(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 17, Number 5, 1998)


The Hollywood moguls, religious zealots, renegade scientists, Hopi elders, TV producers and Art Bell are right. Earth is in imminent danger of obliteration by an asteroid. I know, because I have seen an irrefutable sign that the end of the world is at hand.

The rural Michigan village of Lowell where I live has just opened an espresso bar. Down the street from King Milling Co. and the Blue Ribbon Feed Co. and a couple doors past Hahn Hardware and Sneakers Sports Bar near the M21 bridge over the Flat River, the Happy Mallard Cafe occupies the former location of a knick-knack store, barber shop, A&P grocery, and probably a buckboard showroom if you trace the former tenants back far enough.

What Floyd the Barber would have had to say about $1.95 cappuccino being sold within six feet of his old chair should not be quoted in this magazine of family entertainment. But there's light at the end of the old spiral stripe pole. On the counter next to shakers of cinnamon, powdered chocolate, and other designer coffee condiments is a big fat jar of pickles wearing a ".50 each" sticker.

No word on whether a latte/gherkin combo purchase garners a discount. The ice cream parlor atmosphere is maintained by a front-of-store ice cream parlor, and each table hosts the same pegboard solitaire game that keeps us happy waiting for our country ham dinners at the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain. This may be the only coffee bar in the country that combines backwoods touches with piped in music not playing jazz, new age, or other cafe staples but blasting us with disco.

Mass extinctions like those that flattened the dinosaurs are undoubtedly triggered when a governing mechanism determines that a planet's dominant species is stinking up the place. My hometown of Grand Rapids just hung out a "Welcome Asteroids" neon sign with the onslaught of the first West Michigan Grand Prix. Bonjour Monte Carlo.

In sponsoring this motorsport equivalent to three-on-three basketball, Grand Rapids joins the ranks of such prestige cities as Detroit, Cleveland, Lexington, OH, and Lime Rock, CT in letting souped up hotrods roar past boarded-up businesses at 165 mph. The pleasant appearance of a divided Belfast awaits visitors as concrete barriers topped with chain link fences wall in economically challenged residents of the Morton House Hotel along with yuppie Riverfront Towers tenants. Both require special passes to go about their business on the normally public streets during the three-day event. The building where I work lies just beyond the embattlements, and I can't decide if I'm Catholic or Protestant.

No matter. On this coming Friday, a work day, at 10 a.m. a parade will clatter down the street two stories below my window. If I can figure out how to get the window open, I've got a bucket of goose droppings ready to bid our local dignitaries bon chance.

"It is probable that the first voice in existence was that of a frog," observes field recordist Charles M. Bogert in the liner notes to his Songs of North American Frogs (Smithsonian Folkways). Most cultures recognize frogs' musicality. The Indonesians write jaw harp compositions that mimic and celebrate the frog, Ancient Future jammed with Pacific frogs on their lovely 1989 release Natural Rhythms, and I still kick myself for not dragging a cassette machine outdoors eight years ago when a chorus of spring peepers serenaded me with a once-in-a-lifetime performance rivaling a cluster of goldfinches. The lure of Bogert's disc is the chance to hear 92 tracks of frogs and toads whose like we'll never hear again due to pollution, global warming, and the shadow of the asteroid. The poetry of Bogert's disc is provided by Bogert's voice preceding each cut with species identification and the briefest tidbit of knowledge. His William. S. Burroughs cadences take up as much disc space as the croaks, peeps, gurgles, and growls of the amphibians, and in the course of listening his drawl take on aspects of a recurrent melody. Originally recorded in 1958, North American Frogs has been one of the Folkways titles most requested for reissue, and Bogert's pithy summations are as much a reason to snatch up this remastered release as are the intriguing and varied voices of our warty cousins.

Angelique Kidjo's well-oiled thump machine gets a major overhaul on Oremi (Island). Kidjo's last release, Aye, had stripped down her assault to voice and Godzilla rhythm, so she had nowhere to go but a spoken word recording or, on the other extreme, the big huge production. No surprise which she chose. While there are no Bulgarian choirs, geriatric rock stars, chamber orchestras, pygmy vocalists, or Jackson Family members hitching a ride, Oremi does incorporate nice vocal interplay with Cassandra Wilson on the dreamy "Never Know," a gratuitous duet with Kelly Price on the eye-shutting "Open Your Eyes," and an unfortunate moment with toddler daughter Naima in the closing bars of "Loloye." (Note to mothers everywhere: good parenting means keeping your kids out of the studio.) Kidjo's stretch-for-success is nowhere near a Youssou N'Dour disaster. But how far afield she's wandered is evident when you try to assimilate "Babalao"--which might as well be an outtake from Aye--after the jazzy soul popsicle "Never Know." "Babalao" seems thin and even primitive in comparison, which may or may not indicate a step in the right direction.

I'm as divided about Oremi as Oremi is divided against itself. I cringe at the syrupy parts but can't resist cranking up the volume at the pep rally pop of "Give It Up." Her wonderful cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child" is perhaps the only one that won't put you in the mind of the original. The good bits here are superb. The bad bits could easily spell disaster next time around.

Armed with the instruments of samba, forro, the hardware store and the toy box, agitating Brazil's tropicalist pop movement--long thought moribund but here sporting Viagara vigor--62-year-old Tom Ze fabricates a pre-information-age tick-tock song style perfect for the soundtrack to a Portuguese-subtitled print of Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times." But Com Defeito de Fabricacao--Fabrication Defect (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.) has multi-national fish to fry. Consistently beautiful as well as beautifully short (a mere 36:45), Defect ironically celebrates the ability to think which prevents Third World laborers from becoming perfect androids in the factories owned by First World bosses. In doing so Ze glides among more genres than Nike has shoes with unqualified grace at odds with his portrait of the discontinuity of modern life. With much wit he hatches a sugar-coated polemic incorporating all the perky agility of the finest advertising jingles. More tuned to the clockwork nattering of machinery than the precise pulse of microprocessors, and spewing equal parts blood and oil, Defect stays squarely in the Brazilian music camp without sounding quite like anything that has come before. If Kraftwerk's Florian Schneider had been born in a shanty in Bahia instead of the German urban jungle he may have envisioned something similar but minus the punchlines.

The sparse, almost solemn rendering of "Aurora en Pekin" is deceptive. Mark Ribot plays twitchy tremolo-bar guitar in the opener to a collection of songs by iconic Cuban bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez on Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos (Atlantic Records). There's the air of something withheld in the coffeehouse atmosphere as the claves tick in the background and Ribot coaxes gentle phrases from his instrument instead of the usual discordant noise per his New York no-wave roots. Only the distortion of the loudest chords and a residue of road tar hints that the frontman and his "prosthetic Cubans" will earn their name as the cuts that follow gradually increase intensity.

Ironic detachment tangles up with adhesion to the music Ribot loves in a B-movie approach that pushes the noir quality of the classic rumba sound until it skirts the penumbra of camp. Tasty licks and the subtle drive of compatriots Brad Jones, E.J. Rodriguez, Robert J. Rodriguez and Anthony Coleman save the day whenever the flair for retro begins expanding out of shape. Ribot's composition "Postizo" should elide lounge music shtick when shouts of the title evoke the ground-up chestnut "Tequila," but a nosebleed Carlos Santana-style fuzzbox lead thickens the hilarity with honest if cool sweat. A few touches are a bit cloying for my liking, as when a cadaverous recitation hitches a ride with, of all things, a mellotron on "No Me Llores Mas," and a cheesy organ buzzes around too many cuts like a fly. If you can buy Ribot's premise that Rodriguez' compositions from a chordal standpoint basically constitute rock, and can get hip with the smooth post-Beat angularity of the arrangements, Postizos will earn its place next to your Perez Prado retrospectives.

Los de Abajo is a band of gen-x Mexicans who storm salsa conventions with the punch of power chord rock, matching sharp horn arrangements with even sharper hooks on their self-titled Luaka Bop/Warner Bros. American debut. Like France's Fatal Mambo, the band never eases up the pressure, shaking the big uptown mambo or a blast of cumbia laced with meringue between teeth curled in a perpetual sneer. But they bite as well as bark, packing their compositions with anger at their country's corruption and tipping hats to the Zapatista rebels in "La Ironia Se Acabo" (the Irony is Over). Think the Clash with trumpets and a Latin attitude and you get an idea of the intensity. Then add dancing shoes.

Juan Carlos Alfonso's Cuban big band Dan Den gets its American premiere with Salsa En Atare (Candela), a trombone-lovers paradise that maintains a contemporary uptown sound without resorting to banks of synthesizers and beat boxes. The music is bright and the piano-mashing by Alfonso superb. Vocals are right up front with tricky interplay and gliding high notes set against arrangements that leave plenty of space for percussion. This is one band that really knows how to build up to an exciting pitch. Case in point is "El Que La Lleva La Lleva" which begins by courting low expectations with a too-pretty electric piano riff. But gradually the piece begins to harden as excited back and forth singing begins roughing up the way for an extraordinary climax of punchy trombone lines that shift to siren slides as the fire department presumably roars into the studio to keep the heat from conflating the entire neighborhood. One marvelous cut follows another on this top notch example of salsa innovation and tradition at its best.

Compared to the rhythmic complexity of Latin music, polka is a dull-witted beast bounding down the banquet room stairs with a predictable heavy-footed cadence, domesticated but never quite housebroken. Yet there's no denying the infectious joy this old St. Bernard can spread with the wheeze of an accordion or the kick of a bass drum. Pleasures abound on Deep Polka (Smithsonian Folkways), an anthology of music from the Upper Midwest that features the tightest brass sections west of Lake Michigan. Fascinating liner notes and programs by seven ensembles make up a primer of polka styles--the German "Dutchman" syncopated variety appropriately illustrated by Karl and the Country Dutchman, a Norwegian variation with lead fiddle from Wisconsin's Norskdalen Trio, Croatian tamburitza steeped in minor-key folk music from Vatra, plus Slovenian, Finnish, Czech, Polish and German variants. I never suspected that our homegrown polka was so multinational. Here in West Michigan we associate it exclusively with the large Polish community, but the influence of Slovenian brass bands and Scandinavian fiddle music was crucial to its development. All that's missing from this great collection is the tejano polka style, but I don't imagine there are many conjunto bands even as far north as Dubuque.

I wish I could report an epiphany with Alan Lomax's music of England disc as profound as I experienced with his first Southern Journey recordings of American folk. Compiled by Lomax between 1939-51, World Library of Folk & Primitive Music: England (Rounder) is an ambitious and occasionally breathtaking survey of British traditional music which includes "glee" hearth songs, sea chanteys, work songs, hornpipes, ballads, reels, and more. Among the standouts are Ewan MacColl's performance of a wrenching tale of the industrial revolution's toll in "The Four-Loom Weaver," Phil Tanner's toehold in the last century on the archaic "The Wassail Song" and a pair of neck-hair bristling cuts by Isla Cameron, possessor of one of those clear water voices that could stop a charging black fairy dog dead in its tracks. If England lacks a knockout punch, it's mainly because the American recordings spit out sparks from multi-part singing pieces and benefit from later recording technology that brings the performers right into the living room. Many of the performances here are a cappella or are by a couple of voices with minimal instrumental backing. If that goes down well with you, than this disc is recommended.

While World Library of Folk & Primitive Music: Scotland (Rounder) is cut from the same cloth as the England disc, these recordings from 1951 contain more stirring material, reflecting the yearning and melancholy appropriate to desolate northern geography--plus the angst appropriate to an assimilated people. More than half the songs are from the highlands and their attendant remote islands. Some sport intriguing vocal techniques, such as Kitty MacLeod's rendition of a megalith of a tongue twister, the purt a beul "mouth music" piece "Larach do thacaidean." Others have pure head-turning beauty, like the ethereal "Bressay Lullabye" from the Shetlands. Most fun are work songs constructed around the rhythms of milking, churning, rowing, spinning, and weaving--and a trio of "waulking" songs to speed the different stages of preparing linen cloth. The pairing of specific songs to particular tasks reminds me in a general sense of West African music, though the spirit of the Vikings poke their horned heads through this odd, old repertoire.

Sally Nyolo's Multiculti (Tinder Records) puts an edge on the layered vocals she brought to her first cd Tribu from her years with Zap Mama and Toure Kunda. Her peppery blend of bikutsi beats and speeded-up bits of Cameroonian pygmy song stylings turns every clipped syllable into a balaphon bonk for an effect that's initially exhilarating, and she knows how to plant a hook. But over the long haul I long for a long note the way a drunk longs for a drink. Despite Nyolo's inventiveness, her studied uniqueness has a generic pop quality about it, almost a kind of dumbing down that results in demagogic song titles such as "Historie," "Reggae in Japan," and the fumbled title cut. It makes me think she's as concerned with teaching some universal principle about music as she is with making music itself. And didacticism don't rock.

Percussionist Robin Adnan Anders gets the deluxe slipcase treatment on concept cd Omaiyo (Rykodisc), featuring nine compositions by the one-time Mustapha (cf. 1989's Shopping) along with one-page fantasy fiction pieces from nine writers inspired by Anders' songs. The notion makes for a fat set of liner notes, but the music measures up if your tastes run to lush ambient pieces packed with drums and gongs. Anders now follows the Sufi way, and a searing simplicity thus drives "Suliman" with its array of Arabic percussion just as gamelan-like complexity turns "Umbasa" into a captivating spiral of balafon, mbira, drums and bells. Alas, other songs are suffused with way too much New Ageism for my delicate sensibilities, but as kitsch is a frequent visitor to the fantasy fiction genre I shouldn't be surprised. But aren't adepts supposed to be uncompromising ascetics who put the romanticism behind them?

Jump right into the mushy center of Alan Stivell's 1 Douar (Dreyfus/Keltia III) and you may find yourself coming out the other side in an alternate universe of startlingly good pop. Breton harpist and multi-instrumentalist Stivell, a pioneer of new age folk music, is at the vanguard of a more compelling frontier with a creamy disc of world beat integrating perfect star turns from Youssou N'Dour, Khaled, Simple Minds' Jim Kerr, Paddy Maloney, and John Cale. The roster alone gives this disc an enviable respectability, and its air of Riverdance through hash pipe haze gives it a monster fun quotient complete with Moroccan strings, sampled shamans, waulking song snippets and gooey Gallic soul. Cale's contribution resembles a shard left on the cutting floor from a 1980's David Bowie album, and N'Dour's pair of Celtic "United Earth" songs suggests he follow the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's lead and hand over the electronic phase of his post-mbalax career to collaborations with ingenious producers such as Stivell. If this garden of aural delights were any more ethereal, you'd need a third ear to hear it.

All the production wizardry in the world pales at evoking an otherworldly atmosphere as well as Ephat Mujuru's masterful but subtle mbira on Ancient Wisdom, Songs and Fables from Zimbabwe (Latitudes/Music of the World). While other religious traditions storm heaven's gate with a battering ram of drums and raucous voices, the Shona people petition the spirits with the quiet voice of an instrument that seems more in tune with rarefied sensibilities than pyrotechnics. But what do I know of the invisible realm? I do know there is no more calming music to sit down with than the deep, woody low notes and music box higher tones of the thumb piano, and Mujuru demonstrates great virtuosity. Most of the pieces are solo with Dumisani Mariare contributing occasional voice and shaker on traditional songs and songs in the traditional mold. To make good on the fables promised by the title, the disc includes two spoken stories with mbira accompaniment.

Les Go de Koteba (Juna) is a delightful disc from a Cote d'Ivorie-base trio of female vocalists with guitar, kora, percussion and other accompaniment. Maate Keita, Awa Sangho and Niama Kante do pop in the Mandingo style, but a western retro tilt to the arrangement plus the close, up-front unison vocals remind me a bit of South African township jive at its peak, though the sound is strictly West African. The songs really sparkle, and I especially love the chugging organ on "Wari."

Mickey Hart's Planet Drum ensemble makes good on its threatened return with Supralingua (Rykodisc), a two-cd set whose second disc contains remixes plus a video interview with Hart playable on Windows machines and Macs. The supralogic behind the title is the search for a vocal counterpart to the international language of drumming (Esperanto need not apply), but the efforts of Bobi Cespedes, Rebecca Mauleon, and others to concoct borderless vocables is undermined by the immediately identifiable Gyuto monks having an Om-fest on track one, "Angola." No matter. As a concept, the language thing is ground under the wheels of the rhythmic juggernaut piloted by Hart, Zakir Hussain, Givanni Hidalgo, Sikiru Adepoju, David Garibaldi, and Bakithi Kumalo. The grooves are deep enough to get the blood boiling, though they frequently come across as excursions plucked from the middle of extended rockacentric jams. When they do signify in their own right, Supralingua makes music that moves, including African head charge "Secret Meeting Place," pan-Yoruban ritual frenzy "Tall Grass," and proto-juju "Damawoo." It's unexpectedly red hot stuff, easily the best in Hart's para-Dead career.

The more I listen to "Country Blues," signature tune of the late Appalachian singer/banjo player Dock Boggs--and title of the new Revenant label anthology of his early recordings--the more unfathomable it grows. Issued on the Brunswick label in 1927, Boggs' narrative begins with a whiskey bottle and a hand of cards, migrates to a jail cell following a shooting, and ends up in the grave. Everything else about the piece dances on shaky ground. Boggs' sang in what became known as the high-lonesome style, a nasal, just-off key, straight-faced delivery that's the hallmark of bluegrass vocals to this day. But he stood outside any convention by phrasing that leaves in doubt whether "Country Blues" and later "Pretty Polly," another song about a pointless murder, is a cautionary tale, boast, lament, madman's babble, deathbed confession, all of this, or nothing at all. His banjo playing adds another layer of remoteness to the songs. Less concerned with conveying melody than chopping out space for the vocals, the unornamented, repetitive figures are both modernist in their sparseness and a throwback to some archaic antecedent of the banjo.

Boggs' profoundly eccentric style finds its mate in an eccentric 64-page hardcover book/cd package that begins with the eight sides Boggs recorded for Brunswick in 1927 and four for the Lonesome Ace label in 1929. Two minutes of reverent silence separate these songs from five unissued alternate takes from the Lonesome Ace session. Two more minutes of silence precedes two cuts apiece by Kentuckians Bill and Hayes Shepherd. Boggs doesn't appear on these, nor do the Shepherd brothers perform Dock's material, but they were once in his band and their style demonstrates his influence. These four cuts are compelling, though record companies apparently found the Shepherds too ragged and intense, so this is all of their work that survives. Unlike many anthologies of classic American recordings, Country Blues with its odd museum-like presentation of Boggs' slim cannon has the air of an embalming--which is probably fitting, since Boggs' strange songs contain more references to death than a police blotter.


[Copyright 1998 Bob Tarte]

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