Hip-hop meets Romany, and Farsi meets ... Luther Vandross
By George Varga
POP MUSIC CRITIC
June 30, 2005
"The Other Stream"
is a monthly look at music outside the mainstream that pushes
borders and boundaries.
Riverboat/World Music Network
The idea behind "Urban
Gypsy" sounds like a recipe for disaster, but this unlikely
fusion of age-old Romanian Gypsy music and cutting-edge electronica
can be startling in its originality and power.
Shukar Collective features
a group of ursari performers from a village outside Bucharest.
The ursari tradition was created centuries ago to provide
musical accompaniment for dancing bears, whose choreography
was the result of being imprisoned in chains. Happily, Shukar's
members have dispensed with this grisly treatment of captive
What remains is a winning
mix of harsh, guttural vocals and raw percussion, some of
which Shukar's Napoleon Constantin produces by kicking a wooden
barrel or by throwing rocks and gravel in, or against, it.
Group leader Radu "Tamango"
Vasile, 62, a father of nine, performs on kitchen spoons.
He cites Louis Armstrong as his main vocal inspiration, although
he sounds more like an Eastern European Tom Waits on a major
bender. Petre "Clasic" Panciu, 24, specializes in
"primitive percussion" (although how much more primitive
than rocks and gravel that could be is unclear).
Other members include
leading Romanian jazz contrabassist Vlaciu Golcea, DJ Vasile,
sound engineer Cristian Stanciu and several others, young
and old. Together, they produce a provocative synthesis that
combines ursari music with fractured hip-hop beats, dub reggae
production effects and various electronica approaches. More
often than not, they combine these elements without diluting
any of them in the process.
A few tracks, such as
the chill-out "Wander" and "Disperi Romanes,"
fail to ignite, but the fiery vocal exchanges on "Taraf"
and the aptly named "Verbal Fight" are chilling
day, San Carlos resident Mahvash Azhir is a counselor for
the San Diego Regional Center, a nonprofit organization that
provides services to individuals with developmental disabilities.
By night, this expatriate Iranian singer makes music with
her artistic partner, Erik Stein, with whom she collaborated
on her impressive 2001 debut album, "Koocheh."
her sophomore effort, finds Azhir sounding even more poised
and confident as she performs nine songs, all in her native
Farsi. Stein, who plays keyboards and guitar, is joined on
each selection by his brothers, violinist Edmund and cellist
Rudolph. A third brother, Victor, contributes keyboards and
percussion to one track, while two other musicians appear
on several selections.
Together, they provide
an understated aural tapestry that enhances Azhir's lovely
singing and the album's subtle fusion of Eastern melodies
and Western-styled arrangements and production touches. "Jan-e-Shirin"
"Precious") places her gently undulating vocals
over a buoyant Brazilian rhythm, while "Mastom Mastom"
("Infatuation") updates a traditional Iranian folk
song with a light funk beat and a pop-jazz tenor sax solo
by Irwin Hass. Three other pieces are fresh remakes of contemporary
Persian songs, while the remainder are original compositions.
One wishes at times that
Erik Stein, who co-produced the album with Azhir and was previously
a keyboardist in Luther Vandross' band, would assume a more
edgy approach. But Azhir's exquisite singing delights throughout,
especially on such finely crafted ballads as the tango-inflected
"Mara Beboos" ("Kiss Me Goodbye") and
... Chenin Nakhahad Maand"
("This Too Shall Pass"), which delicately sets to
music the words of a 13th-century poem by Hafez, one of Iran's
most revered writers.
George Varga: (619) 293-2253;