Vocalist Viv Corringham is in the Bay Area this week, joining up with a local band to perform a combination of improvisation, electronics, and Greek rembetika singing.
Rembetika, also spelled rebetika and technically the plural of rebetiko, is an early 20th-century Greek music with genes from the Baltic region and Eastern Europe. But it’s not music born of joy; like the blues, it’s the music of a downtrodden people (outcasts from Asia Minor) and the struggles they faced.
Drugs seem to be a prevailing theme in rembetika, which explains the name of Corringham’s mini-tour: “Life Is Clearer Seen Through Smoke.”
The line comes from a 2011 album, Rembetronika, that pairs Corringham’s singing with the side guitar of Mike Cooper, backed by electronics and joined in spots by legendary British improv players.
Rembetronika — available for free at archive.org — gives you a taste of what to expect from Corringham’s tour. Despite the electronica-sounding title, the album is rich with acoustic sounds of strings and voice, the electronics serving as shading to heighten the drama. (We’re talking laptop-style electronics, not electronic dance music, although a downtrodden dance beat does appear on at least one track.)
Corringham’s Bay Area consort will be an experience beyond that album. The band is all woodwinds — shakuhachi, recorder, and didgeridoo — plus electronics and piano. It’s also going to be a multimedia event, with on-the-spot “film and light abstractions” by Anna Geyer.
You’ve got two more chances to see them:
Tuesday, November 24, 8:00 p.m., Center for New Music (55 Taylor St., San Francisco)
Wednesday, November 25, 7:30 p.m., Canessa Gallery (708 Montgomery St., San Francisco)
Joe Lasqo (playing laptop and keyboards in the band) has blogged a more detailed explanation of the band, the music, and Ms. Corringham.
As for that “clearer through smoke” line — it comes from one of the few Rembetronika tracks sung in English, “White Powder.” And it’s a tough story: a plea for drugs so that the singer can find some escape from this hellish world. “Like is clearer seen through smoke,” Corringham sings, summarizing what seems to be the prevailing attitude in rembetika.
It’s not much different from blues songs about alcohol. It seems there’s something universal about misery and the human condition.
Against those lines, a gentle ramble of off-rhythm guitar drifts like a cloak of madness settling on the singer. Those kinds of unsettling moments are a highlight of Rembetronika. As another example, “Bournovalia” drenches Corringham’s voice in old-timey reverb, backed with a ghostly procession of electronic smudges and untuned chimes for an unsettling effect.
The acoustic sounds of guitar and voice remain at the forefront, though. Pairing a high-toned lilt (think the golden age of radio) with Cooper’s cowboy-style slide guitar — which isn’t the same as the traditional bouzouki but flavors the sound richly.
Those natural sounds take the foreground on the mournful “San Ton Exoristo,” backed by the crackle of faux vinyl and comet-tail slashes of background sound. “Smyrneiko Minore” adds Chris Abrahams’ tumbling, bluesy piano, some slashing guitar, and Corringham’s bright, clear voice singing a wavering, haunting melody. It’s very much the blues.