Echo Art
Porto Sonoro
New Tone (

On this intriguing collection of often-successful improvisations, Italy's Echo Art mark their 15th year together by exploring links between their brand of art music and a diverse array of traditions represented by Sidi Mimoun Gnawa of Morocco, Mongolia's Egschiglen, The Galata Mevlevi Ensemble from Istanbul, and Zimbabwean mbira queen Stella Rambisai Chiweshe. The mysterious and mantric "Blue Trance," with the Gnawas, melds (subtle) slide guitar with a tantalizingly slow guembri. Loops are applied tastefully as this Saharan Delta thing lopes camel-like into the sunset. On "Bianco," Stella Chiweshe's husky, matter-of-fact voice floats atop Simona Barbera's atmospheric piano and a deliberate double-bass line. Barbera's gorgeous, sorrowful vocals render the second half of the piece a heartbreaker.

Against these darker pieces from the medina and secret places, "Rosso Lontano" comes off as light and airy, like the Central Asian plains from which Egschiglen hail. Echo Art's take on this one binds seamlessly with the Mongolians' throat singing and a spare but well-placed jews harp; a natural blend of the highest quality. But after a brief narration in Italian the collaboration falters, climaxing with a too-over-the-top vocal passage before winding down to a throat-sung flyby.

The CD continues in this creative though slightly uneven vein. Egschiglen's other performance leads to further disappointment, leaning heavily on Art at the expense of tradition; there's just not enough sharing here. A promising triple guembri assault from the Gnawas is muddied by electric guitar and oud, but catches a groove and rights itself in the end. "Giallo Luna" works better. A shouted Gnawa dialogue, vox real and altered, alongside a synth guitar posing as saxophone, pulled off expertly.

Echo Art and the Mevlevis put together a funky little sema'a, clocked by a tabla. It's surprisingly catchy--a Dervish ceremony with a hook. Stella Chiweshe appears again, this time singing and playing maracas and accompanied lovingly by classical guitar. (Still, I'm left wondering about the unexplored possibilities for her mbira, conspicuously absent throughout.) The record ends with bamboo sax and eerie vocalizations atop galloping Gnawa percussion that, in the end, duels Michele Ferrari's noise guitar to a draw. It's some kind of spaghetti western music straight out of a Morricone nightmare. (That's a good thing.) Porto Sonoro may not fully realize Echo Art's "hoped combination" aspired to in the liner notes (this is experimental music, after all). But they're definitely on to something. - Joel Davis

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