Gather 'round, kids, and I'll tell you a story. Once upon a time, music wasn't like it is today. You could go into a music store -- an actual building, not a website! -- and you'd find all the music neatly separated. I always liked exploring the "World Music" section, 'cause it would have interesting things like Maori chants and Tuvan throat singing and Bulgarian polyphonies and Guinean kora music. Sometimes each country would have its own section. Every visit was an international adventure.
Sounds quaint, I know. Because today, I'm sitting here by the campfire holding three of my favorite albums of this young year. And they would have flummoxed the album-categorizers of yore.
Where, for example, would you file an album by a classically trained Hindustani violin player. The India section, you say? But what if she's from Texas and her collaborators play, among other things, human beatbox, cello, spoons, tabla, cajon, and alto saxophone? See what's going on here? The walls, my young friends, have fallen. Those old bin dividers are useless in the face of what Nistha Raj has done on her album Exit 1. Which, by the way, is something you should listen to just to confound your parents. Raj and her friends aren't some kind of musical gimmick; they're really talented musicians who have made something gloriously fresh-sounding.
Or what about an album that starts with a driving beat, deep base line, and electric guitar runs? Right into the Rock bin, right? But... turns out that "guitar" is actually a west African kora, a 21-string harp that in this case is run though a series of distortion pedals. The kora is played by Sekou Kouyate, and you might now think about filing this in the Africa bin -- perhaps "modern Africa" if there's a subsection for that. But then another element enters the fray: the rapping of Syracuse-based rapper/singer Joe Driscoll. These two guys met in France at an event where they were thrown together -- without a common language -- and had to produce a concert in a week. They apparently had to take it even farther and record an album, called Faya -- another early 2014 favorite.
Finally. there's the new album from Canadian Gypsy jazz guitarist Adrian Raso. So this one should go in a subset of Jazz, no doubt. Except... (you saw that coming, eh?) .... Raso has teamed up with a brass band. Which raises questions not only about the label, but about how the heck Raso will be heard above the beautiful, rapid-fire din that is Fanfare Ciocarlia. The Romanians also play Gypsy music, but they play it rather louder than the typical jazz guitarist could hope to match. Happily, we not only have the minor miracle of these musicians all gathering together to record Devil's Tale, but also that it's beautifully recorded, and Raso's guitar fits into the band seamlessly... and quite audibly. File under "Brilliant!"
So that's the story of why record bin categories no longer make any sense. The walls have fallen, all the people have mixed together, and they're singing sweeter than ever before. Even if it's some work to sort out where they're from and what to call them.
Nistha Raj: Exit 1
Joe Driscoll & Sekou Kouyate: Faya
Adrian Raso and Fanfare Ciocarlia: Devil's Tale