Beth Nielsen Chapman

Prism: The Human Family Songbook

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Beth Nielsen Chapman's warm, honeyed voice has a homey, intimate feel that's perfect for the songs here, religious and spiritual tunes from a variety of traditions and many writers. Chapman contributes several stunners of her own that could easily become pop religious standards and covers material by Jean Sibelius, 19th century British poet Folliot Sandford Pierpoint, Joe Henry, and Hafez as well as traditional and contemporary material from South Africa, Tibet, Cuba, Iran, Israel, India, and the Hopi Nation of Arizona. This 23-song, two-disc set is the second album of an ongoing project Chapman started in the '90s in a desire to pay tribute to the Earth's great religious musical traditions. Chapman's liner notes describe the specific genesis of the album. Self-penned liner notes can often come off coy or overly sentimental, but on Prism they're just as sincere and moving as the songs she's chosen to record. The musicians she works with come from many traditions -- the album could just as easily be filed under world music as pop, folk, or singer/songwriter -- and while all the songs are spiritual in nature, they never sound like sermons. Many, in fact, are graced by a gentle humor that's often missing in spiritual songs. There's not a weak track or a wasted note here, but some songs naturally stand out. "God Is In (Goddess In)," an original with a long list of co-writers, is an ecumenical salute to spirituality that nods to Christians, Jews, Muslims, pagans, Hindus, Rastas, and even atheists. "My Religion (Sweet Love)" is a rap -- yes, you read that right -- that prays for unity and transcendence, with an Arab-flavored Cuban rhythm and classic Indian and African-American gospel backing vocals. "For the Beauty of the Earth" is a hymn of thanksgiving written by Folliot Sandford Pierpoint, its unadorned poetry simply delivered by Chapman and pianist Gary Malkin. "Beautiful Fool" was penned by country hitmaker Don Henry, a moving tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. and non-violence that will have any feeling person weeping by the second verse. "Yemaya" is a Santeria song praising the Mother of Orishas, the spirit of the sea. The quietly driving rhythm track blends Cuban and West African instruments, drums, balafons, banjos, booming udu clay drums, and shakers with passionate vocals from Chapman and Annie and Marie Burns. "Bad-e Saba" is a poem by Hafez set to music by Nader Majd, who shares lead vocals and plays tar. The simple droning arrangement fills the air with hovering overtones, while the vocals ornament the end of each line with quivering melismas. "Pilgrim of Sorrow" is one of the oldest-known Negro spirituals, probably written in the hold of slave ships on the way to the American South. The vocal arrangement by Chapman and Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock is stunning. "In Yonder Valley," another bravura a cappella performance, is one of the oldest-known Shaker hymns, a song that doesn't mention heaven or God, but rather the unity of all beings and the beauty of springtime coming after a long winter. Secular and sacred, newly written and ancient, fully orchestrated or delivered with a single voice, the songs all resonate with a deep spirituality that will awaken the timeless voice within us all.

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