Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mr. Cronshaw's World

My friend and co-fanatic in music, Andrew Cronshaw, has been writing for many years about the world's musical gems, and at long last, he has taken all of the reviews he has done in fRoots Magazine and put them online in an archive. It's all neatly arranged and cleanly presented, in typical Cronshaw style. 1500 recordings, primarily from northern, central and eastern Europe and Iberia, with interesting forays into the rest of the world. He can be loving or searing as needed, and I hope you will take some time to just wanted aimlessly through this treasure chest in the months to come.

Check them all out here

Here is a sampling of the reviews you will find there:

Since Andrew and I first met in Finland in 1994, I thought that was an appropriate time and place to begin:

Entiset Etniset - Historical direct disc recordings of Finnish folk music 1935-1954
Kansanmusiikki-instituutti KICD 29 (1993)

Traditional Finnish kantele music
Kansanmusiikki-instituutti KICD 1 (1993)

AARNION SISARUKSET (The Aarnio family band)
Hameen Polkka; Finnish folk music from the 1930s
Kansanmusiikki-instituutti KICD 28 (1993)

Röntyskä Songs
Mipu Music MIPUCD 203 (1993)

From 1935 until 1954 performances for A.O.Väisänen's Finnish radio programme Puoli tuntia kansanmusiikkia ("Half an Hour of Folk Music") were pre-recorded on 8-minute acetates. Most of these were scrapped after use, but a random selection were preserved, and selected items have now been No-Noise reprocessed and released on CD as Entiset Etniset. The result is a collection of music, much of it unheard since the 30s, produced by rural traditions around Finland before the Winter War changed everything - kantele masters such as the Karelians Vanja Tallas and Antero Vornanen, Ingrian-born wind-instrumentalist Teppo Repo, singers in the old styles, a scattering of ocarina, clarinet, harmonium and melodeon, and of course fiddlers.

Eino Tulikari appears too, but there are more recent recordings of him, in fact a whole LP, made in 1975 in the front room of the Folk Music Institute's beautiful wooden Pelimannitalo at Kaustinen, when this leading exponent of the still-flourishing Perho River Valley style of kantele playing was 70. (This CD reissue of that album adds four tracks from a recording made for radio twenty years earlier.) He played the large "board kantele"; in his Ostrobothnian regional style it's played with the shortest string toward the player and without damping. On record, the sound is attractively music-box-like, but the intricate and ingenious techniques Tulikari used in these tunes, largely polkkas, marches and waltzes, are a continuing strong influence on today's players, and to see someone today using what he had a major hand in developing makes clear how important he was. Kantele is music for the eyes as well as the ears.

Incidentally, I'm not a harp player but it occurs to me that some kantele techniques, particularly the ways of slipping across strings for fluid fast playing and grace-note turns, might be worth the attention of those who are.

The Aarnio Family Band album is also compiled from acetates from Väisänen's radio programme. Until this century instrumental folk music was played solo; folk bands didn't really exist until after the 1940s, though there were popular music dance bands and a considerable brass band tradition. Nevertheless, in a home with a number of instrumentalists it was natural that they'd play together. The Aarnio family, from Humppila, SW Finland, started performing in ceremonial wedding plays, with an unusual line-up featuring Väinö Aarnio on clarinet, fiddle and occasional ocarina and his sisters Lempi on fiddle and Hilja on a 24-string kantele (played in the hand-damping, strummed chordal style very unlike Tulikari's, but still with shortest string nearest the player). A third sister, Rauha, played fiddle in the band too but not on these recordings, made in 1936 and 1941. The material here is virtually all polkkas and waltzes, with three mazurkas and a polska, with some influence evident from brass band music, perhaps partly because of Väinö's earlier experience playing cornet. His fiddle solos in particular show him to have been a very able and lively musician.

The recordings of the Röntyskä group of women singers from Rappula in Ingria (the Finno-Ugrian territory in the part of Russia between Finland and Estonia at the head of the Gulf of Finland) aren't from the archives but were made in 1993 of a group formed by Hilma Biss in 1977 on her return from deportation to Siberia and a stay in Karelia to sing the old songs from her home region - ring dances and game songs. The Röntyskä song, a quick 2/4 or 4/4 ring dance after which the group is named, is of antiphonal form; the leader sings a couple of lines of usually light-hearted lyrics reflecting village life and the group repeats them, in unison, sometimes adding a refrain. The singing is straightforward, without grace-noting or harmony, and the main interest of this album, while it has unpretentious charm, probably lies for most listeners largely in the material. The Ingrian tradition is continuous with that of Finland, but until recent developments communication and movement across the border were difficult. Now this group's songs, some of which arrived in Ingria from Finland in the first place, are finding their way back into the repertoire of Finnish musicians.


Another thing Andrew and I share is a passion for this unique American artist of Latvian descent:

Red Hand
Willow Music IK001 (1997)

I guess at first listen some Folk Roots readers might regard this album as pretty far from folk music. Ingrid Karklins is, though, a classic example of post-traditionalism, in which each musician has in effect a personal tradition built from all their influences. We just don’t live in villages, largely unaware of any ways of making music other than those in our immediate geographical vicinity, any more. Some of us give in more or less to the pressure of one or other global mainstream; Ingrid Karklins doesn’t.

Her name first appeared in Folk Roots when cassette releases were still reviewed, then again with her first two CDs (on Green Linnet), and in an interview piece. Having parted company with the label, she resolved to make the whole project of her next recording as deeply personal as her songs, and indeed it is, dramatically so. Red Hand comes in a package hand-made by her, using fine papers and red braids, bearing a red imprint of her right hand. The natural impulse of the recipient is the childlike and fundamental one of matching hands, and unwrapping like a present the entirely red, unmarked CD.

The main features of the sound are her voice, which as others have said has some similarity to Laurie Anderson’s, and her piano (and occasional Latvian kokle and fiddle) with Steve Bernal’s bass, Craig No.7’s guitars and the remarkable, innovative and powerful percussion of Thor, who was a shaping factor in her compelling first CD, A Darker Passion, and has returned for this one.

Karklins makes absolutely no claim to performing Latvian traditional music, but her songs, minimal in lyrics, showing her compelling tension between self-exposure and extreme privacy, combine what is deeply personal to her with the oblique symbolism of the Latvian dainas (folksong verses tunnelling through the Latvian experience of many centuries) which are a strong influence. She draws on Malayan pantun, Scottish song, Alexander Pope, Nick Drake, a Dobu Island charm and Randy Newman, but there’s no complete exposition of any of them - they’re threads in the weave.

Remarkable and bold, and, like much great art, on the jagged edge between the mainstream and non-existence. Strangely liberating and encouraging.


And finally, a bit of the acid that is an essential element of the Cronshaw DNA:

Oreka Tx
Quercus Endorphina
Elkarlanean KD-579 (2001)

Txalaparta. Two rough, thick planks of wood, resting on soft furs, leaves or cloth draped over upturned baskets or trestles. Two players strike them with thick wooden batons, one held vertically in each hand. A strange, old, minimalist music that explores the slight tonal and timbral variations to be drawn out of each plank by hitting it at the ends, in the middle, on the edge. A subtle musical conversation between two people, each appreciating and responding to the pitches and patterns made by the other.

Along come social and occupation changes, in Euskadi as elsewhere, and the txalaparta tradition gets close to dying out. But some young players, among them Igor Otxoa and Harkaitz Martínez who are Oreka TX, take it up, becoming skilful. They naturally experiment, not only with playing techniques but the instrument’s possibilities.

Why not add a whole lot more planks? Tune them to a scale. And of course if you’re going to want to play with other instruments, it’ll probably need to be that universalised sterilised equal temperament scale, not the old way of notes that sound right to the individual player. And look what you’ve got now! Hey, a rather big and dead-sounding xylophone!

And so, having created a “revamped, stronger and more attractive variant”, to quote the press release, you’re in a position to make it “a feature of cultural distinction, with a touch of ethnic flavour”. But surely the concept of extracting minute subtleties of tone, microtone and rhythm from a pair of heavy rough-hewn planks is more culturally distinctive than a big xylophone playing accordion tunes?

Oh sure, traditions must evolve or they die, and noticeable evolutionary clicks of the cog are usually criticised as crass and destructive, but no amount of criticism ever stopped the process and they often give rise to a new flowering; indeed Oreka TX and this album are a significant part of a considerable upsurge in txalaparta playing. It’s a well-made, stylishly presented record, destined to widen international knowledge and esteem of the instrument, with very skilful txalaparta players (who also make some use of tobera, the iron txalaparta, and the stone, lithophone version), neat trikitixa style tunes, and excellent Euskal and international guests (producer Kepa Junkera, Mikel Laboa, Glen Velez, Phil Cunningham, Justin Vali, Ibon Koteron’s alboka, Michel Bordeleau’s feet).

But something’s missing...
And then, in the 2 minutes 59 seconds of track 8, Oreka (“balance, equilibrium”), suddenly there it is. And on the last track, not just in the woody staccato from a 1990 recording of a pair who carried txalaparta through the thin times, Pello Zuaznabar and Ramon Goikoetxea, but also in the overlapping speaking voices, there it is again. Not neat tunes scored and transferred, not one-note-per-plank, but that sensitivity to mere hints of pitch variation, that delight and intensity of concentration of two people improvising in rhythmic co-operation. Txalaparta.

All these reviews appeared in fRoots over the years

All are ©Andrew Cronshaw

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