Studying the stoic faces of Portuguese peasants on the cover of Musical
Traditions of Portugal (Smithsonian/Folkways), it came to me in a flash
not only how depressed I was, but that I'd been depressed for 12 or 15 years.
But anxiety was the main problem. Used to be it took public ridicule in
the school yard to shake me up, or jilting by a disgusted college sweetheart.
In the last few decades, however, my nervousness threshold has peaked above
Barney Fife's. I recently took four days off from work whimpering beneath
the bedcovers when my African grey parrot, Stanley, came down with a leg
infection. This was a turning point and I resolved to do something about
it. I'd tried everything in the past from mega-vitamins to foot massage
to chiropractic to the local doctor in Lowell who suggested exercise, but
a conversation with my friend, the Whale, convinced me I needed psychiatric
"My brother's a shrink. Up in Saulte Ste. Marie on the Canadian side.
Drive over the bridge, tell him your a resident, and he'll treat you for
"Is he any good? I really don't feel like talking to anybody."
"Talk?" he shouted. "He's got all the latest drugs."
Ordinarily, I wouldn't consider taking as much as a Smith Bros. Wild Cherry
cough drop for fear it might either make me drowsier than usual or increase
the ants-in-the-pants condition. Then a friend told me about Zoloft. The
gentle blue and white pill. Margaret, ex-wife of my ex-friend Fauntleroy,
was the most hyperactive, attention-deficit person I ever met, but when
my wife and I last visited her, we were shocked to find that she had calmly
cleaned her massive house from top to bottom. According to Margaret, persons
like myself who are perpetually tired, irritable, insecure, moody, distracted,
disoriented, nervous, over-sensitive, timid, guilty, enervated, slothful
and generally slow on the uptake often have a neurochemical imbalance, a
deficiency in the neurotransmitter substance known as serotonin. Zoloft,
like its brother-in-law Prozac, increases and maintains serotonin levels
without effecting the other neurotransmitters, norepinephrine and dopamine.
The beauty of Zoloft is, if you don't need it, it doesn't work. If you do,
it can work wonders. A clean drug for a clean house. I wanted it--with some
Frightened of taking the faux-Canadian psychiatric socialized-medicine plunge,
as a last ditch effort in doctoring myself, I strapped myself to Dream Songs and Healing Sounds in the Rainforests of Malaysia
(Smithsonian/Folkways). The disc presents music of the Temiar people of
central Malaysia developed from their extraordinarily close relationship
with their environment. The 12,000-strong Temiar are animists who believe
that spirit is attached to every rock , twig, animal and human, and that
sickness results when those spirits become separated from their corporeal
shells. This seemed as reasonable as explanation for my malaise as the serotonin
model with its unavoidable gas station imagery ("Fill 'er up with Super-S,
Doc"), so I sunk happily into the first batch of dream songs taught
to the dreamer by temporarily discarnate entities.
The dream songs rewarded me with a languid tempo and a lingering sonority
on the part of the lead singer who recalled a sleepy Catholic priest of
my youth battling the devil and mental cobwebs during a 6:00 a.m. Latin
Mass. A female chorus responds with quavering variations of the melody while
beating a resonant log with two bamboo-tube stampers each. The longer, deeper-tone
tube represents the males of the community, who stray long distances deep
into the forest. The shorter, higher-pitched tubes represent the shorter,
higher-pitched women who forage for food closer to the settlement. The clip-clop
of bamboo combined with interwoven call-and-response vocals is compelling
and by nature hypnotic, since the singer delivers the song from a trance
state. Due to excessive cultural diversity, however, the healing effect
on me was unpronounced. Still, I'm very taken with this generously annotated,
sensitively produced cd which includes a selection of natural sounds as
a way of demonstrating the origins of elements of Temiar songs.
A metal mouthharp played by Penghulu Senang imitates the three motifs of
the Magpie Robin offered as comparison. "Clearing the Fields,"
performed on a bamboo-tube zither, takes its repetitive melody and swaying
rhythm from the tempo of clearing away trees and brush with the swing of
a bush knife. The pulsing of cicadas on band 14 inspires the high-low bamboo
heartbeat of the dream songs. The disc also contains four spoken word selections
of the Temiar language, and for aficionados of curious instruments, three
songs played on the nose flute, whose performance is said to clear the head
of longing, though the music couldn't hold me from taking to the road.
I had planned to haul the Whale north with me until he expressed the desire
to stop at Seashell City, U.S.A. near Gaylord; The Curio Emporium and The
Trading Post in St. Ignace; and Wig-Wam Gifts in Saulte-Ste. Marie "to
conduct a little business in knick-knack futures," so I left him behind.
On the drive up I listened to the audio version of Peter Kramer's Listening
to Prozac as read by Leonard Nimoy. Since the whole subject made me nervous,
I also fitted headphones to skull and simultaneously took in Lolongkrang
(Sakti Records), gamelan degung music of West Java performed by the California-based
ensemble Pusaka Sunda.
As soothing metallophones and suling flute merged with the blur of
fenceposts, trees, and the flickering center line, I nearly astral projected
out of my car and into a bridge-support pylon. But when I pulled the ethereal
patterns into the front part of my brain, they resolved themselves into
fractals with a buzzing neural chemistry all their own. As long as I didn't
try and predict the constantly shifting rhythms guided by kendang drum virtuoso
Undang Sumarna, the effect of this gorgeous music was benign. Still, grappling
with the approach to melody of these traditional and contemporary Sundanese
songs was unnerving, since themes seem to work themselves out primarily
on the level of short, kaleidoscopic motifs that permeate the various levels
of the gamelan. At the same time, though, there's a sense of a sweeping
central melody more implied than expressed. It's closest to the surface
in "Bulan Sapasi" by Sundanese pop innovator Gugum Gumbira, and
on "Sorban Palid" which opens with a memorable cascade of notes
that volleys throughout the composition.
Anchoring the songs while hovering above them is the wonderfully expressive
suling flute of Pusaka Sunda co-founder (with Rae Ann Stahl) Burhan Sukarma,
who has to be one of the most gifted instrumentalists I have ever heard.
Burhan is incapable of playing a single note without modulating it with
extraordinary emotion. He makes me believe that in the manner of Temiar
music, the origins of suling must reflect sounds from nature. On "Bulan
Sapasi" his flute flutters and twitters like a contented bird preening
itself high in the treetops before erupting into full-throated, ecstatic
song on "Ujung Laut-Sinyur." The disc's greatest pleasure is Burhan
chasing and catching the metallophone melodies and embroidering them into
a seamless whole. Highly recommended, whatever your mental state. [P.O.
Box 721011, San Jose, CA 95172, (408) 275-9575]
In a small brick building across the street from the ticket agent for the
Algoma Central railroad and cater-corner from a shopping mall on the waterfront
I found the Saulte-Ste. Marie Psychiatric Services. The Whale's brother,
Dr. Lionel Whale, was reedy, mustached and about seven years younger than
the sibling he demurred from discussing--except to complain that "the
other one" had gotten all the breaks, including a career in show business
and a successful telephone solicitation service.
"All I have is my wretched psychiatric practice," Dr. Whale complained.
"Now what can I do for you?"
I spun a long, heart-rending tale of constant anxiety, ventured that I wanted
to try Zoloft, and without batting an eye he wrote me out a prescription.
But as I tried to take the paper from him, he held onto it tightly.
"Are you being followed?" he asked. "Do you see things? Do
voices tell you what to do? Have you ever tried to kill yourself? Do you
have violent outbursts? Are you taking street drugs right now?"
When I answered a qualified no, he gave me the paper and looked at his watch,
then abruptly stood up and steered me toward the door. "Wait a minute.
Are there any side effects?" I wanted to know.
"Of course," he grinned widely. "Possible side effects include
drowsiness, nervousness, sleepiness, dryness of the mouth, strange taste
in the mouth, nausea, diarrhea or loose stools, tremor, somnolence, dizziness,
blurred vision, sweatiness, and male sexual dysfunction, but if any of these
occur, they are usually temporary."
Gladdened at this chance to participate in cutting-edge psychopharmacology,
I took my anxiety disease south again, this time attempting to supplement
peace of mind with excitement via the EMI Hemisphere label anthology, .Salsa, Merengue, Mambo!, which contains maybe
one mambo and no discernible examples of merengue. The balance consists
of romantic (i.e., commercial) salsa from Guatemala, Colombia, Cuba, Puerto
Rico and Venezuela all featuring an irresistible big beat combined with
resistible big band cliches that are probably par for the oeuvre. The best
of the lot is still quite good. Grupo Raices from Colombia turns the convention
into convection on "El Sonero" with a silky vibraphone, dirty
sax break, cosmic salsa piano, and backbeat galore, while Cuba's Adalberto
Alvarez leapfrogs the derivative on "Mamaita No Quiere" with earnest
vocals liberated from the son montuno and an adrenaline-charged extended
tres guitar solo that throws sparks in every direction. Still, there's few
surprises until late in the game when Venezuelan Maria Rivas' "Adios
Carcelero Y Carcel" emits a mambo with a bad case of the shakes complete
with doubled-up, bent-over rhythms that free themselves from a safe and
staid beginning. She taps the unexpected a few cuts later with the tightly
coiled eroticism of "Mapale," which the liner notes call a cumbia,
but you sure couldn't prove it by me, nor by the title of this collection.
I'll take my salsa on the gritty side next time.
More to my liking is Vivito Y Coleando (Xenophile/Green
Linnet) by Conjunto Cespedes, named for lead singer Gladys (Bobi)
Cespedes and instrumentalist and composer Guillermo Cespedes. The dozen-or-so-strong
Bay Area ensemble has created an adventurous recording which manages to
be innovative without relying on the obvious use of electronics or a modern
studio sound, but through ingenious arrangements and mixtures of rumba,
salsa, mambo, son and other Cuban styles--as well as funk and jazz. Though
they're all over the Afro-Caribbean map, Conjunto Cespedes root themselves
in a Yoruban base powerful enough to disperse the occasional overreaching.
"Que Viva Chango" opens with a bata-led Lucumi prayer that uses
an unusual violin bridge to transform itself into a salsa-mambo that never
lets up on the ritual percussion. Hardly a song on the disc runs more than
a minute without changing rhythms or shaking its parts into a different
shape. The effect can be a little cluttered, but even through the Spanish
fanfares of "Alafia" or the kitchen-sink-plus jazz charts of "Ibiano,"
song after song sails by on sheer energy and a sage sense of when to strip
away the ornamentation and hunker down to an impeccably placed tres guitar
or conga solo, and the vocals are superb.
Back in the arms of hearth and home, I felt growing trepidation over the
prospect of altering my brain chemistry, lamenting the fact that, although
side effects might manifest at once, the benefits of Zoloft bide their sweet
time for as long as a month. Kicking myself for failing to ask Dr. Whale
for an additional anti-anxiety pill to combat anti-anxiety pill-taking anxiety,
I leaped into the world of selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitor (SSRI)
medication--and sure enough, the side effects started within hours.
There was an unpleasant taste in my mouth that in all fairness to the drug
could well have been caused by Trance Planet,
Volume Two (Triloka Records). Volume One deftly balanced local and
world-market genres, emphasizing the specificity of material while, through
track order and a high-tech studio ambiance, making disparate music seem
homogenous. In this edition, however, commonalty turns commonplace and point-of-origin
is replaced by a stateless EEC sound, where a Harold Budd and Andy Partridge
snoozescape ("Through the Hill") doesn't seem a whit out of place.
Four pieces of posturing in a row don't help either, commencing with Sheila
Chandra's goddess-awful "Sacred Stones" and hours later sputtering
to a halt with this year's Dead Can Dance in-waiting, Portugal's Madredeus.
I do like Moboma's Scandinavian/Middle Eastern cloning of Can's "One
More Night" on "Walk Like A Pygmy" mainly because it caused
me to dust off a vinyl copy of Ege Bamyasi, and David Hykes' harmonic singing
is always a gas. Still, Trance Planet, Volume Two never breaks out
If something is funny, it doesn't matter to me if the humor is intentional
or not (think David Lynch's direction of The Elephant Man). But I do get
testy when I don't get the gag--unless the usually jovial Swedish multi-instrumentalist
Per Tjernberg is waxing serious on his latest synth-based groove
thang, Third Word (Rub-A-Dub Records).
Sten Sandell's harmonic nose singing to the contrary on "Distant Lights,"
Tjernberg does look suspiciously stern and above the earthly fray on the
liner jacket photo, resembling Edgar Froese on a bad air day--which is appropriate
since most of Third Word's songs follow the Tangerine Dream compositional
method of letting the sequencer run around the room while soloists aim noodles
in its direction. The best cuts, in the manner of "Lizard Juice,"
add development to the steady whirring of percussive machinations, but I
miss knowing if I'm supposed to be having fun, and I worry that Per's gone
neo-pagan on me. [Tjarhovsgatan 44, S-116 28 Stockholm, Sweden]
"Abortion is a Crime," the first cut of Alpha Blondy's
Dieu (World Pacific), is the reason cd
players have skip buttons. But I didn't let that spoil a hard driving cd
in overdrive that loudly, wildly asserts reggae as the rock of the world.
It's one of the few recent reggae releases that doesn't make me nostalgic
for the old rub-a-dub rhythm that's almost a letdown when it does appear
on a few cuts. On Dieu my favorite chrome dome since Jean-Luc Picard
joins the elite of jah-music artists per Bunny Wailer capable of projecting
roots and maintaining identity while launching headlong into sensory overload.
"Wild Time" and "Rocking Time" are screamers so fast
and furious that their supersonic Steve Vai-style guitar solos seem quaint.
A French version of the Marley classic, "War" ("La Guerre"),
plus the occasional pseudo-Messianic declaration are palatably credible
thanks to the understated charisma of Blondy's waifish, slightly ominous,
minor-key delivery which in children-of-the-damned fashion continually upstages
the beautifully orchestrated chaos. Like a good book you can't put down,
Dieu just doesn't quit.
At least since Michael Rose, reggae vocalists have flirted with a plaintive,
Middle Eastern delivery, so Moroccan band Ahlam's blend of Gnawa
harmonies and dancehall rhythms would be anticlimactic if it weren't so
good. Heretofore Ahlam's releases on the Swiss Barbarity label haven't penetrated
over here, but Acting Salam benefits from
co-production, mastering, snaking bass guitar and resulting visibility by
Moroccan music enthusiast Bill Laswell, who always knows a phenomenon when
he finds it. Gnawan elements reside mainly in the strong group singing punctuated
by sufferer harmonies and lifted by the occasional eruption of a solo voice
from the mournful fray. Instrumentation borders on standard synth-heavy
reggae dance rhythms taking off from traditional-derived introductions,
like the sintar-influenced licks that open "Ash Men Hila" (What's
the Solution). "Salam," though, immerses itself deep in bazaar
culture with a herky-jerky eastern beat, amplified mandoline, and heavy
moments of a cappella inspiration. Another great touch on the Laswell-produced
"Ash Man Hilla" is the unlikely entrance of rodent-voiced rapper
Likkle Jer, who ferociously gnaws his way into the heart of the song. [P.O.
Box 140, 4020, Basel, Switzerland]
The Alpha Blondy and Ahlam disks hit their stride as I whirled into the
second pronounced Zoloft side effect, a revved-up hyperactivity equivalent
to a couple of pots of coffee and a handful of Contac time-release capsules.
Luckily, time flew by so quickly, that when the anxiety broke through to
a whole new mode of being, I felt only calm and condescending good humor
for the nerve ravaged wretch I had been for the last 20 years and now had
left behind. Only four days had passed since I'd first started taking the
drug, and I'd suddenly reached an unrecognizable level of clarity, concentration
and satisfaction. This, I thought to myself, is how normal people must feel
most of the time. I called Dr. Whale not just to thank him but to demand
that Zoloft be dissolved in the nation's drinking water, then went outside
to neatly saw down a tree that my wife had been fussing about for weeks
and proceeded to clean the duck pen. My energy was boundless. I recalled
the case stories in Listening to Prozac of patients who broke free from
years of negativity like butterflies emerging from cocoons, and wondered
what I might achieve: restore an antique flivver, schedule a dental appointment,
string a new dipole antenna, clean my office, or even finish my novella,
"The Secret of Mr. Salty."
In my new, biochemically-improved state of mind, music was a revelation.
I couldn't get enough of The Lord's Prayer (Sterns
Africa) by Super Sweet Talks International, a re-release from the
hi-life endtimes circa 1970 that sounded instantly familiar when I laid
ears on it--and I don't just mean the effortless version of what we Catholics
used to call the "Our Father." Lead vocalist A.B. Crentsil and
his brilliant Ghanaian cohorts distill the common denominator of African
and American pop in a form as elemental and natural as a cool breeze complete
with frothy beat, bubbly instrumentation and sentimental themes worthy of
the band's name. I don't know of any other disc that divides space between
gentle Christian homilies and a lusty pro-military exhortation encouraging
the women of the nation to lend their bodies to men in khaki on "Adjoa,"
unless the Michigan Militia has just put out a cd. Complete with Afrobeat
rhythms, frolicking sax solos, heel-clinking percussion and martial momentum,
the right-to-bear-arms, bare-bodied ecstasy of "Adjoa" is out
of step with the laid-back, flower power of cuts like "Cry your Own
Cry," a ride on the Prince Nico "Sweet Mother" bandwagon
complete with recitation--or "Bura no ano" which washes down a
supplicant melody with gurgling roller-derby organ lines. Bountiful pleasures
here include optimistic lead vocals, fragile harmonies, Solo Mensah's lead
guitar, and a winning outlook that eliminates complexities and contradictions.
Chalk it up to the fog of my pre-medication mind, but I'd never considered
Madagascar's D'Gary a strong enough presence to front his own band.
Maybe it was the essential mellowness of his music. But on his new cd Horombe (Sterns Africa), D'Gary comes across
as both a forceful instrumentalist in his own right and the superglue that
holds an exciting group together that's far from the collection of session
yes-men and -women I'd been dreading. Jihe is brimming with personality
from the accordion of occasional member Francois Regis Gizavo who adds cajun
spice to "Mbo Hahita Avao" and "Miady Mafy" to jive
bassist Mario Gizavo Salve Mlharesoa. The real bonus here is the vocals,
however, as lead singers Ralison Ula Manintsitaha and Irma Ratazanina plus
two backing vocalists lift the songs on high-strung counter melodies, adding
a beautiful section to "Mpiarak'andro" (Song of the Cowherd),
which in its original version was a stand-out cut on last year's Dama
& D'Gary (Shanachie). D'Gary's own vocals were never more passionate
either, with a lead presence and downright gruffness I hadn't heard before.
Even his immaculate guitar work has taken on new vigor. The indecipherable
patterns locomoting "Zay Gny Raha" make soukous licks seem like
tonic chords in comparison, and if there's any justice the jump-up rhythm
will be the next worldwide dance craze--that is, if anyone but D'Gary could
figure out the fingering.
Overheated is the word for Sif Safaa: New Music
from the Middle East (EMI/Hemisphere). Whatever the real subject
matter of these songs from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, ranging from self-criticism
to romantic reassurance to social admonitions, they all say lust to me.
Styles are remarkably homogenous given the diversity of material. Egypt's
Hamdi Ahmed pulls cornball duty with quavering filmi influenced vocals on
"Tasadig Wala Ahliflak" and on "Ghallo Tara" opts for
a dose of classicism with dramatic, swaying violins topped with a rippling
oud. Iraq's Kazim Al Sahir borrows from western symphonics for the florid
flourishes of "Anta Al Hakam" which simultaneously hints at the
origin of flamenco vocal styles. At the other end of the spectrum, fireball
Hanan strips down to night moves eschewing orchestration in favor of a beatbox
coyly hiding behind handdrums in a kind of Egyptian hip-hop. As she stretches
and strains to come to terms with the deceptions of a disappointing lover,
you can almost feel the sweat on her cheeks in place of tears. Mohamed Mounir
creeps into the title cut by building up layers of melody and rhythm per
juju, then resolves his dubwise flirtations into a full-thrust Nubian foray.
Every song on Sif Saafa darts toward modernity while tightly clutching
tradition to its bosom, every song pulses with sexual heat more furious
than the percussion. From an eavesdropper's perspective, even Ada Ayubi's
a cappella lullaby to her kids turns out to be a woody raiser.
Austere only by comparison to the above, The
Silences of the Palace (Caroline) mixes traditional music of Egypt
and Tunisia with new compositions by Anouar Brahem still in the traditional
vein. Taken from the soundtrack of female director Moufida Tlatli's award-winning
film of the same name, Silences provides exquisite examples of oud soloing
along with stirring pieces that stress the interplay between strings and
flutes. But the real reason for owning the disc is the richly mature voice
of 14-year-old Sonia Laraissi, who apparently makes her professional debut
here. Her depth and mastery of nuance, and her flights from passion to delicate
reflection, are impressive.
The Interworld label's Ocean of Remembrance: Sufi
Improvisations and Zhikrs pivots on the antipode of the ecstatic
qawwali music of Pakistan, which alters consciousness through rousing celebration
akin to mystical drunkeness. In its own quiet fashion, Oruj Guvenc and
Tumata achieve a similar hypnotic effect as whispered vocals recite
the names of God in meticulously described spirals (Zhikr means remembrance).
Recorded during Ramadan at a Massachusetts recording studio in the dark
depths of winter, the intense fusion of saz, voice, bendir frame drum, rebab
violin, and ney flute reveals a contemplative peace at odds with the raging
blizzard beyond the walls. There's a metaphor there, I guess. As pronounced
as the spirituality is the sense of solidarity expressed in these songs
that combine traditions of the Mevlevi and Bektashi Sufi orders. Read the
liners notes and learn as much as I know about it. But do listen when you
have attention to devote to the peculiar cadences and sensibilities, since
this is about as far from pop as highly developed music can travel. [RD3
Box 395A, Brattleboro, VT 05301]
Like a cheap camcorder battery that's been overcharged, within five days
I completely lost the therapeutic benefits of Zoloft to a resurgence of
anxiety and a thick druggy heaviness that scared me. As my brief taste of
bliss waved bye-bye, I awoke each morning to increasing levels of nervousness
that eclipsed my pre-medication agitation. Eating breakfast, I'd hold onto
the chair beside me for support, and at the office would pace the halls
and visit vacant workstations for the comfort of the journey until around
lunchtime when the jitters started to burn off. After a week of this, I
phoned Dr. Whale, who upon returning my call had begun to suspect that I
wasn't a Canadian.
"That's an odd area code for Ontario," he complained.
"It's new," I insisted in a voice quivering with the edges of
madness, so he let it go, recommending that I cut my Zoloft intake in half.
By the end of the week, crisis struck.
Linda and I had set out for her son's new house in Ann Arbor to help out
with the move. Midway to Lansing, slumped in the front seat in the middle
of the hurricane eye, eyes closed, I suddenly heard myself erupt in tearful
wailing. When Linda lurched onto the shoulder, I bolted from the car and
rooted myself in the grass, unable to stand the confines of the car or thought
of the confines of my step-son's house. Plus I hated helping people move.
I was desperate. Like Cliff Robertson in Charly or Robert DeNiro in Awakenings,
I'd precariously undermined my previous, damaged state by carting back to
it the brief experience of health, and I couldn't stand the contrast. Coaxing
me back inside, my wife took me home again with frequent rest stops in between
as I tried to walk off the nerve-flayed misery.
"I'm through with this fucking medicine," I told her. "I
had such great hopes." I slept all day. In a calmer moment, I told
the Whale, "Who would have thought that altering my brain chemistry
could have serious consequences?"
My wife wisely suggested I taper off Zoloft rather than simply stopping,
in order to avoid the headaches that can come with discontinuance. I agreed.
And what followed was completely unexpected. With my dosage down to a quarter
of the minimum therapeutic dosage, the side effects melted away and the
clarity returned--maybe not the sandpaper-scrubbed transparency of my first
encounter with heightened serotonin levels, but I still feel better than
I can ever remember. I don't feel medicated either--neither stimulated nor
slowed down. Free of the veil of anxiety that has stood between me and any
little thing I've wanted to do for so long that I had taken it for granted,
I've almost achieved normative levels of energy and concentration. I may
even begin spending longer than a quarter day at the office, but no sense
turning into a health nut. Best of all, now when anyone responds to my column
with the comment, "You write as if you're on drugs," I can modestly
answer, "Damned right I am."
Columns by CDs and Artists / Columns by Date
Columns by Subject / Page
of the Whale