Saturday, July 2, 2016

Maria Dunn – Gathering

Distant Whisper Music

As I noted in my review of her extraordinary 2012 release, Piece By Piece, “I’ve long admired the superb work of Edmonton-based singer and songwriter Maria Dunn. She’s well-versed in traditional folk music, and like such songwriters as Woody Guthrie, Tom Russell, Si Kahn and Tom Paxton, has a wonderful and all-too-rare ability to write outside of herself from the perspective of other people with complete authenticity.”

Maria quotes the late Pete Seeger on the front cover of the lyric booklet to Gathering, her new and equally superb album: “The key to the future of the world is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.” And, indeed, that is what Maria has done with her 10 original songs on Gathering (there is also an excellent interpretation of the traditional “Jock Stewart” (also known as “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day”).

The set opens with “Malala,” an anthemic tribute to Malala Yousafazai, the teenaged Pakistani girl whose brave and inspiring activism on behalf of education for girls led to an almost-successful attack on her life by the Taliban and to her becoming the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate. With her core accompanists on the album – siblings Jeremiah McDade, Solon McDade and producer Shannon Johnson, all of The McDades – augmented on this track by singer Karim Gillani and tabla player Ojas Joshi – there is an appropriate East Asian flavor to the arrangement.

The character in the next song, “The Milkman,” is a refugee in a camp – in Africa, I presume – repenting the horrible actions he was forced to perform as a forced child soldier and hoping to turn his life around through positive action in a place so much in need of it.

“When I was Young,” is a poignant piece sung from the perspective of environmental activist Dorothy McDonald-Hyde, the first elected First Nations chief in Alberta while “Hans’ Song,” is from the perspective of an old man in Edmonton remembering his sister and the life he left behind as a young immigrant from Norway. Then “Little One” captures the general experience of so many First Nations people who went through the Canadian government’s horrible residential school system over the course of more than a century into the 1990s.

Each of these songs, and the rest, are beautifully written, arranged and sung by Maria with great sensitivity to the people they reflect and to their unique and special stories.

“How I Live” is a topical song detailing some of the difficult challenges, and the resolute determination, of people living with disabilities and their caregivers to live with dignity despite inadequate public support.

A pair of songs, “Flora,” about a specific grandmother living alone in Canada, and “When the Grandmothers Meet,” about grandmothers in several locales around the world under severe challenges, reflect the inspired and inspired impact that grandmothers have on others.

“Bedrock, Bedroll” is also written from the perspective of an old woman – one who remembers her itinerant life in the Great Depression as the wife of a miner following the work from place to place but finding joy in each other and in dancing together when their friends gathered at the end of the week.

“Music in the Meadow,” Gathering’s finale, is a lovely reminder of the beauty in nature – a reminder to stop and appreciate the world in which we live.

Maria is one of Canada’s finest and most perceptive singer-songwriters and the songs on Gathering are important additions to the Canadian folk music canon. The songs, and Maria’s singing, are exceptionally well served by the members The McDades who play throughout the album and by the occasional other singers and musicians who appear on select tracks.

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--Mike Regenstreif

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