While the media focuses on the music industry fallout, the fortunate side of the debacle is that music itself is doing fine. In fact, music is doing wonderfully. In over sixteen years of journalism, I have never received so many incredible albums as over the past year. It is said that great art appears during times of struggle, and if the demise of the corporate structure of record labels is helping produce such fine music, all the better. Of course, it's never one isolated incident. Factor in ever more accessible and affordable technologies and distribution networks, and much is in favor of the artist (or small label) doing it for the love of music.
I retract that parenthetical remark. The following labels are "large" for their love.
Within a day of posting a link to the website of singer Meklit Hadero on Facebook, emails from Bay Area friends poured in, telling me they either know her or have seen her perform. She'd be a hard figure to miss, as she helped run an important arts center in the Mission for over three years. In more recent times she has gigged non-stop in West Coast universities, Kenyan hotels, and Ethiopian clubs. On her debut album, On A Day Like This... (Porto Franco), Hadero pay homage to her homeland by flipping an Ethiopian folk song, "Abbay Mado," previously made famous by the silken voice of Mahmoud Ahmed. Hadero's version is more stripped down yet equally upbeat, not as dancey but equally moving.
Hadero dances her acoustic guitar playing with gorgeous vocals, flipping another incredible song, "Feeling Good" (made famous by Nina Simone), using fellow Bay Area musician Eliyahu Sills on ney before injecting a melancholic tinge to her slow rendition. By the time the record closes with the heartbreaking "Under," the first thing you do is return to "Walk Up" and begin again. This album has been on constant rotation, with every spin revealing something fresh and addictive.
Brooklyn-based Si*Se has dropped two albums with two labels since 2001. For the band's new EP, Gold, the members launched on their own independent path. Led by vocalist Carol C and producer U.F. Low, the band has never been one to cave to creative demands. They've always unapologetically created their music with love, and Gold is no exception. The first single, "This Love," is familiar territory, with C's poetic yearnings textured inside of a tightly woven blend of midtempo beats, a wandering trumpet, and distal keys. "Buscaré" is reminiscent of "Cuando," with its sharp edge and demanding kick drum. The spacious "Goes On" relies on a quirky, almost analog electronic temperament that works beautifully under the bouncing melody, while "Dónde Está?" returns the listener to the band's signature cuts like "Mariposa en Havana" and "More Shine." When the EP closes with a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain," C invokes Nicks step by step, not by pantomime but through her own melodic confidence and indisputable style. The video, which features band members traveling to Coney Island filming on iPhones, captures the vibe of both the group and the city beautifully. Gold is a great primer for their next full-length, due out later this year.
One-hundred-and-eighty degrees from Si*Se's throbbing rhythms is fellow Brooklynites Las Rubia Del Norte, the brainchild of two disenchanted NY Choral Society members who left to pursue their love of Mexican folk tunes. Allyssa Lamb and Emily Hurst linked with (Park Slope club) Barbés owner Olivier Conan and created this strange and beautiful album, Ziguala (Barbés). It is the band's third, and anyone familiar with Conan's work in the equally intoxicating Chicha Libre, a band producing reinterpreted '70s Peruvian folk-rock with a psychedelic tinge, will appreciate this outrageously inventive music. While Mexico brought them together, the band does not stay confined there. On Ziguala they tackle rembetika, French opera, Spanish folk, and even Bollywood on an incredible version of RD Burman's "Mana Janab Ne Pukara Nahin." I predict it early one that this album will sit near the top of my 2010 Top 10 list. There's simply nothing else like this around.
Syrian native Gaida moved to New York to pursue her goal of globalizing Levantine music. Previously featured singing in the rehearsal dinner scene in Rachel Getting Married, she's using the push for her exquisite debut, Levantine Indulgence (Palmyra). You can hear the Oum Kalthoum influence on the darbuka-drenched "Ammar," and the oud drive of "Indulgence" is breathy and spacious. Of all nine songs on this excellent first step, only her attempt at Arabicizing bossa nova falls short. Otherwise, "Ghayeb," her interpretation of a poem given her by Maroon Karam, not to mention the upbeat pounce of "Bint Elbalad," are well worth giving your time to.
Tzadik, a label founded by composer and saxophonist John Zorn in 1995, has been the musician's conduit for an eclectic range of predominantly, though not exclusively Jewish artists. He's released Mike Patton and Wadada Leo Smith, Buckethead and, of course, himself. His 2010 goal of twelve albums in twelve months is well under way, with his latest being Mycale: Book of Angels, Volume 13. It is a courgaeous a cappella album featuring four excellent area singers: Basya Schecter (of the group Pharaoh's Daughter, which Tzadik has previously released), Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, Malika Zarra and Sofia Rei Koutsovitis.
For this volume, Zorn pulled eleven of the over 300 songs he wrote in 2004 for his Masada project. The lyrics range from Hebrew and Yiddish to Ladino, Arabic, and French, and these four women complement one another exquisitely. The source material may be the Bible, Turkish poet Rumi, and the multiple personalities of Portuguese bard Fernando Pessoa, but the outcome is exactly what Zorn has tried to create with the entire Masada project: forward-thinking music that envelops and touches the world with its global-tinted sound. A beautiful recording by an impressive collection of vocalists.