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SALTWATER BAND Malk Dramatico Records DRAMCD0077 (2011)

Saltwater Band

Saltwater Band's 'Malk' is the kind of ground breaking dual language album that belies the notion that contemporary music has nothing more to say. Shifting effortlessly between their native Yolngu Matha and English, Saltwater Band gloriously re-affirm the notion of music as a shared international language whatever the source.

The Yolngu musicians who hail from Elcho Island - situated off the northern territory coast of Australia successfully mix their traditional musical antecedents with a contemporary approach that incorporates everything from a string section to guitar, keys, horns, percussion and trumpet

Their music is a celebratory hybrid of beautiful harmony singing and rhythmic pulses that takes in the insistent feel of Socca music and occasionally the reggae vein of West African Highlife. More importantly, in terms of its potential global potential the mix of pristine harmonies, strong melodies good hooks and a state of the art production by Michael Hohnen offers the band a gateway to commercial accessibility

Certainly the Beatle style harmonies and subtle string arrangement of the opening 'Martjanba' is tailor made for a cross over audience and at least a Radio 2 play listing. And the post Calypso feel of the title track which features Natalie Pa'Apa'A on guest vocal and toasting, is more than catchy enough for a single release.

The production team is also canny enough to offer a closing remix of the same song with contemporary dance beats, leaving us in no doubt as to the commercial potential of a World Music album with real global possibilities. The strong songs, the glistening harmonies and catchy tunes will surely appeal beyond an Australasian audience schooled on the likes of Crowded House and Men at Work

There's a real emotional sweep to the multiple harmony singing and ancestral guidance of 'Compass' and the lyrical familial pull of 'Marwurrumburr', one of many songs on which the listener barely notices the ethnic language delivery as you become enveloped by the mesmerizing infectious rhythms, subtle harmony vocals and later repeated horn lines.

And then to top it all there's the band's ace in the pack with the outstanding vocals of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, who since recording this album has enjoyed international success in his own right as well as appearing with the likes of Sting and Elton John. He brings a rare combination of emotion, clarity and presence to the heartfelt 'Djilawurr'.

As is often the case with all the best albums there's a subtle flow and carefully crafted equilibrium that runs through the heart this project and never overextends its strengths and avoids the pitfalls of repetition.

Even the most obvious dance friendly tracks such as 'Yolgnu Island Dancer' makes the most of a delicate guitar line, keyboards and subtly arranged horns either side of beautifully nuanced vocals which slip imperceptibly from a lead to a backing role in the blink of an eye. There's even room for an MOR ballad 'Baywara' which without the sparkling accompanying harmonies could easily be Michael MacDonald, while the Caribbean influenced rhythms of 'Galiku' plays to the band's rhythmic strengths and their lyrical virtuosity, as they celebrate the traditions of their island. And it's the way the band and their producer manage to imbue the traditional with a sense of the contemporary that lies at the core of an excellent album.

At times there's a heartfelt celebratory mix of the histo-cultural, the conceptual and a keen sense of the present wrapped up in emotionally accessible songs that brings a new dimension to the term World Music. The harmonies and arrangement of 'Wirrapangu for example, would surely hold familiar appeal to both Country and Tex Mex fans, albeit they might not quite catch the meaning of a song that equates thunder with ancestral memories.

'Malk' is a triumph of feel over immediate meaning. The 14 tracks uncover a wide range of emotions but ultimately Saltwater Band strike a perfect balance between their own indigenous culture and an essential grasp of contemporary pop. World Music never sounded so vital and relevant.


Review by Pete Feenstra


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***** Out of this world | **** Pretty damn fine |
*** OK, approach with caution unless you are a fan |
** Instant bargain bin fodder | * Ugly. Just ugly

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