(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 17, Number 3, 1998)
Nine years a columnist for The Beat magazine, five months the miniatures critic for Doll Collector Quarterly, and still my West Michigan hometown didn't know me from the neighborhood Amway rep. It was time for some tireless self-promotion to make the people of Grand Rapids aware of the celebrity in their midst.
Barnes and Noble Booksellers occasionally stocks year-old issues of The Beat behind Gun Fancy magazine and seemed a sure bet for a photo op. Unfortunately, an unexpected March blizzard made the straggling customers less snap-happy than usual. Though I positioned myself squarely in front of the music mag rack striking a number of suggestive poses, autograph pen in hand, no Instamatics emerged from purses, only the wall-mounted video camera caught my action. A Friday night lecture on a sound-bite-ready world music topic was probably a better venue, but I got little cooperation from store security personnel in arranging a return visit. With help from my cleaning crew friend Dennis, I gained late entry to the bookstore for a stirring talk on "Compact Discs--And You!" that projected adequately over the whine of the vacuum cleaners. As I collected biscotti crumbs off the counter of the store Starbucks for an impromptu 2:00 a.m. snack, crew member Harley-D assured me he enjoyed my topic while borrowing $50 he promised would go toward a subscription to The Beat.
My assault on the airwaves was next, targeted at the two area radio stations that feature world music programs. I envisioned irregular guest appearances on both as a lovable tongue-tied local bore, but the broadcasters' plans were less ambitious. Community access station 87.9-WYON-FM declined to invite me on the air, though in exchange for the promise of a $25 check I did get my first name mentioned during the station's spring pledge drive. Hoping for more exposure on a network outlet, I repeatedly phoned NPR-, PRI- and GOP-affiliate WGVR-FM, headquartered at the local college. After routing me through a voice-mail system for screening intern applicants, the digitized voice of a sophomore offered no opportunity for a celebrity interview. But admiring members of the Beta Blocker frat house for communications majors urged me to climb the transmitting tower to hunt for the lever that switches the Saturday morning satellite feed from "Car Talk" to "Whad'ya Know," affording me an enviable front row perch for a gathering electrical storm.
I got a small boost from the Grand Rapids Press when they immediately published my letter-to-the-editor cannily submitted under the pen name Robert VanderTarte on the dangers of teaching evolution in one-room schoolhouses. Still, the public didn't bite. When my phone remained silent except for a recruitment call from the Neo-Calvinist Militia, I decided the time had come to stage a bona fide event. Everyone enjoys reading about crime, so I fashioned myself into a dashing rogue who continually keeps one step ahead of the law. Right under the noses of the authorities, I launched a jaywalking spree in front of the Monroe Street Hall of Justice, combining this offense with the public indecency of flashing a belt-mounted photo of Dave Hucker in his bathing trunks. Regrettably, we've reached the point in our society where the police don't heed a wrongdoer unless you're a serial killer, career criminal or cruller, so this scheme fell short of making me a household name.
I toyed with launching a bold Harold Lloyd-style stunt by reviving my daredevil "Bob the Human Fly" act from my high school years, until I remembered this had less to do with scaling skyscrapers than getting my face pushed in dog-doo by varsity club bullies. Even had I managed to quash my acrophobia, downtown Grand Rapids lacks a single building over two stories high. Finally, after giving the situation intensive thought, I invented a role for myself which foisted me squarely in the public eye. My frequent Beat stories about our backyard animals paid off when the new nationwide pet poultry franchise Ducksmart--dedicated to the promotion of ducks, turkeys, geese, peacocks, guinea fowl, pheasants, muscovies, cassowaries, cooters and Cornish game hens as alternatives to cat and dog companions--took me on to publicize their month-long Gala Opening Event. Reaction from people has been enormously positive. Kids, I'm proud to say, especially love me. The pay is at least as good as what I receive for this column. I must confess, however, that as spring arrives in West Michigan with uncharacteristically high temperatures, it is quickly growing uncomfortably hot inside this goose suit.
If only I had the kind of luck that launched the late Neville Marcano's career 65 years ago. When busking for food the then flyweight boxer was overheard by a businessman who asked him to compose a calypso about a local labor strike. Within a season, under the name Growling Tiger, Marcano won first prize in a calypso contest besting such cock-of-the-walks as Lord Executor, King Radio and Atilla the Hun. While classic calypso from the prehistoric pre-drum-machine era usually means the big band full monty, Tiger's got otherwise in mind on the archival Alan Lomax-produced sessions from The Growling Tiger of Calypso (Rounder). For these previously unreleased 1962 recordings, Tiger recruited the few remaining musicians in Trinidad able to play the old minor-key calypso in the distinctively folkloric Latin style with links to Venezuelan jaropa dance music. (The lone instrumental on the disc is "Rose of Caracas.") Subtler than the blare of brass and reeds is this ensemble's steamy miasma of flute, violin, cuatro, guitar, bass and percussion that centers attention where it counts--on Tiger's eternally wizened, quavering voice, the perfect vehicle for dispensing all manner of wit and wisdom.
"Money is King" may tell us nothing new about the power of gold, but few songs state the matter with such pith as this reprise of his 1935 Decca recording where he sums up the lot of the poor in the refrain, "A dog is better than you." Broader humor thumps "The Parrot" in a tale of a lothario's betrayal to a lackadaisical husband by the wife's tattle-telling polly. The most impressive minutes on this disc belong to a pair of back-to-back cuts taken from the 1966 Newport Folk Festival. "Getting Along with Calypso Music" is a lyrical off-the-cuff answer to an interview question backstage that comes close to falling into song as Tiger recounts the power of calypso in T&T. "Atomic Energy Calypso" finds Tiger inventing lyrics on the spot to warmly interact with audience members, but his real generosity shows through in a pair of "war" cuts in which he tussles with lesser calypso lights Lord Ierie and Indian Prince, who put up a good bluster themselves. Another stand out is the bawdy "The Train Blow" duet with Lady Ierie, ostensibly about the pitfalls of making romance on a passenger train. "Take care de engine move us from here!" Lady Ierie warns him, though Tiger's got nothing less than a full head of steam on this entire disc.
OK, so I'm a little behind the times. The last pop music I'd heard from China round about 1978 consisted of state-sponsored songs of the proletariat about the triumphant soybean harvest and the joys of hauling manure. Singer Dadawa is as far from a propaganda mouthpiece on Voices from the Sky (Sire Records) as Beijing is from Antares. Not many mainland artists proffer cds extolling the Dalai Lama as she does on compositions by collaborator He Xuntian that blend Tibetan, Chinese, Oriental pop culture and western themes into a glorious vocal, keyboard and vernacular instrumental invention too attention-grabbing to qualify as ambient. Dadawa sings with a combination of delicacy and strength that reminds me of Olympic skaters demonstrating nearly impossible feats poised on a thin steel blade. In a voice that's part waif, part operatic heroine, she shapes the tonal qualities of a single note by parsing it with jumps, pauses, flutters and timbral changes faster than the ear can register, often singing so quietly I feel her delivery rather than hear it. He Xuntian's arrangements allow her enough silence to be heard, positing her in the eye of a swirling mythos gathered from sci-fi soundtracks and doses of Enya. The "Sailor Moon" sensibility gives her ethereal approach a launching pad that more reverential settings lack, as witnessed by the two final tracks that puff against the ether with prettiness but no sizzle. I love this disc as much for unexpected instrumental and textural hooks as I do for Dadawa's remarkable voice, and that is no faint praise.
It's rare to find an accomplished American violinist who doesn't have chin planted firmly under classical, bluegrass or Celtic repertoires. Not that you don't find hints of these on Parting the Waters (Coconut Grove Records), but Vicki Richards launches straight into a jazz raga on opening track "Cold Rain (of Autumn)" and thereafter never sets down the rosin too far from eastern themes. Despite generic titles like "Rising Sun," "Monsoon" and "Mirage," this is no flirtation with karmic kitsch but an intensely focused blurring of boundaries. Lush songs with tinkling bells invariably set off my new age alarm. "Endless Radiance" is the exception as Richards plays her acoustic violin with haze-cutting wakefulness joined by guitarist Amit Chatterjee, who co-wrote most tracks, percussionist Tim Richards and others. Vicki Richards flouts a number of violin conventions, turning her instrument into a pure rhythm machine on "Logarhythm," inventing a lost Goldberg Variation on "Skaters Dream" and studiously avoiding sentimental phrasings in favor of Indian glissandos and gypsy fire. When not exploring the limits of acoustic and electric violins, she pinch hits nicely on koto and mbira. Parting the Waters is that rare disc I'll throw on the stereo before walking out the front door content that it does the house good to soak it up. [940 Lincoln Road, South Beach, FL 33139 or firstname.lastname@example.org]
Bob Marley releases over the last few years have led me to believe we were near the bottom of the barrel in terms of sound quality (Soul Almighty, Vol. 1) if not material (Bob Marley Interviews: So Much Things to Say). Even the solid archival collection One Love from the Wailers' Studio One sessions was only intermittently kind to the eardrums. So, The Complete Wailers 1967-1972 Part 1 (JAD Records) is a tough act to follow with two discs of songs equal to the cream of the rock steady era (Rock to the Rock and Best of the Wailers) and one of fascinating sidesteps on the road to international fame sharing space with assorted rarities (Selassie is the Chapel). The main reason for the coherence of Rock to the Rock and Best of the Wailers and their nice, primarily monaural sonics is that the meat of both these discs is culled from essentially finished studio projects rather than outtakes, alternate versions, or songs sung in the shower. Though reissued in various forms over the years in both authorized and bootleg versions, Complete Wailers marks the first time these "lost" tracks have been restored from original source tapes and released on cd with the attention to detail, packaging and fanfare they deserve.
Rock to the Rock finds the Wailers minus an incarcerated Bunny attempting to crack the American soul market with Johnny Nash-produced recordings. Only one single came from these sessions. Released under the name Bob, Peter, and Rita, "Bend Down Low" b/w "Mellow Mood" failed to penetrate the U.S. airwaves, and in retrospect you have to wonder how it could have been otherwise. Despite a couple of ska hits like Millie Small's "My Boy Lollipop" and Desmond Dekker's "Israelites" which were both perceived as novelty records, commercial radio was far too conservative to admit a Jamaican sound which fit neither rock nor soul programming. A funked-up version of "Soul Rebel" complete with Hugh Masekela on trumpet and nicely arranged horns might have had a better chance given the political content of popular songs by the Impressions, Temptations, and others--or "The World is Changing" with strong lead vocals by Peter Tosh on a Jimmy Norman tune. Despite the soul music treatment Marley is close here to perfecting the style that carried him brilliantly through his Island Records years, and a few choice tracks are strong enough to have made later appearances with the Wailers (including "Put it On" and "Chances Are"), while others reprise material recorded in the early '60s for Coxsonne Dodd. Among the first-timers are the bubbly "Rock to the Rock" which holds up to any of Marley's good-time songs in spite of an odd, off-key lead vocal, and the Peter Tosh-penned slow mover "Love" which found a home on Johnny Nash's Hold Me Tight album.
The prematurely titled Best of the Wailers album did see daylight as a U.K. release following the death of producer Leslie Kong--who died shortly after its completion in 1970--and the subsequent success of Lee Perry-produced Wailers' tracks. True believers who already own Best Of in one form or another will note that this package both adds and subtracts from the original. Three tracks couldn't be included due to the usual legal wrangling which has stifled so much Marley material, and four tracks previously unreleased outside Jamaica have been added to fill the gaps, including an alternate version of the vetoed track "Soul Shake Down Party." Though Best is touted as a concept album, the glue isn't immediately apparent because of both the nature of the concept and the kick off of the disc with a cover of the Archies' "Sugar Sugar" sure to silence anyone accusing the Wailers of excessive seriousness. The connect-the-dots theme is the band's resolve to triumph over past career disappointment, subject matter only slightly more compelling than the rigors of touring, ladies of the road and other rock cliches. However, the material rises above the philosophy via a rock steady "Stop The Train," the chin-up "Cheer Up," the marvelous "Soul Captives" and "Can't You See," plus the silly "Mr. Chatterbox" featuring an intro dissing Nine the Observer. Where the Rock to the Rock sessions emulate soul music, echoes of the British Invasion Top 40 gestalt abound on Best from choice of material (a cover of The Boxtops "The Letter" along with "Sugar Sugar") to change-ups and harmonies that are far more pop oriented than the Wailers usually deliver.
Selassie is the Chapel is the disc that true blue fans will covet for its inclusion of the title track, said to be one of the most sought after of Marley tunes since only a couple dozen copies of the single were ever pressed and distributed in 1968. "Tread Oh," another extremely limited release with solid lead vocal by Bunny, makes its first official appearance here with Ras Michael of the Sons of Negus adding percussion. Curiosity seekers in general will appreciate the high strangeness of this disc. Who could resist the Elvis impersonation punctuating "Selassie is the Chapel," the sleepwalker-paced blend of jazz and doo-wop "Chances Are," a Wailer's instrumental called simply "Rhythm," Bunny's "you're like a stick of macaroni in bed" refrain on "Tread Oh," "Feel Alright" with its James Brown-derived chorus and the Sam and Dave-flavored "Black Progress" with a Marley rap over backing vocals by the Soulettes. Though a bit more uneven than the other two discs in the series, the unexpectedness of the material and stabs at different styles make this a worthy item.
Two new releases in the Alan Lomax Southern Journey series (Rounder Records) showcase divergent approaches to African-American sacred choral music. Volume 12: Georgia Sea Islands--Biblical Songs and Spirituals explores a highly rhythmic form of small group singing different than anything on the American mainland. Because of the isolation of the Georgia Sea Islands and the relative autonomy of their plantations in the Ante-bellum South, the field workers developed a singing style with close ties to West African sources. Songs are characterized by overlapping vocal parts, interlocking rhythms, repetitive phrases, plus handclap and foot-stomping accompaniment that build the excitement to an almost unbearable pitch. When hands and feet get flying on the already propulsive "Moses, Moses Don't Get Lost," it's as if John Davis and Group might actually reach across the gulf of time and shake up the old prophet. "Adam in the Garden" and "Daniel" by Willis Proctor and Group are pure joy or a descent into purgatory depending on your attitude toward insistent repetition as Proctor's improvised lead subordinates itself to the crazy clockwork repeating phrases. Four cuts on the disc were not included on the original 1960 release, because Lomax felt they reflected a mainstream choral style rather than the Sea Island genre. Among these is "Daniel in the Lion's Den" featuring a wonderful lead vocal by Bessie Jones. "O Day," which did make the original cut, finds Jones backed by Blue Ridge Mountain guitarist Hobart Smith and Mississippi fife player Ed Young.
On Southern Journey Volume 11: Honor the Lamb, the Belleville A Cappella Choir is as sophisticated in its adaptation of European harmonic conventions as the Georgia Sea Island singers are folksy. Though it largely puts melody ahead of rhythm in the manner of mainstream church choral groups, complex arrangements and a bent for vocal interplay mean you'll never mistake this choir for any other. Belleville, Virginia is the headquarters for the Church of God and Saints of Christ, a Christian church whose members observe Jewish holidays and follow the Jewish calendar. Like Rastafarians, they believe themselves descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel. Grist for their vocal mill are the elements of syncopation, call and response, overlapping vocals, and handclaps typical of African-American gospel music. On top of this the choir adds hints of ragtime, doo-wop, jazz vocal music and dollops of Handel. Most of all, it loves to exploit the contrast between bass and soprano voices. A good example of how wonderfully these songs develop is "Keep Me as the Apple of Thine Eye," which starts off with rather uninspired unison singing of a tune resembling "I've Been Working on the Railroad." Deceptively sedate, it could be a porch swing courting song from the late 1920s until overlapping voices ease in. High and low vocal parts erupt in alternating phrases to add momentum--then the song abruptly switches to a syncopated rhythm that culminates in handclaps and a full-throttle ending. These exciting performances were recorded by Alan Lomax for a 1960 release, and I'm happy to learn that the choir continues going strong to this day.
The Hammons Family double-cd (Library of Congress/Rounder) is a one-of-kind release that's like a visit to your long lost log cabin relatives deep in the mountains of West Virginia. The snapshot/sound-bite quality of these newly reissued and repackaged 1973 recordings comes in part from the off-the-cuff instrumental and vocal performances and to a larger extent from interspersed dialogs, riddles and stories from this talented family whose roots are traced to 1777 in the colossal 124-page accompanying book. The music isn't the stuff of studio-produced folk collections by a long shot. Burl Hammons has a rough-hewn, minor-key violin style in a league of its own, and Maggie Hammons Parker delivers a string of songs in a cracking, creaky voice that makes storytelling interruptions welcomes. She is marvelously expressive, and folklorists will thrill to her knowledge of obscure material such as the Child ballad "In Scotland Town" making a rare American appearance. The tale spinning is my favorite part of the set as family members unearth personal and passed-down stories of encounters with dancing skeletons, pacts with the devil, and sled rides on frozen deer carcasses that are delivered in slowly developing cadences that hold up to repeat listening. Every sung and spoken word is contained in the accompanying book, a boon for translating the often thick vernacular. Among the gems in the highly readable notes is an account of Burl and Sherman's encounter with a local bigfoot variant known as the "yayho." As intimate a document as it is mysterious, The Hammons Family is the perfect antidote to a sentimental view of backwoods life.
Plain and simple, King Sunny Ade is a treasure. With the deaths of so many African music greats over the last few years, I hold his new releases dear. My nostalgic mood finds reward in Odu (Mesa/Atlantic), a return to form for the Chairman and his Beats rather than the bold experiments of the Mango-label years or the occasional misstep of recent American releases. The closest Odu gets to innovation is Jonah Samuel's chip-chop Hammond organ on "Jigi Jigi Isapa"--which also provides killer drum kit/king drum interplay--and an unexpected electric piano cascade on "Aiye Nreti Eleya Mi." These stand out like thunderclaps against pedal steel guitar solos that have barely changed a note since at least 1974's Juju Music and whole songs shaken out from the recycle bin ("Easy Motion Tourist"). But if Odu raises the question, "Haven't we been here before?" it also provides the answer, "Yeah, but the scenery's fantastic." Nobody makes music this joyful and there is no tighter rhythm machine on the planet, guitars and vocals included.
Baka Beyond debuted in 1992 with Spirit of the Forest, derived from Martin Cradick's sabbatical with the Baka people of Cameroon. Pepped up with songs and performances by the Baka, that disc had a center of gravity later projects with meandering geographical references let slide. Journey Between (Rykodisc) junkets to Africa for another pleasant amalgam of Cradick's jazzy tropical acoustic strumming, Paddy Le Mercier's Celtic-Spanish-French gypsy violin, and sing-song vocables via Su Hart. Again the frontline players stir up a likable froth while depending on guests and rhythm players to spike the punch. "Mbe" gets its oomph from a reggae bass, "Migrations" wakes up four minutes into the song with the welcome entrance of a Senegalese vocalist, "Mountain Song" and "Cotu" rise above the valley with a singer resembling Marta Sebestyen, while Ghanaian percussionists barely keep the other players on the ground on "Konti." The Baka Beyond stalwarts acquit themselves with pleasant playing that is more or less interchangeable from cut to cut. Each having found the ultimate pleasant riff, none willingly lets it go, resulting in (have I mentioned this?) a thoroughly pleasant disc. But for thrills, turn elsewhere.
I won't even mention the new Dr. Didg. disc by Cradick's former Outback bandmate Graham Wiggins, Serotonality (Rykodisc), containing live tracks of '60s-style guitar rock with an occasional horn section jamming grindingly to Wiggins' didgeridu. If I succeed in finding a use for this, you'll read about it here.
The storytelling side of Boiled in Lead rears up on Alloy (Omnium), collecting tracks from the Minnesota band's half-dozen releases along with live cuts and rarities since 1983. Impaled upon the breakneck inquisition are traditional Anglo-Irish ballads including "House-Husband's Lament," "The Dreadnought," and "Newry Highwayman." Thrown into the same punishment cell are modern chronicles of evil-doing men, women, and microbes ("The Microorganism"), the point being both that centuries-old songs still speak to us if only we could hear them fresh-and that we remain a primitive society barely removed from Dark Age drives, disease and dementia. Folk instruments, gritty amplification, Appalachian pragmatism, Scandinavian detachment, Balkan drama, country and western irony and punky disdain form an unholy alliance that sees the job through. Leadheads thirsty for more can shell out $69 for the limited-edition double-cd companion volume Alloy 2 packaged in a suitably unfriendly metal jacket. [P.O. Box 7367, Minneapolis, MN 55407 or www.omnium.com]
Scandinavian folk meets slasher film mayhem on Hedingarna's Tra (NorthSide). Making Viking rock with all the plundering excess the term implies, the Swedish/Finnish boy/girl raiding party twists already macabre traditional music idioms to the extreme in a disc originally released in Europe in 1994. The ambiance may suggest not to listen with the lights out. But for all the menacing growl of massed acoustic instruments run through amps the size of Iceland, the Dead Can Dance sobriety is invaded by a metallic sideshow worthy of Kiss, dunking "Min Skog" in ludicrously overdriven guitar that presages a bloodspitting lead vocal. Heavier than heavy, these heathens flaunt a mastery of dynamics, textural wizardry, riff-o-mania, occasional pure offerings of fiddle music ("SkrauTval"), and female vocalists too down and dirty in their Finno-Urgic blasphemies for fellow countryfolk Varttina to consider ("Pornopolka").
It wasn't always thus. Originally released abroad in 1992 and just issued here, Hedingarna's first album with the Finnish female members is Kaksi! (NorthSide), a witches' Sabbath free from the operatic grandeur of Tra. Trust in the basic power of the songs opens up the arrangements to acoustic textures, and while the pantheon of studio inflected voices and off-kilter touches still make visitations, everything is ratcheted back a notch. The sheer joy of hitting folk derived music hard and finding it undamaged after the assault gives the disc an airiness and pumped up sense of discovery. Acoustic instruments form the base on which electronic textures are heaped, so you get a decent helping of hardinger fiddle, willow flute, nyckelharp, kantele, bagpipe, hurdy gurdy and other sonically complex delights. [530 N. 3rd St, Minneapolis, MN 55401 or www.noside.com]
[Copyright 1998 Bob Tarte]