It's got all the right ingredients for a huge disaster. Os Amores Libres by Galician piper Carlos Nuñez mixes up northern Spanish, Celtic, Moorish, Romanian Gypsy, flamenco, and Sephardic music. It amalgamates Jackson Browne with the Sufi Andalousi Choir of Tangiers, barricades Gypsy band Taraf of Caránsebes inside an Irish tribute to the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War, and surrounds scorching flamenco vocalist Carmen Linares with bagpipes and Celtic players. As the disc veers from a scratchy 78 rpm recording of a Twenties Galician choir to an old-style Irish cantigas and a fifteenth-century Moroccan alalás in the space of a single song, Nuñez's flute and bagpipes duck in and out as if trying to weave all the elements into place.
But there's a logic to this hodgepodge consistent with the piper's vision of Galicia as the crossroads of Europe. The Gypsies, Celts, Moors, and Sephardic Jews all trod Spanish soil in times past, and their cultures influenced Spanish music. So, in a 21st-century studio-oriented fashion, Nuñez is getting back to his nation's roots, and if long and short songs alike are more akin to a suite than a hoedown, it's in keeping with his résumé. Since 1989 Nuñez has sat in with highbrow Celtic folkies the Chieftains and studied classical recorder at the Royal Conservatory of Madrid. Thus the elegy "Maria Soliña" and the dreamy title cut have the beautiful mushy mainstream feel you might expect, and the burden of cramming centuries of wandering musical history in the four-minute "O Cabalo Azul" adds weight to the listener's rucksack. But on the whole, Os Amores Libres whets the appetite instead of overwhelming it.
The most accessible tracks aren't necessarily the most appealing. The Albion rave-up "The Raggle Taggle Gipsy," voiced by Mike Scott of the Waterboys; and Christy Moore's rousing anthem to the Spanish freedom fighters, "Viva la Quinta Brigada," sung by Hothouse Flowers' Liam O'Maonlai, both stick in the ears thanks to their catapult delivery of English-language lyrics. More in keeping with the mist and fog of this romantic look back is what should have been the disc's low-water mark: the seven-minute evocation of medieval Moorish culture fronted by Jackson Browne, "Danza da Lúa en Santiago" ("Dance of the Moon in Santiago"). Buttressed by the Sufi Andalousi Choir of Tangiers and etched with their musical director Omar Metioui's oud, Browne wafts a mournful Galician-language vocal over a musical montage hatched by Hector Zazou, whose quavering keyboard is surprisingly effective in supplying atmosphere. Hear the thing a couple of times, and it plants deep tendrils in your pleasure zone.
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Runner-up is "O Castro da Moura," the sprawling Mahgrebi sweep of the arm that concludes Os Amores Libres with a yearning miniature symphony of bagpipes, flutes, pots, pans, ethnic instruments, strings, a pair of weeding hoes, and voices. Sounds like a mess, but it actually sounds real good. Plenty of other folkie discs kick out harder jams, but few live up to their ambitions this graciously.