Experiments in Bellydance by Rebecca Wolf-Nail
Passages by Middle-Earth Ensemble
Desert Winds by Transition
Review by Tracy Benton
posted November 6, 2009
Here’s a collection of music for those searching for something off the beaten path! It can be difficult for a dancer to decide to spend money on dance music by lesser-known bands, particularly while trying to avoid adding the eighteenth cover of "Zeina" to a personal collection. If the band and the music are utterly unknown to you, how can you open your wallet? Perhaps these reviews will help you make up your mind. The 3 audio CDs reviewed here range from the traditional to the cutting edge.
Transition is a small ensemble featuring three musicians–Souren Baronian, Haig Manoukian, and Cornelia Kraft–performing on a range of instruments from clarinet to kaval, oud to saxophone. Although the ensemble is billed mainly as a Middle Eastern jazz ensemble, its "Desert Winds" album feels steeped in Armenian and Turkish traditional influences. This CD is well-recorded and is full of virtuoso playing, from complicated runs and riffs to soulful taxim. Sometimes I thought the sound was a bit spare, but three musicians are three musicians, after all. I found the album particularly notable in that it offers tracks in less common time signatures: 10/8, 9/8, 7/8, even 5/4. (Trust the jazz musicians to challenge you rhythmically; the track listing kindly shows this information.)
My favorite tracks on this CD included the 8-minute "Karshlama Medley", a lively mix of melodies and taxim over a steady, moderate 9/8 beat, perfect for the dancer wanting to explore theTurkish style. The clarinet and the oud trade the lead lines, offering a lot of variety for a dancer wishing to experiment. Another was the more jazzy-feeling "Seasoning", an original by drummer/vocalist Cornelia Kraft. Kraft scat-sings the melody over the top of the instruments; the end result is akin to Enya turning her hand to Middle Eastern music, producing a fusion track complete with a fast introduction, an ethereal slow section, and an exciting finish. On some tracks the musicians clearly want to hang out in their jazz mode; the last song, "New Dawn," is a good example of this. If you like both jazz and Armenian music, and are intrigued by the idea of putting them together, you will definitely enjoy this album.
Available for purchase here on CDBaby
Souren on our Musical Instrument Tour page here
Rating: Three Zils
The Middle-Earth Ensemble is a five-piece band whose sound I would classify as "renaissance faire." I don’t mean this in a disparaging way; I think they are an excellent example of the types of versatile musical groups one hears at ren faires. They have a wide repertoire of music that pulls from many different ethnic influences. Their album Passages displays their voyages into many different sounds: Arabic, jazz, Turkish, Balkan… luckily, not all in one track! At first, I found listening to their instrumentation a little startling. Oud, violin, and traditional percussion were not surprising, but the electric bass seemed out of place to my ear, and doubling the violin melody lines on flute sounded like too much on the top end. However, I have no doubt that this band would be a fun dance experience in a live show or hafla. Their sound is upbeat and pulls you in; it’s "in your face" and delightful.
More than half the tracks on Passages are originals. The drum solo, "Cairo Beats," is a well-varied solo, with several rhythmic changes, but it avoids the cut-and-paste structure that makes so many drum solos sound alike. I have to admit that while I found pieces like "Galiciana" to be breezy and entertaining, their fusion with Middle Eastern music is very loose. A dancer looking for ren-faire-like fusion will like these original tracks, but not one seeking a strong Middle Eastern feel to the music. However, the cover tracks on Passages are well worth a listen if more traditional music is to your taste. "El Helwa Di," in particular, is arranged to great effect with tempo changes and a lyrical flute solo. If the idea of a less traditional ensemble’s take on
Middle Eastern dance music intrigues you, you might check out Passages.
Rating: Three zils
Rebecca Wolf-Nail’s Experiments in Bellydance goes much further into fusion territory than the previous two albums. At first, I was disappointed to see no musician credits printed on the liner notes… then realized that she is apparently supplying all the instrumentation herself. Most of this CD sounds synthesized, so if "unreal" instruments bother you, this album won’t be your favorite. The entirely original tracks vary in flavor from Native American to Zambra Mora stylings. Several tunes, such as the "Nocturne Suite", are quite Western and orchestral in nature, but they are limited by the synthesizer. They sound as if they’ve been recorded inside a small box, and this lack of resonance detracts from the music.
Most successful are the tracks in which the composer explored themes far away from traditional music for Bellydance. Her "Sol Bloom Jam" is perfectly designed to appeal to fusion dancers exploring the vaudeville and circus themes now becoming popular, complete with a nod to the "Snake Charmer" tune, circus calliope, and music box dancer. (In fact, I can’t wait to see this in a performance somewhere.) "When Clowns Attack" is a more pared-down composition along this line, featuring a sound like a toy piano. Dancers in search of the truly unusual are those who will most appreciate Experiments in Bellydance.
Available for purchase on artist’s site here
Rating: Two zils
When you’re ready to take the plunge and investigate some music that’s not your everyday baladi, keep all three of these CDs in mind. Depending on what you’re searching for, one of them just might be the perfect fit.
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