(by Bob Tarte, published in The Beat magazine, Volume 11, Number 1, 1991)


The crop circles mystery gets more bizarre each season. Blaming it all on hoaxsters is certainly the easiest solution. But the confessions of self-proclaimed perpetrators, ex-pat Aussies Doug and Dave doesn't exactly inspire confidence. Though their story of circle fakery was widely disseminated in the press last summer, their subsequent backpedalling was not.

Having initially claimed credit for every last crop circle--even though as many as 20 per night occurred at the peak of the 500-plus 1990 season--the duo then retreated to an admission of about 30 circles each year. When litigious farmers decided to take them at their word and hang them for the cost of damaged crops, they changed their tale again, this time claiming to have merely started the ball rolling by fabricating the first observed circles 12 years ago.

Grist for conspiracy enthusiasts: the previously unheard of wire service that released Doug and Dave's tale to the British papers folded its phones and stole away as soon as the confession began springing leaks. Published photographs of RAF helicopters photographing circles indicates Her Majesty's government is keeping tabs on the phenomenon, so it has been suggested that Doug and Dave's comic opera was carefully concocted to undermine the mystery just as it was entering a strange new turn.

Back in the carefree days when circles were actually circular, Dr. Terrence Meaden's proposal that whirlwinds or gobs of plasma were responsible seemed plausible as anything else. But in 1990 pictograms armed with rectangular shields and pitchforks staved off the meteorological hypothesis. (See the cover of the Led Zeppelin box for the striking iconography at Alton Barnes.) This year even weirder shapes have erupted, from asymmetrical insectograms resembling Indian earth carvings in the Nazca Plain of Peru to geometric cryptograms sublime as a Freemason's wetdream.

An example of the latter forms the cover story of a recent issue of The Cereologist (20 Paul Street, Frome, Somerset BA11 1DX, England), a wildly open-ended journal edited by Fortean dean John Michell. His analysis of a beautiful formation at Barbury Castle reveals more forethought than foolery. To whit: the sum of the areas of the satellite circles at the apices of the central triangle equals the area of the central circle. A crack surveying teaming working in full light of day would tax themselves with such precision. This thing materialized overnight.

A bizarre undercurrent of secondary phenomena associated with the circles is on the rise too. In Circular Evidence, the first British book on the mystery (published here by Phanes Press complete with spiffy cartography by yours truly), authors Pat Delgado and Colin Andrews cite eye and ear disturbances in circleville. Recent videos bear out their claims. A BBC interview with Andrews at the center of a formation was plagued by a technician-baffling "electronic-sparrow" trilling--which other witnesses have reported as well.

Stranger yet, a pair of videos have caught tiny disc-shaped objects flitting around two locations in full light of day. The video I saw, shot by German college students, shows an apparently solid object darting in and out of a circle a few foot or two above the ground, then irising into nothingness as it approached the camera. Sounds like the fairy folk up to their old tricks.

Call me a sucker for the bizarre, but I staunchly believe in the unbelievability of the crop circles. How seriously should we take them? If the squiggles and shapes in fact represent an attempt at communication, we'd better assume the message is important. But an attempt by whom? The saucer people? I don't think so. Landing a ship on the White House lawn would be worth 10,000 runes.

Members of the Hopi nation claim to recognize the message at once. The crop circles, they say, are a desperate cry for help from an earth in danger of choking to death on waste and pollution. A direct appeal from Gaia. Why not? Nature is our source of mythology, poetry, religion, and science--the wellspring of symbolic logic. So crop circles may merely be a particularly graphic localization of the universal. If it rains, it sleets, it warms up, it freezes--it creates the intricacies of snowflakes--perhaps it crop circles too.

Speaking of the earth, was there ever a duo with so organic a name as Peaches and Herb? Or a slight song as memorable as "Reunited?" Yet its ethereal atmospherics get me every time, the satiated longing of two estranged lovers joined at the astral body by the umbilical cord of Ma Bell. The same separation-as-bliss richness seeps through Euis Komariah and Yus Wiradiredja's luscious duets on GlobeStyle's The Sound of Sunda cd, degung music from Java.

Sunda's songs showcase the pop genius of producer Gugum Gumbira, guru of infusing traditional styles with contemporary kick. Anchored by the teardrop percolations of gamelan percussion, sobbing wooden flute, and fleecy zither washes, vocalists Euis and Yus sweep through the night on the wings of whispered melodrama, sighing and cooing like caged birds who mistake their bars for the horizon.

Forget the back-cover credits with pedantic indication of modes. Sorog or slendro? Who cares? Unlike Euis' last GlobeStyle disc, Jaipongan Java, where formidible rhythm cycles let heartshattered melodies twist in the wind, nothing's obscure here. Compositions click with a fresh-scrubbed innocence popped from the corn of the best soul ballads. There's one perfect fit, and, sugar, degung is it... the sweetest juxtaposition of forms since the Kama Sutra.

Yet sometimes acrimony lights a fire that simple ardor can't approach, or if love has hopelessly curdled and unpleasant truths must out, there's no better impetus for action than the snarls and ululations of wild mountain woman Najat Atabou, The Voice of the Atlas (GlobeStyle cd). In an obscure town in the high elevations of northern Morocco, law student Atabou found herself disgusted with the restricted role of women in Berber society, the familial obligations, the forced dependence on men. "I'm Sick of It!" ("J'en ai Marre"), she howled, carving her escape route with a debut release that sold 450,000 copies.

Ironic, then, that many songs on this cd pine away faithfully at home as her free roaming male diddles about ("J'en ai Marre" is not included). Traditional content aside, Atabou's fierce delivery grinds up the niceties of patience or alleged ecstacy of longing. Since anger at deprivation so clearly drives her, I suspect a subversive twist on established themes that liner note translations fail to capture. Deft folk-meets-filmi arrangements sustain the tension with handdrums, strings, overblown flute, and an urging chorus eager to hear Atabou declare the worst. Mustapha fans will flip fezzes at the primordial source of "Shouffi Rhirou."

Flamenco music may be fiercely traditional, but not so rigid it doesn't allow a wide latitude of interpretation. And it isn't just the new flamenco punks like Pata Negra who take chances. Old fart Pepe Habichuela's contribution to the Rykodisc anthology The Young Flamencos is an Andalucian solea with the controlled abandon of a Pharoah Sanders' blow, a windsheet of acoustic guitar runs so dense my mind's ear anticipates the inevitable soukous-flamenco collaboration--even as Ketama trades speed riffs with Malian kora genie Toumani Diabate on "Caramelo" (from the Hannibal Songhai cd).

We also get songstress Aurora's salsa flavored "Besos de Caramelo", Rafael Riqueni's beautiful dialog with strings ("Santa Cruz"), a tough urban amalgam from La Barberia del Sur, plus lots more width and breadth. With the possible exception of "Medias Sevillanas", orchestral hokum from Carlos Benavent and Joan Albert Amargos almost too brief to criticize, compositions absorb outside influences without dissipating their essential power. Instead of seeking to become another world music, flamenco redraws its own borders while holding the center intact.

But extend the boundaries too far and they become difficult to defend. Angularities simplified, dangerous edges deburred, emotional complexity trimmed back (leave the sideburns, please), the Gipsy Kings's Este Mundo (Elektra Musician cd) is authenticity for hire. Not that Bill Joel earnestness and Beatles-via-ELO exhilaration aren't appealing in their own right. Just don't call it flamenco, bub. Unless your idea of an African musician is Roger Whittaker.

Can a roster of drop-in rastas from three hemispheres constitute a Hawaiian reggae sound? They do on Hawaii Reggae International (Hawaii Dub Machine cd, 5640 Halekamani Street, Honolulu, HI 96821) thanks to the knob-knurled fingers and advanced keyboardology of H. Doug Matsuoka--last heard staking out tough cultural turf on Hawaii Amplified Poetry Ensemble's Most Powerful Nation cassette.

Producer Matsuoka transforms what could have been a generic stop over into an imaginative landfall with immediately identifiable ambience, stirring in so much sunshine Jamaican skies cloud in comparison. Tour de fun: Tony Gits' "O When O When" with spooky Laurie Anderson/Peter Gabriel-style harmony, tailgated by the de-evolution-riffed "Teach the Children" courtesy of Ital & Ras Inando.

Margareth Menezes, Kindala (Mango cd). Strong songs, astute even witty arrangements, a raga rock version of Boukman Eksperyans' "Pwazon Rat," and a voice that can be as evocative as Sade's (wrap yourself in "Repique Romantico"). But too often this Brazilian opts for loud and brassy, blowing nuance out the cabana door. We hear you, Margareth. Notch it down. Meanwhile lithe and agile Jimmy Cliff turns in a performance worthy of a griot, gracing lead vocals on "Me Abraca E Me Beija." Hindenburg, meet helium balloon.

Nick Drake, Fruit Tree (Hannibal/Rykodisc 4-cd box). No other pop artist has left us with a canon so permeated with the inevitability of death--not as expression of nihilism, machismo or sentimentality, but as an arc of the seasonal cycle: the quiet blanket of snow that smothers a tract of scarred ground. The hot calm of Drake's songs is startling. Only the last before his 1974 medication overdose replace embrace with forboding, such as "Black Dog," where the elemental imagery that lights his work with a remarkable pallet of grays finally fastens teeth to cuff and tugs him toward the door.

Drake's credibility as creator of the starkest English folk-pop is threatened by cult status as too-fragile-to-live romantic. Yet his songs bear the same integrity and subservience to archetype as the hardiest world music. To hear his voice is never to forget it, the sound of sand strewn across cut stalks of a freshly harvested field. Too bad he lived in pre-crop circle days. The idea of literal symbolism, etched in ground no less, might have buoyed him.

The Bukharan Jewish Ensemble Shashmaqam, Central Asia in Forest Hills N.Y. (Smithsonian/Folkways cd). Jewish ghazals, you say? The poet may be Rumi, but the singer cites the Torah as sourcebook. Confused? Well, the music is clearly realized, originating at the nexus of Moslem and Jewish tradition in the Central Asian Bukhara region of the USSR. Just as klezmer draws on east European modalities, the Bukharan sound calls upon folk songs of Samarkand, Afghanistan, Iran--even India: lead stringed instrument, the tanbur, has the timbre of a subdued sitar for added ethnic dislocation. Thousands of miles from their homeland, a Bukharan diaspora 3,000 strong strives to keep the loose ends straight--and a "lost" Jewish tradition alive--with the help of these exceptional performers.

Gato Negro, Black Cat Dub (ROIR cassette). He croaks, he squeaks, he rubs sticks together, he flicks his bic, he texturizes the old slamblam with fluttery rhythms via clandestine radio from Lagos, standing in one place only long enough to prove there's room for another melodica-toting mad scratch professor of dub, room, that is, as long as he keeps on the western brink of continental drift.

Boiled in Lead, Orb (Atomic Theory cd). Don't call them mustaphabees. With Hijaz pulling production duty, these Minneapoleans have clean hands to go with dextrous fingers, plus their buzz through Armenia via dirty Dublin chooses gnosis over hypnotism, heresy over evangelism, thundering bass underbelly over shepherd's flute. They sing songs in English, too--whether to dispell illusions or obfuscate, I can't decide on the basis of this 1990 disc I have no excuse for reaching so late in life cycle. I do hope the sublimated thrash and fury holds together the next gun run.

The Sun Sounds Orchestra, Open the Doors (Eastlawn cd, PO Box 36487, Grosse Pointe Farms, MI 48236). If BiL's world tour via SST (above) proves a might too herky-jerky and your temperament is better served by memories of the steamship age, travel back in time to a Detroit departure--compliments of a 13-piece jazz orchestra playing sweet sounds the duration of the cruise. Got Masekela, Fela, Miriam Makeba, Ibrahim and more. Hope you were planning on a route around the Horn. Soukous, you say? What the hell is that?

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