Best of the Year lists are coming up, yes? I won't lie, I actually LOVE these! I write two each year and love doing it, I dunno I think it's a great way to look back at the music I loved from this year and it gives me a push to dig a little deeper to see what I missed. Chief Adjuah's album of New Orleans Creole Carnival music was my big miss of the year. Just discovered it a month ago and it blew me away. Saw him in Seattle recently and it was a powerful experience. Here's a list of the music I've been working with in 2023! From as far afield as Malawi and West Africa all the way to Indigenous North America and Appalachia.
EARS OF THE PEOPLE: Ekonting Songs from Senegal and The Gambia
The first album of West African ekonting music, Ears of the People: Ekonting Songs from Senegal and Gambia is a testament to the endurance of music and tradition across the gulf of centuries and some of the most brutal history imaginable. It’s also a showcase for living traditions in West Africa, and for the wealth of stories and beauty that a humble, handmade instrument can hold. Though it's generally acknowledged today that the American banjo came originally from Africa and should be considered an African instrument, for many years the question remained as to what African instrument exactly was the source of the banjo? Scholars, including Pete Seeger, pointed to instruments like the Wolof xalam or the Mandinka ngoni as possible antecedents, but it took the work of pioneering Gambian ethnomusicologist Daniel Laemou-Ahuma Jatta (who also wrote the album's foreword) to show the Senegalese and Gambian ekonting (also spelled “akonting”) as a particularly likely source. In the evening, after work, Jatta’s father played this three-stringed, gourd instrument popular among the Jola people.
What’s remarkable about this recording is just how alive and vital the ekonting’s music is today in Senegal and Gambia. The songs on this album, taken from recordings in Senegal made by ethnomusicologist Scott Linford of nine ekonting players, are full of life. Many of the songs are inspired by the rivalries and clashes between West African wrestlers, but other songs speak of life and love, or of the tribulations of violence and conflict. Despite being separated over centuries from its New World progeny, the West African ekonting’s unique strumming position (one finger strikes down on a longer string while the thumb follows after on a shorter string) is still today one of the most popular banjo strumming techniques, known as “clawhammer banjo.” Just as the banjo today tells a uniquely American story in our own voices, the West African ekonting tells the story of the Jola of Senegal and Gambia today, as they live their lives.
At its heart, bluegrass music is about what happens when you commit to the moment. The joy of improvisation keeps the music fresh, and the fun of crafting ideas on the fly keeps the musicians on their toes. This true spirit of bluegrass infuses the self-titled record from Mighty Poplar, a new all-star roots project featuring Andrew Marlin of Watchhouse, Noam Pikelny and Chris Eldridge of Punch Brothers, bassist Greg Garrison (Leftover Salmon) and fiddler Alex Hargreaves (Billy Strings) coming March 31, 2023 on Free Dirt Records. Regarded as some of the finest players of their generation, the playing is never showy and always in service of the song. Though Pikelny, Eldridge, Garrison all knew each other from their early work with Punch Brothers, impromptu backstage jams with Marlin at festivals across the country were the key that unlocked the project. A lifelong song collector, Marlin selected and sang lead on most of the songs here, bringing classics as well as deep cuts from greats like Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard, John Hartford, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Norman Blake. Throughout, the songs and tunes are as immediate and emotionally impactful as the playing is tasteful. Gathered knee-to-knee in a rural studio outside Nashville, the collaborative 10-track album emerged organically over a few days. “It felt so special and effortless; it didn’t take work,” says Eldridge, “other than the work and effort we’ve put in the rest of our lives.” With their debut album, Mighty Poplar has captured the fierce and playful energy of an all-night jam between old friends who just happen to be grandmasters of the music.
CINDER WELL - Cadence
Oceans flow through the center of Cinder Well’s music. Cadence, the new album from Amelia Baker’s experimental folk project, drifts between two far-flung seas: the hazy California coast where she grew up, and the wind-torn swells of Western Ireland that she’s come to love. Due out April 21, 2023 on Free Dirt Records, the album’s name refers to the cycles of our turbulent lives, to the uncertain tides that push us forward and back. Recorded at Hen House Studios, just blocks from the famed Venice Beach Boardwalk in Los Angeles, the songs of Cadence search for a sense of grounding and a feeling of home. Though California’s beaches are the backdrop of this album, Irish influences emerge as well. The folklore of the old ways still looms in her mind, now tinged with the kind of growth that comes from returning to your roots. With Cadence, Baker expands Cinder Well’s sound to include percussion as well as trance electric guitar and expansive string parts courtesy of Cormac MacDiarmada of Lankum. While there are still hints of the doom folk that Cinder Well is known for, Cadence balances heavy lyrics with a more expansive sound that nods to LA’s mythical Laurel Canyon years. “So much of my music has been made far from home,” Baker says. “There was something about recording in California that felt cathartic.” Caught between two worlds, Cadence is about recapturing the rhythms of life after a time of deep isolation, about finding balance amongst uncertainty.
From the warm heart of Africa, Malawi, rises Keturah, a 26-year-old virtuoso arriving to the world stage with her self-titled debut. A 10-track odyssey chronicling Keturah’s journey from the tiny remote home village of Monza to the shores of Venice, California, Keturah updates traditional Malawian folk with contemporary rhythms from the greater African diaspora, a cultural exchange made possible through a unique opportunity to travel to Los Angeles to record her first full-length project. The album journeys through a dynamic blend of genres, from the lively, upbeat afro-folk-funk rhythms of "Kwanumkwanu" to the emotive ballads of "Sukulu" and "Chimbalame", the Americana inspired “Nchiwewe” and more lighthearted tracks such as "All The Way from Africa" and "Ku Nyumba." Keturah's exceptional songwriting and powerful vocals are elevated by intricate percussion, melodic guitar lines, subtle backing vocals and horns, creating an eclectic album that showcases her talent as an African songstress ready to make a global impact.
SALTWATER HANK - G̱al’üünx wil lu Holtga Liimi
Releasing on July 1, 2023, for Canada Day, G̱al’üünx wil lu Holtga Liimi, from Ts’msyen artist Saltwater Hank is a statement of resistance and resilience built on a bedrock of roots and country music. Based out of Kxeen (Prince Rupert, British Columbia) and writing original songs in Sm'algyax, the Ts’msyen language, Hank is pushing back against two centuries of cultural eradication by a Canadian government obsessed with finding a “final solution” to their “Indian problem.” To fight this historic and continuing erasure, he’s using a language that dates back literal millennia, thousands of years before Ancient Greece. Living and working on land that’s been occupied by the Ts’msyen since time immemorial, he’s able to draw from ancestral knowledge and science, plus a deep understanding of the structure and spirit of Ts’msyen song. The goal with the album is first of all to connect with other Ts’msyen looking to understand their own language, as there are sadly no first generation speakers left under the age of 60. After that, Hank made this album to show the power of creating in Indigenous languages. “The fact that I’m singing in my language is an act of resistance,” he says. “Over 150 years later and being able to still speak and sing in our language…This really goes to show that he failed. We succeeded in keeping our language and our musical traditions alive.”
ALLISON DE GROOT & TATIANA HARGREAVES - Hurricane Clarice: Outtakes, vol. 1
When we recorded Hurricane Clarice, one of our main goals was to try and get as close to the feeling we have on stage when we perform together. Rather than do multiple takes of a tune back to back, our producer Phil Cook had the idea to play sets in the studio each day, just like in a live performance. Each day we would start with a set of seven to eight tunes and just play through the whole thing, only stopping to re-tune in between tunings. Afterwards, we would take a short break and play the same set in reverse order. We had two main sets we would play through twice each day – one for high tunings and one for low tunings. Some repertoire we knew we wanted to include on the album, but we also swapped out different tunes each set to keep it fresh and see what would happen. By the end of our time in the studio, we had 28 tunes and songs to choose from, only nine of which made it onto the album. The tunes in this outtakes release are some of our favorite additional tunes that we played.
CHRIS PIERCE - Let All Who Will
With his new album, Let All Who Will, acclaimed Los Angeles singer and songwriter Chris Pierce delivers a powerful set of songs that amplify unheralded voices and aim to bring us together across the bitter trenches that divide us. Pierce’s new album is a follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2021 acoustic album, American Silence, which was heralded as a masterpiece of protest folk songwriting by folks at NPR, Rolling Stone, and many more. Co-produced by Niko Bolas (Neil Young, The Mavericks) and Dave Resnik (Sonia Dada, Mavis Staples), Let All Who Will was recorded in Hollywood, CA at the legendary Sunset Sound. The new album is packed with intense storytelling, intuitive spontaneity, and powerful performances that capture a vivid snapshot of the kinship at the sessions, all supporting Pierce’s unmistakable and soulfully dynamic vocals. It’s clear from his songwriting that Chris Pierce holds a strong belief that songs can cut through the isolated and static feelings of individuals worn down by the uncertainty of everyday life. Songs can unite us under one sonic roof to feel something together, be it pain, sorrow, frustration, joy, hope, or freedom. But though Pierce believes in the unifying power of music, Let All Who Will (coming September 1, 2023 on Friends at Work / Downtown Distribution) does not flinch away from the harsh realities of being Black in America. Rather, it focuses a blistering lens on historical and modern injustice, trusting the audience to understand that justice and compassion show the only way forward for our nation.
VIV & RILEY - Imaginary People
A bittersweet nostalgia lies at the heart of Imaginary People, the new album from Viv & Riley, coming September 15, 2023 on Free Dirt Records. Over ten tracks, the pair applies an indie roots sheen to newly composed pop gems. Rooted originally in the folk tradition, the pair reframe the production into experimental territory, crafting songs that speak to finding a path forward into adulthood in an uncertain world. Gifted songwriters and multi-instrumentalists, Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno’s first album under the name Viv & Riley is a subtle masterpiece of thought and reflection. The album brings a reflectiveness to summertime jams that speak of uninhibited joy and creative camaraderie. Coming on the heels of their acclaimed earlier albums that showed preternaturally talented songwriting from such young artists, now the songs have caught up with their lives. Now in their mid-20s, the two are building a life together, creating a supportive community, and looking back on everything they’ve been through. Based out of Durham, North Carolina, they’ve tapped into the area’s eclectic and collaborative music scene, recruiting Alex Bingham of Hiss Golden Messenger to produce the album. Bingham brings a sunny, lush sound to Viv & Riley’s music, moving beyond their earlier country roots and toward a layered sound and sonic experimentation. The songwriting has evolved as well, from the world-weary, stripped-down country songs they’re known for to indie songwriting at turns sweetly sad and gently sardonic. Ultimately, Imaginary People is about carrying and honoring our pasts, about letting that inform our new steps forward. No matter how much we might cling to where we are, sometimes we need to uproot and take a leap of faith, to open ourselves up to new experiences and ideas in order to grow and blossom.
BRETT BENTON SINGLES
“Alabama-born and Southern-raised, Brett Benton has been obsessed with country blues ever since he was a child, listening to his parents’ and grandparents’ records at an early age. By his teens he was playing behind a drum kit, and by his early 20's was learning his way around slide guitar. Recently moved from the Pacific Northwest to Montana, he has been featured on internationally-acclaimed KEXP Radio, American Songwriter, and American Blues Scene and more. His debut album You Got To Pray features Grammy-winning hill country blues legend Cedric Burnside - who Benton learned some of his skills from and calls a friend. Known for his fierce rhythmic finger picking, melodic slide guitar and booming voice, Brett’s raw style is best heard one of two ways: paying homage to its roots with solo, acoustic slide guitar; and electric alongside a heavy, relentless and dynamic style of drums and bass that really emphasizes what country blues is all about… the hypnotic groove! For either style being played, both remain true to the nature of country blues – a style not played by many – while also retrofitted with grit and a bit of heaviness from the modern times.”
LEON ROSSELSON - Chronicling the Times
Leon Rosselson has been at the forefront of songwriting in England for over sixty years. For Chronicling the Times, coming October 27, 2023 on PM Press and Free Dirt Records, Rosselson delved into his storied political satirist’s song catalog to assemble seventeen of his favorite recordings. Featuring English folk luminaries such as Martin Carthy and Billy Bragg, this collection proves that Rosselson, now well into his 80s, has created an oeuvre comparable to other social critics such as Phil Ochs. He started performing in the early days of the folk revival as a member of the Galliards with whom he made many radio and TV broadcasts. His early songs were topical-satirical, but eventually absorbed many different influences from around the world. Rosselson has recorded many albums and published two songbooks. His song “The World Turned Upside Down” was taken into the pop charts by Billy Bragg and covered by artists including Dick Gaughan and Chumbawamba. Rosselson has also published seventeen children’s books, the first of which, Rosa’s Singing Grandfather, was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 1991. Billy Bragg deftly summed up his career: “Leon Rosselson is the embodiment of the original ideals of punk rock–using fearless wit and political integrity to highlight the hypocrisies of those in power.”
Photo Credits: (1) HearthPR, (2) Ears of the People, (3) Mighty Poplar, (4) Cinder Well, (5) Keturah, (6) Saltwater Hank, (7) Alison De Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves, (8) Chris Pierce, (9) Viv & Riley, (10) Leon Rosselson (unknown/website).