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Music Reviews

Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel

New Blood

Real World

For me, Peter Gabriel has always been one of those singers who I thought could pretty much sing the phonebook and it would be interesting. That being said, for a myriad of reasons, it took me a while to finally get around to listening to New Blood. Once I did, my reaction was this: thank goodness. Thank goodness he sounds so much more energized re-interpreting his own songs with an orchestra than he did interpreting the songs of others (including the likes of David Bowie, Paul Simon, and Radiohead) on 2010’s remarkably dull Scratch My Back.

Gabriel is in fine voice too on the dramatic, inventive, and kinetic arrangement of Security‘s “The Rhythm of the Heat” which kicks off the proceedings.

One of the record’s most powerful moments comes on Security‘s “San Jacinto,” which is outfitted here with a cascading piano figure, woodwinds, and strings. Gabriel, even at 61, can knock the vocals on this one out of the park, straining at the top of his seemingly undiminished range. Despite the song being stripped to its core and despite not sporting one of Gabriel’s strongest melodies, it has a foreboding and a build all its own.

Indeed, while one might assume that the songs that would work best in these musical settings would be Gabriel’s more familiar and melodic tunes, that’s not always the case. Four songs from 1986’s So get the orchestral treatment here. “In Your Eyes” is all jaunty strings and overlapping melodies. The beauty of the song is there but the choice to strip things down for the verses may simply make you yearn for the understated and iconic but punchier original version or one of the jubilant live versions. “Mercy Street,” with its xylophones and triangles, is pretty but inessential and not all that different. Norwegian vocalist Ane Brun stands in for Kate Bush on a version of “Don’t Give Up” that again fails to surpass the original. The strongest of the So re-interpretations is “Red Rain,” given a dramatic string arrangement here that also makes good use of percussion.

Elsewhere, Gabriel’s vocals are a near whisper on “Intruder,” which trades the pounding drums of the original for cellos. The effect is dramatic and stagey but it somehow feels less dangerous than the original.

Much more sinister is the dynamic version of “Darkness” here, which begins like some kind of alternate Darth Vader theme before settling into a truly frightening split-personality Gabriel vocal.

Somewhat lighter in tone is the majestic “Downside Up” with Gabriel’s daughter Melanie joining him for a duet vocal.

“All the strangers look like family / All the family looks so strange / The only constant I am sure of / Is this accelerating rate of change,” Gabriel sings.

Two of the other highlights here are “Digging in the Dirt” from Us, which makes great use of staccato strings and of course the classic “Solsbury Hill,” which even a slightly stiff arrangement can’t mar. It sends the record out on a big, joyous note.

Are the new interpretations on New Blood going to make you forget the original recordings? Unlikely, but the record is much better than it could have been. It’s not some stuffy classical thing with Gabriel’s voice on top and it’s not Peter Gabriel for your parents or your parents’ parents. Ultimately, it proves to be a creative endeavor worthy of an artist who has been inventing and re-inventing himself in intriguing ways for decades.

Peter Gabriel: petergabriel.com

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Music Reviews

Rahul Sharma

Rahul Sharma

Music of the Himalayas

Real World

A better title for this album would be “music of Jammu and Kashmir,” since it focuses almost exclusively on the traditional folk and Sufyana musics of that region at the crossroads of the Middle East and South Asia. The santoor, a stringed instrument played with curved wooden sticks, has a sound akin to that of the hammered dulcimer, and like the dulcimer was long thought of as mainly a folk instrument. But Rahul’s father, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, almost single-handedly achieved acceptance for the santoor in Hindustani (North Indian) classical music through his brilliant playing. Now Rahul is becoming an acknowledged master of the santoor, which has become one of the most important instruments in Kashmiri music. For this live recording from a festival in Italy, Rahul is joined by Ustad Shafat Ahmed Khan on tabla and Pandit Bhawani Shankar on various folk percussion instruments.

Although the santoor has many similarities to a dulcimer — both combine strings and percussion, for instance, marrying elements of melody and rhythm in the same instrument — the santoor’s range is much wider (Rahul’s santoor has 89 strings), and its sound sweeter. On “Maqam-e-Navaa,” which draws on Sufi-inspired folk melodies, Rahul’s santoor sends notes swirling upward like incense and rushing down like crystal streams into pristine mountain valleys. The feeling of this track is bright and pure, the essence of nature and spirit expressed in musical form. Unfolding at its own easy pace, refreshingly unhurried, “Melody Of Kashmir” paints a joyous vision of green fields, blue skies, gentle breezes, warm sun, shining eyes, and laughter. The santoor’s notes cascade and shimmer, opening out into a very funky jam with tabla and other percussion later on, like a dancer spinning with their head thrown back, clothes whirling all around, pure ecstasy in music and motion.

The last two tracks, “Melody of Jammu and Kashmir” and “Melody of Kashmir in Contemporary Music,” were both composed by Rahul himself. The latter is a 35-minute showcase for the santoor, as well as for Rahul’s accompanists; occasionally it feels a bit self-indulgent, like the long solos taken by jazz or rock musicians at the end of a live show, but is still quite enjoyable — especially the thundering drums and the second, more introspective, section for the santoor, which feels like the slow, soothing approach of eventide. “Melody of Jammu and Kashmir” moved me deeply, from its slow and simple beginning, like the first tentative caresses of a lover, to the frequent conversational exchanges between santoor and drums, at times hushed, then surging with passion, just like love itself.

Real World Records: http://www.realworldusa.com • Rahul Sharma: http://rahulsharma.santoor.com

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Music Reviews

Tama

Tama

Espace

Real World

Leave it to labels like Peter Gabriel’s Real World or Six Degrees to unearth the finest music beyond our shores. Tama is the brainchild of post-punk vet Sam Mills, Tom Diakite, and Djanuno Dabo, along with new member, Malian diva Mamani Keita. Although the styles encompassing Espace could trace their origins around the globe, it is the African foundation which lies at its core, namely Afropop. Yes, the U.S definition of pop is MUCH different than Africa’s, as you can see the latter clearly focuses on musicianship rather than image and album sales.

Organ-aided tracks like the seductive opener “Oka” and the singalong chant “Yalala” showcase the entrancing, flamenco-like guitar lines and subtle percussive elements that each lend their own breadth to the song’s structure. The vocals are essential elements as well, providing an air of uplifting spirituality to the pulsating rhythms. As mellow an album as Espace is, it is no less intense in its nature of song, disquieting at moments and whispering poignantly at other times. It’s always refreshing to know that music progresses and thrives beyond our media-saturated, MTV-addled land, so open your mind a bit further and immerse yourself in these enjoyable alternatives to the norm.

Real World Records: http://www.realworldrecords.com

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Music Reviews

Rahul Kumar Sharma

Rahul Kumar Sharma

Music of the Himalayas

Real World

There’s a lot to be said for the unearthed and sometimes ignored talents of musicians from the Eastern Hemisphere. Although much has been made of the fusion of traditional Indian music with modern electronic beats (a la Talvin Singh, Karsh Kale, and Nitin Sawnhey). But at times, it’s the traditional aspect which tends to get overshadowed. Thankfully, Real World provides us Rahul Kumar Sharma’s transcendental offerings to show that current artists still revere the foundations of this rich musical heritage.

Undoubtedly spiritual in nature and epic in scope, Music for the Himalayas is a soaring, 72-minute, four-song live meditation on the sounds from the highest mountains in the world. Though recent turmoil in the Kashmir region has tarnished its once lush aesthetic appeal, its music fortunately continues to thrive. Time signatures constantly change, tablas speak as if they were the human voice, and Kumar’s nonstop santoor strumming lends an indelible, yet soothing coat over it all. Best when played at mid-volume, in a comfortable environment, when you need to collect your thoughts or just dissolve them, Rahul Kumar Sharma’s rhythms are a credible and beautiful alternative to the rubbish they call new age music.

Real World Records: http://www.realworldrecords.com/rahul

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Music Reviews

Spirit Of Africa

Spirit Of Africa

Various Artists

Real World/Narada

A sobering fact that many people don’t know is that 70% of the adults living with HIV live in Africa, along with 80% of the children struggling with the disease. AIDS will kill a third of today’s 15-year-olds in Africa. 2.4 million Africans died of HIV-related causes in 2000, and that number is small compared to the ones that are still with us. 25.3 million Africans live with the disease everyday of their lives, unable to get better. If you like African music, then you really need Spirit Of Africa. Not only will you be helping lower those numbers (all the proceeds from the CD go directly to the Mercury Phoenix Trust, which has helped raised over $14 million since 1992, to ease the impact of the deadly disease in Africa) but honestly, you’re getting one of the best African collections ever. Included on Spirit Of Africa are “Awa Y’okeyi” by Papa Wemba, French-flavored “Xale” by Youssou N’ Dour, “Sai Sai Sai” by Omar Pene & Super Dianomo de Dakar, “Zulu Khayalami” by Imbizo (features traditional Matabeleland singing/speaking like that in the Life Savers commercial) and the TASO Choir doing a surprisingly happy sounding “AIDS The Disease.” All the members of the TASO Choir have HIV, and use the choir as a meeting place and a support system to cope. Considering the amazing taste of Africa this CD is giving you and that the money from its purchase is going to help extend — and maybe one day, save — human lives, how can you go wrong?

Real World Records: http://www.realworldusa.com • Narada Records: http://www.narada.com

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Music Reviews

Women of the World

Women of the World

Gifted

Real World

Anyone who’s seen the commercial for the fragrance from Cacharel, Noa (the round little bottle with the “pearl” in the bottom) will instantly recognize the woman on the cover of the booklet and the first song on the CD. World music semi-star Sheila Chandra offers us “Song to the Siren” (the song from the commercial) as well as a remix of “Ever So Lonely/Eyes/Ocean” (which is very Madonna sounding, circa Ray Of Light). A few other very talented women of the musical world join her, such as Assitan Mama Keita doing “Baro” from Mali, Shruti Sandolikar from North India doing “Sri Jagadamba” which is a hauntingly moving chant of religion, and Eleftheria Arvanitaki from Greece, with “The Bodies and the Knives” which is a great example of Mediterranean music. This CD benefits those women who defy their stereotypes to produce music and speak their minds in ways that Americans take for granted. It’s a wonderfully done world CD with grace and class all the way through.

Real World Recordings, Wiltshire SN13 8PL, UK; http://realworld.on.net/rwr, http://www.narada.com, http://realworld.on.net/gifted, http://www.cacharel.com

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Music Reviews

Temple of Sound & Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali

Temple of Sound & Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali

People’s Colony No. 1

Real World

There’s a whole lotta chantin’ going on! People’s Colony No. 1 is plum full of ethnic, long driving chants and meditations. Aside from the title track (which surprisingly is a fast paced dance song!) the whole album is rather Yoga-worthy and very deep. It’s not translated, so the actual lyrics could be a bunch of just about anything, but the quality of the music makes up for it. It’s by far not the best new world CD ever, but it’s decent, especially if you’re heavy into chants.

Real World Recordings, Wiltshire SN13 8PL, UK; http://realworld.on.net/rwr, http://realworld.on.net/colony1

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Music Reviews

Afro Celt Sound System

Afro Celt Sound System

Volume 3: Further in Time

Real World

The Afro Celts have come a long way since the tickle in Simon Emmerson’s ears and later jam sessions that resulted in 1996’s Volume 1: Sound Magic. While that album basically stuck traditional elements from Irish and African musics together side by side with keyboards and synthesized beats, Volume 2: Release blended them seamlessly, resulting in a powerful fusion of world music and electronica that added up to much more than the sum of its parts.

Their eagerly awaited new album, Volume 3: Further in Time, finds the Afro Celts in a decidedly upbeat mood, using their new superstar status to draw in some heavy hitters for guest vocals, including Peter Gabriel and Robert Plant (they each sing one song). Further focuses much more on the African elements, both percussive and vocal, and also updates the electronica for new dancefloors. Unfortunately, this means that a lot of the traditional Irish material gets stuffed down in the mix, to the detriment of the album. Iarla O’Lionaird is still an Afro Celt, penning most of their lyrics (in Gaelic and English this time), but his transcendent sean nos singing is absent from much of the album, and even when it’s there, the heavy beats often overwhelm it. And although you will hear flute, uilleann pipes, and bodhran throughout the album, and fiddle in places, they feel much more like just random effects to be triggered from time to time than integral parts of Further. Finally, the album as a whole comes off as rather lightweight, especially compared to the incredible emotional intensity of Release (occasioned, unfortunately, by the sudden death of band member Jo Bruce from an asthma attack in late 1997).

But there’s still a heck of a lot to like about Further. The percussion, both electronic and organic, is amazing; the electronic work is overall fresh and interesting; and there are some very nice lyrics. It’s been years since I’ve heard Peter Gabriel sing, but on “When You’re Falling,” he still blows me away, and O’Lionaird’s backing angelic voice here is awesome as well. “Shadow Man” blends incredibly catchy dance rhythms with staccato, rap-like vocals from Demba Barry, with James McNally’s flute cutting through it all and floating high above. And “Silken Whip” shows that the Afro Celts can still craft the perfect mix of tradition and technology; flute flows in and around the beats, the trebly notes of the plucked kora trill like birds, and uilleann pipes and synth blend it all together.

Real World, 4650 N. Port Washington Rd., Milwaukee, WI, 53212-1063; http://www.realworldusa.com, http://www.afrocelts.com

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Music Reviews

Joi

Joi

We Are Three

Real World

In 1999, Joi released One and One is One through Real World Records and AstralWerks. It was one of those releases that has forever changed the way I listen to music. Farook Shamsher and his brother Haroon were amazing, and I couldn’t believe that everywhere I went, I wasn’t hearing people listening to it. Then, not too long after I fell in love with the music of Joi, Haroon Shamsher passed away. I’d only just begun to love Joi, yet I was filled with an intense level of grief.

Now, two years later, We Are Three not only surpasses One and One is One, but it reaffirms that Joi is more than a flash in the pan. It almost sickens me that I don’t see an Astralwerks logo on the release, but Real World Records is the correct label for Joi. Beyond the rhythms and electronics, Joi is world music. It is music to cross cultures. The album opens with “Journey” building from just a simple ethnic rhythm to full blown travel. For those of you familiar with “The Sheltering Sky,” “Journey” is the soundtrack to Port’s travels. Farook explains it in the liner notes as being a recreation of Haroon’s journey when visiting Bangledesh shortly before his death. “Prem” kicks in right as “Journey” ends, and brings with it a sense of arrival. Interestingly enough, the vocals are not from a “professional” vocalist, but rather were recorded by Haroon on his journey. It is the voice of a 14-year-old girl that brings forth such emotion. How can a 14-year-old learn this level of emotion when singing? The world is filled with vocalists who make their living invoking emotion is all of us, yet most of them, will never come close to the power of this young girl.

On my first trip through the album I didn’t think anything else would touch “Prem”‘s emotional level, but the surprises never stopped coming. “Deep Asian Vibes” slides in like a snake charmer’s song, but it’s your soul that is being charmed. We are then washed into “Triatma,” with its beautiful instrumentation and sensual flutes. Beyond a tribute to his brother, Farook seems to have built in a message to everyone trying to label Joi as part of the “Asian underground.” In the first few moments of “Tacadin,” we hear the truth: “This is not the sound of the Asian underground. This is music.” Yes! Thank you Farook. I know your brother is smiling upon you and filling you with the passion and devotion to continue. Joi is not the “leader” of some sub-genre; Joi is world music. It crosses cultures, oceans, religions, and speaks to the core of your spirituality. Peace and prosperity to you always, Farook. I’ll be listening.

Real World Records, http://realworld.co.uk/

Categories
Music Reviews

Joi

Joi

We Are Three

Real World

Wrapped under the sleek thread of fine, crafted classical Indian music lies a hypnotizing dance groove capable of awakening the multi-armed deities of Hindu lore. This is Joi, the work of two brothers, one who unfortunately passed away after in-depth field recordings in the heart of Bangladesh. Well, Farook Shamsher has carried on the legacy of his brother Haroon and in turn, joined the ranks of revered fusion artists like Talvin Singh.

“Journey” is the ideal opener in this opus, with the rhythms of echoing tablas and mystical woodwinds inviting the listener into the fortified, majestic history of Joi’s culture, and then Shamsher brings the beat back. Once the spine-tingling female vocals and strings join the party on “Prem,” it becomes quite clear that it takes the experience and sixth sense of true world musicians like Joi to invoke these rapturous melodies for the dancefloor. We Are Three correctly combines heartfelt ethno-instrumentation with a club sensibility, a feat that artists like Delerium try, but ultimately fail to accomplish.

Real World Records, Box, Corsham, Wiltshire, SN13 8PL, UK, http://realworld.on.net/joi