(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 19, Number 3, 2000)


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

For a fix of Finnish fiddle music, you'd naturally look in the Finland section of your friendly neighborhood cd store. But to satisfy that Finnish harmonica jones, you'd best bypass the international bins altogether and grab this one-of-a-kind disc from Marquette, Michigan. Playing in the all-but-extinct lumberjack style once widespread among Scandinavian immigrant communities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Les Ross, Sr. rolls out the traditional tunes on Hulivili Huuliharpuu-Rollicking Harmonica (Conga Records).

Instead of the more familiar single-note blues harp style, the 76-year-old Ross plays melody, rhythm, and chords at once with the result that at times you'd swear two or more harmonicas were jamming full tilt when, in reality, it's only Ross. The accordion-sounding workouts range from melancholy waltzes to high-stepping polkas and even a 5/4-time jazz excursion that still retains the nostalgic campfire-feel of the rest of the pieces.

Hulivili Huuliharpuu's producer is Les Ross, Jr., son of the harmonica man and leader of the Marquette-based self-described "Finnish reggae band" Conga Se Menne (aka the Conga Boys), whose members back Ross, Sr. on several cuts. Boy Ross cautioned me about the supposedly raw, rootsy sound of his father's disc, but quite the opposite is true. Blissfully free from obvious studio polish except for a train whistle here and some ersatz phonograph record clicks and pops on the closing cut, the performances are sonically rich, whether emphasizing Ross' harrowing speed on the Finnish-Russian song "Tummat Silmat" (Dark Eyes) or adding orchestral strings to the creaky waltz "Lammen Laine" (Waves on a Pond). The 17 songs are nicely varied and include contributions by vocalist Tanya Jurvelin-Stanaway, violinist Mary Syria, kitchen-knife percussionist Arnold Kippola, and other regional players. The constant is Les Ross, Sr., who completed the majority of his complex leads and blistering solos in a single take.

So far, Hulivili Huuliharpuu has earned recognition in Great Lakes folk circles and among Scandinavian music aficionados, but the disc deserves much wider distribution-especially since the lumberjack harmonica style is as endangered as the Kirtlands Warbler. When Les hangs up his harp, the genre will lose probably its finest surviving practitioner. For ordering info, go to www.congaline.com or call Les Ross, Jr. at (906) 475-9399.

A little bit of lumberjack harmonica sneaks into Myllärit's Into the Light of the White Night (Myllärit), a collection of folk tunes from Karelia, an ethnic region that lies partly in Finland and partly in Russia. What a difference an arbitrary political boundary makes. The Karelian tunes from Finland I've heard via Hedningarna, Girls of Angeli, Värttinä and others range from dour mediations to pop laced with astringent. Myllärit's milieu is as unabashedly cheerful as the Seven Dwarfs' commuting music, glad-handing rather than introspective. The breathless mix of Finnish, Russian gypsy, and even what strikes my ear as Germanic borrowings conjures scenes of a happy proletariat clog-dancing into the wee morning hours in a lush Alpine setting of fir trees and ten pins. Waltzes "Tunteellinen Valssi" and "Surullinen Valssi" are launched on twin prongs of flawless musicianship and sentimentality, and when the band kicks into high gear, silly voices and all, on "Osa Poika, Ovvi Poika" (Lucky Fellow), the ponies comes charging from the pen along with reindeer, goats, and geese. [P.O. Box 153, post Mills, VT 05058 or www.projectharmony.org]

If the new CD by guitar trouble-maker Marc Ribot and his band Los Cubanos Postizos hangs together better than the "fake Cubans" eponymous 1997 debut, that's because Atlantic Records originally signed the act after Ribot had played just three club gigs parsing the music of Cuban composer and big band leader Arsenio Rodriguez as kind of a goof. ¡Muy Divertido! (Very Entertaining) is both more cohesive and more divergent than the group's feedback-encrusted premiere thanks to peppy acoustic passages shaking hands with blaring noise and clever arrangements that manage to create hooks from oddball textures-including "Stranger Than Paradise"-star Eszter Balint's somnambulant lead vocal on disc-opener "Dame Un Cachito."

Though Ribot made his name backing Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, and fellow downtown Latin pop enthusiast Arto Lindsay, for five years he was a member of John Lurie's Lounge Lizards, and the noir influence shows. Ribot cloaks '50s-style Cuban music in layers of irony, giving us the ersatz nostalgia of cuts like "Lomas De New Jersey" which waxes melancholy for the singer's wish to return to the scented New Jersey hills of his youth, complete with a deadpan voice-over translation of the Spanish-language lyrics. Fueled by the burbling underpinnings of Steve Nieve's electronic organ and the frequently signal-processed percussion of E. J. Rodriguez and Robert J. Rodriguez of the Miami Sound Machine, the band teeters between a star-crossed love of exotica worthy of Martin Denny and freshly cultured curd from a stoneface variant of the B-52s.

Rescuing ¡Muy Divertido! from Brave Combo purgatory is the conceptual fire that lights the project. Los Cubanos Postizos glom onto not merely the lovely melodies of yesterday's mambos, but also the angular rhythms lurking just beneath the surface. Part punk, part pretty, and consistently nightmarish, the resulting melange provides a perfect soundtrack for the scene in Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" where Janet Leigh is pumped full of drugs in a sleazy Mexican border town motel managed by Dennis Weaver. Though the fake Cubans play with as much style and intensity as the genuine article, the well-considered artifice short circuits passions lasting longer than the moment of creation. The thrills enjoy a ripe immediacy that's rather exhausting over the long haul. Wisely, Ribot keeps the length of the CD to a manageable 42-minutes-not so long that you're seriously tempted to hurl the thing under the wheels of passing traffic.

It strains the brain to think that Takashi Hirayasu and Bob Brozman had never played together, never met, never really spoken, and had no idea if they'd even get along before sequestering themselves for a week in a small wooden cottage on Taketomi, the most untrammeled of the Ryukyu Islands. Musical strangers meet and part for session work and collaborations all the time, but rarely to temper tunes as intimate as those on the quirky Okinawan and Hawaiian blend Jin Jin/Firefly (World Music Network).

Hirayasu gained fame as the guitarist for Shoukichi Kina's band Champloose, which brought folk rock stylings and a reggae-minded stubbornness to traditional Okinawan shimauta "island songs" and earned kudos from Bob Marley. A walking CD-ROM of American music genres, Brozman is best known for his acoustic slide guitar teaming with Cyril Pahinui and other Hawaiian slack key artists, not counting his guest appearances on PRI's Prairie Home Companion. Though Okinawa lies just south of Japan (which is the occupying government of the day after years of American possession), its musical roots throw tendrils throughout the Pacific from Bali to Polynesia, making the pairing of Hirayasu and Brozman a more natural fact that I'd anticipated. Slow teary-eyed cuts like "Bebe Nu Kasakaiga" have the sweetness, pacing, and melancholy of traditional Hawaiian heart-tuggers, not to mention indications of shared modality.

But it's the rough, off-the-cuff honky tonk vibes of the one- and two-take wonders on Jin Jin that sell this happy fusion which meshes as if the principals were life-long cellmates. Disc opener "Akata Sun Dunchi" is maybe a bit too rough, leading with lowing Japanese beef vocals that may send wary listeners flailing for the "stop" button, but it's all smooth grazing from there. "Uruku Tumi Gushiku" cranks up with an ubiquitous chip-chop island rhythm, peppy lyrics about the mercantile trade, and a woodsy back and forth flow between sanshin lute, baritone guitar, and slide guitar. "Umfura Udun" marries a plodding beat set by Hirayasu's guitar to rippling accompaniment by Brozman well suited to this comical sounding lullaby. The "Firefly" title track with its over-the-top singing from Takashi's midsection and popping, snapping, incandescent acoustic guitar from both men is the CD's tour de force, proving that raw charm and dazzling musicianship aren't mutually exclusive.

All but a couple of cuts on Jin Jin are based on traditional songs so well absorbed into Okinawan culture they're literally the equivalent of "Pop Goes the Weasel." That means the tried-and-true melodies have been socially engineered to stick to the listener's memory like dayglo Post-Its. This plus the luscious acoustic guitar work makes the disc irresistible. And come to think about it, I'd love to hear Hirayasu and Brozman tackle "The Old Grey Mare" next time around.

I knew there were diamonds in South African, but I never thought I'd get my hands on them until Eagle Records send me five double-cds of music from the South African Broadcasting Corporation archives. Talk about your national treasures. The SABC first got serious about recording this music as an arm of the apartheid apparatus in the late '50s. The idea was to keep the different ethnic groups confined to Bantustan "reservations" and as a way of keeping them separate, serve them audio diets of their own music. Thus, the Venda people of the north would only hear Venda music on the regional Radio Bantu outlet. For Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho or Swazi songs, they would have to try for reception of a distant station. Ironically, the government's repression has had the unplanned effect of preserving an important piece of culture that would otherwise have been lost. For the first time in history, the SABC recently opened its audio vaults to outsiders for the African Renaissance series of recordings from 1959-1994. The two-cd sets consist of Volume 1: Zulu, Volume 2: Venda, Volume 3: South Sotho & Tswana, Volume 4: Xhosa & Swazi, and Volume 5: Ndebele & North Sotho.

Having received these gems as I was wrapping up this column, I've barely had time to dip into the series. Rather than short shrifting any of them, I decided for the moment to bask in Volume 2: Venda, with its amazing collection of artists totally unknown to me. Colbert Mukwevho comes off as the great lost rock steady harmony group on "Ndi Vluba" and "Ra Thubelani," Thisgombela Tha Tskikuwi perform a folkloric local analog to Haitian rara with whistles, trumpet, percussion and ecstatic chanting on "Gwingwill," Frank Nefhasi and his quiet electric guitar plays troubadour on three cuts, Tshigwada Tsha Toronto lay into the cymbals on "Ndi A Tuwa," and on and on with a constant string of surprises and delights. The pop cuts are typically built around familiar South African rhythms with simple arrangements of a guitar or two, then maybe drum and bass. To the credit of the original SABC recordists and the present day archivists, none of the songs jump out as sounding older than any other. Too bad the government didn't keep better notes on its artists, since at least the sonic differences would have provided aural clues as to the chronology of this music. But that's a small quibble with a magnificent collection highly recommended to any fan of uncluttered pop.

There's no big mystery as to why the rural Cuban son has made it big. At a time when artists and ambiance are as synthetic as Texas beef, a dose of rough cut country feels like the real thing. So what to make of the sonic sweetening shot through La Pulidora by Septeto Santiaguero (NubeNegra)? I can't blame the band for all the modernisms, since the ensemble dates back to 1962, and the current spate of young musicians stays close to the classic style. The producer seems to be the villain who's taken the boys out to the woodshed to smooth off the burrs. Disc opener "La Wemba de Marilu" points to problems to come as the promise of a sinewy solo tres guitar is spoiled by tinkling bells sprinkling fairy dust that José Alberto Rodriguez's hoarse trumpet tries to blow away. "Flor de Ausencia" has a nice tune and catchy chorus, but lacks the punch a bolero needs to get above the cobwebs. "El Guaguancó es Más Sabroso" brandishes a gritty lead vocal that's squandered by backing voices that wouldn't be out of place at the glee club. Throughout the disc, both trumpet and vocal parts are either double tracked or electronically thickened, ruining the natural timbres, and a bloom of reverb is omnipresent. Fortunately, the material is strong enough to survive, and moments like the tres and percussion dialog on Ñico Saquito's "Los Que Son y No Son" darn near redeem the whole disc. Play it through the cheapest boombox you can find to restore a rough and tumble attitude.

From Scandinavia, we get lots of folk music on these shores, and when it isn't folk, it's folk-rock. When it isn't folk-rock, it's folk-pop. Folks scatter, however, when mushroom collector, novelist, and Hammond organ instructor Øivind Hånes takes over the studio to perpetrate Sch-sss-kjt (Bajkal Records). I could make the joke that Hånes recently founded Bajkal Records as a means of unleashing his ice cold sound collages on the world. But that wouldn't explain his five previous releases or work with other Norwegian artists, nor does it explain what he's doing growling and muttering through Sch-sss-kjt like a savant who's just scored a week's worth of thorazine. Fact is, these soundscapes are enormously appealing, not the least because there's not a smidge of techno fashion nor a danceable drum machine groove to his electroacoustic experiments. The more I listen, the more I hear a frozen bebop sensibility to the backing tracks and, of all things, the flavor of traditional joiking in his tongue-tied vocalizations. And anyone who isn't moved by Hånes' open-head-injury cover of "Jamaica Farewell" has way too much taste for me. (www.uio.no/~eivindl/BajkalEng.htm)

I'm gonna like this, I said when the first cut of Seydu's Freetown (NubeNegra) came on. With its flamenco guitar flourishes and rolling beat, "Momokatha" reminded me of Habib Koite's smooth blend of West African and European shtick. I'm not gonna like this, I said when the second cut hit the skids with an uptempo pop arrangement straight out of a low budget R-rated '80s youth flick and English language lyrics "Dance of night under the candle light, far reaching out of sight." Third cut "Palm Wine Talk" is a little better if you have more tolerance for Bobby McFerrin a capella antics than I do and can forgive the lack of a discernible palm wine music style in this Sierra Leone native's songcraft. And it's all downhill from there until the seventh cut, "Ju Ju Man," on which Seydu's voice reaches a thinness usually reserved for supermodels as the band flails with some unidentifiable funk. Beyond this I've been unable to voyage, despite three brave attempts. Call this cd African Music for Dummies, if you must, but bear in mind that bigger talents than this smart newcomer have busted apart on the rocks of attempted fusion.

Whenever I hear the words "Romanian" and "panpipe," I think of the ineluctably hopeful Zamfir and thank my lucky stars I've never ordered albums advertised on TV. Damian Draghici, whose great uncle fearlessly taught the panpipes to Zam, upholds the family name and regional traditions with Românian Gypsy Panflute Virtuoso (Lyrichord). Even when tootling out rapid-fire note bursts on "Without Borders" or "Ruby Dance," Draghici still balances the sorrowful weight of his country's history on his pipes. I don't know if it's the scales, material, or pacing, but nothing here strides under the same sun as ecstatic Andean pipework, and Balkan material via other hands and lungs can be rousing. Despite the accompaniment of always tasteful percussionist Randy Crofton, Turkish multi-instrumentalist Omar Faruk Tekbilek and guitarist Chris Cunningham, the lovely music here ruminates quietly like intricate plans ready for hatching, repeating, "it should've been" instead of proclaiming "listen to me."

Gypsy brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia proves that Romanian music can be deliriously celebratory on Baro Biao, Worldwide Wedding (piranha). Well equipped to make momentous music for momentous occasions, the 12-piece ensemble consists entirely of blaring brass and reeds, along with a bass drum and percussionist clamoring to be heard above the tubas, baritone horns, tenor horns, trumpets, clarinets and saxophones. No fiddles, accordions, tinkling bells, or guitars mitigate the mighty blast of this ethnic Moldovan troupe from northeastern Romania, which never plays at less than full tilt or hurricanic volume. The brass band line-up has been handed down from Turkish martial bands, and with military fortitude Ciocarlia will often play for 30 hours straight in unstoppable juggernaut style.

The liner note photo shows the band lined up outside in a large open area, presumably to let the audience spread out or take cover. I can't imagine acoustic-instrument music this loud being unleashed indoors without a demolition permit. Such raucousness is tailor made for marking special occasions like weddings since the sheer weight of sound announces a separation from life's routines and the arrival of a big event. Instead of simply playing melody and accompaniment with their horns, the ensemble uses brass and reeds to fill every cranny of their arrangements. Tubas and baritone horns puff at different tempos to create a polyrhythmic pistonic underpinning that all but relegates the drums to ornamental status. A trumpeter or reed man might float cool dollops of eastern inflected jazz on top per the exhilarating six-minute "Asfalt Tango" which opens the disc, or a Turkish-influenced lead vocal might occasionally clear some room for itself.

In more reasonable moments, the instrumental free-flight resembles klezmer and its cousins, but in songs like the cartoon-esque "Sirba de la lasi," where percolating layers of brass and rippling reeds are one-upped by clarinets trilling at the speed of hummingbird wings, the use of conventional instruments is almost as unusual as the Burmese sandaya re-invention of the piano or the shocking Indonesian genre, lagu sayur, which populates a gamelan framework with western orchestral instruments and Hawaiian guitar. Sadly, the traditional gypsy brass bands are giving way to cheaper electronic-instrument ensembles which also satisfy a taste for western-oriented music. But with its mix of musics from American pop to Bollywood filmi soundtracks, Fanfare Ciocarlia stakes a claim for the traditional as endlessly elastic.

Just a few years ago, an anthology of music from the Dominican Republic that wasn't dedicated to merengue would have been unthinkable. So popular is bachata now, that just two tracks on Republica Dominica (Putumayo) are merengified. Despite the change of times and tastes, this collection is superb, mainly because the top-of-the-line bachata represented here has the same rootsy spirit as the traditional Cuban son. In fact, bachata-son combinations with sparkling requinto guitar accompaniment make a strong entry starting with two opening cuts "Tranquila" by Luis Vargas and Juan Manuel's "Para Que Me Mate Un Hombre Que Me Mate Una Mujer" and later continue with the lean "Los Bodegueros" by old timers Joseito Mateo & Luis Kalaff. With its tough acoustic guitar groove, accordion, and no-nonsense solo and harmony singing by this pair who first hit it big in the '30s, "Los Bodegueros" stakes its passions on, of all things, a tribute to Dominican shopkeepers. Based on a couple of other barnburners by the island's oldsters, I was starting to think of this music in Buena Vista Social Club fashion. Then along comes Gen-Xer Juan Bautista with the hardest charging piece on the whole disc, "Pegau," complete with crunchy hook and a big brag of a vocal.

Considering my wholescale belief in alien abductions, crop circles, ghosts, bigfoot, chucacabras, elves, and just about any other paranormal stuff you can mention, my skepticism about the healing power of Alessandra Belloni's new world interpretation of the tarentella is an anomaly of its own. Dancing to the frenzied Dionysian-derived rhythms of Tarantata, Dance of the Ancient Spider (Sounds True) would be beneficial from a cardiovascular standpoint alone, so I understand Mount Sinai Hospital's willingness to let dance therapist Belloni work with its mental patients. But I hem and haw a bit at her claim of a generalized "repression of erotic desire" that this traditional music of Southern Italy helps to cure, since the genie has been out of that bottle at least since "Friends" hit NBC. But there's no disputing the attractiveness of Belloni's blending of tambourine, emotive Islamic-influenced vocals, and modalities reminiscent of Balkan genres nicely supported by flute, violin, acoustic guitar, accordion and Glen Velez's percussion. The slower prayer songs and chants from medieval days are my favorites, and a couple of entries from Brazil don't wander too far astray.

So unashamedly New Age is Sorma's Mirage of the East (Pacific Moon), rose and saffron color incense sticks come embedded in the spine of cd case. Because the Japanese band uses local instruments like the koto and shakuhachi along with the synthesizers, this gets over on ethnic credentials as much as on its pleasant palette of sound. The band's attempt to sell the orientalisms as a take on Indian and Mongolian fare adds an unexpected, presumably naive charm. Holes punched in the cd spine let you inhale the incense as you listen. But I still smell computer chips. [www.pacificmoon.com]

I hate to sound like a broken record, but The Ananda Shankar Experience and State of Bengal (RealWorld/Narada) sounds like a broken record. That's because it commits the cardinal sin of regulating the complex rhythms of Indian music with tick-tock drum machine tracks. And so the pleasures of Ananda Shankar's sitar along with tabla and percussion by Mohinder Singh and Pandit Dinesh are strangled. This is a sad comeback for the long absent RealWorld label, as is the "new" anthology Voices of the Real World, which siphons RealWorld's early '90s glory days for most of its tracks.

Ain't nobody doing non-ironic surf music anymore, at least not in the continental 48. But from Hawaii Coconut Joe lavishes praise on mammoth waves, first love, summer rain, and other basic pleasures of island life on Two Waters (Turtle Bay Records), where tongue and cheek never come together. Lest we think paradise is immune from misfortune, one member of this four-piece soft rock troupe commemorates "Thomas Wylie" to his brother who disappeared atop Pali lookout on the Koolau cliffs back in 1965 in a soulful tribute worthy of Jan & Dean. While I don't hear much I'd identify with slack key, the harmonies have a nice Hawaiian touch and the whole project radiates warmth. Pop it in your Mac or PC and tap the familial spirit via an interactive extension of the liner notes.

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

[Copyright 2000 Bob Tarte]

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