The remix of Argentinean folk artist Jose Larralde's "Quimey Neuquen" is the type of song that makes everyone I play it for stop whatever it is they're doing and grin, suddenly lost in a hypnosis of introspection. A placid longing consumes their face; a sensual comfort invades their heart. Larralde's original is intimate and heartbreaking, as epic a song to his homeland as "In Your Eyes" is to us mid-'80s reminiscing John Cusack junkies. Remixer Chancha Via Circuito nailed his assignment, adding a subtle low end and rolling percussion in his uniquely Cumbian voice. Larralde loses nothing in the process, gaining a fanbase by being introduced to global audiences by one of today's most interesting producers. Using the equally fascinating ZZK Records as his homebase, Circuito's latest offering, Rio Arriba, is possibly the label's finest output.
ZZK helped create a niche and then became the dominant player in a musical style that no one knew existed but everyone desperately needs. To be certain, electronic cumbia has been around for some time. It just didn't have a voice or the force behind it that ZZK has given it, with its daunting, epic, slow and hard punctuations of percussion and bass. Originating in Colombia, cumbia is now a catchall just as popular in Mexico as all over South America. It hangs around a hip-hop BPM, making the two sudden cousins, as witnessed with Circuito's "La Revancha de Chancha," not to mention with the great up-and-coming NYC emcee Jah Dan on his last record, Rodante. Known for more than banging beats, Circuito adds a gentle touch on labelmate Tremor's beautiful "Caracol." His 2010 XLR8R mixtape (which you can download for free here), is one of the best explorations of any musical genre I've ever heard: the nightingale-cry-surround-sound-nature of indigenous, rootsy cumbia running head-on with the throbbing structures of beat-heavy modernity. It's a brilliant love affair that your ears will have with this man's sound.
There's a lot of birthing going on in Azam Ali's world. The Iranian singer, who cut her teeth singing in the duo Vas before turning her sound electric with Niyaz, has recently given birth to her first child, Iman. Her husband, Ramin Loga Torkian, played in a predominantly acoustic Persian music outfit, Axiom of Choice, for two records before uniting with Ali (and producer Carmen Rizzo) in Niyaz. Mere months after the couple brought Iman into the world, two solo albums very different in scope are to be released, representing the highest caliber of Persian classical music in America today.
Ali's third solo record, From Night to the Edge of Day (Six Degrees), diverts from the sharp pangs of Niyaz and previous individual efforts by turning away from electronica to angle in on lullabies. Fans of Vas will recall this version of Ali; From Night is more in tune with the haunting "The Tryst" on Elysium for the Brave and "In the Shadow of Life" on Niyaz. Ali is steeped in the vocal traditions of her homeland and those of the entire Mediterranean region. After the birth of her son, she again turned to Middle Eastern traditions to shower Iman with poetry, relying on recommendations by friends as she compiled these songs for this effort. Yet that word seems inadequate: Ali makes music seem so effortless, so much so that it's becoming harder and harder to distinguish between her person and the music that she creates. Which, of course, is the point. Another beauty from a woman fully deserving of that adjective.
Torkian's string playing and percussion with Niyaz, coupled by Rizzo's fantastic production ear, made that trio an evolutionary force in contemporary Middle Eastern music. His new project features just two men: Torkian playing everything and vocalist Khosro Ansari handling lyrical duties. Rizzo does add a powerful punch at the control board, and the record, Roya (The Dream), under the band name Mehraab, is on that man's Electrofone Reocrds. It is Ansari that I've been enamored with, however, just as I am with Ali's voice. Having listened to Roya before reading the liner notes, I was certain it was Mohammad Reza Shajarian, a very high compliment indeed. Not to say that Ansari hasn't developed a sound of his own--the man's voice has been featured on ER and Third Watch, among others. But his vocalizing over Torkian's masterful palate of sounds is certain to send both of these men into dreams unimagined.
What this couple is giving the world is beautiful, and I'm sure they'll give the same to their son. Since neither of these albums are out until April, first here is a live performance of Niyaz, followed by one featuring Ansari.