(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 21, Number 2, 2002)


(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)

If you're not a Spanish speaker, "Contrabando y Tración" by Los Tigres del Norte on the Mexican music anthology Corridos y Narcocorridos (Fonovisa) sounds every inch as innocuous as a wedding polka. Jorge Hernández's sweet vocals ride a bouncing oompah bass while accordion tootles suggest a nostalgia-laden ranchera that wouldn't offend a cloistered nun. But even if you were unable to translate the title as "Smuggling and Betrayal," the seven gunshots near the end tip off the song as a narcocorrido. In fact, Angel González's 1972 composition about a drug runner done in by his female partner was the spark that ignited a genre chronicling the exploits of traffickers and other outlaws on both sides of the Mexican-American border.

The narcocorrido finds its closest counterpart in American gangsta rap. Both celebrate the greed, glamour, violence and risk-taking of the drug trade, painting traffickers and dealers as common men who triumph in a society that provides few doors to success. But while gangsta rap is less than two decades old, narcocorridos lie squarely in the tradition of the 19th century corrido song form which gained wide popularity after the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 with songs that eulogized the meteoric career of Pancho Villa. From the way Los Tigres, Grupo Exterminador and Jenni Rivera extol the drug culture, you might expect they clawed their way out of the gangsta life. But with the exception of Chalino Sanchez, whose rough-hewn, off-key voice on "El Crimen de Culliacán" signifies that he was the real thing-as did his gun battle with a would-be assassin while performing on a Palm Springs stage-artists on Corridos y Narcocorridos insist they have nothing to do with the narco culture and are simply performing the material that sells best.

In contrast to her hard-bitten "jackal woman" image, Angeleno singer Rivera comes across as a devoted mother and consummate pop professional in Elijah Wald's superb book Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas (Rayo/Harper Collins). Wald travels deep into Mexico and the American Southwest in search of the performers that have made the narcocorrido the hottest trend in Mexican pop. Despite its immense popularity in Mexico, the genre is effectively banned on Mexican radio. And despite its immense popularity among the Mexican and Chicano population in our own country, narcocorridos remain invisible to mainstream America and shunned by events like the Grammy awards that usually reward commercial success.

Wald's book tells a fascinating tale through interviews with colorful characters including songwriter and B-film bit player Julian Gárza, uproariously uncouth minstrel of the Zapatista rebellion Andrés Contreras, narcocorridos' "clown prince" Francisco Quintero, Gabriel Villanueva, who sings his corridos to bus riders, and members of Los Tigres. Though Wald's vivid portraits make his book compelling even if you don't know the players, the companion disc Corridos y Narcocorridos pays off the book. Jenni Rivera's bragging signature tune "La Chacolosa" shows how tough a tuba bass can sound in the brass and guitar banda style. "El Rey de la Tierra Caliente" by Michoacán ensemble Los Hermanos Jimenez augments the classic norteño sound with the region's rippling harp. Like calypso, the corrido functions as a kind of peoples' newspaper, disseminating information on street-level events unlikely to garner a mention in the mainstream media. Top examples here include the plain-vanilla tale of two regular guys, "Los Dos Plebes," and the dramatic account of pressures facing Mexican immigrants, "La Jaula de Oro," both performed with unflagging charisma by Los Tigres. If narcocorridos seem too marginal to deserve attention, consider this. The best-selling Latin music in the U.S. isn't Cuban or South American. It's Mexican, and narcocorridos play a large enough role that one Los Angeles radio station now airs them around the clock. Read the book for its engrossing account of the complexities of Mexican music culture. Buy the cd for a collection of seminal and snappy genre songs you won't find anywhere else.

I can't remind the last time I've had a love-hate relationship as intense as the one I've been enjoying-despising with Fermin Muguruza's Brigadistak Sound System (Piranha). How could I not love an album with Euskera-language lead vocals, Cuban horns, a reggae dub aesthetic and a Toots and the Maytals cover? How could I not hate an album with shouted, tin-eared vocals, raucousness that flirts with amateurish noise, and multilingual lyrics as strident as they are simplistic? "Soon the tyrant will be the peasant, and the peasant will be large and in charge and in the present," chirps guest artist Angelo Moore of L.A. ska band Fishbone fame on "Newroz" (The Kurdish New Year). But tune in to the power horn riffs, joyously cluttered arrangement, buzzing sax solo courtesy of Angelo, and an arena-rock guitar line with more distortion than sense, and these guys could sing a lite-beer jingle without diminishing my pleasure with this splendid mess.

Muguruza first kicked off his confrontational musical career in the 1980s fronting punk bands from his native Basque region of northern Spain. The militancy, of course, sprouted from the Basque people's often-violently expressed desire for independence from Spanish rule. Safe to say, multi-culti reggae-based music has a wider reach than punk, and both are equally appropriate as artistic vehicles of the oppressed, though the spiritual dimensions of reggae are diminished here in favor of the genre's easy symbolism. And by jumping on pumping ska variations and riding dancehall's rap attack, Fermin uncorks the perfect transgenerational outlet for his message. Too bad that the anger and intensity communicated through one of western Europe's least-spoken languages has more appeal as a party soundtrack than value as a political discourse. But that's OK, since my least favorite portions of the disc involve Muguruza's in-your-face persona.

Check out free-speech anthem "Hitza Har Dezagun," for example, which grinds in with a guitar riff reminiscent of the original MTV theme then clears space for a sing-song agitprop vocal that wears out its welcome quicker than a telemarketer. But show courage, because Venezuelan ska band Desorden Público launches us into an exhilarating Cubanesque horn break, then the entire mix drops into dizzying dub territory. Whadda song! Horn players, brass players and percussionists from Cuba's Los Van Van gild the rough reggae lily of "Oasiko Erregina," followed by a terrific cover version of the Toots and Maytals classic "54-46 (That's My Number)" backed by Argentine band Todos Tus Muertos, named for the victims of their government's death squads in the 1980s. Roving guitarist and cut-and-paste impresario Manu Chao brings his collage effects to "Maputxe." Just when it seems like things can't get better, the Mad Professor himself chops and parses a reprise of disc--opener "Urrun" into dub psychedelia at its ultimate.

There's so much going on in any one song that Brigadistak Sound System resembles a music sampler in the sense that whatever you're hearing at the moment will flip-flop 180 degrees the next. While not for the faint of heart, Muguruza's eccentric amalgam will reward patient and impatient listeners alike. It's superb. It's awful. And it's nothing if not unforgettable. [Distributed by Harmonia Mundi]

Quite fittingly, the first voice you hear on Lee "Scratch" Perry's Jamaican E.T. (Trojan/Sanctuary) is the voice of a Common Loon. No, I'm not disparaging the venerable Upsetter, I'm referring to the duck-like waterfowl Gavia immer whose eerie call haunts its breeding ground in the northern U.S. and Canada. A Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) less pejoratively chitters along with Perry on "10 Commandments," which Scratch-logic transmogrifies into a blathering paean to, of all things, LSD. For anyone who's spent the last 30 years on Mars or is too young to remember the pre-X-Files era, Perry was one of the most important producers in the history of reggae, twiddling the dials for Coxsone's Studio One and helping create the signature sound for the Wailers and a plethora of other crucial artists. Mr. Perry was also a pioneer in the invention of dub, and in the 1970s produced a stream of brilliantly eccentric 45s from his own Black Ark studio for Max Romeo, Junior Byles, the Congos and many more.

Unfortunately, mental health problems-or visionary experiences denied to ordinary humans, depending on how you look at it-have robbed him of the continuity necessary to setting down an artistic statement as sustained and cohesive as an actual song. (See Brian Wilson.) Jamaican E.T. continues that dissolution, though the album is not without a few merits. Any single track is an interstellar gas as a super-tight instrumental outfit outputs a no-nonsense reggae groove occasionally abetted by female choristers. Scratch then unleashes short phrases from Planet Perry into the hapless listener's left ear. These overlap other phrases in the stunned listener's right ear while a third voice centered on the pituitary gland accelerates the chaos. If none of this quite adds up to a lyric or melody, Lee gives his method another try when the next cut rolls around. Fun, spacey and avant garde Jamaican E.T. surely is. But an expression of an artist in command of his gifts it definitely is not. If buying this cd helps keep one of Jamaican music's seminal figures with a full stomach and roof above his head, however, consider the action your faith-based initiative for the year.

Soliloquy (Dancing Cat) is a collection of tranquil acoustic guitar songs that you don't want to play softly. You need to crank up the volume to luxuriate in the timbre of Keola Beamer's slack-key Hawaiian guitar. I can't think of any other album where I was so aware of the difference between steel and nylon guitar strings or cared about the subject. But Beamer pours such beauty into every single note using a custom-designed guitar which emphasizes harmonic overtones that the differences are not subtle. Just contrast the chiming runs of "Pailolo" with the muted colors of "Kapalua Bay," or his steel-string guitar dubbed over a pair of nylon pluckers on the soulful "Kaulana Na Pua," an 1893 tribute to deposed queen Lili'uokalani, and you go a long way toward appreciating Beamer's style. Even straightforward songs penned as exercises for his slack-key guitar students like "Kolowaka" and "Min-o'aka" flaunt impressive depth and ethereal smoothness. I'm convinced that if you handed Keola a guitar that was only capable of playing a single note, he could still make captivating music on it. Highlights include "Li'i's Song," which captures the indomitable spirit of his family's injured but still-playful dog, and "The Mynah Bird's Dobro," a rousing piece too mellifluous to quite do justice to its raucous subject, a tree-full of noisy starlings. Then again, Beamer hears more deeply than I to devote a sun-drenched song to "Moana's Laundry Basket." This is without doubt the loveliest guitar album I've heard and comes close to capturing the quiet intensity of Beamer's live shows.

Speaking of Hawaii's Queen Lili'uokalani, the revered monarch was a gifted musician and multi-instrumentalist who wrote over 150 songs on island themes, including the unmistakable "Alo-ha'Oe," which slack-key guitarist Ozzie Kotani reinterprets via a newly crafted introduction, arrangement and chord shift on To Honor A Queen (Dancing Cat). The result is to rescue a treasure from the tourist-board cliché heap by making me hear the melody as if the composition were freshly penned. Kotani spent five years creating solo guitar arrangements for this album, drawing from traditional and popular renditions of the best-known pieces and bringing a deft touch to every note he touches. "Penei No (Keolaokalani)" gently suggests the Hawaiian swing of Kotani's favorite version of the song as performed by the legendary Kahauanu Lake Trio, while "Moanalua" rolls and pitches as befits a travel song. Deeply romantic and rich with pastoral intimations of Hawaii's past, Kotani's reading of the queen's songbook is gentle and subdued even by slack-key standards. That means it requires even a closer listen than Beamer's disc. Cover your ears in headphones or let the tunes ring on a room-filling stereo. Play it on a boombox, though, and the delicate nostalgia is liable to melt into ambient noise faster than snow dissolving on a barbecue pit. A couple more ditties with the forward drive of disc-opener "He 'Ai Na Kalani" might have prevented that.

From Hawaii to Okinawa and beyond, the music of islands is Bob Brozman's forte. While his own slide-guitar style is fluid and deceptively effortless, he tends to gravitate toward artists who require some acclimatizing on the part of the listener. I loved both of his collaborations with Takashi Hirayasu once I got used to the Okinawan vocal conventions. The Gallic song stylings of accordionist and guitarist René Lacaille put me off Digdig (Riverboat) a bit, but despite the French cabaret influences, Digdig still delights. My favorite pieces are the instrumentals that comprise about half of the disc, and these mingle the inevitable Indian Ocean trader-route cross current as suggested by the high-speed, high-octave mix of Arabic modalities and homegrown sega rhythms on "An Dio." The rhythms, in fact, are fast and furious throughout the cd, rising from a lightning-quick 12-beat foundation which Brozman says changes the hearing of a song by whether you count it via two-pulse or three-pulse units. Brozman's masterful steel guitar blends beautifully with Lacaille's accordion, guitar, charango, and other instruments plus the aforementioned furious percussion. The man has cleaned out my ears once again.

I've also been enjoying Issa Bagayoga's first American release, Timbuktu (Six Degrees), which updates a Malian Manding pop thang by marrying his smooth vocals to edgy arrangements. "Dambalou" sums up his approach as electronic beats mesh organically with tangy marimba ornamentation and understated dub effects. Strong melodies, horn swatches, timeless loping rhythms and dry-as-a-desert guitar figures make happy friends of modernism and traditionalism.

I was afraid that Jai Uttal was all chanted out after the excellent Shiva Station, but Mondo Rama (Narada World) proves that he's got plenty more praise songs up his caftan sleeves. Sunnier than its predecessor, Mondo is less edgy, too, and I miss the intimations of darkness that add depth to the lofty heights that his performances can climb. The Pagan Love Orchestra as cohesive ensemble was more in play last time, too, resulting in tough grooves that joyously combined reggae rhythms and melodies derived from the Indian subcontinent. This time around, Jai is front and center, and however finely they continue to play, the band members have been relegated to backing musicians that don't even merit liner-note photos. While the do songs ramble on a bit, Uttal's voice has great appeal, especially when elongating a word like "of" into 19 syllables, though a conversational version of John Lennon's "Tomorrow Never Knows" with interpolated chanting makes me wonder if "I Am the Walrus" lies on the horizon with "hare hare Krishna" standing in for "goo goo ga joob." But he's still got the qalifornia qawwali consignment all to himself.

Krisha Das seemed poised to edge into Uttal's Krishna rock and govinda gospel oeuvre with Breath of the Heart (Karuna) via a Rick Rubin production credit and a back-cover photo that gives Mr. Das somewhat of an urban look. But a hip-hop aesthetic remains as unattainable as a song length under six minutes long. We get enthusiastic chanting with vibrant backing vocalists, drums, harmonium and vocals that wield the warmth of the best pop. But those of us unconvinced of the efficacy of praises to the ancient Vedic gods essentially come up empty here.

"She Moved Through the Fair" is one of my favorite Irish traditional songs. The ghost story of love that survives the death of the bridegroom-to-be even survived a 1994 Mark Rutherford and John (Sugar J) Gosling dance mix on Jamnation, though Margaret Barry's transcendent voice-and-banjo version as preserved on the Rounder label's I Sang Through the Fairs illustrates why it was justifiably her signature song. With anticipation I fired up B-Tribe's "She Moves Through the Fair" on ¡Spiritual, Spiritual! (Higher Octave). Susan Carol's operatic vocal provides a nice start until flamenco guitar flourishes and a bongo drum usher in a House of Usher synthesizer dripping with so much drama that the Tribers confidently cut the final verse that lets us know we're dealing with a spirit, not a man. Oh, irony. According to the liner notes, B-Tribe wrote the song without the help of Irish folklorist Herbert Hughes, who long ago set Paidric Colum's poem to a traditional Donegal fiddle tune. A ditty called "The Sun" which closes the disc includes the well-known lyrics "Sun is shining, the weather is sweet" sung by a sampled Bob Marley, but this is credited to B-Tribe as well. Such worldly matters as copyright control apparently lie beyond the spiritual plane.

Those who prefer their world music kept relatively intact within an ambient setting are encouraged to check out the two-cd set Amnesty International 40th Anniversary (George V). Artists as diverse as Greek vocalist Makis Abianitis, West African kora player Muhamadou Salieu Suso, Scandinavian joiker Mari Boine and Chinese songbird Chen Xin Qin are stitched together into seamless electronic grooves mixed by DJ Ravin on the Peace cd and Frank Nigel on the Electronic Landscape disc. Amnesty is an ear-to-the-ground organization that I'd easier associate with a recent Rough Guide African acoustic music disc than this packet of club sounds, but the artists are generally well chosen, and the collection gave me the chance to hear several voices I had not heard before.

(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)

[Copyright 2002 Bob Tarte]

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