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Folk meets blues meets Africa

by Alison Hird

Article published on the 2009-12-18 Latest update 2010-01-27 13:45 TU

Langhorne Slim in Radio France Internationale's studios(Photo: Pierre Vallée/RFI)

Langhorne Slim in Radio France Internationale's studios
(Photo: Pierre Vallée/RFI)

Music that comes straight from the heart and the good old American folk book. New Yorkers Bethany & Rufus join forces with African percussionists, while the young, charismatic live performer Langhorne Slim delivers his own pared-down, acoustic love songs with disarming sincerity.

Bethany Yarrow(Photo: Pierre Vallée/RFI)

Bethany Yarrow
(Photo: Pierre Vallée/RFI)

Bethany & Rufus – a remarkable cello and voice duo from New York - give a new twist and poignancy to classics like “Martha’s Infirmary” on their latest album “Bethany & Rufus Roots Quartet Live à FIP”.  

It comes as little surprise that Bethany Yarrow, the voice half of Bethany & Rufus became a folk singer. Her father, Pete Yarrow, is the Peter of Peter, Paul and Mary, one of the most famous and influential folk bands of 60s America. 

But no one could foresee she’d have this amazingly deep, haunting voice, inhabiting the folk songs she performs with virtuoso cellist Rufus Cappadocia. They revisit greats from the folk repertoire: murder ballads, prison songs and slave lullabies like “Martha’s Infirmary”, Woodie Guthrie’s “This Train” or the late 19th century “Death don’t have no mercy in this land”.

After the highly-acclaimed album “900 miles” in 2007, they’ve just released “Bethany & Rufus Roots Quartet live à FIP”, recorded here at Radio France in March this year.

Yacouba Moumouni(Photo: Pierre Vallée/RFI)

Yacouba Moumouni
(Photo: Pierre Vallée/RFI)

The duo turned quartet alongside Nigerien flautist and singer Yacouba Moumouni and “Bonga” Jean-Baptiste, one of Haiti’s finest percussionists. The result is spell-binding.

Playing a Fulani flute, which he carved himself from a single piece of wood,  Yacouba Moumouni gives a Sahelien blues feel to songs like “No More” and “Oh Death”. When he sings, in the westAfrican language Fula, his high-perched vocals seem to fly on Bethany’s carpet of low tones.

The leader of “Mamar Kassey”, one of Niger’s main bands, Yacouba nonetheless describes himself as a “simple shepherd” compared to Rufus Cappadocia, one of the world’s greatest cellists.

Cappadocia plays a five-string electric cello he designed himself. It allows him to extend the bass range of the cello and extract a more percussive, rhythmic sound alongside the sometimes plaintive strings.

Rufus Cappadocia(Photo: Pierre Vallée/RFI)

Rufus Cappadocia
(Photo: Pierre Vallée/RFI)

The one original composition on the album is his solo piece “Iraq”:  a lament for the Iraqi people. A soundscape of their cries, suffering but also strength, it needs no words or introduction.

Langhorne Slim plays his own, very personal, brand of bluesy folk.

His tales are of loves lost and found, friendship and family. Some are happy, but the overall feel tends towards the anguished and moving.

“Be set Free” is his third studio album – a mix of bluegrass-inspired folk, with just a hint of Tom Waits and Neil Young, although he claims Nina Simone remains an important influence.

Accompanied by three talented young American musicians, Langhorne has huge stage presence and seeing him live, caressing his well-worn 1968 Epiphone guitar with his eyes closed, you can see Nina’s spirit hovering in the wings.

Though he has no fixed abode, Langhorne comes across as rooted and it’s what gives both him and his sound a certain genuineness. You end up happy to follow him down his folk, but never folksy, road.

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