As the old saying ‘gilding the lily’ implies, why try to improve what is already beautiful. With this in mind, we put together this wonderfully diverse and pure-sounding collection from some of the world’s most treasured and renowned musical cultures. By stripping away the veneer of unnecessary production and electronic elements, one can expose the true essence of musical traditions, and in a time where technology continues to turn up the volume of modern-day life, this is a welcome straight-from-the-source collection.
Nothing can beat the experience of listening to music in a live setting and being able to see, as well as hear, each pluck of a string or beat of a drum, and hopefully the uncluttered nature of these recordings brings you closer to the performer(s) from the comfort of your armchair. Of course, the process of recording is fundamentally an artificial medium through which we experience music, but all these tracks retain and deliver their musical message by keeping things as untampered with as possible, reinforcing the often-said phrase that ‘less is more’.
By its strictest definition, ‘unplugged’ involves using acoustic instruments only, without amplification. More broadly, the term means that what you hear does not rely heavily on electronic means, like a musical equivalent of ‘organic’ food. This is very much in evidence from the beginning with the wonderfully pure and refined opener ‘Izgreyala E Mesechinka’ by the Perunika Trio, whose a cappella sound is rooted in the forests of southern Bulgaria. Like many of the featured artists, their music invokes an earlier age when singing and vocal harmony were held in the greatest esteem. In fact, many of these artists are guardians of disappearing traditions such as the band Manhu from the Yunnan province in Southwest China, who give a unique insight into the music of the little-understood Sani culture, complete with the accompaniment of the humble leaf. Another such musical protector was the late, great Malam Mamane Barka from Niger, the world’s last master of the biram, an enormous boat-shaped five-string harp. With its hypnotic water-like sound it invokes the ghost of Kargila from the instrument’s home on the shores of Lake Chad.
In contrast we also feature artists that live in a ‘modern reality’ but are fascinated with disappearing sounds. Poland’s Chłopcy Kontra Basia are a case in point as they spin an original folktale and weave it with the stripped-back sound of voice, double bass, and percussion on ‘Krzywa Noga’ a sad story of a bow-legged girl who pines for an understanding lover. The Sambasunda Quintet of Bandung are another act with a ground-breaking approach to tradition, in their case to the music of West Java. Their spellbinding ‘Jaleuleu Ja’ is an innovative rendition of a tune sung by children when inviting their friends to come and play together.
Along with well-known musical traditions such as flamenco, tango and klezmer, this collection also brings to the fore other less-known styles including South African maskanda, born of the Zulu experience of labour migrancy. Sadly, Shiyani Ngcobo is another musician no-longer with us, however his legacy lives on in the heartfelt ‘Izinyembezi’, a beautiful example of his distinctive guitar picking.
Cross-cultural collaboration is also a key ingredient in this collection, beautifully highlighted by cellist David Darling and the Wulu Bunun people of Taiwan, who create a striking reinterpretation of an ancient vocal tradition. Another unlikely alliance is Monoswezi, a trans-national music collective whose name is a portmanteau from the first few letters of the members’ respective nationalities: Mozambique, Norway, Sweden, and Zimbabwe. To finish things off we have the fittingly entitled ‘Goodbye Again’, a stunning collaboration between two of East Asia’s finest traditional musicians – Chinese flautist Guo Yue and Japanese percussionist Joji Hirota.