Various Artists

On the Carpet: Oriental Culture Festival

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This collection is rated by averaging out the tracks, which range from sublime to mediocre. Yes, Oriental culture is certainly represented here in this excerpt from performances at a Moscow music venue and arts center, but not in any all-encompassing way. This is very much the typical festival program, a bit of this and that linked by a vague common theme, with some of the participants dusty from the long journeys involved in getting there. One may learn about as much about Oriental culture as one would flipping through a picture book, but that's not that bad. There are eight different tracks featuring a total of five groups, including musicians from Yakutia, Tuva, Algeria, and Turkmenia collaborating with Russians, Italians, French, and Americans. A sense of the Third World clashing with the sophisticated Americans and Europeans can be felt, with the joke being the "sophisticated" part. Although it isn't the case with all the selections, there are parts of these performances where the introduction of some kind of Western folk- or pop-style chord changes, or the presence of an instrument such as a normal guitar played in a totally boring manner, give the music a drabness so ordinary as to bring to mind a too-familiar hippie panhandler. The most hideous example would be Sainkho Namtchylak and her ensemble; although the leader is a Tuva vocalist who performs brilliantly on her own and has collaborated to great effect with quite a few avant-garde performers, the group she fronts here features several guitarists and bass players, and gets into a weak, highly Westernized section that sounds like an R.E.M. outtake. The Frank London ensemble, led by a New York-based trumpeter and featuring keyboardist Anthony Coleman on a pump organ plus two Russian musicians, is not on the same level as other groups London has put together. The two performances of klezmer pieces are pretty, but lack much real substance, coming off as typical examples of revivalism in which the charm of the original music gets lost somewhere in the process. Of much more interest in this set are the opening pieces by the Aitah Ensemble-Obohu from Yakutia, a severely demented quartet of mostly vocalists with some percussion and electronic saxophone spice. Some of the mouth sounds on these tracks are so bizarre that turning off the lights is not suggested; it is also the kind of recording in which the listener will be constantly checking to see whether phenomenon such as what sounds like a drunken, chirping bird are actually part of the CD, or are filtering in from the immediate environment. The Ekova ensemble combines Algerian, Italian, and French musicians for music that although hardly startling, comfortably smooths out whatever edges exist between these cultures to dwell on their shared love of sentiment and balladry. Both the old and new world resound in the instrumentation, which combines oud, percussion, and new-fangled electronic keyboards. Some listeners may find the last act featured to be the best of all, especially those who are fond of the saxophone being played in an Oriental context. Here, we have Sabir Rizaev playing with a sharp and attractive tone on both clarinet and soprano saxophone in a group that also features accordion, percussion, violin, and voice. The two selections by this ensemble are wonderful and create a strong craving for an entire CD by this group.

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