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Howard Male ruminates on the allure of human voices from Haiti, Brazil and France, before ending with an album of instrumentals as it arrogance or bravery that prompted the New York-born Haitian-American singersongwriter Leyla McCalla to take a handful of Langston Hughes’ poems and set them to music on her 2013 debut album Vari-Colored Songs? Poetry is designed to be heard against silence; it doesn’t need the flying buttresses of melody and harmony to make it leap, dive and shimmer. However, McCalla had loved the American literary giant’s work since she was a child, and fortunately that love shone through on what turned out to be a moving collection of poignant and haunting songs simply arranged around acoustic guitar, banjo, cello and violin. McCalla’s aesthetic remains largely the same on the follow-up, A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey (Jazz Village Records). The title track grows from the agreeably physical sound of McCalla’s bow being rhythmically bounced off the strings of her cello. The end result sounds as timeless as any of the tradition Haitian songs she also chooses to cover here. Tom Wait’s regular sideman Marc Ribot drops by to delivery his standard zigzagging Cuban-tinged guitar solo on Peze Café, and last but not least there’s McCalla’s voice – a richlytimbred instrument that perfectly complements the woody rasp of her cello. It’s funny how much you can tell from a voice. McCalla is a young mother with an adoring husband and a rosy future ahead of her. By complete contrast, septuagenarian Brazilian icon Elza Soares’ growling booze-ravaged voice seems to contain within it every twist and turn of an exacting life. For Elza that life has included surviving an abusive marriage aged 12, the loss of a child and husband by the time she was 21, and the tears and triumphs of an on-off-on music career spanning more than half a century. For her 34th studio album The Woman at the End of the World (Mais Um Discos), Soares chose to work with some of Sao Paulo’s most respected avant-garde musicians, and the end result is an excitingly corrosive mix of rock and jazz with traditional samba. When she was asked by producer Guilherme Kastrup what she wanted the album to be about she replied: ‘Sex and blackness.’ Listening to this tense, funky, noisy and dark record makes one wonder if by blackness she was referring

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to the colour of her skin or the colour of her mood. But either way this is a stunning piece of work that lyrically covers everything from the impending apocalypse to the death of a crack addict transvestite. Still keeping it tense, angry and anarchic, the young multi-ethnic London-based band Melt Yourself Down also deal in a genre-defying Molotov cocktail of punk, funk, contemporary jazz and galloping polyrhythms-aplenty. Their second album Last Evenings on Earth (Leaf) – another apocalyptic title – is all about the groove, and driving it home with a vengeance. That is until the groove self-implodes and we’re dragged down a free-jazz side street to have our wallet and passport stolen. Singing in French, English or simply chanting or screaming with in-the-moment abandonment, Kushal Gaya’s taut – sometimes near-hysterical – vocals find their nearest comparison in Fear of Music-era Byrne or Flowers of Romance-era Lydon. We certainly don’t find out much about him from his voice, as we do with McCalla and Soares, but it rides the storm created by his band mates, serving to crank up the tension and unease. If you’re old enough to remember Rip, Rig + Panic and Pigbag, that’s the kind of ballpark we’re in here. Anyway, enjoy. Or maybe I might tempt you with something a little mellower and more ambient? Back in January of this year we lost one of the greatest British songwriters and performers of the 20th century, David Bowie. Quick off the mark with a respectful and even challenging tribute was composer Jherek Bischoff with Strung Out in Heaven – a striking string quartet medley of half a dozen of DB’s songs. Bischoff’s second album Cistern (Leaf) doesn’t have any direct connection to this tribute but, having said that, this collection of atmospheric instrumental pieces, conceived in an empty two million gallon water tank, has its musical antecedence in the ambient tracks on Bowie’s Low and Heroes albums. It’s a haunting and suitably immersive listening experience in which the multi-instrumentalist makes maximum use of his talents in a minimalist context. Howard Male’s religious satire and murder mystery Etc Etc Amen is available from the Bookseller Crow 47

The Transmitter Issue 40  

A South London Magazine

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