Pity the panpipe. Though the traditional wind instrument has a long history in many different cultures around the world, it’s come to be associated with a certain rustic exoticism. That’s largely due to Zamfir, a Romanian musician whose diaphanous pan-flute jams featured in the soundtrack to The Karate Kid, and in so, so many TV ads on basic cable flogging compilations of his music in the late ’80s.
Panpipes for Nicola Cruz aren’t symbols of New Age mysticism or some World Music fetish object. They’re ancestral. The Ecuadorian musician and producer grew up immersed in the indigenous music of the Andes, whose inhabitants have long played a panpipe called the siku. That’s also the title of Cruz’s new album, which mixes the siku with instruments and rhythms from around the globe, along with a dose of electronica, for a sound that is at once timeless and modern.
Cruz made Siku piece by piece in different cities while on tour, resulting in a wide-ranging polyglot effect that still contains specific evocations of place. He works with Brazilian singer Castello Branco on “Criançada,” layers of Branco’s vocals floating above a sinuous samba rhythm fleshed out with additional percussion. “Siete” (the seventh track, appropriately enough) is a collaboration with Mauricio, Julio and Pablo Vicencio of the veteran folclórica group Altiplano de Chile, employing sitar and subtle, breathy bansuri flute over a club-ready beat with echoes of reggaeton.
Though airy opener “Arka” and “Voz de las Montañas” emphasize textures (to a fault on the latter, a nebulous collaboration with Swedish/Colombian duo Minük), rhythm is primary on much of Siku. “Esu Enia” features complicated, intertwining percussion that includes the Portuguese musician Marcio Pinto playing an African balafon, which resembles a xylophone. The stutter-step beat and hand percussion on “El Diablo Me Va a Llevar” leaves just enough space for a low, resonant woodwind sound and a hint of synthesizers, while “Obsidiana” is a polyrhythmic marvel with dramatic flourishes on guitar and a sitar producing an eerie twang.
For all the musical cross-pollination happening here, what is perhaps most impressive about Siku is how natural and unforced it all sounds. Cruz incorporates instruments and musical traditions from far-flung places in a way that makes them sound like what they ultimately are: distinctive elements of an interconnected whole that are stronger together than apart.