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SANS: the band


Cloud Valley
Review by Lee Blackstone


The cover of the first studio recording by SANS features the close-up of an eye. * Within that image, the eye reflects the sitting photographer, Andrew Cronshaw, in what is a landscape curved by the protective cornea of the eye. This provocative portrait raises some interesting philosophical questions: about how we look, and are looked back upon; about the familiar, rendered strange; about the communion between living things. As I will detail below, SANS's Kulku offers a sonic space for such existential concerns.

First, the band. SANS is an impeccable combination of musicians and influences, formed in the wake of Andrew Cronshaw's 2011 album The Unbroken Surface of Snow. For that outing, Cronshaw, long known as a multi-instrumentalist and master of the electric zither, was joined by reed player Ian Blake, Armenian duduk maestro Tigran Aleksanyan, and the superb Finnish singer Sanna Kurki-Suonio (listeners may recognize her from her solo albums and with Hedningarna). The chemistry evident on The Unbroken Surface of Snow coalesced into the group SANS, and their SANS Live album in 2014 captured the evolving nature of their on-stage musical explorations.

Convening in a Suffolk barn to record a new album during the winter of 2017-18, Kurki-Suonio's daughter Erika Hammarberg joined the band. Scottish musician Jim Sutherland served as producer. Vocally, the band has expanded not only due to the women, but Blake also sings as well. (Listen to the opening "Pursi (The Rowing Song)," where the female voices are undergirded by the male bass.) The Kulku repertoire is sung mostly in Finnish, except for the song "Kazvatti (Four Sorrows)," which is in a dialect related to Karelian. The stringed instruments flicker and play on Kulku, suffusing the album with a deep, magical quality. Both Kurki-Suonio and Hammarberg play the 10-string kantele, and Cronshaw uses a 74-string zither and his 44-string marovantele. The marovantele is Cronshaw's own electrified invention, inspired by the Madagascan double-sided zither. Aleksanyan contributes the distinctive sound of the duduk, while Blake contributes many other reed instruments. His bass clarinet work is particularly striking across the album.

SANS achieve a rare thing: a fusion of musical cultures that makes you believe you are hearing one thing when in fact you are hearing something different and new. Perhaps it is the Finnish vocals that beguile one into assuming that one is listening to traditional Finnish tunes: sometimes, but not always. Again, "Pursi (The Rowing Song)" starts off a cappella, but then moves to plucked strings and a subtle, stamped beat that sways like a Scottish waulking song. The melody, in fact, is based on a traditional Gaelic song ("Hó a, hù a, nighean dubh"), and arranged by the band.


"Tuuditelle Tuuli (Cradle, O Wind)" showcases Kurki-Suonio's voice, the bass clarinet providing a deep bottom while Aleksanyan's duduk sweeps through the song. The spare treatment of the tune works well, building to a keening in Kurki-Suonio's vocals that then subsides: the entire track built through the architecture of air and its flowing.


"Rauta (Iron)" provides the opportunity to hear the Kurki-Suonio and Hammarberg caress and draw out the world "Rauta," while strings glisten in accompaniment. Here, again, are traditional Finnish lyrics, this time married to a Spanish dulzaina tune. The lyrics are full of alliteration (Iron, poor iron/You were not so mighty/When you were taken from the moss/Taken from the moss), and menace (…From that iron became graceless/Wanting to bite its smith/And eat even the innocent/Eat the innocent).

Listen "Kulkija" (excerpt)

The song "Kulkija (The Walking Song)" neatly marries Finnish lyrics that describe, in updated fashion, walking cold American roads and comparing them to Finland (The land of America, it's a wide land/and maiden-Finland is rather skinny…). The song has a marching beat, the women singing together, the band punctuating the verses in pulses, with the duduk improvising around the melody.

Listen "Kazvatti" (excerpt)

"Astele Oro (Step Careful, Stallion)" is a traditional Finnish song, a magical marriage tune which moves from the arriving bridegroom party from Germany, to the slow steps of the bridegroom's stallion, to the bridegroom entering the cottage – although by the time of crossing the threshold, it is difficult to differentiate between the bridegroom and the stallion. "Kazvatti (Four Sorrows)" is sung in a Karelian dialect, and the song is arranged by the band so that the supporting voices remind one of Eastern European choral work. "Kazvatti" acts as a rejoinder to "Kulkija," with a young woman's regret at having moved away from home, and where the sorrows in question are tied to the new, adopted family.

Listen "The Edge of Autumn/Hayreniki Karot" (excerpt)

"The Edge of Autumn/Hayreniki Karot" and "The Recollection Of That Day: O Chiadain An Lò/Lusabatz Ararati Vra" are gorgeous instrumentals between the songs. Cronshaw's zither virtually stops time – the notes suffuse, hang in the air, answered by the mellow duduk to create a meditative ambience. "Kaik Miä Ilot Unohin (I Forgot All Joy, Stopped Singing The Songs)" ends the album in similar fashion, the sound slowly rippling out, Aleksanyan passing the torch to Blake's soprano sax, before Kurki-Suonio enters with the closing lament.

SANS's Kulku emerges as a strong communal statement. What you hear is music of such startling originality that the whole functions to create a timeless world of unlocatable beauty. Grounded in and forged from streams of different lands, Kulku offers a warm homecoming to those daring to navigate the interconnectedness of cultures. - Lee Blackstone

Find the artists online

Further reading:
The Unbroken Surface of Snow (review)
Ochre (review)
The Immortal Special System of Sanna Kurki-Suonio (review)
SANS: Kaustinen, Finland (a live performance)


Editorial note: We have been informed it is the eye of a Canada goose on the cover


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SANS Kulku - CD cover


Kulku is the August, 2018
MOTM Selection
Music of the Month - SANS

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