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
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
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
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.
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