A Short Journey

What comes to mind when you think of Uzbekistan?


Thought so… Try again.

Maybe Ewan McGregor? Did they go there in ‘Long Way ‘Round’?

Nah, that was Kazakhstan.

You were correct in guessing that it’s somewhere in Central Asia. But more accurately, it’s tucked in between Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Kazakhstan – where Ewan and Charlie went. Look for it on Google Maps. It’s North of India.

Since I heard The Drummers of Burundi in 1992, and Papa Wemba’s album Emotion in 1995 (by which time I had already developed an admiration for the music of Peter Gabriel – specifically through Peter Gabriel 4 and the soundtrack to Birdy), releases on the Real World Records label started getting under my skin. Real world music was being presented – and eventually being recorded – with proper attention to detail. Most of the earlier / other recordings seemed to leave much to the imagination. The structure(s) of the performed music, often with significant aural contrasts between power (usually percussive) and subtlety, never seemed to translate accurately. I first became aware of this problem during my first trip to Swaziland where I saw and heard – for the first time – a live performance of traditional Swazi music.

I’d gone to Swaziland to be out of South Africa on the date I was supposed to report for compulsory military service – thus legally avoiding having to do so. It was beautiful, and scary.

A little taste of the Drummers Of Burundi:

Epelo’ by Papa Wemba:

Besides the relatively well developed South African ‘traditional’ music industry – mostly due to the efforts of the Gallo Record Company who had been recording artist like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Mahlathini and The Mahotella Queens, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and others – recordings of ‘non-western’, ‘traditional’ music I’d heard always sounded like cataloguing exercises that vaguely reproduced performances. One microphone and one take. Much like the difference between a selfie and an Annie Leibovitz portrait, with the exception of the amount of takes for each. The spirit and energy of the music was absent. It was not inspiring, but unlike with selfies – I’d always been intrigued.

Umuntu Ngumuntu’ by Mahlathini and The Mahotella Queens:

Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records and the WOMAD movement was changing the way we were exposed to styles of music that we weren’t generally accustomed to – traditional / folk music from countries we’d glanced over while studying geography at school. My intrigue was being rewarded.

In 2003 I came across what has since become one of my favourite Real World releases. Sevara Nazarkhan is a singer from Uzbekistan – that place in Central Asia where Ewan and Charlie didn’t go. Sevara sings, and also plays a doutar. A doutar (or dutar) is a guitar-like instrument that comes in various forms and originates from Central Asia. The album, Yol Bolsin (translated as ‘Where Are You Headed’ or ‘Where Are You Going’), was her first Real World Records release. Of course – as it should be – the cover is rather striking. All red-ish orange-ish, with an image of a woman (the artist) in a long red dress. Not so easy to describe accurately – so have a look at the images below.

What I found inside was even better. Warm and delicate vocals flowing through sparse layers of sound: a handful of traditional instrumentalists providing accents within a space created by subtle electronics, elegantly produced by Hector Zazou – a name you may have heard through his work with Mark Isham or Ryuichi Sakamoto. Warm, earthy vocals, sparse instrumentation and delicate electronics. The kind of music that transports you to another world.

Sevara’s ability to control her voice and pace her delivery is very powerful. On her next Real World release in 2007, Sen (translated as ‘You’), her voice comes to life even more. However, the electronic backing – this time by Bruno Ellingham (who had worked with artists like Joi and Moby) and Victor Sologub – somewhat lacks the sophistication of the previous release, and tends to overpower the sensitive acoustic instruments. Fortunately it doesn’t detract from the overall package too much – but it is noticeable that we could have been heading for an appearance on the next Buddha-Bar compilation. Some people might think that’s cool. I didn’t. I wrote to her and noted my concern. In reply she asked if I knew about the follow-up album which had (then) recently been released independently. I hadn’t, and at the end of a conversation she very kindly sent me a copy.

Bar her kindness, this album would surely be a test of Sevara’s musical integrity, and in which direction she may have been coaxed. The album is the 2011 release, Tortadur (translated as ‘It Attracts’).

You know when you see those documentaries on television about some desolate, godforsaken place in Eurasia, and there’s people singing in high-pitched voices, accompanied by what seems like a single-string guitar that goes pling-pling-pling (now identified as the doutar) and it’s interesting while it lasts but it’s not like you’re going to bother to check the credits at the end of the program to see who it was – if you even remember it? You know what I mean? That stuff they dug out of library? Of course you know!

This is not it!

I was transfixed.

The bells and whistles had been set aside for very simple accompaniment of almost nothing on traditional instruments, with Sevara’s incredible vocal control and pacing keeping a tight reign over proceedings. The slow, brooding songs can become a bit heavy-going, and if you’re not committed to letting the music lead the way – you’ll probably end up only being able to process a couple of songs at a time. If you free your ears you might not be able to get this album out of your player. Tortadur doesn’t take you to another world. It gives you a sense of peace that makes you feel like you’ve always been there.

Sevara has released two more albums since then which, unfortunately, I haven’t heard yet. She also had baby girl in May 2016.

Her official web-site doesn’t seem to be maintained regularly, but has links to her Facebook page and the Real World Records store, which I can’t link you to directly from here…

Yol Bolsin [2003]
Yol Bolsin [2003]

Sen [2007]
Sen [2007]

Tortadur [2011]
Tortadur [2011]

Sevara Nazarkhan
Sevara Nazarkhan

(Images used for illustrative purposes and without express permission. If you’d like to object to their use, or give me permission for their use - please let me know.)

I put these videos down here instead of up there because they didn’t really seem to do the music justice. Have a look (or a listen) anyway…

Adolt Tanovari’ by Sevara Nazarkhan [Yol Bolsin]:

Kuyoshga’ by Sevara Nazarkhan [Sen]:

Qargalar’ by Sevara Nazarkhan [Tortadur]:

Black Sabbath – Cross Purposes [1994]

Since Ozzy left, Black Sabbath has undergone so many personnel and stylistic re-alignments that much of the music produced since has only caught me on the rebound.

We all know that Black Sabbath is Ozzy, Tony, Geezer and Bill… and then Ronnie, and Vinnie, then Ian, then Glenn, Dave, Eric and Tony. Then Cozy and so on. However, Tony Iommi has been the only constant member of the group. In a way we should be grateful for Iommi’s willingness (and ability) to keep the Black Sabbath brand going, and through that – for some reason – we don’t readily remember all the versions of the band. It’s usually just the war between Ozzy and Ronnie.

Both Born Again from 1983 and Seventh Star from 1986 were almost released under Iommi’s own name, but – probably fortunately – it was decided that releasing them as Black Sabbath albums was better for business. By the time Seventh Star was released – Tony Iommi was the only original Black Sabbath member left in the band, so its release as a Black Sabbath album is even more significant in terms of ‘keeping the name alive’. In fact – it was released as ‘Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi’. It’s a little absurd, really, but anyway…

In 1994, Black Sabbath was a powerful melodic rock band. And a good one at that. Cross Purposes is one of those albums that may have eluded Black Sabbath fans and other rockers due to all the band’s re-alignments. You need to be able to look at much of the post-’83 Black Sabbath from a non-Black Sabbath viewpoint. There’s no Ozzy, and only a little Geezer, Bill and Ronnie. And no Ian. For Cross Purposes, we almost have a collective. And that’s alright. Remember – we’re not thinking Black Sabbath; we’re thinking a group of rock dudes with Tony Iommi on guitar. That’s pretty cool.

The album takes no time to get the tone set. ‘I Witness’ rocks pretty hard from the word go. With a solid beat, fluid rhythm, powerful soaring vocals and blistering guitar antics. Iommi’s playing is menacing. ‘Cross of Thorns’ and ‘Virtual Death’ remind us a bit of Ronnie with its medium tempo plod with wailing vocals. ‘Psychophobia’ could have come from the Born Again era. The vocals on ‘Evil Eye’ get a little bluesy – but the slamming plod and creeping bass-work keep it tidy. Geezer Butler had made it back to the line-up at this point, and if you have any idea – you’ll know how Geezer can fill a space.

Co-producer Leif Mases’ previous engineering credits list an interesting array of artists including Ian Gillan, Jeff Beck, some random glam rockers, a Swedish artists with a complicated name, and Frida (from ABBA)! Don’t laugh! That’s not important right now. What is important is that he was also involved in engineering Led Zeppelin’s In Through The Out Door and Coda. Yeah! Actually the other stuff is important because it should give you an idea of the thoroughness of his work, and in turn, this production. The sound is full, well constructed and nicely detailed. So Leif was a good choice.

As a handful of bands did in the Nineties – there’s the seemingly obligatory nod to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’ that appears as a little part of the body of ‘Cardinal Sin’, but all is good. No funny business like with Kingdom Come…

There are no apparent weak points here. This is a solid heavy rocking album, but it is quite understandable if you missed it. I did. If you know Eternal Idol, or are coincidentally lucky enough to be familiar with Jake E. Lee’s band Badlands’ first album – this fits more or less into the same bracket.

Worth three packets of cigarettes and a reasonable bottle of vodka. Lekker.

Black Sabbath – Cross Purposes [1994]
Black Sabbath – Cross Purposes [1994]

Black Sabbath in 1994
Black Sabbath in 1994

(Images used for illustrative purposes and without express permission. If you’d like to object to their use, or give permission for their use - please let me know.)

Thin Lizzy – Thunder And Lightning [1983]

It was early in the Eighties, and Thin Lizzy had edged slightly beyond the dark-ish romanticism which characterised much of Phil Lynott’s lyrics. They’d opted for a harder sound – veering decisively toward Heavy Metal. It would have been interesting to see how this would have unfolded, but due to the various outside interests of various band members, Thin Lizzy was falling apart and finally dissolved by the end of 1983. As a significant creative force in the band, Lynott’s unfortunate death in January 1986 properly laid that option to rest.

The Thunder and Lightning album contains some really excellent songs. Unfortunately not much attention seems to have been paid to the running order of the tracks, so the album lacks cohesiveness and direction. I’ve tried to improve this a little, but it wasn’t as successful as my rearranging of the running order of Metallica’s Black Album. Fortunately, once the music starts, it knocks you right to the back of the room – giving you sufficient space to deal with this oversight. Just be sure to turn up the volume – and hold on!

The title track leaves no doubt regarding the direction the band was heading. Musically powerful and heavy everything, with a storyline in the same streetwise ilk as ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ from 1975’s Jailbreak album. Saturday nights, fighting and really just being tough testosterone-ridden dudes. Nothing too poetic. A musically simpler attack follows with ‘This Is The One’ - a brilliant relentless clockwork grind that sadly has to end. Keyboardist Darren Wharton, who had featured on the two preceding albums, co-wrote ‘The Sun Goes Down’ which slows the pace down considerably, but without slowing down the intent. I remember this song getting some airplay around the time of the album’s release.

Thin Lizzy’s characteristic romantic story-telling undercurrent remains present, and although a shift had started with ‘Angel of Death’ and ‘Hollywood (Down on Your Luck)’ from 1981’s Renegade, the overriding heavy tone of this album had only been as in-your-face on occasion in previous studio albums – most noticeably with the title track of Bad Reputation from 1977, ‘Chinatown’ from 1980 - and on the live album Live And Dangerous from 1978. The drumming of Brian Downey features more prominently in all these recordings. On this album Downey also co-wrote the title track and ‘Some Day She’s Going To Hit Back’. The heaviness may have been an attempt to both deal with the then-fading Punk scene with whom the band’s rebellious nature had found some favour, and to stay current in a growing pool of rising Heavy Metal artists, some of whom would have been influenced by Thin Lizzy’s tough, streetwise vibe.

‘The Holy War’ has some commentary on religion. It starts off with a slappy bass line that could misguide you into thinking we’ve entered the Funk Age. Lynott’s ominous vocal and those lead-guitar breaks from new guitarist John Sykes will soon make it clear that we haven’t. It remains hard to place this in a box, especially because this album is already a partial re-invention of Thin Lizzy’s unconventional hard rock style. Sykes also co-wrote ‘Cold Sweat’ - a menacing Motörhead-like rocker.

If you’re more familiar with songs like ‘Still in Love With You’ [Nightlife 1974] or even their version of ‘Whisky In The Jar’, this heavy onslaught may seem out of character, but it actually suits Thin Lizzy well. Considering ‘Out in the Fields’ - a song recorded two years later by Lynott and previously intermittent Thin Lizzy guitarist Gary Moore, and the single’s B-Side ‘Military Man’, it is a credible progression for the band. Again, I wonder how things would have been if Lynott hadn’t died…

The rest of the album continues in a more typical Thin Lizzy mode which, in comparison to the heavier stuff, almost seems whimsical. This is still Thin Lizzy, though, and the songs are great. For some reason, it always makes me want to listen to their 1971 self-titled debut album, which, almost absurdly, I haven’t managed to get into my collection. Yet….

Musha ring dumma do dumma da.

Thin Lizzy - Thunder And Lightning [1983]
Thin Lizzy - Thunder And Lightning [1983]

Thin Lizzy
Thin Lizzy

(Images used for illustrative purposes and without express permission. If you’d like to object to their use, or give permission for their use - please let me know.)

Racism Aside…

Sometimes I have other things to say. This is not music related. Proceed with care.

Keep reading →