In a list of the most derided musical instruments, whether fairly or unfairly, the pan pipes must be somewhere near the very top (perhaps nestling alongside bagpipes and the descant recorder). So closely are they associated with functional music for advertising and the Pan Pipe Moods relaxation compilations that it is hard to think of a context in which they could possibly sound thrilling.
It is time to think again. Narasirato are traditional musicians from the Are’are people from Malaita, one of the Solomon Islands. Rooted in their musical and spiritual heritage, this music sounds like a joyous fusion of more familiar styles from other geographical locations. There are hints at reggae, as well as clave rhythmic foundations that suggest close musical links with African and South American forms. That the album ends with a dub version of one of its best tracks is surely not coincidental.
What is most impressive here, however, is the very distinctive energy and sense of forward motion that comes from the small orchestra of pan pipers. The pipes here sometimes join the rhythm section but also adopt a more melodic role. There is little need for more conventional harmonic instruments (guitar and keyboards), as pretty much all ground is covered by the pipes. It’s a surprisingly full, rich and engaging sound. The pipes only introduction to Roromera, full of variety in tone and attack, is particularly impressive.
This is music rooted in the traditions, rituals and occasions of the band’s community. It is disarmingly refreshing to hear music this uplifting and positive. It is celebratory, rhythmically driven music with huge respect for life and nature. Whilst there is an hypnotic quality to the band’s percussion and bass grooves, an important feature is the number of surprising and compelling variations in ideas. The rhythmic shifts in Sisimaito, one of their more minimal arrangements, make for risky and unpredictable music.
As intoxicating as the band’s adventurous rhythms and pan pipe orchestrations are, it’s easy to focus on them at the expense of some of their other, equally significant qualities. The sheer feeling and intensity of projection in the vocals is quite wonderful, and the blend of voices on the title track and Mane Paina seems effortless. Painaha Ni Are’are begins with a short vocal introduction as meticulously organised as any of the pan pipe parts. At other times, the voices and pipes seem to be engaged in frenetic, exhilarating call and response. Perhaps best of all is the empathetic, haunting introduction to Warahora’a, in which the voices and pipes seem to unify majestically. It’s just one of many sublime moments on Warato’o, a truly unique treasure of an album.