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: