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Music Review: A Hawk And A Hacksaw – Cervantine

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A couple of my pet peeves are things I call cultural colonialism and cultural appropriation. In some ways, they’re close to being the same thing, in that it usually involves a person of one culture stealing from another for a variety of reasons. Quite a number of times it means a member of the dominant Western culture looking upon something from across the world, seeing it as exotic and then picking out the bits and pieces of it that amuse them without ever bothering to learn about the context they came from.

In some ways, it’s a lot like putting on a police officer’s uniform because you like the way it looks and then walking the streets. You may look like a cop on the surface, but the reality is you nothing of what doing the job involves. Most of those who are cultural appropriators are guilty of something similar. They dress themselves up in the trappings of a culture without knowing what it really means. Whether it is the pop star who picks up the sitar because it sounds cool or the new age musician who tries to make themselves sound more “spiritual” by using Native American flutes in their compositions, it amounts to little more than thievery.

However, music is supposed to be a universal language is it not? We’re always hearing stories of musicians from different backgrounds getting together and being able to find common ground through the instruments they play even if they can’t speak each other’s language. There are also classical musicians who spend years studying and training in order to be able to play whatever music they chose, including pieces written by composers from other cultures and times. Their study have not only given them the technical ability to play a multitude of music and styles, but the means to understand the context they were written in. If a musician is willing to immerse themselves in a culture, or the music, then he or she will be able to play it, no matter what their own background.

Which goes a long way in explaining how a band from New Mexico in the United States can play the music of the Balkans and Eastern Europe and sound like they were born to it. On their most recent release, Cervantine, on their own L&M Duplication label and distributed by Midheaven, A Hawk And A Hacksaw perform eight glorious songs which not only sound like they’re being played by people from their originating regions, but people steeped in its musical traditions.

Starting in 2004 core members and founders, Jeremy Barnes (accordion and percussion) and Heather Trost (violin/viola) made a pilgrimage through Eastern Europe learning and experiencing the music of the Roma, Hungary and the Eastern European and Asian influences that have permeated both. For two years they were based out of Budapest, Hungary and toured Europe with some of that country’s finest musicians. They have played on the streets of Amsterdam with Roma, a road outside of Jaffa, in Israel, for Palestinians and Hassidic Jews and in a small village in Romania, in a house with no running water, recorded with the famed Fanfare Ciocarlia (The band who play “Born To Be Wild” in Borat) However, in spite of the obvious influences these adventures have had on the band, they say they have no interest in simply recreating the music they’ve heard or in being some kind of ethnographic sampler.

All it takes is just listening to the opening track on the CD to hear how well they live up their word. Sure “No Rest For The Wicked”, a knock down, drag out, wicked, almost eight minute long instrumental piece, starts off sounding like your fairly typical Roma/Eastern European/Klezmar mix – which when you think about it isn’t so typical to begin with – but they throw in this sudden break where the music slows to almost a stop, and when it picks up again the song has morphed into something different. In some ways it’s almost as if they’ve taken the title of the song and translated it into musical action; the music might slow down, the beat might change, hell even the tune might not always sound the same, but there can be no rest for the wicked.

They’ve got a crazy sense of humour these folk who call themselves Hawk and a Hacksaw. But they also play music that shakes the earth. It’s got a pull you can’t help but respond to; something that reaches right inside and appeals to some part you might not even know exists and sets your blood to stirring. They’ve tapped into something that would be downright scary if it weren’t so exhilarating, and then translated it into music. Perhaps it’s because they are able to draw upon musical traditions from cultures normally in opposition to each other, like Turkey and Greece in “Mana Thelo Enan Andra”, and create something beautiful out of a centuries long hatred, that we respond so readily to what they have to offer. On the other hand it could be just because they are such bloody wonderful musicians and they could play anything and make it a miracle of sound.

While the majority of the emphasis is placed on the instruments, when their is need for a vocalist Stephanie Hladowski steps centre stage and is a match for anything her band mates throw at her. Her voice is filled with the raw passion of a violin scrapped raw by its bow but her control is such that she can turn it from a caress into a challenge in the blink of an eye. There is none of the awful refinement to her that you’ll find in pop singers and their meaningless songs of adolescent romance, instead you’ll hear the grief and joy of lives lived to their fullest echoing through her singing.

The instruments you’ll hear played on this disc are as diverse as the countries represented by the music. Chris Hladowki’s Greek bouzouki, Issa Mallug’s Turkish dumbek and riq, Samuel Johnson’s trumpet and flugelhorn, Mark Weaver’s tuba and euphonium and Charles Papaya’s bass drum and cymbal swirl, keen, pound, stomp, and soar in a kind of frenzy that occasionally borders on the chaotic, but which never actually loses control. Listening to them play is like watching the funnel cloud of a tornado and being amazed a thing of such uncontrolled power can hold its shape.

Listening to Cervantine you’ll hear the sound of the Balkans, mixed with Klezmer, rhythms from Turkey and tinges of the Latino sound of the band’s native New Mexico. While on the surface that sounds like it has the potential to be a discordant mess, Hawk and a Hacksaw somehow weave it all together to make incredible music. Anyone who ever doubted that the music of such diverse cultures could be brought together in harmony only needs listen to this band at work to become a believer. This is truly world music.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.