On their new Migrations, Canadian band The Duhks come across as conceptually savvy virtuosos. Because they’re adept at keeping individual personalities in balance, they’re nearly impossible to categorize. Too intelligent to be typecast as merely eclectic, they seem humane, relaxed and confident. Even more than their previous two records, Migrations suggests that syncretism cuts most sharply when it is honed to a nervous edge.
Their music draws upon bluegrass, gospel fiddle tunes and even zydeco, but The Duhks are a classic example of a band whose sonic palette can obscure their deeper purpose. Somewhat innacurately tagged as “neo-bluegrass,” they employ fiddle, clawhammer banjo and all manner of unconventional percussion. Migrations—recorded, as was their self-titled 2005 album, in Nashville—works as an old-fashioned collection of songs as much as it does a showcase for instrumental prowess or exotic effects.
For percussionist Scott Senior, the newest member of The Duhks, the group functions as an ideal democracy. “The beauty of The Duhks is that the musicians are all at different levels,” Senior says from the band’s Winnipeg, Manitoba home. “Some are really schooled, some are very learned from listening to all the records. We’re very sensitive to each other’s styles and ways of playing and hearing.”
Senior, whose nickname “Señor” illustrates his love for Latin American music, joined The Duhks after they released their first record, 2002’s Your Daughters & Your Sons. “I was playing in traditional salsa and Cuban groups here in Winnipeg, and The Duhks originally had a percussionist named Rodrigo Muñoz, who was one of my best friends, and one of my teachers,” Senior says. “He was twice their age, couldn’t do the road thing, and passed on my phone number to [banjoist] Leonard [Podolak].”
Having spent time in Cuba absorbing what seemed like a completely different musical tradition, Senior was initially skeptical about working with a group whose inspiration came from somewhat farther north. “I came into it with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder,” Senior remembers. “I said, ‘This is not where I see myself.’ ” Senior hung out with the group—Podolak, guitarist Jordan McConnell, singer Jessee Havey and fiddler Tania Elizabeth—and discovered a connection between the traditional music they favored and the Cuban music he had been studying.
“Talking about our musical loves, I realized that a Cuban 6/8 isn’t all that different from an Irish 6/8—a jig,” Senior says. “Once I started breaking it down that way, the end result was that we were all playing folk music, just from different countries. It was a really simple equation.”
The addition of Senior to the band helped focus an already accomplished ensemble. On their debut, The Duhks had come across as an instrumental group for whom vocals seemed almost an afterthought, as on “Annabel,” where lyrics like, “Tell me where does the spirit go when you die,” didn’t carry much of an emotional wallop. Instrumentals such as “Crusty Rolls & Chili” moved from section to section in a formalist manner reminiscent of prog-rock, and suggested modalism being sucked into a folk-music vacuum.
Senior quickly found a way to bring his jazz and Cuban sensibilities to bear on the music. His is contributions helped make The Duhks an enormous step forward from Your Daughters. Also, The Duhks paired the group with producers Béla Fleck and Gary Paczosa, who streamlined their sound.
Senior says banjoist Fleck, whose prescient fusions of jazz and traditional music have featured musicians such as bassist Stanley Clarke and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, inspired the group. “He really schooled us, and we learned how to do it on our own after working with Béla. He helped us to become a band,” Senior says.
What made The Duhks a breakthrough was the group’s inspired song selection, which included “Dance Hall Girls,” by 1970s Canadian folk-rockers Fraser & deBolt, as well as Sting’s “Love Is the Seventh Wave.” On their first record, the band had seemed a bit precious, but when singer Jessee Havey applied her big, vulnerable voice to “Dance Hall Girls” and lyrics like, “When they put you down some, don’t ya be surprised / Is this the way it always is, here in Baltimore?” her weary tone suggested humorous resignation.
On Migrations, Paczosa co-produced with Tim O’Brien, another bluegrass progressive whose work with Hot Rize a quarter-century ago raised the bar for the genre. The Duhks had been recorded after the group had played the material for months, whereas the new record was conceived more quickly. “We rehearsed for Migrations in my house on the third floor,” Senior says. “We had to do cramming, like you’d do for a major test. Some of the material came at the last minute. Tim would send us a CD of material that he thought we’d do a good job of.”
Paczosa, whose résumé as engineer and producer includes work with John Prine and Nickel Creek, brought to bear his extensive experience recording acoustic music. “On [Migrations] I tried to move the microphones away from the instruments a little more than I usually do, to pick up a little more room sound,” he says. “We all liked the last record, but thought it was a little smoother and slicker than the band actually was. What they have when playing live is very spirited; they tear it up.”
The result is indeed somewhat rawer than what the group achieved on The Duhks, even if the song selection might be a touch less audacious. Still, Tracy Chapman’s “Mountains O’ Things” is suitably fatalistic and anti-materialist, and bears comparison with the best songs on The Mammals’ Departure, another unclassifiable 2006 release that updates the folk tradition. (The two bands have shared bills, and The Duhks covered Mammals songwriter Ruth Ungar’s sour, brilliant “Four Blue Walls” on The Duhks.)
What bands like The Duhks and The Mammals have in common is more than their names, even if Senior jokes about a show the two groups played in Eastern Canada that announced a performance by “The Duhk Mammals.” They respect their audience, convey righteous anger in an unaffected way and work in the folk-music tradition without being in thrall to it.
As Senior says, “Artists have worked really hard to get to this point, where we can fuse all these different musics. It’s not a color thing any more, and it’s not a racial thing. Anything goes, but audiences know when it’s done well, these fusions. It’s a hard audience: they’ll tell you when it’s not working.”