Zmei3's Paula Turcas (photo by Marilena Delli)
Zmei3’s Paula Turcas (photo by Marilena Delli)

A soprano opera singer and a vibraphone comprise an unlikely musical pairing, especially when set against the backdrop of Transylvania’s largest mountain.

In August 2015, genre-breaking Romanian band Zmei3 brought their unique style of blues- and soul-influenced music to a region best known for its folk traditions.

Taking their name from a mythical dragon, the band crowdsourced funds to fly Grammy award-winning producer Ian Brennan to Transylvania to record their debut album Rough Romanian Soul (April 2016, Six Degrees Records).

Brennan collaborated with singer Paula Turcas, vibraphonist Oli Bott, guitarist Mihai Victor Iliescu, and double bassist Arnulf Ballhorn to record the album’s 15 beautifully raw-sounding tracks—many composed and performed for the first time on location.

Ahead of the band’s performance in the July 2016 WOMAD festival, Brennan spoke with Apsara about the process of working with Zmei3 and about the band’s innovative take on tradition.

Your work as a producer has spanned many different countries, including Zomba Prison Project, your recent Grammy-nominated album focusing on prisoners in Malawi. How did you first connect with Zmei3?

They reached out to me. Over the course of a year, we corresponded and then finally met in person and ultimately set a course for their debut album.

Zmei3 (photo by Marilena Delli)
Zmei3 (photo by Marilena Delli)

Rough Romanian Soul was recorded in the Transylvanian mountains, and you traveled to Romania to work with Zmei3. How did that environment influence the album?

I set Paula up so that she could look out over Romania’s main mountain, Mt. Omo (“Mount Man,” since it is claimed to look like a person lying prone), as she sang. We all slept and ate in the same building, so all energies were devoted to and in synch for the record for that week.

The members of Zmei3 come from diverse musical backgrounds. Singer Paula Turcas, for example originally sang soprano opera and Oli Bott’s vibraphone is the central instrument throughout the album. What was the process like of collaborating with these artists?

They all are united around the Romanian folk tradition. And Paula and Oli do an extraordinary job of using only the positive elements of their virtuosity and forgoing the rest to instead approach each song as “novices” putting truth before chops.

Although rooted in traditional Romanian music, Rough Romanian Soul is distinctly original and many songs describe life during or after the Communist era. What aspects of contemporary Romania do you feel the album captures?

The country of Romania is growing, but still has struggles. Many people—particularly in the north—continue to live in villages that are quite unchanged from earlier eras. Horse-drawn carriages are used, widows wear all black, and those who suicide are buried in separate graveyards. Zmei3 are classic in that they sound vintage and modern simultaneously, and they are able to achieve a timelessness that is rare.

In listening to Rough Romanian Soul, what would you most like people to take away from the music?

The physicality of the music is almost palpable. And emotional truth transcends language—you don’t have to know what someone is saying to understand what they “mean”…and if they truly mean it.

Zmei3 performs July 29th at WOMAD; Rough Romanian Soul is available from Six Degrees Records. 

July 7, 2016, S.L. Bhatia


Julien Baker (photo by Jake Cunningham)

Clouds hung in the evening sky and an unseasonably chill breeze rustled the May buds emerging on trees in front of London’s St. Pancras Old Church. Oblivious to the weather, small clusters of people chattered excitedly in the churchyard, waiting for the doors to open for the first of two sold-out London shows by Tennessee singer-songwriter Julien Baker.

Since moving to London from the San Francisco Bay Area in November 2014, I attend shows on a near weekly basis, including concerts by established U.S. artists like Damien Jurado and Heartless Bastards. Nonetheless, nothing prepared me for the open-armed London reception of a 20 year-old American singer-songwriter’s debut solo project from a small, American independent record label.

Released in October 2015, Baker’s album Sprained Ankle (6131 Records) recounts the young artist’s struggle as a teenager to overcome addiction and self-loathing. Sprained Ankle’s nine tracks sound as stripped back and straightforward as Baker’s startlingly mature lyrics about emergency room visits and sleeping in a park. In the United States, she has performed with fellow musician and fan Sharon Van Etten, and received critical praise from U.S. media as diverse as Pitchfork and the New Yorker.

Give me everything good, and I’ll throw it away
I wish that I could quit but I can’t stand the shakes
Choking to smoke, or singing your praise
But I think there’s a god and he hears either way when I rejoice and complain
-Julien Baker, “Rejoice”

Since the July 2015 global music industry shift to New Music Fridays, music fans throughout the world, including the UK and Europe, can now obtain digital and physical album copies the same day they are released. If anything, the six-month gap between the October 2015 release of Baker’s album Sprained Ankle and her London shows appears to have intensified her fans’ enthusiasm to see her perform.

I arrived at St. Pancras Old Church with the hope of placing my name on a waiting list, and expecting to hear the sound of American voices among the crowd growing in front of the church door. Within three minutes I managed to purchase, at face value, an extra ticket from a university student, who had flown down from Glasgow for the show. Laughing, she told me her older brother could not attend at the last minute, and she was glad to recoup her “10 quid.”

Joining a small group of people talking near the arched entryway, we met a man from Budapest, who had also traveled to London specifically for the show. He held a ticket for the next night’s gig at the Forge, a venue in London’s Camden Town neighborhood.

When I mentioned to the group my challenge in purchasing a ticket for either concert, someone suggested that they had sold out as early as December. Perhaps even more than their enthusiasm to attend shows, the people I spoke with clearly respected Baker’s music and Baker herself as an artist. I listened as they recounted the online interviews and performances they had watched, sharing a deep knowledge of the young musician.

Later, seating ourselves in the dusky, lamp-lit church, the university student and I met a young Australian woman, excited to catch Baker during a visit to her sister. She also planned to attend the show at the Forge. Due to the long flight times to Australia and the sheer size of the continent country, she said, fewer non-mainstream, international artists like Baker tour Australia.

London’s St. Pancras Old Church (photo by flickr / DncnH)

Our row quickly filled with other solo concertgoers, including a gentleman who proudly showed us the marble-edition vinyl copy of Sprained Ankle he had ordered from the United States. He also displayed the marker he had brought in the hope of getting his album signed at the end of the evening.

While we talked, St. Pancras Old Church continued to fill with people, ranging from a group of middle-aged Baker fans sitting in a front row of seats to East London hipsters standing in the back. At one point, Baker herself dashed down the aisle, cell phone in hand, unnoticed amidst the growing excitement for her performance.

When she eventually stepped in front of the audience, the dusky candle and lamplight around her casting a soft light on her face and guitar, the audience fell completely silent. Realizing the candles burning near her feet were real, Baker said, “These are a bit of a fire hazard.” Smiling somewhat sheepishly, she said in her soft Tennessee accent, “I’m just joking, of course.”

Part of Baker’s appeal as a performer, like her music, is her self-aware and also humble stage presence. Experienced enough to perform without an auto tuner, she stopped briefly mid-performance to manually tune her guitar. Apologizing, she transitioned effortlessly into another set of songs, laying bare her life experiences to the audience of nearly 200 people.

Baker sang, with sincere simplicity, most of the songs from Sprained Ankle, as well as new pieces like “Funeral Pyre.” Small in stature, but clearly at home with her guitar and lyrics, Baker’s music went straight to the heart of the audience.  Next to me, the university student wiped away tears during the performance, as she had predicted she would.

After the show ended with Baker playing “Go Home” on the piano, I thanked my new friend again for selling me her extra ticket. Glad for release from the unforgiving wooden church seats, but reluctant to leave, we and the other audience members slowly started to disperse. Wishing one another a goodnight, many people made plans to meet at Baker’s show at the Forge the next night.

Baker’s own performance moved me, but I was equally touched by the audience. I did not meet another American during the evening, and, a significant number of people I met had traveled from other parts of the UK—and even from other countries—just to see Baker perform on a Wednesday night.

London welcomed Julien Baker with open arms this spring, and I expect to see her touring here again before too long—perhaps next time selling out even larger venues.

Learn more about Julien Baker, including her upcoming U.S. tour schedule.

June 20, 2016, S. L. Bhatia


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Portobello Road musician, part of the “One Five Zero” series by Fiona Hawthorne

After a three-year hiatus, including a move across the ocean, Apsara Music is back. Formerly based in the San Francisco Bay Area, we’ve been settling into London over the past year and a half. Please consider this our “soft opening”—we have some broken Soundcloud and image links to fix. We’re excited to be back, and to bring you more of our favorite music, with a new focus on independent artists and labels from around the world. Apsara is still committed to highlighting innovative genre- and tradition-crossing music, and everything in between.


I’ve had to take a hiatus from Apsara for several months, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to interview folk artist Kelli Rae Powell, whose latest album has taught me more than a thing or two about the versatility and beauty of the ukulele.

Joe Brent, mandolin; Shaky Dave Pollack, blues harp; Kelli Rae Powell, voice and uke; and Jim McNamara, upright bass. (courtesy the artist)
Joe Brent, mandolin; Shaky Dave Pollack, blues harp; Kelli Rae Powell, voice and uke; and Jim McNamara, upright bass. (courtesy the artist)

Think you know the ukulele? Meet folk singer-songwriter Kelli Rae Powell, who since 2003 has made this much misunderstood “baby guitar” her instrument of choice.

Cradling it in her arms, Powell knows how to bring out the best in her ukulele. Its gentle tones nimbly carry the melody for her sweet, yet powerful voice on solos, and adeptly serves as lead instrument in an ensemble of blues harp, upright bass, and mandolin.

Powell, an Iowa-native now living in New York, draws inspiration from Dolly Parton and Billie Holiday for the musical poems about life that she weaves. Her latest album Live at Jalopy, is a flawless offering of wit and sensitivity, which also captures a special evening in Powell’s life at Brooklyn’s Jalopy Theatre and School of Music.

In a recent interview, Powell describes her love of the ukulele and her favorite music venue, and shares about the exciting next chapter of her life.

The ukulele is perhaps one of the more misunderstood, and underappreciated instruments. When did you first encounter the ukulele, and what about this instrument led you to make it a focus of your music?

In 2003, I acted in a play and the director wanted my character to play ukulele. I loved performing with the uke so much that I just couldn’t stop. The ukulele fits in my arms perfectly. I love its small size, its portability, and the beauty of its sound. No one expects the poignant tones a ukulele can make.

In my angry twenties I would go to open mics wielding my little uke and the guitar boys would always make fun of me, saying: “What a cute baby guitar!” They all shut their traps when it was my turn to perform, though. That was fun.

There seems to be strains of jazz, blues, and folk influences in your music—who are the musicians who most inspire you?

When I was very young, I used to listen to Dolly Parton on my record player. Then I would tape myself singing her songs and play them back—I was listening to myself and trying to sound just like her. In high school I had a CD of Billie Holiday’s Verve recordings. I listened to that album every day for probably three years. Those women shaped my taste in music more than any other artists I can think of. They are storytellers of the highest order.

Kelli Rae Powell's Live at JalopyHow did you come to record a live album at Jalopy, and what about this venue provided the right backdrop for it?

My first performance at Jalopy was in the midst of a huge blizzard. I opened for songwriters Al Duvall and Bliss Blood. We all trudged through the snow towards Red Hook [Brooklyn] fairly certain there wouldn’t be anyone at our show. Jalopy didn’t have a liquor license at that time, so we brought bottles of red wine. We basically played for each other all night and drank as the snow piled up around us. It was magical. The owners Lynette and Geoff Wiley never seem to care about how many people you can draw. They like my songs, so they let me book shows there.

The audience at Jalopy is extremely respectful—they come for the music. They sit in the old church pews and listen to your stories. There isn’t any other venue for me in the world. When I gathered the courage to record a live album, there was no question that I would record it at the Jalopy Theatre and School of Music.

Your songs range from beautiful, simple descriptions of the first moments of falling in love, to more humorous reflections on living and loving. Are you drawing on your own experiences, or more generally on the stories of others?

These are my stories. Some of the details will be slightly altered for dramatic effect or to protect the innocent, but, even if the details aren’t necessarily true, the stories are. The songs on this live album are the songs I wrote about losing my grandmother and finding my husband Jim (my husband Jim McNamara is the upright bass player on this recording and on my previous album New Words For Old Lullabies).

The experience of recording this album was an absolute celebration for Jim and me. Our favorite musicians joined us on stage that night: Shaky Dave Pollack on blues harp and Joe Brent on mandolin and violin. The occasion was made doubly special, because just days before the live recording we learned we were pregnant. We were giddy that we captured that special night.

What project are you planning next?

My next album will probably be full of lullabies written for my little girl. I’ve already written a bundle for her.

“Some Bridges are Good to Burn”


Some albums take a while to warm up to, but every so often I come across one I know is going to be a fixture in my music collection for a long time. The first few bars of harmonica on Senegalese singer-songwriter Badu Boye’s new release We Can Win decided it for me.

"We Can Win" by Badu BoyeBadu Boye’s open-hearted harmonica, guitar, and vocals on We Can Win evoke Bob Dylan at his best in the early 1960s, but with a thoroughly contemporary edge incorporating electric guitar, bass, drums, trumpet, violin, cello, mandolin, and other instruments. Composed individually, the songs represent different musical moments from over a decade, including “Mboolo Mi” from the 1997 album Woyou Talibé, which Badu released with Pape Armand Boye, his brother and the producer of We Can Win.

The Boye brothers debuted on Senegalese television in the early 1990s with a sound that was a bit different during a time when synthesized mbalax music dominated the airwaves: a simple pairing of acoustic guitar and bass. Through their ground-breaking early performances and recordings, they led the establishment of acoustic music as a genre still thriving today in Senegal.

A current of optimism runs throughout We Can Win, not least of all in the title track’s call for positive development and image building across Africa. “Everything single thing I do is to make you proud,” Badu sings. “I know that we can win—yes we can.” On “Senegal,” one of the album’s very strongest tracks, he describes the experience of living abroad while still cherishing the country he has left behind: “Everything is beautiful, but I’m homesick for Senegal my country. I’m sure that one day I’ll be back!”

The album’s arrangements are layered around Badu’s signature harmonica and acoustic guitar, and are filled with bursts of shimmering, beautiful sound when you least expect them. Sukjong Hong’s violin catches you unawares with its pure sweet sound on “Politique,” while Will Martina’s cello ripples in and out of the melody toward the end of “Mboolo Mi.” Of all of the tracks though, the loveliest of all perhaps is “Melokaan,” a simple arrangement with Badu’s brother joining him on acoustic guitar.

We Can Win is one of those albums I pull out when I need a gentler perspective on life after a harsh day, and more than deserves its place as a long-term fixture in my music collection. Samples of the tracks can be previewed on Badu’s website.


Fifteen minutes after San Francisco’s Mezzanine opened its doors for the evening last Thursday, I could already tell it was well worth staying out late on a weeknight to hear Chilean reggae stars Gondwana and the legendary Wailers perform.

Aston Barrett with a new generation of Wailers (courtesy the artists)

Reggae music fans steadily filled the club over the next half hour. Some congregated around the bar ordering drinks or chatting, while many danced to the mix of reggae, world music, and hip hop spun by San Francisco-based DJ Julicio. In a far corner, a vendor pulled toasted empanadas from a small portable oven for hungry audience members.

Beneath the friendly, laidback vibe, excitement stirred as the dance floor filled with more and more people. Gondwana entered Mezzanine around 10 PM, skirting the edge of the dance floor on their way backstage. One fan raced after them, grinning from ear to ear as band members stopped to pose for a photograph and shake hands with him outside the stage door.

When Gondwana came out a short while later, the audience went wild and pressed closer to the stage. The band’s performance hung together nicely, with ballads such as “Piensame” and crowd-pleasing numbers like “Irie.” Only the electric guitar-charged “Revolucion”—a surprisingly intense song—stood out a little.

Gondwana’s band members clearly love performing together and interacting with their audiences, and their energy spread throughout the crowd at this concert. Their Bay Area fans turned out in full force for the show, but whether people came specifically for Gondwana or for the Wailers didn’t matter. Those who knew the lyrics sang along with Gondwana’s MC Jona, and everyone else enjoyed dancing. The crowd came to the show, first and foremost, for good reggae.

After Gondwana closed with a rendition of the Wailers’ “Could You Be Loved,” DJ Stepwise, a Bay Area-based DJ and producer, came out and played a 30-minute set of classics-heavy roots reggae and dancehall. Mezzanine was fully packed by the time he wound down, but there was still enough space to dance and the good-natured energy of the audience kept flowing.

The Wailers stepped out onto the stage to an explosion of cheers and whistles. After warming up with an all-instrumental set and performing numbers from their mid- to late-1970s repertoire such as “Roots Rock Reggae” and “Natural Mystic,” the band moved into the “standards” known and beloved by all, including “I Shot the Sherriff” and “Stir it Up.” The evening’s crowning moment was, of course, the entire club singing “One Love” together.

Even with a new lineup of younger members, including lead singer Koolant, it felt throughout the show as if Bob Marley was there with the band too. Bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett, who originally performed with Marley, still plays with the group with undiminished energy and a steady hand, and the music hasn’t lost any of its original spirit.

There’s something to be said for a band that continues to draw large enthusiastic audiences after four decades—that’s the hallmark of good music. And whether we realize it or not, we all have Wailers lyrics stored away somewhere in the depths of our subconscious, and to have a chance to sing along at an actual Wailers concert is an experience not soon to be forgotten.

Gondwana performs Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Concrete Jungle”

The June 7 Gondwana-Wailers concert was presented by Earshot Entertainment.


Somewhere between electro-acoustic and folk, and between forest and ocean, emerges the music of Arborea, a husband-and-wife duo from Maine.

Arborea: Shanti and Buck Curran (courtesy the artists)

Since releasing their first album Wayfaring Summer in 2006, Buck and Shanti Curran have toured regularly across the United States and Europe, absorbing sounds and experiences along the way that filter into their music.

Red Planet (Strange Attractors Audio House, 2011), Arborea’s most recent album, conjures images of barren landscapes and misty forests; of sunny afternoons and contemplative hours; and the happy, although swift, passage of time.

The minor key and atmospheric electric guitar of tracks like “Phantasmagoria in Two” and “Wolves” lends a touch of mystery to the album, which is balanced by the lighter sounds of “Spain” and “A Little Time.”

Buck and Shanti both skillfully play a large number of instruments—guitar, banjo, and harmonium to name only a few—and Red Planet features a handful of instrumental tracks, such as “Fossil Sea.” Shanti sings on most of the songs though, in a warm, sweet-sounding voice at times tinged with plaintiveness.

Arborea’s music is captivating and unconventional in a way that keeps you wanting to experience more, and it’s well worth setting aside some time to listen to one of their albums.

Already this spring, the duo has performed at SXSW and on NPR for a Tiny Desk Concert. They took time out of their busy schedule, which includes touring and homeschooling their two children, to catch up with Apsara in an e-mail interview.

Arborea’s music has been dubbed as “psych folk,” “indie folk,” etc. How would you describe it?

We’ve been called “avant folk,” “indie folk,” “psych folk,” “dream folk,” “free folk,” “folk rock”…but it’s not strictly folk. With elements of rock, blues, and Eastern modal music, you might describe it more as “soundscapes.” More often than not, our music is created as if it were a soundtrack for the landscapes and environments we’re moving through or interacting with, so it’s really impossible to say it’s just one thing. A lot of people associate us with forests and mountains, but we’re equally inspired by the power of the ocean and the rugged coast of Maine, as well as countries we often visit: Ireland and Wales, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.

Your first album Wayfaring Summer came out in 2006, and you recently released your fourth album Red Planet. In what ways has your music evolved over this span of time?

Our music has evolved quite a bit over the past seven years. We’ve gotten so much stronger and intuitive as a duo because we’ve dedicated everything we have to playing music and spend most of our time each year touring throughout the US, UK, and Europe. We heard a term recently in an old interview with Marc Bolan (T. Rex), in which he talked about the reality of life as an artist and touring, and how you don’t make a lot of money. But you do it because you “live your environment”—and that’s exactly what we do.

Red Planet features renditions of “Black is the Colour” and “Careless Love” alongside your own compositions. How did you approach interpreting these traditional songs, which have been performed by musicians from many different genres?

“Careless Love” is actually two distinct traditional songs. One version is a folk song about pregnancy, and the other is a blues song about frivolous love (Bessie Smith recorded a notable version in 1925). It’s origin though is an anonymous poem. Shanti randomly discovered the short poem in an old literature book and at the time we didn’t know about the other versions. We took words from the poem, then composed the song with our own rhythm, melody, and song structure. Our song is linked closer to the folk song, with the references to young love and pregnancy, and wearing the apron high and low.

“Black is the Colour” is our own arrangement of a version that’s on the 1987 Martin Simpson and Jessica Radcliffe album True Dare or Promise. That song was passed down to Jessica from her mother, and most likely the source of the version that’s best known comes from the American composer and collector of traditional ballads John Jacob Niles. It’s a song with Scottish origins, brought to the Appalachians by immigrants from Scotland. The River Clyde in Glasgow is referenced in the lyrics and shows direct lineage to Scotland. We also have a version of “This Little Light of Mine” that we recorded for an Odetta tribute. Interpreting traditional songs can be a really fluid process and a lot of fun, because you have a solid reference point from which to start. Our approach is quite simple because the framework of the song is established. We can then improvise with all the existing parts: varying the melody, removing words, and adding new ones. One thing that’s of great importance to us is making sure that there’s plenty of space in the recording so the melody can shine through. That’s how we try to produce all of our music though, not just traditional songs.

This month, you performed a lovely, three-song Tiny Desk Concert at the NPR headquarters. What was this experience like?

We had such a great time! Bob Boilen and all of the crew at NPR are really down to earth and professional, so it made for a relaxing, fun experience. We homeschool our kids, and they were on tour with us and also got to see the NPR headquarters. After our session, NPR let us keep our van in their garage, so we took an amazing family walk around Washington, DC, and eventually ended up at the Air and Space Museum.

Arborea on NPR Music


Jef Stott’s new album Arcana invites listeners to follow a strong, snaking bass line to a place of skillfully balanced power and peace.

A female voice mingles with a buzzing bass line for a few moments and then crescendos through and above it on “Deep Playa,” the opening track of Arcana, San Francisco-based musician Jef Stott’s latest album.

Throughout the entire recording, Stott merges vocals and acoustic instrumentals—at once ageless- and ancient-sounding—with electronic beats and percussion loops. He pairs the future with the past and strength with sensitivity, revisiting many previous collaborations along the way.

“This album is like a scrapbook of my whole career,” said Stott during a recent interview. “Sonja Drakulich from Stellamara is on it, for example, and she and I hadn’t worked together in more than 10 years. There’s also some motifs from earlier pieces that I’ve written.”

Stott, who has been releasing albums since the late 1990s, never completely stepped away from music while pursuing a career path in a different direction and a master’s degree in interactive media. But Arcana represents his renewed focus on music after life dealt him a series of blows, and symbolizes his coming back to the beginning and re-gathering strength.

“The sound of the album is me artistically and personally reclaiming space,” he said. “It’s letting the world know—and letting myself know—that I’m still here and that I still have something to say.”

Arcana draws on Stott’s years of expertise in Middle Eastern music, including studying with oud virtuoso Hamza El Din, and on his success as a DJ at festivals like Burning Man. But at the album’s heart is actually a much earlier and simpler musical experience.

“I started playing guitar when I was around 11 or 12 years old, and went through all of the permutations—punk rock, heavy metal, and all sorts of different things,” he said. “For Arcana, I started working with acoustic guitar.”

Jef Stott playing oud (courtesy the artist)

Stott built upon this six-string foundation with lush, synthesized sounds and with skillful juxtapositions and looped recordings of talented friends like singer MC Rai, tabla player Jason McKenzie, and multi-instrumentalist Eliyahu Sills. On “Hero’s Return,” for example, Stott interspersed segments of Sills playing bansuri, an Indian bamboo devotional flute, throughout the track.

“There was a lot of editing in the bansuri parts because I didn’t want it to overpower the song,” he said. “I had to find just little pockets and phrases that were going to complement the melody.”

The intense bass line from “Deep Playa” snakes its way throughout Arcana, stopping short of the final track “White Tara.” Compared with his earlier recordings, the powerful sound of Arcana may take some listeners by surprise.

“I kind of stepped out of the shadows on this one,” Stott said. “What I was trying to do was just to be really open and lay it all out emotionally—that was my main goal with this record.”

Even with the bumpy road Stott encountered before recording the album—or perhaps because of it—Arcana presents a perfect balance of power and peace. It tells the story of coming full circle, and of honoring the past while welcoming the future.

Arcana is now available on Six Degrees Records.

“Deep Playa” from Arcana


Israeli musician Idan Raichel shares the incredible story of jamming with Malian guitar virtuoso Vieux Farka Touré and uncovering a diamond.

Vieux Farka Touré (left) and Idan Raichel in concert. (Nitzan Treystman)

Two years ago Vieux Farka Touré and Idan Raichel met in a rehearsal room in a south Tel Aviv recording studio simply to jam. Deciding it would make good archive material, they recorded the spontaneous three-hour session.

“There was something about this session that just brought out our love of music,” Raichel said during a recent phone interview.

A week later Jacob Edgar from Cumbancha Records contacted Raichel with the idea of turning the session recording into an album. Raichel initially hesitated at the thought of cutting down the 15- to 20-minute improvised melodies into album tracks. But after spending a few months listening to the recording, he realized it resembled an unpolished “diamond” and took on the task of producing the album.

Raichel’s work paid off in the form of 11 shining tracks. Under the name the Touré-Raichel Collective, The Tel Aviv Session was released on Cumbancha last week. The four musicians from the original session—Touré (guitar), Raichel (piano), Souleymane Kane (calabash), and Yossi Fine (bass)—form the core of this acoustic album. A select group of guest artists, including harmonica player Frédéric Yonnet and singer Cabra Casay, also lent their talent to the album.

“Vieux Farka Touré and I are very song- and production-oriented, so it was a very different experience for us,” Raichel said. “[But] The Tel Aviv Session album ended up as one of the most exciting works that I have ever done as a musician.”

During production, Raichel kept the album focused on the original 2010 session, especially the unrehearsed musical exchange between the artists and the overall atmosphere of the studio. Like on a jazz recording, the musicians take turns leading, and when they all play together they create shimmering cyclones of sound. An occasional breath or sigh even comes through on the recording. Listening, it is easy to imagine the excitement and connection between the musicians during the session.

“[With the album,] I tried to emphasize the best part of each musician,” Raichel said. “But the most important thing was still the communication between the four of us.”

There is a feeling of freedom and experimentation on the album, and even of heightened virtuosic ability. On the track “Bamba,” for example, Raichel plays glissandos and plucks the strings of the studio’s grand piano to create the sound of a West African kora. Touré’s dazzling finger work and tone especially come through on tracks like “Hawa” and “Ai Houde Bakoi.”

The guest musicians also add energy and texture to the album. Yonnet’s high-power harmonica playing on “Touré,” for example, shakes up the middle of the album, escalating the rhythm to a foot-stomping pace. And Mark Eliyahu’s haunting kamanche weaves in and out of the melody on “Alem,” until it fades away with Touré’s guitar and closes the album.

Touré and Raichel in the studio together. (Nitzan Treystman)
Touré and Raichel in the studio together. (Nitzan Treystman)

The Touré-Raichel Collective begins a two-week tour of the United States and Canada on Apr. 13. Tapping into the spirit of the 2010 session, they will improvise around the album’s tracks.

“What we will try to do onstage is not to play the album, but to play the idea of the album,” Raichel said.

The concerts, like the album, provide a unique opportunity to experience Touré and Raichel—two of the most talented musicians of their generation—come together in such a personal and open style of performing. And it creates an uncommon experience for the musicians too, like discovering a diamond.

“Special moments like the Tel Aviv session are very rare,” Raichel said. “And we are very lucky to have them.”

Join the tour on Twitter for backstage photos and insights from the road.


Appalachian Mountain dulcimer doesn’t always take center stage in American folk music, let alone in a rock band. But in the band Twang Darkly, it gets the spotlight.

The Sound of Secret Names (Mar. 2012), the first studio album by Shreveport-based rock trio Twang Darkly, breaks out of the standard mountain dulcimer folk repertoire with songs that could just change the way we view this unassuming Appalachian string instrument.

Twang Darkly founder Michael Futreal, a North Carolina native and multi-instrumentalist who Apsara featured last August, bought his first dulcimer in college and hasn’t looked back since. After experimenting with “Appalachian rock” on several of his own albums, The Sound of Secret Names firmly establishes Futreal as an innovator of this genre, and especially of the dulcimer.

Futreal and bandmates Troy Messina (percussion) and Joel Boultinghouse (upright bass and electric guitar) have released an all-instrumental album of beautiful folk rock, gritty roadhouse rockabilly, and harmonica-fueled blues. Twang Darkly specializes in improvisation, and although the album was recorded in Futreal’s home studio, several of the songs are first-takes.

The Sound of Secret Names features acoustic and electric dulcimer, harmonica, flute, and banjo. It draws inspiration from Bruce Springsteen, Mark Knopfler, Jethro Tull, and Tom Waits, as well as surf rock, spaghetti western and 1970s television soundtracks, and a whole host of other musical influences.

But this isn’t a crazy quilt of sounds. Futreal, Messina, and Boultinghouse have created something that’s both entirely original and rooted in musical traditions from Appalachia and the American southeast. We look forward to future releases from Twang Darkly, and hope to see them at SXSW next year.

Apsara spoke to Futreal recently to get the story behind this intriguingly named album.

Twang Darkly: Troy Messina (L), Joel Boultinghouse, and Michael Futreal (courtesy the artist)

How has Twang Darkly evolved as a band since Live from Wire Mountain (Feb. 2011), your first set of recordings?

In one simple respect, on a technical level, I’ve built a recording setup that is appropriate to capturing a band live in multiple tracks, allowing for a proper studio mixing approach without diminishing our live mojo. My previous studio setup, as employed on Devil’s Stomping Ground for instance, was entirely geared towards me working alone to layer together different instruments. I did some overdubs on this album working in that way, but the primary essence of each track was born from a live take on which we played together in some combination.

Our primary power as a band is the resonance that allows us to improvise together upon a loosely structured “song” idea. Though I’m the primary “writer” of our material, what happens when we perform together is emergent and it’s always beyond what I imagine for any particular piece.

We’ve played a lot of shows together since we captured Live from Wire Mountain as a kind of field recording, and the accumulation of that experience puts us all very much more on the same wavelength. We have a feel for how to work together that lets us do things that surprise us all and approach new ideas very fluidly and rapidly. We took advantage of that in the recording process to capture some stuff that was very fresh. For instance, two of the songs, “From Flatlands Starlings Rise” and “The Beautiful Years Roll,” were first-takes on the same day that I introduced those pieces to the band. Similarly, Joel doesn’t even remember recording “Pastime with Good Company.” But if I start a song, he just starts playing along and we ride it where it leads—that’s what happened with that one.

What’s behind the name: The Sound of Secret Names?

The idea of “secret names” appeals to me primarily through the folkloric notion of something’s true name holding a magical power over that thing—a power to conjure or to hold, for instance. A good literary exploration of this idea is found very prominently in Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books, of which I’m very fond, but it’s an idea I’ve run across many times from a wide variety of sources ranging from Tolkien to Springsteen.

The given titles to instrumental pieces hold a power of suggestion over how people experience listening, but I also like to think that these pieces all have other secret names that will vary from listener to listener. For example, what to me paints an impression of how it felt to behold a particular desert landscape at a certain point in my emotional history will, for another, call upon other scenes and feelings appropriate to their own imagination and memory. The song they hear will have a different secret name than the song I hear. They may not even know the name they would choose, as they may not be accustomed to navigating such impressions or making such choices. But if they feel the music, then that name is there, if perhaps just out of their grasp.

Two songs on the album feature very beautiful, very organic-sounding flute—what type were you playing?

On “Her Secret Name,” I’m playing a bamboo renaissance flute that my parents gave me back in my college days. I actually learned to play that thing in a place at North Carolina State University called the “Free Expression Tunnel,” a pedestrian tunnel under the railroad tracks that bisect the campus. I used to go down there at nights and play as people painted (it was the place on campus where graffiti was officially sanctioned), enjoying the wonderful echoes that made even the simplest bits of music into magic.

On “Spirit Defenders of Nikwasi,” I’m playing a Native American-style double flute. It actually has two pipes, one of which serves as a drone as you play through the divided mouthpiece. That flute, which is made of aromatic cedar, was built by a fellow named Odell Borg out in Arizona. I adore that flute—the drone set against the other pipe’s scale makes it the wind equivalent of a dulcimer to my way of thinking, so it’s a natural fit to my particular musical brain. I’d only had it a short time when we recorded that song, but that conceptual mapping makes it a natural instrument for me.