Dakha Brakha

Musical passport: Mississippi blues to Estonian bluegrass

Robert Moyes

Special to the Record

Every year, expectant fans log onto the Vancouver Island MusicFest website to see which performers have been booked for the latest musical extravaganza at the fairgrounds.

And while it’s certainly exciting to see superstar names such as Emmylou Harris and Rita Coolidge and Bruce Cockburn add marquee glamour, it’s often the artists we’ve never heard of who, unexpectedly and joyfully, end up making the most indelible impression and the best memories.

This year will be no exception, as festival executive producer and artistic director Doug Cox has done great programming, booking everything from country-rockabilly guitar legends to masters of Estonian bluegrass (who knew?). Herewith, a brief guide to some of the hidden gems appearing at the festival.

Let’s start with DakhaBrakha, a self-styled “ethno chaos” band from Kiev, Ukraine, whose jumping off point is Ukrainian folk music to which is added instruments from Indian, Arabic, African and Russian traditions, which are then combined with a trans-national vocal payload.

The resulting soundscapes – exotic vocal harmonies and jaunty-to-jagged rhythms driven by a unique mix of percussion, cello and bagpipes – is otherworldly and hypnotic.

“These guys are one of the ‘buzz bands’ of the world music scene,” says Cox. “I’ve put them on the mainstage because they’re destined to be a smash hit.”

A distinctly different flavour of fusion is offered by Ellika, Solo &Rafael, a virtuosic trio composed of renowned Swedish violinist Ellika Frisell, Senegalese vocalist and kora master Solo Cissokho, and Afro-Cuban percussionist Rafael Sida from Mexico. Although some fusion bands come off as little more than a gimmick, this is an inspired trio whose music is a beautiful gift.

And now for something completely different – Federspiel, a seven-piece horn band from Austria that takes the oom-pah-pah tradition on a wild ride through the realms of classical, funk, and pop.

“I’ve been trying to get these guys for 10 years,” notes Cox. “They are conservatory trained and their music is fresh, high energy and very interesting.” And from neighbouring Genoa in northwestern Italy, comes Filippo Gambetta, a virtuoso of the button accordion who specializes in traditional folk-dance tunes. He is currently partnered with B.C.-raised Emilyn Stam, a gifted pianist and fiddler who shares a love of European social dance music styles.

A very different tradition is embodied by Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, a Mississippi bluesman who is also the proprietor of one of the oldest juke joints in that state. The child of sharecroppers, Holmes sings and plays acoustic guitar in the manner of Skip James and Lightning Hopkins.

“This is Jimmy’s first Canadian festival appearance,” Cox explains. “He’s the real deal and I’m proud to be presenting him.” And for a contrasting guitar star, check out Robert Randolph, who’s been called the Jimi Hendrix of the pedal steel. Ecstatic and wildly expressive, Randolph has taken the “sacred steel” tradition popular in many Pentecostal churches and put it on big stages all over the world.

Sticking with guitar, don’t miss out on two of America’s finest six-stringers: Bill Kirchen and Redd Volkaert. Co-founder of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, Kirchen pioneered a remarkable fusion of honky tonk, country roots, and western swing (he’s responsible for the immortal guitar licks that rev up Hot Rod Lincoln). For the festival he’s paired with Volkaert, a monster stylist whose country-jazz-meets-rockabilly sound is pure heaven beaming out of his signature Telecaster.

For vocalists, be sure to give a listen to Daoiri Farrell, a young, deeply authentic Irish traditionalist with a tenor haunting enough to have the leprechauns leaping in the glen.

And by way of contrast there’s Switzerland’s charming and endlessly entertaining Martin O, a vocal virtuoso and storyteller who’s like Bobby McFerrin and Robin Williams in the same body. And finally, tickle your ears with Curly Strings, an incredibly talented bluegrass band from Estonia. At once familiar and exotic, this quartet is, according to Cox, “as if Alison Krauss had incorporated some exotic Eastern European tonalities … interesting, unique, and very lovely.”

In other words, enjoy!

–Robert Moyes is a Victoria-based arts journalist with a particular interest in music

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