When the women of Sabia' harmonize their solidarity with the "Andean Woman" in the opening cut of their first album, "Building Bridges" (Redwood 2900), with composer/vocalist Libby Harding strumming out the urgent pace on a small Venezuelan guitar called the cuatro, they make it clear they are also affirming their solidarity with Latin America's Nueva Cancio'n (New Song) movement.
A progressive reinvigoration of folk music idioms, New Song was inspired by the work of Quailapayun, Inti-Illimani and other groups and artists in Chile in the early '70s. Now it is a cross-cultural mix of American and Mexican percussionists, guitarists and flutists calling attention to the suffering and hardship of those living under repressive governments, and doing so with beautiful, beautifully rendered melodies.
"One Plus One" takes up the plight of the "disappeared," the peasants and teachers lost "like a pearl in a ton of rice," whether due to government imprisonment or worse. Sabia' declares "that we will come united/ And open your window."
A window, "one lone window/ before the great solitude of roars," also figures prominently in "Eternal Darkness," based on a poem by a prisoner in Franco's Spain, but sung in dedication to political prisoners worldwide. Guest Robert Kyle's drawn-out wails on tenor sax help evoke the dreariness of prison cell life "inside the air that has no flight/ Inside the tree of the impossible ones," but the prevailing mood, accentuated by the uplifting melody in the refrain, is more akin to that of Don Quixote when, on his way to execution, he's dreaming his impossible dream.
Of course it might be argued that most of Sabia''s members enjoy an emotional distance from the Central and South American conflicts that makes possible the luxury of dwelling upon artsy excesses. Nicaraguan singer/songwriter/Sandinista activist Salvador Bustos certainly seems to share the affliction of not being able to see beyond the revolution as a cultural end-all. The sparsely arranged music on his first album, "Skylight" (Redwood 8502), suffers accordingly.
Bustos' "History and the World Are With Us" tells of a "battle of the new human to liberate truth," yet nowhere is there a medley, instrumental break or other New Song twist to loose the chains of strict verse/refrain. The melody, despite its pleasant enough meandering in somewhat unexpected directions, never develops into anything that could be equal partner to the lyrics. One of the few glimmers of how much better "Skylight" might have been is provided in "For March" -- inspired by work to lower the illiteracy rate in Nicaragua -- which radiates some of the melodic charm of Cat Stevens' "Wild World."
On the other hand, the Nicaraguan brother and sister group Guardabarranco (named for the national bird of Nicaragua) has demonstrated in the release, "If You Were Looking" (Redwood 8501), that it is not impossible for artists as passionately committed as they are to the Sandinista revolution to seek out those places in the heart, those melodies and architectures, that are virtually inaccessible on the level of slogans and lectures. In the title cut, Katia Cardenal sings, "If you dreamt of seeking freedom . . . you have found it," and then practices what she preaches with a soaring resolution of the melody's lilting tension. This is followed by an effective mopping-up of this mini-aria by the accompaniment, which includes her brother Salvador Cardenal on acoustic guitar and Jackson Browne sideman Craig Doerge on piano.
Other selections deal with such things as an ubiquitous moon ("It follows me along any road"), the melodies and progressive touches lingering long after the lyrics are forgotten.
Salvador Bustos may celebrate the El Salvadoran civil war with declarations like, "We will defeat your death/ with your blood you will pronounce out liberation," as though he can hardly wait for more bloodletting. But Guardabarranco's "Warrior of Love," dedicated to young Nicaraguans fighting off the contras, speaks of "this necessary war" (against the counterrevolutionaries) as though it were a necessary evil; Katia Cardenal sings to one soldier, "I will trade you this love of life and its promises/ for your cold feet in the swamp," thus suggesting she wishes she could take his place, spare him the mortal danger at the front lines.
Redwood Records is to be congratulated for making the New Song of Sabia', Salvador Bustos and Guardabarranco available in this country, with English lyrics to boot.