Since I am at a loss for this issue's column, stung by a pile of so-so
CDs or good ones already reviewed in The Beat by actual music journalists,
it's no wonder that a Whale crisis would choose this moment to surface.
I know what you're thinking: "More blather about a character who has
no basis in reality." But that's precisely the problem.
About five years ago, my friend Bill Holm made a disparaging remark
about world music ("Isn't that what they play in the Banana Republic
stores?") which entered Technobeat in The Beat Vol. 7, No. 5
mouthed by an entity identified as the Whale for reasons obscured
by the mists of history. I do recall the Whale had something to do with
exaggerating Bill Holm's sedentary lifestyle, sarcasm, belligerence, impenetrability,
dislike of almost everything, and unwelcome tendency to spout off. But the
Whale's gargantuan physical attributes, boozy folk-minstrel-to-wrestling-has-been
career path, obsession with Anne Murray, and other personal details were
all made up. Even the Whale's photographic appearance in Vol. 13, No. 4
of The Beat was fictional. But both the literary and literal Whale
share an insistence on appearing in this column with wearying regularity,
an insistence which has taken a bizarre turn.
In the past, Bill Holm enjoyed the Whale installments of Technobeat because
they provided a topic for our otherwise sullen weekly business-write-off
lunches at Big Boy. Since Bill Holm is a writer, he also liked sitting at
my computer scripting an occasional Whale exploit while I crouched on the
porch paralyzed by a fit of mild depression. "The public demands another
appearance by the Whale," he used to joke between issues. Then, like
an actor hopelessly typecast as Potsy Webber or Mr. Spock, he began an unhealthy
identification with his concocted counterpart. "The Whale wants to
know why you downplayed his role in your Zoloft column," he complained
about his portrayal in The Beat Vol. 14, No. 4. As soon as he got
an America On-Line account as Whale222, Bill Holm started bombarding Beat
editor CC Smith with demands for increased recognition of the Whale, even
kvetching about the size of his photo credit in Vol. 14, No. 2.
I didn't understand any of this. It would be one thing if anyone outside
the 200-person Technobeat readership knew that a character called the Whale
even existed. Bill Holm's attitude might also make sense if he sought recognition
in Technobeat as Bill Holm, but he's always been adamant about maintaining
the integrity of his literary alter ego. The extent of his obsession startled
me in late February 1996 when the "Quebec and Call" installment
of Technobeat hit the newsstand with a photo of me posing next to the statue
of a finback whale in the Canadian village of Tadoussac. In a jealous rage,
Bill Holm demanded to know what I meant by statements in that column that
I was looking for a replacement Whale "that would stay in the water"--and
why I claimed the Whale was always muscling his way into Technobeat. "The
Whale doesn't like this," Bill Holm erupted, his normally placid temperament
turning suddenly Whalish. "That's been the ongoing joke for years,"
I tried explaining, but he would have none of it, insisting that "the
Whale has been insulted." Taking it even further, Bill Holm sent me
an obnoxious piece of e-mail declaring, "I am the Whale, but the Whale
is not me. The Whale may have no choice but to challenge Bob Tarte in a
court of law."
I thought this would all subside in the manner of Bill Holm's earlier Whale-induced
eruptions, until a mutual friend, failed attorney Steve Lewis, called to
ask if I'd heard the news about Bill Holm's misguided suicide attempt. Since
suicide or any other action requiring exertion was an unlikely scenario,
I figured Lewis was typically mistaken. When Bill Holm and I met later in
the week for a change-of-pace tax-deductible lunch at the downtown Grand
Rapids eatery Mustard's Last Stand, he tried to shrug off the thick gauze
pad plastered to the back of his neck. When his wife had found him unconscious
and bloody in the bathtub, he explained, he had merely passed out from the
discomfort of attempting to create a blowhole with an apple corer.
Clearly, it's time that Bill Holm was relieved of the stress of being the
Whale until he's able to put his semblance of a life back in order. Therefore,
I've decided in an upcoming issue to try out a temporary Whale based on
the results of the avalanche of applications I'm expecting at my e-mail
address of firstname.lastname@example.org. To be considered for a brief stint in the Technobeat
spotlight as try-out Whale--and perhaps a longer run as Whale understudy
once Bill Holm is well enough to pick up his flukes again--tell me in 50
words or less why you would like to be the Whale and what qualities you
could bring to this column. Not on-line? Send a resume, cover letter, and
portfolio pieces to me c/o The Beat's mailing address. You might
also consider sending messages of support and understanding to Bill Holm
at email@example.com. All we can do at this point is hope and pray for his
speedy recovery. It's in Leviathan's hands now.
Pakistani qawwali initiate Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's descent to the
realm of pop with Michael Brook on Night Song
(RealWorld) is a momentous event in my book--and generous, to boot, no matter
how much filthy lucre he reaps from the project. More than the range and
power of his voice, and even more than his rat-a-tat-tat tabla-imitative
scat phrases, the sheer empathy of his delivery is what consistently brings
home the emotive bacon. Impressive as Khan's traditional discs have always
been, they've struck me as above my spiritual station due to the inevitable
failure of an ecstatic religious songform to make the leap intact from original
cultural context to our own cultural void. Night Song not only takes
advantage of this chasm, it uses the inherent emptiness of the pop oeuvre
to let Khan's slice of pure light shine all the brighter. So, while I have
no idea what he's singing about on "Intoxicated," he delivers
it with enough empathy to make me realize he hasn't been singing down to
me all these years. Indivisible from Khan's desire to shake us awake is
hearty commiseration we're all in the same sorry flesh and blood boat.
Producer/multi-instrumentalist Brook proves that Night Song is a
true collaboration by devising disposable structures that cleverly contrast
with Khan's eternal word. No better showcase for heartache exists than country
and western, and "Longing" goes the full Sufi hillbilly climb
by beginning with a sighing steel guitar reference and building to a hair
raising crash that's half magnificent ambiance, half vocal barnburning.
On "My Heart, My Life" Brook uses the kora to delicately clear
a path for Khan's duet with himself, striking a note of intimacy I haven't
heard from him before. So warm and personal does Khan seem throughout, that
if he's intent on breaking more boundaries with his message, he should move
directly to network television. Can't you picture the roly-poly guy as one
of the new "Friends," or as a mail carrier out to reform Newman
on "Seinfeld"? And imagine Kramer's pratfall at the first blast
of gale-force qawwali!
In Dream (RealWorld) U. Srinivas
sinks even deeper into Michael Brook's aural universe than Khan. Too deep,
maybe, if you're expecting a successor to 1994's Rama Sreerama (RealWorld)
with its unmitigated Indian-style mandolin virtuosity. The prodigy's fleeting
fingers are still all over Dream, but you have to sift through the
psychedelia to separate Srinivas' newly electrified chops from Brook's infinite
guitar, tiered keyboards, and nebular effects. But I love Dream as
the long overdue fulfillment of the space music promise that barely got
the "aum" out of its maw 30 years ago before the acid jolt was
transmuted into ambient music wallpaper.
Even in seductive sections, such as the meandering "Think," Dream
still kicks cosmic ass as the wild soloing of "Dance" gives way
to running-getting-nowhere violin seesawing while Srinivas putzes meditatively
in the background. At three minutes, "Think" would be a mildly
engaging, vaguely irritating waystation between more user-friendly rave
ups. At 12:51, however, by sheer dint of magnitude it accumulates frightening
intensity, freshly reprocessing Sikkil R. Bhaskaran's violin at each appearance
to match thickening, thinning magma reminiscent of everything from Eno's
trademarked haunted house groans to discards from Magical Mystery Tour-era
Beatles. The "Run" and "Dream" tandem plays the same
form-and-dynamics game as the two preceding cuts as hot licks essentially
reprised from "Dance" melt into an unrequited foreplay of wordless
vocals shared by Bhaskaran in classic Carnatic mode and Jane Siberry sounding
like a hopheaded chanteuse from Twin Peaks' One-Eyed Jack bordello. As a
stand-alone song, only "Dance" holds up, but played straight through
Dream makes for a heck of a brain busting suite.
Catching Texas-based polka band Brave Combo in an unfamiliar setting is
one good reason for succumbing to Girl (Rounder).
A better reason is to hear pop curiosity Tiny Tim unleashed in a
collection of standards from both the recent and distant past. "Bye-bye
Blackbird" bumps mothballs with the 1890's ditty "Sly Cigarette,"
while "New York, New York" and "Over The Rainbow" share
graveyard dust with "Stairway to Heaven" and "Hey Jude."
Carl Finch and cohorts contort arrangements to suit the eccentricities of
Mr. Tim's unusual stylings, doing "Jude" as chacha and "Stairway"
as '60s-vintage progressive jazz, or adding witty guitar backtalk to the
startling title cut.
While Brave Combo's work is exemplary, they almost needn't have bothered.
Tim chews up one clever chart after another, spitting out multiple horror-show
vaudevillian personalities steeped in melodrama, eyeball rolling, and a
basso profundo voice in place of his trademarked falsetto, and there's no
exorcist in sight. His reputation as repository of early 20th century pop
is richly deserved, as Girl evokes the experience of huddling in
the orange tube-filament glow of a dozen or so Crosley first-generation
radios, each tuned to a different musical cavalcade. Partly the amazing
readings are pure shtick. Mostly they're driven by a level of madness surpassing
Syd Barrett, Oscar Levant, Brian Wilson, and Sheila Chandra combined. A
few cuts start out slowly with simple overacting, until somewhere in the
middle there's almost an audible click as Mr. Tim's rickety mental train
flies off the rails. Other songs like "Hey Jude" expel such lunacy
in their intro that the body of the piece amounts to overkill. Make no mistake,
this guy's a major if unclassifiable talent, and the liner-note story of
the trials and tribulations of bringing an eight-year recording project
to a merciful close easily justifies the purchase price.
Angelique Kidjo's last cd Aye (Mango) varied her attack with arrangements
and studio effects that tilted her three degrees toward the worldbeat art-rock
camp staked out by Salif Keita, Youssou N'Dour, and other over-reachers.
She overcame, because her vocals shattered the atmospheric niceties without
totally undermining their texture, creating a tension that toyed with different
manifestations of commercialism. Fifa (Mango),
by contrast, is a sheer piledriver, as Kidjo's big amplified band throws
voltage at a monolithic dance beat capable of crushing a mortal of lesser
lungpower. Some filigree remains, supplied in part by traditional musicians
from Benin, but it's mostly around the edges and irrelevant to the business
at hand of welding hook-filled melodies to an information-age thump. I admire
Kidjo's invention of a brutal funk-rock meltdown that socks it to the solar
plexus, and her simplification of polyrhythmic authority is at least as
impressive as anything from the soukous sphere. But her absolute dominance
of every song wears thin to the extent that her stylistic gifts begin resembling
a bag of tricks, and in the leanness of the stripped-down setting, African
motifs often come across as Africanisms. But this is still one potent album
with unbelievable momentum--and try getting those hooks out of your head.
At first blush, Shaken Not Stirred (hifi/Rykodisc)
has less business appearing in The Beat than I do. While a big chunk
of this compendium of early '60s make-out music for middlebrow sophisticates
(e.g., Mayberry's Howard Sprague) consists of oddly flaccid yet sonically
pleasing jazz combo renditions of James Bond movie theme songs, an equal
number of ersatz ethnic music cuts aim straight for the listener's gonads.
In our globally aware '90s, Arthur Lyman Group's "Taboo" with
its vision of an undifferentiated tropical zone seems unimaginably naive,
as John Kramer's patently human bird calls and monkey shrieks contribute
pseudo-authenticity to a romantic oilcloth backdrop of firelit bongos, snaky
flutes and exotic vibraphone shimmer. This was hot stuff in its day--my
dad's Martin Denny lp of the same ilk was the only of his records I used
to sneak up to my room--and even now serves a valuable cautionary function.
Try immersing yourself in Lyman's "Taboo" and "Caravan",
or "Mambo Burger" by Jack "Bongo" Burger, then see if
you can listen to your favorite ambient world beat cd without wincing.
Case in point is Vicki Hansen's Earth Heart
(Australian Music International) which builds a heady atmosphere through
borrowed ethnic beats and instruments held together with washes of synthesizer
and wordless ooh/ahh vocals that recall Sheila Chandra in a rare self-effacing
moment. Much of the disc is extremely pleasant, even if the "O Superman"
riff on "Radiance" and the mere existence of a cut called "Wigwam"
remind me of the slur that Australia is a 1980's version of America. But,
no worry. It's the tribal drums and vibraphone synthesizer patch of "One
Heart" in service of a vague atmosphere of foreignness that give me
pause to wonder how this stuff will play in five years, much less 30. Earth
Heart's technology-driven, fashion-conscious choice of texture over
songcraft makes this less an invocation of Gaia than a reduction of the
same to an undigested lump "of Rock and Sand, Forest and Mountain,
of Sky, Earth, River and Fire, of Man and Woman," per the liner notes.
Isn't that Arthur Lyman I hear calling?
Stephanie Gelfan uses many of the same found sound and synthesizer
elements on Je Me Souviens--I Remember (Interworld
Music), but she shakes and stirs them together with enough classical music
training to deliver modern compositions that have an old fashion reliance
on melody and dramatic development. Sure, you get your hearty helping of
insect life on the title cut plus enough robins and field sparrows on "August
Nights" to suggest that Gelfan's version of deep forest is a thicket
in a subdivision. But her ear is as strong as the self-confidence which
spurs her to leave healthy gaps in the already spartan, soulful viola and
synthesizer arrangements to let chattering nature--or pure silence--take
its shining moment in the foreground. No ersatz ethnicity, either. Balafon,
exotic percussion, and gamelan patches are used so sparingly they might
as well be the neighbor's windchimes. Subtlety, in fact, is the watchword
here in a collection of lovely, uncluttered pieces that give solitude a
Nifty packaging and bookbinding aside, I haven't been able to muster much
enthusiasm for Harvest Song, the ellipsis
arts label's latest homage to high concept. For one thing, unless you're
a diehard Neil Young fan, the subject matter isn't a grabber. What's next?
Fertilization? Actually, that could be fun. For another, even granting the
thematic glue, manifestations of that theme are so widespread you might
just as well choose love or Global Divas (oops) as a catch-all for
Ali Farka Toure's loping Malian blues "Karaw," Nico Saquito's
biting guaracha "Al Vaiven De Mi Carreta," Andean puffery from
Expresion, and a Georgian drinking song from the Tsinandali Choir. Diversity
is a fine thing, but not necessarily in an anthology where stylistic disparity
takes a scythe to neat philosophical pigeonholing. Also, a part of me bristles
at the implicit condescension of a glossy four-color booklet and cd celebrating
the richness of subsistence farming. How about giving us more than an idealized
cornstalk to grab onto next time, such as the African roots of California
If you're a reggae fan but don't like dancehall or its poor relations, you're
cooked as far as recent releases go. On one hand, classic bands the Heptones
and The Wailing Souls try to update their sound instead of playing to their
strengths, while like Israel Vibration keeps on spinning the same platitudes.
Just in time comes Askia Modibo with a new disc named after his rootsy
invention, Wass Reggae (Sterns Africa),
which blends Jamaican essentials with the pentatonic music of the Bambara
region of Mali. Modibo's forthright vocals in the lilting Wassoulou style
could carry the whole cd, but the real stars are arrangements that maintain
the directness of reggae while filtering in the hyperactive busy-ness of
Malian styles with wraparound balafon, ngoni, and traditional percussion.
A faultless ear for detail plus tough horn charts and slithery back-up singers
keep the momentum at maximum g-force, but what ensures Wass Reggae's
status as more than an inspired gimmick is top-notch songwriting in the
Alpha Blondy mold. Caveat: don't listen to "Circulation de Bamako"
while driving. If the intensity doesn't drive you off the road, the squealing
brake sample surely will.
The Reggae Train--More Great Hits From the High
Note Label (Heartbeat) is so good, it's almost too good. I prefer
my classic reggae leavened with a few jawdroppers--whether weird or just
plain bad, it doesn't matter--but producer Sonia Pottinger's tastes were
too keenly focused for blatant kitsch or novelty. I can't even take solace
in the pinched audio quality of other golden age samplers, since selections
here boast the depth and air between instruments of a '70s-vintage eight-track
studio that still sounds fine today. Best I can do is gripe about the lapse
of starting with a 9:55 version of Culture's "This Train" that
torpedoes three minutes of muscle by bouncing ping-pong balls off a tin
roof for the remainder of the track, or clamp hand across forehead while
Beres Hammond struggles to redeem the lame "Living Just A Little Better."
Closest Train comes to loopiness is the unearthly perkiness of "Get
Up" by Jackie Edwards, and "Wipe Your Weeping Eyes" on which
Justin Hinds apparently delivered his vocals while hanging from his ankles.
If you're willing to settle for just plain exemplary cuts, there's the anthemic
"Fig Root" by figure of mystery Reggae George, Bojangles' toasty
take on Marcia Griffith's "Dreamland" (also included) titled "Natty
Dub In A Dreamland," the rough and tumble "Chat Chat" by
the enigmatically-monikered Well Pleased and Satisfied and the instrumental
"Stormy Weather" by trumpeter Bobby Ellis and the Revolutionaries.
You might be forgiven for thinking of Monty Python while reading the liner
notes to As Quick as Fire (Henry Street)
and learning of Knut Buen's neighbor who "would call to her
cows in the evening using a melody of such surpassing beauty that it would
bring tears to the eyes of listeners"--both human and bovine, I presume--and
also while perusing the menu of Norwegian folk styles that include the slatt,
springar, gangar, gammeldan, and runddan. Fear not. The Pythons' infamous
"Trondheim Hammer Dance" is nowhere to found on this exquisite
collection of mainly traditional, mostly solo hardanger fiddle tunes by
Buen. You will find a particularly eerie rendition of "Fanitullen--The
Devil's Tune" (last heard via the Brazz Brothers' crazy brass arrangement
on Henry Kaiser & David Lindley's The Sweet Sunny North Shanachie-label
Norwegian anthology) plus Buen's duets with Kare Nordstoga's churchy organ,
which underscores the pagan strangeness of the hardanger fiddle (or hardingfele).
The hardingfele's fat polyphonic sound comes from sympathetic strings that
drone in shifting harmonies with microtonal melodies played on the four
primary strings. Buen, who cannot read music, learned to play his centuries
old instrument through one of the last master-pupil transmission traditions
to survive in modern Europe. Read all about it and thrill to wild anachronisms
on this well-annotated release on the brand new Henry Street label, distributed
by Rounder Records.
On Tides and Sand, also on Henry Street,
Sisi Chen performs eight compositions on the yangqin, the Chinese
hammered dulcimer-- playing at times, like Knut Buen, so fast you'd swear
you were hearing more than one instrument, though the mood of most of the
pieces is meditative. One of the best is "Spring Arrives on the Qin
River," which showcases the traditional style of using the yangqin
to suggest images in nature, as the delicate arpeggios at the beginning
of the song gain intensity until the river ice breaks up and the current
whisks us away to almost certain doom or discomfort. Melodies are good if
a little abstract for my distracted state. But texture is what really counts
as Sisi coaxes a variety of styles from her instrument, which mimics a Spanish
guitar in the opening to "Beautiful Africa," goes the zither route
on "The Water Town in Springtime," and sounds remarkably like
a piano on "Tianshan Mountain on a Festival Day."
I'm also enamored with another Henry Street offering, Somos
Boricuas, We Are Puerto Ricans by Los Pleneros de la 21,
for the same reason I like acoustic Cuban music: the urgent vocals, layered
handdrums, snappy vernacular guitars, and overall explosive potential--which
may be why one of the particularly rhythmic folk genres is called the bomba.
Most of the songs here are versions of the plena, which shares with calypso
the topicality of neighborhood gossip. The immediacy of the performances
by Los Pleneros de la 21--which takes its name from bus stop 21 in the San
Juan metro area, a hotbed of local pleneros musicians--conveys both the
excitement of having juicy tidbits to convey and the attitude to convey
them without losing a drop. Great cuatro playing by Edgardo Mirando, drums
to spare, and seven different vocalists add variety to the spice.
You'd be justified expecting The Toure Kunda Collection
(Putumayo) to be a greatest hits package along the lines of the Hemisphere
label's superb Thomas Mapfumo: Chimurenga Forever. But the bulk of
the material on Collection hails from 1993's French release, Sili Beto,
plus four tracks from Toubab Bi and Salam--and nothing from my favorite
Toure Kunda release, 1985's Natalia, or the rest of their
catalog. Still, from the first sparkling hit of slide guitar on "Wadini"
to the fire-in-feet horn arrangement of the more recent "Cira,"
it's great to have the Senegalese brothers Toure back. As in days of old
when I first started getting hooked on African pop, the band excels in constructing
a unified, easily identifiable sound even as they swallow the world music
map whole, throwing funky Latin horns at an Afro-Brazilian reggae tangent
on "Casale," for instance, or revitalizing reggae via mambo this
time on "On Verra Quio? Ca," which if I'm not mistaken reworks
a song from their first lp, 1980's Toure Kunda, though it's credited
here to Sili Beto. Huge talent and energy pulls all the loose ends
together under the flag of the crispest African pop known to humankind,
and--as one is obliged to say in these situations--I hope Collection
isn't just a look backward but an indicator of more to come.
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