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Strange Cousins
Artist:  Tribecastan
Label:  Evergreen Music
Time:  15 Tracks / 48 mins
Where shall we start? Manhattan is probably the best place, as that’s where Tribecastan come from. But Manhattan is such a cosmopolitan place that its indigenous music sounds foreign. That’s the sort of premise that guides this disc. Cookie-cutter cool it’s not; but it drips with a tongue-in-cheek pride that you just have to enjoy.
The band (there are clues that their name is pronounced Tri-Bekistan, like Uzbekistan) is mainly two players: John Kruth (who has played his ‘banshee mandolin’ with the Violent Femmes) and ethnomusicologist Jeff Greene. Helping out are Ween bassist David Dreiwitz; Jolie Holland (once of the Be Good Tanyas) on vocal and box fiddle; Klezmatic Matt Darriau; and Steve Turre, trombonist with the Saturday Night Live band. 
Just as Manhattan has Egyptians living cheek-by-jowl with Thais and Mexicans, there are some strange bedfellows on the disc’s instrumentation lists. What’s your lucky number? Seven? OK, track seven employs sheng, harmonica, zurna, Uilleann chanter, bladder pipe, crumhorn, bean, chromatic tambourine, Pakistani taxi horn, bass, pocket trumpet and alto sax. It is a sort of free-jazz homage to traffic, so you can forgive the strange inclusion of alto sax. It certainly doesn’t appear on any of the other fourteen tracks. 
Of course, more simple pieces need simple instrumentation, so if you were about to change your number to ten, track ten (“Black Ice”) just features kelhorn, gong and nyckleharpa. Together, they make an ambient Eastern European sound, all slow, twangy strings against a buzzy, bassy, droning backdrop. If you carried on playing this track lottery, you could hit upon guiro, tupan, riq, shells or royal benju, among others.
So how do we describe the sound of Tribecastan? We don’t. The easiest way is to visit, where you can it let it stream over you, starting with the flute-led Don Cherry tune “Mopti,” which is just like early Jethro Tull, but with added banjo. “Tonko the Zookeeper” comes next, bringing an air of Saharan melody tinged with Balkan scent. “Yusef’s Motif” follows on. It is one of a couple of tracks that feature wood flute, and these have a very lo-fi feel, especially when the penny whistle joins in. “The Flowers (that I Placed at my Ancestor’s Grave Spontaneously Burst into Flame with their Appreciation)” is like Gryphon playing twentieth-century jazz.
And so it goes on; each track is fairly distinct from any others, yet everything fits nicely into a coherent whole. There is a natural tunefulness that gives this virtually instrumental disc an authentic feel. If there really were a place called Tribecastan, it could sound just like this!
At different points on the collection, you could on one hand be thinking that they are having a laugh or, on the other, admiring their easy way with memorable folk riffs and melodies. They are certainly not po-faced about collecting musical styles, but neither are they flippant. The easy delicacy of “Raphaella” – a beautiful slice of plucked ukulele set against mandolin and mandocello – shows how well they can craft and play home-grown tunes that sound like traditional ethnic classics. That said, their own tunes do seem to start from snippets they have heard around the world, so their essence has probably been tried and tested. 
Green started the label “as a natural outgrowth of his interests and musical curiosity.” It deserves to feed the interest and curiosity of others. Anyone who likes world-folk music with character should give this a try.
Derek Walker


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