1. I Muvrini, Pulifunie (Higher Octave)
Pulifunie is the Corsican word for polyphony and in my opinion, I Muvrini are one of Corsica's best interpreters of this traditional style of singing. Brothers Jean-François and Alain Bernardini grew up in a small village in eastern Corsica. Their father, a famous poet and singer in Corsica, taught them to sing when they were young boys. The Bernardini brothers formed I Muvrini in the early '80s and although they are mostly known for their original folk-pop material, they have always included traditional polyphony on their recordings and in their concerts. This album is a collection of mostly a cappella traditional singing with two other original compositions sung with minimal instrumentation. Pulifunie is not only my favorite recording of the year, but one of my favorite recordings of all time by one of my favorite group in the entire world.
2. Milagro Acustico, The Rubáiyyát of Omar Khayyám (self-released)
The Rubáiyyát of Omar Khayyám is the third recording by the Italian group Milagro Acustico. When the leader of the group, Bob Salmieri, first read Omar Khayyám's quatrain, he knew he had to compose music for it. He translated Khayyám's words from the original Persian into the Sicilian dialect and then created music and lyrics that evoke Khayyám's experiences of one mystical night. The mood is dreamy and meditative and combines sounds and instruments from many parts of the world. The recording effectively blends Bob's Sicilian background with his interest in the music of the Middle and Far East, plus adding elements of jazz and even a bit of flamenco.
3. Musicàntica, Auccalamma -- The Mouth of the Soul (self-released)
Musicàntica's CD Auccalamma has to be one of the most creative albums to be recorded this year. Enzo Fina and Roberto Catalano, singers, composers and multi-instrumentalists, have taken the music of southern Italy and without straying too far from the "traditional"; they have enlarged and practically re-invented it. Now residing in Los Angeles, this extraordinary duo has taken the music of the Italian south -- Puglia, Sicily, Sardinia, etc., and have added their own original elements. When many people think of the music of southern Italy, they think of tinkly mandolins or syrupy songs like "O Sole Mio". One listen to Musicàntica's Auccalamma could easily change that impression. This is an album that emphasizes beautiful harmonies and honors the many instruments of the Mediterranean, i.e., jaw harp, reed pipes from Sardinia, frame drums, chitarra batente, bouzouki, and others. While they are indeed excellent players of all their instruments, it is their vocal harmonies that stand out for me.
4. Aza, Marakan (self-released)
The band, Aza, is composed of two young Imazighen (or Berber) composers/musicians/singers, Ftah Abbou and Mohammed Aoualou from Morocco and their American band mates. It is a lively album that invites the listener to get up and dance -- something I am always inclined to do. They combine the traditional vocals and instruments of their country such as bendir and sentir along with modern elements and instruments such as the banjo, saxophone, and drum kit -- and it works incredibly well, especially the use of the banjo. Although the album is self-produced and does not have international or even national distribution, it is deserving of a great deal of attention. Ftah and Mohammed are not only excellent singers and musicians but outstanding composers as well.
5. Aqnazar, Rumi (Buda Musique)
Jelaluddin Rumi was a 13th century mystical poet who has left a legacy of ghazals, or love poems, that are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them. (The Mevlevi Order of Sufism was founded on his teachings). Young Tadjik artist, Aqnazar interprets the music in such a powerful and soulful way that when the recording was finished, Mavlodod, a string-player in the band, said, "Today, God was listening." The beauty of the album lies in Aqnazar's stunning voice. Phillippe Pélissier, the senior sound engineer for Radio France, used four microphones for Aqnazar's voice alone. I was able to attend a performance of Aqnazar, last night, in a café where he sang with absolutely no amplification. His impressive voice filled the room despite the sounds of espresso's being made! If you have had no listening experience of music from Central Asia, then this is the best place to start. This is Aqnazar's second recording and his first one Raqs also on Buda Musique is highly recommended as well.
6. Franca Masu, Alguimìa (Aramusica)
Franca Masu is Sardinian from Alghero where the local language is Catalan. Alguimìa is her second recording. Masu sings in a highly emotional style and she can be compared with some of the best of Portugal's fadistas and Argentina' s great tango singers. While her first CD, El Meu Vitage was a jazz recording, Alguimìa encompasses not only the traditional music of Alghero but adds to this the taste of flamenco, tango, fado, and other such musical influences. Her album is an incredible showcase for Masu's passionate and rich vocals. She is joined by such Sardinian greats as composer/guitarist Mauro Palmas.
7. Balogh Kálmán and the Gypsy Cimbalom Band, Aroma (FolkEurópa)
No one plays music faster than Romanians -- and they play it with such style! Kálmán Balogh is the greatest cimbalom player in the world and he has gathered together musicians of almost unbelievable ability. Like most Rom musicians, they are equally proficient in playing purely (if there is such a thing) traditional music as well as taking the tradition a step further into experimentation -- especially along the lines of jazz. They manage to cross all boundaries and are willing to take the listener along with them on a voyage of great joy and discovery. Even if you have never heard the music of Eastern Europe, you will find yourself leaping and stamping around the room with wild abandon.
8. A Filetta, Si Di Mè (Virgin France)
A Filetta is another one of Corsica's most important groups. They are amazing skilled in the art of a cappella singing and they sing with theatrical intensity. They have recorded albums of traditional polyphonic singing as well as ones with their own original compositions. Outside of Corsica, they are known for their work with composer Bruno Coulais who wrote the soundtracks for such films as Winged Migration and Himalaya. These are just two of the films on which A Filetta and Bruno Coulais have collaborated. Si Di Mè marks another collaboration with A Filetta also composing much of the material. I met with the group leader, Jean-Claude Acquaviva, when I was in Corsica recently. In an interview with him, he said, "The album is not easy; but it is well done." I heartily agree.
9. Jiang Ting, Pipa (M A Recordings)
The Chinese pipa is a four-stringed lute-like instrument with 30 frets and a range of about 3 and 1/2 octaves. The playing of the pipa is characterized by extreme dexterity with many flourishes in the ornamentation. On Pipa, Jiang Ting proves herself to be a master of this instrument. She plays solo throughout the whole album and manages to create an atmosphere that is starkly beautiful and haunting. All the albums on M A Recordings are an audiophiles dream. Owner Todd Garfinkle records musicians who are masters of their art in acoustically perfect buildings such as old cathedrals and monuments. He uses omni-directional microphones and there is always the element of "space" in his recordings. Pipa was recorded in Chiesa di S. Colombano, Lucca, Italy. In listening to Pipa, I find that the silences are as important as the sounds Jiang Ting makes on her instrument.
10. Dezoriental, Terra Incognita (Dezo Productions)
Dezoriental is a group from Saint-Etienne, France who take their musical influences from jazz, rock, funk, tango, reggae, a little Paris musette, blues and tossing in a mélange of sounds from all over the world such as North Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan, Latin America, etc. Like a few other groups from France, such as Lo'Jo and Bratsch, they mix all these sounds with incredible ease and create their own signature sound from their original compositions all with energy and skill. Terra Incognita is an album dedicated to the "feminine" -- not only just the women of the world; but to the feminine aspects of life on earth. Lead singer, Abdel Waeb Sefsaf, can growl with the best of them; but can also sing with the smooth voice of a French chanteur and then slip into the vocal acrobatics of a qawwali singer.
Other noteworthy recordings of 2003
A Ricuccata, Ensemble Polyphonique (self-released)
A cappella music from Corsica and the Mediterranean.
Sera Una Noche, La Segunda (M A Recordings)
Souad Massi, Deb (Island)
The second recording by this velvet voiced Algerian singer/composer.
Tempus Fugit, Nebbu (self-released)
Another a cappella recording from Corsica.
Nida Ates, Omür Bahçesi (Kalan Müzik)
Favorite Songs for 2003
1. "Una Antra Matina" -- I Muvrini Pulifunie (see review above)
2. "Chjarura" -- A Filetta from Si Di Me (see review above)
3. "Cucurrucucú Paloma" -- Caetano Veloso from The Best of Caetano Veloso on Nonesuch Records
4. "Tamghart" by Aza from Marikan (see review above)
5. "Minyona Morena" by Franca Masu from Alguimìa