A fine introduction to this underexposed but intriguing artist.
Jon Lusk 2009
Thierry 'Titi' Robin is a multi-instrumentalist from southwestern France, who has carved out a unique niche over the last quarter century. Growing up without many musical influences, he was naturally drawn to the Gypsy and North African communities of Angers when he moved there as a teenager. His music isn't so much 'fusion' or 'cross-cultural' as a response to these sources of inspiration. Kali Sultana ('Black Queen') is a largely instrumental suite in seven movements, spread over two CDs. There are long passages of great beauty and stillness punctuated by more turbulent episodes, and it feels like you've completed a journey after nearly and hour and a half has slipped by.
Robin switches between oud, buzuk (a small middle-eastern lute) and guitar, never playing too many notes and mostly sticking to Arab scales. The accompanying musicians often join him in unison rather than harmony or counterpoint, consistent with an 'eastern' as opposed to 'western' musical model.
The core band consists of accordionist Francis Varis, saxophonist/clarinettist Renaud Gabriel Pion, percussionist Ze Luis Nascimento and Pascal 'Kalou' Stalin on gumbass – cross between a Moroccan gimbri and a bass. They're mostly long-term colleagues, and the musical empathy on show is striking, most clearly when they segue seamlessly from Retour Au Pays – a co-composition by Varis and Pion – into Robin’s Ghazal Sans Paroles. Haunting drones from two viola players and a cellist add an occasional chamber music ambience, and Robin’s daughter sings at the opening and closing sections of Disc Two.
Disc One is entirely instrumental and the most tranquil and satisfying of the two. The opening Sable is a ravishing meditation on oud, with Pion’s string arrangements subtly colouring the sound. Just as in the still alaap introductory section of a Hindustani raga, it's some time before there's any regular metre, but things begin to pulse with the arrival of Nascimento and Varis mid-way through the First Movement, which finds Robin on the higher pitched bouzouk. From here on, the music ebbs and flows between atmospheric, often triple time percussive interludes and more ambient, melodic passages, with Robin switching to guitar for the Second Movement.
Maria Robin sings (in French) on all three parts of the Third Movement that begins Disc Two, and her high, childlike voice will be an acquired taste for some, but something of a spell-breaker for others. She only reappears on the more successful Rumba Sultana – the penultimate track – where her vocal seems to have been treated, and is slightly easier on the ear. The other two thirds of this disc are all instrumental adventures (generally more upbeat than Disc One) which suggest a variety of musical cultures – for example, the combination of sax and accordion on Première Danse Pour Khusrau lends a Sudanese flavour, while there's more of flamenco feel on the Seventh Movement.
Despite being a little overlong and that reservation about the vocals, Kali Sultana is very much a mystical musical odyssey, and a fine introduction to this underexposed but intriguing artist.