Posts Tagged ‘World Music’


Amira Sings Sevdah at WOMEX 2013 from Michal Shapiro on Vimeo.

Sevdah, or Sevdalinka, is a folk song form with origins tracing back to Ottoman times, particularly in Bosnia and now common throughout the former Yugoslavia in the various Bosnian enclaves. These songs have been handed down, over the 5 centuries, and are still a part of the culture, and of late, new interpretations have arisen, placing these musical jewels into new settings. Although many of these melodies may have originally been sung a capella, it was also traditional for many years for the singer to simply be accompanied by a saz, or lute. To hear what this sounded like, check out the impeccable Emina Zecaj at:

Amira is certainly one of the best known of the new generation of Sevdah artists. Raised in Bosnia-Herzegovina, she learned most of the songs in her repertoire from her mother. She also displays the kind of bel canto interpretation that characterizes the form. Sevdah is not meant to be shouted or bluesy. Microtones may have possibly been an element at one point, but over time, what has remained are the sinuous lines and vaguely unresolved ends of melodies. It is a sophisticated, perfumed medium conveying longing, regret, and emotions unrequited. If this reminds you of the Portuguese saudade, you are not at all far off! The two words are actually related.

Amira sings a straight-ahead Sevdah. It is her backup band that sets her presentation apart, playing a jazz informed backup that never overwhelms the passionate reading of the songs.

“Zemi Me Zemi” is a song from South Serbia, and as Amira writes: “Both flirtatious and threatening, this song is an illustration of how a great desire can, if spurned, easily turn into hatred. How dangerous can love be?

“Take me, marry me, why don’t you take me?
If you marry anyone, it’s me you should marry!
If you do not, then God will take you!”

To contact Amira:
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Two Harps That Beat As One: Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita from Michal Shapiro on Vimeo.

Almost 25 years ago, I was walking down West 4th street in Manhattan, and heard a harp-like sound that seemed extraordinarily out of place in the urban noise surrounding me. I tried to locate the source, and eventually realized it was emanating from three tall, slender men in robes who were sauntering up the block ahead of me. I sped up my pace and as I got abreast of them, saw that one of them was playing what I learned later was a kora, as he strolled. And it seemed as if something magical was happening; the instrument changed the environment surrounding the three, as people were calmed and drawn to the sound. All around them, these three stately men had everyone in thrall with the pure, rippling notes of the kora. The instrument itself was sort of a cross between a harp and a some kind of lute, and the most conspicuous part, the resonator, was half of a large gourd. I walked a block out of my way before tearing myself away from the sound to go home.
Since then, there have been quite a few musical collaborations involving the kora in combination with other western instruments. (The wonderful “Chamber Music” with Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal is one of the most successful.) But as far as I know, the collaboration between Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch is the first one to pair the kora with another harp. And upon hearing this duet, one actually wonders what took so long.
The two musicians in this duo are well matched, Keita has a history of innovating and experimenting with his instrument –he plays a western-machined double necked kora– but has been careful to always maintain some distinctive root of his beloved West African music. Catrin Finch (known in her home country of Wales as the Queen of Harps) is also known for her forays into experimental music, as well as her mastery of the standard classical and folk repertoire. For this performance, Keita brought both a single and a double necked kora, while Finch played a striking Camac “Big Blue 47″ concert harp with pickups on each of the 47 strings.
There was quite a buzz building up to their performance at WOMEX, which this year was in Cardiff. 
It was unfortunate that it took place in a rather small concert room instead of the big auditorium, as it filled up to capacity far too quickly and many delegates could not get in to see the show.The room was jammed with a mostly Welsh audience, and anticipation crackled in the air. I was pretty much crushed up agains the apron of the stage, almost in the middle..not the best angle for shooting!
When Finch and Keita play together, there is a complete immersion one with the other. Keita plays the rhythmic patterns and Finch’s precise fingers play a counterpoint or a harmony figure and it all just feels right. Keita grins when Finch plays a stately figure enhancing his motif, and Finch nods back, giving Keita the room to cascade away on the kora. And that’s quite a blazing solo he takes at the end, I might add. Through it all, there is a close communication that is palpable. Purists from one tradition or another may take issue with this blend -and I did hear one opinion voiced that it sounded too Welsh and not sufficiently Senegalese, but I think it is just that the two players have made allowances for each other’s music, and this give and take creates a true hybrid. At any rate, I was in string heaven, awash in pleasure from lovely music, exquisitely played.
For more information about these artists visit

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Emily Portman Trio performs “Sunken Bells” at WOMEX from Michal Shapiro on Vimeo.

My deep love for British folk music stems back to my first Young Tradition albums, which landed in the USA and immediately made waves in the folk community here. Although there will always be musical mingling along borders, I still find that Britfolk is distinctive from Celtic music. I will leave it to those who can articulate it better to write what those differences are, (comments welcome!) but for me the melodies, harmonic structures and lyrics touch me deeply and are very much their own.

Emily Portman is definitely spinning her songs from the web of British folk music (and a sprinkling of other folk lore). What is lovely is that these songs feel if they have been around for centuries, and even though the poetic lyrics may be post modern in sentiment, they still stem from the magic and mayhem that pervades myths and folk tales. This is very well crafted, creative songwriting.

The Emily Portman Trio performed for a daycase at WOMEX, and I was not at first drawn into the sound. But I was glad that I stayed and shot, because as I did, I started to appreciate the music far more. Portman has a rather soft, head voice, but it is deadly accurate, and the two other women who make up the trio (Lucy Farrell on on viola and Rachel Newton on harp) supply imaginative, sure footed harmonies. Between the three they create a hypnotic sound that may start with a drone or a simple repeated figure, which gets more layered and richer as the song proceeds. Stay with this stuff, it will entrance you in the best sense of the word.

“Sunken Bells” was inspired by mermaid tales. I was first struck by the musical elements of the song but the lyrics are something to be savored, perhaps on a second or third listening.


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Here’s where you’ll find my weekly original world music video blogs that appear on Huffington Post, as well as an archive starting in April of 2009.

This is also the place where you will find video that is exclusive to my site. I’ve traveled to places like Uzbekistan, Morocco, and Taiwan and no matter where I go I have found amazingly talented and creative people working in every genre from the deepest traditions to the cutting edge.

It’s been incredibly rewarding to interview them and to capture some of what they do on video. Enjoy what you see and hear, and let me know what you think. I welcome your feedback.