Pastiche with a punch
by James M. Manheim
People often compliment the Duhks on their bass player even though the band rarely uses a bass. Most of the bass sounds you hear in their music come from the Cuban cajón, a box drum that anchors the Latin percussion rhythms of their songs. And you might ask what Latin percussion is doing in the folk music of a band from Winnipeg, Manitoba, the coldest major city on the planet.
Combined with a rhythmically tricky fiddle tune from Ireland or the Canadian Maritimes, it makes for a unique North-South marriage. Scott Senior's array of small Cuban drums matches the twists of Tania Elizabeth's fiddle or the vigor of a traditional French Canadian song step for step. The Duhks (pronounced "Ducks") are garnering lots of attention at the moment. NPR's All Things Considered devoted an entire half hour, minus the news, to this quintet of young people, and they've been traveling the circuit where big Americana careers are launched. They live up to the hype with a genuinely new sound. The "Afro-Celtic" music of Seattle's Laura Love and the kinetic percussion of the great Quebec band La Bottine Souriante fed into or anticipated what the Duhks do, but the Duhks take cooperation among diverse musical talents to a whole 'nother level.
The Caribbeanized fiddle tunes are just the beginning. The Duhks are one of those bands that can pull off playing a series of songs in completely different genres because their own musical personalities remain distinct and consistent. Duhks founder Leonard Podolak is a banjoist who picked up the instrument after hearing Bela Fleck at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. (Fleck, in turn, produced the Duhks' U.S. debut album on the Sugar Hill label.) He and guitarist Jordan McConnell can effortlessly rough in basic melodic material for tunes ranging from traditional ballads ("The Wagoner's Lad") to the productions of classic and contemporary Canadian, British, and American songwriters. The Duhks do a reggae version of Sting's "Love Is
the Seventh Wave," and in "Blue" they offer a level-voiced tale of child sexual abuse and its aftermath. Vocalist Jessica Havey adapts herself remarkably to the variety of music the Duhks perform, and on their debut album only a pair of traditional African American spiritual pieces fall flat.
The Duhks join fiddle tunes into "sets" in the traditional manner, and they do something similar with vocal pieces: a song may suddenly erupt into an instrumental interlude in a completely new rhythm. It might seem as though the music is about to fly apart, but the basic instrumental sound is distinctive enough that it hangs together. Eclecticism and stylistic pastiche are the order of the day, it's true, but here these trends seem to take on some sinew.
The Duhks make an appearance in these parts at the Ark on Sunday, May 8.
[Originally published in May, 2005.]