It seemed like a dream that sleepless night during the trough of the
sunspot cycle. Coffee in hand, hands trembling, from my tiny bedroom world
I edged across the dial of the 60m tropical band which only hours before
had been brimming with Brazilians. Dead air. The ionosphere was as unreflective
as my dull thoughts. Then as I traversed a field of stuttering teletype,
I stumbled on a muezzin-like wail and the feverish backchatter of a disconsolate
I instantly deduced the source. Given the propagation conditions, path of
darkness, the day's geomagnetic forecast and my recollection of West African
broadcasting schedules, 4783 kHz could only be the Bamako outlet of Radiodiffusion-Television
Malienne. But what manner of music was I hearing? A mysterious Koranic take
on delta blues, wraithlike and compelling. Chilling in the moonlit gloom.
Prodding my battery operated tape recorder to life, I collapsed into bed
and tumbled into nervous sleep.
I awoke troubled at heart. At the first offense of morning sun, I suspected
I'd suffered another annoying out-of-body experience--like the series of
nested-Russian-doll false awakenings one night a month before. Each time
I thought I had finally shaken off the dream state, my kitchen bulb, instead
of feebly illuminating the table, countertop and a cello-wrapped loaf of
raisin bread, flared to supernova intensity to white out the entire physical
world. When I finally did awake, so afraid was I that my soul remained hostage
to an astral whim, I stood next to the refrigerator repeatedly working the
wall switch to assure I had indeed escaped the lie.
This time I felt anchored in the indisputable reality of the recording I
had made the previous night. I listened astonished to the long, pinched
vocal phrases followed by a torrent of single-stringed response and invention.
Despite the poor reception, the deep fades, bursts of static, a headache,
I played the tape again and again. I knew that African genres parented the
blues, but assumed the latter had strayed far from its sources. I never
imagined that a chunk of the motherlode--or one of its aged children--remained
a vital, not simply historical force.
Similar astonishment greeted me as I listened to "Ai Bine," the
first cut of Ali Farka Toure's third American cd The River
(Mango). But Farka's John Lee Hookeresque approach represents the conclusion
of a circle rather than its beginning. On the face of it, the smooth mix
of electric guitar, dusky sax, and bright calabash percussion is far removed
from the primal angst of the Malian song I had taped.
Yet for all of this, "Ai Bine" remains closely knitted to traditional
African music. If the blues chronicles the fate of man cast off from grace,
The River celebrates the continuity of a firm cosmological sense
of place. "Toungere," a coming of age song reaching back to lion
killing rituals, asserts the surety of faith bound to fate, a philosophy
I regard from a respectful distance. It also asserts that one-stringed Malian
lute which held me spellbound earlier, a cthonic undertow to Toure's dazzling
guitar like an ancient, still vibrant pagan altar buried beneath a Gothic
Listening to The River I'm simultaneously struck I've heard this
before/this is absolutely new. Playing theme and variation with archetypes,
mixing them, blurring them, creates syntheses of disconcerting power. The
last time I skimmed Wuthering Heights I congratulated myself as I
pegged each character in turn as a paradigm of a different psychological
constellation. Poor pre-Freudian Charlotte, I clucked. Then as I read further,
she abruptly shifted psychic poles, dragging her performers into tattered,
unfamiliar terrain, subverting and deepening the relationships as she recontextualized
her map of human needs. Poor us.
I'm too sunk in sleep to write a novel of my own--Weathering Bob,
perhaps--but I am considering compiling a dream world atlas. For all their
disguises and embroidery, mine take place in a few recurring settings. A
downtown apartment block, often merged with a school. My parent's garage.
An Icelandic San Francisco thick with glaciers. A duck pond. A waterfront
factory. My car. Considering the nearly unbounded potential of dreams to
sculpt whole universes, this strikes me as a rather pathetic geography.
I should try drifting off to The Music of Mohammed Abdel Wahab
(Axiom cd) by Galilee-born oud and violin terror Simon Shaheen. But
no chance of dozing. This is the real stuff. When you think of Middle Eastern
orchestral music, Wahab's arrangements are what your mind's ear hears. Short,
addictive melodic phrases. Furiously churning handdrums. Witty dialogues
between see-sawing string sections and solo instruments.
Wahab's songs possess such technicolor depth, it's hard to imagine them
paired with images without redundancy. But many of his pieces were composed
for the Egyptian cinema in the '30s, when Cairo rivalled Bombay and Hollywood
as a filmmaker's paradise.
His lapidary treatment of traditional motifs bends to inevitable formulaic
impulses, as the compositions stretch the screen with western harmonies
("Al Hinna") and those Latin rhythms ("Ibnil Balad")
no African musician seems capable of resisting. But Wahab, who masterminded
the original fusion recipe that launched a thousand Hindi soundtracks plus
taarab offshoots--with few alterations, "Hanil Widd" could be
a Zanzibari wedding song--is easily forgiven for quoting his own brilliant
Wahab was as much a gifted vocalist as composer, yet most of the cuts here
are instrumental. Shaheen's amazingly evocative string work fills the void.
Though the disc's centrally located "Theme and Variations" concerto
for oud and orchestra is the intended tour de force, "Mudnaka",
on which Simon fiddles as the orchestra burns, doesn't leave a single brick
Subtract the cornball aesthetic from rai, add disco's thrust toward self-caricature
and you're left with the Martin Messonnier-produced Yalil
(Mango cd), which should appeal to fans of last summer's Yalla, Hit List
Egypt. Flogging exotica as commercial strategy, French femme Amina
fares best the thicker she lays on the mascara persona ("Belly Dancer",
"Mekloubi", "Yalil"). But turn her loose on more conventional
francofiller ("Gallouli", "Embarrasse Moi") and watch
her curl up on the floor.
It tells the tale that the hottest cuts are a pair of remixes that feature
the vocalist in judiciously pasted dabs. But a disc that relies this heavily
on spine-straightening production and stupid synth tricks should tell us
something new instead of flaunting gimmicks and grooves that are just plain
Yalil's yentas should educate themselves with another Mango release, Ray
Lema's Gaia. Its bubbly, shook up Nehi Orange approach
to African music represents an extraordinary change from last year's silk
thunderstorm, Nangadeef. Instead of daisy-chaining MIDI-connective
escape ropes from Zairean roots, Gaia harnesses the power of the
microchip to beat technology back to its rightful relationship to humanity.
Gaia hypothesis indeed.
Not only would this disc have us believe earth is a living, bopping organism,
its celebratory air cajoles us in demigod Atlas fashion to bounce the featherweight
globe on our hips, as the weird exorcism of one impossibly jaunty cut blends
into another. Gaia not only flaunts the fun of the naughtiest zouk,
the punch of the toughest reggae, the polycomplexity of the knottiest African
rhythms, it out and out appropriates Kraftwerk on "Hut of Fun"
and "Technodream" (besides riffing on the cover art of Electric
Captivating musical success or technological wonder? This two-headed beast
matches silicon with soul. Check out the electronic crickets of the cd-only
"Sweet Walk". Even weaker throws like "Tato Wa Biso"
will give keyboard programmers sleepless nights, send hyperactive children
into frothing fits and plunge the terminally depressed into an even deeper
The Jolly Boys, Sunshine 'n' Water (Rykodisc cd). Nothing
else since Rock 'n Roll With the Modern Lovers has juxtaposed this
level of willful looseness with such impeccably controlled dynamics. That
the ambience evokes a colonial, travel agency Jamaica casts a shadow of
political incorrectness upon the tomfoolery. Or is it toothlessly reassuring
to hear golden agers wax single-entendres about "My Pussin'",
while Luther Campbell is deemed a social threat for extolling the same?
Still, the disc has charm if you can suspend disbelief by interpreting anachronism
as eccentricity not nostalgia. I just wish the boys found a few of their
jollies in witty social comment.
Santiago Jimenez, Jr., El Gato Negro (Rounder cd).
Instead of jamming with rock 'n rollers like brother Flaco, Santiago Jimenez,
Jr. has been widening his audience by wearing the heart of Tex-Mex tradition
on his chest in charismatic live performances and a string of gorgeous releases.
His latest reconciles the seemingly carefree flavor of border music with
the harsh realities of a marginalized underclass. Tales of broken dreams,
dashed hopes and lost love abound. But pride, independence and pure roguery
stake their claim--as do manic "Mary Had A Little Lamb" accordion
bust-outs that add spice to the peppy chord cascades.
Neil Young With Crazy Horse, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere
(Reprise cd reissue). Spend an evening wallpapering your ears with the juju
captains--everyone from King Sunny to Tunde King. Then when you're too tired
or blissed out to resist, sneak on "Down By The River" and marvel
at Young and Danny Whitten's extended guitar telepathy. You may paint in
the talking drums.
Les Tetes Brulees, Hot Heads (Shanachie cd). Can Cameroonians
Tetes Brulees survive the biggest loss to a band since the death of Ian
Curtis? The question nearly occludes the triumph of this cd, nudging toward
obsolescence the remarkable innovation of an aggressive, balafon-guitar
centered African rock. Word is the Hot Heads' recent American shows without
lead guitarist Zanzi provided convincing evidence that their chain link
mesh of rhythm and voice survives. But can heights like these be scaled
Pagan Babies, Wild Root Remedy (Marketplace cd, P.O.
Box 10657, Honolulu, HI 96816) Strivin' Hawaiians bait hooks, hooks, hooks
with homespun harmonies and more international references than the nightly
news. They open every can of worms from zouk to chimurenga. On "Door
Number Two" the can refuses to close again--with environment threatening,
Madagasikara Two--Current Popular Music of Madagascar (GlobeStyle
cd reissue). From Rossy's take on township jive to the crisp, valiha pop
of Zeze et Groupe "Son" and Ny Sakelidalana, this new-to-cd anthology
of gentle, Latin-flavored songs vigorously scratches the surface of an all
but invisible pop culture. Trio "Fa"'s accordion jam rules.
Sanougue Kouyate, Balendale Djibe (Mango cd). If every given
note transmits ecstacy, how are we to tell the high points from the lows?
The delicate background of strings, piano and tabla supplies the answer,
when Sanougue tones down the Ethel Mermanisms long enough for us to hear--or
on the lovely "Yllafondo Made Silla", as she falls back into the
trenches of normally modulated emotion.
Gazoline, Featuring Pier Rosier, Zouk Obsession (Shanachie
cd); Sam Fan Thomas, Makassi Again (Celluloid cd). The only way of negating
that incessant infernal thumping is to dance to it, which I guess is an
object lesson. Once the body absorbs the heavy artillery, the mind is free
to cleave to the airy pleasures of Sam's understated voice and Gazoline's
spaced out banjo. Sound like dualism? That's the problem.
Robin Holcomb (Elektra Musician cd). Minimalist composer turned
apalachian waif. Takes secret snapshots of the heartland. Develops them
in a translucent acid bath. Prints them on bars of silver. Dreams the dream
outside the dream. If Kafka had been a musician, Gregor Samsa might have
awakened from troubled sleep as a deer.
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