New world music releases – Rupa, Jordi Savall and Najma Akhtar
World Music Update
By Douglas Heselgrave
The term ‘world music’ used to describe any type of music from outside the western world that didn’t fit into existing categories, but in the last few years there’s been an explosion of artists from all over the globe that transcend definition. World music today encompasses everything from traditional acoustic music to techno. Here are some of the more interesting CDs that have crossed my desk recently.
Rupa and the April Fishes – Este Mundo
This follow-up to Rupa’s debut, ‘Extraordinary Rendition’ is everything that the first album was not. The concept of an Indo-American woman singing in French while channeling the Café de Paris spirits of Edith Piaf and Django Rhinehart was intriguing, but her band just didn’t have the chops the first time around to carry it off. The tentative junkyard sounds of ‘Extraordinary Rendition’ have blossomed, and two years playing on the road have clearly made the April Fishes a unit to be reckoned with. The lonely sounds of the gypsy guitar, stand up bass and whirling accordion have assumed a decadent and seedy majesty this time out that was only hinted at on Rupa’s debut. Where the first album was uneasily self-conscious, the music on Este Mundo soars as Rupa struts and frets her way through fifteen wonderfully exotic numbers. The songs are mostly in French again this time, but Rupa mixes it up with a few numbers in Spanish, (the delightful ‘la linea’ is one of this album’s many highlights) and concedes to her stateside audience with ‘Trouble’ – an English song that serves as a brilliant introduction to the band’s style. If you enjoy Tom Waits, Stephane Grapelli, or latter day Leonard Cohen, you’ll love this one. Very highly recommended.
Jordi Savall – The Celtic Viol
Jordi Savall is a Spanish-Catalan viol player who has been recording ancient music on period instruments since the early 1970’s. While hardly a household name in the roots music world, Savall’s passion and virtuosity have allowed him to shake the dust off pieces of music that have long since passed into the dark world of museums and academies. Channeled through his viol, ancient songs come to life with a vitality and energy that make them sound as if they were written yesterday.
Though most of Savall’s repertoire consists of playing music from the Mediterranean region, he has long had a fascination with Celtic music and this CD of Irish and Scottish airs is the result of many years of research and study. But, don’t let that scare you off. You’ll probably recognize many of the melodies on this album. In fact, if you’re a fan of Bert Jansch, John Renbourne, Pentangle or the Pogues, you’ll recognize that these artists have dipped into the same well that Savall’s drinking from on this album. Traditional melodies from the old British ballad ‘Pretty Peggy O’ to the Irish jig ‘Trip it upstairs’ are brought to life on ‘The Celtic Viol’, and the versions laid down here must be considered amongst the best versions recorded anywhere.
Like all of Savall’s releases on his own Alia Vox label, the recording is crisp and clear enough to satisfy the most demanding of audiophiles, and the 144 page booklet that accompanies the CD and traces the history of Celtic viol music is worth the purchase price. Even if you’ve never ventured into the classical music world, The Celtic Viol is a stellar album that will not disappoint anyone who listens to it.
Najma Akhtar and Gary Lucas – Rishte
The Indo-British singer, Najma Akhtar has been making recordings for more than twenty years, but – like so many of her albums – this new collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Gary Lucas finds her struggling to find a musical setting that works for her. One must give her credit for following her muse and striving for a sound that is all her own; it would – after all – be easy for her to turn her lovely singing voice into gold if she contented herself with singing ghazals or Bollywood tunes in a conventional manner. But, she’s never done that, and has spent her career on the fringes of popular music exploring everything from outside jazz to classic rock and techno.
Rock fans may remember Najma’s collaborations with Jah Wobble, The Police’s Andy Summers as well as her tour de force vocal performance on Page and Plant’s unledded version of ‘The Battle of Evermore.’ But, Najma has never been satisfied with decorating other artists’ work, and as the songs on ‘Rishte’ show, she avoids the conventional at all costs.
Unfortunately, as ‘Rishte’ also demonstrates, a talent as great as Najma’s needs an equally engaging musical setting to carry the music to a higher plain. While Gary Lucas is certainly a fine guitarist and the Indian accents that complement his acoustic soundscapes are certainly tasteful enough, none of the songs on ‘Rishte’ soar or rise above a pedestrian level.
Najma is a bold artist who has yet to find her ‘perfect sound.’ She and Lucas sound like they had a lot of fun recording the off-beat version of Skip James’ ‘Special Rider Blues’ that’s tucked inauspiciously in the middle of the album. Perhaps this is a direction that they should pursue further. In the meantime, Najma’s growing number of fans are waiting for her to hit her stride and record the album that they know she has in her. When it finally breaks out, there’ll be no stopping her.