(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 15, Number 3, 1996)


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 btarte@cris.com. 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 whale222@aol.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 good name.

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 surf music?

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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