(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 14, Number 4, 1995)


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 help.

"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 free."

"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 reluctance.

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 of orbit.

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."

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