(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 21, Number 6, 2001)
Sitting at the local Barnes & Noble Starbuck's, I was sipping an avocado latte while my friend The Whale took a gargantuan pull on the beer he had smuggled in under his red hunter's jacket. "Say," he growled, looking as thoughtful as he was capable of looking while trying to prop both massive feet on the table across from us. "What kind of music do you suppose comes from the linseed oil-producing countries of the world?"
"Who cares?" I asked, fearful that the tabletop would splinter beneath his size-16 clodhoppers.
"Then how about the rattan exporting nations? Or the manufacturers of canned fish snacks? Wouldn't you just split your britches for a collection of songs from people involved in the manufacture and processing of skim milk?" As I attempted to indicate the foolishness of such suggestions and their irrelevance to music, he leaned back in his creaking chair to reveal a shoplifted copy of the Putumayo label's Music from the Coffee Lands II languishing in his armpit. "Then how is this concept any more meaningful?" he demanded. "Name a single person in the entire unglorious flood of humanity who ever posed the question while satisfying his caffeine addiction, 'Say, I wonder what the poor saps who pluck these pungent beans listen to on their Victrolas after they punch out for the day?'"
"It's merely a nice way of bringing together songs from the tropical regions of the world that just happen to produce most of the music worth listening to," I countered. "And look, I've got that disc at home, and it includes a beautiful harp-based Venezuelan piece by Mexico's Correo Aereo, a hot slice of bachata from the Domincan Republic's Titico y Los Caracoles del Amargue with popping guitar lines and conch shell 'trumpet' parts, and a cosmopolitan piece of Sundanese pop excerpted from Sabah Habbas Mustapha's So La Li."
"So La Li? Well, la-dee-dah," yawned The Whale. "As memory serves from my very brief glance at the liner notes, there's also a bouncy reggae tune from Martinique's fusion man, Kali, and a tribute to mothers from Haiti's Emeline Michel that almost brought tears to these bloodshot eyes. Now do this for me. March up to the counter and order me a cup of joe from those famous coffee producing nations of Martinique or Haiti. The finest brew they've got. Go ahead and try."
"Okay, it may not be the strongest marketing concept ever developed, but there's plenty of precedents, like all those 'music from the cigar regions of Cuba' that blew over us a few years ago, and Putumayo also released a disc from tea-producing countries."
The Whale guffawed. "Then I've got a much better idea if the game is just slapping together a bunch of songs. How about, Music from Coffee Consuming Nations? That should cover just about anybody, even those throat singing Siberians you've been prattling on about."
"How about you at least pay for the cd?" I suggested as he attempted to stuff a chair inside his jacket.
Yat-Kha's end-of-the-century Delai Beldiri, was a glorious freak show that counterpoised stone-age shamanic throat singing with 1960's-era rock combo amplification. It never ceased to startle me no matter how many times I played it. But its successor Aldyn Dashka (Yat-Kha Records) is so well crafted, so heady with one good song after another, the oddities get all but shoved into the scrub grass. The vocals remain as incredible as ever. If anything, Albert Kuvezin's repertoire of belly-dragging, forehead-bursting, hornet-buzzing, polytonal throat singing is even more assured. While still the central presence, he no longer dominates the band as much as fitting perfectly into both lead and supporting roles, and these often deliriously blur.
"Bai-La Mongon" is Kuvezin's showcase. Singing unaccompanied and without overdubs, he hugs a low fundamental note while changing the shape of his throat cavity to simultaneously unleash a ghost melody dancing three octaves up. And without so much as scuffing a tonsil, he launches into a lovely sygyt throat 'whistle' that introduces "Oi Moroz" like an eerie, electrified flute. Second vocalist Aldyn-ool Sevek sings understated lead in, of all things, this Russian traditional song. The choice of material is unusual considering that Tuva is a former satellite of the old Soviet Empire. But more than anything it sounds like a drinking song, and since album title Aldyn Dashka or "golden cup" refers to the milky araka vodka favored by Siberian locals, all is commodious. The gypsy vibes allow ample room for amplified guitar slides and a hellishly guttural one-note accompaniment on an amplified monihuur lute that not so incidentally resembles Kuvezin's bowels-of-the-earth vocal on "Chorum Bodum." On this paean to nature, the Tuvan titan sounds like Bigfoot's bigger brother on steroids, but his roughness is buffed by the sweet strings of a two-string igil fiddle and the encouragement of a churning guitar.
Yat-Kha's full range is shown to best advantage on "Kozhamyk," featuring riffing guitar chords, a perky melody, heroic-style mike-hogging by Sevek, and atmospheric back-up growls by Sevek. Dub piano notes cascade from the heavens near the end of piece along with a few flute figures. Just as good are Sevek's Dudley Do-Right singing and a sweeping melody suggesting the Seven Hills that "Chedi Tei" describes. A silky guitar solo, bass vocals from Kuvezin, and sonorous gongs convey as odd a sense of place as could ever be established. But it's odd only in the sense of unfamiliarity. Yat-Kha has been marketed as the Tuvan equivalent of a garage band, a Siberian punk group, but the comparison doesn't hold up. The songs are traditional, the arrangements tastily economical, and the results as lovely as any emerging pop music you'll find.
Play Musty For Me (Omnium), a collection of mostly live 3 Mustaphas 3 performances, had me immediately reaching for the ensemble's studio discs. But it wasn't because this concert material was so arresting. It was to reassure myself that there really was a reason I used to love this band so much. In retrospect, much of the appeal of these Brits impersonating Balkans from the mythical town of Szegerely was tied to a particular moment in time. In the late 1980s when the current world music boom began, a group of musicians at comic ease with the songs of several continents had lots of appeal. It was educational, introducing me to styles I've never heard before, and it was also simply a hoot. Furthermore, the genres emulated, parodied, and slapped together into improbable sandwiches by the Mustaphas were often tough to find in their original forms. Who, except for a few experts, knew much about rembétika, benga, merrengue, sevdah, and filmi in 1989? Never mind searching Tower Records. Today you can walk into a Best Buy store and take your pick of the lot.
The appeal of the Mustaphas was how they had their merry way with a broad swath of music while still putting their hearts into the performances. So while some of their decade-old material resembles wedding-band versions compared to players schooled to conquer, say, Turkish café music, since they were in their teens, many songs still hold up beautifully. "Awara Hoon" and "Linda Linda," to name just two, are up there with the best pop gems I've ever heard, and that's saying a lot. Unfortunately, neither appears on Play Musty For Me, whose cupboard is at best half-full of nutritional fare. Mustapha studio discs nicely balanced a Monty Pythonesque silliness with dervish-like whirls combining the rousing enthusiasm of klezmer with the inclusive sweep of Indian film music. The bellydance beats and Houzam Mustapha's deft drumkit work were an added plus.
On Musty, the silliness quotient reigns supreme. While silliness may be exactly what we need these days, cuts like "Szergerely Soul Stew" with its extended band member introductions, the interminable narrative of "A Chilling Tale," and a novelty version of "Perfidia" won't receive repeat listenings here. A few cuts show the Balkan Beat Boys in good form. "Speed the Traktor" bumps appealingly all over the map with more stops and starts than a washing machine. The rough and ready "Ljubau Kraj Izvora" wields an energy the original Shopping version lacks, and the jams that open and close the disc suggest the unexpected ferocity of Soup of the Century's second half. While I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Musty to fans of the disbanded band, neophytes may wonder from the evidence presented here what the fuss was ever about.
World music label Mondo just sent me its new anthologies, Mondo Africa, Mondo Greece, and Mondo India. I already have so many African music samplers in a back closet that my house leans to one side. And the Greek disc didn't grab me. Mondo India throbs with originality, however, and that's as much to do with the bass and drum-heavy production as the modern approach of filmi impresario A. R. Rahman. Compiler Gerald Seligman is so taken with Rahman that all but two tracks on the disc are his, and one of the stragglers belongs to Vishal, a composer influenced by Rahman. The late R. D. Burham , credited with introducing non-Indian musical elements to soundtracks, fills the other non-Rahman slot with 1994's "Ek Ladki Ko Dekha." The lean arrangement is a far cry from the heyday of filmi when everything from jazz, country, soul, and European classical music motifs crowded into a single three-minute opus. Rahman's hallmark is the same homogeneity. Instead of yesteryear's exciting kitsch collages, he assembles glassy panoramas that blur Indian elements with a familiar world music topography of effects-laden vocals, up-front electronic percussion, samples, and synthesizers. All is tastefully integrated with dreamy voices and melodies evoking romantic themes, while percussive wallops jab the thrill-seeking contingent of the audience awake at regular intervals.
Saving these songs from the realm of Joi, Atman, and other plunderers of Indian treasure is faithfulness to the subcontinental material that generally rings true. Instruments may dive and surface, rhythms may be parsed, but the lead vocals maintain their integrity and therefore a sustained power of mood. "Narumugaiye" is contemporary more by attitude than instrumentation as sarangi, vernacular flute, zither, and tuned percussion join a lovely duet by Unnikrishnan and Bombay Jayasree. Atmospherics and a synthesizer solo put it in the 1990s, but the entwined vocals convey the eternal spirit of pop chart-style young love. "Gopika Poornima" pushes a similar concept into the realm of the maudlin. And "Alyayio Kanavaa" is so diluted it could be from anywheresporting a church choir opening, hip hop beats, and the kind of vacuous signifying that passes for passion in place of the more traditional delivery that make Indian vocals unique. But even this is done with real appeal. In a crowded soundtrack field that sees something like 800 films produced each year, Rahman is really onto something, selling over 40 million cassettes in the last three years. That's usually a guarantee of mediocrity, but this sample culled from 35 cds proves that Rahman is the raja.
If you hanker for the ambience of exotic old time film soundtracks, immerse yourself in Mahmoud Fadl's Umm Kalthum 7000 (Piranha), a tribute to the phenomenally popular Egyptian diva of the same name who died in 1975. Directed by percussionist Fadl of Nubian big band Salamat, this project nearly took a contemporary twist instead. The arrangements laid down with five violins, a cello, nay, kanun and other instruments wielded by Cairo Opera players were intended as reference tracks for a club version of Kalthum standards. But Piranha record label execs loved the classic arrangements so much, they persuaded Fadl to release them. The resulting eight intensely dramatic performances by vocalist Salwa Abou Greisha and orchestra have the widescreen production of vintage Egyptian soundtracks that influenced pop genres on two continents, from filmi to East African taarab. Among those co-written by legendary film composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab is the 16-minute opus "Enta Omri" (You Are My Life), packed with scene changes but sustaining the mood of tragic perseverance that was Kalthum's oeuvre. The core sound will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever heard two bars of Middle Eastern music, from the rapid-fire belly dance percussion to the fat violin swoops in dialog with delicate kanun zither parts. In its assumed gravity, the material is inarguably over the top, Wagnerian in self-importance. In terms of overall excess, though, Greisha's delivery is a model of restraint compared to the caterwauling of today's American songbirds. Fadl's arrangements sparkle. Even at their biggest bloat, the songs float forward on the constantly involving interplay of instruments. It's fun, hot, romantic, nostalgic, surging stuff that could pave the way to genuine Kalthum reissues.
If horn lovers ever decide to put together a Brassapolooza concert, Fanfare Ciocarlia is the only band they need to invite. Iag Bari (Piranha) tempers the wind instrument monomania of its past releases with texture-buttressing guest artists including a Bulgarian choir, Romanian gypsy pop vocalist, violin-accordion-percussion ensemble, and, okay, another trumpet player. But horn man Costa Vasilescu substantially sweetens the band's pumping brass machinery with a wistful muted trumpet on throbbing dance number "Hora Lautareasca." And on throbbing dance number "Jocul Boldenilor," his muted staccato solo recalls playful post-ragtime music found from 1920s nightclubs or old episodes of The Little Rascals. Heck, they're all throbbing dance numbers grounded in the traditional wedding song repertoire, but Fanfare's smoking speed of up to 200 beats per minute and willingness to experiment solders them securely to the modern age. Remarkably enough, every gamble pays off big. While allowing Bucharest 's legendary king of Romany pop, Dan Armeanca, to bless a trio of songs with his velvety tonsils was a safe bet, folding in urban ensemble Rom Bengale risked blunting Fanfare's rhythmic push. But the violins, squeezeboxes and hand drums contribute a pitched urgency that ratchets up the passion. The longest shot was bringing Bulgaria's Angelite choir in on "Lume, Lume" (World World), but the majestic female voices mingle blissfully with broad horn strokes, painting an aural portrait of heaven's blessing pouring down upon foolish mortals. In addition to the songs, the disc includes a video that would play on neither the G4 Macintosh or Windows computers I tried, so I can't comment on the content.
Rick Trevino's Mi Son (Vanguard) is sort of Los Super Seven Light, enjoying nearly the same line up as the Seven's superbo Canto, including members of Los Lobos and piano playing octopus Alberto Salas. But despite a raft of strong songs, the disc ultimately comes across as the side project of a triumphant side project. (Even the cover art colors of both discs match.) Mi Son opens superbly with the rock huasteca piece "El Gustito." Trevino is in top form with deft yodeling vocals as Conrad Lozano's chunky guitarrón unfolds a galloping beat, thrashing out a song so good, I didn't think anything else here could top it. And I turned out to be right. The next cut still promised that Mi Son would be Canto's equal with a blazing version of Trio Matamoros song "El Tira y Jala," boasting a signature tres solo by Ramon Stagnaro, walloping piano from Alberto Salas, and Rene Camacho's trombone warbles. Thereafter, the album begins to falter. The Astor Piazzolla-Fernando Solanas composition "Vuelvo Al Sur" is lovely, as delicate and deliberate as previous material is sizzling. But coming on the heels of a pair of furious cuts, it spoils the momentum of disc. From then on, a slow song pretty consistently alternates with a fast song in a progression that fails to make the most of either format. That's unfortunate, because the romantic material includes a tasty duet between Trevino and Ruben Ramos along with Martha Gonzales sharing the lead on the intimate "Vanidad." Closing cut "Long Goodbye," the only English language song here, is a southwestern ballad with a Willie Nelson flavor written during Los Lobos' How Will the Wolf Survive sessions. Play it, or any other single song on board, and you'll be delighted with Mi Son. Spin three cuts in a row, and you'll clamor to hear more. Roll the whole disc, and you might find, as I did, that the set just doesn't quite jell.
Rough Guide's first disc in its new artist portraits series was a well considered salute to Franco, one of the most influential artists in the history of African pop. The company eases its standards with The Rough Guide to Lucky Dube (World Network), a tribute to a performer who has brought me many pleasurable moments over the years but is hardly an indispensable all-time great. South Africa's reggae man boasts charisma that's as powerful as his backing band along with a handful of great songs like "Prisoner," included here in concert from Captured Live. But if each succeeding Lucky Dube release is as solid as its predecessor, the albums are also essentially interchangeable. From the pacing of the songs to the 'hopeful breeze' synthesizer sound, there's little development through the years. For proof, play 1987's "Slave" then jump to the disc's last cut, "The Way it Is," from 1999's album of the same name. Feel that sense of déjà vu? Careers have certainly been built on far less, but few exhibit such a stunning lack of variety.
Garmarna and Hoven Droven are a pair of Swedish neo-folk ensembles known for their piledriver approach. Garmarna favor a danse macabre of amplified instruments in the service of modern Medieval gloom, while Hoven Droven delight in eardrum shattering arrangements of traditional tunes. Both choose gentler avenues in their latest releases. Garmarna's Hildegard von Bingen (NorthSide) abandons the electric guitar and feedback milieu for Emma Hardelin's stark and lovely 12-century Latin chants on top of ambient electronics. Hoven Droven's Hippa (NorthSide) keeps hold of its usual instrumental arsenal, but turns the volume down and lightens the attack. Stripping bare both bands reveals the essence of their respective approaches. Taste, chops, and immersion in ancient music has kept Garmarna several steps ahead of falling backwards into a pool of heavy metal, but trading high-decibel distortion for synthesizer burbles is akin to depriving a vampire of its fangs. While songs like the nursery rhyme-ish "Salvatorish" are pleasant, these rockers don't bring a great deal of originality to their microchip soundscapes. In place of the usual dash of wickedness, we're left with solemnity.
Hoven Droven, on the other hand, maintain the whimsy that typically redeemed their heaviest mack-truck attacks. If anything, Hoven Droven 'light' reveals sophistication with arrangements I hadn't attributed to them previously. From the fat harmonium textures that turns "Psychic" into a funny alternate version of the forgettable Beatles' instrumental "Flying," to the piping clarinet on "Dreaming of Arto" or the tight hardanger violin knots of traditional-based tune "Did It Myself," fun and brilliance abound. The result is seriously good music from a band that doesn't take itself too seriously. As proof check out the three, count 'em three videos included on the disc. Seven additional songs in MP3 format are also onboard to satiate anyone not already worn to a nubbin by the hilarity.
The majority of Spanish folk music releases lean heavily on flamenco, but there isn't a guitar in earshot on The Spanish Recordings: Galicia (Rounder) collected by pioneering ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in the frigid winter of 1952. The cliché goes that the Celtic Galician region resembles a chunk of Scotland that broke off and lodged in northern Spain. The reality consists of panpipe, bagpipe, flute and hurdy gurdy music along with impressively archaic work songs. Need a ditty to make stone carving, flax seed pounding or mule-tending duties fly by? Then you need to get this disc, which kicks off with a lovely tune played on chifro miniature panpipe by an itinerant pig castrator. If that sounds dreadful, not to mention dreadfully obscure, consider that Miles Davis was so impressed with the Jose-Maria Rodriguez tune that he took it up on his Sketches of Spain album as the basis for a composition called "The Panpiper." Also on board are religious songs, ballads, holiday songs, and other traditional tunes undoubtedly now extinct but recorded with all the life and immediacy that Lomax brought to his best field recordings.
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)
[Copyright 2002 Bob Tarte]