YOUCHZ NOW / SOOON: Der Mongolische Reiter. Dunloe Gap. Klezma. Al Záhara. Nornu Jovnna. Iberimbao. Jodel Breton. Pythagoras’ Science Frictions in Siracuse. Voix-là: Durabai. Gula Gula. Bellow Dance. Kabak. Zaman. Sunneufgang Juuchz / Sonja Morgenegg, voc/yodel/overtone voc/gtr/monochord; John Wolf Brennan, pno/Sordino pno/Arcopno/ Harppno/Oudpno/Melodica/acc/Fender Rhodes pno/voc/tubes; Tony Majdalani, perc/cajòn/udo/Berimbao/frame dm/handpan/bs-dm/gong/voc/etc. / Narrenschiff NAR 2019137
This is the debut CD of the SOOON Trio, a group that combines elements of Swiss yodeling, shamanic chants, Arabic music, Celtic music and jazz. Their members are Swiss yodeler-singer Sonja Morgenegg, Irish-Swiss pianist John Wolf Brennan and Haifa-born percussionist/vocalist Tony Majdalani. The liner notes explain that the group spells Soon with three Os to symbolize the Os in eastern Switzerland (Ost), Overtone and the O in Yodel, also “as in BerimbaO, in PianO, in vOcal and as in TOny, SOnja and JOhn.” As for the album title, Youchz or juuchz is the Eastern Swiss expression for yodeling.
Just from the above description, you can deduce that SOOON is far from a conventional-sounding musical group, but you really can’t grasp how different until you’ve heard them. One recalls such past phenoms as the Celtic revival album Secret Garden, Rabih Abou-Khalil, Gilles Apap and the Transylvanian Mountain Boys, or Sheila Chandra as comparisons, yet even they sounded somewhat more conventional than SOOON. The best description I can conjure up, though it sounds derogatory (but isn’t), is post-modern splintered folk music. Yodeler-singer-guitarist Morgenegg is clearly the dominant performer on each track. As a genre, “Youchz” seems to fit in the pop-jazz-folk-world music category, in the integrated, hyphenated sense of that term.
The opening number sounds like Swiss yodeling blended with a light rock beat and a Middle Eastern sound while the second, Dunloe Gap, seems to be mixing Eastern European, Celtic and pop styles in a strange brew. Technical descriptions of this music are not impossible—each piece seems to be built from the top down, which is to say from Morgenegg’s voice (and/or guitar) on down through the piano to the percussion rather than from the bottom up, as was the case with Abou-Khalil’s music, and in almost every piece a connection to the pop world is evident even though none of these songs are EVER going to be played on I-Heart-Radio’s pop music app (or, if you’re lucky, any still-surviving radio stations that play pop). As pointed out in the notes, Morgenegg combines the vocal traditions of Muotathaler Juuz and other Swiss natural yodels with singing practices from the Georgian Yodel Krimantchuli, Hawaiian Yodeling, the Nordic Yoik, and the shamanic singing and overtone practices of Central Asia. But her singing and this music is not tied to any one tradition; their practice and their style breaks down the boundaries between these very different traditions to create a sort of super-conglomerate all its own. Again, according to the notes:
…the mixture of different tonalities contributes to the color. Arabic scales with their characteristic microtonal structure blend in with the “equally tempered mode,” which has shaped Western music for the past 150 years. Although the semitones are all equal, they are slightly impure. In combination with natural tone scales and mathematically pure moods, a variety of microtonal layers are created…[which break up] the major and minor patterns.
All of which is true, yet the ear tends to filter out the “microtonal layers” and hear the music as essentially tonal or at least modal in a recognizable sense. At least, I didn’t hear anything here as bizarre as the microtonal experiments of Julián Carrillo or Harry Partch. Iberimbao and Pythagoras’ Science Frictions in Siracusa, the latter of which also features Majdalani as principal vocalist, are the most Middle Eastern-sounding tracks on the album, while Voix-là: Durabai sounds the closest to African music, albeit with some wild Swiss yodeling. To my ears, Gula Gula mixes some elements of American Indian and Middle Eastern music.
For pianist Brennan, SOOON is just another step in his musical journey through various styles of jazz and world music. His past associations include playing in a rock band as a teenager, founding the jazz fusion group Freemprovisations in 1977, and stints with the Mohrenkopf Afro-jazz band, the SinFONietta ensemble, Chicago bass clarinetist Gene Coleman, and the SONIC ROOTS and Pago Libre ensembles (I reviewed Pago Libre’s Out on a Limb CD in September 2018). Jodel Breton most clearly shows up his piano skills, although he also contributes an interesting percussive solo on Pythagoras’ Science Frictions.
I should point out that Morgenegg’s voice, though very slightly nasal, has an extremely attractive timbre that one immediately likes, as was the case in the past with Sheila Chandra and, earlier, Klezmer specialist Judy Bressler. Only in Kabak does she go to extremes, purposely “pushing” her natural sound out of its natural tonal center to create an almost masculine sound (albeit in her high soprano range) as well as making the voice, in one passage, even more nasal as a means of propelling some strange “bubbling” sounds.
If you’re open to new musical experiences and enjoy hearing “something completely different,” as John Cleese of Monty Python used to say, this is surely it. You may never hear music in a normal manner ever again after your exposure to SOOON!
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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