(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 16, Number 5/6, 1997)
It was the kind of phone call that could only happen in Lowell. Joanne, the wood duck lady, called Linda to ask if she'd seen the ad in The Buyers Guide that read: "Not for eating. For pets only. Free goats, ducks, geese, dog, more." Joanne, whose wood duck, Cheesy, lives in her upstairs jacuzzi, told Linda that the woman in the ad had cut off her fingers chopping onions and couldn't afford to keep her animals because she'd subsequently lost her job. Could we at least rescue the ducks from any area witchcraft cults who would certainly try to get them for ritual sacrifices, she wondered.
Under ordinary conditions I would have mustered a token resistance to Linda's pleas that we take on additional poultry, but I was still hobbled by the loss of Peggy, our white call duck. A tiny Eva Peron, Peggy had dominated the larger ducks and won our hearts when she kept the evil-seed sibling call ducks, Blabby and Wing-Ding, from pecking our khaki campbell duck Chloe after Chloe had broken her leg. We gave the troublesome Blabby and Wing-Ding to a farmer. And now Peggy was gone, victim of a daring daylight raid by a hunchback raccoon we had been feeding table scraps and cat kibbles.
The raccoon showed an impressive disrespect for both human property and physical presence. The night of Peggy's demise, determined to show her killer he wasn't welcome, I poked him soundly with a broom handle, pelted him with rocks, and soaked him with the high-pressure hose nozzle. But the boor wouldn't take the hint. Moments after I chased him into the boughs of a pine, he re-emerged to forage for sunflower seeds spilled from bird feeders not ten feet from where I stood hollering and glowering. The next day I paid a visit to Blue Ribbon Feed Company in Lowell for a live trap. The owner assured me it functioned nicely, but when I asked for raccoon release safety tips, he paused a beat before answering, "I don't release them. I take care of them." The irony of using live traps to lure animals to their doom also escaped the trap manufacturer. Bait and capture instructions were provided, but not a word from the Safeguard Live Animal Trap literature on how to spring the raccoon without risking a finger or foot.
Luring the murderous beast into the trap involved week-old bean curd stir fry and a three minute wait. Donning thick leather gloves, Arctic hiking boots, a padded jacket and perhaps a cummerbund, I gingerly conveyed the trap to my car trunk. (See exciting post-capture photo.) My first choice for release on the Grand River near the Lowell Fair Grounds was nixed by the presence of fishermen whom I suspected wouldn't appreciate the guests, so I crossed the river and chose a gravel access road parallel to the railroad tracks. Nervous and overheated, I stepped out into the twilight, positioned the trap near my car, whisked the bolt from the bait door and hopped back into the driver's seat to celebrate the animal's newfound freedom in an upscale neighborhood. But he wasn't having it. "Look," I told him, stepping out of the car to lift the bait door with the end of a screwdriver as he cowered and turned away. The third time through the exercise, this breed of animal that I had never seen move faster than a lumbering trot issued a menacing snort that sent me flailing backwards as he streaked into the woods faster than the eye could imprint.
With the worst of the raccoons dispatched, I was confident we might be able to keep a couple of new ducks alive. But when we arrived at the Egypt Valley Road home of the finger-severed woman who had placed the ad in the Buyers Guide, she lamented that if we took only her pair of khaki campbell ducks she didn't know what the two companion grey geese would do. The whole batch was hand-raised in the garage by her 13-year-old daughter who had obviously taken Fly Away Home too much to heart. I couldn't bear to separate the poultry party either, even though I was still haunted by memories of a nasty rear flank goose attack two decades earlier while feeding a butter cookie to a mute swan in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. We packed up the honking, quacking, pooping lot in four cardboard boxes, and within a few days I ended up with two geese that determined I resemble them sufficiently that not only do they want to be petted like puppies, but Liza, the bigger of the two, insists on clambering onto my lap should I be careless enough to repose on the grassy slopes of my own backyard.
Put this saying in your list of catch phrases: there is no such thing as a free pet. Any that don't pluck tens and twenties from your wallet will cost you the equivalent in labor. The geese immediately smelled up the whole yard, forcing me for the sake of sanitation and potential pollution complaints from neighbors throughout the county to abandon my lifelong oath against servile work and remove countless wheelbarrows of soiled straw from the poultry pen two weekends in a row. Not wishing to make the conveyance of stinky bedding material a permanent Saturday morning lark, I was forced to create a hose-filterable floor consisting of 450 lbs. of sands topped by three cubic yards of aptly named pea gravel. And now that the geese have begun picking on our original trio of ducks, it looks as if a pen enlargement lurks in the foreseeable future.
The duck and goose addition increased our nervousness about the nightly raccoon population. I attached more locks and security devices to the pen than a Brooklyn apartment, then nervously set about trapping more raccoons and releasing them at the same spot on the river miles away. After carting off four, I congratulated myself for decimating the nocturnal visitor population until I stepped outside the basement door after the 11:00 news to call the cat and spotted an additional six raccoons digging up the lawn in search of buried treats. And who knows how many come later in the night? The task that confronts me is endless, and I've lost the will to act. And now when a car pauses in front of our house in the wee hours of the morning to turn around or check directions, I'm too frightened to pull back the shades and peer outside. Nagging me is the fear that a family across the river is using our property as the release point for captured raccoons.
While I usually take the wimpiness of samba vocals as a given, Arto Lindsay's anemic articulation on Mundo Civilizado (Bar/None Records) is especially underwhelming. But this likable genre-buster succeeds by pairing Lindsay with chaotic instrumentation that nibbles at the Brazilian-born singer-songwriter's not so distant past as a member of New York City's post-punk no wave scene. Strong co-writing by samba-sphere luminaries Vinicius Cantuaria on four cuts and Caetano Veloso and Marisa Monte on one apiece keep this well inside the well of Brazilian pop experimentation rather than archly balanced on the lip despite Lindsay's outsider status and a predilection for English-language lyrics. Oddly enough, when he switches to Portuguese on the title track and on Lucas Santana's "Mar da Gavea," his amiable dweebishness suddenly acquires a sexy cosmopolitan lilt. Faithful to all things Brazilian, the subject matter seldom veers far from eros, making Al Green's "Simply Beautiful" and even Prince's "Erotic City" suitable cover material. Though the wan, always-solo vocals nearly dry up and blow away, they're prevented from sinking into the background by jagged, unexpected instrumental touches. Jarring percussion and ominous samples underlie "Complicity," Don Byron's clarinet adds irony to the verbal abstractions of "Titled," Eno-esque airport music fragments the prismatic "Horizontal," and the burbling organ clinches Lindsay's odd reading of "Simply Beautiful." Wearing far better than most discs that grab me by the lapels, the quiet eccentricities of Civilizado are just the entry ticket for the samba shy such as myself. [P.O. Box 1704, Hoboken NJ 07030 or www.bar-none.com]
Prettier, better sung, more cohesive and therefore less intriguing is Vinicius Cantuaria's Sol Na Cara (Gramavision/Rykodisc), produced by Cantuaria and Arto Lindsay. A couple co-authorship credits with Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarque buttress the already strong material while Ryuchi Sakamoto (who co-writes two cuts) supplies inspirational piano and sonic anomalies. Despite Cantuaria's reputation as a sambaista for the next millenium, the most provocative element here is a lovely voice sheathed in reverb. While I'm glad to be spared a rap or techno hybrid, it's surprising how Sol Na Cara cozies up to convention.
Lindsay's fellow reformed noisaholic, Washingtonian guitarist Bill Frisell, takes a characteristically odd zigzag with Nashville (Nonesuch) in an idiosyncratic career that includes a string-band-and-accordion salute to Aaron Copland and Charles Ives on 1993's Have a Little Faith. Even when waxing dissonant, Frisell has always exercised a country gentleman's tight rein of his instrument, so his take here on clean cowboy licks makes a kind of linear sense. Songs featuring harmonica blowhard Pat Bergeson have a jolly embalmed ambiance, and the cuts where Robin Holcomb contributes vocals--especially Neil Young's "One of These Days"--come off as a white-gloved country music cloning experiment. Nashville is least eerie when the band circles more typical Frisell pieces built from layers of short-phrase repetitions, like "Mr. Memory," and his prescient guitar work shines in any setting. On the rural ditties, Frisell and his great band muster enough conviction to get the feet moving even when the heart is left doubting.
For the antipodal opposite of Frisell's project and a sure antidote to nostalgia, check out the stirring and disturbing Prison Songs, Historical Recordings from Parchment Farm 1947-48 (Rounder). Volume One, Murderous Home, reissues the field recordings collected by Alan Lomax in America's most notorious segregated southern work farm and originally released in 1957--an entire decade after their collection because the material itself and what Lomax had to say about prison conditions for blacks were too strong a medicine for the immediate post-War years. Volume Two, Don'tcha Hear Poor Mother Calling? is a complete cd of previously unreleased material. The anger, longing, and sadness of work songs, blues numbers and spirituals are expected, but what gives Prison Songs its truly heartbreaking edge are the flashes of humor from interview and dialog segments like Bama's tall tale "Strongest Man I Ever Saw" or his insult competition with Dobie Red ("Lies"), both on Volume Two. Even more than the songs themselves, these spoken word snippets drive home the humanity of prisoners caught in a modern variation of the slave plantation that was only belatedly reformed in 1972 when a Federal Court called Parchment Farm "an affront to modern standards of decency."
Both discs contain outstanding performances by Bama, the powerful voiced leader of the traditional unison style, and innovative takes on the old songs via polyphony and cross-rhythms by the young prisoner who simply calls himself 22. I give Volume Two a slight edge for exhilarating versions of prison-song classics "John Henry" and "Stewball" along with more spoken word recordings and Bama's fierce rendition of the coded "yahoo song" exposing racial inequality, "I'm Going Home." Volume One cleverly ties together the first four cuts by beginning with the choral song "The Murderer's Home" often sung at dawn, then easing into progressively faster pieces typically sung as the pace of work increased through the morning. This disc also contains a stunning proto-blues field holler by Bama ("Levee Camp Holler"), a blues with harmonica number in the style of Sonny Boy Williamson by a prisoner named Alex ("Prison Blues"), an aching field holler by Tangle Eye ("Tangle Eye Blues") that will raise the hair on the back of your neck, and Bama's aggressive and inspired version of the classic "Stackerlee." The two-volume Prison Songs is exceptional, and this is one case where the extinction of a musical genre is cause for celebration.
Can the performances on The Bahamas, Islands of Song (Smithsonian Folkways) possibly measure up to the names of performers like Dicey Doh Singers, Cat Island Mites and Ed Moxey's Rake 'n Scrape? Yes, indeed. All parties easily triumph over material that includes the chestnut's chestnut "Sloop John B," the nightmare campfire ditty "All in the Woods" and Dicey Doh's "You Ain't Hurryin' Me," which treats the tune heard in a zillion Caribbean song variants to a topnotch four-part harmony a cappella treatment. That's as bad as the bad news gets. The good news is that this disc preserves rather than pickles the old fashioned goombay genre that's in scant danger of dying out due to the tenacity of Bahamians love of their musical culture. Most of the pieces sound as if they could have been recorded decades ago, dipping back not merely to the ragtime era (per Nat Saunders' "Lynn" or Israel Forbes South Andros Island arrangement of "Let Me Call You Sweetheart"), but also to ante-bellum spirituals. Captured live in an impromptu Nassau studio in 1995, Island of Song includes such treasures as Israel Forbes' playing "I'm Going Home on the Morning Train" with peppery guitar and vocals reminiscent of Joseph Spence, the compelling "ring-play" song "Went to the Bight" that urges on a furious dance competition, and instrumentals in the 1900s-era "rake and scrape" style in which a musical saw sets the tempo for accordion and barrel drum. A word of caution: if you pop this disc into your computer, it may appear to be an enhanced CD, but don't click on the "install" software. All you'll gain is the latest version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Shame on Smithsonian Folkways for extending the borders of the Gates empire.
Stunning, stunning, stunning is the collection of new recordings of mostly rural Cuban music on Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit). Guitarist Ry Cooder assembled legends of the Cuban son in a Havana recording studio as a last-minute plan to salvage a project that was intended to be a collaboration between Cuban and Malian musicians, but passport problems locked the Africans out. The fallback assembly of Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez, Eliades Ochoa, Compay Segundo and others instead resulted in "the best record I have ever been involved in," according to Cooder. And who could disagree. Highlights include an electrifying version of one of Ochoa's signature tunes made famous with his Santiago de Cuba ensemble, Cuarteto Patria, "El cuatro de Tula," fattened up here by Manuel Mirabal's trumpet and superb acoustic guitar and vocal interplay. Ochoa has never sounded better. Omara Portuondo was arm-twisted into singing lead on the bolero "Veinte Anos," and you would never guess she simply walked up the stairs of the Egrem recording studio and unleashed this jewel in two takes. The real jawdropper is the from-ragtime-to-salsa history lesson on "Pueblo Nuevo" by piano avatar Ruben Gonzalez. At 78, Gonzalez has just recorded his first solo disc also on World Circuit, titled--with no little irony--Introducing Ruben Gonzalez. I can't wait to get to that one, which just arrived in my mailbox as I was putting this column to sleep (an act of mercy).
There's an instrumental break in the middle of "Maria Bonitou" on Toure Kunde's Mouslai (Mesa) with a synthesizer droning on and on that made me long for the pang of a dental drill upon a molar to assure me I hadn't slipped into unconsciousness. The Toure brothers' first American release of all new material in several years has the top-drawer vocals you expect as well as catchy tunes, but it took about 99 listenings for me to overcome my aversion to the spit-polished studio gloss and cybernetic sheen. Not that these Senegalese popsters ever shied away from slick commercial craftiness in the past, and their slide toward rootsiness on 1982's Casamance was far less captivating than the radio ready stuff. Still, despite its terrific energy, Mouslai seems so artificial that after a skirmish with dancehall on "Emitay" I braced myself for a cover of "Stand By Me" that thankfully never comes. And what's with the French language liner notes? Were the folks at Mesa unable to locate a single bilingualist for we monoglots in the blockheaded heartland? Roses for Manu Dibango's sax solo on "Saporta" and a miniature onion for the pygmy vocal music sample on "Cindy." I suspect the half-dozen people who haven't memorized this clip by now are too absorbed in their Boxcar Willie cds to give Mouslai a tumble.
Fans of Slim Whitman--and I am one--are urged to get the skinny on Sally Nyolo's Tribu (Tinder Records), which boasts more yodels per minute than an evening in Appalachia. Buoyed by suspected pygmy vocal influences, ex-pat Cameroonian, ex-Zap Mama doyen Nyolo wields an impressive lilt which never quite wears thin as often as she unsheathes it on this effervescent disc. In contrast to Toure Kunda's latest, this selection of bright pop never leaves you stranded in dull instrumental patches wondering just what it is that's supposed to be fascinating you. As a matter of fact, unless you crank up the bass you're liable to ignore the supporting instruments entirely. Nyolo's multi-tracked, overlapping vocals barely leaves a cranny for anything but a percussive note to squiggle through edgewise. This does make for a bit of sameness over the long haul, and it would help the diversity aspect if Nyolo unloosened her grip on songwriting duties. But the weakness lies with the material on Tribu and not with the performer.
The first few moments of Dissidenten's Instinctive Traveler (Blue Jacket Entertainment) promised delightful chaos from the Berlin-based worldbeat bashers as a melange of swirling strings and vocals by the Royal Orchestra of Morocco faded into an udu pulse. Then, like a bulldozer through a rainforest, the diversity is flattened by a funked up rhythm and by highway hypnosis English-language vocals from snoozy chanteuse Bajka in an off-key hipster mode. You can still find great patches of past glory here in the band's perfect mix of karnatic, Middle Eastern and contemporary genres, but the air of mystery and unexpected joy of the journey that illuminated releases like The Jungle Book has been replaced by constant reference to the familiar. Check out, for example, the wonderfully obscure South Seas island chant that launches "Broken Moon," then tell me why the abrupt turn into rap, unless Friedo, Marlon and Uve's pockets are so empty of marks, dollars and rupees that uncovering nuevo disco in every corner of the temple portended salvation. [P.O. Box 270150, 13471 Berlin, or email@example.com]
Much more fun is the bold, daring and perplexing Music for Joyriders (Iris Light) by London-based ex-pat Hungarians Szeki Kurva (Hungarian for "whore from the Szeki region of Transylvania," more or less). Like San Francisco's Residents, Szeki Kurva keeps the faces of its members a secret, allegedly because of fear of reprisals from Serbian paramilitary organizations they've pissed off. The band's methodology is a head-scratcher as well. Navigating the brave new blade running world of samples, synthesizers, acoustic instruments, radio broadcast snippets and more, you quickly give up trying to determine what's "real" and what's requisitioned as long segments of corny big band dance music unwind before abandoning the battlefield to rapping Japanese cartoon characters armed with thrash metal guitar power tools. "Free goulash for everyone?" proclaims Szeki Kurva's manifesto, and "Last Exit" seesaws between Indian film music and a brain destroying synthesizer theme of doom, while "Buzi Bar Riot" mashes dinky cocktail piano, the theme song from "Rocky and Bullwinkle," dirty talk from a hooker, and typhoid hip hop. Sort of a paranoid 3 Mustaphas 3 for a future fraught with escalating ethnic violence, Szeki Kurva is never pretty but endlessly stimulating. [P.O. Box 9806, London SE10 9ZD, England or via firstname.lastname@example.org]
While listening to Sveki Kurva resembles straining to hear a clandestine shortwave broadcast devoured by competing signals, Radio Tarifa posits a fictitious radio station on the Straits of Gibraltar that comes through loud and clear on Rumba Argelina (World Circuit/Nonesuch). These clever Madrid-based musicians not only blend traditional Spanish, flamenco, Mahgrebi and tropical African themes in a never-heard-before holism, but flaunt time as well as space by wading waist-deep into currents of medieval Moorish music. Instead of sounding contrived, Radio Tarifa produces a believable update of an imaginary musical tradition. The common denominator in a panoply of styles is a gypsy vocal approach married to various rhythms that play off the urgency of the singers. "Oye China," one of my favorite songs, bumps itself into a chorus that could be part of Cuarteto Patria's old-style Cuban repertoire while adding unobtrusive Arabic percussion, bansuri flute and even a jazzy soprano sax solo that eases right into the mix. "La canal" alternates a harmonium suggesting Pakistani qawwali and in a real blast from the past a crumhorn theme of dervish intensity. "El baile de la bola" provides an unexpected all-percussive piece with West African balafon and tuned drums, while "Soledad" is a lovely and unlikely blend of Christian and Islamic hymnody. Interspersed judiciously in this lush and rewarding disc are snatches of radio heterodynes and mumbling voices to remind us of the fantasy radio broadcast conceit without jamming it up our noses.
After Marta Sebestyen's inclusion in the soundtrack of The English Patient, her worldbeat solo cd Kismet and a guest appearance on Deep Forest's Boheme ("Marta's Song"), I fretted that Morning Star (Hannibal/Rykodisc), her new release with Muzsikas, might brush the cobwebs off the traditional Hungarian oeuvre for a more contemporary gambit. But I need not have feared. This beautiful, dissonant and occasionally difficult disc opens with the radio unfriendly 9:42 "Fuzesi Lakodalmas" (Wedding in Fuzes Village). No comforting groove whisks the tune along, just the harrowing buzz of the hurdy gurdy, the drone of mournful violins and Sebestyen's singing more unearthly than ever. When she's joined at the end of the cut by a clamor of voices shouting the words of the chorus far behind her, she's like an angel presiding over a stricken world of penitents. Morning Star collects favorite songs from Muzsikas' concerts that have never been previously recorded, and as such pays heavy tribute to the instrumental aspect of performances with taut and twisting interplay from the Muzsikas angst machine. None of these crowd pleasers are sunnier than a stormy day in Transylvania, but if you're in the mood for brilliantly modulated colors of gloom, you'll find ample virtuosity to cheer you.
A spectrum of contemporary Latin pop gets the nod on the Hemisphere label's Danza Latina, encompassing the bubbly vallenato "Todo Palo No Se Pica" by Manaure, Lalo Rodriguez's classic salsa "Yo No Soy Pilon de Machacar," artsy Peruvian jazz on Patricia Saravia's "Me He De Guardi" and Spain's Navajita Platea out-Beatle-ing the Gypsy Kings on "Contratiempos." My faves include Selva's hot Venezuelan "tropical" style ballad with a world-weary hook within a hook as Selva breaks through the chorus of "Contigo Mi Vida" and the Afro-Cuban "El Tamalito" done panalivio style sporting electric guitar straight out of a slowed-down Congolese rumba and rootsy, mixed-back vocals. Another killer Cuban ditty given serious Peruvian muscle is Julie Freundt's "Saca Los Manos." Speaking of merengue, Jailene's "Ciega" is both airy and tough thanks in part to a complex psychodrama of an arrangement by Bonny Cepeda that should be hitting the Latin soaps on Univision any day now.
While I'm sitting here mindlessly making lists, I should mention that
The Dance of Heaven's Ghosts (Hemisphere)
is a compilation of Greek pop music containing nice examples of the rembetiko-derived
laiko genre, the eastern sounding dimotiko (usually featuring dollops of
classic Greek-style clarinet) and from the Greek Islands the comparatively
xenophobic nissiotiko, whose roots stretch back to the middle ages. The
emotionally hypercharged, bouzouki-happy songs here range from thick drama
(the funereal "Mirodia Kalokeriou" by Sotiria Leonardou and Babis
Stokas) to melodrama (Haris Alexiou's "Mia Ine I Oussia") with
little in between and barely a touch of whimsy, except for the unexpected
sitar in Dmitris Zervoudakis' "O Amerikanos" and lyrics about
a naive tourist cheated by cardsharps. The mark is referred to by the storyteller
as "Ameri-hano," a punning reference to the local hano fish's
reputation for stupidity. Another needed mood-lightener is Litsa Diamandi's
"Ela Mazi Mou" done to a rolling turn with reeds, strings, electric
bass and plenty of percussion in the cifteteli belly dance rhythm.
[Copyright 1997 Bob Tarte]