SANS - Kulku
Zither-player and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Cronshaw, the great Finnish singer Sanna Kurki-Suonio, multi-instrumental reeds player Ian Blake and Armenian duduk master Tigran Aleksanyan formed SANS as a result of all four appearing on Cronshaw’s 9th album, 'The Unbroken Surface of Snow'. Their first live performances as a quartet, indeed Sanna’s first meeting with Ian and Tigran, were at Finland’s Kaustinen festival in 2011, and later that year in London came their debut appearance under the name SANS. The CD 'SANS Live', released in 2014, was recorded on a tour in Flanders.
'Kulku', released 1st September 2018, is SANS’s first studio album.
In the course of recording it, in the winter of 2017-18, in a beautiful spacious oak barn conversion in Suffolk, they were joined by Sanna’s daughter Erika Hammarberg as guest singer. Her contribution – vocal and in composition and lyrics – was so major that it was clear she should join the band.
Jim Sutherland, Scottish musician, composer and leader of the 36-member international La Banda Europa, was brought in to produce, and his influence has very much helped SANS into new creative territory.
Previously SANS had just one singer; now it has not only Sanna and Erika but joining them for the first time here is Ian’s deep bass voice.
While Andrew has been known to use a wide array of instruments, for this album he plays just two: 74-string electrified zither (which, with Ian’s bass clarinet, provides not only its ringing chiming but also the album’s bass end and rhythmic pulses) and marovantele, a two-sided, double-strung stereo electric kantele of his own invention which was partly inspired by Madagascar’s double-sided zither the marovany (with which he became familiar during his years working with Madagascan band Tarika).
Both Sanna and Erika play Sanna’s 10-string, carbon-fibre-strung kantele.
Tigran plays duduk, his country’s heart-rendingly voice-like reed pipe, of which he’s a leading player. Ian, who like Andrew is a multi-instrumentalist, here plays just reeds – bass clarinet, clarinet and soprano sax – plus melodica, and a couple of notes on bass guitar.
All the songs are in Finnish, except Kazvatti – Four Sorrows, which is in a dialect of the closely related Finno-Ugrian language Karelian.
Below are some review quotes, and also the full review by Robin Denselow in the Guardian, where it was September’s 'World CD of the Month'.
SANS: Kulku review – sad-edged songs for zither and duduk
The Guardian, Friday 7th September:
4 stars - World CD of the Month
It starts with gently edgy a cappella vocal from the Finnish singer Sanna Kurki-Suonio accompanied by her daughter Erika Hammarberg, and the bass voice of Ian Blake. Then the zithers move in, with Andrew Cronshaw’s 74-string electrified instrument providing chiming backing and throbbing rhythmic effects, matched against the Finnish kantele played by Kurki-Suonio and Hammarberg. And then the plaintive, mournful sound of Tigran Aleksanyan’s duduk, an oboe-like instrument traditionally played in Armenia. The melody is Scottish Gaelic, the lyrics are in Finnish and the result is a compelling, unexpected fusion of European and Middle Eastern styles.
All this has brought SANS cult success in Europe, where this album shot to the top of the world music charts upon its release last week.
The musicians were originally brought together by Cronshaw seven years ago, to play on his album The Unbroken Surface of Snow, and went on to record a live set that demonstrated their quietly intense improvised playing. Kulku, the first SANS studio recording, displays a different approach, with vocals now dominant on often sad-edged songs that range from the brooding Tuuditelle Tuuli, where the duduk is matched against Blake’s reed work (he plays clarinet and saxophone) to the harmony vocals on the poignant Kazvatti, a lament for a bride unwillingly married to an alcoholic husband, which is backed by gently chiming zither. There are fewer instrumental pieces than expected, but the two that are included show the empathy between the musicians, and include the atmospheric The Edge of Autumn, in which a haunting duduk melody is matched against a wash of zithers. A subtle, exquisite set." - Robin Denselow, The Guardian
Here are some quotes from other reviews….
“A thrilling glow of light from Scotland, Armenia and Karelia - The SANS album is the most touching and highest quality of the year by any measure” – Mari Koppinen, Helsingin Sanomat (Finland)
"Andrew Cronshaw's Anglo/Finnish/Armenian wondergroup have really gelled on their second album, with the twin Finnish vocal attack of Sanna Kurki-Suonio and Erika Hammarberg to the fore. Produced by Jim Sutherland, this is a world-class record." - Ian Anderson, editor, fRoots (UK)
“Kulku is a touching, touching and painfully beautiful disc.” – Lars Fahlin, Lira (Sweden)
"The slightly expanded group, now a quintet, make music that seems as if they’ve simply dived deep into time. The mix of kanteles, zithers, voices, duduk, saxes and clarinets works with a natural, organic inevitability, and the music doesn’t so much unfold as curl off into a gorgeous distance. It has a wonderfully meditative quality, the voices of Sanna Kurki-Suonio and her daughter Erika Hammarberg shifting between harmonies that are ethereal and softly dissonant (as on Pursi–The Rowing Song), while Astele Oro carries echoes of Kurki-Suonio’s former band, Hedningarna.
Vocal or instrumental, it’s music that breathes, played without ego, finding whatever serves the song or the melody. Everything feels utterly natural, whether it’s just a few musicians on a track or the entire ensemble. But although it sometimes seems delicate, almost elusive, there’s a very studied foundation, built on years of playing together and pushing gently at the boundaries where cultures entwine. Some pieces, like Kazvatti, take on an almost liturgical quality in the singing, a sacred hush that’s only intensified by the gently ringing kantele between verses.
Kulku is lullingly melodic and softly adventurous, one that peers into the shady corners and finds the beauty, drawing it out into the light. An absolute triumph." - Chris Nickson, fRoots (UK)
“A very, very unusual album” – Armen Manukyan, Golos Armenii (Armenia)
"There’s a meditative quality to the music, and the vocals are in Finnish, thanks to singer Sanna Kurki-Suonio and her daughter Erika Hammarberg. But the other musicians are Armenian (Tigran Aleksanyan on the reedy duduk) and British (Ian Blake on various other reeds and the group’s leader, Andrew Cronshaw, on various zithers). The opening Pursi - The Rowing Song is playful, haunting and in touch with the elements. Other super soulful tracks draw on Spanish and Scottish Gaelic traditions. Alarmingly, the most entrancing piece is the final one with its plangent, lamenting duduk melody and softly plucked strings. The words say “I forgot all joy, stopped singing the songs”.
- Simon Broughton, The Evening Standard (UK)
"The sound-world that the band, led by multi-instrumentalist Andrew Cronshaw, create using clarinet, saxophone, duduk, kantele and vocals is spacious and even spiritual. A clear sense of Finnishness, the dominant musical spirit here, comes through strongly. The lyrics of all the songs on Kulku are in Finnish or Karelian and sung by mother-and-daughter vocalists Sanna Kurki-Suonio and Erika Hammarberg, the newest member of the group. Her higher, bell-like voice complements Kurki-Suonio's warmer tones and declarative style, adding depth to SANS' sound right from the opening, when a close-harmony trio conjure up an image of the wild north." - Tim Woodall, Songlines (UK)
“The beautiful female vocals, the harmony of the tones, the delicately, unrecognizably reworked alien melodies. Each number is beautiful, and different.” - Tamás Galgóczi, ekultura, (Hungary)
"SANS is an impeccable combination of musicians and influences. Kulku emerges as a strong communal statement. What you hear is music of such startling originality that the whole functions to create a timeless world of unlocatable beauty. Grounded in and forged from streams of different lands, Kulku offers a warm homecoming to those daring to navigate the interconnectedness of cultures.” - Lee Blackstone, Rootsworld (USA)
"While you might have gotten up not having known you needed a little Finnish singing in your life or that the kantele has the ability to float you in the air or firmly root you to the music of the earth, or that duduk lines could float above a music composition like a soaring bird, there’s Kulku to take you to a place you didn’t even know you wanted to go." - TJ Nelson, World Music Central (USA)
“Kulku is a startlingly original piece of work.” – Dave Haslam, RnR (UK)
Rauta - Iron 3:150:00/3:15