New York Music Daily

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Roman Hurko’s Requiem for Chernobyl: Even More Relevant Today

New York Music Daily is a week old today, and so far, there has been no coverage of albums here. After all, albums are out of fashion, particularly in the rock world. And that’s probably a good thing. Many songwriters who have a good song in them don’t have another ten, and those who do often take several albums to get all of those songs out. Yet there’s no reason to discredit the idea of an album-length artistic work, or a successful collection. One such work is Roman Hurko’s Requiem for the Victims of Chornobyl [to be consistent, the transliterations from the original Ukrainian used here are the same ones used by the composer in the cd art and album notes, i.e. “Chornobyl” for Чернобыл].

Why is this ten-year-old album still relevant? For one, 2011 is the 25th anniversary of the disaster it commemorates, one which most likely killed a million people worldwide from radiation poisioning, cancer and birth defects. 2011 has also been the year of the probably far more lethal catastrophe at Fukushima – since there has never been a waterborne nuclear disaster, the ultimate toll in terms of human lives is unknown, next to impossible to predict, and could exceed the 1986 catastrophe by a factor of ten or even more. And taken simply as an artistic statement, an expression of grief and remembrance, Hurko’s Requiem is as memorable as it is important.

It is a work of the utmost solemnity and somberness: the music is as heavy as the lethal metals expelled in the nuclear inferno that followed the failed safety test (arguably the cruelest irony in human history) the night of April 26, 1986. It’s sung by the Frescoes of Kyiv Chamber Choir conducted by Oleksandr Bondarenko, who publically premiered it in that city fifteen years later. The lyrics are an Orthodox Catholic requiem, sung in Ukrainian specifically for the disaster victims. The music, in fifteen sections, begins very low, still and funereal, gradually grows more radiant, a balance of extreme lows and highs. A bass soloist appears on the third track and sings his most melodic part – since this is mass, much of the rest of his assigned passages are practically spoken, more an invocation than a melody. Throughout the suite, the tempos range from glacial to barely largo. And the melody itself resists resolution, and other than a small handful of anguished crescendos, doesn’t move around very much. Which it shouldn’t: there aren’t many shades of grief. That’s what makes this such a universal work. In ten years’ time, it will tragically be as appropriate a requiem for the victims of Fukushima as it was and remains for their counterparts thousands of miles away.

Who is the audience for this album? Fans of heavy, dark music – it doesn’t get any more gothic than this. And fans of the darker side of pre-baroque choral music, specifically composers like John Sheppard. Those who prefer the pyrotechnics of gospel music, or more avant garde outfits like Conspirare, may find this claustrophobic and monochromatic. Which, again, it’s supposed to be. Ten years after it was released, it still packs a wallop.

In the years since, Hurko – a Canadian of Ukrainian descent – has continued to compose: his most recent work is a richly dynamic setting of the complete Orthodox/Byzantine Catholic Vespers for choir and soloist. A search of the sharelockers and free music blogs didn’t turn up anything – it’s surprising that even now, this album remains so obscure. Copies and downloads are still available from Hurko’s site.

African Revolution in Central Park

Yesterday afternoon Tiken Jah Fakoly strode onto Central Park’s Summerstage looking triumphant but haggard. Maybe all the years battling the gestapo in his native Ivory Coast are weighing on him…or maybe it was the fact that he’d just played well into the morning the same day at SOB’s. In a world where stardom is an antiquated concept, Fakoly is one. Not because of marketing, or some evanescent cosmetic appeal – Fakoly is a freedom fighter, the real deal. The part of the show that resonated the most with his fellow Africans was a tantalizingly brief medley of hits, including a barely thirty-second chorus of Quitte Le Pouvoir (Leave Power), his signature song. That one got him banned from the radio and it also almost got him killed. “African revolution” was his mantra here, that phrase being an instant recipe for confrontation with dictators and thugs throughout the world. He wants them gone, to “sweep them away,” as one of the songs in the medley put it.

And it’s not just sloganeering. What’s made him such a thorn in the side of the fascists is that he won’t settle for anything less than a revolution, “An intelligent revolution,” he told the crowd more than once, reminding that liberation can’t happen without both political and economic self-determination. Undoubtedly he would have elaborated further if his English was better. Most of the songs in this particular set were sung in French, some in his native dialect, his terse, aphoristic lyrics immersed in a dry, biting sense of humor that evoked Peter Tosh. And as much as Fakoly has a message, like the Wailers, he leads a kick-ass reggae band. Early on, they broke it down into a completely unexpected, echoey dub vibe; later on, the eight-piece group’s keyboardist used the rapidfire microtonal quaver of a ney flute setting for added menace. The band’s acoustic rhythm guitarist played virtuoso, spiky kora (West African harp) on several numbers, including an offhandedly ferocious anti-imperialist number: “They divided Africa without consulting me,” Fakoly sang nonchalantly, sardonically, in French. “We gotta get up!” The three-piece horn section soared and wailed as Fakoly stalked across the stage, once or twice summoning the energy for some unexpectly energetic dance moves.

And while Fakoly disdains most African regimes, he’s a great ambassador for the continent. Viens Voir (Come See) wasn’t just a wickedly catchy anthem: it was a fervent reminder that Africa, like everywhere else, is far more complex than it’s portrayed by the slavish corporate media. It’s not all suffering, misery and poverty. That song could be do for African tourism what Bob Marley’s Smile Jamaica did for that country. Yet he closed the show on a down note: essentially, what he told the crowd during his final fiery anthem is that his country was doing perfectly fine until the imperialists got there and fucked everything up. Nobody disagreed: half the crowd was too stoned to complain, the rest raising their fists in solidarity.

It was an unexpected treat to be able to catch a half-hour of New York roots reggae sensation Meta and the Cornerstones’ opening set: unexpected, because the last time Summerstage booked an African reggae artist, the lines to get into the arena stretched thousands of feet beyond the entrance. Where Fakoly speaks to global revolution, this band’s Senegal-born frontman reflected on a more front-and-center reality, police brutality against entrepreneurial if slightly illegal Brooklynites, and the hardships expatriate Africans have had to surmount since the Bush regime’s crackdown on immigration ten years ago. Like Fakoly, he’s got an amazing, eclectic band behind him: two horns, a keyboardist whose tantalizing allusions reach to both classical and jazz, and a lead guitarist who didn’t waste a single note through three long solos, equal parts purist Chicago blues, jazz and Al Anderson-style reggae.