(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 14, Number 1, 1995)


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 Indian music.

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 a tumble.

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 Elvis stamp.

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 groove instead.

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 video imagery.

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 to--but why?

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