(by Bob Tarte, published in The Beat magazine, Volume 16, Number 2, 1997)
First-time Beat readers often blunder into the opening sentences of "Hey, Mr. Music" only to wake up 18 hours later with eyelids glued shut and a ringing headache. These victims may be forgiven for deducing that Dave Hucker is merely a pen name and his column a concoction by yours truly designed to make Technobeat seem readable by comparison. But I can only take credit for "Mr. Music" on one occasion. Two years ago, Hucker succumbed to an intestine-dwelling marine parasite following Boxing Day Eel Pie Madness Night at the Ipswich club for geriatrics where DJ "Nasal Dave" slouches his stuff, and Beat Editor CC Smith asked me to pinch hit. My seasonal charitable activities as a Big Sister left me little spare time, so I inked the feet and beak of my pet ring-necked dove, Howard, set him scratching on a sheet of butcher paper and sent it in as Dave's column. CC was so pleased she considered burdening me with the job permanently. Then she learned from London sources that "Hey, Mr. Music" played an obscure yet important role in Parliament's stuck-needle exchange program, and Mr. Repetition kept his gig.
I mention these facts in response to Mr. Hucker's last column (Vol. 16, No. 1) in which he used an alleged London visit by my fair-water friend, the Whale, as an excuse for heaping abuse upon my head. This visit was a patent impossibility. Not only is the Whale unable to squeeze onto any commercial aircraft, but he has also been banned for life from international seagoing vessels due to an unfortunate incident in 1962 after taking a job as ballast on the Liberian oil tanker SS Manatee. The photograph of Hucker and the Whale in that column was fantasy as well, a fake that wouldn't even fool discredited criminologist Dennis Fung. "I'd never wear that ugly-ass barracuda jacket," snorted the Whale. And Technobeat contacts who recently witnessed Hucker spinning Jim Reeves dub plates at an Ealing dialysis unit assure me that the stiff in the photo is far too animated to stand as documentary evidence of a man too hobbled by benzene addiction to be able to stand at all.
The mystery is why the axolotl-like DJ would bother to flail at the ailing Whale, who recently revealed a disintegration from gargantuan Great Lakes wrestling legend to an aspect of Grand Rapids nobody Bill Holm's defeatism (see "Cetacean Crisis," Vol. 15, No. 3). Clearly it couldn't be to discredit this column, which already enjoys complete indifference among its core readership of ham radio hobbyists, hospice volunteers and community college students. The attack on me was personal, and I needed to find out why.
In 1981, Holm and I wrote an article on a long series of unsettling coincidences we had suffered involving clowns and the number 22. "While Robert Tarte and William Holm were driving through a vaguely rural region of northeast Grand Rapids," we wrote, "Tarte swore out loud that he saw a mailbox near the road bearing the name 'A. Clown.'" A full month later, after an evening of video games at the Crystal Cue, the article continued, "a battered white Chevy pulled up alongside Tarte's Subaru. The Chevy carried a plump, grizzled driver and bore the title 'Bobo The Roller Clown' in large letters above the fender. Two clown faces and the motto 'Take a Clown to Lunch' adorned the front door. At the sight of Bobo in his car, Tarte pulled into the lot of a supermarket where the two men struggled to catch their breaths."
Our investigation of the incident was agonizingly complex, involving us with cryptozoologist Loren Coleman, Legislative Aid to Congressman Harold Sawyer Steve Lewis (now a failed local attorney), an enigmatic New Orleans-based character legally named Love 22, and Mayflower Congregational Church custodian Dennis Keller, whose friend Arlene Samrick blandly told us in Keller's living room, "Oh, Bobo the Roller Clown. He lives on Four Mile Road by the Stop 'n Go." The full account, published as "A Circle of Clowns" in Fortean Times, the British journal of strange phenomena (Issue No. 38, 1982), acknowledged Bobo's flesh-and-blood incarnation as Leo Torpey, a retired circus performer who had traveled with Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey for 22 years. After printing the article, Fortean Times editor Robert J. M. Rickard wrote me that the magazine would accept no other articles from us on this subject, because "we have lots of good material," though he did forward six or seven letters from troubled readers.
I never answered any of the letters, owing to the obvious pathology of the authors. One did stick in my mind for years, though I forgot the name of the sender until a few weeks ago. "I am writing because I suspect that Leo Torpey, aka Bobo the Roller Clown, may be my biological father," the 1982 letter began. "I myself as a bright-eyed lad traveled with the circus throughout Eastern Europe where I gained no small notoriety as 'Huck, the Half-Human Amphibian Boy.'" (See photo.) Then followed several pages detailing slander against his father by Greta the Cannonball, Bobo's abrupt disappearance, and his own wanderings with an itinerant Czech auto parts dealer, who taught him to imitate transmission and fan belt noises as part of a continent-wide car repair scam. "These vocalization skills plus techniques learned from my circus life with Ringmaster Otto led me to a career as nightclub DJ," the writer continued. "If Bobo is my father, I would like to let him know that good came out of our harsh life on the road and abuse at the hands of animal trainers."
The author of this letter, as you will have guessed, is a now embittered Dave Hucker of The Beat. While it may be too late to apologize for ignoring his pleas and thus denying him the chance of a reunion with his father, I would like to point out that Hucker is still relatively young-and that there's still time to honor the warranties on numerous clutches, mufflers, struts and carburetors he erroneously foisted upon the ignorant of Europe.
Two pictures of klezmer terror Naftule Brandwein circa 1920s show him posing in a tuxedo and again in golfing togs, a sly smile on his face as he fingers a ready saxophone. The sax looks good on him, but the pose is sheer deviltry equivalent to decking out in an Uncle Sam suit and Christmas tree lights, appearing with a "Naftule Brandwein Orchestra" neon sign around his neck or playing with his back to the audience to conceal his fingering tricks. Startling, electrifying and obnoxious Brandwein was. A saxophone player he was not-the photos are a gag-though The King of the Klezmer Clarinet (Rounder) notes Brandwein got his start on cornet in his hometown of Przmyzl, Poland, before spewing musical and public relations mayhem across New York City's Jewish musical community.
From the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band, to the 3 Mustaphas 3, to Naftule's Dream, it's hard to find a modern klezmer band that doesn't owe a debt to Brandwein's practice of grabbing tradition by the neck and shaking it until the unexpected tears loose. While this collection of nicely remastered 78 rpm sides mainly from 1922-26 demonstrates the melodic intensity of his improvisational style and his trademarked weightless swoops, it's the nerviness that whacks you in the face. Rarely has a musician in an ensemble setting dominated the material to this extent. The sheer density of Brandwein's playing amazes. Take "Ter Heisser" (Tartar Dance), in which he forges a single unbroken chain of notes, disregarding the need for so much as a pause for breath, much less a moment of dramatic silence that might permit his accompanists to surface. Of all the pieces here, only "Naftule Spielt Fa Dem Rebin" (Naftule Plays for the Rabbi) allows itself a comparatively leisurely pace which Brandwein nonetheless dissects with surgically placed runs and trills.
Though the oldest of these recordings is 75 years old, the collection is hardly a museum piece. Only the low-fi sonics of transference from scratchy originals plus the whimsical reliance on woodblock percussion and cymbal crashes give away the age of the performances. The combination of Brandwein's furious solos and the understated arrangements silhouetting his constant movement remains vital enough that the Flying Bulgar's version of "Naftule Spielt" on 1994's Agada is a virtual note-for-note reconstruction of the original. Even the wild Mustaphas turn literal when rendering 1924's "Wie Bis Die Gewesen Vor Prohibition?" (Where Were You Before Prohibition?) on 1989's Heart of Uncle. "Prohibition" is a fitting piece for Brandwein, whose taste for liquor made his band members sufficiently miserable that none would share a room with him on the road. The normal sins of a prodigy-substance abuse, megalomania, unreliability-and the ironic inability to read music even while creating musical history limited his time in the limelight. One decade of remarkable recordings is all that exists, plus a session in 1941 when he engineered a brief comeback as "Nifty" Brandwein. Not a great deal of material, but enough beautiful racket to make a lasting impact.
If you love the parsed-audio otherworldliness of ancient world music recordings, hie thee to Squeeze Play: A World Accordion Anthology (Rounder). Archivist Dick Spottswold does his usual ferreting out of the obscure and the unusual. The eastern-flavored tracks are my favorite, such as Mishka Ziganoff tearing through a couple of klezmer pieces from 1920 and Margarita Radulescu's plaintive Romanian tunes from 1927. Besides songs that showcase squeezebox virtuosity, Spottswold has also located tracks that even accordionophobes should treasure, such as the Polish goralski highlander ensemble Orkiestra Karol Stoch on the 1950 recording "Kumotersko"-where Solovox accordionist Joe Pat is just audible huddled within a protective shield of violins and string bass-and Joseph Dingaan's Nonyembezi, a South African piece from 1954 which contains a harmonica playing in accordion style but, you guessed it, no accordion. For full-blown squeezebox heaven, revel in San Antonio's Trio Huracan on 1938's "Corrido de los Caminoeros" (Song of the Bus Drivers) or Santiago Jimenez, Sr. crunching up the lively polka "La Piedrera." Lots of great performances here, including seldom-heard regional styles from Italy that achieve a weirdness par with Pat Boone's just-announced orchestral version cd of heavy metal hits. You'll also find rare Acadian French and Scottish sessions, and the entire collection has surprisingly good sound quality to boot.
Despite the vintage cover photo, there's no historical material on Klezmer Music, A Marriage of Heaven & Earth, another cd and book combo from ellipsis arts' Musical Expeditions series. Producer Michael Shapiro notes in the curiously disjointed book portion of the package that he decided against segmenting the cd into traditional versus contemporary material. Yet the anthology still seems to take a path from "old world" klezmer toward the front-such as Alice Svigals "street music" violin piece "Gasn nign", the Chicago Klezmer Ensemble's chamber-music pickling of the congratulatory ditty "Matzltov," and a bracing gypsy klezmer standard by Hungarian group Di Naye Kapelye-to modern jazzmer cuts stacked at the back from the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band, Brave Old World and Naftule's Dream. In between are some wonderful surprises. Clarinet legend Andy Statman stretches out first with an exquisite mandolin piece called "Badekns nign" and later with "Dreykus nign," a spiraling trip to cloudland on clarinet that evokes John Coltrane. Another highlight is a pair of back-to-back cuts teaming aptly named clarinetist Ray Musiker with the Klezmatics, but watch out. The track numbering falls out of synch with the liner notes here, so mentally bump up by one notch all tracks after nine to avoid discrepancy with the liner notes. Too bad a little more care wasn't taken in the book accompaniment to this solid demonstration of klezmer diversity.
Don't confuse Klezmer Music, A Marriage of Heaven & Earth with Between Heaven & Earth. This new Shanachie-label recording by the Andy Statman Quartet features further klezmer encroachments into the mysterious by the man who inherited the clarinet of Jewish music legend-and nemesis of Naftule Brandwein-Dave Tarras. A more beautiful as well as non-traditional extension of the genre is not to be found outside the Land o' Goshen as Statman hitches licorice stick to portentous piano chords and tension-laden drumming in jazz interpretations of devotional music (deveykus niggum), table-songs (tisch niggunim), and traditonal dances (rikkudim). While most of the material unfurls slowly, a pair of cuts with new-grass personality Bela Fleck turn previously uncharted territory into fertile ground. I associate Fleck with overwrought post-modern hoedowns I've half heard in the setting of his own band, but on "Chassidic Waltz" he's a paragon of restraint, gently plucking at his banjo while Statman coos delicately on clarinet in a terrific rethinking of an often-heard klezmer melody. On "Purim Niggun" the pair abandon quartet members Kenny Werner, Harvie Swartz, and Bob Weiner along with the cosmic vibes to frolic through a dance tune learned from an old Brandwein 78.
Sitar wildman Ashwin Batish taught me that Indian music can warp and woof to fit almost any idom imaginable. But that doesn't mean Calcutta to America didn't still turn my eyeballs backward. This Frequency Glide label release from Santa Monica envisions Hindustani slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya, tabla player Subhankar Banerjee, and folkie singer and guitarist Mark A. Humphrey doing up American standards with a raga twist. Once the shock wore off, I loved the energy of Hank Williams' "Lost on the River" co-habiting with Bengali folk song "Bhawaiaa" or "Red River Valley" morphing into "Return to the Valley" (known in India as "Bhattacharya"). The camp value is astonishingly low thanks to Bhattacharya's devilish mastery of a weird slide guitar of his own design resembling the black sheep bastard offspring of a sitar and a Les Paul hollow body acoustic. Nothing should actually be so fun, or as irritating to those who can't make the long stretch that this wonderful disc turns into a short hop. [P.O. Box 72, Santa Monica, CA 90406 or e-mail FreqGlide@aol.com.]
I was worried that Finland's girl group Varttina was hogging all the estrogen in the chilly Scandinavian climes, but on Radiant Warmth (Antilles) Norway's Mari Boine plants feather in hair as she harnesses her hormones to, of all things, the joiking songs of the Arctic Sami people. The nomadic reindeer-herding Sami, formerly known in these parts as Lapps, often employ this form of rootsy folk scat-singing to achieve profound states of consciousness, and Boine similarly combines vocables and poetry to form a glossy trance music of her own. While she may cleave to the spiritual side of ecstasy, the pulsing instrumentation accompanying her, like the panting pan pipes on "Skadja" (Reverberation), suggests a realm of lustiness that might make Enigma blush. The sheer physicality of the songs is intoxicating, especially "Modjas Katrin" (Katrin Who Smiles), in which Boine's stratospheric chanting fades in and out of the ether while a frantic bass riff does its best to catch hold of her ankles. Inventiveness and energy keep Radiant Warmth from disintegrating into the kitsch of the Native American-flavored new age discs it often resembles, but unless you have a secret soft spot for disco divas, I would steer clear.
Finland is not a country that immediately leaps to mind when I think of gypsy populations, but the Rom are in fine voice on Luludzako drom (OMCD), field recordings of vocal and instrumental music primarily from the eastern part of Finland. For my money, the warts-and-all approach of field recordings makes them far superior to studio recordings in capturing the intensity and immediacy of a traditional genre. The songs taped in performers' homes, such as the a cappella material by octogenarian Valdemar "Charlie the Cat" Lindeman singing in the old style, are among the tastiest pieces here. A pair of moving songs by Hilja Gronfors demonstrates the influence of gypsy styles on Portuguese fado or Cape Verdean morna. With minor embellishments, either piece would nicely fit Cesaria Evora's oeuvre. However, the Hawaiian lilt I read into Paivi Arling's "Myrtinoska" has no other explanation than bad wiring in my own head. Listeners with Finnish ears will correctly note a Karelian styling to Eemil Nyman's vocal style, while Russian and Spanish elements plus an ornamented instrumental style shared with klezmer are evident in other pieces. One emotion-laden performance follows another in this excellent anthology that's worth seeking out. [OMCD, P.O. Box 20, FIN-02211, Espoo, Finland or via the Web at http://personal.eunet.fi/pp/dighoe/]
One of the best features of a live concert by Hawaiian slack key guitarists is the warmth of the performers-and their rapport with the audience. This seldom comes across on record. But Nona Beamer's The Golden Lehua Tree (Starscape Music) ups global warming a few degrees with a treasure trove of charming stories about Hawaiian tradition and life with the Beamer family. Some of Beamer's songs were written to teach songs and cultural concepts to mission school students, such as "The Promise of the Tree Shells"-which, near as I can figure, concerns a kind of terrestrial snail that enjoys performing the traditional chant "Kahuli Aku, Kahuli Mai." She spins yarns from the point of view of local landmarks ("Twin Sisters"), flora (the title cut) and fauna ("Tree Shells"), demonstrating Hawaiian's close relationship with their environment. But she's not above cutting up, as in a funny tale Garrison Keilor should consider stealing about the Sunday when the Beamers' Dalmatian, Boki, made an unwelcome visit to church. A bonus to Beamer's talent for recitation and narrative is backing by her son, Keola, plus other family members on guitar, nose flute, ukulele, bass "and further embarrassments," as the liner notes confess. This last credit refers to the ersatz dog howls on "Boki" as well as the accompaniment to the one full-fledged song on the disc, a minor gem sung by Keola about the menagerie that lives "'Neath One Big Tin Roof." This disc is not expected to be available outside of Hawaii, so order via 1-800-235-3302 or 880 Front Street, Lahauna, HI 96761-or via the Web at http://www.beamer.com.
Indonesia's hundreds of islands and cultures give its often insular music the endless capacity to startle. Usually the jolt is the sheer shock of the new, like the big band/gamelan hybrid lagu sayur in Volume 2 of Smithsonian Folkways Music of Indonesia series. Melayu Music of Sumatra and the Riau Islands (Volume 11 in the same series) bowled me over with the unexpectedly familiar. With their Arabic vocal style, melody, lute instrumentation, and frame-drum rhythm, pieces in the zapin genre could be marvelous examples of Mideastern music rather than Melayu (or Malay) pieces from halfway around the world. While series editor Phillip Yampolsky carefully notes "some support for the common belief in the Arabic origin of zapin," the lineage of these songs performed at Muslim celebrations appears unmistakable. An interesting anomaly in the four examples of zapin on the disc is "Lancang Kuning," which marries the same instrumentation to a strikingly European-sounding tune. The explosive, intermittent drum bursts add drama to this tale of a sultan's boat sailing into a storm.
Islamic elements recede from the picture in examples of theatrical musical forms mak yong and mendu. Interlocking metallophone figures and percussion plus wafting lead and unison vocals shoot the mak yong tracks with the hypnotic atmosphere I associate with Indonesian vocal music, though the lack of a lead instrument in the repertoire is felt. The leader of the Mak Yong Pak Atan ensemble claimed this was a special form meant to be played without rebab, but Yampolsky believes the soloist simply failed to show-and you have to agree. The disc ends with three appealing performances in the ebullient ronggeng genre, which has a reputation for flirtation that gets out of hand as the female dancers flick sparks at male audience members. Ronggeng also benefits from a tug of war between local and European elements as the singer pops between minor- and major-key intonation. "Such melodies, it seems, can accept harmony," Yampolsky writes, "but they weren't built for it." The substitution of accordion for violin on "Damak" and "Hitam Manis" playing in a Muslim harmonium-style brings this disc full circle, compelling me to slap it on from the beginning and tough out the patchy middle section again.
Writing about Tenores di Bitti's first American release, S'Amore 'e mama, in my critically acclaimed "Sardinia Night Fever" column a few issues back, I stupidly characterized the Sardinian polyphonic vocal style as medieval, when in fact the style first took shape in the halcyon days of the bronze age. What's a few thousand years when we're talking about timeless music, much less a ten-year lag in the American re-issue of the Tenores' 1986 Ammentos (Agogo)? Other than slightly different versions of a few songs on both discs, I can't pretend to find substantive differences, though sonically the releases are quite dissimilar. S'Amore is engineered with gobs of bass, underscoring the contributions of Mario Pira, the bassu vocalist, whose guttural, deep nasal bellowing is said to imitate the lowing of oxen, and of contra Tancredi Tucconi who abuses his vocal cords in emulation of bleating sheep. While this dramatic darkening is missing on Ammentos, in the long run I appreciate the comparative thinness that emphasizes the melodies of lead singer Piero Sanna. At any rate, this is still remarkable vocal music, so tightly knit together it's difficult separating the three accompanists as they flex their millennia-old nonsense syllables in the service of dazzling us with weirdly pulsating harmonics. [P.O. Box 1256, Old Chelsea Station, NY 10011]
I was surprised to hear a mbira on "Les Bois Noirs" off Ad Vielle Que Pourra's Menage a quitter (Xenophile/Green Linnet). Happily this isn't the Afro-Quebecois Sound System, though. The Canadian quartet plus assorted helpers give the heave-ho to overdubbing and even mixing boards, recording their pastoral pastiche of Franco-European themes and world music inspirations direct to tape with tube equipment equalization in between, no less. Lest we peg these virtuosos as Luddites, Daniel Thonon occasionally electrifies his hurdy gurdy for even more delicious texture creation. These low-key overachievers tread where few other folkies dare, in the manner of Russia's Terem Quartet or Finland's Tallari mingling styles and instruments that have no business associating with one another, then making the results seem not only natural but of a piece with tradition. A prime example is "Bransle Bas le Con Bas," which bumps 19th century clarinets, guitar, piano and hurdy gurdy to build a kind of updated Renaissance dance, or the bluegrass mandolin, Arab darbouka, and European hurdy gurdy on the Greek dance "Kalamatiano." Far from turning eclecticism into gimmickry, these geniuses of the north produce the sweetest, smoothest waltzes, schottisches, ballads and baguettes imaginable.
I never could resist a gal who would walk across the Himalayas for an audience with the Dalai Lama. Add to this that singer Yungchen Lhamo's name is Tibetan for goddess of song, and you've got a creature who inhabitants a world so far above my own of nightly "Wheel of Fortune" viewing, and all I can do is lift my eyes with wonder at the ravishing aural beauty of Tibet Tibet (RealWorld). Yungchen's soaring voice is so damn pure, producer Richard Evans was wise to feature it on most cuts with no other accompaniment than a slight bloom of reverb-just as the singer was wise to stick to devotional traditional material rather than risking, say, an excursion into dancehall. While I thrill at her amazing vocal gifts and spiritual depth in any given six-minute span, my wandering mind soon begins to demand a hook or production gimmick to hold my attention. The wind effects and bird call in "Ari-Lo" come enticingly close. Otherwise, I must surrender fuller appreciation to those with higher aspirations than solving the Before-and-After puzzle before a contestant calls for a second vowel. And what's with giving Yungchen composition credit for "Om Mani Padme Hung," which I remember from In Search of the Lost Chord?
I may not be mortally wounded by Fatal Mambo, but my immune system keeps falling victim to this French band's artificially engineered, mutant strain of salsa as heard on Rumbagitation (Tinder Records). The gang of eight and assorted guests are expert in the art of achieving maximum punch in busy but economical arrangements while still allowing plenty of open space for background percolations to do their job, from the chin music rhythms that hustle us through "Medina" to bandleader J. F. "Oscar" Hammel's bongo fever-dream in the flamenco-hybrid "Ma Boussole." But I feel craftiness losing out to smarty-pantsing on a Gallic version of Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime" that's probably terrific encore material after a smoking live set, but which just sort of dampens the sparks on cd-especially when it follows the recombinant reggae "La Volonte" that puts me mind of bands so interested in demonstrating stretch, they loosen their grasp. But the Fatals never even come close to losing it. Back in straight-out, bent salsa territory it's one pow after another, and I love the accordion accompaniment that throws a cumbia off kilter on the gene-altering title cut. Lots of great songs here with enough contagious party attitude for a dozen discs. [619 Martin Ave., #1, Rohnert Park, CA 94928 or http://worldmusic.com]
To my juvenile way of looking at the world, nothing succeeds like excess. If you're bent on showing prowess as a style-shifting, shape changing world beat chameleon, forget vagaries, credibility and matters of taste, and jump in with all three feet at once. But even as I happily embrace all manner of musical clowns, supposed highbrows who stink up the merriment with conquering notions of creating art from the lowbrow earn a special spot on my eject button. Thus, Napolian neapolitan Daniel Sepe's abrupt transitions on Vite Perdite (Piranha) from medieval chants to hip-hop or from Norwegian folk music to, heaven help us, Italian-language ragamuffin, might be palatable if the demarcation lines weren't so insultingly distinct. The classical material swims in somber kitsch, the post-modern pop thrashes limbs in wild abandon, while Sepe's jazz hobbyhorse stakes out reverential interludes in the middle of the mess. Like a mass murderer who pleads an insanity defense because mass murder is necessarily insane, the artiste's insistence on an avant garde stance is wearying enough to be eventually conceded. But instead of opening my eyes to a higher meaning to the clash between timeless art and disposable pop through wrenching juxtapositions, Vite Perdite reduces both high and low to boring vulgarity.