(by Bob Tarte, published in The Beat magazine, Volume 11, Number 2, 1992)


FLINT,MI--Though the locals loathe it, Roger and Me hit the mark in its depiction of this city as the Maginot Line of Industrial America, a community coddled, bribed, and blackmailed--and ultimately abandoned--by the greediest of the once Big Three.

Like most aspects of life in Michigan, Flint's collapse overlaps the surreal. A few blocks south of the Radisson Riverfront Hotel--linchpin of the new convention center on which the city hitched its revitalization hopes--a sign on the abandoned MacBeef Restaurant reads: "Future site of the offices of the county court under construction in the Montgomery-Ward Building."

Need a public defender? Check out the Jack-in-the-Box Annex, I suppose.

The Radisson itself, not even a decade old, is unravelling faster than last year's socks. No hot water in the showers. Crowbar imprints on my door. A hallway littered with remants of long bygone room service meals ("NIXON RESIGNS!" screams a copy of the Flint Journal folded beneath a Melmac plate). Guests huddle and eat in their beds, fearful of venturing out where chunks of American-made pavement could meet the windshields of their Japanese-made cars.

I travel about as well as a raw egg yolk--especially when business forces me to meet and speak to people. So the night before training a hospital art department in graphics software, I join the invisible hoard of hotel huddlers. Armed with my CD boombox and a handful of discs to review, I bask in the illusion that not only haven't I left home, I'm actually not anywhere at all (William Shatner's contribution comes in handy here).

As I prepared for the drive to Flint earlier in the day, an omen: through the window of my office, I watched a hawk perched on the rooftop cross of Park Congregational Church. Seems straightforward enough as portents ago, undoubtedly indicative of a successful journey. But once you factor in my poor relationship with Christianity, irony undercuts any interpretation. Like those poor souls in Purgatory the nuns used to warn me about, I feel stranded on a crumbling ledge with the ruins of a failed traditionalism below me and a steep precipice obscuring the revelation to come.

Next time I'll request a room closer to the coffee shop. Cultural foundations may rise and fall, but there's solidity in the roasted bean. And such fragility in these Songs Before Dawn: Gandrung Banyuwangi, volume one of Smithsonian/Folkways' ambitious 15-cd series of Indonesian music. Three volumes have been released so far.

Every form of music speaks its own particular language, some of them more open than others. Crucial to accessibility is the intended use of a genre and the specificity of that use. At the large end of the funnel we find pop from Bamako to Bay City with its wide embrace of leisure and commitment to pleasure. On the constricted end are musics tied to religion and ritual, difficult to understand when removed from their original context.

Gandrung banyuwangi travels about as well as a raw egg yolk--woven into a set of social circumstances so complex hundreds of words of liner notes only hint at the meaning. Seblang subuh--the form documented on this cd--accompanies a dance at the end of an all-night celebration, when the accumulated sexual tension of male partygoers needs to be safely dissipated. The provocatively dressed female gandrung dancer/singer emerges, accompanied by a clownish male vocalist, the pengudang. As she flirts and flits her way through the audience, flicking her scarf at her dance partner/victim of the moment, the penduang goads her with a steady stream of ribald remarks, commands and encouragements.

But the dance doesn't always restore the intended sense of order. Should the guests take offense at the gandrung's teasing or interpret her butt-waggling too personally, sexual heat can escalate into violence--not too surprisingly considering the sado-masochistic elements of this crazy vaudeville, which traditionally involved the participation of transvestites and prostitutes. Tres sexy, no?

Well, no. On record seblang subuh is decidely nonerotic. The male-female vocal interplay reminds me less of Shiva cavorting with his consort than a pair of dueling Eek-a-Mouses. Lacking an intimacy with Javanese culture plus the vital visual aspect of this purification-rite-cum-burlesque, I'm stranded with 70 minutes of cowbell rhythm chatter that never quite kicks up a compelling beat, weak hurdy-gurdy swipes of violin, pinched melodies, a wafer-thin, brittle texture and perplexing cartoonesque vocals to match.

I have no idea what I'm listening to or why, only that it sinks so far into the background, I crawl off the couch to put on some music while this cd is already playing. But then, when the long disc has ended, the silence in the room suddenly seems so harsh by comparison I find I must have enjoyed the experience after all--but the pleasure is too rarefied to quantify, and I own no yardstick thick enough to measure my own ignorance.

Music from the Outskirts of Jakarta: Gambang Kromong (Music of Indonesia 3) is more overtly and immediately striking. True, the old repertoire lagu lama comprising the first half of the disc isn't exactly your average roadside pop attraction. A lovely twisting current of fiddles, metallophones, flute and voice parry in and out, above and below, and on both sides of a melody, revealing a song's essence by cagily defining the negative space around it. Play these delicate songs outdoors and you risk losing them to a breeze.

While lagu lama is rooted in traditional Chinese music, which molds it without particular insistence, modern repertoire lagu sayur takes the shape of a shocking collision between New Orleans jazz and gamelan styles. In terms of sheer disorienting strangeness, Polish reggae, New Guinean marimba rock, Thai bluegrass and Bulgarian wedding music scarcely hold a candle to this wonderfully confusing stratification of grossly incompatible instruments and influences.

Mexicali trumpet, Hawaiian guitar, egg-timer gamelan backbeat, Chinese violin and Keith Moon percussive wallops shoot off blithely in their own directions, unconcerned as a Lisbon-via-Macao vocalist conducts a dogmatic discourse over the fray. After a few listenings, once the traffic jam resolves itself into a joyous street parade, the mixture begins to feel more like a natural stroke of genius than an uptown experiment in avant garde orchestration. Dixieland must have sounded the same to my poor grandma.

Difficult to believe that lagu sayur is a largely ignored, peripheral form of music in modern Indonesia rather than the cutting edge of a bold new pop. Performed and listened to by small towners and World War II era old timers, it's the country and western of Java--while Soneta Group's Rhoma Irama, featured on Indonesian Popular Music: Krongcong, Dangdut, & Langgam Jawa (Music of Indonesia 2) is the island's Stevie Wünderkind.

Though the polished pop called dangdut (named for its tabla two-beat "dang-doot" anchor) at first blush seems safe and conservative, innovator Irama made a big noise by using his music to protest the lot of his country's poor and by advocating a return to Koranic values versus the increasing sway of foreign values and technology. Considering Soneta Group's reliance on hi-tech instruments and pop borrowings from other cultures, his advocacy of traditionalism is contradictory only until you realize that Irama plays a music centered around nationalist rather than regional concerns. This sets his genre apart from the others in this series.

Though western rock provides the imagery, basic instrumentation and production values, dangdut leans more heavily on filmi, Indian film music. Songs like "Sahabat" ("Friends") race to the pulse of an action-adventure epic--or an old episode of "Ironsides"--which makes sense, since Irama has starred in more films than even Elvis. Less adventurous than filmi, dangdut's gift for building songs out of short phrases with contrasting styles and textures transforms simple steps into great strides. But for sheer beauty of voice, Irama can't touch Orkes Melayu Radesa's enigmatically named Mansyur S., whose soaring operatic delivery owes its soul to Roy Orbison.

Rounding out the disc are examples of kroncong, nostalgic pop with roots in the 19th century as the music of Eurasian toughs. Its current incarnation, solidified in the 1930s, holds little indication of a life spent on the streets. But it does clearly reflect a Portuguese origin in cascades of arpeggiated guitar and gliding vocals that call to mind American cowpoke and Hawaiian ditties. The sparkling ambience could be pulled from the fantasy sequence of a '40s Hollywood film and sugarcoats a post-independence reliance on patriotic themes. Its sweet sound is irresistible.

Ali Hassan Kuban, From Nubia to Cairo (Shanachie cd). Long-in-the-tooth stadium-filler Kuban slips into the world music arena with a delivery so nonchalant I was ready to dub his effort at keeping up with, much less propelling, this drum-slaphappy pop as quixotic. Then I recalled the kind of flattened vocals that urge zydeco toward its matter of fact joy, and I was sold. With a deep Nubian beat, this is the cd that convinces me Egypt is in Africa--and that "Sukker, Sukker, Sukker" can be a term of endearment.

Outback, Dance the Devil Away (Rykodisc cd). After a leap from busking Tube egresses to a warm embrace in college town America, you can't blame the guys for wanting to build upon success. But Wiggins and Craddick's charm lies in the imaginary geography of a striking didgeridoo-acoustic guitar ode to wandering and statelessness. By adding members who submerge Wiggins' haughty spit and spatter beneath undeniably informed ethnic references, they risk becoming just another Sunday brunch worldbeat band. But the threat provides the thrill when the expanded ensemble plays tight circles around expectation, generating a heat envelope large enough to ignite a marching band. Still, why risk trampling the flame?

Bahia Black, Ritual Beating System (Axiom cd). Mention Brazilian jazz and my head collapses at the thought of audiophile labels purveying sonically correct sambas stripped of spirit. But this tough fissionable material produced by Bill Laswell is something else again, a natural bridge between pit-of-the-stomach rhythms from the favelas and pit-and-the-pendulum North American angst meeting at the shared midpoint of the mess of days to come. Surprising, then, how lyrically these fin de siecle blues state our sinking fates, how eloquently a kit of buckets responds to a bateria, and how rare when a roster of big names (Herbie Hancock, Bernie Worrell, Wayne Shorter) plays sympatico music without showboating.

Sheila Chandra, Silk (Shanachie cd). Parts of this impress like all get out, but the juncture is as subtle as a speedbump as Chandra resolves compelling Indian motifs and clear-throated preludes by dashing blossoming inventions against creaky pop constructions. That this anthology settles into increasingly profound comfort levels each time I play it may reflect past chart success but dooms this disc to shelf sitting-status in my house once it's plowed deep memory ruts. And let's give credit where credit is due: "Blue Jay Way" was there way first with the essential British Indipop thang.

Golden Throats 2: More Celebrity Rock Oddities (Rhino cd). Since the deaths of Burton, Olivier and vaudeville, the only English-speaking actor able to keep pace with the great hams while keeping an inappropriate veneer of dignity is William Shatner, represented on this eyebrow raising anthology with a recitation of "It Was a Very Good Year" so fraught with halting syllables and other oddities of enunciation, you know you're in the presence of a prospective lifetime achievement Oscar winner. Plus Senator Sam Ervin, Jr.'s "Bridge Over Trouble Waters" lives up to your expectations.

Rara Machine, Break the Chain (Shanachie cd). A Haitian group that aspires to soul music ("Banwmenlanmou") is like Placido Domingo rehearsing the Hank Williams songbook. Why play against your strengths for a crossover audience that won't appreciate your efforts? On the other hand, the take on Boukman Eksperyans at least makes commercial sense, and when they tunnel toward establishing their own millieu, Rara transcends so-so.

Chuckleberry, Cost of Living (RAS cd). Just what we need, a thuggish Jamaican rapper, as if we didn't already have enough of our own. The homophobic "No Gay Man" has the dubious distinction of one-upping Public Enemy--or Axl Rose, for that matter--by suggesting "dem man no love punany dem deserve a gunshot." Shame on RAS--label of the Rastafari Elders and Israel Vibration--for supporting such hateful trash.

William Aura & Friends, Every Act of Love (Higher Octave cd). This new age/world music planetary conjunction masterfully pushes the joy threshold to the limit of human endurance. Not only is multi-instrumentalist Aura clearly in charge of a higher plane of cheeriness, but his background in "psychoaudioacoustics" mean you may be hearing this at your next trip to the dentist. So, brush!

Tabu Ley Rocherau, Man from Kinshasa (Shanachie cd). Like in one of those touchy-feely trust-forming seminars corporate workers are made to attend, I wanted to push 'play,' shut my eyes and fall backwards into the arms of the Zairean music patriarch--but the threat of hitting my head on the sharp corners of a drum machine gave me pause. Still, when no single song or instrument stands out, but you've got to hear the thing again to marvel at the tautness of every last nut and bolt, boundless faith triumphs. And when was the last time you heard accordion-driven soukous ("Tour Eiffel")?

Johnny Clarke, Reggae Archives (RAS cd). The title suggests a man locked in the past, but the material strongly disagrees. Rarely--and I can only think of Toots--does a forgotten artist rise from distant glory to apply his former brilliance to a totally new style. But even the Shroud of Turin jacket cover fails to convey the accomplishment as layered Bobby McFerrin-style vocals shake hands with bubbly roller coaster dub arrangements. The most laid back vocalist since Perry Como--"Give Me a Love" must have been recorded from a hammock--just to show us how it used to be, JC cuts a few in his classic strictly-rockers bounce as well. Exceptional, but why the mausoleum vibes?

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