Artifact is the first CD by Dromedary, an Athens, Ga.-based duo that can fairly claim to constitute a veritable instrumental ensemble. The two of them, musicians Andrew Reissiger and Rob McMaken, are proficient performers on at least six acoustic instruments from mainstream guitars and mandolin to the more obscure charango of the Andes, the Appalachian dulcimer and cŸmbŸs from Turkey.
Reissiger discovered the charango during his stay in Santiago de Chil, but the instrument's origins are found in the Bolivian city of Potosi, reputedly the highest city in the world. Prior to that the Athens music scene had already recognized Reissiger as a very apt guitar player, participating in a variety of innovating projects.
Dromedary's other half, McMaken, was attracted by other arcane string instruments. As a teenager playing in Irish/Appalachian circles, he came across a type of dulcimer that is believed to have made it from the old world to the Appalachian mountains in as early as the 18th century. Although it is different from the hammered dulcimer of Eastern Europe and Turkey, it certainly has a very oriental sound. Later, he acquired another acoustic instrument called the cŸmbŸs, apparently a hybrid instrument of rather recent invention named for its creator, Walter Cumbus of Istanbul, Turkey. Its design is based on a traditional Middle Eastern string instrument called oud, the predecessor of the medieval lute. Apart from their geographic origin oud and cŸmbŸs share another common feature: both are fretless instruments.
On their road of discovery to playing acoustic instruments Reissiger and McMaken have taken slightly different routes, but in the end they nevertheless converged into a single path leading to Artifact. Reissiger, who is half-Chilean and a graduate of Spanish studies, is very much steeped in the Latin tradition. His guitar play has the distinct flamenco-character of the Spanish region of Andalusia, into which he has mixed the rhythms and melodic sounds of the music of South America's Andes. Gradually the charango weaned him away from the guitar and he resolved to delve deeper into ethnic music. Borrowing from klezmer, Middle Eastern and Celtic musical traditions, he continued to experiment and hone his own style.
The Celtic element overlaps with McMaken's early exposure to Irish music. Later he shifted to jazz and studied this musical style in the jazz capital of the world, New Orleans. But a trip to Eastern Europe changed all that again. Trotting through the lands of the ancient Greek, Turkish and Persian empires he was captivated by the music of areas like Macedonia and Turkmenistan. Since then he has set out to discover more about folk music in a diversity of cultures.
Having established a common ground in their joy for playing music as a community event, Dromedary's two versatile musicians have merged their respective styles into a one-humped fusion that is not easy to classify. They have indeed come up with a unique product. The undercurrent of the music betrays a pervasive Iberian and Latin-American inspiration, but is overlaid with sound bits from the Balkans, Greece, the Appalachians and even the Middle East.
In the first two tracks Dromedary draws on the Portuguese fado tradition. Originally this lamenting vocal music from Lisbon is full of melancholy, but in Dromedary's instrumental interpretations it has been spiced up a little. The next composition, "Tukman's Cueca," bursts onto the scene with a temperamental flamenco, in which the guitar is used like a percussion instrument. But then the arrangement turns more Andean, only to end in a potpourri where Spanish, Eastern Mediterranean and South American influences vie for prominence. This is followed by a much more subdued and melodious piece: "Letters from the Front," dominated by intricate and beautifully composed mandolin and guitar play.
"Virgenes del Sol" reaches far back into Bolivian mythology. This ancient melody starts almost hesitant, but when Andrew's charango picks up the tune it turns into an explosion of Andean rhythms, crisp as the mountains' thin high-altitude air. "Backroads to Brooklyn" came into being following Rob's discovery of the cŸmbŸs in a tiny New York store. Again, the opening is like a banjo-player just tuning his instrument, but as it progresses this 7 1/2-minute experiment seems to take us from the Big Apple, via the Celtic traditions of the Appalachian backwoods, all the way to the Levant and its mixture of Greek, Turkish, Persian and Arab musical influences. This number is a most convincing testimony of the inexhaustible possibilities offered by the cŸmbŸs. Also in the four remaining tracks Dromedary's instrumental versatility continues to pay tribute to the marvels of music inherited from both the Old and the New World.