Maria Farantouri/Cihan Türkoğlu: Beyond The Borders (ECM 2585)

2585 X

Maria Farantouri
Cihan Türkoğlu
Beyond The Borders

Maria Farantouri voice
Cihan Türkoğlu
saz, kopuz, voice
Anja Lechner 
violoncello
Meri Vardanyan kanon
Christos Barbas
ney
İzzet Kızıl percussion
Recorded June 2017, Sierra Studios, Athens
Engineer: Giorgos Karyotis
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: June 21, 2019

“Everything flows.
Out of one thing there comes unity,
and out of unity one thing.”
–Heraclitus

The project documented on Beyond The Borders was born when Greek singer Maria Farantouri first heard Cihan Türkoğlu, a saz virtuoso of Anatolian extraction who had been living in Athens for ten years. After proposing the idea to ECM, producer Manfred Eicher helped shape the program into its present form, debuting it as part of the 2017 Athens Festival. For this live performance, they are joined by Anja Lechner on cello, Meri Vardanyan on kanon, Christos Barbas on ney, and İzzet Kızıl on percussion. Their collective sound is distinctly individual, like a soul of many cities and eras compressed into the flesh of a single body.

Most of the songs are traditional treasures from the lands of Turkey, Armenia, Lebanon, and Greece. Each tells a story preserved by centuries of reiteration, and achieves relevance as a cool drink of water in today’s political firestorm. The scintillating arrangement of “Drama köprüsü” (The Bridge of Drama) finds both Türkoğlu and Farantouri singing the life of Hassan, a legendary Robin Hood-like figure who went rogue after slaying his superior, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor while shadowing the village just to glimpse the woman to whom he was once betrothed. The Sephardic ballad “Yo era ninya” (I Was a Girl) tells of a highborn maiden ruined by a deceitful man. A mournful quality made resolutely genuine by Farantouri’s delivery, as if sung through a cloud, makes this a standout among standouts. Lechner’s cello is remarkable, a red thread drawn through shadows of time.

From Armenia we receive “Kele kele” (Strolling), an anonymous song preserved by Komitas Vardapet around the turn of the 20th century. In it, a lovelorn girl sings: “I am dying for your footsteps, my precious.” An extended intro from Vardanyan paints a wide terrain on which to seek the traces of her loved one. Not all is so gloomy, however, as the Macedonian wedding song “Triantafylia” (Upon the Rosebush) works from a quiet introduction to an energy powerful enough to shine unscathed through a pessimistic future. “Wa Habibi” (My Beloved), a Christian hymn from Syria and Lebanon, unravels with a lifetime’s worth of experience in every throaty word.

The program is rounded out by songs written specially for Farantouri with music by Türkoğlu and words by Agathi Dimitrouka. “Dyo kosmoi mia angalia” (Embraced Worlds) takes Eros as its theme and evokes loving attributes via kanon, in which are felt reflections of sunlight upon a body of water whose surface is a portal between realms. “Ta panda rei” is a setting of Heraclitus, whose blurring of parts and wholes, of lives and life itself, yields percussive details from Kızıl and breaths from the ney of Barbas. Between “Lahtara gia zoi” (Yearning for Life), an empathic song for the uprooted, and “Anoihtos kaimos” (A Secret Yearning), a surreally uplifting dream, we feel the connective tissue of death and life as if it were the very substance of our hearts. With every beat, we get closer to this music, even as it follows its own path through the tragedies of our world.

Stephan Micus: Inland Sea (ECM 2569)

2569 X

Stephan Micus
Inland Sea

Stephan Micus balanzikom, nyckelharpa, chord and bass zithers, shakuhachi, voice, steel-string guitar, genbri
Recorded 2014-16 at MCM Studios
An ECM Production

Release date: June 16, 2017

When talking about differences between cultures, it’s tempting to uphold products such as food, art, and music as foci of distinction. On the latter point, Stephan Micus has dedicated his life to that without which music would not exist: the instruments themselves. From the staggering amount in his repertoire, he draws stories that could never have been written by any other means. Take the duo, for example, which makes its first appearance in his milieu via the opening “Haze.” The balanzikom, an obscure seven-stringed lute from Tajikstan, feels so much like the mountains and open plains of its origins that it could never have come from anywhere else. The very land is its womb, as also of the wordless gestures projecting life into being. The nyckelharpa, a Swedish bowed instrument keyed like a hurdy gurdy, is as crisp as the climate of which it was born, accordingly grounded. Micus listens to these instruments much more than he plays them, and through his performances allows them to learn new languages by the same tongue and teeth. As the only one-on-one conversation between them, “Haze” sets a precedent of civil and spiritual exchange for all to follow. The nyckelharpa, for its part, glows in triplicate in “Dawn” and “Dusk.” Their combined song is more than diurnal; it’s life and death.

Likewise, the shakuhachi is more than a conduit for breath. For while Micus has rewritten its futures many times over, its ancestral home is unalterable. In “Sowing Wind,” he matches this Japanese bamboo flute with the chord zither, a 68-string instrument of his own design. The arc thereof is a primordial one, along which feelings of mutual regard flow as if they were a mythology to which we’ve blinded ourselves. This relationship deepens in “Reaping Storm,” switching chord zither for its bass counterpart. Now the mood is fragile and of a different season, fragrant of a world humbled by nature.

The balanzikom delineates further circles for Micus’s singing in “Flor del Sur.” Radiating along cardinal axes as if to hold continents in its embrace, the solo voice welcomes five percussive nyckelharpa, chord zither, and shakuhachi in “Nuria,” and among that assembly enacts a tale of disparate peoples brought together by tragedy. For “Virgen de la Mar,” Micus choruses his voice fifteen times over, and to it adds three genbri, a three-stringed bass instrument from Morocco. Treading the same soil packed by the feet of “Dancing Clouds” (plucked nyckelharpa, 6 percussive nyckelharpa, 3 bowed nyckelharpa, steel string guitar, genbri, bass zither) and laid to rest by “For Shirin and Khosru” (2 bass zithers, 2 nyckelharpa, 3 steel string guitars, genbri), it treats melodic resolution as the caress of a loving parent who dispels fears of darkness. Thus we are protected, hoped for, and fortified to face new days, bringing our own children to the well of mortality, that they might also see the reflections of all who came before them.

Maya Youssef review for RootsWorld

My latest review for RootsWorld online magazine is of Damascus-born qānūn virtuoso Maya Youssef’s Syrian Dreams, a heartfelt album of mostly original material evoking the tragic spirit of her war-torn homeland. Click the cover below to read more and listen to sample tracks off the album.

Syrian Dreams

Amine & Hamza review for RootsWorld

Amine & Hamza are an oud and kanun duo from Tunisia. Their album Fertile Paradoxes is the subject of my latest review for RootsWorld online magazine. Fans of Anouar Brahem: do not pass this one up. Brahem himself calls the new album “a spell-binding repertoire of new compositions full of emotions. We are taken on a delicious trip of intoxicating rhythms and subtle, yet powerful melodies. Far from being run-down clichés, we are struck by its strength of suggestion and the modernity of its arrangements. There is a strong sense of being on a voyage of surprising passages and undiscovered timbres. Fertile Paradoxes owns the evident and natural qualities which are the hallmarks of an authentically inspired work. A beautiful success!”

Click the cover below to read my full review and hear sample tracks.

Fertile Paradoxes

Sabîl review for RootsWorld

My latest review for RootsWorld online magazine is of the third studio album by oudist Ahmad Al Kathib and percussionist Youssef Hbeisc, known together as duo Sabîl. Fans of Anouar Brahem are sure to find much to admire. Click the cover to read my full review and listen to samples.

Zabad

Winds of Exchange: Simon Shaheen’s Zafir at Cornell

Simon-Shaheen-by-Adrian-BoteanuIMGP3081
(Photo credit: Adrian Boteanu)

Simon Shaheen presents Zafir
March 10, 2017
8:00pm
Cornell University, Bailey Hall

In the Comfort Zone: A Conversation with Tabla Virtuoso Zakir Hussain

zakir-ji
(Photo credit: Jim McGuire)

As I call up Zakir Hussain on the phone for this interview, I call up also memories of my childhood. I was raised in a small town in Marin County, California, where it so happens the mother of a childhood friend studied traditional Kathak dance with Zakir’s wife, Antonia Minnecola. I distinctly remember those performances, and can’t help but laugh at myself now for being too young then to recognize the greatness to which I grew up in such close proximity. Thirty years and seemingly infinite more of musical exposure later, here I sit transcribing my conversation with the world’s leading virtuoso of the tabla. When I tell him about our distant connection, he says to me, “What a small world this has suddenly become,” and the strange twists of life that completed this circle feel all the more inevitable to me as I offer my first question.

Tyran Grillo: Thinking back on your many projects reminds me of how many so-called “crossovers” you have done. Then again, I’ve always felt that Indian classical music is already hybrid by definition. In light of this, how do you feel that you have evolved as you continue to work with musicians from traditions and cultural backgrounds other than your own?

Zakir Hussain: Indian music, at least when I was growing up in India, was undergoing a great transition. Up until India gained its independence in 1947, most musicians were under the employ of Maharajas, so they rarely performed for lay audiences. Once those princely states were demolished and India became a democracy, court musicians had to fend for themselves. Young musicians back then, Ravi Shankar and my father among them, were trying to figure out how to tailor their art for the stage. At the same time, because of the British influence, Western music was everywhere in India. My generation grew up with symphonies and string quartets, but also the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, even as we were helping to create music for a fledgling Indian film industry, now famous as Bollywood. All those Indian musicians who had studied Western classical instruments were absorbed into the film industry, and we all became integrated into a mutant, hybrid orchestra, performing music that was a hodgepodge of influences.

And so, when I first came to the United States in my late teens and heard the musicians here, it felt like a natural progression. I was also fortunate because my father used to bring me records from his travels, so by then I had heard the likes of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Yusef Lateef, Charles Lloyd, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. All of this was an extension of where I was in India, and it made for a seamless transition when starting to play with people here. Luckily, by then there was major interest among American musicians — in particular John Coltrane, Mickey Hart and John McLaughlin — to learn Indian music. I was meeting all these people who already understood what I did, and it was easy for them to walk me across the rift into a system I was familiar with. Whatever hesitancy I had in being able to contribute disappeared, because these people knew who I was and where I was coming from.

TG: How would you characterize yourself as a listener?

ZH: Listening is one thing that most drummers do. It doesn’t matter whether you are in Indian music, jazz or classical. Drummers are supposed to know all the standards, all the breaks, so that they can interact at a moment’s notice. Indian tabla players are no different. We need to know the music to be better accompanists. So we are listeners. On tour, I’m constantly listening to the masters. When I was playing with Ravi Shankar, I would listen to his most recent albums, familiarizing myself with his temperament, his musicality and his improvising depth, to see what I could contribute when I got on stage. It was a form of respect, a way of letting him know that I was aware of what he’d done and that I was ready to give whatever he wanted.

TG: On the topic of collaboration, how did you come to work with sitar player Niladri Kumar?

ZH: Niladri Kumar is one of many young masters of Indian music today who I am hoping to promote globally. My reason for this is twofold. First, people should not get caught up in idea that Indian music begins and ends with Ravi Shankar. Even at the time when he became internationally famous, there were other sitar players who were just as great and highly revered in India, but who people outside of India never heard about. Now, I may be considered the tabla player of the day, but I can honestly name at least 15 tabla players who are just as good as, if not better than, I am. But people don’t know that, because they hear a marquee name and say, “Oh, that’s the guy to go see. Forget about the rest.” Nowadays young musicians, even as they are listening to and playing Indian music, have their computers in front of them, able to access any master of any musical tradition, so they grow up with a more universal sensibility of music. It’s amazing to see them treating Indian music as more than a single entity, but rather as part of an ever-growing hard drive through which they access software of all other musical kinds and marry them in ways that at their age I was nowhere near doing. Which brings me to my second reason for wanting to play with them: to get their fresh take on what global music is all about and use my own experience to interact with them, all while learning something more in the process. And, of course, being around younger musicians stokes the fire under me and gets me going more. I used to play with Niladri’s father. And once Niladri came into his own as a musician, I decided to bring him to America, where I hope he will get the attention he deserves for his efforts.

TG: How would you characterize the mass effect of Indian classical music in the 21st century?

ZH: The only way to be able to learn about any music or musicians is through listening. And when you do that, you’re not only listening to their music but also finding out about their cultures and ways of life. I find that young people have developed a deep respect for all art forms, and by extension for those cultures. They also understand that the Third World is anything but, and that its people are anything but clueless as to where they belong. I see immense respect for what India has to offer and its ability to be a great cultural contributor to this world, and all because today’s younger generation has accepted it as such.

TG: Is there any core advice you would give to anyone who wants to start learning the tabla, or any instrument for that matter?

ZH: What I tell people is: try to experience the music a little bit, and if it actually excites you and makes you happy, then it has the potential to turn into a lifelong relationship. And it is a relationship. Every musical instrument has a spirit, and that spirit has to accept you. It’s like in the film Avatar, when the Na’vi bond their hair to a horse or bird. That animal has to accept you as a friend before you can ride it. Only then can you fly the way you imagine yourself to. That’s what music is all about. My own relationship with the tabla is such that we are both friends and lovers. We are together on this journey and every time I grow and find new shades in my musical expression, I find that the tabla is right there saying, “Okay, let’s try this.”

TG: What is your greatest hope or expectation for listeners who come to hear you play?

ZH: I feel comfortable with the audiences of the world, because they know more now than they did 30 years ago. Being able to Google musicians and see them on YouTube means that audiences are no longer arriving without a clue as to what we are all about. It’s almost like meeting friends you have never officially seen before. In that sense, I’m very open and easy with audiences. I don’t have to sit there and talk for 10 minutes about what we are going to do. I believe honestly in the music conveying its own intent. Natural flow is very important to me. I just get on stage and announce what we’re going to play as a matter of routine, and the audiences respond accordingly, and with respect.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)

Daniel Diaz review for RootsWorld

My latest review for RootsWorld online magazine is of multi-instrumentalist and composer Daniel Diaz’s Swan Song. As a side note, the album’s cover photograph was taken by Juan Hitters, who is a frequent ECM cover art contributor. Click the album to read on and hear samples.

DD_SS 02