(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 12, Number 4, 1992)


No single issue of The Beat has generated as much controversy as the Vol. 11, No. 7 Technobeat ("Oops! Wrong Carnival") which reported on the Whale's tentative agreement with Carnival Cruise Line, Inc.

For readers who may have missed the column, a brief recap:

Carnival spokesmodel Kathie Lee Gifford faxed ex-Great Lakes Canadian Ultraweight Wrestling Couldabeen the Whale, offering the 52-year-old Saline, Michigan urban developer an appearance in a tv commercial for the cruise line. The commercial is intended to launch a northern Pacific "Sea Mammal Watch" dinner cruise. The working script calls for a brief shot of the wrestler floating alongside the S.S. Daytime Princess as parka-clad passengers snap his picture. In early February of this year, the Whale contacted Beat editor C.C. Smith offering to flash a copy of this magazine as he basked on his back in Alaskan coastal waters in exchange for ownership of the Technobeat trademark and full use of the "Bob Tarte" name. Smith jumped at the proposal, leaving me as author of this column in a somewhat awkward position.

Needless to say, I immediately contacted my lawyer, Steve Lewis, a former Legal Aid of Michigan bureaucrat who now practices at the "Family Law Slip and Fall Strip Mall and Arcade" next to Mr. Poodle Puppy Fashions. Lewis was not encouraging. Loss of all rights to Technobeat was a foregone conclusion, he informed me, since that title was property of the Beat. Worse, according to Lewis, I would not be able to challenge the Whale's rights to the name "Bob Tarte" because it was doubtful I could ever convince a judge and jury that I exist. "If it weren't for your negativity," Lewis counseled, "there'd be nothing to you at all." I was outraged. I felt like a victim. Exposure in this column beginning four years ago turned the Whale around overnight from a self-destructive cycle of drinking and bedwetting, and I felt I deserved better in return than a leveraged flick of the fluke.

In the "Oops! Wrong Carnival" column, I appealed to my readers. Weren't they weary of the ever increasing influence of the Whale over the content of this column--he'd been excercising veto powers over topics, reviews and asides since 1991--and editor's whim or not, did they really want to see Technobeat and the Bob Tarte name completely in the large man's maw?

The first sack of mail was disheartening. Most of the writers trumpeted that they never read the column except to scan it for mentions of the Whale or Anne Murray.

"I've never forgiven you for the Grindstone City article," complained Frank Gifford. "Do what the law and conscience demand."

"I love the Whale," gushed Regis Philbin. "Give it up, Tarte!"

Other celebrity endorsements for the Whale included "In Search Of" host Leonard Nimoy, author Elmore Leonard, the born-again Graham Kerr, the "Full House" twins, Congressman Fred Grandy and a woman claiming to be Stalin's granddaughter.

My spirits rose when I culled lukewarm support from the next batch of letters.

"I don't like the Whale," several of you wrote, only to add, "But I don't like you either."

A number of people employed in the promotions department of independent record labels, however, did agree to continue sending review copies of new cds to whomever was to author the column, and I put these correspondents immediately in the "friend" category. The best response by far was from a contributing editor to Big, Beautiful Women who not only voiced full support for my retention of all rights to the Bob Tarte name, but furthermore asked that I contribute an occasional cd or dining review to that publication. Still, this unexpected vote of confidence did little to advance my legal standing, which Steve Lewis informed me was growing shakier by the day as his client base eroded.

Then came the letter that turned the tide. "Dear Son," my father began. "As you may know, I am also called Bob Tarte. Have you considered purchasing rights to my name in exchange for an occasional invitation to your home? Furthermore, as my heir, you should be able to claim an inherent if not de facto existence as an addendum to my living will."

Armed with this letter, Lewis immediately issued a writ of pater familias, which so far has staved off the Whale, who has other problems as well. There are signs that his deal with the Giffords may be in jeopardy due to his arrogant insistence that he be designated official left-over squid depository from Kathie Lee's on-board dolphin show. Addditionally, a recently discovered draft of a press release on the Whale's personal codpiece-shaped stationery disclosing plans to release dubiously acquired reggae recordings under the misleading name Best of the Whalers seems to have alienated him from editor Smith.

Things are looking up, but believe me, the struggle isn't over. The Whale doesn't roll over easily, so the next voice you hear may be my father's. In the meantime, an unprecedented number of new releases have arrived here since the last non-trademarked installment of Technobeat.

Baaba Maal's Lam Toro (Mango) is actually a new old release, that is, a revamped edition of the critically acclaimed cd that's been out in Europe for over a year but was held up here for purposes of pumping it up to suit jaded American tastes. Miami Sound Machine golems Joe Galdo and Lester Mendez, who gave Angelique Kidjo's Logozo its nigh-unlistenable Terminator II sound, have laid an aggressive sheen on Lam Toro with slap-in-the-face hip-hop-happy remixes of the disc's ten cuts. Who the beneficiary of this reconstructive largess is supposed to be escapes me, since I don't imagine that the rap or rave crowd gives a hoot about African pop no matter how it's buttered--unless the uncredited inclusion of toaster Macka B is an attempt to peddle this as reggae. On the opening cut, "Hamady Boiro," in fact, Macka B informs us that every sound we're about to hear is African, and a case can be made that the ancient Senegalese yela rhythm is similar to the reggae one-drop. But I doubt that the Wolof or the Peul will be lining up to shoulder the blame for "Hamady"'s disc-closing reappearance as "Hamady Bogle."

Fortunately Maal is at the peak of his pop intelligence on Lam Toro. While I never heard the original European release, I can hear through the reincarnation well enough to know that the Miami sound machinations were unwarranted, presumably the result of cold feet at Mango over the lukewarm success of 1991's introspective Baayo. The two discs could hardly be less alike, however. With Lam Toro, Maal has unmistakenly emerged as the more interesting heir to Youssou N'Dour, who showed telltale signs of turning into Sting on his last overreaching release. Re-editing Lam Toro in the mind's ear is simple enough. Solid songcrafting and brisk arrangements easily override the clatter and clutter that retreat into the background as Maal's remarkable voice arches above the forest canopy on "Daande Lenol," sinks into the doomy post-battle atmosphere of "Yela," or shrugs off the "Mercy Street" synth sample that dogs "Lem Gi" like a deerfly. For sweet revenge resist the urge to skip "Ndelorel" as computer dancehall rhythms kick in. Wait instead for the delerious call and response climax to sweep away the hi-tech cobwebs. As for "Hamady Bogle," that's why Sony invented the off switch.

Another popular African disc just released here--with no added noodlings or goosing, thanks--is Ali Farka Toure's 1991-vintage The Source (Hannibal/Rykodisc), a variation of the guitarist's Malian reclamation of the blues, but what a variation this time around. Armed with leaner arrangements than his last American release, "The River"--which added sax, harmonica, fiddle, and bodhran to the usual guitar and calabash--The Source strikes deep by bolstering Toure's vocals with a chorus that not only nudges his austere approach toward sensuality, but also also heightens the purely African element of the Mali-meets-Mississippi fusion.

Case in point is the strong opening cut "Goye Kur," set in motion by the creaky one-stringed njarka violin distantly echoing the melody like the call of an ancestral spirit or the squeak of a shadoof. Toure's fluid electric guitar lines counter with a voice from the present, while his back-up singers provide a ceremonial element to mediate between the ancient and modern. Just as striking is the brooding "Roucky," the most intimate of Toure's songs to date, which manages to convey profound sadness even as it hits all the right buttons for seduction. But is it a lover the singer desires or simply the release of sleep? Source guests Taj Mahal and Rory McLeod raise instruments to emphasize the link between American and West African folk music that's especially noticeable on "Hawa Dolo," where a kora transcription for acoustic guitar nestles neatly inside the makings of a ballad. This disc asserts its history lesson with graceful subtlety, never straying from the straight, narrow and beautiful as it journeys to the new world to bring it all back home.

Klezmer has been enjoying something of a comeback lately. Some groups pay tribute to Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras by staying faithful to the big band era style. Others reintegrate Middle Eastern instruments into western orchestration for what ironically results in an updated sound. But French klezmorim Nano Peylet and Denis Cuinot take a modernization tack I never expected by transmogrifying Jewish songs into chamber music on two French cds worth seeking out on the Buda Musique label. (Address: 188, bd Voltaire, 750011 Paris) Musique des Klezmorim et de Leurs Descendants by Duo Peylet-Cuniot diddles with traditional Eastern European Jewish songs, exploring Romanian and Ukranian rhythms along with the more recognizable klezmer fare. Musique Klezmer--D'Hier et de Demain unabashedly presents the Duo's "new klezmer music," but there are more similarities than differences between both releases owing to Peylet and Cuniot's idiosyncratic vision of the Jewish blues.

The first shock at hearing either of these discs is the amount of open space in the compositions, the quiet that surrounds each note, as if our favorite raucous wedding band had suddeny whisked us away into the recital hall, where audience members stifle coughs and gingerly curl the pages of their programs as they attempt to orient themselves to the strangely precise sounds coming from the stage. Violating the play-only-what-you-can-carry klezmer dictum, the duo combines the familiar clarinet with, of all things, piano. In a meticulously articulated, machine-gun classical music style, Nano Peylet's clarinet politely rips melody to shreds, whooping and gliding with astounding poise through melismas, portamentos, slurs and spits, as Denis Cuinot's feverish piano supplies a brass band worth of back up. More than this, there's nothing. No overdubs. No added instrumentation either except on the medley closing out the "traditionalist" disc.

The effect of the pared klezmer is music as bold as I've ever heard, with gorgeous subtleties of tone and timbre elbowing wild rhythmic liberties, hairpin mood swings and drastic volume changes that would make serious passages seem like vaudeville set ups if they weren't so convincing as soliloquys. Not for nothing are the Marx Brothers recalled in the liner notes. If I had to choose between the two discs, I'd probably opt for Musique Klezmer with its jazz-anchored free falls and grand mal piano fits that actually surpass the clarinet in tempered abandon (check out the Peylet composition "Giora, Mon Amour"). Over the long haul, though, the Duo begins to resemble a brainy friend who with wit and verve talks your ear off on a single subject. Despite its brilliance as concept, the paucity of instrumentation eventually wore on me, so that when a violin finally entered at the tail end of Musique des Klezmorim, it felt like rain after a long hot spell. I missed the flamboyant braying of a full klezmer ensemble.

Just in time comes the Klezmatics' Shvaygn = Toyt (Piranha Musik), unafraid of shameless schmaltz when it suits the cause of raising an aorta-busting ruckus. Tracks on this cd--which apparently predates the New York ensemble's more avant garde release, Rhythm + Jews--were culled from a 1988 festival in Berlin called the Heimatklange, a word used by Hitler to mystify das Volk but taken here at its ironic double meaning, "people's noise." Festival-mates Les Miserables Brass Band join in on about half the cuts to add clout to the mischief. The Klezmatics are self-conscious enough to recognize the bent nature of the tunes they cover, playing up the hokey woodblock percussion that reinforces the galloping beat of "Tantst Yidelekh" or altering the last verse of "Ale Brider" (We're All Brothers) to "We're all gay, like Jonathan and King David." You gotta love these guys. Even at their most irreverent, they show proper respect. Making fun of tradition, after all, can be a means of honoring the past. But lest we still think they're sentimentalists at heart, they uncork a healthy dose of rage in an anarchic rendition of the Israeli song "Bilvovi" that will send the relatives running from the room. (Address: D-1000 Berlin 12, Germany)

No one recognized the manic possibilities of klezmer more than clarinetist Mickey Katz, whose 1945-47 tenure with Spike Jones spawned a comedy band that launched such funny travesties as the Yiddish cowpoke ditty "Haim Afen Range" or the Jewish-Hawaiian "Mechaye War Chant." Katz used humor to expand the musical boundaries of klezmer, thrusting it into the laps of World War II mainstream American at a time when Yiddish was identified as a victim's language and most Jewish music looked backward in time because the post-Holocaust present was intolerable. Katz aggressively transformed the genre, combining sophisticated orchestral arrangements and borscht-belt humor into a cross between Tex Avery cartoon music and a Gerschwin concerto. Listening to songs like the "Sweet and Gentle" cha-cha was literally a crash course in multiculturalism. Playing them demanded prodigious chops, hence the attraction of Katz to Don Byron, who considers the late bandleader the equal of American originals Art Blakely or Harry Partch.

Last heard splitting molecules with his clarinet on 1991's Tuskegee Experiments, Byron is less concerned with stretching the limits of melody on Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz (Electra) as he is with giving an adventurous fellow musician his due--though it must be noted that it took nerve to present Katz the monologist as the equal of Katz the composer rather than straining the nonsense in search of serious elements to elevate. According to Byron's liner notes, Katz managed "to say something significant in musical forms that are by design lightweight and disposal." Heavy hitters making sure we get the whole schmear at peak form include violinist Mark Feldman, trombonist Josh Roseman, Klezmatics vocalist Lorin Sklamberg and other cutting-edge jazz and new music players. Convoluted, kaleidescopic silliness topped with Byron's usual dazzling self.

The roots of klezmer are revealed on Maramoras: The Lost Jewish Music of Transylvania (Hannibal/Rykodisc) by Hungarian group Muzsikas. Many songs sound as if the familiar Yiddish brass band had been exchanged for stringed instruments, with violin taking over lead from clarinet. Other songs resemble no other Jewish music I've heard, such as the honky-tonk flavored "Dance from Maramoras" performed on a cimbalon, the rubato style "Lamenting Song" haunted by low-octane-knock drumming, or pieces with closer links to traditional Hungarian styles. All are from the Transylvanian Jewish community decimated by the Nazis, and a sliver of that horror lives on in gypsy violinist Gheorge Covaci's searing solo on "Ane Maamin," which he remembers hearing weeping Auschwitz survivors sing, and in Marta Sebestyen's cold but beautiful a capella turn, "Farewell to Shabbat." Rollicking dances balance the darker pieces, but even these have the melancholy disconnectedness of an archaeological dig.

Endangered but not yet lost music from the same area is the focus of Transylvanian Portraits by the Okros Ensemble on the Koch International USA label. After the break up of Austro-Hungary following World War I, a series of authoritarian governments supressed the culture of the 2.5 million Hungarians living in the Transylvanian region of Romania. Ironically, Nicolae Ceausescu's economic and political isolation of the Hungarian minority accomplished just the opposite of his goals by preserving rather than eradicating village life when modernization was eroding the same traditions within Hungary. Call this contemporary music from another century, since some material is from parts of the Carpathians sealed to outsiders until Ceausescu's overthrow in 1990.

Among its other woes, Transylvania must sit dead square on the cultural continental divide between Europe and Asia. Several of these songs bear both the imprint of the Ottoman Empire as well as the seeds of western classical music--which would be unrecognizable without the influence of the gypsy violinists, whose staggering virtuosity inspired European composers as recently as Bartok. You can also hear the inevitable Marta Sebestyen sounding uncharacteristically nasal and metallic, but her harsh delivery fits material which seems to have split from the face of unscaleable cliffs. Buyer beware, however. Despite the prominence Sebestyen's name on the cover, she's only featured on a couple of cuts. But no great loss. There's so much exceptional material here, you need to hammer yourself with this disc again and again just to begin to absorb it. (Address: 177 Cantiague Rock Road, Westbury, NY 11590)

Also shot through with grief is Armenian Music Through the Ages (Smithsonian/Folkways), but just as it leaves the gut emotion is tempered with reason and duly ornamented as a kind of object lesson on the dimensions of the soul. Ud player Richard Hagopian's performances--supported by son Harold G. on violin and kanun and Hagop Jack Zarzatian on dumbeg percussion--suggest reams of philosophical discourse in the complex phrasings of the solo instruments and the intricacy with which they are brought together. So it's no surprise that the Armenia diaspora made significant contributions to the court music of the Ottomans. Other familiar musical elements abound. You can find cause, effect or coincidental references to your favorite far-flung styles: rembetiko, flamenco, taarab, Russian, gypsy, and even wisps of filmi in the vocals. Soukous fans might key into the insistent but by no means overwhelming fretted figures plus the nearly overpowering lushness stopped just in time by conscience from erupting into fullblown sin. Best of all, this is not faded snapshot. Hagopian's interpretations of the music adds just enough modern consciousness to keep the tradition of innovation alive.

I have nothing against new age music--as long as I never have to hear it. But when it comes to my door loosely disguised as worldbeat, I'm doomed to several long seconds of objective listening before gleefully confirming my prejudices. I had a headstart dismissing James Asher's Globalarium (Silver Wave) thanks to a press release billing the disc as "a more sophisticated" version of world music, which must come as news to Baaba Maal, Ali Farka Toure, Duo Peylet-Cuniot, etc. Such sophistication I suppose refers to the acoustic instruments intended to kick a little life into the music but subsequently overprocessed until they sink into the synthesized malaise without a trace. Okay, the disc has a few bouncy moments, including Suzanne Bramson's operatic vocal on "Paint the Moon Red," but Globalar--I can't even finish typing the name--is better tasted at your neighborhood herbal tea room than by any means purchased.

Ditto Paul Asher's Wonder Dancing on Global Bop (Diamond Mind Records), which bills itself as combining "Latin and African Poly Rhythms with American Indian chants and harmonica, Spanish and Gypsy improvisations, 5 stirng banjo with jazz trumpet, [and] Gamalon Gongs in a Romantic setting with electric guitars." What, no rainstick? It's basically a demo for Asher's handbuilt Lakefront Studios acoustic instruments, but try and pick them out of the sampled waveforms. I suffer these discs so you may avoid them.

While I'm reading liner notes, it's worth noting that Robin Adnan Anders indentifies himself on Blue Buddah (Interworld Music Associates) as a member of the 3 Mustaphas 3, and by God there the Minnesotan is on Heart of Uncle. I never knew. But no trace of Szegerely playfulness on this Mickey Hartesque forray into pure percussion that wins points for attitude and avoidance of computers but taxes my low tolerance for western claims to links with eastern spirituality via 23-minute meditations. If Adnan's numinous breakthrough don't push your belly button either, try him in the capsule-dosage unconventionality of his wild and talented band, Boiled in Lead.

At first blush I nearly consigned Asian Fusion (Narada Equinox) to the Lo-Cal heap--i.e., the Californian nutrition-free take on local music--but Ancient Future immediately failed the preliminary. It was impossible to read a fat Russian novel while this disc was playing, the way you could probably write one while Strunz and Farrah, for instance, tootled in the background. I kept looking up from the page, then finally had to give up. Jim Hurley and Matthew Montfort's shared violin-and-guitar line leads catch hold of a strong melody and bite down hard, but despite Zhao Hui's Chinese gu sheng board zither, Bui Hui Nhut's dan bao Vietnamese one-stringed thingamajig, and assorted ethnic percussion, I'm still not ready to think of this as worldbeat. Vernacular instruments don't share anything like equal weight with the band's folk-classical thrust, and the cuts that are carved from indigenous music, such as "Sunda Strait"'s lovely degung or "The Dusk Song of the Fisherman," tilt toward the generic at the expense of an identifiable Ancient Future style. But the disc's got plenty of fire and its loveliness often surprises.

Worldbeater's Pagan Babies beat back the blues by keeping clear of kotos and kecaks, adding only those ingredients to their Caribbean-influenced mix guaranteed to increase the fun quotient on their second release, Carnival Knowledge (Heartbreak Records). Moody-voiced Elyce Tajima adds just enough doubt on thought-provoker "Healing Rain" to give the omnipresent sunshine a few moments respite, otherwise all is rainbows including a cheery cover of "Could You Be Loved" that doesn't convince as much as the band's made-in-Hawaii material. Though the Pagans are probably best heard in situ at Honolulu's Anna Bannana's--if they send me a plane ticket, I'll let you know for sure--this bright disc is also a good place to be. (Address: 35-D S. Kuakini St., Honolulu, HI 96813)

I certainly didn't expect another "Right Time" from the Mighty Diamonds, but neither did I expect these eschatologists to be proclaiming "the last days" one moment ("Posse Are You Ready") and then the next ("Stick With Me") suggest, "Let's plan for our future, let's think about tomorrow"--as if they'd suddenly succumbed to the temporality of the drum machine chirps that threaten to date this disc almost as soon as you've torn off the shrink wrap. Still, Paint It Red (RAS) isn't just a comeback, it's a reaffirmation. Not for the cover of "Just My Imagination" which is as straightforward as "Putting On the Ritz" intends to be sly, but for the moments of greatness that are everywhere. For instance, the back up vocals on "Stoned Out of My Mind" that rise up to tip the lead singer into the driver's seat of Elijah's chariot. Trendy rhythms aside, arrangements are unfailingly smart enough to leave ample space for vocals whose strength lays in humility rather than a declaration of force. Great songs. Great performances. But play it on a portable that makes hash out of treble unless you think the electronic snare should inherit the earth.

Eddy Grant's first release in a number of years is Painting of the Soul (Ice/RAS), but the songs are more like miniature movies than still lifes. Check out the crane shot on "Paco and Ramone" that zooms out from the freeway and in on a miraculous arena--or the creeping expression that lights Tina's face on "Welcome to La Tigre." The material tends to be a little didactic, and heartwarming movies aren't usually my style, but anyone generous enough to hold his best songs for the end is a do-gooder I want to know. Plus, creating a generic Caribbean style this specific is no small feat.

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