Just below Sohovia sits the mythical kingdom of Tribecastan, presumed home of the eclectic musical collective TriBeCaStan, out earlier this month with their fourth album New Songs From the Old Country. If there is an old country that these songs come from, it is a country that embraces musical traditions from all over the world. It is a country where music is music, and if categories are significant, it is for the expansive possibilities they offer.
The 16 songs on the album are, with only one exception, written by either John Kruth or Jeff Greene, written either on their own or in collaboration with each other. Individual songs reflect the musical traditions of Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia, as often as not layered with jazz elements. On any given track those with ears fine enough are likely to hear instruments as varied as the Portuguese guitar, the sitar, the bulbul tarang, the African raft zither, the gongo mouthbow, the kecapi siter, gaida, kaval, washboard and udubu, to say nothing about the mandolin, accordion, trombone, and all the other usual suspects.
Of course, there are those of us who won’t be able to tell the difference between the txistu (a Basque flute) and the Andalusian shepherd flute, still the list of 59 different instruments (that is if my count is accurate, given the small print in the liner notes) credited to the nine band members is impressive nonetheless. And this doesn’t even count the 13 instruments in the hands of 10 labeled special guests.
TriBeCaStan isn’t world music. TriBeCaStan is WORLD MUSIC.
The album begins with “Bwiti,” which the liner notes call “an ancient medicine song.” It is a song with African roots and jazz flowers. “Corned Beef and Sake” is Japanese-laced boogie and “Saloniki Reb” is twisted klezmer. “Night Train to the Ukraine” echoes the rhythms of the railroad as it speeds from local to express, while “Gordana’s Dream” plays with trance-like minimalism. “Dance of the Terrible Bear” moves from Eastern European dance to an almost volcanic riff by the time it reaches its climax and is spent. “Communist Modern” has all the makings of a winking TriBeCaStan national anthem.
Kruth and Greene’s arrangement of Erik Satie’s well-known piano piece, “First Gnossienne,” is the one unoriginal piece on the album. It is a gorgeous melody, and I’m not sure that the exotic TriBeCaStan version does it justice. The exoticism of their own “Persian Nightingale” works much more effectively, and serves as a fitting close to an exciting, unusual album.