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The Graham Album Review #2068

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AO Music: Kutumba
by George Graham

(Abbeywood Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/5/2021)

World music fusion is often an avenue to create interesting sounds, mixing cross-cultural influences from often very disparate parts of the world and their musical traditions. Of course, high quality results are not guaranteed. World music fusion projects can range from really fascinating and engaging to an uncomfortable culture clash. Cross-cultural fusion also ranges in approach from pairing musicians from different traditions, such as blues and African folk and Latin American and African, to efforts to create big pan-cultural amalgams. One of the more ambitious ongoing projects has been the Playing For Change series, which captures musicians from around the world in their home locations, adding their own sound and style, overdubbing parts onto mostly cover songs, thus performing together virtually, before the pandemic made that a necessity.

This week, we have a distinctive world music fusion album by a group – essentially a virtual ensemble – called AO Music. Their new release is called Kutumba. They combine a motley collection of influences and instrumentation, including incorporating children’s choruses from Russia, India, and North Carolina, and add in creative high-tech sonic treatments.

AO Music began in 1996 with the collaboration of Richard Gannaway and jazz-fusion keyboard man Jay Oliver, both of whom grew up in St. Louis and played together in a rock band called Tiger & the Helix. Oliver worked with jazz musicians extensively, including being a part of Maynard Ferguson’s big band, and playing with Chick Corea. Gannaway and Oliver gravitated toward world music projects including composing music for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and traveled extensively in Southeast Asia. They later began working with Mumbai, India based film composer Sandeep Chowta, who scored a number of Bollywood movies, and South African vocalist Miriam Stockley, whom Gannaway and Oliver recruited for one of their previous projects.

AO Music released their first album in 2000, and made their live concert debut in India in 2004. The new recording Kutumba, which is a Sanskrit word for “family” is their sixth.

Leading up to this, pre-pandemic, Gannaway traveled to Siberia and recorded a children’s choir, and went on to do the same in Bangalore, India and even recruited an elementary school chorus near Gannaway’s home in North Carolina. The project is, by its nature, very much an international one, with Oliver in Southern California, Chowta in India and Ms. Stockley in South Africa.

The music they create incorporates specific world instrumental elements, but the music is a mixture of influences from the get-go. Interestingly, Gannaway’s main instrument is the Irish bouzouki, while he and Oliver create rich synthesizer tapestries, with some exotic percussion and Indian instrumentation and tonalities. Some of the lyrics are Polynesian, with others in the South African language of Xhosa. Many of the lyrics are in English and there are also made-up musical syllables.

One of the things that makes this album so approachable is that most of the music is melodic, with pieces frequently in major keys, and the tracks tend to be of pop-song length, with only one of the twelve pieces exceeding five minutes in length. The sonic approach can hint at new age music, but there is enough going on and interesting ideas happening that it’s hardly the kind of thing to fade into the background.

Opening is a piece called Nashu with the Russian children’s chorus combined with 2nd graders from Asheville, North Carolina, singing meaningless syllables. It’s a very attractive and eclectic mix of influences. <<>>

Little Watchers has some lyrics, including some in Polynesian, and a children’s choir from Bangalore, India, appears. It’s another really interesting mix, with Gannaway’s Irish bouzouki serving as the kind of backbone to the arrangement. Jazz fusion drummer Dave Weckl makes a guest appearance playing the Latin American cajon percussion instrument. <<>>

A track called De De Na with more wordless vocals, is another great piece of sonic ear-candy with the musical exotica tempered by the beautiful vocal chorus performed by Miriam Stockley. <<>>

Ms. Stockley brings her South African background to the piece called Somelele, sung in the Xhosa language. Again, the result is quite appealing. <<>>

The title track Kutumba is essentially a solo piece by Jay Oliver, performing all the parts. It’s perhaps the most exotic-sounding on the album, but it still has a degree of tunefulness. <<>>

Another interesting juxtaposition comes on the track Kai Holo another wo rdless vocal, with Gannaway playing a banjo in the midst of the sonic pastiche. <<>>

Laniakea also features some Polynesian lyrics in spots, but also has some of the more direct English lyrics and is a little more like a song, with more focus on the vocals. <<>>

Another cultural element comes on the track called Lotus, with lyrics in Tibetan, and a Chinese vocalist. It has an almost church-like quality. <<>>

Kutumba the new release by the world music fusion project AO Music is a delightful cross-cultural sonic tapestry that combines a healthy helping of exotic elements tempered by a adroit melodic sense, held together with some creative arrangements that are both original and very skillfully executed. The international aspect of the project is inherent with its four members on opposite coasts of the US, in South Africa and India. And they also brought in further interest with the children’s choirs from Russia and India, as well as from the US. This is one of those world music projects that is hardly in any authentic style, but thoroughly mixes the influences without being any kind of culture clash.

Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. The mixes and the use of sound textures are impressive. But we’ll knock off our usual points for the volume compression that undermines the dynamics of the music to some extent.

World Music is a nice place to go to travel in your mind especially in the days of a pandemic. In this case, however, with AO Music, the trip is to an attractive imaginary realm that is both stimulating and comforting.

(c) Copyright 2021 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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This page last updated July 11, 2021