Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"This is it, OK. Have a good time." Goodbye, Lars Hollmer

It is with some sadness that I pass on the news of the passing of Lars Hollmer, a long time friend of RootsWorld, and a regular contributor to our past Free Reed Festivals. Listen to Lars' contribution to one of our festivals, including a little talk about his piece "Sudaf".
So, Lars, "this is it, OK. Have a good time. Goodbye." - CF

Fellow musician Guy Klucevsek sends this tribute to his friend and fellow accordionist/musician.

My dear friend and Accordion Tribe colleague, Lars Hollmer, passed away on Dec. 25, 2008, at the age of 60.

I first heard Lars's music in the early 90s, through singer-songwriter and DJ extraordinaire, David Garland. I instantly recognized a kindred spirit and he was the first person I invited to be a part of what eventually became the Accordion Tribe. We began the group in 1996 and continue to this day, although there will be a gaping void on stage and in our hearts from now on.

Lars was an auto-didact and multi-instrumentalist (accordion, keyboards, voice, melodica, etc.) who was completely fearless in his approach to music. He could be unabashedly sentimental (Boeves Psalm, Soon Song), write incredibly dense and complex counterpoint with the best of them (Pas de Valse, Utflykt med Damcyckle), and be mischievous and joyfully wacked-out (Circus I, II). And that's only the Accordion Tribe repertoire! He managed to record about 30 albums in all, mostly in his legendary home studio, the Chickenhouse, both solo (11), and with his many groups, including The Looping Home Orchestra and Samla Mammas Manna.

What is the common element in all these? To quote Lars from the documentary film, "Accordion Tribe: Music Travels" (Stefan Schwietert, Maximage Films, 2002), "It all begins here," (he says, pointing to his heart); "it may go through here eventually," (he points to his head), "but it all begins with the heart."
- Guy Klucevsek

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Return of the Policewomen of Guinea

Les Amazones de Guinée

Ahmed Sékou Touré, the leader of Guinea’s liberation struggle against French colonial rule and president of the independent African nation from 1958 until his death in 1984, remains a controversial and polarizing figure. Revered as a freedom fighter by revolutionaries in Africa and elsewhere, he later was reviled as a dictator who trampled on human rights and mismanaged Guinea’s economy.

Touré’s one-party regime undeniably deserves the criticism. But it’s hard to argue with the results of his cultural policy, which he called authenticité. Guinea’s president made culture central to his government’s nation-building program. Artists, and especially musicians, were encouraged to create works that were modern in style but rooted in African tradition. Authenticité spawned such great bands as Bembeya Jazz, Keletigui and his Tambourinis, the Horoya Band and Les Balladins. But I can’t imagine Touré being prouder of any Guinean musicians than the women of Les Amazones de Guinée.

The band was originally called the Women’s Orchestra of the Guinean Militia, and the members indeed all were soldiers. (Some still are, with titles like “Commandant” and “Capitaine.”) They made their first and still unreleased recording in 1961, as an acoustic band. Au coeur de Paris, recorded 21 years later in the old colonial power’s capital, was their first album as Les Amazones. Sekou Touré was still alive at the time, and the propagandistic side of authenticité is evident in tracks like “PDG (Parti Démocratique de Guinée),” a praise song for the president’s political party.

But Les Amazones’ debut also displayed their feminism, in songs that urged African women to reject patriarchal tradition and claim their place in post-colonial society.
Les Amazones, notes Pierre René Worms of Radio France Internationale, “set the standard for female groups in post-independent Africa; a symbol of African woman’s emancipation, they remain a rarely imitated example.”

Now, 26 years later, we have Les Amazones’ second album, Wamato, and it is a beauty, easily the equal of the recent acclaimed release by another veteran but far better known African band, Orchestra Baobab’s Made in Dakar. Recorded in Bamako, Mali, in the same studios used by Ali Farka Toure and Oumou Sangaré, among other notables, Wamato grabs the listener from the jubilant cry of “ah-hah!” that opens the album.
The production, by Afropop veteran Ibrahima Sylla, is clean and unobtrusive, putting the focus on the guitar-driven ensemble and the amazing vocalists who front it. There are 11 core Amazones, some of whom replaced original members who died or retired. They are augmented by a dozen guest vocalists and instrumentalists, all women. But the music, thanks to Sylla and chef d’orchestre Commandant Salématou Diallo, on bass, never sounds cluttered or cacophonous.

The title track has the three main vocalists, Fatoumata N’Gady Keita, Daloba Keita, and M’Mah Sylla, trading verses while the guitarists, Yaya Kouyaté on lead, N’Sira Tounkara on rhythm, spin intertwined lines around them. And voices and guitars are the stars here, notwithstanding the tight horn section and surging percussion. Each of the vocalists has a distinctive timbre, roughly corresponding to Western categories of vocal range -- one low and earthy (contralto), another mid-range (mezzo), another high and strident (soprano). Each singer has a strong individual vocal profile and a powerful presence.

As if having three terrific lead singers wasn’t enough, the Amazones supplement them with stellar guests -- Fatou Nylon Barry, a full-throated, exuberant wonder on “Ndaren,” and Les Zawagui de Macenta, a trio of Valerie Keba, Helen Pivie and Blandine Komessa. The two tracks featuring the marvelous trio, “Deni Wana” and “Zawi,” are both exceptional, but they really kill on the latter, a joyous welcome-back to the Amazones. “Alhamdoulilah,” a rhythmic tour de force, is a showcase for the sharply contrasting but complementary voices of M’Mah Sylla, cutting yet supple, and Fatou Nylon Barry, deeper and more rough-edged.

Much of Wamato’s considerable pleasure comes from the interplay of the voices and the guitars, the pealing, dancing guitars of Yaya Kouyaté and N’Sira Tounkar. “Be Ni Son” features some of their most captivating work. “Meilleurs Voeux,” a wish for a Happy New Year, begins as a syrupy ballad sung in French by M’Mah Sylla. But, like Guinea shaking off its colonial masters, the band shifts into a quicker tempo, changes the rhythm, and surges ahead, with Yaya Kouyaté’s guitar and the horns calling and responding to each other.

It’s amazing that a band that has released only two records in nearly 50 years would sound so vibrant and confident, as if they’d never left the scene. One can only hope that Wamato, their superb return, means we’ll be hearing more from Los Amazones de Guineé, and that we won’t have to wait another 26 years for the follow-up. - George De Stefano

CD available from cdRoots

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Sephardic roots, Mediterranean sounds

Amán Amán (L'Ham de Foc)
Música i cants sefardis d'orient i occident

Al Andaluz Project (L'Ham de Foc and Estampie)
Deus et diabolus
Galileo (www.galileo-mc.com)

From Valencia, L'Ham de Foc approaches the Sephardic repertoire by turning east, exploring how the traditional repertoire changed as it moved from the Iberian Peninsula in the post-1492 diaspora, taking on new life in the exile communities of Sofia, Thessalonica, Istanbul, and Izmir. There is no shortage of contemporary Sephardic recordings, but the present work turns away from a certain slavish celebration of an imagined medieval multicultural sound toward a living if lesser-known Levantine tradition, complemented by instrumentation of the region (ud, tanbur, cümbüs, kopuz, santur, kemençe, various flutes, and percussion). Hence, alongside "Sien drahmas al día," the opening dance from Smyrna (a 9/8 karsilama rhythm divided in 2/2/2/3), or the hybrid "La galena y el mar" (one of many Sephardic wedding songs, a Salonika processional sung as the bride is led to her ritual bath, here with original lyrics over a Bulgarian melody), the early 20th-century Turkish curcuna (a 10/8 rhythm divided 3/2/2/3), or the Sofia lullaby "Durme," come more familiar Sephardic songs such as "El Rey Nimrod" and "Los guisados de la berenjena" (seven ways to prepare eggplant), albeit with a decidedly eastern modal makam feel. This is the spirit of "Aman, Aman," a phrase-common to many eastern Mediterranean languages-that expresses surprise, longing, or lovesickness. Notes are in Ladino, Spanish, German, and English, with lyrics in Ladino.

The Al Andaluz Project unites L'Ham de Foc with Estampie, the Munich group led by Michael Popp, better known for its dedication to medieval music. Beginning with informal collaboration based on mutual interest in older repertoires, the ensembles first shared the stage at the July 2006 Landshut Hofmusiktage festival, a performance recorded and broadcast live by Bavarian state radio. As heard on Deus et Diabolus, they followed with a November 2006 studio session at the Dominican monastery of La Cartuja de Cazalla, near Sevilla. In the spirit of Moorish Iberia, three superb female singers interpret medieval Sephardic, Arabic, and Christian traditions: Sigrid Hausen (who also plays flute), L'Ham de Foc's Mara Aranda, and Iman al Kandoussi, singing variously in Ladino, Spanish, and Arabic. Estampie's Popp (ud, saz, violin, production), Ernst Schwindl (hurdy gurdy, nyckelharpa), and Sascha Gotowtshikow (percussion) join L'Ham's Efrén López (ud, saz, rabab, hurdy gurdy, production), Aziz Samsaoui (quanun), and Diego López (percussion). Contrast the lively drone and glorious vocal harmonies of the Christian song "A virgen mui groriosa" (one of three songs dedicated to Santa María) with the driving call-and-response of Arabic-Andalusian songs like "Nassam alaina lhawa" for a sense of this recording's enchanting range. Notes are in Spanish, German, and English. - Michael Stone

Artists' web site: www.lhamdefoc.com

CDs available at cdRoots.com