Tag Archives: Folk

Hidden Gems: Rasmee, “Isan Soul”

In our series Hidden Gems, writers share their favorite Bandcamp discoveries.

Isan Soul is both the title of Rasmee’s debut EP and the descriptor she uses for her music. As apt as it may seem, the “soul” isn’t intended as a reference to the genre: it points to the cultural roots of the Thai singer’s works. Born and raised in Ubon Ratchathani—a major city in Thailand’s Isan region—Rasmee learned to sing from her father, a singing teacher. She eventually moved to Chiang Mai and gained a wealth of experience that inspired her to create fresh takes on the traditional Lao folk music known as molam. Notably, it was Rasmee’s live performances with jazz musicians, and learning about Western African music’s similarities with molam (they both utilize the same pentatonic scales) that led to the tracks that define Isan Soul.

The large bulk of these songs are built solely on traditional singing and moody acoustic guitar playing. The lack of a khene (a free-reed mouth organ made of bamboo pipes) or a khene-resembling instrument automatically contemporizes these molam tracks. Given this absence, these songs also don’t begin with a kroen, the improvisatory khene that begin many molam tracks (an example can be heard on Rasmee’s “Yon – Sakon Nakhon”). Isan Soul’s sense of tradition primarily comes from its vocalizing, and Rasmee’s talents are strong enough to warrant such a crucial role in every song.

On opening track “Maya,” Satukan Tiya Tira’s fingerpicking and slap strumming provide a serene backdrop to Rasmee’s lyrics about women finding self-worth. As with other tracks on Isan Soul, it’s arresting in its simplicity, allowing listeners to soak in the warmth of Rasmee’s earthy voice. “Boonruen’s Love Song” is even more soothing: it’s a tender lullaby that Rasmee’s father used to sing to her when she was an infant. Her voice undulates, clean and resounding, as shimmering guitar harmonics periodically instill a sense of tranquility. The EP’s most urgent track, “Lam Duan,” follows. It pays homage to Rasmee’s grandmother and the difficult life she faced before dying by suicide at 42.

The songs on Isan Soul are inherently personal, but it’s due to more than just lyrical content; throughout these lean 28 minutes, Rasmee looks to the past—from her various musical experiences to the people in her life to molam in general—to inform her honest portraits of present-day living. The “soul” in Isan Soul thus feels appropriate for one more reason: the unyielding intimacy of Rasmee’s music.

-Joshua Minsoo Kim

House and Land Want to Make Folk Music Weirder

House and Land

Photos by Katrina Ohstrom

Multi-instrumentalists Sally Anne Morgan and Sarah Louise contend that folk music—often associated with a sense of traditionalism—has always been a more dynamic artform than we’ve been led to believe. With Across the Field, their second album as the duo House and Land, Morgan and Louise once again give us reason to view the folk stylings that emerged from Scotland, Ireland, England, Appalachia, and the Ozarks through a broader lens. Both heavily steeped in these forms, Morgan (Black Twig Pickers, Pelt) and Louise speak engagingly on the history and development of the music over a group phone call.

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Bill Callahan Discovers the Magic of Settling Down

Bill Callahan

Photos by Hanly Banks Callahan

Bill Callahan has spent the past three decades cementing his reputation one of America’s most prolific and inventive songwriters, both in his work as Smog, as well as in the records he’s released under his own name. Although Callahan is well-known for his cryptic and pared-down narratives—which often mirror his elusive public persona—he took a radical new approach on his new double album, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest: he opened up. The album, which features the most explicitly autobiographical writing of his career, arrives after a six-year hiatus during which Callahan got married and had a son; he also bore witness to his mother’s death. Callahan’s songs have long explored humanity through a wide-angle lens, often situated in the American wilderness. Here, his tales of life on the home front are no less captivating. In a wide-ranging interview, edited for clarity, Callahan dove into his intentions behind the new album, explained what sets it apart from his extensive catalog, and even chimed in on the merits of “dad rock.”

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Folk Singer Mariee Sioux Finds Inner Truth In A Tangled Bloodline

Marie Sioux

Photos by Aubrey Trinnaman

“My music started to come from this hungry place, where I wanted to reconnect with something deeper in my bloodline,” says Mariee Sioux, discussing her origins as a folk singer-songwriter. “I wanted to feel more connected to my people, and my heritage that had seemed to have vanished from our line.”

Sioux, whose lineage includes Polish, Hungarian, Mexican, and indigenous backgrounds, has never been able to pinpoint the exact details due to a lack of official documentation, as well as her parents’ general disinterest in the topic. That her identity remains elusive is a constant point of sorrow for the artist.

“My parents don’t have strong ties to their cultural heritage,” she explains. “I’ve always been really deeply disturbed at the loss of culture in my family’s lineages. That happened so rapidly—in just a matter of, like, two generations, people don’t speak any other languages. No one knows any of the stories of their people. I’m pretty sure people had to pretend they weren’t Indian and Mexican to survive at some point; my grandpa was even beaten at school for speaking Spanish. There’s just a lot of trauma there.”

Although the music of her folk and bluegrass-playing father has always been a part of her life, Sioux didn’t compose her own songs until she was 17. As a recent high school graduate, she had traveled to the Patagonian desert—in the remote northwestern area of Argentina—to work with indigenous Mapuche children as a volunteer. Other friends who had planned to participate backed out of the trip, and during the hard, lonely stay, she began to teach herself to play the guitar and compose songs as a way to ward off the feeling of isolation.

The loneliness of the Patagonia experience connected back to her family’s lack of any strong cultural heritage. “That loss when I was searching for myself, as a young person going out in the world…all I wanted to [was] to feel more connected to the people in my heritage who had seemed to vanish from our line,” Sioux says.

The process of documenting that loss is a thread that runs through her work, including her third album, Grief in Exile. Completed after a “tumultuous” breakup, the album treats music as medicinal—a palliative mindset born from necessity, in the wake of a toxic relationship that left her personally and creatively drained. “I had lost a huge sense of my identity, my freedom,” she says. “My creativity was really blocked.”

And so she moved back to Nevada City, rebuilt herself “from the ground up,” and found strength in music. “Snow Knows White” shares a sense of moving beyond the grief, as the narrator chooses to “take herself as wife” and honor her creative force: “I took myself as my own wife, could no longer leave her behind / All my planets they sing inside, with my unborn’s song inside.”

Mariee-Sioux-by-Aubrey-Trinnaman-600-2

Sioux has also reconnected to the roots and legacies lost in her own family’s history, along with the real history of her hometown. Nevada City’s claim to fame is as a destination of the 1849 Gold Rush; rarely mentioned is the nearly total decimation of the Native population as the result of the hundreds of thousands who descended on the area to mine its riches.

Today, Sioux collaborates with Nisenan indigenous leaders and community—the First Nation of that area—who have been nearly wiped out through “near-genocidal” tactics: only 144 Nisenan tribal members remain. Sioux declares, “It’s one of the most crucial things in Nevada City, to support and help preserve and perpetuate this culture that hangs on by a thread.” For these reasons, she has chosen to have indigenous voices such as Shelly Covert, singer and spokesperson for the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan Tribe, to open her concerts.

Sioux has also lent her voice to protests like those in Standing Rock. She wrote the lyrics to “Black Snakes,” a song chanted in “peyote medicine language,” shortly before a trip to Standing Rock. Sioux describes the tune as a “channeling” of a “sonic prayer” for water: “The origins of that song really just kind of came through in one swoop—like it was sang it into being while I was playing guitar, which was only happened to me once or twice in my life before—so, it was really trippy.”

The power of Sioux’s songs stems largely from her poetic know-how—glimmering prose uplifted by Sioux’s multi-hued falsetto, and backed by gentle acoustic guitar. It’s part of what she terms “abstract storytelling.” The words and melodies are presented to the listener as sonic Rorschachs, so that they can use them to define their own moments of pain and survival. Consider album highlight “My Birds,” where she intones: “Empty, where once she filled a void in my home / But I’m still standing when the stone in my hand turns to dust / I’m still weaving this life with iridescent strands / My birds they bring, they sing for the dawn’s unfolding wings.”

“As an American society, [we have] pushed grief to the farthest edges,” Sioux says. “One of the main things that’s making our society sick right now is known as metabolized, unprocessed grief. We really have to welcome it back into our lives…it’s going to be a key to the part of our healing.”

-Catalina María Johnson

Fértil Discos Brings Indigenous Andean Folk to the Dancefloor

Fertil Discos

An ancestral genre called “canto con caja”—song with handheld drum—is currently traveling the world, as reimagined by the ears and hearts of a collective of Argentinean electronic DJs and producers.

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Minyo Crusaders Armor Japanese Folk Music for the Post-Modern Age

Minyo Crusaders

In his short story “The Preserving Machine,” Philip K. Dick wrote that “music is the most perishable of things; fragile and delicate, easily destroyed.” The character who speaks that line sets about turning music into DNA to enable it to survive for future generations. In a manner of speaking, the Tokyo group Minyo Crusaders are pursuing the same ends—albeit without the assistance of a laboratory, or indulging in any gene splicing.

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Hidden Gems: Anna Makirere, “Tiare Avatea”

HG-Tiare-Avatea-1244.jpgIn our series Hidden Gems, writers share their favorite Bandcamp discoveries.

Cook Islands singer Anna Makirere, daughter of singer/composer Te’atamira Makirere, was just 18 when she released her sole album as a regional cassette in 1981. Little Axe, which specializes in world music obscurities, reissued it in 2017. Tiare Avatea, or “Afternoon Flower,” features Makirere’s open-throated vocals backed by sweet harmonies and a guitar style that touches on both slack-key fingerstyle and flat-picking.  Her laid-back singing (mostly in Cook Island Maori) provides a sharp contrast to the driving instrumentals, especially on tracks like “Peu Tupuna,” a jittery island shimmy that vibrates so fast it sounds like the playback speed got misadjusted.

“Uuna Koe” is a slower ballad, with Makierere drawing out the mournful melody as the accompanists strum soberly, only occasionally throwing in an exuberant flurry of ornamental notes. “Little Girl” is the sole English-language song, and it’s a jaunty ode to unfaithfulness which sounds more like celebration than lament. “She asked me to spend all my money / To buy her a new diamond ring / She put it on her finger on Sunday / Monday morning she left me,” Makierere sings with nursery rhyme inflection, as the stinging guitar rocks and rolls along. The album’s sound quality is somewhat tinny, but that only adds to the air of sunny nostalgia. Tiare Avatea sounds like a magical transmission from some distant, but oddly familiar, shore.

Noah Berlatsky

La Luz’s Shana Cleveland on Collaboration, Visual Art, and Outer Space

Shana-Cleveland-by-Jacob-Romero-1244-2

Photography by Jacob Romero

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon Shana Cleveland—working musician, expectant mother, and guitar genius—performed songs from her new solo record, Night of the Worm Moon at Bandcamp’s record store and performance space in Oakland, California.

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