Best Music of 2002: Michael Stone

Michael Stone

Music for Rootless Cosmopolitans, 2002

Listener discretion? You decide. Ten sound-worthy 2002 releases in alphabetical order, plus a bonus, five choice compilations and reissues.

Banda Ionica, Matri Mia (Dunya/Felmay)
If Verdi, Puccini and Donizetti were to collaborate with Fellini, Tom Waits and Manu Chao, the vivid result would approximate Banda Ionica's inspired retrofitting of Sicilian street brass band music. Building on the strength of Passione, its 1999 cult success, Matri Mia unfurls a brassy, percussive paean to extraordinary women. In mid-2002, Matri Mia was on the European world-music top-ten radio charts, reflecting its iconographic obsession and Latin-tinged multilingual repertoire (sung in Italian, Spanish, French and German). Check out Spanish singer El Mono Loco's gravely, dissolute "Espinita," or Cristina Zavalloni's Brechtian, coquettish, operatic interpretation of the Sicilian "Votu e Mi Rivotu". Italian roots music at its most passionate and profound.

Rob Burger, Lost Photograph Tzadik (Radical Jewish Culture series)
There are recordings whose first phrase carries listeners into an unexpected parallel universe of the sonically sublime. So it is with Lost Photograph, a droll, fanciful menagerie of found and retro sounds whose fluid, playful, compelling soulfulness marks a most brilliantly and unassumingly executed conception. A Chaplinesque cornucopia spilling from Latvia to Andalusia, Constantinople into tango groove, Eastern European lounge to babes in musical toyland, with Ringling flair, Below Delancey attitude and an accordion marinated in Tex-Mex conjunto, Brazilian forró and essence of Pink Panther. Multi-instrumentalist (accordion, piano, prepared and toy pianos, claviola, celeste, Hammond S-6 organ, pump organ, glockenspiel, bass harmonica, Indian banjo, chamberlin, orchestron, marxophone, Casio, shortwave, music boxes) Rob Burger (Tin Hat Trio, Don Byron, Bill Frisell) heads a trio whose rhythm section comprises bassist Greg Cohen (Lou Reed, Tom Waits) and drummer Kenny Wollesen (Frisell, Norah Jones). Burger intersperses 11 originals with two traditional Jewish tunes and a deeply expressive reworking of Kurt Weill's "Youkali". Come out, wherever you are, and listen up: A madcap, soulful symphony for rootless cosmopolitans.

Stella Chiweshe, Talking Mbira: Spirits of Liberation (Piranha)
Zimbabwean singer, mbira (thumb piano) player and percussionist Stella Chiweshe is the descendant of a famous freedom fighter the British hanged for resisting colonial rule. A musical path-breaker, she is the first female mbira players of her native Shona tradition, and nationally, the first woman to lead her own band. Talking Mbira superbly illustrates the polyrhythmic, polyphonic character of sub-Saharan musics, whose call-and-response principle weaves individual pitches and rhythms into a complementary, interlocking performance, a textured, sonically complex whole. The music's cyclical, open-ended patterns, built by continuously repeating and improvising upon short suggestive melodies and rhythmic figures, comprise its dynamic foundations. Chiweshe also propagates the prevailing aesthetic quality of a dense, buzzing sound, achieved by attaching bottle caps or snail shells loosely to the mbira resonator, and through the use of gourd rattles. Both acoustic mbira, vocals and marimba settings and the amplified ensemble (adding magnificent vocal harmonies, electric guitar, bass guitar, percussion and drum kit) illustrate these principles diversely, in an exquisitely contemplative recording whose subtle nuances emerge more powerfully with each newly evocative hearing.

Yair Dalal, Asmar (Magda)
Immersed in the blended sounds of oriental Jewish and Arab music, an expression of his own Iraqi roots, classically trained Israeli composer, violinist and oud (lute) player Yair Dalal is a passionate advocate of cultural reconciliation between peoples of diverse ethnicity, language and religion. With a resume of musical collaborations that includes Zubin Mehta, the Israeli Chamber and Philharmonic Orchestras, Algeria's Maurice el Medioni and Egypt's Hamza El Din, Dalal trades in a multicultural music of profound artistry, hope and cultural respect. His work demonstrates that musicians from very different spiritual traditions can convene to make transcendent music dedicated to peace and cultural understanding. Asmar essays the traditional modal sounds of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys of Iraq, cradle of human civilization, home to the Jews during millennia of exile, a land now in the crosshairs of a regime with neither a sense of shame nor of history. Listen to this, then hit the streets to stop the madness.

E.S.T. Esbjörn Svensson Trio, Strange Place for Snow (ACT Music)
Swedish acoustic trio EST is out to forge a new sub-genre of jazz, folding in strains of classical, folk, rock, funk, gospel and an ineluctable Nordic sensibility in the process. Composer and pianist Esbjörn Svensson, fortified with an electronic black box, coaxes a density of percussive sound from the grand piano; similarly equipped, double bass player Dan Berglund works his instrument with the lyrical abandon of a bow-wielding Jimi Hendrix, while drummer Magnus Öström carves out a rhythmic trajectory that, if not precisely in the jazz vein, inhabits a resonant neighboring galaxy of rhythm. Winner of the 2002 German jazz critics award, Strange Place for Snow is an alluring collections of original tunes that swing, instruct and leave the listener with a lingering sense of an encounter with the unknown. Go one better, see them live, for a taste of European jazz to come.

Groupa, Fjalar (Laika / Music Network Records Group AB)
Formed in 1980, Swedish folk leaders Groupa boasts some of the most intense performers in the Nordic orbit: ethereal singer Sofia Karlsson, Mats Edén (accordion, melodeon, drone fiddle, viola, vocals), Jonas Simonsson (flutes, bass saxophone, vocals), Rickard Åström (piano, synthesizers, harmonium, Clavinet D6, vocals) and Norwegian Terje Isungset (percussion, Jew's harp, vocals). Firmly rooted in Swedish folk traditions, Groupa is a perennial presence on the European festival circuit for one simple reason: they rock the folk firmament. Their music has a desolate modal quality to match the shimmering northern lights of its origins, an electrifying, sometimes terrifying sound whose textured strings, airy woodwinds, driving percussion and longing, ghostly vocals beckon the listener with a stark, angular beauty born of Arctic latitudes. Fjalar, their seventh recording, has a haunted quality built on aesthetic vision with musical integrity. This is Bjorn to the third power. Clap on the headphones and open your ears: Groupa will bear you into sonic territory you never dreamed existed.

Klezmatics, Rise Up! (Rounder)
Rise Up! confirms the Klezmatics' status as one of the most innovative, challenging and unclassifiable voices in klezmer and avant-garde Jewish music today. Rise Up! renounces all manner of high unholy madness: messianic politics, the self-righteous fire-and-brimstone moralizing of fascist faith, a demagogic language of enemies and evildoers, covert secular crusades, clandestine detention and inquisition sans habeas corpus, deception and hypocrisy, the dismissive pre-meditated assurance of cultural warriors and sanitized mass murder, all on a mission from god. The Klezmatics' deep gospel rendition of the title track, penned by Holly Near, has a prophetic quality that refuses fundamentalism of every stripe. It seems doubtful that a band of this spirit, complexity and integrity will perform next year in Jerusalem. But as debates over the past are always arguments about political struggle in the here-and-now, one can only hope that Rounder will see fit to release this dissident lyrical masterpiece.

Frank London's Klezmer Brass Allstars, Brotherhood of Brass (Piranha)
Given the fractious state of global ethnic politics, finding Serbia's Boban Markovic Orkestar, Cairo's Hasaballa Brass Band and Frank London's New York-based Klezmer Brass Allstars collaborating on the same title may seem an unlikely occurrence. But in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Levant and North Africa, the world's great transnational peoples -- Roma (Gypsies), Muslims and Jews -- have long sustained a musical fraternity. The consequent transnational sonic stew is a extraordinarily articulate polyglot blast, a towering Babel of valved artillery that suffers no fools in its musical hanging gardens. Stand back, breathe deep for a sizzling brass blowout, heavy metal for heavy times, a gale-force wind to bring the walls of Babylon tumbling down.

Omar Sosa, Sentir (Otá/Skip)
Cuban-born, conservatory trained pianist, percussionist, composer and bandleader Omar Sosa embraces a world of sound, while keeping the roots of his African spiritual inspiration ever in sight. Having lived abroad and made music in Ecuador, San Francisco, Ibiza and now, Barcelona, he has absorbed every conceivable musical argot. On Sentir ("to feel"), his seventh release, Sosa communes with musicians from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, North America, Mozambique and Morocco, blending vocal, melodic and percussive traditions from all these places with the ear, hand and heart of a master. There is a majestic serenity at the core of Sosa's intensely percussive, jazz-inflected traditional sound, inventive, visionary, profoundly engaged with a world that has lost its bearings. As Omar noted recently before a performance in Germany, "There's so much noise in this world. People don't want to think about politics, they're all just trying to survive. But we have to think about it. I don't want to be Mandela or Gandhi in my music, just to discover a little bit of their spirit there. I don't just want to be a musician who walks on stage and says, 'Look what I studied, look at me, look what I can do.' I'm looking for the higher spirit." Amen, brother.

Okay Temiz Magnetic Band, Magnetic Orient (Jaro Medien)
Istanbul native Okay Temiz studied Turkish percussion at conservatory in Ankara, then played throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe with traditional show orchestras. Drawn to jazz and feeling constrained by touring's musical straitjacket, he settled in Sweden. There trumpeter Don Cherry heard him in a Stockholm club, which led to an extended jazz collaboration. Temiz eventually founded his own ensemble, Oriental Wind, continuing in an internationalist mode that led him to master the Brazilian berimbau, talking drums, drum kit, timbales, congas, tablas, synth and qicca. Returning to Turkey in 1997, he formed the Magnetic Band, a quintet rounded out by trumpet, woodwinds, kanun (a plucked zither from the Balkans), oud (lute), double bass and a second drummer. The resonant meditative result is Magnetic Orient, whose fluid, evocative blend of East and West sometimes recalls the spirit of Max Roach's 1979 classic, M'Boom. But there's far more here, a dozen original compositions redolent of samba, West African, Ottoman, Gypsy and Eastern European Jewish musics, a powerfully complex percussive foundation with the transcendent lyrical sensibility of twenty-first century global jazz.

Compilations and Reissues, 2002

André Toussaint, Bahamian Ballads (Naxos World)
Listeners who know Alan Lomax's 1935 Bahamian field recordings, or the rhyming spirituals of Bahamian roots artists like Joseph Spence (whose work inspired Ry Cooder), will protest that André Toussaint is neither "folk" nor Bahamian. Indeed, the Haitian-born singer-guitarist immigrated to Nassau in 1953, seeking regular work in the lively tourist scene, armed with a sparkling inventory of Creole-, French- and Spanish-language songs, and soon added English-language songs to his repertoire. This seeming paradox makes for an illuminating social document, one reflecting the unusual history of the Bahamas, a geopolitical product of its status as a cultural crossroads and international jet-set watering hole. The question of cultural authenticity is really beside the point here. This is the dreamy, romantic oeuvre of a persistent western conceit, the cultural domination of a dependent post-colonial society that takes what others would make of it, and turns it into something else altogether. There is no other kind of artistry. Various Artists, From Avenue A to the Great White Way: Yiddish and American Popular Songs from 1914-1950 (Columbia/Legacy)
Produced by sound archivist and klezmer musician Henry Sapoznik, From Avenue A to the Great White Way is a hand-picked survey of the music of Yiddish theatre, composers, singers, musicians, cantors and comics, along with remarkable crossover covers by jazz and pop stars as diverse as Mildred Bailey, Irving Berlin, Cab Calloway, Eddie Cantor, Xavier Cugat, Slim Gaillard, Benny Goodman, Al Jolson, Gene Krupa, Peggy Lee, Ted Lewis and Sophie Tucker. The collection expertly juxtaposes a diversity of tracks to illustrate the multiple musical connections between Jewish music, jazz and Tin Pan Alley. A rare and revealing contribution to American popular music history.

Various Artists, Pachuco Boogie (Arhoolie)
Pachuco Boogie swings with the joyous, culturally hybrid, bilingual dance music that issued from the racially mixed neighborhoods of 1940s Los Angeles, a document of the urban landscape's social transformation by wartime migration and industrialization. Long before rock en español, banda, Chicano groove or the swing revival, and a decade before Ritchie Valens (nee Valenzuela) turned the Mexican folk tune "La Bamba" into a chart-topping national hit, innovators like Don Tosti's Pachuco Boogie Boys and Lalo Guerrero fused big-band swing, bop, Afro-Cuban, boogie woogie and R&B into an energetic, highly danceable popular form. This is the enticing brew of the zoot-suited pachuco hipsters whose eclectic, outrageously stylized search for cultural identity drew uncomprehending Anglo hostility -- as recounted in Luis Valdez's breakthrough 1978 play and subsequent film Zoot Suit. This is the musical resurrection of some essential American social history.

Various Artists, Raices Latinas: Smithsonian Folkways Latino Roots Collection (Smithsonian Folkways)
If anyone can summarize five centuries of Latin American music, it is Smithsonian Folkways, whose matchless archives yield unique folk recordings logged over the past half century. Ethnomusicologist Daniel Sheehy's informed selections and annotations testify to a remarkable aural heritage. Its 20 tracks represent a diverse legacy ranging from the Southern Cone to the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, including such popular dances as the Argentine tango, Chilean tonada and Brazilian bossa nova; indigenous music from the Andean highlands and Mayan Guatemala; the nueva canción of revolutionary Central America; Puerto Rican jíbaro music and the Dominican merengue; the African-inspired rhythms of Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Cuba; the Mexican American traditions of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona; and the familiar brassy Mexican mariachi sound. The result is a spirited introduction to a hemisphere of music, true to the Smithsonian's defining multicultural mission.

Various Artists, Travellin' Companion 3: A Musical Journey to Germany (WeltWunder)
German roots music? Worn clichés about Lederhosen, yodeling, drinking songs, accordions and beaucoup brass. Well, not exactly, even if this diverse array of 17 of Germany's hottest folk bands looses some deceptively familiar cultural markers to lure the unsuspecting into irrevocable musical discoveries. Celtic and medieval strains, over-the-top brass band, in-your-face German-Turkish hip-hop, Jewish, polka, tango, waltz, often tongue-in-cheek (but always musically astute) -- these folks cover the waterfront in inventive and enticing fashion, embracing a multicultural European future to which the rest of the planet needs to pay attention. Klezmer and clawhammer banjo in Berlin and Cologne? That's the beginning, not the end.

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