Admittedly, "Dancing with the Dead" is an evocative name for a compilation of global funerary music. Do not be misled, however: this CD is no toe-tapper. Neither is it 17 tracks of leaden, medieval dirges. Ellipsis Arts has compiled death-rite music from a broad range of cultures, including Pakistan, Ghana, Thailand, the United States, Cuba, and Madagascar, and given them a thread of context with impressively designed liner notes, loaded with facts about the individual songs, as well as random bits of history and funerary trivia. So much attention was given to the package and liner notes, in fact, that they risk overwhelming the music itself.
The CD comes in a jewel-case sized hardcover book that, were it not so small, you might proudly it display on your coffee table. The liner notes provide an explanation of each song, some translations of lyrics and several short "articles," augmented by a photo-laden design that is at once stylish and reverential. All of this is an engaging read, but the content begs to be explored more completely. "Dancing with the Dead," could fit nicely within a series of CD's that all shared universal themes such as love, food, war, sleep, hate, commercialism, etc. Imagine "8 Hours a Night, A Collection of Global Lullabies" and "Live to Shop and Shopping to Live; the Music of Global Advertising."
The first tracks on the disk are more interesting as anthropology than as a pure listening experience, but with successive listening sessions, the music becomes warmer and more inviting as we are introduced to the CD's great variety of musical styles (not to mention languages, tone, and recording quality), and the occasionally jarring transitions between them. Keep the liner notes handy, as they infuse each song with context and provide a effective listening guide.
The CD begins with a spoken-word eulogy delivered by Pastor Ediemae Layne, of Pensacola, Florida, for fellow Protestant elder, Marguerite McClain. Pastor Layne's gospel prayer, half sermon and half song, is punctuated with personal anecdotes and references to the afterlife such as, "Elder McClain is richer today after having died." and, "Will your dying be a loss, or will it be a gain?" Powerful.
The CD is frontloaded with some of the best tracks, and loses steam slightly in the second half. One of the best tracks, "Sing On" by The Eureka Brass Band, a legendary New Orleans jazz funeral band, is a loose, jangly, celebration of life. Recorded outdoors in 1951, the sound is affected with a grainy AM radio texture.
An excerpt from "Lanhua Mei", or "Blue Blossomed Plum", by the Tianjin Buddhist Music Ensemble has a soaring, formal elegance that sounds, at moments, strangely Celtic. Beautiful and epic, this song could have continued more than it's allotted four minutes.
"Rone umaraa de", by Asif Ali Khan is a kinetic qawwali song about the loss of a loved one. Qawwali, a form of Islamic devotional music, defies language barriers with its purity of passion. This is the real stuff, transportation to a state of devotional ecstasy through music.
"Eyl Male Rakhamim, God Full of Compassion" is a haunting Ashkenazic (European Jewish) memorial prayer performed a capella with achingly restrained intensity by Janet Leuchter. The prayer is performed to memorialize the massacre of Jews during the Crusades, the Chmielnicky uprisings and the Holocaust.
In contrast, "El Llorar, The Weeping", is a jaunty, stripped-down, folk song from Mexico's Day of the Dead. The band, Los Comperos de Valles, performs simply and without pretension.
"Zari", is a gentle Georgian vocal lamentation, traditionally performed outdoors by the men at the beginning of a funeral while the women grieve in the home with the deceased.
Taken together, the music and liner notes of "Dancing with the Dead" elevate each other to a level they could not achieve singularly. The music may not make you dance, but this album makes you consider how we, as humans, ascribe meaning to death.