(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 14, Number 5, 1995)


The mosquito population in west Michigan may be down this year, but not the usual plague of coincidences. With the vague idea of writing up world music-related Internet sites, I was using the software search engine Gopher to try to work my way through bottomless directories on a Bay Area computer network known as the WELL, when my wife Linda shouted upstairs that our water had mysteriously shut off. Snarling at her for taxing the pump by sprinkling her petunias, I lumbered toward the basement to check the circuit breakers, then to the phone to call the plumber.

Since our pet-ravaged home, failed pottery enterprise, and unusual personal habits are an endless source of amusement to Lowell-area professionals, our plumber arrived within minutes, a smirk already on his lips. Pausing to direct a few well-chosen remarks toward the huge, pungent-smelling French Lop rabbit on our porch that Linda was boarding for a housecleaning client, he took his tools out back and descended into the well pit. After the requisite 15-minute minimum-billing wait, I followed to ask him if he'd located the problem. "Some critter has made himself at home inside your well," he told me with contained glee, indicating the large pile of dirt he'd already shoveled out of our doghouse-shaped pump house. "He buried the pump and it overheated."

"Not a gopher," I groaned.

"Probably a woodchuck. I can't even find the entrance to his hole."

"Is this something you typically run into?" Linda asked.

"Let's just say, I'll put this in my memoirs."

The well/pseudo-gopher coincidence sickened me. Linda complicated matters by suggesting that the woodchuck was taking revenge on us for insults to his relatives, since last winter I'd filled in a burrow that had collapsed the cement floor of our barn--presumably leaving homeless a beast strong enough to move bowling ball-size rocks which I could barely lift. As our plumber hurried through the front door, he pinched his nose and wondered if we thought the rabbit urine smell on the porch was permanent. To tell the truth, I barely noticed it through the undertone of duckling poop that still permeated the paint, wood and plexiglas molecules of our trashed Pink Pig Pottery boutique. The idea had been to raise a couple of tame ducks on the porch which, unlike the three penned outside, wouldn't menacingly clack their beaks at our approach. But all our nightly sessions holding ducklings on our laps had accomplished was to so traumatize the female that she suffered a growth deformity which permanently angled out her wings stealth-bomber style.

The woodchucks weren't finished with us yet. A few packages of mothballs tossed into the well-pit both discouraged rehabitation and flavored our drinking water. But three days later as I was heading to the hardware store for a rat trap I noticed the oldest, skinniest woodchuck I'd ever seen reclining face down on the front lawn. He was still there when I returned, and from the amount of eager flies buzzing around him, I took him for deceased--until he lifted his head and pulled himself into black raspberry thicket at the edge of the woods. "He won't last another 24 hours," I clucked to Linda when recounting the woeful sight. But the following day he miraculously managed to slip through the duck-proof chicken wire backyard fence to regard with disdain the dish of water I shoved under his nose. When I came outside again a little later to decide if I shouldn't help dispatch him from this veil of tears, the barely ambulatory groundhog had vanished as mysterious as he had come. "He won't last another 24 hours," I repeated sagely to Linda, but the next day, more emaciated than a welcome mat, he dragged himself into our yard again for a final hurrah.

What he wanted from us, why he had chosen our yard, and whether he was message or messenger, I'll never know. But he did succeed in driving me back inside to finish my assignment of ferreting out a few choice world music-related web sites on the Internet.

Friends, fiends, and fronds of the 3 Mustaphas 3 will find a fez-heavy, text-only site at http://www.nwu.edu/music/3m3/

The Friends of Tuva homepage holds text info on Tuvan throat singers, a regional history, and more at http://www.ee.umanitoba.ca/~yackob/tuva/

A wealth of material on Balinese, Sundanese, and Javanese gamelan styles can be found at the Bali and Beyond site, http://www.kaiwan/com/~gamelan/balihome.html

For digeridoo info, resources, album reviews, and more, drag the old ant-hollowed log to http://www.well.com:80/user/nhunter/didj/index.htm

A developing site on Native American music complete with powwow etiquette tips, album reviews, and cassette and cd ordering info from Rainbow Walker's site is at http://www.teleport.com/~rnbowlkr/.

The Village Pulse label, which has released several fine cds of traditional African drumming, has an attractive site with lots of color pictures at http://www.rootsworld.com/rw/villagepulse/about_vp.html.

Probably the most ambitious site by an individual I've ever seen is Janet Ehrlich's Music from Africa and the African Diaspora web page, complete with country-by-country listings, artist bios, plenty of pix, and links galore to other world music resources. Look for it at http://matisse.net/~jal/afrcanmx.htm.

Finally, two folk and world music publications have nice sites chock full of photos, articles from recent issues, subscription info, and other links. Dirty Linen's home page is at http://www.dirtynelson.com/linen/ and the Folk Roots web site can be found at http://cityscape.co.uk/froots/

I'm not ambitious enough to have my own web page, but I do have a couple of e-mail addresses. Comments and complaints about the reviews that follow--or anything else in this columnshould go to btarte@cris.com or btarte@aol.com.

Zairean greybeards Zaiko Langa Langa were the enfants terrible of the soukous scene way back in 1979. Wisely on Avis de Recherche (Sterns Africa) instead of trying to stuff themselves into lean hip hop beats, mainstream their muse a la alumnus Papa Wemba, or plop back into the cushy post-rumba good old days, the band adopts a daring strategy tailor made for middle agers holding the remnants of former glories. Remaining core members N'yoko Longo, Matima, Mawaka Bapius and Belopi Meridjo relax, but in a manner that makes relaxation seem risky, since their pauses to catch their collective breaths threaten the soukous prime directive of maintaining constant momentum. "Mujaki" grinds to a halt to accommodate goofball lamentation vocal dramatics. Disc centerpiece "Dede Sur Mesure" creates marvelous tension by throwing church organ roadblocks at the sebene and splashing water on Baroza Binsimba's burning fuzz guitar via alternating drill-instructor exhortations and gentle familial harmonies--all latched to an infectious rhythm riff purloined from the even more creaky Beatles' "And Your Bird Can Sing." As if to poke fun at their own historicity, a plucked-violin synth patch adds an incongruous note of decorum to "Egide," and other giddy devices worthy of the Jurassic heyday of continent-hopping disco are all over the cd.

Speaking of disco, check out the Elvis Travolta shirt of many fringes Sam Mangwana sports on Sterns Africa's reissue of his classic 1979 album Maria Tebbo, here paired with the 1978 release Waka Waka. Beat writers Dave Hucker and David Katz have already noted the historical import of this shiny, mellow merger of guitar highlife and soukous. They've left me to comment on the period-piece cover photograph of the re-release, whereon ex-OK Jazz, ex-Rochereau lead vocalist Mangwana strikes a benevolent despot pose above a freeway that disappears into the undistinguished urban skyline that could be anywhere--the outskirts of Paris, Brussels or Montreal--but happens to be metropolitan Abidjan. Will he follow this road to the functional, increasingly soul-less soukous of Africa's future, or is Sam's humanism destined for consignment to the Optimism Suite at the Hotel Ibis nudging his head from stage left? The affable, approachable amalgam on Maria Tebbo has unfortunately become a much mentioned footnote more successful at establishing outreach than defining an enduring genre. But his conqueror's stance on the cover conveys the most striking message of these influential albums, a claim to Paris and other European holdings as provincial capitals of the African pop empire, and the claim still holds today.

While the sleek, high-tech neuroscience of soukous is directed toward the single-minded purpose of creating and sustaining an elevated mood, the Klezmatics' neo-klezmer accumulates a crashing ecstasy on Jews With Horns (Xenophile/Green Linnet) by throwing all and everything into the mix. The city-listing nomimania on "Man in a Hat" that keeps zooming back to Manhattan is a chronicle of wandering and restlessness that's felt in every moment of the music. "Khsidim Tants" erases the division between extremes of sorrow and joy, just as "Fisherlid" heaps together with no discernible bulges a frigid Twin Peaks electric guitar arpeggio, roller coaster traditional melodies, big band horn charts, Alicia Svigals' razor-wire processed violin, bop eastern clarinet and sax solos, and funky bass. Somehow the jumbled chronicle of history and catalog of experiences that turns a new page every few seconds adds up to a brilliantly cohesive attention-grabbing homogeneity. Matter-of-fact gay references in "Man in a Hat" and "Bulgars/The Kiss" contribute to the tradition-busting fun of the New York-based band's finest release to date. Play it loud, play it proud, and rattle the next door neighbors.

The portrait of Annbjorg Lien on Felefeber, Norwegian Fiddle Fantasia (Shanachie) seemed too Helmut Newton for credibility--as if I wanna hear a fashion plate scraping the catgut. While Lien's image here is cold and future shocked, her interpretations of the usual Scandinavian pairing of re-arranged traditional material and new compositions in a traditional vein are evocative and subdued. Their chill reflects lives led in isolation, from circular melodic motifs suggesting songs sung to oneself and voices in the head, to the drone of the hardanger fiddle's sympathetic-strings which give even playful cuts like "The Plucked Halling" an overriding sobriety. The somberness also swallows instruments. You can almost feel the futile resistance of flutes and bell-toned organs as they fall into the fiddle's mournful maw. While Felefeber opts against the teeth-gritting intensity of more traditional approaches to the instrument for a lighter, almost hymnal approach to many of the cuts, Lien's inventiveness keeps this on a par with the best Norwegian imports.

I wondered how Gypsy Fire (Traditional Crossroads/Rounder) got it's name, since this self-described "belly dance music of the century" sounded solidly Middle Eastern by-way-of Turkey to me. According to my sources, gypsy music in the Middle East doesn't define a genre as in Eastern Europe so much as it applies to a style of playing full of improvisation, ornamentation, passion, and a freewheeling approach to traditional material. Richard Hagopian (ud and vocals), Omar Faruk Tekbilek (zurna and ney), and bandmembers turn in an astonishingly bright and earthy performance here in the first example of bellydance music I've heard that doesn't make me pine for accompanying visuals. Gypsy Fire delivers the nonstop percussion you'd expect plus unexpectedly infectious melodies and arrangements. "Rompi Rompi" flaunts Yuri Yunakov's fluttery sax lead, Hagopian's inebriated "rompi, rompi" chorus, and a noisy fingernail on kanun strings percussive hook. "Nihavent" is a dead ringer for the 3 Mustaphas 3 "Linda, Linda"--undoubtedly it's a traditional melody. The real showstopper is "Muhabbet," which begins with an oud and kanun duel of a Turkish-style theme that accumulates almost unpardonable anxiety before sinking into heavy riddims. Gypsy Fire flows seamlessly from Hagopian's last Traditional Crossroads cd, Kef Time, which was a re-release of a 1979 album. As if no time has passed at all, Hagopian is fresh and lively as ever. Any more lively and this disc would bite you.

Just call Keola Beamer 'Dr. Overtone.' He plays a specially designed acoustic guitar with foreshortened neck and two small sound holes at the top of the body in place of the center opening, creating four more inches of sound board to vibrate with each string pluck. On his new cd, Moe'uhane Kika--Tales from the Dream Guitar (Dancing Cat Records/Windham Hill), the Hawaiian slack key guitarist shows off a performance style and compositional method that emphasizes the harmonics of the traditional C Wahine tuning. While headphones reveal the ghostly halo of vibrating strings the best, the technique isn't just for golden ears. The shimmer is obvious, complemented by a slow, ethereal approach that frees what Beamer calls "the air that lives amid the strings, the space that sings between the notes," in his comments on "E Ku'u Morning Dew." While I didn't like the pop attack of last year's Wooden Boat, the innovations justify themselves here. Using three guitars on "Sweet Singing Bamboo" he creates complicated textures that synth-hacks would sweat to approach by half, and on the lush four-guitar (plus nose flute!) cut, "Sanoe," he comes off like a Big Island Steve Tibbetts. He's even got the cahones to redeem a couple of hoary showtunes via a gorgeous arrangement on "Medley: Bali Ha'i & Stranger in Paradise" and still convincingly position himself as a fifth-generation traditionalist.

Beamer's cd is one of the latest releases in the Dancing Cat label's Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters Series, which features some of the greatest practitioners of ki hoalu in a solo rather than group setting--many for the first time ever--including Cyril Pahinui, Moses Kahumoku, Leonard Kwan, Ledward Kaapana, Ray Kane, the late, great Sonny Chillingworth and others. The entire roster is featured in the sampler Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters Instrumental Collection, which is so full of exquisite strumming, hammer-ons, and pull-offs, I almost let the lack of vocals pass me by. A few examples of the old falsetto would have been nice, but this is still a top-notch release.

Wish I were as happy about Hapa (Coconut Grove), billed as the fastest selling recording in Hawaii's history. Duo Keli'i Kaneali'i and Barry Flanagan's slack key pieces are nice, especially the instrumental "Kaopuiki Aloha" which finds a productive use for Stephen Stills, but the romanticism of their vocals plays to the crowd and the pop ensemble pieces with added musicians bring on a hybrid case of sugar blues. Just when I thought it was safe to cross the water, Kenny Loggins rises up in multiple choral overdubs on "Ku'u Lei Awapuhi." [3612 Bayview Road, Coconut Grove, FL 33133]

I'm old enough to recall a seven-year-old Tanya Tucker on Ted Mack's "Amateur Hour" tv show in the wee '60s. I also remember seeing a pre-teen Wayne Newton on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and my sister saying at the time, "That kid's going places once his voice changes." Talented or not, in professionalism both Tucker and Newton were prodigies, and I expected similar from pubescent Aboriginal twins The Bush Kids on their debut, Sing Country (Caama Music). If the Australia Council for the Arts was napping when they endorsed this disc, the first few bars of "That Old Girl" should have jolted them awake as Warren Junior and Clyde's father's band Country Ebony kicks into a respectable steel guitar-driven ballad that's instantly deflated by straining pipsqueak out-of-synch pipes that not only wouldn't make the "Star Search" cut, but would be shielded from the public embarrassment of local amateur events in my neck of the Great Lakes outback. The rest of the disc doesn't improve. I wish I had the label address to upbraid the producers for this singular child abuse.

Baka Beyond grew out of guitarist Martin Cradick's stay with the Baka pygmy people of Cameroon and his love of their lighter-than-helium music. The band's second cd, The Meeting Pool, continues the mission of the first, recasting Baka musicians and songs via Paddy LeMercier's ultra-smooth gypsy-esque violin, Martin's strong and sweet guitar, and a more prominent role for Su Hart's quasi-pygmy vocals, which add much to the mix. But the group has already reached a turning point, wishing to enlarge their repertoire beyond obvious Baka references into world music themes. I understand the decision, since the sampled yodel that launches "Woosi" and the water splash rhythm on "Ancestor's Voice" are already a bit shopworn, though they still form the basis of excellent excursions into peppy, stateless music. The Celtic-influenced "Ohureo" and "Lost Dance of Atlantis" with a Middle Eastern point of departure remain satisfyingly drenched in an identifiable ensemble sound, yet they fall just short of the inventive oomph of the less geographically anchored Baka-derived compositions. Also, the reintegration of a didgeridu into Cradick's arrangements worries me of a reprise of his former band, Outback. Is The Meeting Pool the beginning of the end--or a new beginning? Here's another cliche: time will tell.

For a moment I thought the Bush Kids had invaded Kneelin' Down Inside the Gate: The Great Rhyming Singers of the Bahamas (Rounder). Tiny, tinny voices and bullfrog groans all play a part in this wonderful collection of spirituals recorded in Nassau in 1965 and featuring Joseph Spence and the Pinder Family; Stanley Thompson with Clifford Ellis and Group; Bruce Green, Clifton Green, and Tweedie Gibson; and other top island musicians holding onto a rhythmically complex, vocally crowded genre that's all but vanished. One way of describing these songs is as more purely African interpretations of gospel material. With a slight shift in approach, "Run Come See Jerusalem" could be a Ladysmith Black Mambazo standard--mystery man Frederick McQueen even sports his own homegrown version of Joseph Shambalala's trademarked quaver. Even better are the pieces which ebb and flow like Baka pygmy songs with less emphasis on a distinctive lead voice than on the just short of chaos interplay of multi-timbered vocals potent enough to blunt Joseph Spence's idiosyncratic growl. Meanwhile, his twangy guitar still gleams.

How could I resist a cd called Finnish Reggae (Conga Records)--especially when Conga Se Menne aren't from Helsinki but hail from Marquette, Michigan in the wild and underpopulated Upper Peninsula. The ethnic frame of reference is strictly hand-me-down, but that doesn't stop the boys from staking a cultural claim and doing so with far more subtle humor than better known dumb-and-dumber neighbors, Da Yoopers. Sure, we get the de rigeur mentions of jerky, long johns, waders, beavers, and "yumpin' in the snow," moments of parody including the logical "Me and Julio (Down by the Schoolyard)" quote in "Me and Eino (Down on the Old Trap Line)" and nods to everyone from Neil Young to Boy George. The stuff that won my heart are declarations of identity delivered so straightfaced, it's fun thinking lead singer Derrel Syria might not even be kidding when he sings in the rock anthem "I'm From South Marquette," "I played a lot of baseball, got in a lot of fights. I hung around with Jimmy Bawinski--you know I stuck up for his rights." For those who sidestep mainstream world beat in search of far-flung local music, this is about as local as it gets. And Conga Se Menne co-founder Les Ross swears they've also released Finnish Reggae in eight-track format for the folks up north who haven't quite gotten the hang of those new-fangled cassettes. [P.O. Box 48, Negaunee, MI 49866, Phone 906-475-9399]

The Bush Kids aside, I'm a sucker for vocalists who excel in styles that are far beyond the pale of what we consider good singing here. Recorded in 1984-85, Peruvian Harp & Mandolin (Music of the World) by The Blind Street Musicians of Cusco (who sometimes perform as Los Serenos Huakaypata) features Leandro Apaza Ramos' sparsely adorned western-style harp chiming out sinewy rhythms and melodies elsewhere domesticated into the backbone of commercial Andean music. When he sings on "La Valicha," he sounds ancient--in both senses of the word--expressing a casual intensity of feeling that wouldn't fit more refined genres. Once you get used to the convention, his microtonal attack doesn't approach the fatigue factor of, say, Whitney Houston's yowling. It actually becomes quite catchy. Backing Ramos are Benjamin Clara Quispe and Carmen Apaza Ramos on armadillo shell mandolin plus Fidel Villacorta Tjada on quena flute--all sightless. It's a tradition in Peru for blind men to become mendicant musicians, and proceeds from this highly listenable release should literally help keep the performers off the streets.

Closer to the western milieu--but still one of those Latin American musics that seems to be pulling in four different directions at once--is the Mexican son huasteca as performed by acknowledged masters of the style, Los Camperos de Valles. Their second Corason-label release, The Muse, finds the trio exclusively performing huapangos by living huasteca legend Serapio "El Guero" Nieto, and for this reason we finally get English language lyrics to prove that the words have poetic vigor to match the music. They also help distinguish what could be a repetitive repertoire with its tight strictures of rhythms and arrangements. Instead of familiar territories of pained love and melancholy reminiscences, El Guero supplies three cuts in a row flinging barbs at the medical profession, a bawdy trope about feminine urges, and a celebration of the testicular size of a newborn babe. But you don't need translations to keep you informed of the wickedness quotient. This is stinging, rollicking music punctuated by whoops, lofted by beautiful falsetto solo voices and harmonies, and kept endlessly intriguing by violinist Helidoro Copado, whose improvisations dance like a bee between melodic reinforcement and mad, sawtooth abstractions.

There's a memorable scene in Jack Kerouac's On the Road that takes place in a small-town Mexican bar where Dean Moriarity keeps insisting he has to hear that "hot mambo." When the movie version finally gets made, I expect to hear Perez Prado blaring at that moment. Last issue, Beat columnist Jacob Edgar reviewed two Prado showcases on the Rhino label. Here's another: Anoranzas De Mis Mambos, interpretations of Prado's music by Namorado Y Su Combo on the Mexican Solaris label. Though I'm not familiar with any of these songs--for all I know they could be riffs on Prado's music rather than actual covers--the style is instantly familiar: fat, overheated, juicy and satisfying. [Jose Maria Velasco No. 68 Col. Periodista C.P. 11220, Mexico]

I usually don't review much reggae, since it's covered so well elsewhere in The Beat, but The Mighty Diamonds clever use of dancehall rhythms to update their rocksteady roots on Speak the Truth (RAS Records) is just too good to ignore. Greasy horn parts mix with avant garde brass blats, and bursts of doo wop with effortless harmonies. Lead vocals are so convincing even the platitudes get by. Sure, it feels like product in a way the Diamonds' '70s material never did--fussed with rather than sweated over. But middle aged or not, Tabby Shaw can deliver a romantic ballad with the clear-eyed yearning of a love-struck youth when a lesser mortal would have turned into Rod Stewart. I knew these guys were seminal, but I never dreamed they still had their hormones.

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