(by Bob Tarte, published in The Beat magazine, Volume 10, Number 2, 1991)


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 one-stringed lute.

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 church.

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 self.

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 standing.

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 common sense.

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 Cafe).

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 hole.

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 again?

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, exhilarating results.

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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