(by Bob Tarte, published in The Beat magazine, Volume 10, Number 5, 1991)


It was a proposition as certain as any in the world of natural phenomena. The sunspot cycle lasts 11 years. Amanita phalloides mushrooms cause liver failure. Night follows day except in polar regions. The smallest horse on earth is the nine-inch-tall extinct eohippus. Eek-a-mouse is incapable of carrying a cd on his own.

These are facts as indisputably unwavering as the cesium standard clock at the Royal Greenwich Observatory--as any third-year student of particle physics or past releases by the Eekster will readily verify. His trademark vocal acrobatics aren't the problem. Feed me sixty solid minutes of MC Mouse's mind-meld of doo-wop glossalalia and a spin dryer full of ball bearings, and I'm ready to take on a heaping second helping.

But the Eekster's English-as-interplanetary-language enunciation, which makes no-means out of morphemes via the dissective prowess of a drunken neurosurgeon, needs the support of more musical tooth than has previously been available within our galaxy. Backed by standard skin and bones studio reggae, the Rasta rodent tends to de-evolve from flamboyant curiosity to some droning nerd from a home heating and cooling convention who traps you in an elevator.

Though it took the talents of a half-dozen producers to add variety to Mouse's spice--from Stetasonic's Daddy-O to Shabba Ranks' Augustus "Gussie" Clarke--as it turns out U-Neek (Island/Peace Posse cd) is nothing short of brilliant, the most distinctive reggae hip-hop amalgam to date.

Certainly it's the funniest, from the rowdy remake of Led Zep's "Dyer Maker" to a hilarious deflation of the "Godfather" theme in "Gangster Chronicles" to the mock-serious choir intoning the Mouse's nonsense scat syllables on "Rude Boys A Foreign." But once the shock of the new fades with repeated listenings, humor loses its bonding force. So it helps that U-Neek's attack is consistently varied, genre-stretching the Mouse's ouevre like so much silly putty.

Not only don't any two cuts sound alike, many don't resemble any reggae I've heard before. Is that a blast of Balkan dance music jump starting "Run for the Border", or some techno-latin thang jitterbugging "Let The Children Play"? Forget it. What consistently carries the day is the Eekster's ability to transmute self-consciously idiotic wordplay (check the Maui-Waikiki-Fifi-Fiji-sushi rhyme string on "Get Away") into narrative that packs real punch.

"I walk, I talk, but I no crawl on my belly like a reptile," he sings in "Border Patrol" an ostensibly funny image that soon turns chilling, as the singer recounts his harassment by American immigration officials. Irrepressibly bubbly backdrop to the contrary, "Rude Boys A Foreign," weaves a sobering story about Jamaican dope dealers in the U.S. Even "No Problem," which equates the projected trajectory of the Mouse's career with ending apartheid and other serious social problems ("I don't see no problem with that!") is less an egocentric boast than a boost of optimism.

So my apologies to the Eekster, who stands head and shoulders above the vocal feats and applied production science to reveal a lion's heart. No surprise. I always knew he had it in him.

Asked why members of Ivo Papasov's orchestra rarely look at the audience during concerts, saxophonist Youri Younakov replied, "There is no time. Have you ever seen how a hunted wild rabbit runs? It runs zig-zags, stops, returns, does 8's and 16's... That's how Ivo plays. And we chase him like hounds with our tongues hanging out."

While "Mladeshki Dance" opens Balkanology (Rykodisc/Hannibal cd) to the reasonable pace of a reggoid skank guitar, before long the mild mannered Turkish reel accelerates into hyperspace, setting the pattern for most of the songs that follow. Ivo flings himself headlong into tempi incognita where few western Western musicians would dare extend a toe, igniting clarinet bursts at a maddening 11/8 rhythm mirrored note for note by Younakov and accordionist Neshko Neshev, while drummer Stefan Angelov sets up a fusion clatter in brave ground-level pursuit.

It's difficult believing Balkanology presents Bulgarian wedding music based on traditional folk motifs and not the latest harmolodic jazz torture. Dazzling as Ivo gets in terms of sheer momentum, even more impressive is his tonal mastery, blowing his clarinet full throated and rounded one moment, then the next phrase pinching it back into an atavistic buzz. Despite the white-hot note-density, melodies emerge with miraculous ease to linger lazily in memory.

Ivo's wife, Maria Karafezieva, tempers the hysteria with hierophantic vocals in the quavering Bulgarian body-electric style--a timbre Ivo somehow matches on his instrument. But even the slow numbers burn, as this disc pushes the envelope of conventional approaches to folk, jazz, time and spatial plasticity.

In the hallowed tradition of Nigerian's premier juju captains, Afropop innovator Fela Anikulapo Kuti has amassed a bewilderingly fat catalog of domestic and foreign releases that range from illuminated descriptions of the promised land to tail-chasing detours through moraines of recycled riffs. Shanachie's slab of classic Fela is thus an easy choice. Squeezing onto disc three-fourths of two lps from the bandleader's most inspired period, Original Sufferhead combines a couple of his best extended vinyl jams with a pair of rarer, shorter pieces (one a mere 13:42).

A response to a thuggish police raid that murdered Fela's mother and destroyed his home, "Sorrow, Tears and Blood" is remarkable for the passionate detachment that turns personal grief into a cool-headed expression of anger at the Nigerian government. His big band has never sounded more succinct and powerful. Riding a start-stop bassline, stuttering rhythm and seething sax solo, "Colonial Mentality" widens the indictment to villify a corrupt, inherited social order based on the greed of a priveleged few. On this and the title cut, the interplay between Fela and a chorus composed mainly of his wives is outstanding.

So why quibble with greatness? Despite the inevitable pops and crackles, I prefer the sound of my lps to these neatly-scrubbed digital versions, which strip away noise and hiss at the expense of three-dimensionality. The horns especially suffer. Note-tails are subtly clipped; rather than trailing off into silence, they roll off at a low threshhold and simply end. Brightness replaces punch in the sax-sections, but I must admit the added overall crispness does work to the advantange of the vocals.

If you don't have the vinyl originals, Sufferhead probably won't suffer. Its sonic eccentricities don't even approach the flatness and shallow staging of the Live in Amsterdam double-lp. But would someone please tell me what a "jeffa-head" is?

3 Mustaphas 3, Friends, Fiends & Fronds (GlobeStyle cd). This singles- and rarities-based portrait of the artists as an evolving concept traces the Balkanesque funsters from their campy genre-splicing days to the grittier, more empowered boundary erasures of the present. The self-assured "Linda, Linda", presented here in two essential versions, seems to have been the turning point. Some remixes like the Albanian-language "Bread & Salt" improve so little on originals I'd suspect padding but for the cd's packed 70-minute length and knowledge that Soup of the Century sessions with Yugoslavian bandleader Jova Stojiljkovic so far languish unreleased. The two new cuts at disc's end are pleasant pastorals.

Malicorne, Legende (Rykodisc cd). Liner notes to this generous retrospective peg the defunct ensemble as France's Fairport Convention for its update of folk material. But Malicorne's approach is closer to middle-early Gentle Giant, so art-rockers who like their ink from a quill pen viscous black will grow goosebumps in the dark. Not only arrangements but proficiency on invented instruments display inspired medieval contrariness.

Salif Keita, Amen (Mango cd). If any pairing could turn virtuosity to revelation, depend on Malian griot Keita and producer Joe Zawinul for an epiphany. But I'm still tapping my foot and waiting. While Zawinul's arrangments impart a flow Keita's instrumentals previously lacked, the voice still seems forced in its righteousness, as if triumph over personal adversity automatically conferred spiritual authority.

Aurlus Mabele with Loketo, King of Soukous (Sound Wave cd). On this brisk train ride through sun-drenched environs, if you're open and alert the vistas thrown off from the sparking wheels invite exhilaration. In the blink of shadows across your face, the modulation of countryside, markets, billboards, apartment blocks and farms keep your eyes miles from the newspaper on your lap. But let them drop for a second, and by the time you've begun your crossword puzzle the half-hour commute is over. Now that you've arrived, where are you? Someone's radio on the station platform plays a hymn.

Guitar Paradise of East Africa (Earthworks cd). The microprocessor-inspired evangelic thrust of soukous has pushed this gentler but by no means less brave guitar-based pop irrevocably into the background. Compared to the sapeurs, the musicians on this '70s-'80s compilation seem positively ancient, yet their argument of letting traditionalism breathe in tight city spaces remains current. If an inevitable nostalgic ache underpins the fade-to-silence guitar figure that introduces "Achi Maria," consider that Kenyan-government victim H.O. Kasaselleh knows more about the modern world than most of us care to. Vocals that frequently feel like laughter are so compelling this could just as easily be termed a singers' paradise.

Jimmie Dale Gilmore, After Awhile (Elektra Nonesuch cd). Neotraditionalists as far back as Graham Parsons have argued for the merits of C&W. But I always dug in heels against an aesthetic of resignation that gives negativity a bad name. No one else sounds like Gilmore, though, whose reedy, lonely whistlestop voice evokes Last-Picture-Show microcosms of an America crumbling from the edges in and a rugged individualism leading to self-diagnosed symptoms of madness. "Even if you're lying with somebody you really love," he sings jauntily, "you gotta go to sleep alone." Existentialism has never sounded sweeter or more like a natural fact.

Thomas Mapfumo, Shumba (Earthworks cd). The genius of chimurenga is how its anticipatory rhythms point to a resolution that can only occur outside the music. Within the songs, the tension never ceases. Yet this same rhythm, carried away in the body, sloughs off all anxiety to induce instead an essential cellular tempo or the stuff of ping-ponging alpha waves at least. And when songs of reconciliation do surface in the midst of these chronicles of struggle, the abrupt relaxation feels luxurious at first, then later as if something's missing. It took a while past the scope of this '70s-'80s anthology for Mapfumo to fold his joy at Zimbabwean indepedence back into a form as forceful as his longing. But the elation is strong enough to carry away, too.

Winston Jarrett and the Righteous Flames, Solid Foundation (Heartbeat cd). While dancehall insists on instant gratification, roots reggae opts for biblically paced patience and a warm choral sound that, until now, kept the increasingly audible technology of pop at arm's length. But here the synths and samplers joyously pump the arrangements--brilliantly in the cover of "Satisy My Soul"--and organically interweave in perfect timbre with Jarrett's upward arching vocals. He does ragamuffin scat, pure pop, prophecy and proscription, straining a bit only on the lover's rock, but whose voice doesn't crack where life-or-death romance is involved? And he never lets the bassline falter.

Tony de la Rosa, Asi Se Baila En Tejas (Rounder cd). Because I don't get to hear much conjunto, some of the subtler points of the music are lost on me--telling the sound of one performer from the other, for example. No such problem with Tony de la Rosa, though, whose continuous button-pushing style penetrates the fog of my ignorance by avoiding the endless Sisyphean cycle of verse-solo-verse-solo, for one thing. For another there's a great deal of variation between cuts. Strings of polkas and rancheros are deftly tied off by jump-up instrumentals that toy with a jangly, orchestral carnival feel to playful variations on "Roll Out the Barrel", which I never even knew I loved. He sings with as much good humor as he plays, never letting the accordion line falter, not even for a single breath.

Honor the Earth Powwow: Songs of the Great Lakes Indians (Rykodisc cd). While traditional music from other continents steadily gains visibility, some American genres remain obscure. Nonesuch Records' American Explorer series is beginning to rectify the situation with fine releases by Charlie Feathers, Boozoo Chavis and others. Closer to the soil comes Mickey Hart's Rykodisc recording of drums at the edge of magic at a Wisconsin tribal gathering of Memoninee, Ojibway and Winnebago. And the drums are the first thing you notice--never more belly rumblingly documented than here--then the high-pitched male lead vocals that share a shamanistic vitality with Thomas Mapfumo. Copious line notes demystify the shapes of the energy that are otherwise immediately and directly grasped.

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