It must have been an interesting moment back in February 2017 when Camilo Ángeles arrived at the studio for a recording session with Cara Stacey. There’s the piano, of course, mic’ed up and ready to go. “That’s good,” says Camilo in an entirely imagined conversation, “I’ve got my flute. But what if we need some variety?”
“Well, we’ve got a budongo and an umrhubhe,” says Cara. “One’s like a kalimba, or thumb piano, and the other is a really good word for Scrabble.”
“It’s a musical bow, isn’t it? Like a umqangala or a xizambi, which are also really good words for Scrabble, if you can get away with it.”
“I’ll certainly be using these,” says Cara. “Have you got anything else?”
“There’s a couple of other flutes and a bird whistle,” says Camilo, looking through his bag of goodies. “Hang on, though. Here’s a good one, not sure when I’ll need it.”
“Let’s give it a go. What’s it called?”
“A Death Whistle. You’ll probably notice when I play it.”
Let’s not give too much away, but a death whistle sounds like it should do. It was an instrument designed to terrify the enemy, much like the Scottish bagpipes. Fortunately, buskers seem to be steering clear of the death whistle whereas you can’t set foot outside in Edinburgh during the summer without a bagpiper serenading you. Fortunately, Camilo Ángeles is restrained in his usage of the death whistle, preferring to use it for brief but effective blasts.
Elsewhere, Ángeles contributes floaty, impressionistic flute-playing that perfectly complements Cara Stacey’s piano and other instruments. Ceder is born from a day of improvisations so it isn’t easy to grasp on first listen, or the third for that matter. It takes time, but the pieces do fall into place; Stacey’s previous album for Kit, Things That Grow was more structured and, as it was performed with a group of jazz musicians on familiar instruments, more familiar and immediate. But Ceder is a different proposition altogether.
The album’s sequence feels like the tracks were recorded in that order; the opening couple have a tentative, getting-to-know-you vibe. Then, as Cara Stacey opts for first the budongo and then the umrhubhe, there is the sense that the duo’s playing are becoming more in tune with each other, so when the piano reappears, everything slots together more neatly, and on a piece like “Stolenboosch”, Camilo can use his full range of flutes and whistles. The experience is almost like sitting in on the session, only with some judicious use of the edit to leave out the false starts, conversations and moments when it really just isn’t working. The confidence grows, the musical telepathy kicks in and the result is an album that is – dare I suggest it – a proper journey of discovery from beginning to end.
It isn’t an album that immediately grabs, though; it takes time to uncover the secrets and it’s possible that just listening to a one track sample won’t make any sense. But Ceder is worth persevering with: there is much that is revealed when one gets attuned to the direction it is taking. And the death whistle is worth listening out for – you’ll know it when you hear it. (Jeremy Bye)