US: 7 Jan 2009
Online Release Date: 7 Jan 2009
Strange Cousin seems to be one of those serendipitous projects, the outcome of chance encounters. One person with a banjo meets another person with a dutar, then a third person who plays the clarinet drops by, and a fourth person who went on holiday to Bali once and liked the music there appears, murmuring, “Hey, flutes,” until finally one of them says: “You know what? We should just put all of these things together and see how they sound.”
So they do, and they record it, and the result is an album like this. Voilà. And for the want of any other name they call themselves TriBeCastan because they met in TriBeCa, in New York. One of them adopts a joky and self-congratulatory persona and writes an introduction which appears on the inside of the CD case, telling the reader that
The cornucopia of world mosh you now hold in your hands is a style of sonic goulash that we Tribecastanians have come to know as “folklordelicjazzgrass.”
The gist of this introduction is that people from many different places live in TriBeCa, and that TriBeCastan, the group, has decided to fit a lot of them together. Behold, a Slovakian shepherd flute, a bowed Turkish lute, the Swedish nyckelharpa fiddle, a gaida bagpipe from the Balkans, a “Pakistani taxi horn,” bells and shells, a tupan, a kanun, a rebab, and so on. Multitudes. “With all the new-fangled electronic devices clogging up our brains, ears and hands these days, I only hope we haven’t become too psychically weak to recognize the real thing when we hear it,” the writer finishes. “May all the gods smile upon you at once without your skull exploding.”
The danger of an international “sonic goulash” like this is that it will sound as if the musicians have flung everything together with fingers crossed, hoping that variety alone will somehow give the album coherence. Alternately: that they will simplify the different cultures down into a bland stew. TriBeCastan avoids both of these traps. Led by multi-instrumentalists John Kruth and Jeff Greene, the group blends the different musics together with a light touch, picking out one or two motifs at a time, letting them mingle and dominate, then embellishing the result with other ideas. They pit a stern drone against bouyant strings then send in a fiddle (“The Bottle Man”) or combine male and female voices together in a way that suggests Central Asia without actually going there (“Many Mansions”).
By arranging the tracks so that the playlist shifts through loose regional themes they have given the album a shape. Strange Cousin starts with a drawn-out North African croon, introducing the listener to the idea of patience and length, then it melts into something more sharply Eastern European, Celtic, Scandinavian, and reaches a finale seeming Indian, Pakistani, Asian. This ending returns the album to the idea of length it had at the start, but length now has a different character, closer to a drift than a chant.
Kruth appears on banjo to remind us of TriBeCastan’s actual location. The skill with which he makes Americana sit naturally inside music from separate parts of the globe is one of the highlights of the album. North Africa, a popular area for artists to visit during the 1960s and ‘70s, has been worked over by other Western musicians before this, so it was perhaps a bad place to start, leaving me wondering for the first few minutes how derivative Strange Cousin was going to turn out to be. For all the talk about sonic goulash it would have been gratifying if the mixture had been more unusual, if the areas explored had seemed less familiar, not territory already covered by psych groups and New York new-klezmer bands, but somewhere completely different. Still, you use what you’ve got, and when TriBeCastan is firing on all cylinders it does what it set out to do: make a “cross-cultural crossroads” sound natural, flexible, and easy, a music like any other folk music.