Since first hearing Nick Takénobu Ogawa’s album Exposition this past summer, I’ve been a fan of this versatile cellist. I was surprised and excited to discover his December release of an album based on a famous Japanese folktale I grew up with.

Cover of "Momotaro" (Art by Iris Scott)

Japanese folktale hero Momotaro’s (Peach Boy) life begins inside a giant peach floating downstream, where he’s found and raised by a kind elderly couple. After growing up, he successfully subdues the fierce ogres of Oni Island with the help of a dog, monkey, and pheasant—and magical millet dumplings. Triumphant, Momotaro and his companions bring home riches, and they all live happily ever after.

Cellist Nick Takénobu Ogawa’s instrumental album Momotaro lovingly retells this story from his childhood. Sensitively composed and performed though it is, Momotaro isn’t really a children’s album. It’s a serious set of compositions well suited for fans of contemporary classical and electro-acoustic music.

Nick Takénobu Ogawa live in concert (Kate Orne)

A one-man ensemble, Ogawa (or simply Takénobu on stage) uses a laptop and loop pedal to create intricate layers of staccato and rippling sound. It’s Ogawa, and only Ogawa on this album, although the looping technique gives the illusion of multiple performers.

Each track depicts a scene or character from the story, with the opening song track conveying the loneliness of the childless couple before they adopt Momotaro. For the first few measures, Ogawa plucks the strings of his cello to resemble the pentatonic sound of a koto. The song builds into intense bowing before transitioning into the lighter moment when Momotaro’s peach appears.

The album’s tracks are composed to flow seamlessly from one into another, which they do with just one barely perceptible pause in between. For example, the excitement of the “Voyage Home,” when Momotaro and his companions sail back across the sea from Oni Island, blossoms into the victorious-sounding “Hero’s Welcome.”

Ogawa’s Momotaro is a short, but lovely album that’s a good introduction to his music. He also sings on several tracks on his two earlier albums, which are absolutely worth checking out.

I look forward to seeing what Ogawa does on his next cello-bending album, and hope to catch him in concert on the West Coast one day.

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Today, just five days before Christmas, U.S. President Barack Obama held a ceremony to conclude the Iraq War. But battles sometimes come to a standstill even without official sanction, as John McCutcheon sang about on his 1984 album Winter Solstice.

German soldiers celebrate Christmas during World War I

Christmas 1914: Groups of German and British soldiers living in cold, muddy trenches in France struck up an unofficial armistice. Lonely and far away from home, these young men met spontaneously in the “No Man’s Land” between the trenches to sing carols, play football, and toast the holiday together.

American folk musician John McCutcheon captured this event on his album Winter Solstice, released on Rounder Records in 1984. Listening to McCutcheon’s song “Christmas in the Trenches,” the beautiful simplicity of the 1914 truce still hits home a century later.

“Christmas in the Trenches”

‘There’s someone coming towards us!’ the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one lone figure coming from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright
As he bravely strode unarmed into the night.
Full lyrics

McCutcheon says that he first heard the armistice story from an unassuming janitor backstage at a concert decades ago. “Christmas in the Trenches” has become a beloved holiday classic, and it’s one of McCutcheon’s most well-known songs.

The entire album deserves being listened to each holiday season, and it’s no wonder after three decades that it still appears on “must listen” Christmas music lists.

McCutcheon’s delicate hammer dulcimer both kindles the warmth of being inside on a late December afternoon as well as conjures the crisp chill of the days leading up to the solstice. He was joined on the recording by members of the Washington Bach Consort and of Paul Reisler’s folk ensemble Trapezoid.

Winter Solstice features songs as diverse as “Willie’s Waltz,” a melody written for McCutcheon’s oldest son, and the popular Hebrew love song “Erev Shel Shoshanim” (Evening of Lilies).

As our own war concludes and we move into the holiday season, the lessons of the 1914 Christmas armistice are well worth remembering: peace can be spontaneous and the truest kind is often unofficial.

As McCutcheon sang on Winter Solstice: “The walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war, had been crumbled and were gone for evermore.”

Full Winter Solstice track list

1. Christmas Day Ida Moarnin/Un Flambeau Jeanette Isabella

2. Erev Shel Shoshanim

3. Willie’s Waltz

4. Christmas In The Trenches

5. Star In The East

6. Old Christmas Morning/Breaking Up Christmas

7. Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head

8. For Unto Us A Child Is Born

9. Huron Carol

10. Detroit, December

11. Down In Yon Forest/New Year’s Eve

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Raga? It’s one of the building blocks of Indian classical music, but it’s also one of the world’s hardest musical terms to define. In the simplest sense, “raga” means “color,” and consists of a collection of notes that musicians build a song around. Toronto-based lightsweetcrude’s debut album Listen to the Colour proves that “raga” doesn’t require a neat definition.

Lightsweetcrude plays with and creates new shades of traditional ragas on Listen to the Colour, which released in October 2011. Producer and keyboardist Jason Steidman envisioned the album, and brought together the ensemble’s team of talented artists. Before launching the project, Steidman studied Indian classical music for several years—even studying harmonium in order to learn the feel of the music.


Listen to the Colour draws on numerous other musical influences, including funk, jazz, and surf rock. On the track “Ahir/Now,” guitarist Fareed Haque weaves the fabric of the melody before the group launches fully into the song. Complete with handclaps and thumping piano and drums, “Ahir” evokes the spirit of Dick Dale’s famous “Misirlou.”

Now watch this clip of santour maestro Shivkumar Sharma perform raga Ahir Bhairav, with Zakir Hussain on tabla. “Ahir” is based on this very same raga, and listening to Sharma’s rendition it’s not hard to imagine the guitar layered over the santour.

“Raga Ahir Bhairav”

“A Call to You, Piloo”

On “A Call to You, Piloo,” Rez Abassi’s electric sitar bridges a combination of guitar, bass, drums, and organ with the more traditional classical instruments bansuri and tabla. It’s a mixture of jazz and funk, for sure, but it’s also built upon raga Piloo (Pilu), performed here with more “standard” classical form by sitarist Shahid Parvez Khan.

“Raga Piloo” 

Whether you’re a fan of classical Indian music or just curious about it, you’ll enjoy exploring the many shades of “raga” with lightsweetcrude.

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Magenta blossoms, Havana, August 2010. (Flickr/zrm35)

Sometimes the spirit of an instrument, melody, or voice completely catches hold of you. The flamenco term “duende” describes it best: when the music’s sound is so authentic that it reaches out and possesses the listener.

This happened to me yesterday, when I cooked dinner and listened to Les Sessions Cubaines (The Cuban Sessions) by Montreal singer-songwriter Philémon Bergeron-Langlois. I stopped frequently while peeling potatoes and almost forgot to add salt.

The album, released in May 2010, is this week’s feature on Bandcamp by reviewer Andrew Dubber. He deftly identifies the power behind Bergeron-Langlois’ music:

…Whether you understand French is irrelevant, as the emotional heft of this album transcends barriers of language. Yet this is not at all a sentimental record. This is simply emotion, raw and unrefined.

As the album’s name suggests it was recorded in Cuba, at no less than EGREM Studios of Buena Vista Social Club fame. Watching this video of Bergeron-Langlois’ recording “Vaincre l’automne” (“Overcoming the Autumn”) in Havana brings the “duende” of the music home.

“Vaincre l’automne”

Philemon Chante “Vaincre l’automne” (Studio Egrem) from Audiogram on Vimeo.

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A Puerto Rican flag hanging in an East Harlem apartment window (Flickr/Richard Alexander Caraballo)

A Puerto Rican flag hanging in an East Harlem apartment window (Flickr/Richard Alexander Caraballo)

Salsa music simmered to life in New York City’s Puerto Rican neighborhoods in the 1960s and 70s: a blend of Cuban son, mambo, cha-cha-chá, and guaracha; a dash of Puerto Rican rhythms; and swirls of other musical ingredients.

New York’s early salsa era was one part popular craze, and one part urban cultural movement. Today, Beijing boasts salsa-themed nightclubs, Scotland hosts an annual salsa congress, and salsa music spills out of car windows on hot summer nights in California.

In short, salsa is now a global phenomenon.

A San Francisco Bay Area reader recently sent Apsara a list of his all-time favorite salsa ensembles and solo artists. His lifelong passion for salsa began several years ago in Bogotá, with Fania All Stars (a showcase ensemble of Fania Records artists) topping the list.

Our Latin Thing

The film Our Latin Thing recounts a famous 1971 Fania All-Stars concert held in New York’s now-defunct Cheetah disco, and features footage of East Harlem. Fania recently released a re-mastered 40th-anniversary edition of this musical time capsule.

Fania All-Stars launched the solo careers of many salsa legends, including the “Queen of Salsa” Celia Cruz. Originally from Cuba, Cruz’s impressive recording career spanned 50 years and lasted until close to her death in 2003.

Celia Cruz: “Guantanamera”

Other favorite solo artists from our reader’s list include:

Willie Colón (trombonist and singer): “Idilio,” “El Gran Varon,” “Gitana,” “Celos,” “Murga de Panama,” and “Calle Luna Calle Sol” from the album Greatest Hits

Henry Fiol (composer and singer): “Oriente,” “Ahora Me da Pena,” and “La Juma de Ayer” from Fe, Esperanza y Caridad

Larry Harlow (pianist): “El Paso de Encarnacion,” “La Cartera,” and “Abran Paso”

Pupi Legarreta (flutist and violinist): “Sabroso Como el Guarapo” and “El Niche” from Pa’ Bailar

Ismael Miranda (composer and singer): “Asi Se Compone Un Son” and “Maria Luisa”

Eddie Palmieri
(pianist): “Azucar,” “Vamonos Pal Monte,” “Puerto Rico,” and “Muñeca” from A Man and His Music

Thank you for sharing this wealth of salsa music with us! We’ll be posting the rest of the list on Facebook and Twitter this week.

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