Explore: Five Journeys in Music

winter road scotland by alan reid

Perhaps one of your thoughts for the new year is to travel more, explore more. Maybe you have specific plans in mind, maybe you’re not there yet, or perhaps you’re thinking that this may be your year to explore more through imagination and dreams than physical travel — or perhaps you will do both. Wherever you are in your travel plans, take a listen to the journeys of these musical explorers. They may give you ideas, and perhaps become companions on your journey.

Composer, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Narayan Sijan knows about travel. He grew up in the US midwest and his search to learn about creativity and music led him to in India and Nepal for more than a decade, and to explore Central Asia and China from there. He lived for a time in Cairo, and spent time in Turkey and Israel. Returning to the US, to California, he contacted producer and recording artist Carmen Rizzo to help bring his musical ideas to record, interlacing Sijan’s acoustic music with electronics, percussion, and keyboard work from Rizzo. They became the band Karavan Sarai and recorded the album Woven Landscapes. It’s music you’ll not have heard before but aspects of the countries and cultures Sijan knows, and aspects of travel itself, come out in the music, and even in the titles of the pieces, which include The Road to Hijaz, Desert Water, and Caspian Sea.

Ottmar Liebert’s explorations with his guitar have taken him from Germany to Santa Fe to many ther parts of the world. His work is in the adventurous style of new flamenco. You might expect adventures, but Liebert applying his trademark style and arranging skills to the work of — Bob Marley? Liebert says there is a natural connection. The flamenco rhythm called tangos has a lilt and a beat related to salsa and reggae, and he points out that it sounds very different from forms of flamenco. All three sorts of music, he thinks, have their roots in Africa, filtered in various ways through cultures and landscapes of Arbic lands and the Caribbean. These ideas are backdrop for the music on Liebert’s album Waiting n Swan. There’s clearly a master guitarist in the midst of exploration. The result is at once more filled with energy and more relaxed than you might think, as Liebert makes his way through No Woman No Cry, a reggae version of his own Barcelona Nights, and I Shot the Sherriff.

utah mountains by kerry dexter

Katayoun Goudarzi is a singer who was born in Tehran; Shujaat Hussein Khan is a master of the classical sitar who comes from Calcutta. Meeting up in New York city they found common ground in love for the work of thirteenth century Persian poet, teacher, and mystic Rumi. They’ve explored setting spoken word from Goudarzi in improvised music from Khan in earlier outings; for their recording Ruby they decided to up their game and challenge themselves to take a different approach. For one thing, they brought in additional instruments, including tabla, flute, and sarangi, For another, Goudarzi lets her many hued command of musical emotion have full reign as she sings Rumi’s words, in Persian– no spoken words this time out. For a third thing, Khan composed the melodies in advance. It’s a tasteful, thoughtful joining of differing cultures and sounds that works well, with the songs conveying senses of longing, change, and journey whatever language you speak.

Bluegrass music has taken many journeys and many forms, rising first from the confluence of the musics of Ireland and Scotland with African American music in the Appalachians, finding home in the Ohio Valley as people moved west, living on in the Deep South and taking a new inflection in the heart of Texas, and moving further westward where a thriving bluegrass scene took root in California. From her Bay area home Kathy Kallick has been mainstay of that west coast bluegrass community for some time now, fronting bands, writing songs, and becoming part of the national international bluegrass music scene. Foxhounds is Kallick’s twentieth album, and it sparkles even more brightly than her earlier work. Everyone in her band — Annie Staninec on fiddle, Tom Bekeny on mandolin, Greg Booth on dobro and banjo, and Cary Black on bass — sings, and they each lent a hand on the top class instrumental arrangements of the music you will find on Foxhounds as well. Fast numbers and slower ballads make for good pacing, with the band members trading off lead and harmony and instrumental breaks in ways that enhance the feeling of community and connection among musicians and with listeners. There are top notch original songs such as Kallick’s track Foxhounds, inspired by a visitt she had with bluegrass great Bill Monroe. There is a cover of Monroe’s Kentucky Mandolin, and of Brit folk rocker Richard Thompson’s Tear Stained Letter which works just fine as a bluegrass song in the hands of Kallick and friends. Kallick’s original called Snowflakes is another standout, but really, each track is a keeper.

Caitriona O’Leary’s journeys were led by history and story as well as music. Years ago she heard what’s known as the Wexford Carol or the Enniscorthy Carol– you have likely heard it too. It’s often a part of Advent and Christmas services and many artists have recorded it. It begins

Good people all, this Christmas time
Consider well and bear in mind…

Attending a Christmas service in Kilmore in County Wexford O’Leary found that there are other carols associated with the song. She heard six that day, although several of them were sung to the same music. Drawn by her own practice as a musician in early music and Irish tradition, she began to look into the songs and found a seventeenth century book of poetry and another book built on the ideas half a century or so later. She found too that there were many more lyrics and songs than the six which still live in the Christmas tradition of the parish in Kilmore. Those things led to the recording The Wexford Carols. It proves a creative and unusual — and beautiful — working of the songs, some set to what O’Leary sussed out as the traditional tunes meant to go along and on a few to music she’s written in traditional style. O’Leary’s voice is at the center of things, but she is not alone: she invited Rosanne Cash, Tom Jones, and Rhiannon Giddens to lend not only their voices but perspectives from their varied backgrounds in music to the singing. The musicians who back the singers are a top class and varied ensemble, too, among them Donal Lunny on bouzouki and Kate Ellis on cello.

king john's castle louth ireland copyright Kerry Dexter
Why, you might be thinking, should I be interested in an album of carols when it is not the winter holiday season? The beauty and interest of the words, melodies and performances are all reason enough. The lyrics, written by clergy for their faithful, come from a time when it was both dangerous and difficult to be Catholic in Ireland, and there are references to that, some obvious and some hidden, in the words. That adds the history. Further, word comes that O’Leary is planning another project which will include more of the songs she’s found. Meanwhile, there’s more than enough to explore on The Wexford Carols to keep you interested up until the next holiday season. Listen to Rosanne Cash on Behould Three Kings, O’Leary on Tell Shepherds, and Giddens on Now to Conclude Our Christmas Mirth. All songs to be explored more than once as are all the songs in the recording.

Musicians who have traveled the world and the music they are creating from the landscapes and people and experiences they have encountered: take a listen, and see how the work of these artists may inspire and influence your own travels.

Photographs by Alan Reid (top) and Kerry Dexter (center and lower). Thank you for respecting copyright.

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