color of flamenco music is in these forms and the purpose of the forms to the art collective (musicians AND dancers AND singers).  For example, the Siguiriya is often considered a tune where the cantaore should pour out his or her most heart-breaking revelations and sorrows on living, and the structured progression of different parts that is traditionally in an Alegria (a different 12-based rhythm) is largely a formula that flamenco dancers know and are familiar with.

Other characteristics outside of the guitar-work include the singing style.  The "stressed" or broken sound in the voice bears an element of tonality, and also an element of fray or abrasiveness.  Although the historical reasoning for this being part of the flamenco tradition is plain to see (expansion and influence of the Umayyad empire and migration of the Romani people), it is uncanny how much the often-revered voice in flamenco is comparable to that of the styles of Pakistani Qawwali singers like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, or Egyptian singers like Yasin al-Tuhami.  Look for yourself:

 Egyptian, Sheikh Yasin Al-Tuhami
 Pakistani, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
 Spanish, Duquende

 Referred to as "gorgorito," this fractured (or "gorged") yelling quality of the voice is sought after in children to inherit the vocal tradition.  It is also important to note that, like many folk traditions, the music is not so much about making sounds in accordance with perfect adherence to an algebraic principle, but rather that the passion, the execution, and the convincing sentience of the artist -- the communication of emotion -- is what is valued. As examples, much-loved flamenco cantaores like La Paquera de Jerez and José Mercé are seldom singing in tune with the guitar chords that surround their voice, but this is their style, and it is not seen as a drawback by very many:

If there's one thing to admire about the tradition of flamenco players, it is the unmasked sincerity in their expression -- which is what seems to be the most-rewarded characteristic by the audience.  Non-musical elements of emotion end up making it into the mix of the art, and it is not uncommon for the style of many singers to utilize a sobbing quality while transitioning through a series of notes.  Some examples are Enrique Morente and this Jesusy-looking dude (El Torta) in Carlos Saura's "Flamenco":

With all that in mind, Niño Josele is one who has proven himself to be both a strong bearer of the traditions of flamenco (via the now out-of-print album "Calle Ancha," back in 1995), and a notable pioneer.  This 2003 self-titled album shows his willingness to work with elements that have influenced flamenco in both the near and distant past -- namely Arabic culture and jazz. Many flamenco artists have been utilizing really dense jazz chords over the years, and the brilliant pianist/guitarist/jazzist producer Javier Limón has been passed around among flamenco artists more than a joint at a Led Zeppelin concert. On the other side of the influence scale, from the Arab world, one might say the whole history of flamenco music as it is owes its sound to the Arab world:

With the Umayyad expansion across north Africa and into Spain, they brought their instruments with them.
Umayyad expansion at its greatest, 661 - 750 AD

Of course, the Arabs didn't have a guitar, they had an oud: the fretless round-backed wonder of the Arab world.

So the Arabian term "al oud" got translated to Spanish as "La Oud,"; Europeans take La Oud (and some of the design) and make the fretted instrument called the "lute" -- which would eventually be the guitar.  There were many other luthier experiments in between, and at the same time, so it's hard to qualify a direct lineage.  The manufacture of the lute and guitar seems largely of Arabian origins, but the word guitar comes from the old Greek "kithara" -- even though the composition of a guitar resembles nearly nothing of the harp-like nature of it's ancient Greek namesake.  The seemingly most-immediate predecessor of the guitar was called the vihuela in Spain and Portugal, and it was essentially what you called a lute with a flat (or mostly-flat) back.  Notice that the tuning pegs of a vihuela are driven through the back of the headstock, and not from the sides.  This is unlike many modern guitars, and unlike the oud itself.  Flamenco guitars acquire this from its lineage of the vihuela, and I've even seen some luthiers here in Colorado building flamenco guitars with the pegs in this traditional fashion.

Put quite simply, every redneck raving about a Creedence Clearwater Revival tune's guitar solo should, in a way, thank an Arabian woodworker -- historically speaking.

In addition to physical woodworking or manufacturing history, another important Arabic element of flamenco (besides instrumentation, and besides singing styles) is the musical scales.  From its gypsy roots, flamenco artists have largely harped on what they call the "Freygish" scale, or phrygian dominant scale: a scale common to the musics of Persia, Greece, Jews, and the Arab world.  There are variations, but largely, the Freygish scale is one with a flattened 2nd, as well as a flattened and 6th and/or 7th.  Probably not by coincidence, one of the Arab world's most-played scales is a maqam (their equivalent term for a scale) called 'hijaz'.  Again, though there are variations, most variations of hijaz include the flattened 2nd, as well as a flattened 6th or 7th.  Aside from scales, consider the palmeros: those layered hand-clapping styles mentioned earlier.  A brief trip to the musics of Morocco can show you that there just might be some relationship between the palmero function in flamenco music, and the function of the qarkabeb (massive metal castanets) in Moroccan music.  Although the rhythms have different feels and lengths, their 'place' within the music is very similar.  Look for yourself:

Qarkabeb in Moroccan music of the Gnawa people.

Palmeros in Flamenco music of the Spanish people.

So then, ... it should be of little surprise that a flamenco artist, in messing around with influences, invites into his album both "modern" jazz tunes, as in this rendition of "Beautiful Love," re-titled, "Miel, canela y yerbagüena," with Israel Sandoval on electric guitar and Paquete on mandolin: well as old Moroccan folk rhythms, for a tune called Zawiya:

Some of the truer flamenco moments shine through on his self-titled album, including "Cosas de Amores," a tune with master vocalist Enrique Morente, citing words apparently by early 20th century Spanish poet Manuel Machado.  The song isn't performed without a touch of jazz sensibilities: Niño's solo fires through passages stunningly, utilizing the peculiarity of the whole-tone scale (starting at 53 seconds in this excerpt).  This is a scale utilized by Josele also in his 2001 release, "El Sorbo," with jazz producer Javier Limón:

Leaning on the more flamenco side of things is, "Llanto de Sal," which has wonderful moments of jazzy approaching chords and a wanderlust in its chord progression, as shown in this clip...

...and "Estirpe," a buleria featuring another wonderful cantaor, Guadiana:

Josele's experimentation with jazz would find him doing whole jazz albums, like "Paz" in 2007, which shows him working with a large portion of jazz pianist Bill Evans's repertoire.

Depending on which side of the fence you're on, the strength (or the fault) of Niño Josele's self-titled album may be that he worked so much out of the context of traditional flamenco.  This may be received as a problem for someone wanting a traditional repertoire from a great player, but one has to consider: all the new ideas that players might later incorporate into their tradition in a more natural way need to come from somewhere.  Certainly the success of Paco de Lucia's work "Cositas Buenas" with Javier Limon is an indication that audiences loved the new approach in the traditional context.  Perhaps then we should appreciate what the musical explorer does in their journey, and enjoy watching them go along their way, rather that cling to our own expectations of what their individual art is.  Besides, if the album seems too unapproachable... there's always Ottmar Liebert.

--Seth Premo

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Alio Die - Circo Divino

Alio Die & Parallel Worlds
Circo Divino2010

There's a ton of music out there in the world, and back in the day, being a musician meant making a financial investment in needing to rent out space at a studio.  If you were fortunate enough to own all of the highly-specialized gear for your own studio, then perhaps you could meddle freely, but in most cases, meddling and experimentalism among popular artists was not a large component of recordings.  Recent technological and social advancements have brought us to a world that, in terms of creating, recording, and sharing music, we are much more free to do as we please, when we please, and make it available across the whole world for all those that might appreciate it.  This de-homogenization and accessibility of the arts makes us aware of a whole new range of artists, as well as the messages and implications of their work.  Ambient works were seemingly less-produced and harder to come by way back when, but in the pathways of the electronic web, the issues isn't "if" you can find, so much as "what" you can find.  Ambient music may only have a following in certain circles of people thus far, but in assessing it's function and affect on a listener, I can't imagine that not changing -- especially since the start of albums based more on mood than on music in the 60's - 70's, and the booming of the movie soundtrack market in the 80's.

Occasionally, in any given musical style, there are what one might call "moments of sublimation."  These moments are the ones where the feeling of what is happening in sound really transcends words -- whether it's the unanimous swelling of a harmony in fiddles during a folk tune, or the interplay of different rhythms and timbres in an electronic dance composition.  The sad thing is, that moment is often short-lived.  Alio Die's (Stefano Musso) work continues to be impressive in ways that is hard to articulate, but you might say that he uses sounds of anything in any way he chooses in order to create a sustained moment of sublimation.  As a listener, whether you're focusing on the execution of a Bach prelude, the progression of a chain of melodies in a Greek syrto, or the words of a pop artist, you're being told a story.  Most of these forms of music are indicating a path of feeling through a progression of notes, or their musical forms, and (even more directly in singer/songwriters) their lyricism.  The work of Alio Die and other great ambient artists doesn't really follow that schema.  The best of ambient artists seem to concern themselves with the feeling that the sound itself creates, independent of its notational value -- its affect.  Consider the difference that a recording of water in a tidal pool is from that of the firing of a rocket.  In both of these examples, the "note value" of the sounds are largely irrelevant, yet the difference in psychological impact is remarkable.  This difference in focus might be considered analogous to this modified image of a Persian rug:

The notationalist's focus is largely the congruency of patterns and their definition, and the ambient artist's focus is the individual & combined affect of the colors, textures, and the mood they create.  Although the texture and ambiance of the sound itself seems to play the dominant role, Alio Die uses a bit of both worlds by incorporating modified recordings of organic instrumentation and manipulating it electronically.

The first track, "Lost Fractales," is a soundscape reminiscent of some of the environments that edgier electronic musicians, such as Future Sound of London, have alluded to, but only momentarily.  The slicing and manipulation of vocal samples atop chiming tones and a faint airy rhythmic element provides quite a wonderful domain:

"Sorinel," features some vocal lyricism, although it largely enveloped by the environmentals: 

"Electrostatic Forest" could be one of my favorite Alio Die tracks, and is exemplary of one of the traits that I found most enjoyable: a sense of mixed time.  The samples used (dulcimer work, water, some digital synth, perhaps a flute or whistle, perhaps some vocals) all seem to be played at different speeds and/or have a damper on set frequencies:

In "Slide of Grace" comes another great model of his work: electronically-coordinated drips of varying emphasis provide the rhythm in the foreground, and the background is held together by a deep and vaporous under-layment of slowed-down sustained notes by a solo vocalist -- very reminiscent of the Aura Seminalis album:

Alio Die's style seems to be in an amalgamation of *all* things: field recording of nature, his own organic instrumentation, electronic manipulation, and one of his albums (Tripudium Naturae) utilizes recordings of someone playing a Norwegian hardingfele (or Hardanger fiddle).  It's worth mentioning, that although some of the sound is not created by the musician, it's in no way "unskilled."  Although I'm not sure of his specific set-up, many of computer applications that electronic or ambient artists often use has the appearance and complex functionality equal to that of a space shuttle, and, to fully utilize, can require an understanding of sound and engineering similar to that of an audiologist and/or recording engineer.  Additionally, since the ambient artist is often *not* working with audio of the same rhythms, natures, series of notes, or otherwise predictable patterns, one has to know well their samples in order to steer the experience in the desired direction -- and Alio Die's works are always splendidly blended.

After careful and attentive listening sessions, one comes to the question of, "What is it that is trying to be communicated in this music?  Is it sadness; wonderment; oblivion; transcendence?"  It could be any of those.  It could be a largely projective experience.  Also, it could just make you sleepy.  But maybe some modest audio during an era where things tend to be pushed to extremes is a good thing.  There's been a small but perhaps warranted backlash in modern societies which perceive appreciation for things like "fast food," frantic film editing styles in cinema, and the micromanagement of most of the time in one's life -- in the form of the cultural shift advocated by the Slow Movement, for example.  At any rate, Alio Die's work makes me appreciate the speed of "slow" with an emphasis on "feel", and I always leave an experience of listening far better than I arrived.

--Seth Premo

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