HUONG THANH AND NGUYEN LE: Fragile Beauty reviewed (2008)

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Huong Than and Nguyen Le: Rowing the Sampan
HUONG THANH AND NGUYEN LE: Fragile Beauty reviewed (2008)

These days world music compilations are pretty thick on the ground -- largely because they have been thrown there by disillusioned buyers who thought they might be getting a decent collection but discovered some lazily cobbled-together Thailand-lite or Indo-groove tracks which commit that most grave of sins: they are boring.

The high profile Putumayo label has been churning out such collections for about 15 years now under the motto “guaranteed to make you feel good”. That the cover art is done in a faux-folkloric style by a commercial artist and graduate of London’s St Martin’s College of Art and Design might give you a hint at just how reliable some of these collections can be. (Euro Groove and African Dreamland at a cafe near you I’m afraid.)

That isn’t to say the Putumayo label is write-off -- just that you take your chances -- but they seem proud to boast their label as a lifestyle accessory.

Label names like Global Groove, Lotus Leaf and the like should set off alarm bells.

Given the proliferation of world music labels it seems almost disappointing to observe that the old reliables -- Realworld, Hemisphere, Arc, Sterns, World Circuit and so on -- still maintain a high degree of quality control. But they have been given a run lately by the Rough Guide label, the aural offshoot of the travel books.

Collections on this imprint come through World Music Network which brought Etran Finatawa and Indian slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya to world attention, and have the equally good Riverboat and Introducing . . . subsidiary labels under their wing.

Rough Guide travel books are useful -- I’m more Lonely Planet myself -- but the compilations often get you into the music of places like Algeria, Tunisia, Malaysia and Cambodia. And not just traditional music, their knowledgeable compilers frequently spotlight excellent -- but very different, obviously -- contemporary pop.

The Rough Guide to the Music of Vietnam was gem and my life would be the poorer for not having heard Cam Ly, Tranh Sao Bao and Blue Asia (which is actually a Japanese producer working with Malaysians and Vietnam’s Thuy Hanh to create Mekong Delta blues).viet

That terrific collection kicked off with a mesmerising track by the singer Huong Thanh. She is joined on that traditional but contemporary-sounding song by its arranger Nguyen Le, a hot-shot producer and guitarist who has played with Gil Evans, Ornette Coleman, Quincy Jones and others.

France-based, they have been associated for 10 years across three albums under her name, a couple under his, and now getting co-credit for the remarkable album Fragile Beauty.

And Fragile Beauty is indeed that: Thanh’s beguiling voice coils around the keening bird-like sound of Le’s fretless guitar, they ride evocative soundbeds from keyboards, and there are discreet touches of traditional instruments from all parts of the planet (African balafon, Vietnamese zither, Japanese koto all carefully employed in service of the song). With arco bass and bamboo flutes this also has an earthy grounding which balances Thanh’s ethereal vocals. There is also, improbably, an enchanting pop-jazz quality.

Yes, it is scrupulously produced (Should world music not be? Is it supposed to always sound like field recordings?) but that only adds to the allure.

Le's solo albums have been consistently getting favourable reviews in European magazines and latterly in more mainstream British and American music magazines. If the trickle down of that is to also bring Huong Thanh to attention then we should all be very grateful.

Fragile Beauty is quite something.

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