(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 21, Number 3, 2002)


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

The strongest, strangest folk-based music out of western Europe sounds closer to ancient Bulgarian grain-threshing songs than anything out of modern Scandinavia. It's the pop invention of Finland's Värttinä anchored to a 17th century Finnish Karelian musical genre called reki and a far older form called runosong. But don't tell bassist Pekka Lehti and drummer Marko Timonen, who throw down hard dance rhythms over traditional-based melodies, Antto Varilo, who nurtures choppy Nile Rogers-style guitar patterns, nor sax and bouzouki player Janne Lappalainen, who together with violinist Kari Reiman and accordionist Markku Leppistö often favor Balkan Gypsy flavors over homegrown motifs. If these wired-up folkies comprise the engine, Värttinä's four female vocalists provide the renewable energy source shooting out sparks of ferocious intensity on Live in Helsinki (NorthSide). Imagine 1970s Swedish pop group Abba at full ecstatic tilt in the middle of a climactic chorus, establish that as the baseline from which Susan Aho, Mari Kaasinen, Riikka Timonen, and umlaut-blessed Kirsi Kähkönen begin, add dissonant harmonies, Eastern modalities, then dose the quartet with angel dust - fallout from real angels, not the drug - for an inkling of the women's ilk.

Songs on Live catch Värttinä producing the most elementally pagan sound in pop, a snarling, guttural, estrogen-charged aesthetic arching back to archaic pre-cataclysmic days before the Earth's poles flip-flopped and when the matriarchy ruled. On disc opener "Äijö" a quartet of she-devils emerges hissing from a cave as Kähkönen spits out an ancient snake incantation from medieval terrain so dark even the brothers Grimm wouldn't dare tell the tale. "Käppee," which chronicles a cute but irritatingly dumb male, gets a rapid-fire a cappella vocal treatment packed with churning syllables and unfathomable phonemes that fall on foreign ears like a secret feminine language. But it's not all thorns and fly agaric mushrooms. Sweeter songs abound, though even traditional wedding ditty "Kyla vuotti uutta kuuta" is astringent despite the swelling harmonies, and stately "Meri" is the merry story of fathers and sons who perish at sea.

The first eight Live cuts showcase a varied repertoire drawn from the band's last hundred or so albums, while the last six songs harness a whirlwind that's dubbed the "dance music section" of the disc. However you regard the feverish village stomps that follow - as the product of heavenly choir or massed dental drills - the result is identical. You'll be worn down to a nubbin, barely able to lug the cd to your pc to watch the excellent if vaguely unsetting concert video of "Äijö" that's included on the disc. But whatever you do, don't set your cd player on repeat, or it will take a team of exorcists reciting something humdrum like the tax code to bring you back anywhere close to normal consciousness.

Usually if a release by an artist slips past me, I don't bother catching up. I've got so many cds strewn across the floor for possible review, I can barely make the trip to the far side of the room to put kibbles in the cat's dish. While writing up Keola Beamer's Soliloquy last issue, however, I realized that I had completely missed Kolonahe: From the Gentle Wind (Dancing Cat) from way back last century in 1999. Beamer stands at the apex of the Hawaiian slack-key guitar style, and I fretted I was missing serious fretting. I'm glad I requested a copy, because Kolonahe turns out to be my favorite of his releases.

Three of Beamer's last four cds (Soliloquy, Mauna Kea: White Mountain Journal and Moe'ehane Kika: Tales from the Dream Guitar) consist solely of instrumentals, and for all their beauty the songs shimmer in a rarefied atmosphere, as if Beamer had taken his guitars to the loneliest rocky outcrop he could find and hit the record button. Kolonahe is not only drenched in buckets of warmth, but includes backing by a full string section on the nostalgic "Maui Waltz" and by three members of the Modern Mandolin Quartet on "Ku'u Lei Awapuhi." The latter cut also features Beamer's aching voice hitched to a bittersweet melody that descends like shades of night until an upturned chorus and trilling mandolins pepper the sky with distant lights. OK, the mandolins are supposed to suggest kolonahe, the gentle wind, but they feel more celestial than meteorological to me. Whether he's dazzling with fancy fingering or defining the dimensions of a song at a majestic pace, Beamer always performs with depth. But more than any of his other performances, "Ku'u Lei Awapuhi" captures that ineffable soulful spirit that Hawaiians refer to as aloha.

Kolonahe is nicely varied. Beamer mixes up the emotions, rhythms, and instrumentation enough that individual songs really pop out. "Shaka Slack Key," a guitar duet with George "Keoki" Winston of seasonal piano fame - and a piece Keola recorded previously in 1986 - gallops along in an antique style I've heard many times that always reminds me of the ragtime era. "The Beauty of Mauna Kea," a paean to the famous mountain, begins with, of all things, a short serenade on bamboo nose flute. It's another new version of a composition penned early in Beamer's career, as is "Honolulu City Lights." Both songs were originally recorded in the 1970s. The stately "Pele Trilogy" includes more unusual instrumentation as the guitarist accompanies his strum and voice with 'illi'illi lava-stone castanets. A less-than-gentle wind closes the disc on "Ka Makani Ka'ili Aloha," the tale of a man whose wife is swept away by a cruel gust. George Winston's piano adds a hymnal quality to this stirring song.

While his fingers can keep up with any guitarist's, Beamer favors a slower, emotion-laden style that shines brightest here. His technique centers on releasing the essential feeling from every note he plays, and you can hear not only artistry stretching back over 30 years but also familial roots in music dating from the 15th century. This is deep entertainment in the best possible sense, dramatic and graceful, never heavy.

Toots Hibbert cut one of the all-time classic reggae albums in 1988 with Toots in Memphis, a collection of soul music and r&b covers done Jamaican style and nailed to the grooves with Hibbert's gruff silkiness. Memphis sparkled with the same professionalism as all of Toots' work in the late 1970s and early '80s. But missing from these performances was any hint of the explosive energy that made Toots and the Maytals' earliest recordings virtually unequaled in the annals of either reggae or rock 'n' roll for the mind-boggling intensity of the singing. Wilder than Little Richard, more out-there than Jerry Lee Lewis, the group's performances on "Let's Jump," "Bam Bam," "African Doctor," "Pressure Drop," and many others captured the wild abandon of the rawest ska and channeled it foaming and raging into torrential vocal arrangements.

Unlike the two-cd anthology Time Tough from 1996, which spans the bulk of Hibbert's long career, the two-cd 54-46 Was My Number, Anthology 1964 to 2000 (Trojan/Sanctuary) concentrates mainly on the Maytals' early output. A 2000 version of "Broadway Jungle" is the only post-1974 track. By my count, both anthologies have 13 cuts in common (not counting remakes), which still leaves 54-46 with 35 other songs. These treasures include 1970's "Doctor Lester" (AKA "African Doctor"), which coasts in on a sweep of hand drums seemingly in the middle of an exhilarating chorus, tilts at one brief verse, then greedily hugs the chorus riff so hard the piece throws away all pretense at song craft, not even bothering to come to an actual end. The vocals gradually fall apart just before the music fades out. It's in the same mold as the much better known "Pressure Drop," and I can't think of another band that makes one small idea feel huge enough that it doesn't merely fill a song to the bursting point, you immediately want to hear the track again to soak up the joyous radiation. You could call the early Toots a primitivist and you wouldn't really be wrong. I prefer to think of him as a force of nature, sort of like thunder or lightning.

I wasn't overly interested in accordions when I ordered a copy of Global Accordion - Early Recordings (Weltmusik Wergo). But I was enthusiastic about rare world music recordings most from the 1920s and '30s culled from obscure 78 rpm records. Digital processing has come a long way in the last decade, because the source material sounds smooth and clean and for the most part lacks the sonic flattening of early computer-assisted attempts to remove clicks and pops. The few tracks that do betray surface noise are presumably included because of instrumental prowess as extraordinary as Russian-American immigrant Gregori Matusewitch performing "Yidisher Melodien" on piccolo accordion. This classically flavored klezmer selection from 1929 has little in common with the better known rollicking big band style of Yiddish music that Matusewitch's fellow New Yorkers were uncorking in the 1920s.

Aili ja Lyyli Vainikainen's "Kasakka-Pollka" from 1930 strikes the ear as the first cousin to a sailor's hornpipe rather than a Finnish folk song, and Tex-Mex legend Narcisco Martinez plays "El Tecolote" with speed seldom heard in the ranchera-based border music of the region. Though the modality and rhythm of Hira Malaza Taloha's "Rambalamanana" also from 1930 are unmistakably from Madagascar, the beautiful choral arrangement of women's voices accompanied by a concertina distinguishes a style you would probably have difficulty finding performed today. Conversely, Cajun and merengue examples illustrate that classic forms haven't changed much in 60 years, and the rich, almost orchestral accordion arrangements from Austria and Germany are wondrously odd for all their mainstream charm. Squeezebox fans will squeeze this disc close to their hearts. World music buffs with a curiosity about the history of various genres will linger a while, too. [Distributed by Harmonia Mundi]

For many years the sound of guitar highlife was the instantly recognizable sound of African pop music. The first 10 seconds of Francis Kenya's "Ensuah Nzema Kotoko" on Electric Highlife: Sessions from the Bokoor Studio (Naxos World) explains the reason why. Flinty guitar lines provide both polyrhythms and soaring melodies, keyed-up vocalist Kenya shouts and warbles to the encouragement of his supporting singers, a drum kit and hand drums throb in the background, and the energy never lets up. Guitar highlife launched international acts like Nigeria's Prince Nico Mbarga and paved the way for Fela Anikulapo Kuti's inimitable Afrobeat. But back home in Ghana, lots of local bands were eking out a living in the wake of a night curfew that put the kibosh on club gigs by cutting records at John Collins' Bokoor Music Studio. The live-to-record sound of most of the tracks gives immediacy to the performances. Even the rather dippy "Tsutsu Tsosemo" (Old Time Training) by the Black Beats with stuttering "too-too-too" vocals, roller rink organ, and languid tune crosses the fun threshold. Highlife highlights here include Eddie Ansah's chiming guitars on "Mewu Mo Dzi" (I'm Looking on High), the high-pitched instrumental antics of the oddly named Beach Scorpions on the nearly 10-minute--long "Friends Today, Enemies Tomorrow," and the wonderfully funky "Yaka Duru" from Collins' own Bokoor Band. This, incidentally, is the perfect companion disc for John Collins'1992 book on West African pop music and the heady days of the Bokoor Music Studio, West African Pop Roots (Temple University Press).

More vintage West African tracks abound on The Rough Guide to the Music of Nigeria and Ghana (World Music Network). Heavyweights I. K. Dairo, King Sunny Ade, Sir Victor Uwaifo, and A. B. Crentsil weigh in with top-notch tracks, Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe contributes a tasty shot of big-band highlife from his revitalized career, and former Fela drummer Tony Allen goes avant garde on "Asiko." Juju, fuji and highlife are about as quaint as doo-wop today, and this fine collections offers examples by some of the best practitioners of these endangered but still-kicking genres.

Oliver Mtukudzi's Vhunze Moto (Putumayo) is an affable collection of songs that seems to have everything going for it. His husky voice carries difficult subject matter with fluid ease, steering both the anti-cruelty plea "Kucheneka" (Don't Kill Me) and the AIDS awareness anthem "Tapera" (We Have Been Decimated) into attractive pop territory. Part of the secret is a gentle, understated delivery of both lyrics and instruments coupled to subtly burnished guitar and percussion augmented by a sonorous female chorus that adds just the right amount of joy to the Zimbabwean's cautionary songs. A synthesizer and drum machine nudge the overriding folkloric approach toward technologic, and it's here that the problems begin. The drum machine fills continually contribute artificial mini-climaxes to a song style that benefits from extended, unresolved tension. The breathy synthesizer timbres needlessly underscore the humanity of Mtukudzi's vocal performances, veering toward ambient terrain that's just across the border from sentimentality. And the percussive busy-ness of the arrangements subvert the nicely layered guitar plucks, mbira patterns, bass and acoustic drums, making the loping tempos seem to lag behind an impatient producer's intentions. Lovely as the songs are, after listening to three or four, I hear mainly window dressing, and that's a shame.

Tanzanian vocalist Dr. Hukwe Zawose wears his modernisms as a tribal mask on his collaboration with Canadian producer Michael Brook, Assembly (Real World). Part traditional music, part hiphop, and part ambient, the project nicely balances its constituent parts and even leaves room for lovely vocals reminiscent of the Baka Pygmy people by Zap Mama's Marie Daulne on "Chilumi Kigumu" (Tricky Voices). Zawose is a powerful vocalist whom Brook punctuates with bursts of Latin brass on the paint-stripping opening track, "Kuna Kunguni" (The Bedbugs Bite) and witty horn snarls on "Haliko Chijende" (Let's Walk). Brook's production and treatments sometimes threatens to turn every musical element into either a peak moment or a respite from peak moments. His work with Indian mandolinist U. Srinivas on Dream and the late qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on Night Song had better flow, though herky-jerkiness is part and parcel of the hip-hop aesthetic. I just wish it didn't feel like these multipart songs switched gears simply because a limited idea had run out of steam.

Totó la Momposina is a one-woman walking encyclopedia of Colombian musical folklore. She's also something of a perfectionist. A band with the chops and horn section wielded by her ensemble could easily have cranked out an entire disc of the blazing salsa--influenced rave-up that opens Pacantó (World Village), hailing from the glory days of cumbia-derived big-band styles. Instead she labored three years on this cd that delves into the African, Spanish and Indian roots of her country's music. If that implies an academic exercise, first consider that Totó has been doing essentially this throughout her 30-year career. Second, wrap your body around the Afro-Indian spine buster "Milé (El Hombre Borracho)" which sears the ears with a wound-up guitar solo by none other than Congolese rumba legend Papa Noel. "Acompáñala" leaves the city lights behind for a folkloric piece welding yearning vocal harmonies to furious drum beating in a performance whose quasi-ritualistic air achieves a full head of steam on the next song, "La Riplá." Her las gaitas pre-Colombian-style cactus-wood flutes stand in for the voices, pushing us even further from the village and closer to flickering firelight. Most big bands can either play folklore or urban genres well. Totó's crew tears into both worlds with equal expertise. Enlisting lots of young musicians keeps the performances dance floor-lively even when reviving long-forgotten Colombian genres. [Distributed by Harmonia Mundi]

Ireland's Altan gives Celtic music long arms on The Blue Idol (Narada World/Virgin) by concentrating as much on attractive production techniques as on the ever-solid musicianship. Acoustic instruments float in ambient space that helps define and reshape the timbres with an emphasis on mile-deep textures. When not led by overt bass lines and percussion, songs like the jig "Roaring Water" are propelled by chugging guitar rhythms plus pipes with more kick than bleat behind them. Center stage is reserved for lead vocalist Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, whose voice is a warm breeze on a cold spring day with emotive force more felt than heard. Well-known Celt Dolly Parton tags along on "The Pretty Young Girl," a translation of a Gaelic piece about a maiden so innocent and ethereal that simply describing her in the vulgar English tongue threatens to plunge her into dishonor. Highest honors go to the bouncy, near-Mother Goose ditty "Uncle Rat," which Altan raises from its 16th century origins (not to mention links to "Froggie Went a-Courting") with irresistible vocal harmonies, snappy guitar lines, a dandy pipe and fiddle bridge, and intimations of lively animal desire behind the personified rodentia.

You won't catch me saying anything negative about Irish music masters the Chieftains and their justly earned 40-year anniversary that's celebrated on the star-studded The Wide World Over (RCA Victor/BMG). But a lot of the big names here are wildly miscast in this anthology of collaborative tracks from over the decades. Van Morrison's paean to rural Virginia, "Shenandoah," surely made more sense in the context of an entire album from the singing spark plug, and Ricky Skaggs offering of "Cotton-Eyed Joe" makes me wonder if the rights to "Camptown Races" got tied up. Art Garfunkle, Sting, Sinead O'Connor, Joni Mitchell and Elvis Costello are also on board, though the award for irrelevance must surely belong to the Rolling Stones for lending the "Satisfaction" riff to "The Rocky Road to Dublin." Tracks where the Chieftains go it alone are superb, and a Don Was-produced version of "Redemption Song" with Ziggy Marley proves that reggae and Irish fiddles can indeed walk hand in hand.

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

[Copyright 2002 Bob Tarte]

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