Real Vocal String Quartet Culture Kin
Flower Note Records
Review by Tom Orr
"Woui Le M'en Fe"
The sound of a good string section can invoke everything from baroque grandeur to gripping suspense to signaling when to break out the hanky during sad scenes of a movie or TV show. There’s no doubt that the San Francisco-born Real Vocal String Quartet can do all that and more without breaking a sweat, but founding violinist Irene Sazer and her mates (fiddler Sumaia Jackson, cellist David Tangney and double bassist Sam Shuhan with cellist Helen Newby as an occasional fifth) have bigger things in mind. An Eastern European tour through the American Music Abroad Program inspired Sazer to collaborate with musicians from some of San Francisco’s sister cities- the Culture Kin of the title -and the results are a passionately rendered set of musical pieces that both stir and soothe.
You might not think a West African singer accompanied only by strings could achieve the same kind of power as more familiar instrumentation of that region, but "Woui Le M'en Fe," a tribute to the displaced fronted by Fely Tchaco (from Abidjan) will make you happy to be wrong.
Similarly, the match up of RVSQ and Sicilian hang drummer Laura Inserra on "Exist," is sumptuous. Elsewhere on the disc, the structures of Brazilian choro get some extra sweetening on a trade-off with Sao Paulo percussionist Roberta Valente, a lovely musical meeting of Ireland (Mairtin de Cogain) and California avoids clichés on both counts, South Korean and Indian traditions share mystical strains through the two-stringed haegeum of the former locale played by Soo Yeon Lyuh ("Seasons Song"), and Catalan writer/musician/activist Aurora Bertrana gets a much-deserved salute with assistance from Barcelona’s Marta Roma.
While bowed and plucked strings are never far from the forefront, the players thereof know precisely when to take the lead and when to provide support (you could call it emotional support and not be off the mark), giving the whole affair a shared, textured sense of adventure no doubt felt by all involved. The only track that feels out of place is the improvised closing duet by Sazer and Lyuh; despite obvious virtuosity and a playful vibe, it sounds like it belongs on a different album. But that’s okay. Everything preceding it is a hands-down keeper and a testament to the kind of unity that nowadays is much needed and always achievable through great music. -Tom Orr