Box 205 Loretto Station
Denver, CO 80238
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Marji Hazen
It's a reviewer's job to find something to criticize in every album. Sorry, I could find nothing out of sinc in Phil and Pam Boulding's well done collection of harp and hammered dulcimer tributes to major indigenous musics of the world. This was no quick-get-it-done production. Whether a Boulding interpretation of a traditional tune or style, or one of Phil's originals, each track was thoughtfully constructed and perfectly executed.
The album features the Magical Strings duo--Philip Boulding playing several kinds of Celtic and folk harps and wife Pam with hammered dulcimer. Together, and with additional guest artists, they present original interpretations of traditional musical forms from Madagascar, Hawaii, Ireland, the Caribbean islands, Gambia's kora music, as well as several original compositions that are pure Boulding and, as in their other eight albums, genuine delights. It is difficult to make a comparison between this album and any famous music done before, because the Boulding music is like no other. Magical Strings centers around the Celtic harp and hammered dulcimer which, in this album, are augmented by violin, cello, pennywhistle, percussion and various instruments from around the world.
The last successful musical group I can remember that combined a basically pleasant group sound so successfully with unexpected effects and instruments of the world is the Martin Denny Ensemble, a group popular so long ago that this generation probably does not even remember the sensation their many-colored musics caused among builders of the new hi-fi kits in the 50s. This ninth Magical Strings album with the Denny-ish title of ISLANDS CALLING, is a remarkably well-integrated blend of some of the world's best indigenous musicians and two sensitive Celtoids who embrace and interpret other genres with respect and appreciation.
I first heard Phil and Pam live as a harp/hammered dulcimer duo, unamplified, in a small room at the Great Black Swamp Dulcimer Festival (Lima, Ohio) in the early 1980s. Even then their music was of excellent quality. Since then they have taken a solidly competent and pleasant Celtic style to a whole 'nother level, where the words "inspired and creative" may not be enough to describe the music that is happening around them, or perhaps to them.
Phil Boulding's accurate sense of the essentials and aesthetics of each genre of music included on this album is no better demonstrated that in track 3, "Warm Island," a perceptive interpretation of the sound and soul of the very best Hawaiian slack-key music--those fingerpicked open guitar tunings that island musicians took for granted until 1960s off-island scholars and musicians came to study, to learn, and to imitate (usually pretty badly). That Keola Beamer, the foremost Hawaiian slack-key authority, would agree to record this track with Phil is a privilege that few off-island musicians are ever accorded. The Gambian kora composition, the Madagascar dance music, and the Caribbean numbers show the same respect to their inspirational roots. The world music numbers are matched in quality by Phil's original compositions.
This album appears to have been both a labor of love and a good excuse to get together with friends and family. Parts were recorded not only in Washington State where the Bouldings live, but also in Hawaii, Maine and Ireland. ISLANDS CALLING includes special guest appearances by fifteen additional musicians including cellist Eugene Friesen, guitarist Alex de Grassi, West African kora player Moussa Kanoute, and Irish piper Tom Creegan. Two of Bouldings' five grown children provide cello and field organ parts and 14-year-old daughter Brittany, who has been concert master of the Tacoma Junior Symphony, plays violin on three tracks.
Despite the variety of styles and inspirations, there is an overall evenness of sound that makes this album highly listenable as a whole as well as track by track. In addition, broadcasters and cable services needing good background music should take notice. Bouldings' music is not just for Celtic fans anymore. This album is definitely easy listening, professional, commercial (in the best sense of that word), world-class. And agencies, these cuts would make great sound tracks.
ISLANDS CALLING will take its place along with Beamer's tapes and my favorite dulcimer recordings in the "often played" section of my media shelf. Consider this review an unqualified recommendation of this album as music to live with, to give as a gift, and to include in commercial media production as well as PBS broadcast station collections.
Fantastic job, Bouldings. I'm looking forward to your next one.
Edited by Shawn Linderman