(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 17, Number 4, 1998)
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 the song grows. Issued on the Brunswick label in 1927, Boggs' first-person 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, though this is mostly guesswork on my part. Everything about the piece dances on shaky ground. Patched together from a vocabulary of traditional verses that float between hard experience and desiccated cliches, "Country Blues" cobbles an anchor out of the singer's repeated salutation to the "good people" listening and more references to death than a police blotter. A deeper mystery than the whiskey-skewed chronology of a criminal act that disgorges the narrator's entire life is the nature of the message he's hell-bent on delivering. Boggs' cryptic performance skews all reference points until the only sure bet once the muzzle smoke clears is his insistence he be heard.
Boggs' profoundly eccentric style finds its mate in an eccentric hardcover book/cd package that gives heft to a scant handful of the ex-miner's recordings plus four tracks by other artists. The collection begins with the eight sides Boggs recorded for Brunswick in 1927. He was urged to contribute more at the New York City session, but suspicious of being hustled by the big city boys, he demurred. The Depression nixed his chances of a return trip by ruining Brunswick along with a host of other regional-music labels--including Lonesome Ace whose idiosyncratic owner W.E. Myer wrote lyrics for a country "ballet" which Boggs put to his own music on four cuts released in 1929. Two minutes of reverent silence walls off this sum total of Boggs' 1920s output from five unissued alternate takes from the Lonesome Ace session. Two more minutes of silence isolates these songs from two cuts apiece by Kentuckians Bill and Hayes Shepherd. Boggs doesn't appear on these, nor do the Shepherd brothers perform Dock's material. At one time, though, the pair played with Boggs in Virginia, and these songs demonstrate his influence, so they join the anthology.
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 the complex twist of his phrasing and the passion behind his deadpan. He sounds, writes Greil Marcus in an accompanying 30-page essay, "as if his bones were coming through his skin every time he opened his mouth." "Country Blues" shakes me whenever I hear it, daring me to shift my attention anywhere else, yet I'll be damned if I can describe the particular emotion driving the tale apart from the singer's urgency to ramrod his whole hard history into a three-minute performance. It's as if the struggle to be heard outweighs all moral qualities and truths, hence the frozen surface that gives the singer a place to stand while hidden emotions hiss and boil beneath the ice. The murderer who tells of killing his girl in "Pretty Polly" is beyond reach not only because of the meaningless of the unexplained crime, but also because the singing is unreadable. As in "Country Blues," the voice leaves in doubt whether we're hearing a cautionary tale, boast, lament, madman's babble, deathbed confession, muttering id, all of this, or nothing at all.
Boggs' banjo style 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. Compared to the plucked deliberations backing "Country Blues," "Danville Girl," "Pretty Polly" and "False Hearted Lovers Blues," the note patterns behind "Sugar Baby," "New Prisoners Song" and "Will Sweethearts Know Each Over There" are tuneful, though still so restrained they would never be mistaken for the joyfully hyperactive Appalachian picking of today. Especially in "Country Blues" Boggs uses his instrument as a means of unleashing the trancelike utterance of his vocal, and if the suggestion of shamanism feels tired, I'll stretch it even more by pointing out that a coal miner's life consists of freeing deeply buried stuff and lugging it to the surface. The connection is too coincidental in Boggs' case to let pass, especially since he started in the mines at age 12, and worked them off and on in his entire life. Taking into account the importance of symbol-drenched folklore and superstition in traditional Appalachian life and the stresses placed upon that life by the invasion of the mining companies, Boggs was certainly a kind of conduit for forces larger than himself--social and otherwise.
If anything is clear about the "good people" Boggs repeated addresses in each stanza of "Country Blues" except the last, it's that he doesn't believe in "good people," even if they believe themselves to be good. "You're just like me," he seems to say with each clipped nod to the listener, and this stoic insistence on the damnation of the race is the message of his music. When his career sputtered, Boggs turned to fundamentalist Christianity at the prodding of his wife, a chronic invalid. He abandoned the music she branded as sinful until long after her death when he reclaimed his banjo from a pawnshop and resumed his public performances in 1963. Others carried on in a style like his. On the "The Peddlars Wife," Bill Shephard approaches the delivery of Boggs' "Will Sweethearts Know Each Over There," but his high spirits and air of recklessness cannot be found in Boggs' music, nor does Shephard struggle with any obvious demons. The four cuts by the Shepherd brothers are wonderful, though record companies apparently found them too ragged and intense for their tastes, so these are all of their work that survives.
A few of Boggs' '60s albums are listed in a Folkways catalog as ostensibly in print. Trying to actually obtain them may be another matter, as a friend of my learned when he ordered five Folkways titles from that decade. Folkways produces cds from their archives on an as-needed basis only, issuing them in a generic package with Folkways' founder Moses Asch adorning the cover. A Folkways rep told my friend over the phone that he should expect to wait five or six months for his order because there were "a thousand" requests ahead of him. The good news in all of this is that Smithsonian Folkways has scheduled some of Boggs' '60s material for re-release this year, and I'm anxious to discover to what extent he hung onto the primitive/modern tug-of-war of his output from the '20s. A glance at the Folkways website revealed a 35-year-old recording of "Turkey in the Straw," which certainly bodes poorly. But if anyone could light a fire under that old bird, it would certainly be Boggs. [Revenant, P.O. Box 198732, Nashville, TN 37219 or firstname.lastname@example.org]
When a local thug knocked me down, tied me up, and forced me to listen blindfolded to Sabas Habas Mustapha's Jalan Kopo (Omnium), I had no idea I was hearing the former lead singer and bassist of the 3 Mustaphas 3. Because the disc lacks the obvious trademarks of the jolly jokers, the thug assumed I'd hate it. Though wide-eyed vocals replace goofiness, and a Sundanese pop amalgam based on jugala replaces songs of the Jewish/Afro-Latin/Balkan diaspora, my freshly boxed ears still picked up the Mustapha pedigree of clever arrangements, careful musicianship--here provided by members of jugala-inventor Gugum Gumbira's house band, the Jugala All Stars--and most of all the warmth of SHM's voice plus the thump of his electric bass.
In the back cover notes, Mustapha suggests his Indonesian disc might be a "mess," but I didn't find a kettle gong out of place on the Sundanese-drenched trio of opening cuts with lovely butterfly suling flute, frog-jump karinding jaw harp, and the vernacular hooting and carrying on known as senggak. Fourth track, "Artur Asaki," began losing me with its affectionate tribute to a BBC personality I've never heard of, while "Too Much Luggage" chugged along the border of lesser 3M3 send-ups with a jugala/country music scramble and first clear sign of the potential mess via a convert's-eye-view of a non-Western way of life with all the sentimentality that implies. Fortunately, the music stays pretty fresh, including a funny, awful soul track ("Waduh") and a terrific closing cut recorded in Jakarta with Orchestre Puspita, the dang-dut popcorn piece "Habibeh" that's got the sweep and strings of filmi. [530 North 3rd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55401 or www.omnium.com]
I'd have expected creaky old Sam Mangwana to put out a coasting-on-his reputation cd, but Gala Negro (Putamayo) has the energy of a newcomer and the vision of one of the greats enjoying his gale-force second wind. The breathtaking ex-vocalist for Franco's TPOK Jazz and creator of 1982's landmark Maria Tebbo goes light on the soukous--keeping only his trademark silky Congolese vocal style--adopting instead a quiet, sultry mood drawn from the rhythms of the former Portuguese colonies of Cape Verde, Mozambique and Angola. A tango-flavored accordion and the Latin-flavored picking of former TPOK guitarist Papa Noel Nedule Montswet give Gala Negro the air of slow, insinuating tropical music from a bygone era, though the way the elements come together is Mangwana's own invention. Soul survivor Murray Head resembles Peter Gabriel on the vocal duet "Manjani" while a female chorus sweetens the background of most cuts as Mangwana ices the foreground. The fresh Afro-Latin mix that Mangwana forges here ought to have great reverberation unless, like Maria Tebbo--and 1984's all-but-lost Canta Mozambique--this disc is just too singular to brook imitations.
Yiddish for Travelers by Metropolitan Klezmer (Metropolitan Klezmer) is a briefcase full of bulgars. Steering clear of klezmer's darker side, this upbeat, on-the-go collection by the New York-based ensemble is as peppy as a round trip on a carousel with occasional slower songs that generously allow the listener space to catch one's breath. Portability is the key in making this an exceptionally well-played, nicely arranged representation of the genre perfect for popping in a time capsule, intergalactic probe or overnight bag. A stand-out among the tried-and-tested strategy of serving up standards is "Mangiko/Yoshke Fort Avek" which tackles the same tune from two continents, beginning with a throbbing Greek Rebetic version that shifts to the more familiar East European style, both performed on kanun zither, accordion, bass and hand drums. Most cuts opt for bigger arrangements with bouncy brass and reeds, plus a haunting flugelhorn lead by Pam Fleming on the angst-laden "Libes Shmertsn" (The Pain of Love) or the full circus wagon of horns on the showtune "Yosl, Yosl." [Distributed by Sterns]
Jarring music isn't my cup of tea as a steady diet, but I do like the news of other worlds that raspy, grating, dissonant, whining, droning, hectoring or yammering performances bring, and a spot of grit goes a long way toward enlivening any anthology. Boring music, on the other hand, is fine for those weekends in assisted living situations but of limited use elsewhere. In between these extremes is a rich middle ground where the Chinese music on Time to Listen (Ellipsis Arts) grows. The boxed three-cd set is consistently listenable, nicely paced, generally well recorded and dotted with welcome bits of humor such as "Harvesting the Dates" on the Sounds of Our Stories disc with its springheeled tempo and elastic repertoire of sound effects as Li Yao Rong simultaneously plays a trio of reed instruments.
But where's the blood and sweat? The closest we get to hints that not all is one indivisible Chinese mainstream are the Tibetan song "Cuckoo" on Spirit and Wisdom by nightingale-voiced expatriate Dadawa, here known as Dadon (see last column for a review of her solo disc), that's sonically too beautiful to offend the most stiff-necked Beijing bureaucrat; the Chorus of Old Men from Xiohuang, Guizho Province on Many Faces whose sound hints at medieval peasantry; and other pieces from the ethnic minorities that make up ten percent of China's population. Still, it reminds me of hearing the 2001 HAL computer singing "Daisy." You know the real activity is churning beneath the surface, but there's little apparent sign of it. A single clandestinely recorded dissident voice would have gone a long way toward counteracting the image the set leaves me with of an elaborately staged state-sanctioned event--especially with the inclusion of music from Tibet, which only falls under Chinese auspices by dint of military occupation.
These grudges aside, I'm impressed by the scope of the performances, most notably on the Many Faces cd with weird music from the minorities, including a hallucinogenic jaw harp ditty by a mushroom popping shaman with accompanying hoomei throat singing, the Uighur song "Hasquipicak" with The Ensemble Sadiyana's quavering Central Asian Turkic-language vocals full of octave stretches, the Islamic-influenced violin and frame drum piece "Ossaqning" and the unison a cappella song of the Dong nationality justifiably titled "The Crying Cicada" and credited to A Chorus of Teenage Girls from Xiaohuang Village. Many other songs in the collection are noteworthy for their staggering virtuosity. Professor Xu Pingxin demonstrates he came by his Masters Degree in the yangqin hammer dulcimer honestly on "The Planting Song," Jade Brigade attains lighter-than-air status by way of bowed and plucked strings plus flute on "Thunder Ends the Dry Season," and "Xian-Yu Removes his Armor" spins a complex song painting on which a pipa lute ensemble rattles and shivers its strings in imitation of the last defeated breaths of a mighty warlord. These beautiful pieces are tantalizing enough to make me wonder what other, less-refined marvels we're missing from China.
Whoever penned the subtitle to White Elephants & Golden Ducks (Shanachie) had tongue planted firmly in cheek when describing the disc as "Enchanting Musical Treasures from Burma," unless the term enchantment is to be taken at its widest possible meaning of any spell thrown upon the human soul, disorienting or otherwise.
The bizarre and often wonderful idioms on this disc forced me to abandon any comfortable expectations of melody, timbre, rhythm--and especially development. The effect was as if the pauses between familiar transitions in western music were flash frozen and elongated to allow entire inward-gazing genres to develop in the wormholes. "Mingala Thiri" (Precious Majesty) never resolves a mood of constant expectation, never pauses in its nattering search for itself as U Yee Nwee leaks unpiano-like trills and splashes from a piano subverted to Burmese invention. Daw Yi Yi Thant, who apparently considers these go-nowhere abstractions helpful accompaniment, trails out a parallel mystery with her subtle hook of a voice.
"Chit Kyoo Thwe Tog Nyin Hmar Lar" (Will You Accept My Love or Not) is a traditional fanfare for high-pitched reeds and percussion that could be the introduction to a slab of bebop jazz if only the insects would stop circling and settle into a groove. "Sabi" somehow flanks a Hawaiian slide guitar with piercing unison violin and bamboo flute while the chauk lon bat 10-piece tuned drum kit stoically admonishes them with the dignified hollow thunk of a melodic underpinning. Surely there's no rodent problem in all of Burma, since the first notes of this piece sent the mice scurrying from my basement and straight toward the river. While a few songs on this collection struck me as too whimsical to deserve the struggle of grappling with them, most rewarded my attention with a glimpse of a completely unknown portion of the soul, and anyone who thinks I'm romanticizing or merely flouting my ignorance must either be an adept, Burmese refugee or scholar in need of a long sabbatical. Otherwise there's no way of dealing with these deep perplexities except to drink them up through ears and skin.
Shanachie bears down on its Burma series with an entire disc of piano music by the aforementioned U Yee Nwe titled Sandaya: The Spellbinding Piano of Burma. There's that reference to spells again, and it is unsettling to hear a familiar instrument trickling out compositions that lack a single known phrase. The piano came to Burma in the late 1800s, and court musicians originally retuned it to the Burmese scale and played it not unlike Lionel Hampton's style of substituting two fingers on each hand for two pairs of mallets. Later, local artists made peace with the western scale and renamed the piano the sandaya in honor, I assume, of their near-total transformation of the instrument to one of their own. Only John Cage's prepared piano is more of a jolt, but far less kind to the ears.
Solo piano disc opener "Sanda Kein Na Yi" (Beautiful Angels) is completely nonwestern in approach, but not obviously Asian either. I would have guessed I was hearing either the work of an avant garde composer who had managed to expunge every trace of European classical learning or the brilliant pecking of an idiot savant. Not all cuts are so obscure. "Htan Tara Tap Shin Basin Taun Than" is a primer piece for students of the Burmese harp, and its slow pace and comparative simplicity doesn't wear well with me. I prefer the longer cuts where U Yee stretches out and even attains a kind of jazzy sensibility. I'd love to hear this guy jamming with Cuba's salsa-dada-daddy Ruben Gonzalez. On "Than Nee" (Simple Melody), joined by palwei flute and tuned drums, U Yee tosses off keyboard passages that suggest a ballet exercise designed to test a dancer's endurance. I had difficulty staying with some of the vocal pieces, but "Mae Zar Taung Che" (Banished to Mae Zar Hill) is the exception as Ko Thein Htay sings the heck out of a cautionary tale from the royal court repertoire. In addition to her detached soulfulness, she packs her style with enough twists and turns to make a moot point of the fact that I have no idea where the music's going or where it's been. Spellbinding is right.
Probably the most accessible of Shanachie's trio of Burmese discs released thus far is Pat Waing--The Magic Drum Circle of Burma on which Kyaw Kyaw Naing coaxes great virtuosity from his assemblage of 21 tuned drums. I don't know if Kyaw Kyaw is fooling with us, but despite the fact that it owes nothing to Africa or African-American traditions, "Saddan Ai Thar" (Enchanting Lake of the Elephant) is a pure jazz fever dream. Substitute the tuned drums scattering fast melodic riffs in unison with the double-reed hne for marimba and fuzz guitar and you've got the equivalent of a Frank Zappa jazz excursion. With its unexpected changes and slightly dissonant timbres, "Shwe Ka Nyar" (Beautiful Girl of Golden Complexion) puts me in mind of the Albert Ayler camp. You'd think I would have had enough of the Burmese piano by now, but my favorite cut is a duet where U Nee Nwe ripples through chordless note barrages that run across the glassy surface of a pond while Kyaw Kyaw Naing flings his reply back from the woody depths in a series of back-and-forth solos that pass the time like no time at all.
In her postscript to Song of the Crooked Dance, Early Bulgarian Traditional Music 1927-42 (Yazoo), producer Lauren Brody writes, "I offer this disc as an antidote to those floral, complex arrangements of 'Mystere' fame." Culled from rare 78s recorded during Bulgaria's brief flourishing of a homegrown record industry between world wars, this anthology offers a wealth of emotionally charged, one-take wonders brimming with spontaneity and arrow-to-the-heart artistry. Reminiscent of the burgeoning Greek-Armenian-Turkish popular music of the same period released in the past couple of years on the Traditional Crossroads label, the repertoire of urban folk songs on Crooked Dance includes many genres from resident nationalities. We get solo gaida bagpipe, Boris Karlov's accordion-lead orchestra, waif vocalist Vulkana Stoyanova singing one of many tear-jerk free tempo ballads on the disc, solo kaval flute, the splendid "Gankino" which introduces the trumpet to a dance band favorite, a lively bear-handler's song with theatrical sound effects and many more surprises. I had no idea how fertile Bulgaria's multi-ethnic recorded music had been before anti-Semitic policies during World War II and Soviet postwar revolutionary fervor stripped the record companies from their owners only to transform them into government mouthpieces for the joys of collectivist living. Much great music has been lost, but Brody preserves a taste of the cream in this fine anthology. [Distributed by Shanachie]
The Swedish one-man-band--or one-man-string-ensemble--rises with a vengeance in the person of Olov Johansson and in the instrument of the nyckelharpa on Storsvarten(NorthSide). Johansson is a member of folk revivalists Vasen, and the nyckelharpa, also known as the keyed fiddle, is a cross between an autoharp and violin. In these mostly solo recordings of traditional Scandinavian songs and newer compositions in the traditional mold, Johansson's nyckelharpa strikes up the sonics of massed, minor key hardanger fiddles, sympathetic strings droning at full buzz--though on "Tva Stabilatar" his instrument doubles for a Swedish bagpipe. Making sure we don't go crazy from strings, nothing but strings, is a well-proportioned slice of duets as well as "Svampmannen" (The Mushroom Man), a combo piece blending flute, cello and viola with the elusive chicken polypore. Recorded at Balinge Church, Storsvarten has a beautiful ambiance that's especially effective on "Ockelbogubbarnas Favoritpolska" on which a light-hearted polska gains heft via Ander Bromander's liturgical pipe organ flourishes. [530 North 3rd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55401 or www.noside.com]
The alumni of Sweden's Groupa reads like a who's who of Scandinavian music, including Lena Willemark, Ale Moller, and members of Hedningarna, Hoven Droven and Den Fule. A diverse selection of songs from the band's 15-year career comes together on 15 Years (NorthSide), which chronicles the soft-rock electric/acoustic approach to roots music that has become the norm in the north. Groupa's style is characterized by a unison combination of lead instruments--especially violin and flute--clever contrapuntal melodies, busy percussion, and electric bass which, depending on your attitude toward schottisches and waltzes, either gives a funky feel or substitutes for the oom-pah of a tuba. Almost as omnipresent as the edgy, grumpy hardanger fiddle are the jazzy incursions by Jonas Simonson's flutes and saxes and Bill McChesney's bass clarinet. Among the many nice flourishes are Tina Johansson's mbira interlude on "Vals Pa Sne" (Crooked Waltz), an uncredited trumpet solo on "Klappvalsen" (The Gift Waltz) and Lena Willemark's cool, clear vocal on "Vallevan." If you need a reason to grab this apart from the wonderfully inventive music, check out the liner note reproductions of abysmal album cover art from the band's early homegrown releases. [530 North 3rd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55401 or www.noside.com]
For a madcap menage of foreign folk melodies and man-hating lyrics, don't turn your back on the women of Charming Hostess and their Vaccination Records cd Eat. While the endless tales of women done wrong by men who just can't control themselves may strike sensitive listeners as out of control, I welcome the general edginess and the addition of the noise factor that's divorced from most fusion music from the get-go. These Bay Area gurlz--and a couple of guyz, I think (apologies to both sexes if I'm wrong)--are splendidly loud of voice and jangly of instruments without embracing typical rock annoyance conventions. My favorite modulation of misanthropy is Hostess laureate Jewlia Eisenberg's funny tale about a skinny boy who heckles an overweight girl, only to be crushed to death by her mass on "The Laws on Physics." A close runner up is the sonorous "Sha Shtil" built around swirling flutes and voices and a Yiddish proverb about the terpsechordially challenged male. Elsewhere the band wrests raw matter from Turkey, Hungary, Alabama, the Residents and the Jewish diaspora for cut after cut of deep cutting, raucously creative brickbats lobbed unlovingly at us members of the weaker gender. Talk about your bullies. [P.O. Box 20931, Oakland, CA 94611]
Don't uncover your ears just yet, unless you want them to bleed from
the loudest clatter since the Big Bang. Fanfare Ciocarlia
is a gypsy brass band from East Romania, a mere cymbal crash from the Moldavian
border. The music on Radio Pascani (Piranha)
is klezmer on steroids with the party atmosphere of a polka bash on the
eve of the millennium. Not only does the band play at top volume, it also
plays fast, throwing tongued trumpet tuplets into convoluted rhythms that
jolt the body like a trip off a cliff on a mule cart. The music's intensity
and martial figures are the legacy of the military bands of the occupying
Ottoman legions of the 19th century. Soloists as familiar with western jazzsters
as with traditional currents keep the mixture fresh, though songs rip by
so quickly the listener has scant chance to appreciate the contribution
of any given member as the ensemble turns its horns and reeds into a massive
melodo-percussive piston--leading me to wonder what kind of dance could
possibly keep up with these wedding and ceremonial tunes. Just listening
is exhausting. And intimidating. As unmistakable as the go-for-broke joy
is the current of rage that comes from being a stepped-on people invited
to the homes and ceremonies of the non-Rom in a professional capacity only.
[Distributed by Sterns]
[Copyright 1998 Bob Tarte]