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Mixed media: music

music reviews

Wild Wild East

by Sunny Jain

(Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, CD, LP + digital)



Heaven knows, the US likes its foundational myths – and it’s into this mythological landscape that Sunny Jain gallops. His mission? To re-insert the historical cowboy for what he (or sometimes, she) actually was: a person of multiple identities – African American, First Nation, Latino – and to introduce the figures of more recent migrations.

Based in New York – his family emigrated to the US from Punjab before he was born – Jain is a drummer/percussionist, composer and bandleader. Migration is at the heart of his family’s story – one shadowed by the violence that came out of the Partition of India in the late 1940s. Wild Wild East’s ambition superimposes two migratory themes – that of the American West and the dislocations of the Indian subcontinent – to draw similarities between human stories.

Musically, this is achieved deftly. Hindi Bollywood songs are pulled into the mix; so are shimmering guitar tunings redolent of Ennio Morricone as heard through Eastern ears; a Dick Dale-esque surf guitar (which was actually Lebanese in origin) runs through the album’s title track, and a to-the-point lyric from US rapper Haseeb rings through ‘Red, Brown, Black’. In the insightful sleeve-notes, Jain casts immigrants as ‘current-day cowboy and cowgirl: a diverse cast of human beings from all corners of the world in search of freedom.’ For an album that operates on so many layers, Wild Wild East is a deeply humane one. LG

The Karen Dalton Archives

by Karen Dalton

(Megaphone, 3LPs + 3CDs)



The name of Karen Dalton – singer-songwriter, 12-string guitarist and banjo player, fixture of the new folk scene in New York’s Greenwich Village in the early 1960s – is not one that jogs most memories. If she is remembered, it’s in relation to Bob Dylan, for whom she was a deep influence. However, in the last few years, there has been a tentative rediscovery industry around Dalton, with tribute albums and shout-outs from big names such as Nick Cave and Johanna Newsome. This boxed set – CDs, LPs, a tablature t-shirt and book containing notes written by Dalton herself – represents a major step in bringing her back to contemporary notice.

Her laconic voice, sliding music and spacious, thoughtful arrangements are closer to blues than anything else. She resented the comparison to Billie Holiday (though her powerful cover of ‘God Bless the Child’ encouraged this), preferring the booming contralto of Bessie Smith. This boxed set contains her live album Cotton Eyed Joe (1962) and the home-recorded Green Rocky Road (1963), and much unreleased live material. The recordings are raw and intimate; when she sings ‘I’ll never get out of these blues alive’ you hear that weariness.

Dalton’s personal life was a disaster, and this contributed to her fading from view. Beset by unshakeable addiction problems, her relationships were profoundly broken. She increasingly hated performing. Friends did what they could, but she died in poverty in 1993 from AIDS -related illness. This archive gives us a glimpse of what has been lost. LG

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