May 2, 1997



With a rush of world music arriving in record stores, collections and compilations can be valuable on two counts: as an opportunity to get a comprehensive overview of a specific genre, or, conversely, as an easy entry into a wide array of different musics.

Two collections from Celestial Harmonies are impressive examples of the comprehensive overview of a specific genre approach: The Music of Bali and The Music of Armenia.

The three–CD boxed set of Balinese music represents four unique styles. The first, Jegog music, features four–tone bamboo instruments. The second combines traditional gamelan with more current approaches, while the third and fourth represent two kinds of ritualistic music, the vocalized Kekak chanting and the processional Tektekan.

The Music of Armenia is a superb, seven–CD boxed set encompassing the amazingly diverse music of Armenia. There are chants, folk tunes, instrumental music and rich choral harmonies in a collection that underscores the stunning and far too little acknowledged creative density of Armenian culture.

  • Don Heckman
February 24, 1996


Listening to the distinctive bell–like sounds of the Celtic harp, it's difficult to imagine why the instrument fell into disuse about two centuries ago.

There were political reasons: The instrument, which is about 1,000 years old, was a symbol of Gaelic culture, and Ireland was oppressed by the English. There were artistic reasons: People began playing pianos and organs.

But according to Patrick Ball, billed as the Celtic Bard, there was an additional reason: It had become harder for harpers to keep their nails nice.

"In earlier times, poets and bards and harp players were attached to the kings and chieftains," said Ball, 45, who performs a pair of shows today at San Juan Capistrano Regional Library. "When the English came, the harp players and bards were set out on the roads.

"The Irish harp was, and still is, played with your fingernails. When the patronage system died out in Ireland, harp players had to, God forbid, work for a living when they weren't playing. That was hard on the fingernails. They switched from brass–strung harps, the traditional Celtic harp, to gut–strung harps, which they could play with the finger pads."

Four of Balls seven recordings (six solo instrumental albums and one soundtrack) are dedicated to the music of Turlough O'Carolan, a blind itinerant harpist of the 18th century. His most recent recording Fiona (Fortuna/Celestial Harmonies), is somewhat of a departure: it includes accompaniment on uilleann pipes, penny whistle and fiddle, and only one O'Carolan tune. He is currently at work on his first album of stories.

Ball devotes half his show to storytelling, and that's a story in itself.

"I have a master's degree in Irish history," said Ball, reached by phone recently at his home in Sebastopol, Calif. "When I was writing my thesis, I decided I had to go to Ireland, to do research and drink beer. That's when I got attracted to the stories. They had such strange, oblique slant on history. I began to search out the old storytellers.

"When you go well back into Irish history, you reach a point where nobody's 100% sure if it's history or mythology. Historians rely on the old storytellers to flesh out events, to give insight into the old invasions, and how the first people came to Ireland."

Balls says he was initially interested in exotic stories about fairies and other supernatural matters. But the more he researched, the more extraordinary he found the everyday trials of the people, and the contrast between their poverty–stricken lives and the stories they told. He felt the tales had "a buoyancy about them, a resilient quality that reflects the strength" of the people.

What Ball values most of all is "the wordplay, the rhythms, the love the Irish have for words. People never wrote these stories down. A lot of them didn't know how to read or write. The incredible thing about it was that these people were incredibly eloquent yet completely illiterate.

"I grew up in Northern California, where words were tools—you spoke in order to get something across. In the Irish situation, words were a music of their own. It was fabulous to listen to these people tell stories. It never even mattered what the stories were about."

  • Benjamin Epstein
Saturday, September 2, 1995


Indigenous music from Vietnam is atypical among Southeast Asian countries in that there's little relation to gamelan. According to the liner notes to this three–CD set, the music of China left the deepest mark on Vietnamese styles, which emphasize stringed instruments such as lutes and dulcimers and which make the music surprisingly accessible.

Produced by New Zealand musician David Parsons with his wife, Kay, for this Tucson label, this set has two CDs featuring a shifting ensemble of 15 classical musicians recorded in Hanoi. Several unusual instruments are employed, including the dan bau, a one–string guitar with a bamboo stem that bends notes like a "whammy bar," and the k'ni, a rifle–shaped fiddle with a mouth attachment that can create a voice–box effect similar to that used by rock guitarists such as Peter Frampton and Joe Walsh in the '70s.

The music is so expertly performed and so beautifully sequenced—the focus shifting from ensemble to solo pieces, from stringed instruments to flutes—that attention never wanders.

On several pieces, when the full ensemble kicks in over a clippety–clop rhythm, it's hard not to visualize the music as themes from imaginary Vietnamese Westerns.

The other volume, Imperial Court Music Recorded in Hue, is more rigidly structured, formal and closer to what many would expect Vietnamese traditional music to sound like. The most exciting pieces feature a clarinet playing long lines over pounding percussion, a combination common to the music of many Southeast Asian nations.


Something more vital than just recording music was at stake on this three–CD set—preserving the heritage of the Khmer music tradition that suffered the ravages of the Pol Pot regime. Two CDs were recorded in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, one featuring ensembles playing the royal court music of the ancient Khmer Empire with the sequencing again enhancing the variety. The other contains solo instrumental performances that are less absorbing.

The first CD goes to the core of the Cambodian culture by featuring music from the region around the temple of Angkor Wat, and mostly recorded inside the temple itself. The pinpeat orchestra combines oboe–like srlay fiddle and assorted xylophones playing long melody lines over a gong–and–drum rhythm bed. The fullness of the pinpeat sound is offset by the open spaces in three selections by the Taam Ming ensemble consisting of srlay, the rare nine–gong gamelan and drums.

  • Don Snowden