World Music CD Review: Las Rubias Del Norte “Ziguala”

Las Rubias Del Norte

Ziguala (Barbès Records)

By Devon Wendell

Las Rubias Del Norte’s knack for putting a Latin spin on world music with modernity and originality comes through loud and clear on their third and latest album Ziguala.  The band’s two creative forces – Emily Hurst and Allyssa Lamb – are the “Two Blondes From the North” in the translation of the name, which is also a take-off on the Mexican Norteño band, “Los Tigres Del Norte.”

Hurst and Lamb have a unique sense of vocal harmony and use unusual instruments generally associated with ‘60’s kitschy psychedelic rock – the glockenspiel and Farfisa organ – which set them apart from other world music bands.  This blend of voice and offbeat instrumentals is evident on the album’s opening track, a haunting minor key version of Jose Luis Perales’s “Porque Te Vas. Hurst uses the Farfisa organ for color and texture, adding a marimba style that rides subtly atop Timothy Quigley’s steady shakers.

Surprisingly enough, it’s the album’s traditional Latin numbers that are the least interesting and often redundant, while the group’s revamping of material from other cultures is much more impressive. One example of this is a fascinating visit to “Bollywood” on the band’s version of “Mana Janab Ne Pukara Nahim,” written by well known Indian composers, S.D. Burman, and Majrooh Sultanpuri. This Tito Puente-esque rendition has a strictly Latin dance feel, with wonderfully mournful guitar by Giancarlo Vulcano.

The title track, written by Greek singer and bouzouki wiz Manolis Hiotis, is a brilliant departure from the original, with an upbeat Mariachi flavor. Lamb delivers some delightfully odd dissonant piano playing that blends with Vulcano’s distorted rhythm guitar arpeggios.

The strongest vocal performances on the album are on a dark, ambient reading of Kurt Weill’s “J’Attends Un Navire,” with soft lush string arrangements and stark vocal harmonies by Hurts, Lamb, and Olivier Conan.  The Neapolitan “Scalatinella demonstrates the rhythm section’s tastefully original backing, with exceptional percussion by Quigley and Greg Stare, and bluesy electric guitar leads by Vulcano.

“Seguedille” is an album standout. Lamb and Hurst’s layered ethereal chanting is mimicked by Vulcano, who alternates between flamenco nylon acoustic and Gabor Szabo-style electric jazz fills.  Amani Lara’s “Sola” has a South of the Border/country ambiance and includes steel guitar and B3 organ; the song makes for a fun experiment and is a perfect backdrop for Lamb and Hurst’s soprano vocal stylings.

The album’s weak point is that it goes on longer than it needs to, with material such as “El Alcaravan” and “Cruzando El Mar” seeming forced and unnecessary. The album’s outer explorations into other territories would have sufficed without the presence of overly used traditional Latin material.

Aside from those fillers, Las Rubias Del Norte’s take-no-prisoners approach to melding Latin music with other styles makes much of  Ziguala into an intriguing and satisfying musical adventure.

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