My entire life I've successfully resisted that pop music for the rich
known as classical music, dismissing it as simple folk themes and melodies
pumped up into showy patchwork suites. But my precise reason for despising
the classics escaped me until recently. Similar deal with jazz. Give me
Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, and other pioneers of swing
and bebop, and I'll mumble a few phrases in appreciation of their genius
as I sidle off for a nap. But blanket statements, as we know, only apply
in bed. In my suggestible college years, behavior-modified by Kubrick's
A Clockwork Orange, I blared Beethoven and a couple of Tchaikovsky chestnuts
from my sister's Sansui set-up, and just last week a trip to the Best Buy
discount electronics chain paid off with a cd reissue of 1972's Unrest by Henry Cow, an avant garde British
jazz band. I intend to snatch up their other three cd reissues as well.
So why is it I milk Henry Cow while shunning Artie Shaw? Because, in a word,
Unrest is awful. Not entirely, but just awful enough. "Half
asleep; Half awake," the disc's too-early-on tour de force, is peppered
with annoying program music chord inversions, caesurae spawned to mask tape
edit points, and a squalling, overblown bassoon solo. "Bittern Storm
Over Ulm," featuring Fred Frith on infinite fuzz guitar, sounds like
the Yardbirds tripping over Henry Threadgill in a copper bathtub, and the
composed-in-the-studio material is resolutely unlistenable. Still, I clutch
this disc like a talisman because it crackles with creative energy rarely
unleashed in recordings where the musicians are in control of their material.
Thinking back, this is also what I liked about punk at its heyday: bright
minds thrashing away at big ideas with little regard for technical niceties.
As intangible, undefinable, and elusive as art itself, awfulness, I've decided,
is what makes music enjoyable. Without the weaker siblings of awfulness--such
as discord, disharmony, and thematic conflicts in need of resolution--we
wouldn't have any interest in music at all. We'd sit back instead and relax
to the hum of an air conditioner or dance to the unembellished beat of a
metronome. Awfulness takes myriad forms, and many of my past and present
favorite pieces of music run the gamut from casual instrumental incompetence
like XTC's Drums & Wires to slabs of bad taste like the 1812
Overture or Beethoven's glorious Ninth; or from the shrug-of-the-shoulders
chaos generated by schooled musicians Henry Cow to recordings shot through
with evil intent, including Kraftwerk's Trans Europe Express or anything
by Air Supply. By stretch of context, awfulness can also apply to foreign
genres that on home turf seem as reasonable as brown bread, but which can
strike my middle class American ears as frantic, tinny, devious or wildly
discordant, such as Transylvanian village music or Indian film soundtracks.
Balance is everything. The right dose of awfulness can propel a fair to
middling concept into giddy realms of greatness. But too much of it can
prove ruinous. Think John Zorn, Whitney Houston, or the Gypsy Kings. Too
little is equally deadly. Think classical music again, whose cannon is performed
with sufficient reverence to render most of it impossible to listen to,
while jazz tends to squander its vibrant bastard birthright through numbing
precision and academics. Around the globe, however, pop is consistently
faithful to the demands of awfulness, and while no recording I know successfully
embraces every form of awfulness already described-instrumental or vocal
incompetence, lack of taste or proportion, self-inflicted chaos, evil intent,
and grating exotica-the best have the gusto to grab for two or more.
Beggars and Saints (Triloka Records) by
Jai Uttal has displaced Henry Cow's Unrest as the cd that refuses
to leave my side. I walk around with it snug in my armpit, set it admiringly
in front of me at work like a photo of a loved one, and fondle its sensually
colored, fold-out booklet. When the temptation becomes too intense, I even
play it. From the first mingling of tabla and electronic drum beats, the
steady rise of a harmonium suggesting the spiritual ecstasy of Pakistani
qawwali, and parallel-line reeds arcing toward the void as Jai begins a
heady chant to his Lord Ram, his King, I'm totally submerged and washed
away in complicated cross currents of attraction and aversion.
Thrilled by the drive of the rhythms, the well-reasoned blend of traditional
and synthetic textures, and the seamless fusion of East and West undreamed
of since the Beatles' "Blue Jay Way," I'm simultaneously appalled
by the Hindi tongued New Age equivalent of Christian rock and find myself
nervously patting my pockets for extra change as I scan the blank tile walls
of a non-existent airport in desperate search for a monitor announcing the
time of my departure to the next life. Despite or because of the steadily
burbling undercurrent of embarrassment each time I cue up Beggars and
Saints, I simply can't get enough of it, shoving everything else aside
I'm supposed to review this month just to hear the emotionally naked pop
ghazhal "Be With You" one more time.
Lest it appear I'm simply using a device to have fun with the California-based
Jai Uttal's music, let me hasten to point out that I think it's great, and
that I can heap no better praise on a piece of art than proclaiming it's
ability to astonish. Any blending of two cultures as widely divergent as
our irony-laden American clutter and the ancient religious traditions of
the Indian subcontinent is dead on arrival if it doesn't somehow accommodate
the meeting of cynicism and faith, transience and permanence, and seriousness
and whimsy. While my injection of disbelief into pure expressions of devotion
may not be what the artist intended, the fact that the material can contain
this dark cloud and still sail past on its own ray of uninterrupted energy
says a whole lot more about his accomplishment than if Uttal and his Pagan
Love Orchestra tried the flat and safe approach of merely reproducing sacred
Kafka wouldn't be my favorite author if I weren't continually pulled between
feeling superior to creaky conceits and bowing in humility before his insights
as I plow through the cyclic repetitions ad absurdum of The Castle or battle
the grand myopia of "The Burrow." Approaching "Gopala"
with similar reservations sends me bouncing up and down through an entire
stratum of perception I would otherwise have missed, marveling at the classical
clarity of Mala Ganguly's voice in its consummation with Uttal's filmi-rich
Art Garfunkel-esque yearning, then bobbing deep into realms of atavistic
pleasure as multi-instrumentalist Uttal brilliantly ties a fretted lead
(be it mandolin or gubgubbi, I don't know) to ominous synthesized rhythms.
Anyone able to sit straightfaced through the qawwali-klezmer-jazz-rock meld
of "Rama Bolo" is a killjoy in my book. Anyone who cringes at
the line in "Be With You" about the "king without a kingdom"
who's "crying crystal tears" without a surge of admiration for
Uttal's bald sincerity will probably miss the nicely turned nod to the Stone's
"2000 Light-years from Home" and Pink Floyd's "Atom Heart
Mother Suite" in the instrumental break. Purists should give Beggars
and Saints wide berth. Pop adventurists who know that a dose of awful
is tantamount to a dash of spice should give Uttal's ambitious worldview
The too awful Joseph Spence tribute album, Out on
the Rolling Sea (Green Linnet), could certainly have been worse.
I thank Ram we're spared the star encrusted line-up of similar cds dedicated
to Karen Carpenter, Van Morrison or Richard Thompson. Thus, we don't get,
for example, Sonic Youth throwing feedback at "Kneelin' Down Inside
the Gate" nor Sinnead O'Connor waxing Ethel Merman at "Blow Wind
Blow." Instead we're served a roster of eccentrics as eclectic as the
late Bahamian singing guitarist's repertoire, including the inspired casting
of Wavy Gravy coughing up the lyrics to "The Crow" and Van Dyke
Parks' appropriately lumpy and lurching arrangement of the title cut for
plantation orchestra and chorus. But the very diversity that raises hopes
ultimately signals trouble, as Rolling Sea sails straight into the fog.
Why are Malagasy musicians Tarika Sammy, Rossy, and Paul & Pana plus
Malagasy enthusiast David Lindley performing a trio of homegrown songs with
no more connection to Spence than shared fretboard virtuosity? And what
ill wind has shipwrecked a scraggly 3 Mustaphas 3 on an unfortunate narration
that pours little oil on "Troublesome Water"?
I get the point that creative risk taking is needed to do justice to the
inebriated confusion whipped up by Spence, whose massive acoustic guitar
clatter was barely held to earth by the rusty prong of his Popeye the Sailor
voice. Though Van Dyke Parks' arrangement may come closest to spirit of
Spence in capturing the sense of being caught in a hailstorm under a sheet
of newspaper, the peculiar charm of Spence's mutant yet consistent reworking
of island anthems and gospel ditties is nontransferable. Performed by anyone
else, his repertoire loses the stamp of his ownership. Songs that aren't
obviously identified with Spence--such the Weavers-owned "Good Night
Irene" or "Sloop John B.," now forever a SoCal anthem--waggle
the focus off the intended honoree. The Malagasy material comes across as
filler. And where's "Hallelujah Time" when we need it? The best
tribute to Spence I could think of would be to buy his own recordings, but
I don't think this disc is going to lead anyone to them.
Spoken wordologist Robert Anthony's opening incantation of "powerful
neurotransmitter substances in tree bark, flower smuts, sugar cubes, toad
skins, cactus plants, mushrooms, tiny pieces of blotting paper," etc.,
reminds me that drug ingestion pretty well renders the concept of awfulness
moot. Rubbing in the point, Eda Maxym makes monosyllabic satisfied stoned-out
noises above a characteristic Trance Mission didgeridoo-led paste
on the opening cut of the San Francisco band's second release, Meanwhile.... Though TM gathers an impressive array
of exotic instrumentation held together by Eastern-leaning melodic curves
and rhythm patterns, this dose of planetary consciousness shouldn't be confused
with world music, which is usually about more than seeding an atmosphere.
But that doesn't mean the band can't occasionally click on its own terms,
as in the pharmacological convocation of Balinese percussion, klezmer clarinet,
faux North African ney themes, and silly-hatted leader Stephen Kent's increasingly
intriguing didgeridoo vocabulary on "Bindi"--or on "Zozobra"
where a nicely modulated arrangement of Beth Custer's reeds abandons both
cyber- and interplanetary-space for a roundelay reminiscent of Australian
fake jazzsters the Catholics. Still, the odds of my listening to Meanwhile...
again are about the same as finding lysergic glue on the back of an
Several numbers on the reggae and ska anthology Respect
to Studio One (Heartbeat/Rounder) had me grimacing. Not that these
aren't worthy tracks--although the fact that a dozen or so cuts on this
two-disc set are lifted from other Studio One best-ofs leaves me wondering
if we've finally progressed from treasure vault to recycling bin. The charm
and pain of these songs lies in the zeitgeist of days past when American
pop was dispensing similar strained bromides, fables, and tales of woe aimed
at the pants pockets of the teenage common denominator.
With straight faces, the Heptones opine that "Pretty Looks Isn't All,"
Marcia Griffiths advises engaged gals not to "roam the town,"
Ken Boothe exults about having the power to leave a disinterested lover,
and the Viceroys play pirate in what I pray is the only song on any cd with
the lyrics, "yoho, yoho, yoho and a bottle of rum." Equal to the
seminal rhythms first staked out here--and still cannibalized today--are
these florid moments that make the collection fun. Because I like my classic
reggae gritty, I'm happy for another go-round of Larry Marshall's "Nanny
Goat" and Freddie MacGregor's "Bobby Bobylon," plus Willie
William's "Armagideon Time" and the coiled instrumental "Throw
Me Corn." I also like my reggae loony and am thrilled by Sound Dimension's
"Psychedelic Rock" and Lee Perry's imponderable "Don't Blame
the Baldhead." Though there's not much new here, even in the reissue
sense, a steady verve makes the hoariest cliches kick.
Burning Spear first emerged on the reggae scene on a tide of sour
milk vocals and hectoring horns. But through the decades his no-nonsense
proselytizing has forsaken the confrontation of his earliest releases for
reconciliation with the broader human spirit, monkey business and all. Love & Peace (Heartbeat/Rounder), recorded
live on his 1993 American tour, shows the smoothest honed Spear yet, whose
switch from Cotton Mather to Jimmy Carter is appropriately transported by
a powerhouse band with too light a touch to even exactly be playing reggae
anymore. Fat bass, springy beat, and continuous groove step back into the
luminescence of a sweeping high-spiritual gestalt that baptizes the listener
not so much in Mr. Rodney's trademark state of trance as in a sensual, sexual
manifestation of grace.
"De message is in the music, the music is in the message," he
sings in the showstopper that partly explains the change of heart, the sweet
ode to commodity reality, "Mi Gi Dem" (what dey want). But Spear
lacks the cynicism to play just to the crowd, and the overwhelming joy of
his yowls and invitations to party here are genuine. The music belies the
message, or the deceptively titled instrumental "Peace" would
sound less like Dead Can Dance revving up an ominous synthesizer patch.
Given the casual negativity of current dancehall, Spear's spoonful of refined
sugar is positive medicine enough--plus he still gives us what he wants
precisely when he wants to.
Occasionally awful sound first riveted my attention to the Indonesian material
on Music of the Gods (Rykodisc), and the
dreamlike quality of the gamelan semar pegulingan excerpts and other selections
kept it there. In fact, the digital restoration of the source recordings
is miraculous. Performances were captured direct to Presto record-cutting
equipment on acetate-surfaced, 16-inch aluminum discs by Bruce and Sheridan
Fahnestock in 1941 on their second Pacific music gathering expedition. Going
where few engineers had gone before in the then Dutch East Indies, the Fahnestocks
uncoiled two miles of insulated microphone cable to preserve a fragile moment
in the history of Balinese and Maduran music--before World War II and the
resulting cultural invasion swept away island traditions.
The gender wayang pieces for metallophone quartet are the most intimate
I've heard, a fiery kebyar selection could scramble an egg at 20 feet, and
vocal performances like "Dandang Gendis" and "Laghoe Dindang"
convey a lost world atmosphere complete with approving birds calling deep
in the background. The 13 short selections here haven't been previously
released. The war ended the life of Bruce Fahnestock in a friendly fire
accident, brother Sheridan subsequently lost enthusiasm for the project,
and the precious discs languished in an attic for 50 years, acetate coatings
deteriorating when they were donated to the Library of Congress in 1986.
But don't let a spot of grit dissuade you from seeking out this captivating
music. With a bit of ambient noise around me--parrots squawking, traffic
rumbling, cold wind blowing through the window cracks--I hear only the beauty
and the power of the songs. The Fahnestocks also gathered music from the
Marquesas, Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji and New Caledonia, and I hope that some of
those recordings are also slated for release.
Subtract Ray Lema from Youssou N'Dour, and the result is fellow Senegalese
Baaba Maal making the kind of lean and compelling music Renaissance
Man N'Dour has abandoned. Not that Firin' in Fouta
(Mango) is anything like Baaba Maal unplugged. Swelling the roster are a
dozen or so band members, two dozen guest musicians, three studios, and
assorted production personnel--usually an indication of a band-aid job,
but for sheer hard-edged pop Fouta gets a clean bill of health. Cocky
enough to assert suzerainty over the whole history of African music, in
the first three cuts Maal flies the flag of traditional, colonial, contemporary
and possibly future styles.
"Sidiki" dabbles with dramatic starts and stops until in its final
minutes it explodes the tension by anchoring its cool river meanderings
in the hammering beat of a traditional millet grinding song, the signal-processed
thud of brobdingnagian hammer on pestle nearly blowing Maal right off the
record. He regroups in "African Woman" with a chic helping of
retro, an unflinching blast of Cuban rhumba with little concession to current
trends except taste and execution so exemplary the track could nestle comfortably
on last year's Africando cd. "Swing Yela" inevitably leads us
down the slope of rap, but it's rap cast in a lovely call and response format
instead of the pasted on banter appended to last year's American-altered
release of Maal's Lam Toro--turning Didier Awadi and Amadou Barry's ragga
eruptions into one of the highpoints of this release. Fouta barely pauses
for breath until the obligatory gratuitous ballad "Njilou," festooned
with string arrangement from a Salif Keita fit. But the damage is slight,
and the remainder of the songs leap the chasm of contemplation to seek the
Tired of inhabiting the folk music ghetto, the conservatory trained St.
Petersburg-based Terem Quartet attempt to break out of the cafe circuit
and into the concert hall on Classical
(RealWorld/Caroline) by applying domras, accordion, bass balalaika, and
cartoon-soundtrack stratagems to both instantly recognizable hits from the
conductor's baton ("Ave Maria," "Eine Kleine Nacht Musik")
and self-penned pseudo-classical numbers. Chops and vision are extraordinary.
With modest instrumentation, the Quartet melts into orchestral timbres as
convincingly as their liner note photos merge into historical shots of a
triumphant Lenin-a sure tip off that they want both their comedy shtick
and expert sentimental surges swallowed whole. They may just be too smart
for their own good, succeeding at least as brilliantly as Magic Eye
pictures which repay intense concentration by transforming dense squiggles
into 3-D silhouettes.
Don't expect angelic delicacies to waft from Graciana Silva's harp.
On Sones Jarochos with the Trio Silva
(Corason/Rounder), La Negra Graciana rips into Jalisican sones with the
same directness and rhythmic emphasis that characterizes her vocals. Her
instrumental breaks bolster shimmer with plenty of snap, and her singing
really comes alive in songs accompanied by brother Pino, whose got a rough
voice in the classic Mexican mariachi style. While the son jarocho is the
product of both African and Spanish ancestry, the African presence in the
music isn't as pronounced as in, for example, flamenco, which shares similar
parentage. But at times I hear shades of the kora in her blistering arpeggios,
and you couldn't ask for more rhythmic intensity unless you have a pair
of shoes to burn. Collectors of the many versions of "La Bamba"
will find an unfamiliar rendition here that doesn't immediately trigger
Call me callow, but I lacked the initiative to even listen to the Rough Guide to World Music cd (World Music Network).
As a world music introduction it holds up okay, with fine songs from Muzsikas,
Oumou Sangare, Etoile de Dakar, Ali Hassan Kuban and more. But it falls
completely flat as an accompaniment to the same named book (reviewed by
Brooke Wentz last issue), whose strength lies in its ability to go beyond
the usual sources with on-the-scene reports of little heard artists and
little known trends around the world.
For example, Francis Falceto's coverage of Ethiopian music includes a listing
of the best clubs for hearing music next time you're dropping by Addis Ababa,
plus coverage of the cassette-only releases you're most likely to find by
local artists. Nothing of this level of first-hand scholarship leaks into
the Rough Guide disc which, in fact, is essentially an advertising
piece. Releases from each artist on the cd are promoted in the liner notes
booklet along with a tear-out form for ordering them direct from the World
Music Network. What a missed opportunity--especially when compared to the
flexidiscs that come with the more wizened Musics
of Many Cultures (University of California Press, 1980), offering
wannga from Arnhem Land, Sumatran tiger-capturing songs, Alaskan boy's haircut
music, and other wonders not sold by the publisher.
One day I'll do an entire column reviewing releases I haven't heard but
object to on principal alone. This time, I meant to make it two in a row
with a snap judgment against the Ellipsis Arts label's boxed set devoted
to drumming, The Big Bang--a sprawling
collection of tracks with nothing more in common than each involving someone
hitting something with something else--like the precocious chimp that opens
disc one. I cheated my original intention, though, by succumbing to curiosity
and listening to parts of the three cds, and parts are all you get.
The music lover in me relished the diversity of rhythmic sounds from the
round, woody and watery timbres of Mino Cinelu and George Jinda's layered
udu clay pot drums and balafon on "Village," to the bone-jarring
dislocation of North Korean percussion troupe Samul Nori, to the lusty splash
of the Baka pygmies' fist in the water wallops. But the pedant in me objected
that the reference-volume bulk which implicit promises inclusiveness is
sabotaged by the utter absence of a perspective, context or content larger
than the sum of the individual rhythms. There's too little breadth to justify
the girth, including much reliance on western world beat and rock musicians,
such as an awful Emerson, Lake, and Palmer drum solo that kept knocking
me back to my original unaddressed question of not just what was I listening
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