David Darling & the Wulu Bunun
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David Darling & the Wulu Bunun
Mudanin Kata
World Music Network (www.worldmusic.net)

Merging authentic traditional music with contemporary accompaniments is often problematic. The result sometimes smacks of exploitation on the contemporary musician's part - sort of like digging up a sacred artifact and displaying it for gain. When done sensitively and in a true spirit of collaboration, the results can range anywhere from charming to powerful. This partnership between experimental cellist David Darling and the singers of the Wulu Bunun people of Taiwan errs on the collaborative side, and the partnership often feels forced.

The Wulu Bunun is a small ethnic group that lives in the southeastern portion of Taiwan's Central Mountain Range. They have a unique harmonic style of singing that often uses up to eight different parts. At first blush, the harmonies have the astringent quality of Sacred Harp Singing. The songs are nearly all functional, whether used for hunting, harvesting, praying, or just boasting of one's prowess. They have never, until this point, used instrumental accompaniment.

Darling and his team recorded the singers and some of Darling's accompaniments in a valley far from the Wulu village. They made use of the natural sounds of the valley; bird songs, wind, insects, and such. They took the recordings to a studio where the additional layers of cello were added. Here is where the forced nature referred to earlier comes in. Though the recording and overdubbing is seamless, at times it sounds as though the cello is pushing aside the singers in order to clarify some point that the producers think we may have missed. Darling's sometimes cloying New Age string harmonies run counter to the spirit of the music.

When it works, however, the effect is haunting. On "Malas Kala Muampuk" and "Malas Tapag" Darling plays a bluesy pizzicato under the voices which merges well with the celebratory feel of the songs. He includes three short solo cello compositions ("Wulu Dream," "Wulu Mist," and "Wulu Sky") which are quite charming because they are not trying to be anything other than what they are. In "Wulu Mist" he approximates the sighing sound of the er-hu to lovely effect.

Despite its culture clash problems, Mudanin Kata has much to recommend it. It's a fine introduction to an obscure musical tradition, though it would have been nice to hear an unadulterated recording of this tradition before western musicians got their mitts on it. Many of the tracks have a transcendent, meditative quality that is calming to listen to. The elements of a noble experiment are all there - they just don't always add up. ~ Peggy Latkovich

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