(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 13, Number 5, 1993)


Since moving to Lowell a few years ago, Linda and I haven't made any friends. People from small communities tend to keep to themselves in the face of outsiders, especially suburban bumpkins like myself ignorant of the most basic survival skills. Our only neighbors shun us. The Irons live behind us on the banks of the Grand River. Every spring and summer when the river floods, father, mother, and galoot son commute via aluminum rowboat to a pair of cars parked in front of our house on two-lane artery M-21. Last summer in the height of the dry season, Linda baked a tin of muffins and took them up the pine plank stairs to the Irons' second-story front door, but Mrs. Irons blocked her from setting foot inside the kitchen, thanked her, and sent her on her way.

Recently, Linda extended a dinner invitation to Andi the Flower Lady, manager of the floral refrigerator at Valley Vista Produce one mile up the road. Linda went to a great deal of trouble preparing a multi-course vegetarian meal and scrubbing down the house while I hid upstairs and listened to amateur radio chit-chat. Just as I was getting started on my one assigned task of moving an unused small-animal cage off the front porch and into the basement, Andi arrived a few minutes early, forcing me to abandon the project. But the Pink Pig Pottery farmhouse looked neat, a beckoning scent of garlic and onions wafted from kitchen, and the prospects for a pleasant evening seemed good.

Linda introduced Andi to our pets, taking her to each cage in our dining area overlooking the backyard and the swamp. First she met our rabbit, Bertha, who suffers from post-ear infection nervous system damage that causes her to freeze for minutes mid-hop or mid-mastication. Next she greeted our wild-caught African grey Timneh parrot, Stanley, bought from a nurse in White Cloud who was hurriedly moving out of state. Stanley is nervous with strangers, we warned our guest. Andi then met our parakeets Reggie, Rossy, and Sophie; Chester, our canary; our African ring-neck dove, Howard; Ollie, the orange-chin brotegaris pocket parrot; and a pair of unnamed goldfish.

"We also have three ducks," Linda told her as we sat down to eat. "They live in that pen next to the apple tree, but they're out in the yard right now."

"Where are they?" I demanded. Only our Muscovy duck, Daphne, was visible, a type of fowl described in The Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds as "a clumsy, black gooselike duck"--which my brother-in-law, Jack, rescued from stone-throwing automotive factory workers last spring. Missing were Phoebe, the Black and White Cayuga who lays blackish eggs, and our small, white call duck, Peggy. They had wriggled through the fence to root around the neck-high stinging nettles and the impenetrable tangle of nuisance black raspberry bushes just outside our mowed lawn.

I flopped over the fence and, blinded by the foliage, crudely herded the ducks due west while trying to keep my feet in sight and thus avoid a tumble down the boulder-strewn hill. Near the burn barrel, Linda hoped to turn the ducks through the gate and back into the yard, but they spotted her and scuttled for the woods. Even with clipped wings, they moved surprising fast through the open wood, their flight aided by the swarms of mosquitoes which continually threatened to overwhelm their pursuers. Smearing bugs from my eyes as I ran, I never did catch a glimpse of the Black and White Cayuga and was made a fool of by the little white call duck's cut-and-run technique until Linda tackled her in the middle of herding Phoebe toward home. I tossed Peggy in the pen, expecting to see Phoebe right behind, but she had disappeared into the trackless swamp.

For 45 minutes we combed the woods, pointlessly calling the name of a duck that had never responded to anything but food, the wading pool, and the opportunity for escape. Andi waited patiently in the yard at first, then retreated to the house and her untouched plate of food. I walked along the edge of the woods as far as the "McDonalds--2 Smiles Ahead" road sign before doubling back through the black raspberry barbed-wire fortress toward the pond. Linda skirted the border of the swamp all the way to the barn. Defeated, we returned to the kitchen to find our guest wrapping a paper towel around her bleeding index finger, her bare arms spotted with angry red, quarter-sized mosquito bites. The mosquitoes, apparently, had opted for a stationary target rather than a pair of running fools. Stanley, our stubby hawk-like Timneh parrot, had opted to bite into the waggling finger which Andi had ill-advisedly offered him in our absence.

We never did find Phoebe. Chances are a possum, owl, raccoon, or weasel has already gnawed off her head, but you never know. We've had two obstructed sightings among the cattails of our pond of a black and white duck resembling nothing in the Petersen Field Guide and which may or may not be she. This mystery duck exerts a powerful force over our lives. At breakfast, when nature is active and I am not, I'll be dragging butter across a wedge of toast while Linda squirts honey-water into the rabbit's mouth with a syringe, when the sound of distant quacking shoots us from our chairs and out into the woods through the trees and weeds as close as we can get to unapproachable swamp, hoping that the prodigal has finally admitted the error of her ways.

Andi, who has seen much trouble in her life, to her credit still speaks to us.

Your ancestral home, which has stood for millennia below the first cataract of the Nile, lies suddenly at the bottom of Lake Nasser, victim of the modern age and the floodwaters of the Aswan High Dam. So what kind of pop music do you make? My choice would be anger and melancholy floating in the rum of self-pity. But not the Nubians of southern Egypt who pile absurdity atop absurdity on the irrationally bouncy Mambo El Soudani (piranha), with results as improbable as its title. Salamat realize that the modern world's a mess, and instead of straightening up the pieces, they knot them all together, welding Nubian melodies to hard-charging Cuban and Mediterranean rhythms, hand-wringing, heart-rending filmi vocals, shards of Egyptian al jeel pop, and references to almost any western style you can name from honky-tonk to hip hop.

The phantasmagorical modern Nubia that Salamat carve from their generation's displacement is woozy, boozy, and comical even as it flings out a surprisingly sharp edge. Hot-molasses horns hold court over a frantic elastic waist-band bass, while burbling vocalist Fathi Abou Greisha wrestles his passions to the ground with cool romantic angst that barely raises a bead of sweat. On the first three cuts it all sounds like a good humored trip to nowhere, typified by the title song's mad mambo al a souk that denies itself an anticipated climax for the sake of a wheel-spinning electric clavier break. "Habibi Rah" with its taarab-style fussing and fretting and the turgid tug-of-war of "Hager" are also more vaudevillian than valorous, and "Samara" seems staked on a similar terrain of whimsy--until a serious sax arises out of nowhere, driving a Fela-style call and response of short clipped phrases between the lead singer and female chorus and building to a seething Afrobeat exchange of rippling sax and trumpet solos.

The al jeel rap "El Raqs Gamil" softens things with Sal Abd Rady's pouty vocals and a silly doo-da-doo synth sample, but even though a good time attitude prevails, Salamat never looks back again at the Casablancan melange of the beginning of the disc. The songs that follow are taut and tough. "Madani" erupts in relentless percussion and circular vocals broken only by Ahmed El Saidy's ancient-modern saxophonics, while "Salam Cairo Salam" turns a Turkish-style sharki into a moody orchestral work with stirring, massed violins worthy of a Mohamed Abdel Wahab score. Composed of former members of Nubian pop godfather Ali Hassan Kuban's band, Salamat ties cultural identity to street-smart urban styles, creating an ultimately irreducible mix of film soundtrack melodrama and the grittiness of the hardest rai.

In the southwest corner of my basement next to the water heater, I've got a cardboard carton labeled "Tommy" reserved for pop albums that contain a song called "Overture." But Innu (TriStar Music) by Quebecois band Kashtin failed to make the toss downstairs for reasons of good taste and a sense of proportion. No overblown concept here. Kashtin do just one thing and they do it exceptionally well, playing if not inventing wall-of-sound First Nations folk-rock. Instead of bouncing off an R.E.M. vector, Kashtin bite into a '70s classic rock niche, skirting period cliches via a traditional music undercurrent and hitting mid-paced compositions with a possessiveness that moves them right along. Hand drums, rattles, and other expected embellishments are used sparingly. Instead, singer/songwriters Florent Vollant and Claude McKenzie embed native motifs deep into the songs. The skank guitar on "Nekashtuamani" stands in for a frame drum rhythm, a two-step shuffles goes country on "Apu Tshekuan Nikan'Kuian" and poetic English propels "Son of the Sun" (all other songs are in indigenous languages).

Though Kashtin unplugged would lose little of its power, Innu gains a lot of atmosphere from the Phil Spector meets Daniel Lanois production style of Guy Trepanier, who also grabs a programming credit for his evocative use of samples. Songs are richly orchestrated in a guitar-based prog rock mode, but the shifting layers of fuzz guitar, acoustic instruments and electronic ambiance are subordinated to Vollant and McKenzie's vocals--even when wolf howls and a snowmobile rev up the opening bars of the Algonquin-language "Harricana" (Long Road). The sole exception where the producer steals the show is the Trepanier-assembled "Overture," a montage of treated vocal snippets, loon cries, frame-drum beats, eagle shrieks, banjo bursts, and ominous weather conditions that effectively sets up the north-of-60 atmosphere for the rest of the disc. Innu is a terrific recording, where strong songwriting and performances meet their match in classic-sounding studio craft at top form.

Opening with a song called "Berlin Overture," Beyond the Pale (Rounder) escaped being flung into the "Lou Reed" carton because Brave Old World justify the ponderous title by bleeding bits of program music into their dyspeptic take on klezmer. Any Jewish band based in Germany has ample justification for revising Yiddish music's buoyant fatalism. During their loudest passages, most pieces seem suffused with silence, like the lively "Basarabye," which may not kick up clouds of joy but kicks out glorious clarinet elevations that surpass the genre's obligatory chill factor. "Big Train" generates a different kind of palpitation with Alan Bern's eerie accordion evocation of a forlorn train, whistle howling as banging cattle cars clack away into the night. Though even their freylehks are rather melancholy, it's determination rather than gloom that drives the band's tinkering with tradition. The disc's sweetest song, a piano and cymbalom duet called "Waltz Roman A Clef," asks us to imagine that the Holocaust never happened. To think such thoughts in Germany today--and to be Jewish--takes real guts.

I've enjoyed the Dancing Cat label's recent Hawaiian slack key guitar releases with some slight reservations that have bloated into full-blown caveats with Keola Beamer's Wooden Boat. It's hard to fault Keolamaikalani's authenticity. His family has included lauded musicians since at least as far back as great-grandmother Helen Kapuailohia Desha Beamer, and Keola's slack key method book based on 16th-century lute notation and his discography of strictly traditional material give the guy the leeway to lean into the mainstream if he chooses. Some of the stretches, however, spread the pleasures pretty thin, such as "Hemo Da Kope Bean" which squanders its calypso catchiness on an ersatz pidgin accent piece you might expect to hear in Jimmy Buffet's Florida bar and grill.

The generic sparkle that clings to even the strongest songs is inarguably beautiful but ultimately as compelling as listening to the tinkling of windchimes. I know, kvetching that slack key is mellow is like complaining that water is wet. Still, what I've admired about past Dancing Cat releases is the presence of an outside world to add depth to the glare of sunshine. Sonny Chillingworth's Sonny Solo cd brought the frisson of personal struggle to effortless sounding guitar work, and though there are stories here as touching as Chillingworth's between the lines and in the liner note descriptions of "Shells" and other Beamer compositions, that content doesn't make it into the songs themselves. Faultless guitar, wistful vocals, and beckoning melodies make for a pleasurable getaway, but sometimes you want to get to where the tourists never go.

Mbalax at full-tilt has to be one of the more difficult rhythmic structures on the planet to assimilate. Early Youssou N'Dour works like 1971's Thiapathioly seemed to skate voices and instruments above a scattershot barrage of drums exploring a hermetic set of algorithms. "Old Man (Gorgui)," one of my favorite tracks from The Guide (Chaos/Columbia/Sony), punctuates the beats for us westerners with helpful guitar and organ chugs until the final minute when the training wheels fly off, a staccato-voiced N'Dour punches in, and we're left suspended above the roadbed, as cinders, chunks of pavement, and shards of broken glass hurtle past at dangerously close proximity. While this makes for challenging stimulation, it's not surprising that the most memorable songs in N'Dour's canon are built around more easily glommed, westernized tempos--"Old Tucson," "Live Television," or this disc's "7 Seconds," an instantly imprinting duet with Neneh Cherry. This seems to be N'Dour's dilemma--how to move increasingly toward the center of the world beat mainstream without oversimplifying the music. At least since Eyes Open this has meant adopting the mantle of music-that-matters.

With The Guide, Youssou N'Dour's transformation into Milton Nascimento is nearly complete. Good songs, impressive vocals, and bright moments predominate, but despite co-producer Jean Phillippe Rykiel's attempts to recover the airiness of N'Dour's earlier releases, like Nascimento's post-samba, art music mbalax takes on a burden as it accumulates the fixtures and fittings of western pop while rejecting the trivialities that make it fun. Though The Guide has a much more appealing, often sumptuous surface sheen than Eyes Open, over-production and over-arrangement are still built into the compositions. So it's fitting that "Tourista" kicks off with the tape-spin revving up of N'Dour's showcase-quality Xippi Studio. Synthesizers, sequenced instruments, and heavy processing aren't just everywhere, they are everything. Even the guitar chords at the opening of "Leaving (Dem)" sound like triggered samples, as if N'Dour and Rykiel didn't trust hand strummed instruments in their vision of crafted perfection. It's just too much. Maybe as I play The Guide to death, I'll cease feeling fatigued a third of the way through, layer by layer the distractions will drop away, and in the end I'll be left with a set of enjoyable songs. But I have two words of advice for the next century-defining release: acoustic instruments. Naked and untouched. If just on a token few cuts.

Udi Hrant Kenkulian (Traditional Crossroads) suggests a Turkish version of the Goldberg Variations. Hrant was a blind ud player reportedly so talented one of the greatest udists of the day vowed never to pick up his instrument again after hearing the young man's chops. Hrant made his largest impact through his recordings in the 1920s, but the selections on this disc come from an informal practice tape made in 1950 in the New York City apartment of Jimmy Sharegian. Fortunately, Sharegian was an audiophile as well as an ud student. These Ampex-recorded selections which he lovingly preserved are far superior in sonic quality to any of Hrant's old 78s. They also reveal a relaxed Hrant willing to take risks he never would have attempted had he known these performance would ever reach the ears of a larger audience. But the risks pay off with impressive examples of Hrant's own compositions in the Turkish art music style. In particular, these exercises demonstrate his mastery of the taksim, the improvisational section in the middle of a song where the mode established in the first section must slowly blossom into the mode used in the second. It's thrilling hearing how far he wanders afield, launching into precisely-articulated note flurries or flamenco-flavored excursions before finally easing back into the required section.

Even casual listeners to Near Eastern music will appreciate Hrant's gifts, but Tanburi Cemil Bey (Traditional Crossroads) seems intended for serious students of pesrev, saz semai, and other forms of Turkish art music from the twilight of the Ottoman Empire. The existence of this disc is even more extraordinary than the survival of Hrant's practice tapes. The sole recorded works by this legendary composer and multi-instrumentalist were on cylinder recordings made between 1910-1914 before the invention of the electronic microphone. Performers in those days played or sang into an acoustic microphone consisting of a large horn apparatus, which captured the vibrations and hence the music by inscribing grooves on a wax master cylinder. The pieces on this disc were made from the original wax masters, and while sound quality is not what we're accustomed to, results using the CEDAR digital noise-reduction system are better than many similar restorations I've heard from scratchy 78s. I did play this a few times before realizing that what I thought were flute performances were actually songs played on the kemance, a Turkish violin. But the music is lovely, the accompanying booklet fascinating, and the preservation of these fragile recordings welcome.

For lighter fare you might look to Turkish folk music, but apparently not to folk music from the eastern part of the country, where the barren landscape and limp economy occasion compositions recalling heroic figures of the past or lyrics centered on mystical yearning. As chronicled in the 60-page booklet accompanying Song Creators of Eastern Turkey (Smithsonian Folkways), an asik bard's lot is uncertain in the few areas where the traditional forms still survive. In Erzurum or Kars, asiks may cluster at a cafe, long-neck saz lutes at the ready, in hopes of being hired to play at a local fete. In ancient times these singers were often shamans. More recently, they have become closely linked to Sufism, studying under master musicians as initiates under a priest. Competitions can be contests of physical feats as well as mental dexterity. In dudak degmez, singers place a pin perpendicular between open lips and must improvise lyrics that do not include tissue piercing consonants such as v, m, p, f, and b. Songs, as you might expect, are both fierce and melancholy, often floating above different rhythms plucked in stinging tones on the saz, just as the singers may wish to float above the hardships of this world.

I wish I could report that sans commentaire (Sterns) by Madilu System sounded like a great lost Franco release. Missing on this disc is the rich vocal interweave that was a staple when Madilu-Bialu was lead vocalist with OK Jazz. System can reach tremendous emotional heights without half trying and his asides have the heft of a karate chop. I thought the high-point of "Ya Jean" was the soaring "Yaa!" that drops into an echoplex canyon, but the almost conversational evocation of Franco's name that follows packs a wallop of sheer warmth few other vocalists can match. Despite the considerable talents backing Madilu, including guitarists Dally Kimoko and Syran M'benza, Ibrahima Sylla's production imposes a mechanized texture of programmed drums and synthesizer doodles more appropriate to manufacturing a Kanda Bongo Man than supporting a near icon. While Madilu never sounds an inch out of his depth, the resonance just isn't there.

I was afraid the star-studded Wakafrika (Giant/Warner Bros.) would be: a) an attempt to revitalize Manu Dibango's career by propping him against a who's who of African pop, or b) a way to turn an easy buck by recasting can't-miss songs to suit an NPR demographic. As it turns out, Wakafrika is an extremely enjoyable Manu Dibango album, with Youssou N'Dour, Sunny Ade, Angelique Kidjo and others more an integral part of solidly arranged material than a roster in search of a rationale. Successes include a bouncy, township-style rendition of "Homeless" sung by Ray Lema; and Peter Gabriel, Geoffrey Oryema, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo performing an affecting version of "Biko," which has long cried out for an Africanized rendition. Dibango on multi-tracked saxes is irresistibly smooth, and as arranger he nails down a seductive ambiance that evokes a sense of nostalgia while still sounding of the times.

It's ironic that palm wine music once associated with the inevitable combination of rowdy sailors, public drunkeness and lust should have a gentle, hymnal quality on S.E. Rogie's Dead Men Don't Smoke Marijuana (RealWorld/Caroline). "A Time in My Life" chronicles Rogie's struggling early years and the faith that sustained him, and "African Gospel" ups the spiritual ante with an "Alleluia, amen," refrain. But not to worry. This is nothing like a Sierra Leonese dose of Contemporary Christian--not when the 68-year-old guitarist owns up in the liner notes that his major stimulation in life aside from music is sex, and not when songs flow along on such soothed curls of satisfaction, you know the man has seen much enjoyment in his life. Fleshing out the songs are Alfred "Kari" Bannerman and Emile Ogoo, electric guitarists so sympathetic to Rogie's style they seem like his second and third pair of hands. Jazz bassist Danny Thompson, who's played with everyone from Nick Drake to Ketama, conducts his own ground level service in the title song where palm wine sidles across the couch to leave room for hand-rolled. It's a beautiful, fitting last record. Too bad it took so long for a major label to sign Rogie.

For insistent rhythms and falsetto male vocals, forget your Bee Gees albums and look to the Mexican state of Michoacan for Pure Purepecha (Corason/Rounder), an anthology of pirekuas love songs and abajeno dance music of the Purepecha Indians. Tight unison singing, near-discordant harmonies and simple melodies lope along to waltz tempo guitars and bass in the love-struck pirekuas. As with much Mexican music, high-register male vocals are prized, often sounding delicate enough in the weeping style used here to be scattered by the first hint of a breeze. In marked contrast are the frolicking, violin-launced abajeno dances, whose snap and vigor resemble the sones of the Tepalcatepec river basin featured on Corason's excellent thee-cd box, Antologia del Son de Mexico. As with all Corason recordings, the audio quality sounds pure and untampered with in faithful field recording style--a big plus in preserving the charm and spontaneity of this extremely enjoyable disc.

Just in time for the sacred medieval music surge spurred by the singing monks of Chant comes Llibre Vermell de Montserrat (Mesa/Blue Moon) from instrumental group Sarband and the Osnabruck Youth Choir performing songs from a 14th century codex known as the Red Book. In its opening minutes, the first cut, "O Virgo Splendens," hews to familiar Gregorian territory until the entrance of a group of female singers introducing a welcome note of polyphony. The second surprise arrives when "Salve Virgos" changes the tenor of the reverential atmosphere from meditative to ecstatic with Paolo Ceccere's wailing angel-speak shawm and ominous cascades of eastern percussion.

Hypnotic in the rosary recitation sense, the choir's voices are so thick with the atmosphere of the cathedral in which this disc was recorded, I can almost feel the spires traveling up my spine. The only disappointment is that Sarband, last heard backing Les Mystere des Voix Bulgares, doesn't step out in front of the vocalists more often to kick holy butt. Llibre Vermell was transcribed and arranged from the original codex by Vladmir Ivanoff, director of the Les Mystere choir. While this may lack the flashpoint of Bulgarian music, its cold fire is equally compelling, especially considering the lineage of some of the compositions. Feeling that the virtuous who made pilgrimages to Montserrat needed holy songs to sing in the church square, the monks adapted melodies from popular and often bawdy songs of the day. While I don't see any devotional limericks lurking in the libretto, the music does contain hints of Spanish and other European folk traditions.

Technobeat Central  
Columns by CDs and Artists / Columns by Date
Columns by Subject / Page of the Whale