Various Artists, ALFONSO X: Cantigas de Santa Maria

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 04.22.11 in Reviews
Original world music walks the line between sacred and profane.

Alfonso X, 13th century king of Castille and Leon, was making World Music 700 years before there was such a thing, employing Christians, Jews and Moors as musicians and poets. The Cantigas de Santa Maria are a massive collection of songs in praise of the Virgin Mary, but this would not have been considered sacred music. Some of the poetry is pretty earthy, and the melodies included both Moorish and Sephardic Jewish tunes. In fact, most of the Cantigas walk a fine line between sacred and folk music, and that leaves considerable leeway for the performers. Some of the earliest recordings of the Cantigas, from the beginnings of the Early Music revival in the '50s and '60s, have all the zip and energy of a small-town library. But contemporary musicians have a working knowledge of World Music and improvisation; Ensemble Unicorn uses Arab instruments as well as European ones, and delivers lively performances with a strong narrative feel.