Women of the (Music) World

Universal France
Available as import

The history of music journalism, as is the case with much of the modern music industry, is male-dominated. Flip through the pages of most any music magazine, or scroll through blog contributors, and nearly all of the names will be masculine. The dominant amount of artists covered in those pages is also male, though the playing field does even out there — a little. It seems odd, and unfortunate, that this is the case, considering the vast amount of female artists who struggle to find their place in this tumultuous and uncertain business, performing and creating with the utmost passion every day.

There exist numerous reasons for this, albeit few of them are openly and publicly discussed. The biggest business on the Internet is the male-governed pornography industry, and daily you will read stories of political, familial, and social oppression on the feminine — if not on actual females, then on the mere idea of being “soft”. Ironically, it was the Chinese sage Lao Tzu, when penning the verses that would be called the Tao Te Ching, who reminded us that true mastery comes by yielding to the feminine — knowing the strong, but residing in softness and compassion.

Unfortunately a good amount of men — especially those with political power — have not heeded this advice. The trickle-down effect of politicians and priests (where the feminine is, in Western faiths, often seen as a lesser form) has created a psychology that is embedded so deeply in our unconscious that while we applaud gender equality, our habits point in the other direction. What’s truly tragic about the whole situation is that there is little in this world as beautiful as the female voice. Sometimes it’s necessary to stop and remind ourselves of this.

New York City-based singer Morley was born in Jamaica — Queens, that is. The intelligence and integrity of city streets is alive in every luscious syllable, as she is known as much for poetry as for the gorgeous inflections by which her words are pronounced. Having canvassed the city in the disciplines of dance and yoga for years, her main occupation is songcrafting. Her latest, Seen (Universal France), arrived on the heels of her European tour with Raul Midon, and beautifully exemplifies her exuberant style. Part folk (“No Evidence”), part blues (“Way What I Know”), with emerging stems of country (“Temporary Lighthouses”, “Somebody New”) and reggae (“Crimes in the Garden”) filling in the spaces, Seen is a rich addition to her three-album catalog. Her live show is even more riveting, and worth checking out.

Basya Schechter is one of the most recognized names in the innovative, young Jewish songwriter’s circle. While her heritage has helped define her career, her band, Pharaoh’s Daughter, has broken well beyond that niche. Perhaps it’s due to her penchant for border hopping around the Mediterranean. Fluent in an array of Arabic instrumentation, and armed with a deeply penetrative and memorable voice, her fifth album, By Way of Haran (Oyhoo), is the definitive crème of her catalog.

“I was not a musician as a child,” Schechter told me one day while sitting in the Union Square Café, “but my strongest influences were my father and brothers singing mystical texts with layers and layers of harmonies, and lots of rhythm. We would all have knives and spoons and bang on everything on the table. It was such a strong, emotional, and addictive experience. The songs could go for hours; you didn’t want them to end. This was the foundation of this album.” Indeed, Haran exhibits like qualities — through the effervescent strains of oud, saz, santur, ney, and violin, it is an album worthy of constant repeat in iTunes.

Whereas Schechter paddled around the Middle East, Haale chose to focus purely on her Persian heritage, finding new ways to infuse her love of rock within her intense and dynamic Iranian heritage. Perhaps the most inventive Persian artist since Sussan Deyhim, Haale is even more accessible due to her leveraging of modern rock/folk sensibilities, thick with layers of percussion and guitar. On No Ceiling (Channel A) she continues an eight-year trend of working the lyrics of famed Sufi poets such as Rumi into a mixdown that would make Jane’s Addiction proud.

“How you understand the poetry of Rumi is an indication of where you are,” she recently told me. “It’s not an indication of what he wrote. What he wrote has a lot of levels. Art should have some level of depth and mystery and ambiguity, so that when you come to it, you bring yourself and meet it where you’re at. It lets you know what phase you’re in regarding your own understanding. You can grow with it. In that way, the text is alive.”

While Rumi penned odes to divine splendor and drunken revelry, Rupa Marya writes of seasickness, pirate ships, and coming like the sun. Leaning heavily toward French chanson and nouvelle vague, her band, Rupa & the April Fishes, fuses an extraordinary cornucopia of nations on their debut, Extraordinary Rendition (Cumbancha). Born in the Bay Area to Indian parents, Marya spent a good slice of childhood in Paris, where she honed a deep appreciation for the jazzy cabaret sounds of café life. Splitting her time between doctoring (no, really — she’s a doctor) and sound healing, hers is one of the most imaginative releases to hit American shelves in the past few years.

While the content of Marya’s globetrotting is a world away from labelmate Umalali, the same passionate drive towards artistic expression and cultural exploration exists. The group’s debut, The Garifuna Women’s Project (Cumbancha), has seen a bittersweet start. The album was recorded in part due to the overwhelming success of fellow Belizean Andy Palacio, who felt that the women’s folk tradition of his country was not well represented. Helping produce and promote the album, Palacio died suddenly in January 2008. In Belize he was a national star, and at the very least Americans were fortunate to have a taste in the form of his last recording, Watina.

Credit equally producer Ivan Duran, whose Stonetree Records has been a godsend for native music in Belize for nearly 15 years. The rich textures of horns and guitars give the women’s collective a sturdy foundation; of course, their voices — singing the poetry and chants of their nation — are the heart of the recording. They are singing of a dying tradition — the Garifuna. Like many things endangered, one only endures when armed with persistence and passion. With Duran’s hands and these women’s voices, we are witnessing a legacy that is only beginning. Something, in a way, that’s applicable to all the wonderful women mentioned here.