Yearning for Wonderland

There is such a place as fairyland - but only children can find the way to it...until they have grown so old that they forget the way. Only a few, who remain children at heart, can ever find that fair, lost path again...The world calls them singers and poets and artists and story-tellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland. ~ L.M Montgomery

Music Review: Handmade by Hindi Zahra

Article first published as Music Review: Hindi Zahra – Handmade on Blogcritics.

Most people would say four or five focused listens would probably be sufficient to write an album’s review. As far as Hindi Zahra’s Handmade (Naïve Records), I passed that threshold weeks ago. I can’t stop listening to it. I keep it in my car; no matter where I go, I find a song which speaks to my mood. To date this is easily my favorite album this year, at once sophisticated, exotic and evocative.

Though she would likely be categorized under “World Music,” Zahra fuses musical cultures freely to create her own sounds. A Berber girl born in Morocco, she takes her own musical heritage and seamlessly integrates it with blues, jazz and gypsy, among countless other influences.

As a breakthrough album, Handmade is nothing short of astonishing. Zahra wrote the songs, played instruments, sang and self-produced with a restrained hand. Each track offers slightly different tones and shades, like a rainbow scarf slipping through your hands.

“Beautiful Tango” makes you want to dance barefoot, a swirl of silk tied on, arms jangling with a hundred bracelets — rather like Hindi Zahra: “Come speak the secret words in Spanish / Where the night turns out the light of day for us to show some courage,” she croons, against a backdrop of hand-claps and hand drums.

You should listen to “Fascination” in the car with the window down, wrist swimming against the wind. Listening to her pronunciations is a pleasure; she says “sou-ven-ir,” reminding you of the word’s French origin. “Set Me Free” feels like a modern update of The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”: “Come on and break those chains / and leave me alone baby / ‘Cause you don’t know how to give me good love / And mine is never enough.”

“Imik Si Mik” has a faint Paris Combo flavor and is so upbeat that you can’t help but bounce along, despite the faint melancholy of its lyrics. With its chill and dreamy vibe, “Kiss & Thrills” is mesmerizing. I don’t so much as listen to this song as I do feel it, and it’s jolting when it ends.

At first I thought the live set offered at the end of Handmade might strike me as a little redundant, as several of its songs are repeated. I was completely wrong. In this unplugged context she reinvents the studio versions, stripping out the production to offer more old-school interpretations.

Zahra quite possibly is the love child of Edith Piaf and Josephine Baker, alternatively warm and then cool, her voice ululating with suppleness. If Casablanca was remade (as problematic as that would be), I’d instantly want her cast as a torch singer in Sam’s Place. I want to hear her cover all the War-era tunes, starting with “Bei Mir Bist du Schoen.” Another standout is “Don’t Forget,” rendered in the style of Doris Day or Billie Holiday.

I spend a lot of time listening to music from past eras, and so I was slow to realize the uniqueness of the sound this young musician creates. In comparison with much of today’s frenetic, auto-tuned beats, Hindi Zahra’s music feels relievingly classic, like dipping into a pool of fresh, cool water.

Handmade was heralded as one of the most anticipated albums of the fall by New York Magazine. Do yourself a big favor and purchase this album. Share it with your friends; they’ll think you’ve been clairvoyant once Zahra achieves the massive commercial success she deserves.

Handmade will be available on Amazon.com as a digital download on September 26. Visit Hindi Zahra’s official website and YouTube channel for more information.

3 Question View – Ananda

This post is the eighth of a new series, highlighting talented artists whose work I admire. You can find quick links to the other 3QV’s on the right-hand sidebar of the blog.

I call it ‘3 Question View’ because it’s limited to three questions (Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three) and it’s a rather truncated inter-view, designed to elicit three compelling answers from each artistic mind.

3 Question View – Ananda 
(Guillaume Ananda Coantic)
Singer/Songwriter, www.followananda.com
Anna:
Your influences have been global, as your French parents met in India and you have lived in places as diverse as Ghana and New York. How have the places you lived shaded the ideas and rhythms of your music? Where would you like to live next?
Ananda:
Traveling and meeting new people is definitely a key source of inspiration. The time I spent in Ghana was such an experience and I’ve learned a lot recording with the Pidgen Music label. It was also fantastic to go on tour with such amazing West African musicians.

Working with Tony Graci in New York was unforgettable and the recording of We Will Go was such a smooth process. Tony is a talented music producer and an incredible musician. I love the energy of NYC; it is very powerful.

Now I’m planning to spend some time in Nashville and very much looking forward to that.

Anna:
You started playing instruments at the age of 12. In your video “You and Me”, you play piano quite lyrically. When you are writing a song, how do you decide what will accompany your voice? Do you choose the piano versus the guitar based on mood? Which is easier to write for? What is an instrument you would like to learn?
Ananda:
Thank you. Actually, I like to compose and play on both guitar and piano. It’s just a different way to express my feelings, like using different languages to sing. Now I’ve started to play the banjo and it’s a great instrument; it can bring a certain mood, a very unique feeling.

Anna:
Your newest video is called “Standing Alone”. The lyrics are simple (“I’m standing alone now / Alone”), but the imagery communicates a vast feeling of solitude and yearning. What was the inspiration for this song and video? In your creative process, what is the part of being alone that you like best? And least?

Ananda:
This song represents for me a new way to create music. I’ve been working with a twelve-musician band in Ghana and then I started to compose the album We Will Go, which is more personal and mainly based on guitar-voice combinations. Also, I like to be alone in nature, that helps me to find some peace of mind. It’s really useful when writing songs!

I like writing songs on my own, but then at some point it’s vital for me to play with musicians.

Ananda
You can visit Ananda’s website: www.followananda.com
Follow Ananda on Twitter: @followananda
Follow Ananda on Facebook: www.facebook.com/followananda
Purchase We Will Go on iTunes

Book Review:To Be Sung Underwater

Article first published as Book Review: To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal by Anna Meade on Blogcritics.

When I was little, my father taught me to sit cross-legged on the pool bottom. We sat in my underwater kingdom, holding breath as long as we could and then go bursting up through the surface. The light refracted in those mesmeric patterns that are only found beneath, when the light pours through bluely chlorinated water. Below, we would have nonsense conversations and sing little snatches of song to each other that sounded like the distant keening of whales.

So the title drew me in and the book held me underneath, until I popped up gasping for air. In To Be Sung Underwater, Tom McNeal has written a gently yearning novel, one you will quickly read to find out the fate of these characters. The plotting is deft and the characterization of these flawed people is so believable that they will stay with you long after the last page.

Judith Toomey has a model life, the one she has arranged perfectly for herself: a rewarding job in the film industry, a wryly handsome husband, a teenage daughter who occasionally allows her a kiss goodnight. Then one day she discovers a crack in the veneer and slips sideways out of her life; the past she has so neatly boxed away starts to whisper to her.

Judith gives a name for herself that she hasn’t used in years in order to rent a storage unit, simply to reconstruct her bedroom from her teenage years – a bedroom where she loved a boy. The longer she stays in this facsimile room, the more she remembers about the past she tried to forget and the boy she left behind. Her real life, with her job and husband and daughter, slips away like shadows on a wall. Judith follows the memories back and back, like tugging on a pull on a sweater, unraveling until she is left with the truth.

To Be Sung Underwater paints warm vistas of two lazy Nebraskan summers for Judith, one endlessly vibrant with newly-discovered love and one that offers recovered love. That’s when the book really sings. It explores the secrets we keep from our parents and loved ones, the ones kept in boxes tucked away, snippets of first loves and forgotten dreams. This book’s siren song, the temptation to return to your one true chance at happiness, is the one sung underwater. From a great distance, it calls Judith back to the plains of Nebraska and the memories of a boy she once loved.

Visit Tom McNeal’s website.

*Book preview video best if music player turned off at lower-right corner of blog*

DVD Review: Trimpin: The Sound of Invention

Article first published as DVD Review: Trimpin: The Sound of Invention on Blogcritics.

Have you ever wondered what magic sounds like? It might sound a little like the music of Trimpin: cacophonic clicks and wheezes and zoops intermingled with ethereal angel tones, sonorous shimmers in unexpected audio combinations.

“I didn’t want to be a technician or an engineer or just a musician or a composer. The interest was laying in between,” says Trimpin in the opening lines of this enchanting documentary, Trimpin: The Sound of Invention.

Trimpin, who goes by only his last name, does not look like the popular conception of an artist, more like the eccentric, fae-touched inventor in a German folktale. He favors cardigans and plaid shirts and is balding, bearded and bespectacled, with a heavily German-accented voice. He has no cell phone or website. He does not use social media. Despite no agent or gallery representation, his work is seen in museums and public spaces around the world. He is like Mozart crossed with Doc Brown from Back to the Future.

Trimpin’s studio is a combination of Wonderland, Oz and a junk heap. Nothing is quite as it seems; everything is repurposed. Rusty bits and bobs and Elvis posters pile up alongside a typewriter that plays like a piano. His creations source found objects to manifest magic. A room full of hanging wooden Dutch shoes (“Klompen”) becomes a clattering, clicking fusillade of rhythmic moments.

“Klompen” by Trimpin
Sounds evoke memories. A favorite song might remind us of a special evening or a lost love. Trimpin hears music differently, sees things differently. His existence is solely aural-focused; he discovers a new sound and so explores it with boyish glee. His eyes light up behind his spectacles like neon.

With little editorializing, director Peter Esmonde allows Trimpin to tell his story. Trimpin explains he left Germany in search of affordable junk…which led him to America, the land of the disposable. Trimpin talks of his childhood experimentation in the Black Forest, land of cuckoo clocks, “as a kid I was always exposed to these kind of gadgets that could make music and move.”

Much of Trimpin: The Sound of Invention follows a collaborative project with famed contemporary classical music group, The Kronos Quartet. There’s much fun in watching these seasoned musicians face instruments built out of disemboweled cellos and plastic guitars. Trimpin’s graphical scores, magnificent colored graph and composition paper, look more like architectural plans than a musical staff.

Trimpin

Trimpin was not always a critical darling. During the documentary, he pulls out file folders full of rejection letters. Ultimately, he was a recipient of MacArthur Genius Grant, a tribute to his persistence when the world had no use for his art.

Trimpin himself is endearingly whimsical, riding a giant tricycle and playing a one-man accordian band. He is unselfconsciously playful, much like the children who interact with his sculptures and inventions. One little boy dances to Trimpin’s music the way we all should dance – like no one is watching.

Trimpin: The Sound of Invention culminates with the collaborative concert with The Kronos Quartet, a melange of music, mayhem and magnificence that deconstructs the idea of performance art and then reassembles it. Just like Trimpin would do.

Release date: 8/30/11
76 minutes
Microcinema International

Childhood weirdness(es)

When my youngest brother Daniel and I were adolescents (think pudgy, perplexed and disaffected), we used to do the Diva Dance. Oh, you remember the Diva Dance, right? It was from the movie The Fifth Element, that cheesy sci-fi starring Bruce Willis and Milla Jovanovich. The best scene in the whole movie is when an alien diva performs an solo that turns into a funky operatic soundtrack, while Milla kicks bad alien butt.

Anyway, Daniel and I used to do the Diva dance which apparently was our way of signifying mutual weirdness. We would flap our arms up and down, a la the alien diva, and sing a little falsetto coloratura. People watching probably thought we were having some artistic epilectic fit.

This post is in honor of Daniel and the Diva Dance. Happy Birthday, Brother. Nothing like a little public humiliation to honor the passing of another year.