Proving that music is a universal, living language, these two artists from very different cultural backgrounds have made, Still Moving, an album that insinuates itself into an invented middle ground among genres and one that could speak to any number of audiences. Mauro Durante is the leader of Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, a group that has reinvented traditional music from the southeastern Italian region of Puglia, while Justin Adams is British but has cultivated an affinity for music on the other edge of the Mediterranean—North Africa.
Adams’ evocative, bluesy electric guitarwork fit quite appropriately into Robert Plant’s post-Zeppelin band, The Sensational Space Shifters, and matched perfectly for albums he made with Guinean griot Juldeh Camara, who plays a traditional one-string fiddle. Having grown up for a time in Egypt, Adams’ North African sensibility led him to produce albums by Tinariwen, a band of nomadic Tuareg musicians from Saharan Mali, and the late Algerian rai-rocker Rachid Taha.
On Still Moving, Durante’s hand-played percussion and fiddling complement Adams’ room-filling guitar, which he sonically explores in different ways in each of the album’s 11 songs. Durante’s musical background is in reinventing the traditional of pizzica, which originated as ecstatic dance music to cure those under the spell of a mythical tarantula bite.
Adams and Durante try different pairings: sometimes Durante is playing frame drums, sometimes he sends out intertwining melodies on his plaintive fiddle. Adams sometimes plays a clean, acoustic guitar tone; other times a super-fuzzy rock-blues one. Generally, Adams doesn’t indulge in speedy solos but relies on deceptively simple, well-placed melodic figures that resonate with feeling.
The album opens with an original tune, “Dark Round Down”, an electric blues that has a Saharan-flavored boogie that seems like a cousin to ZZ Top’s rolling-down-the-highway rock. “I’m sick of war,” Adams sings in a low whisper, sounding like Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, answered by Durante’s plaintive wails. On the title cut, a sad tale of immigration, Durante sets the mood with a solemn, bass drum beat then Adams plays the piercing melody on guitar and sings sadly of the difficulties encountered by modern refugees: “Six days we rowed / Six days of fever / When we reached dry land / We were treated as strangers.”
On the original instrumental “Red Earth”, the pair jump out like a classic jam band. Durante’s fiddle darts around the grungy wall-of-sound coming from Adam’s guitar, bringing to mind The Jefferson Airplane’s days with Papa John Creach playing against Jorma Kaukonen. They follow that up with the even faster “Calling Up”, where Adams’ throaty rasp sings “I’m calling out the spirits of man” while he plays a stinging repeating riff and Durante beats out a frenetic breakneck rhythm on a bass frame drum.
One of the album’s high points is the simple old Salentino song, “Damme Nu Ricciu (Give Me Your Hand)”, where Adams plucks out the slow, melancholic tune, while Durante steps up for an achingly beautiful vocal with a minimal accompaniment: “Give me your hand / And hold mine tight / And until death don’t leave me.”
The album ends with “Little Moses”, a traditional song that initially sounds like a soft, sweet lullaby, telling the Biblical story of Moses being found amid the reeds by the Pharaoh’s daughter. It then suddenly erupts into a rocked-out jam-duel between Adams’ distorted power chords and Durante beating the crap out of a handheld, jangling frame drum.
The duo, who recorded during a very small window of opportunity during the pandemic shutdowns, show they are a synergistic pairing, creating music that seems more expansive than imaginable for just two musicians playing “live” in a studio without overdubs. Though the cuts are played with modern electronics, the songs are a thing apart from contemporary music, tapping ancient spirits and an emotional depth that modern pop seldom comes near.