A Musical Road Trip
Michael Church surveys the year's best traditional music albums from China to Macedonia. by Michael Church 18 December 2002
No question which is the most important CD of traditional Eurasian music to have emerged this year: The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan
(Smithsonian Folkways 40438) offers up 47 tracks recorded along a line running from Istanbul to Liaoning. This compilation is what Marco Polo might have come home with, if he'd had a tape recorder on his travels. The first part is a compilation of instrumental masters, the second reflects an astonishing range of vocal styles in nomad songs, festive tunes, and spiritual songs.
Globetrotting cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who inspired the Musical Caravan,
brought out a parallel product consisting of new works by Central Asian performers and composers prepared to fuse across traditional boundaries, with equally fascinating results: Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet
(Sony Classical SK89782).
From a point midway along this road comes Kambarkan Folk Ensemble: The Music of Kyrgyzstan
(EUCD 1689), in which a single ensemble reveals the richness of this country's traditional repertoire. The instruments could not be more basic: lutes, flutes of wood and clay, mouth harps, and chimes, plus an extraordinary variant on the Australian bullroarer. And what the troupe does in this recording has its roots in distant antiquity: songs of love and pain with instrumental improvisations.
Those curious to know how Central Asian music sounded in the past should get a copy of Before the Revolution
(Topic TSCD921), whose title is in many ways apt. "Before" means before 1917, of course, but also before mass communications and before the birth of a global music culture. The 23 tracks on this remarkable CD were collected in 1909 by a lone sound engineer sent by the Gramophone Company of London on an extraordinary trip from the Black Sea to China, collecting musical evidence at points along the way. Compiler Will Prentice has done a very good job in cleaning up these acoustically primitive recordings.
Moving westward, one of the year's most fascinating albums, Black Sea Winds
(NVR 2012-2), spotlights the bandura, which Ukrainians have long regarded as their prime national instrument. It looks like a lopsided lute, with a bulging belly and truncated neck, and it can have anywhere from 21 to 60 strings. It's played like a harp--both hands plucking, both free to play high or low--and its warmly resonant tone is indeed midway between the sounds of harp and lute. Over the past 100 years, though, its practitioners have suffered a tragic fate. In the 19th century the bandura was the province of guilds of blind minstrels called kobzari,
who used it to accompany their epic ballads. By the time of the Russian Revolution, it had been adopted by urban musicians and pressed into service as a background to choral music. The Soviets first espoused the instrument--they adapted it to increase its pitch capacity--but then set about erasing the kobzar
tradition. First the blind singers were vilified in the press as "parasites," "unnecessary relics," and finally "enemies of the people." Then they disappeared: some in the famine of 1933, many others through arrest and execution. Some were invited to a Congress of Traditional Singers, from which none returned. Today the kobzar
tradition is alive once more, partly thanks to folk-music groups in Ukrainian universities, but principally because its flame has been kept alight by expatriates in America. Black Sea Winds
has just been released by third-generation bandurist Julian Kytasty.
Finally, three outstanding compilations from Central Europe and the Balkans.
The Rough Guide to Hungarian Music
(RGNET 1092) includes everything it should, from Marta Sebestyen to the fiddlers of Transylvania, through a swath of old Magyar royal territory from Slovakia to Croatia.
The Art of the Romanian Taragot
(EUCD 1702) celebrates the Turkish military oboe, whose timbre was so penetrating that Ottoman armies used it to terrify their enemies. Here Romanian virtuoso Dumitru Farcas shows what it can do in a classical context.
The Kocani Orkestar's Alone at My Wedding
(CRAW 25) is bewitching. In the Macedonian village of Kocani, weddings last three days and three nights. This disc manages to convey the whole gamut of emotions involved--from suppressed excitement to wild abandon--in the space of a mere 58 minutes. But this is no ordinary brass band, as those who caught them guesting on Taraf de Haidouks's latest record will know. Musical descendants of the Turkish military bands who prowled the Balkans in the 19th century, they purvey a unique kind of magic.