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New music from Soapkills, the Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble and The Breath

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The Breath - "This Dance Is Over"
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If you love music, but don't have the time to keep up with what's new, you should listen to Tuesday Reviewsday. Every week our critics join our hosts in the studio to talk about what you should be listening to, in one short segment. This week, music journalist Steve Hochman joins A Martinez.​

Artist: Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble
Album: "Fire, Sweat and Pastis"
Songs: "The Road is Long," "Djigbo"

So, Finnish guitarist Janne Halonen goes to Benin in West Africa, forms a collaboration with local singer-percussionist Noël Saïzonou that grows into a full band with players from both countries and it winds up sounding like… Earth, Wind & Fire? Well, that’s one of the impressions from this buoyant, bubbly and thoroughly pleasurable new album "Fire, Sweat and Pastis," notably in the opening song "The Road is Long," with the horn-powered funk here and there evoking the golden joy of classic ‘70s EWF. Elsewhere it brings together buoyant Afrobeat and electric Euro-jazz, some things in English others in Gounn, Saïzonou’s native dialect, in a notably natural-sounding mesh — no imposition, no need for either party to bend to the other. It’s a rare fusion that truly fuses. And it’s a fuse that ignites.

It’s not a big surprise for anyone familiar with some of the exciting music coming from Benin in the last generation —  the gripping, multi-faceted artistry of Angelique Kidjo most prominent, but also such figures as innovative jazz guitarist Lionel Loueke, showing Benin as a land of many musical streams, from the traditional village songs to the Jimi Hendrix and Santana records that took their own root there after coming in through the Cotonou ports.

It was the astonishing and distinctive playing of Loueke, via his role in Herbie Hancock’s band, that captivated Halonen to the point that in 2009 he made a pilgrimage to Cotonou in Benin, there being introduced to Saïzonou. The partnership clicked quickly, Saïzonou soon making several trips to Helsinki for writing and recording sessions, putting together a core quartet lineup and after just a few shows, releasing a debut album in 2013. The next year, Halonen returned to Benin and a new phase began leading to the expanded, highly spirited sounds on the new album. And speaking of spirited, the Pastis of the album title, if you didn’t know, is an anise-flavored French liqueur. 

Make no mistake, this is an African album first and foremost. The high-power rhythms, stacks of vocal chants, percolating Vodun drums and choppy guitar lines all are firmly on West African ground. Nowhere is that stronger than on the rollicking "Djigbo." But throughout, this is music of two cultures, two artist from two cultures, working together as one.

Artist: Soapkills
Album: "The Best of Soapkills"
Songs: "Cheftak," "Tango"

There’s an eerie calm to much of the music of Soapkills. Well, it came from a time of relative calm, eerie at best, in Beirut in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, sounds forged by musician Zeid Hamdan and singer Yasmine Hamdan — no relation — representing an emerging youth culture that had known little but conflict. They were both born in 1976, a year after brutal civil war erupted in Lebanon, only giving way to an uneasy truce when they were teens, after hundreds of thousands dead and wounded and perhaps a million people displaced. Somehow, Soapkill’s distinct and entrancing mix of dark-hued electronics and classical Arab music inspirations captures that time. Even the duo’s name evokes a sense of lurking danger and uncertainty, musician Zeid having explained that the rebuilding of the city going on at the time seemed tenuous and fraught.

Soapkills split in the early 2000s, with Yasmine in particular going on to projects meeting some success in the Middle East and Europe. Listening to this now, in this compilation marking the first full U.S. release of Soapkills’ music, comes with knowledge that the peace, such as it was, proved tenuous, violent conflict erupting again in 2005 with the car-bomb assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Harrari. At the same time, it is tied to generations of tradition (and, yes, conflict) through Yasmine’s melodies and techniques, which shape and dominate even the most dub and trip-hop tracks, not the other way around as if often the case with these kind of ethno-electronics projects.

 "Cheftak," for one example, uses a loping bass in a very dubby context, but always fitting the contours of the vocals. And on "Tango" the duo reached an impressionistic peak, starting with an Arabic orchestra sample sounding as if being heard through a layer of blankets, before Yasmine’s voice breaks through, echoing through bombed-out walls and echoed by ghostly wails. Eerie, perhaps. Calm, maybe. But hardly calming.

Artist: The Breath
Album: "Carry Your Kin"
Songs: "This Dance is Over," "Tremelone"

Peter Gabriel’s Real World label and studio in Bath, England, were established in the ‘80s as a place where artists from different cultures and traditions could come together in mutually inspiring collaborations. The Afro-Celt Sound System and Pakistani qawwali star Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s teamings with Canadian producer/sonic sculptor Michael Brook among the notable projects. The Breath may not span physical or cultural geography quite so dramatically, teaming Manchester-raised guitarist Stuart McCallum with singer Ríoghnach [REE uh nah] Connolly from the town of Armagh in Northern Ireland. But the combination of their very different roots and viewpoints at times on this debut album, well, breathtaking.

McCallum comes to this from the aptly named Manchester band Cinematic Orchestra, known for sweeping, lush sounds. Connolly has deep ties in rural Irish folk music, the sounds of her ancestors, embodied in a voice at once lilting and earthy. Each makes full use of their talents, McCallum (joined by two other Cinematic alums in pianist John Ellis and drummer Luke Flowers) builds flowing layers of sound that billow around Connolly’s melodies, while she uses that to propel emotions of the hearth and hardships of home, never over-singing, never sounding a note unconnected to those roots. It’s not folk music, not pop music, however much it might touch on both.

"The Dance is Over" even alludes to Radiohead’s "Everything In Its Right Place" in its shifting piano lines, though the ice-encased frostiness of the latter is replaced with a warm heart here, if a heart that seems a bit guarded and cautious, hurt even, as the title suggest. That’s a mood and feel that threads throughout the album, human at all turns. The peak, perhaps, is the closing song, "Tremelone," soaring to a symphonic swell, layers and layers of instruments and voice, darting and trilling and thrilling.