Album Review – Talabarte – A Galician trio travels East. Well, as the westernmost point in Europe they can’t go further that way…

IMG_2247For me, there’s a stand-out track on this recording.  When I heard it there was just something about it that grabbed me, and made me want to grab my fiddle to play along. But I’d rarely recommend just downloading one good track from an album. On Talabarte’s delightful CD – just titled Talabarte – there are a lot of lovely tracks, and you know that feeling when you put on an album, let it play and get surprised at what comes next… The music is often so much better in context.

The context here is that Galician trio Talabarte remind us that Galicia is part of Celtic music culture. I’m not big on Irish folk music, but the Galician sound is different. And this band has such a fresh lightness about them, it’s impossible not to feel the joy. Even my eight-month old boy is sitting there as I write, listening and doing his newly-learned clapping along thing.

Who are Talabarte? I’ve no idea, except that they’re from Galicia in Northern Spain, consist of 3 musicians variously on double bass (Kin Garcia), violins including viola and nickleharp (Quim Farinha), and accordions (Pedro Pasqual), and they make rather wonderful music. The CD short notes consist in explanations in Galician, Portuguese and Spanish (in that order)… of the meaning of Talabarte! It means something like lanyard or belt, I guess a special one that you wear in the Iberian peninsula. So I’ve learnt something. They mix it up with some light jazz approaches and a good dose of Balkan melodies and minor keys to compliment the largely upbeat Galician sounds.

Initially I wasn’t so keen on the opener Tres Golpes, a traditional Galitian tune. It’s laid back and broad. But having listened to this CD lots now – for pleasure, not just to review it, I find it a perfect way to easy into the interesting musical territory that Talabarte present.

Track 2 Pasacorredoiras Gorentoso starts with such a joyful bounce that would fill the dancefloor at a ceilidh in an instant. Composed by violinist Quim Farinha, it has a more fresh modern feel than the ancient tunes. The impeccably-recorded and light-fingered accordion takes a solo in the minor hinting of more Balkan to come. The melodic unison between keys and strings is tight and exciting.

Track 3 Visteme amodo que teno presa starts as a traditional Galician slow tea-waltz. Talabarte have a great recorded sound, everything is perfectly blended, and in particular the tonal quality between violin and accordion is a pleasure. It’s quite surprising what a full sound they make with their three musicians. I wonder if there is any overdubbing. The track segues into a faster  piece from Segovia in Castille. Unison accodion and violin dance elegantly.

Sara is slower traditional Galician tune with some jazzy blues notes and scrunched up harmonies. It’s played with simplicity and no fuss, even in the solos. Some arrangements remind me of acccordion-tastic Motion Trio.

Santaigreb is a curious name that makes sense as the piece progresses. It’s trad. Galician with an angular melody. The tune starts in Santiago and then travels in the minor to Zagreb with a classic Balkan rhythm in the bass. The bass playing is fine and I’d like it to be very slightly more prominent in the sound mix. It ends in a Sepahrdic sounding slow-fast outro.

Track 6 Arbore-Struga starts with brooding hurdy gurdy sound – but that must be nickleharp – keyed bowed notes and a drone. Suddenly the melody appears, and – this is the track I love, there is just something about it – I get the shivers and arm hairs stand on end. I don’t know why because it’s such a simple melody, slow and stately. Maybe it is the perfect balance controlled emotion. It’s a gypsy (Romanes) song. That must be it! This slow, loaded tune moves into a faster Macedonian song. You can hear it played live here on a windy stage in the sunset….

Track 7 Vl’a l’printemps joyfully and has a lightly celtic bounce. But it’s not traditional tune, it’s by Belgian accordionist Bruno LeTron, who is worth finding out more about.

Track 8 is three trad Galicians numbers rolled into one with jaunty meloldies followed by jazzy diversions.

Abaniqueme by band accordionist Pedro Pascual starts with a broad groove before launching into Reich/Glass-esque repeated minimalist patterns that have found a maybe not-so-surprising resonance in folk music, heard with stuning effect in British band Spiro. Talabarte differ from Spiro in their bluesy improvised sections between driving rhythmic passages.

Track 10 Fendendo Achasis a band original. In two parts, slow-fast, here’s the second part used as a great track to accompany some tree-felling.

O Garotinho de Nebra is a funerial slow traditional Galician tune. I hope it’s not about something as gruesome as ‘a little garotte’! It segues into a faster bounce, so maybe the convicted guy escaped in the end..

La Route Des Avaloirs is another Bruno LeTron piece, who is a master apparently of dance tunes.

The closing Arrandiano begins in the low registers of accordion and bass – the now familiar slow introduction followed by a faster dance tune. A composition by Farinha with interesting twists and turns, it demonstrates well the creative dynamic between traditional song and new compositions. Talarbarte clearly demonstrate Galician tradition as very much a living, open and developing tradition.

This album was recorded between 2008 – 2011 – a reminder how long it can take to make good music. No matter, I hope this 2015 review will indroduce someone to some mighty fine tunes.

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Album Review – Sokratis Malamas – To Adeio Domatio – Afigisi II

IMG_2152OK so I can work out that it’s by Sokratis Malamas but the rest is in Greek script, all of it (except the words ‘analog synth’ in the musicians’ credits – more of which later) so it’s… all Greek to me. The album cover’s got folk instruments, lauto, guitar, accordion, double bass, jazz drum set up. So I think Eastern Mediterranean jazz; on the back is the singer, not young. I google and find Malamas, born 1957, obviously a reasonably big name in Greece, but this 2014 release is more difficult to track down. It’s not yet on his Wikipedia. Eventually, I find it’s called To Adeio Domatio – Afigisi II. Not that that helps much.

Track 1 opens with gruff, growly vocals over guitar. It’s growlier than Bob Dylan with a sore throat. If a voice is whiskey-soaked, Malamas probably needs a liver transplant. It’s a good start. Pleasant major-minor key shifts place it in the Eastern Med.

Track 2 brings in exploratory accordion with high-pitched octaves over a steel-string groove. It has a Celtic-Galician feel. There are hints that this is not a folky production.

Track 3 is more mellow. The vocals are framed by oriental lauto melodies with moments of Spanish flair backed by sumptous strings.  Whilst Malamas (and much Greek music) is about lyrics, I feel the music and sentiment is interesting, well-produced, and I enjoy it without understanding the words. Malamas has a kind of flat vocal delivery. It means the emotion is in the music.

Track 4 starts to take this album in different, surprising directions. Suddenly there are psychedelic electronic swirls of sound between the vocals – presumably from that analog synth. When Kristi Stassinoploulou and Stathis Kalviotis released their album Greekadelia internationally it felt like they were pioneering in bringing contemporary production to Greek folk music, but of course it was just that they were distributed internationally, so we got to hear about it, and there must be many local productions doing interesting similar stuff. Malamas is more rocky than Stassinoploulou and Kalviotis, with drums driving the rhythm, but you also feel he’s produced an experimental, unusual album.

If you’d been wondering whether this voice can get any gruffer, track 5 show that Malamas could hold his own against any Mongolian throat singer. Again there are plenty of rocky-psychy electro effects between understated vocals. But they don’t dominate – you can hear buzzing strings of the acoustic bass matching the grittiness of the voice. I like it.

In Track 6 the lauto has the main riff. Its double strings have a natural chorus effect, the original way to provide depth and enigma before Moog.

Track 7 sets up a folk-rock groove. The twangy lauto leads into words spoken with heavy echo, as if Malamas was on a soapbox with a megaphone, and quickly into a feelgood rock chorus. The dirty chaos keeps growing in the background. I turn it up. It feels a bit angry, elemental, anthemic, and gets me smiling. I’d play this in a club. It’s called Thiasos and I’ve found it here a 2009 upload, so the material on this CD is older than I thought.

After this album centrepiece track 8 has to be more toned-down. Steel string guitar starts slower. But when the vocals come in they are matched immediately by an electronic growl in the background. This analog synth is obviously a more important feature of this production than it would seem from the album cover. Lauto gives a strong, un-ornamented, straight hard melody in keeping with something very direct about the whole production. It heads breifly into space before finishing abruptly.

Track 9 is back to ballad with a simple matching of acoustic bass and guitar. The big chorus, nicely, doesn’t materialise. The song hangs in the air. Sagapo.

10 has an ambiguos harmonic sequence. By now I’ve got used to those nonchalent vocals tickling my belly with their low frequencies. The closely-miked drums are tasteful here.

In 11 the vocals have an Italian melodic feel. It’s less oriental, and I’ve not tired of the analog whooshes yet. Over the fast repetitive rhythm there’s an expansive violin. It’s the soundtrack to a motor-bike road movie through the spectacular Greek mountain landscape of Meteora. I’d like to hear this live, when no doubt the band could spin it out more.

The last track returns to just guitar and voice with every detail of both clear and crisp, and if I hear the words correctly, possibly something about a balcony in the night.

Verdict: A bit of underground, a bit of overground from a seasoned pro. If you get tired of the well-mannered, super-reasonable voice of Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis on your TV over the next months, try this for a bit of Greek grit.

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Album Review: Mixtolobo – Frontera – Spain’s maverick wolves.


I don’t often say ‘I’ve not heard anything like this before’. But when I put on Mixtolobo’s Frontera with a dodgy, cigarette-smoking, beat-up wolf on the cover, but little else to give away what’s coming, I start thinking ‘hmm, I haven’t heard anything like this before’. It’s flamenco, but with some dirty electric guitar funky blues alongside the crisp sounds of the classic Spainsh instrument. Is Mixtolobo a guitar band (basically 2 guitars, bass and drums, with some guests on other stuff) paying flamenco, or is it a flamenco band dressed in indie clothing? And which do I want it to be?

As track 2 Al compas de la valvula rota starts I reach for the volume – to turn it up loud. It’s Led Zep with an enigmatic electric guitar opener. Then flamenco vocals come in. I find it cooler than the flamenco remix sound of Ojos de Brujo. You sense a gritty band. Blues harmonica. Riffs. Laughs out. They’re having fun. Here it is..

Track 3 Dieguito is instrumental. More flamenco-led, with claps, but that electric wolf always skulking around in the background. Track 4 features guest flute and feels a bit more breezy Brazil, than downtown Seville. It fades out. The band’s sounding less daring.
I’m more into track 5, Malika. Mixtolobo are best when the play on this electric-acoustic rivalry-brotherhood thing. A vocal chorus rounds off the number but is soon subverted by electric guitar intertwining its whining.
Track 6 El Guaro is all Santana-esque heavily echoed guitar line and groove. It’s cool enough but although this is a mellow number I want it to be a touch more dirty.
Track 7 Perla Negra features 2 acoustic guitars complete with olés and holas. It reminds me of guitar-whizz-legend Antonio Forcione.

But low-strummed electrics and grungy kick drum on A Buscarme Vienen make me think the band may have a Jekyll and Hyde split personality thing going on.  The flamenco vocal comes in again. For me this is the interesting sound of this band. Sax, bass and drums jam on a groove for a short time, but it is the lead guitar played by Jorge Gomez that makes this band and the tracks where he’s credited with composition stand out for me.
Steve – that’s Track 9 – is a exploratory dialogue just between the two guitars with not much else. That makes sense at this point in the album. It feels improvised but composition is credited by two people not in the band, so there’s a little mystery too, but it doesn’t make me wonder who Steve is. Not like the way I still wonder who John McLoughlin’s David is.
Track 10 sounds like it might be a live recording. And I guess this band would be great live. The track give a sense of this. It takes a little time, as flamenco does, to build up and the climax is all to brief. But then clixames are brief.

Finally I’m worried about the remix finale Puga e Ivan. Mixtolobo seems to be a ‘real band’. Why spoil the album with a remix? But Lance Quinn has taken enough of what I like about their sound to make this a great end underpinned by some low-end frequencies. And maybe the band could even take something from this remix to translate into their live show.

I go back to tracks 1 and 2 to double-check. All in all I think Mixtolobo could dispense with saxes and flutes and play more to the strenths of their core, and unusual, gritty sound, that would not be out of place at most rock festivals.

Worth checking out more by these guys? Sure!
Go and see them live? Definitivamente! And you can watch the first track Tomi Mio live version here..


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Album Review: Sally Nyolo – Tiger Run – This tiger’s trying new tricks.


Sally Nyolo is a Cameroonian singer who used to sing with Zap Mama and has released several solo albums. I had heard her name but not her music so I put on this disk with curiosity, also because it has a good strong cover image, released on Riverboat/World Music Network.

On first spin I’m not sure where to place it. It’s got diverse styles, and languages. It’s got rhythm, but the overall impression is that it’s quite smooth for African music, tempered by jazz and soul ballads. Nyolo’s vocals are, as maybe to be expected, at the core, with – for me – that slightly off-key African pitching; and they are mixed strangely far back in the song ‘Welcome’, an unusual arrangement that makes me think of the close harmony vocal swing of Triplets De Belleville.  It stands out on the album as different, and good for that. It also features some voice-overs as off the radio, referencing China’s involvement in Africa, I think. The album has some nice bass grooves but I want them turned up in the mix to drive the music more.

On the whole I prefer the songs in African languages. There are a couple in English but the lyrics don’t do it for me; sometimes English sung in an accent works, and sometimes it doesn’t. The very mellow title track, Tiger Run, has words that have been sung a thousand times. “Like a bird in the sky I’m flying, flying on my own way, to share more, to see.” I read Jonathan Livingstone Seagull many many years ago, in one reading standing in the bookshop. Track 9 is similar: ‘Kilimanjaro, it’s the place to go… I went up there. Then I saw the African roots.’ I want more poetry. Less message and cliché.

I worry that maybe the songs in other languages are the same, but I just don’t understand them. The finely-titled ‘Eeeh’ is one of the more characteristicly West African, high guitars dancing around the vocals. Let’s just go with the music, it’s good.

The French song Le Faiseur De Pluie Par Tour Les Temps (I speak French but I don’t understand this long title!) starts off melodically, almost as an African version of The Carpenters’ Top Of The World. And then some really curious operatic vocals come in in the background.  It feels overall like Nyolo is experimenting a bit on the album. As with all experiments, they don’t always bring the results you expect, but are probably worth doing.

It sounds like I don’t like the album. That’s not true; there’s nothing not to like. But I’m not sure I like it as much as I’m supposed to. I also think the simplicity of the songs will probably catch me if I listen several times more: it is catchy. Without meaning it in a disparaging way, it’s a great African album you might put on when friends are round and you don’t necessarily want to transport them to sweatiness Fela Kuti’s Shrine club.

Tigers in Africa? The last track Tiga is pronounced Tigger. I’m really wishing Nyolo was thinking Winnie The Pooh when she chose this song title, but now I’m looking for playful irony as well as everything else, and that might just be too much to ask.

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Album Review: Cheikh Ndao & Band Manco – Swing Dakar – A mixed bag.


The album starts with a fabulous bass groove. Then I open the CD sleeve notes and it mentions Cheikh Ndao’s “mastery of bass grooves”. So I’ve got that right at least. But the vocals on the first song are off-putting, not quite in tune enough for me, so I skip to track 2. It’s so different: like a Senegalese Barry White, a big demonstrative voice.  I’m not into Barry White, but this is much better; the smooth sound suits Ndao well, and the bass still grooves, and continues to do so through the rest of the album. The album title Swing Dakar begins to make sense. It’s not swing as 1930s, but it’s got a jazz basis with that ever-fascinating bass groove leading the way. This is not so common in West African music, though Cameroonian Richard Bona is a master. Track 4 Almoudo has that that classic West African lilt and reminds me of an Ivoirian singer Amos Kosso I used to work with. I wonder what happened to him. But the tune is too simple. Simplicity with complexity is what makes a lot of this music work. The next track Ngelaw is slower with a mellow Fender Rhodes backing and back to the jazz voice of Ndao, and bass/Rhodes solos. I like this a lot. I’d like a whole album of this. It fades out suddenly. I can’t get past the vocals on the next two tracks and skip them. Thiofelle starts again with that mellow Fender, promising. Vocals this time are half spoken. That works better and is real curious. When the song comes in later, it’s slow and easier to digest. Mbay is better, marrying Swing and Senegal well. I know a few people who could spin this in a African music DJ set. I’ll give them this CD as I think on balance I won’t listen again.

Mr Cheikh Ndao has something worth doing musically, but he should maybe take on board criticism of the singing and get a better singer so he can be free to give us those lush bass grooves. As the short album notes say. “Listen and follow Manco, it’s fun”. What I liked of Ndao and Manco was fun, and kinda cool. What I didn’t like, I really didn’t like.

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Album Review: Jacob Bain’s Publish The Quest – A Thousand Kinds Of Gold.

I like this album.

Singer Jacob Bain gave it to me, a white guy from Seattle apprently into African music and connected to some great African artists. But the first impression is the indie band artwork and name. I was kind of curious. Would it work? I put it on and it immediately said something to me and I felt it was going to work. It might be just that. I could understand the words.  A lot of music from Africa is of course in different languages so we don’t understand; it’s kinda nice having an African vibe with lyrics and content that you can get your teeth into. There seems to be a thing going on with white musicians taking on African forms very creatively and authentically at the moment.

Also the drive to be ever more radical and cutting edge on the current out-of-Africa scene tends to music that’s either more rootsy or more grimey, more urban, faster and furiouser. But here’s an album that’s accessible, has got tunes. It’s hiphop-ish with a slower, more careful delivery and less hard-edged. Oh, except the lyrics seem to be harder-hitting as a result of their careful, cliche-avoiding poetry. It’s listenable. It’s got refrains. Dare I say, the chorus effect vocals on the vocals keeps reminding me, somehow, I really don’t know why, of Toto’s Africa. That’s mean to be a positive comment.

Horns and that classic Congolese guitar sound set out from the start the whole album’s clear debt to African music. But Wake Me Up is not trying to be Afrobeat. It doesn’t try to copy. In general, though upbeat the album asks to be listened rather than danced to.

Track two Trickery Ran Like Water has something like Balkan Beat Box in its delivery and political intent. Talking drums and slightly dirty guitar riffs by non other than Malian Vieux Farka Toure add flavour. Like Balkan Beat Box Jacob Bain has borrowed from the musics of the world to deliver socially conscious messages.

The next track Never Again goes all Spanish/Mediterranean with a nice crisp bass underpinning it all. Finally, I remember what it reminds me of. Macedonian band Foltin’s Lo-Tee-Ta-Too. No one would know this apart from me. Then when the vocals of Zimbawean guest Edith WeUtonga come in it’s all kind of Seven Days with Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry.

The Rent Is Late is a lightly rapped angry comment on the pressure of poverty. The fingered guitar ostinato through the track and then the Afrobeat horns make you think he might be singing about an African problem, but then you think it might be about Seattle. Some nice rhymes stand out: daughter.. everythng’s on her. Lyrics worthy of Bruce Cockburn hit home: Fast forward to some sexual harrassment. Good song.

Our Time is Short comes in mellow and relaxed. It feels more mainstream than the rest. Our time is short. It’s too short to hate. Horns again. Then the whispy vocals of German-Nigerian Nneka. Too short to hate. What a great message.

Groove, horns, then talking drums kick in on track 6 A Language Of Its Own, topped by a soukous guitar, ‘to question oppression’.

The title track A Thousand Kinds Of Gold, oh hang on, starts with a kind of slow Cuban electro-son or tango. Again the lyrics are the main point here, faster than other tracks. I’m going to need to get hold of them or listen slowly. It reminds me of… oh I don’t know what. I like this track a LOT. What’s it about?

Monsoon Rains is another slower beat. There’s Toto again in the chorus-effect vocals, and the anthemic rain message. With some guitar licks and some neat stops. Nice.

Shine heads to East Africa with Oliver Mtukudzi and, yet another surprise, a smooth string orchestra to open. The strings make me think of Tanzanian Tarab orchestra having a go at easy listening to introduce the gruff vocals of ‘Tuku’ singing against Bain’s refrain – ‘today’s the day we’re gonna shine‘.

The last track The Biddy Bong Song (come on, it’s a great title) is wordless steady Cumbia-esque rhythm under a slow horn section morphing into some grooves that just groove, on and on, and on. That’s where I’d loop it and let it go on just a bit more, and sample some kind of solo or vocal from another CD, before fading out.

You got it, I love this album.

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Album Review: Serazzi & La Cucina – A La Carte (Italy) – “Paolo Conte meets Pink Martini”


It’s fun. It’s classy. It’s got the gravelly voice. It’s got the Italian style. It’s got lyrics inspired by Nobel-Prize-winning writer Italo Calvino. It takes itself, appropriately for a band called ‘The Kitchen’, with a fairly large pinch of salt.

For its ingredients Serazzi & La Cucina’s A La Carte draws from a whole range of genres from Balkan to tango and funk; variety is the key. You can imagne the band looking in the fridge and throwing together an improvised stir-fry or going all out with unorthodox pizza toppings. In fact you don’t need to imagine that scene. It’s all on Youtube in the video of the first track…

The catchy Come Una Rumba, is, well, like a rumba. A catchy rumba.
Con un Salto, means With a Jump, not with salt.
The third track initially comes across as the cheese plate. On first listen it’s like a full-fat soft cheese that has been left rather long. But on second listens it melts in the mouth, to be enjoyed, slightly guiltily.
Balkan comes replete with lalalas to lalala along to. At last one where Italian isn’t a must! The lyrics on the album generally  seem to be worth learning Italian for, or at least using Google Translate. Wish I could understand more.
Finalement is a pure tango tea dance. But about civil society? strawberries? Not sure.
Paolo Serazzi’s aforementioned gravelly voice comes to the fore in Mondo Mejor, A Better World. OK, I got that. It’s Italian-ballad-tastic with plenty of space between the few words, a la Conte.
Se Ritorno Qui starts with some beat box turning into a funky little number with acid jazz pretensions, though the solos for me are a bit too straight-up jazz.
Latin returns to the table with a slower Cuban son rhythm and brightly harmonious chorus, followed by circus-polka-Can Can vibes in Laundrette Soap.
Il Portiere Fosco is another tango ballad. Lots of lyrics. Definitely need to learn Italian. But I prefer the continuity of one language rather than the multilingual antics of world-beating Pink Martini, a band with a similar musical approach. Oh, it’s about a goalkeeper (portiere). Of course; it’s an Italian album.
Nove Ore Nine Hours has the line dormo com un bimbo, sleep like a baby. Wish my 4-month-old would sleep 9 hours. It grooves darkly and doowhops almost Manhatten Transfer style.

To sum up? Paolo Conte meets Pink Martini? Can’t be bad!

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