Listening to Huntsville…..

What’s in a name? When people talk about ‘world music’, they’re generally referencing a body of work that exists outside of  the standard Euro-American rock/soul/folk/jazz continuum. 

Using such rigid definitions, Ry Cooder’s 1970’s  Warner/Reprise albums are generally defined as blues or rhythm & blues, give or take the odd calypso or jazz tune.  On the other hand,  the albums he has produced with Manuel Galbán and Ali Farka Touré are seen as world music, in part because they are inspired by a musical tradition that originates in the music of Cuba (Galbán) and Mali (Touré) respectively.

Music often resists such categorisations; the harder you try to label it, the more it slides away from you.  Not for nothing does iTunes feature a genre definition called ‘Unclassifiable’.   In addition, the lines are becoming increasingly blurred; in the forty-something years since George Harrison decided to use a sitar on ‘Love you to’ and ‘Norwegian Wood’, the music, the styles and the instruments of the non-Euro/American world have moved in and made themselves at home. 

 Once we got past the novelty sitarists of the mid-60’s,  a new group of performers began to emerge -usually, but not exclusively in jazz circles.  These players either promoted the use of specific instruments – Don Cherry playing a douss’n gouni or Malian lute, Charlie Mariano introducing the nadaswaram (an Indian reed instrument) – or like The Incredible String Band, embellished their songs with a whole range of African, Middle Eastern and Asian instruments; plucked, blown or beaten.  The plaintive singing style of Robin Williamson & Mike Heron kept things within the folk tradition, but the framework for their songs often had as much connection to the music of India or Morocco as it did to anything remotely European.

The growing multi-culturalism of the modern West also ensured that previously exotic imports like reggae, salsa and Congolese/Zairean soukous came to Paris or Manchester or New York with the new waves of incomers from the countries where they originated.  Sometimes the new styles were reproduced more or less au naturel as with British-based reggae bands like Misty in Roots or Aswad, whilst other genres joined with established styles to form new hybrids –  to offer just two examples at either end of the spectrum – the British/South African free jazz orchestra, The Brotherhood of Breath,  blended post -Ornette improv with township jive & marabi, whilst in New York City in the 1980’s, Kid Creole & the Coconuts successfully blended reggae, salsa and soul with Broadway musical stylings to form an exotic brew that enjoyed considerable chart success.

None of which gets us any closer to Huntsville, whose very name is designed to confuse us.  Huntsville (the place) is either the Texan birthplace of Sam Houston or the Alabama location of a major NASA installation.  There’s a Huntsville in Canada, too and probably a few others.  Perversely, Huntsville (the band) are a trio of Norwegians comprising  Ivar Grydeland (guitars), Tonny Kluften (basses) and Ingar Zach (percussion).  Grydeland also plays banjo & steel guitar whilst Zach – and indeed the whole ensemble – add all kinds of percussive effects,  both organic & electric, to the mix.  The music they make on their second album – ‘Eco, Arches & Eras’ (Rune Grammofon, 2008) is nearly as wilfully misleading as their name.  Rune Grammofon have made a habit out of recording largely Norwegian ensembles whose music skirts the boundaries of free jazz, industrial noise, trance and other left-field genres.  Huntsville fit comfortably into that template whilst remaining a deal more accessible than some of their label-mates. 

Huntsville on stage

It’s in our nature to try and understand what we’re listening to by referencing other previous listening; so, Huntsville take on board elements of German 1970s rock typified by Can along with 1980’s fringe performers like 400 Blows.  This is leavened with strong doses of Americana; mournful steel guitars hoot in the background whilst what Donald Fagen & Walter Becker described as ‘angular banjos’ fade in and out like transmissions from a bluegrass radio station on Mars.  All of this is propelled along by electronically-generated tabla drums and judicious use of a shruti box, which is one of those hand/bellows-driven drone devices I first encountered watching the late Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan. 

Essentially, Huntsville are plundering different traditions – Indian music, country, art-rock, free jazz, bluegrass etc and making a hybrid all of their own.  It strikes me that there is little in here that could be said to originate from the traditions of their own country.  Huntsville are in fact a true ‘world music’ ensemble inasmuch as they have listened to and absorbed much from many other cultures and synthesised it into something that is entirely their own.

All of this could sound like the proverbial dog’s breakfast, but thankfully, it doesn’t.  Huntsville veer from pastoral miniatures like ‘Tudor‘ to 15-20 minute long excursions that demonstrate the full range of their influences and talents.  ‘Eco’ covers most of these bases; the ‘angular banjos’ are there, as are galloping tabla passages, thunderous electric guitars and, for good measure, a brief vocal cameo from Sidsel Endresen.

The bonus of ‘Eco,  Arches & Eras’ is that it features a second CD recorded with guests – Wilco’s Nels Cline and Glen Kotche are on board for the 54-minute blow-out, ‘Eras’, recorded at the 2007 Kongsberg Jazz Festival.  Interesting to hear how Huntsville translate their studio shenanigans into a live environment, but with help from their guests, they manage pretty well.  ‘Eras’ builds through various moods to a thunderous cacophony of electric guitars, fading away to a repetetive and more pastoral conclusion.

‘Eco, Arches & Eras’ – Rune Grammofon, 2008

Describing what goes into Huntsville’s music is easier than writing about the music itself.  That’s a bit like trying to describe the taste of an oyster or the colour green or the cry of a seagull.  Some things just have to be experienced.  All that can be said with any certainty is that if your ears are open and you have at any point enjoyed music that dabbles around the fringes of jazz, country and experimental rock, you may well enjoy what you hear.

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