It doesn’t take a lot to make beautiful music—in fact, sometimes all it takes is one single string.
The Afro-Brazilian berimbau is, quite literally, a musical bow: it’s comprised of a long, thin wooden branch strung with a single metal wire and a hollow, open-backed gourd resonator. It’s played with a thin stick, a small basket rattle, and a small coin or stone.
Often used as musical accompaniment for the Afro-Brazilian martial art capoeira, the instrument arcs like a bow and arrow but plays like—well, nothing you’ve ever heard before. Which raises the question: why haven’t you ever heard it before?
Arcomusical is a nonprofit organization that advocates for the artistic advancement of the berimbau and related musical bows through composition, performance, publication, research, and community. To date, Arcomusical has created over 30 new works for the berimbau—and counting.
Most recent among them is a 12-work chamber music cycle titled MeiaMeia: New Music for Berimbau. Composed by Artistic Director Gregory Beyer and his former student, Alexis C. Lamb, the album’s title is Portuguese for “HalfHalf,” as in “six of one, a half dozen of the other”—six pieces by each composer.
MeiaMeia is brought to life by Beyer and Lamb’s world music sextet Projeto Arcomusical, whose hand-painted instruments sport a Piet Mondrian-esque design created by their bandmate Daniel Eastwood. Clocking in at just over an hour, the chamber cycle makes its way through a wide spread of solos, duos, trios, quartets, quintets, and sextets, each exploring the unique timbral colors and textures of this inimitable instrument.
The result is a collection of pieces which draw on influences ranging from the minimalist musings of Steve Reich to the folk tunes of Béla Bartók, traditional capoeira music to palindromes and numerical patterns. Pieces blend patiently into and out of one another, enfolding the listener in a meditative trance.
And yet, that trancelike soundscape is bursting with color. The musical language is at once playful, rhythmic, buoyant, and beautiful—ostinati bounce energetically from one player to another, pitches bend back and forth, hocketed melodies echo above gentle glissandi, and kaleidoscopic melodies circle and expand in ever-changing patterns.
As a listener, it’s easy to lose yourself in that ever-evolving soundscape—but Projeto Arcomusical doesn’t miss a beat. The sextet is so tuned in to one another that at times it becomes difficult (if not impossible) to tell where one instrument ends and another begins. The players are so precise, so blissfully engaged with their instruments and one another that the individual pieces and the individual players melt away, and you begin to discover the uniquely captivating character of the instrument itself.
Sure, it may only take a single string to make music—but as Projeto Arcomusical demonstrates, it takes also takes a whole lot of patience, passion, and precision.
In light of recent tragedy and political turmoil around the world, we need music now more than ever—not as a distraction or an escape, but as a gateway toward experiencing our shared humanity. We need music to open our hearts, our ears, and our minds. We need music to connect us in ways which transcend language, religion, tradition, and geography.
That’s the idea behind Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, a global music collective comprised ofperformers and composersfrom over 20 countries throughout Asia, Europe, and North America.
With such an array of distinct cultures and musical voices present in their collective, the music of the Silk Road Ensemble is at once contemporary and ancient, familiar and foreign, traditional and innovative. The group makes culturally conscious music, drawing upon instruments, ideas, and traditions from around the world to create music that is reflective of our 21st century global society.
Their new album Sing Me Home is a musical culmination of this ethos. Silk Road members each selected a musical work of personal significance to them, then invited guest musicians from different cultural and musical backgrounds to collaborate with the ensemble on each piece.
The result is an album which travels fearlessly from the folk melodies of Macedonia to the traditional textiles of Mali, from the fiddle ditties of Ireland to the harvest songs of Galicia, and from the taiko tunes of Japan to the sitar suites of India.
“When you listen to the album you’ll hear how different our homes are,” Yo-Yo Ma said. “For us, this is one of the great pleasures of Silk Road: we celebrate difference; we cultivate curiosity in our exploration and generosity in our sharing. In our home, something completely unfamiliar presents a precious opportunity to build something new.”
Released as a companion album to the documentary film The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, the album stands confidently on its own as a glimpse into the music and personal memories that most inspire the individual artists of the ensemble.
The journey begins with Chinese pipa player and composer Wu Man’s piece “Green (Vincent’s Tune).” Eastern folk melodies come alive through an orchestra of Chinese wind instruments, Western strings, Kamancheh (an Iranian bowed string instrument), assorted percussion, and, of course, the visceral Tuvan throat singing of the Grammy-winning vocal octet Roomful of Teeth.
Violinist and composer Colin Jacobsen’s contributions to the album include two imaginative arrangements of Western folk tunes: the Irish “O’Neill’s Cavalry March,” featuring Martin Hayes on the fiddle, and the American “Little Birdie,” featuring vocals by Sarah Jarosz. Each arrangement expands the timbral and harmonic palette of Western folk music by incorporating Eastern instruments like the pipa (a four-string Chinese string instrument), the shakuhachi (a Japanese bamboo flute), and the sheng (a Chinese free reed instrument).
What follows is a new arrangement of the traditional Malian tune “Ichichila,” for which the ensemble enlists the talents of Toumani Diabaté on kora (a West African string instrument) and Balla Kouyaté on balafon (an African wooden xylophone). Traditionally sung by the Taureg people while dyeing textiles in indigo pits, the song’s colorful, upbeat cadence comes from the rhythm of the textiles being plunged in and out of the dye with long sticks.
Balkan vocalists Black Sea Hotel lend their voices to an arrangement of the traditional Macedonian folk song “Sadila Jana,” while Japanese percussion instruments take center stage in a contemporary arrangement of the Japanese “Shingashi Song.” Indian raga is the inspiration for the organic and free-flowing “Madhoushi,” featuring Shujaat Khan on sitar and vocals, and “Wedding” features a vibrant marriage of clarinet, oud (a Middle Eastern string instrument), and wordless vocals in a heartfelt tribute to the millions of Syrians who have fled to find new homes in recent years.
But perhaps no other song captures the spirit of the album more than “Going Home,” a piece that has passed through countless composers’ capable hands in the past century. Originally composed as part of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, it was later arranged as a song with lyrics by his pupil William Arms Fisher. On this album, we find it rearranged and translated into Chinese in a twinkling string rendition featuring vocals by Abigail Washburn.
Jumping from China to Spain, the work is followed by a Galician harvest chant. Davide Salvado lends his voice for a new arrangement of a traditional Galician work song titled “Cabaliño,” his voice slow and steady above a bed of lively strings and warbling accordion.
Rhiannon Giddens’ gypsy jazz-infused vocals sparkle atop a tangle of accordion, Klezmer clarinet, and yangqin (a Chinese hammered dulcimer) in an arrangement of the “St. James Infirmary Blues,” while Bill Frisell’s soulful guitar solos shine in “If You Shall Return…,” a Kojiro Umezaki original which takes its inspiration from Bhatiali boat songs.
The album comes to a close with Rob Mathes’s arrangement of the jazz standard “Heart and Soul,” featuring vocalists Lisa Fischer and Gregory Porter. The song plays like a smile: it’s got all the waltz and charm of 1930s New York jazz, but with more global instrumentation.
Because in the end, that’s what the album is really about: bringing together an entire world of sound, listening to one another with open hearts and open minds, and ultimately, creating harmony and understanding in a world that is too often divided.
“All around the world, people constantly meet the unfamiliar through change,” Yo-Yo Ma said. “Rapid or dramatic change can feel threatening, tempting us to build walls to defend against the unknown. At Silk Road we build bridges. In the face of change and difference, we find ways to integrate and synthesize, to forge relationships, and to create joy and meaning.”
A weekly rundown of the music our staff and listeners are loving lately! Are you interested in contributing some thoughts on your favorite new music albums? Drop us a line! Joshua Roman on JACK Quartet’s recording of Tetras by Iannis Xenakis:
From the insanity of the opening glissandi, or slides, to the final whimper, it’s hard to imagine a more captivating 17.5 minutes than Tetras. The precision and intensity brought to this performance by the JACK Quartet are almost frightening. If you can pull your jaw off the floor long enough to get past the shock and awe factor, the innovative structure and sounds of the piece kick in. Fantastical glissandi of all shapes and sizes, wild percussive sounds (using many parts of the instruments not traditionally in play), tremolo and hitherto unheard of scales are provocative and forceful in their narrative roles. Underneath all of that, Tetras creates a space where your imagination can go wild, at times wailing, at times full palpable tension, or in chaotic ecstasy.
I listen to the weather forecast pretty much every morning—but I have never heard it like this before. French composer and bassist Florent Ghys’s eclectic new album “Télévision” begins with a piece composed for double bass, voice, guitars, percussion, and, oh yeah, five weather forecasts. Yes, five weather forecasts.
But it’s not all just sunshiny, warm weatherman banter—the piece actually serves as an introduction to Ghys’s idiosyncratic compositional style. As the title of the album suggests, his music is like a mashup of video and sound clips, sampled speech, multi-tracking, found sound, and more—and it’s all tied together with perfectly groovy pizzicato basslines and subtle yet witty social commentary. The colorful and unapologetically contemporary works live somewhere in the realm between chamber music, minimalism, sound art, and seriously catchy pop tunes.
So the next time you’re looking for something new, turn off your TV and tune into Florent Ghys’s musique concrète masterpiece, “Télévision.”
This duo is one of my go-to musical pick-me-ups. The delicate, sprinkling sounds of the kora along with the low, resonant cello is a soundscape that can turn around a glum day or transport me to a centered place. Musique de Nuit is a spectacular follow-up to their debut album, Chamber Music (which, BTW, was on our pilot playlist for Second Inversion when we created the project three years ago!) and was recorded in a mere TWO sessions – one on Ballake Sissoko’s rooftop in Bamako, and one in a studio. Who does that? These guys. With infuence from West African folk traditions, a hint of Baroque music, and a fresh take on the concept of “Night Music,” rest assured you can listen to this morning, day, or night and retreat to a world of enchantment.