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|For the last 20 years, the Netherlands' cultural ways have been a'changing - and it shows. From the traditional wooden shoes, tulips and newspaper-covered windows, more and more new colors have since entered our streets. Smells are being replaced just as rapidly. The penetrating odors of overcooked Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and other typical Dutch foods have almost completely disappeared. New smells of herbal mixtures like Ras El Hanout, lime grass and Cajun food are now filling the bazaars and markets. Passing cars no longer merely spread the 'music' of the Amsterdam folk hero Andre Hazes, but now also broadcast the flavors of rai, Indian raga and tango. For certain folks, the interweaving of so many cultures only suggests negative effects. Fear and suspicion of the unknown, the alien, then translate into intolerance and shortsightedness, with new political opportunists appealing to these misguided sentiments in an attempt to practice their own version of apartheid. Fortunately, this won't be a lasting phenomenon. Only a few statues remind us now of the rise and fall of the new leaders of younger days.
The addition of new cultures to our society does have its tragic sides; not so much for the seekers of a better life in a financially slashed economical climate, but because the seekers of freedom carry so many burdens. Oppressed and haunted in their own countries for speaking out and having a mind of their own, they are welcome in Holland. Just don't ask how. Procedural red tape takes years and years to unwind. In the meantime, those looking for political asylum are not allowed to work. They are detained in centers where, away from family, friends and loved ones, waiting in constant uncertainty is the main routine. Alas, a release valve to lessen the pressure and monotony of every day is, of course, music; New Dutchies with their -- to us -- unknown and foreign music.
In the city of Nijmegen, Dutch musicians with various musical backgrounds like classical, pop, folk, flamenco and street music have set up the ®chestra, with Johnny Rahaket -- violinist, tuba player and conductor -- its foreman after many years of performing with the International Dance Orchestra. Meanwhile, percussionist Hans Wanders and bass player Nels Busch joined from the first Dutch rock bands that discovered the Dutch language - the Frank Boeien Groep. Gerie Daanen plays the accordion and teaches at the Arnhem Conservatory adjacent to his own tango group classes. Flutist Frans van Geffen is a known builder and restorer of flutes, while guitarist Jürgen Rijkers and percussionist Chris Burki complete ®chestra's core.
The album Weeshuis, Orphanage, is a project made possible by WHAA, the workgroup aid to asylum seekers. In this particular endeavor, the ®chestra is assisted by six New Dutchies with roots in Tunesia, Afghanistan, Iran, the former Yougolavia and Kurdistan; not the most favorable places when your opinion differs from the party line. Together with the ®chestra, they bring music from their home countries, music filled with melancholy and desire, a sort of double blues. Suppose you have to flee your country, can find asylum in, let's say, Iraq. Today that's hard to imagine. But in the not-so-far future? How would you react when you could play "My achy breaky heart" with a couple of Iraqis?
The CD opens with the song "Ishq", Love, from Afghanistan. This is an original composition pregnant with mood and meaning, first whisked off by Frans' flute, then followed by a catchy countermelody that invites us to dance. Added guitar in flamenco style, violin, flute and accordion make this song with the voice of Najim Nekzad a favorite. Iran is the next country of origin, for "Poeste Shir" which translates as Lion's Fur. This ballad has the accordion sketch out the feeling of sadness, with Majib from Arabia singing about the pain from being separated from everything you love. Imagine how Majib must feel here in Holland, far away from his loved ones in Iran, wondering how they are doing. Brrrr.
Love is universal and the Iranian word for it "Pol". Although the lyrics remain incomprehensible, the melody and the intonation in the voice of Majib Arab convey all that needs saying. Physical closer to home but still a world apart for most lies the former Yugoslavia. Not just the recent war but the whole history of this country fills it with turmoil and terror. "Bele ruze, nezne ruze" -- White Roses, Soft Roses -- tells the sad story of a love lost in hard times. The guitar and voice of Mille Lukiç, abetted by subtle accordion accents, transform this number into a straightaway tearjerker.
From Yugoslavia to Lebanon is not such a big step, and "Fi-l bäli 'ughniyatun" means A Song Is In My Thoughts. The beautiful voice of Oulfa Rouached together with the alto violin of Françien Schatborn make for such a wonderful match that, although the lyrics are sad again, this song keeps spinning in one's head for days - hence the title perhaps? Mille Lukiç next sings about a girl who has to marry a man she does not love, simply to escape perennial poverty. The only person she can talk about her destiny to is a little bird. In "Berivan", Milk Girl, Mohadin Molly recounts the story of the daily life of a Kurdish shepherd. He also plays the saz, a long-necked lute typically used in Arabian music. The scary sentiments of losing one's youth create the theme for "Koedaaki", Youth. Its Iranian intro is almost classical and the added small church organ conveys a baroque feeling with truly fascinating results.
Mohadin Molly's saz returns in "Kella", the Hunters Spring, where he sings about oppression. The lyrics of "Da te nema", If You Weren't Here, aren't much happier. It's a familiar Serbian tearjerker played in the old town centers. The town center is also the subject of the Tunisian song "Ritik ma na raf ween", I Saw You, But I Don't Know Where. It tells the story of a young man who sees the same beautiful girl in every alley of the medina, the heart of Tunis, constantly dreaming of her but afraid of possible rejection should he approach her. The album's last track is the Afghani "Tore Sterge", Black Eyes, enveloped in an almost medieval atmosphere due to the nature of the percussion and singing, suggesting to us a painting of the famous painter Hieronymus Bosch.
This album strikes us as one the best produced in the Low Lands in recent years. All tracks are fascinating and beautifully recorded, with kudos due to recording technician Henk Wanders. The ®chestra in itself is already a very strong ensemble. The addition of the New Dutchies here makes it yet stronger, with the tunes not played in rigid obedience of the original as though being sheet music. No, it comes directly from the heart and carries with it both East and West, a perfect mix just like we dream our society should be.
Echo's van overall, Echoes From Everywhere, differs from Weeshuis by adding to the ®chestra's core formation only singer Oulfa Rouached, with the tunes mixing reflections of travels to far countries with impressions from right around the street corner. The opening "Matchmakers" oozes the vital atmosphere of Bulgaria, with the catchy uptempo melody begging for a tad more volume. A little more introvert is "Atan" which is based on a trip to Afghanistan. Its combination of violin and accordion go straight to the heart, making us thankful for the track repeat option on our CD player.
A medley of three dances from slow to swaying suggest Yugoslavian influences while Oulfa's beautiful voice in "Raoui" questions a storyteller to explain to her the meaning of life. This goose-bumps combination of voice and guitar also demonstrates how beautiful-sounding the Arabian language can be, how closely it seems to resemble Portuguese - or vice versa.
The celebration of devouring pizza in a Turkish neighborhood restaurant provides the background for the fifth track, demonstrating once and for all how, for the members of the ®chestra, no locale is too insignificant to discover beautiful music in. While downing the pizza, the melody heard was reworked into an up-tempo number with tight percussion, splitting the song into two parts, with the second's opening bass solo a challenge for the weak spots in your equipment chain! Just try this track at lively volume and hear what an open plucked string can do. A typically charming ®chestra melody then evolves to drag the listener yet deeper into the music.
When Yo-Yo Ma heard the ®chestra, he promptly invited the ensemble to his 2002 Silk Road Festival in Amsterdam. As homage to Mr. Ma, the ensemble penned the song "Yo-Yo" and included it here. Founder/leader Johnny Rahaket also works as a conductor and includes a few numbers featuring the Colorful City Choir made up of various smaller choirs from the Nijmegen region. The first choral piece is "Ja vi se", adapting one of Mille Lukiç's song. Our only complaint? That's it's over far too soon. The choir's male contingent then stars on "Mokrohajské pole", an a capella rendition from Moravia. The choral milieu of "Eiwaw" next reflects Johnny's Indonesian ancestry from the Kei Islands of the Moluccas.
In every major European city, you see and hear the Peruvian folk musicians with their pan pipes and charangos trying to make a living playing traditional songs. Occasionally, their performances are truly outstanding. One such occasions provided the inspiration for "Recuerdos" and "Bandenita", proving you don't have to travel far to encounter great music. And perhaps ®chestra's visionary recipe works in reverse, too - the street musicians might get inspired by one of their reworked versions? With this CD, the ®chestra delivers another fatal blow to the current fashion of stuffing extra length into recordings by diluting a few choice tracks with empty filler. There's no filler here, each track as vibrant, soulful, intense and interesting as the next, inviting the listener to immerse himself additionally into a stellar recording. Play it again, Sam!