Compromises, compromises. For our first anniversary, my wife Linda wanted
me to take her to the Seychelles. I preferred a trip to Madison, Wisconsin,
to witness a broadcast of APR's "Whad'ya Know, Starring Michael Feldman,"
a cheese-state radio update of Art Linkletter's House Party. After lengthy
negotiations through a conjugal union mediator, we finally decided on a
visit to Grindstone City at the tip of Michigan's thumb.
Thumb residents take their geographical anatomy seriously. "Best Pie
in the Entire Thumb," bragged a sign at the Red Rooster restaurant
in Bad Axe, conveniently situated catercorner from a spanking new emergency
med center. "Largest Paid Weekly Circulation in the Thumb," claimed
a wheeler-dealer tabloid out of Lapeer.
En route to the Fingernail we passed the gravel turn-off to the Sanilac
Petroglyphs, a ground-level granite slab pockmarked with miniature crop
circle-style encryptians. This vast immovable object is better protected
than The Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum, housed inside a prison-spec mesh
fence sealed with chain and padlock. To beg entry you must scour Germania
Road for the caretaker's trailer, sign a ledger as he sleeps in front of
the tv, and borrow his key. We resisted, not wishing to limit our time in
Grindstone City, which a former friend had described in near paradisiacal
"There's these huge grindstones," my former friend had beamed.
"People stand them in their yards."
I was hooked. Many northern Michigan towns have staked their identity on
less, such as Mesick, "Mushroom Capital of the World," or Manton,
whose cheery plywood leprechauns and shamrock dabbed business strip feebly
attempt to dazzle folding green from Mackinac Bridge-bound pilgrims. Such
charades pale next to the sullen legitimacy of a village founded in the
shadow of a sprawling, body-and-soul-destroying grindstone fabrication plant,
We arrived at our destination only to discover there was no there there,
as Popeye liked to observe--a dip in the road cradling a few ramshackle
hovels, an RV park with a grindstone logo, but nary a sandstone donut in
sight, not even on the truncated lawn of Joe Mazzoni's Grindstone Bar and
Grill. Cited by my guidebook as an expert in local lore, Joe eyed us as
if we'd already exceeded the house limit when I inquired where the historical
district might be. The barmaid shrugged at the mention of grindstones, like
we were small town idiots awash in NYC asking how to get to Carnegie Hall.
Bolting across the street and knocking at the first door she encountered,
Linda saved the day--if "saved" describes the fate of sharing
a porch swing with a Thumbster widow armed with a huge family album peppered
with faint allusions to the outside world. The rusty rhythm of the swing
began to unhinge me. Excusing myself, I padded around back to find the widow's
newphew seated on a backhoe dislodging grindstones from the garden. It was
impossible to chip at the dirt with my heel anywhere without striking a
stone rim an inch beneath the surface. The village was literally built upon
the bones of its discarded past.
Fleeing the widow's cottage, we headed for open water. Where Point Aux Barques
Road dead-ended into Lake Huron, a lip of sand curled back to bare the massive
teeth of hundreds of grindstones once jettisoned on the verge of being loaded
onto Great Lakes' freighters. The rest of the beach looked normal at first,
strewn with the usual rocky debris. But upon closer scrutiny, the rubble
resolved itself into fragments of shattered grindstones.
The thought was marvelous: grindstones slowly grinding one another into
decreasing volumes of matter, from grindstones to boulders, to rocks, to
stones, to gravel, to sand, to the dust which stung my eyes as I squinted
at the oily surface of the lake. Or were the tears that wet my cheeks unleashed
by the poignant discovery that the re-creation of the earth had started
here--in the elemental lime that would nourish stalwart lichens on their
bold climb up the evolutionary ladder toward primate splendor--here at the
crumbling sub-peninsula of the lower peninsula of the peninsular state?
We buzzed back through Bad Axe to the tempo of Kanda Bongo Man's
Zing Zong (Hannibal/Rykodisc cd), which
I hadn't enjoyed on the trip out. Its joyous pulsations clashed with my
destination anticipation, provoking a moire pattern of anxiety. With my
elated departure, the icecaps melted. Did I say joy? Even by the giddy yardstick
of soukous, the Bongo Man sets new standards for sustained delerium.
Unlike fellow Parisiazaireans Loketo, Kanda's smooth hysterics adopt the
form of a colloid rather than a suspension, milk compared to sugar-water,
say. Loketo's Extra Ball on repeated listenings settles into discrete
granules of flashpoint guitar and aerobic-instructor vocals, a textbook
model of nubby overload.
But Zing Zong immerses the listener in a shimmering medium, whose
parts defy separation without the enlistment of a prism or Steve Reich's
keys to the kabbala. "Wallow," for example, is a nebula in motion.
Kanda sets the song spinning with a music-of-the-sphere's melodic turn,
then the watchmaker steps back to watch the organism whir. A few well-placed
chants help maintain momentum, spurring guitarists Nene Tchakou and Dally
to kaleidescopic intricacies. Once warm fusion is achieved, the song snaps
By the time our car penetrated Saginaw, I'd played Zing Zong's title cut
so many times I could hear it in the hum of the tires on the road, the slap
of the windshield wipers, and the jitter of the styrofoam cooler in the
trunk rebelling against Linda's annodized bucket of Petoskey stones. I popped
in an advance tape of another Rykodisc release I'd been avoiding, Mickey
Hart's Planet Drum.
Not a Dead fan, I'd never been able to crack off a piece of the band's aura
to shore up earlier Hart projects like Dafos or At the Edge.
Even with stellar guests Airto, Zakkir Hussain, and Babatunde Olatunji,
his releases seemed to suffer from the group-member-goes-solo syndrome.
They felt about five-sixths unfinished.
But Planet Drum glows with synergistic fire. Thirteen tracks of pure
percussion crossbreed musicians from West Africa, the Americas, and India
with instruments and motifs from every cranny of the globe. In marvelous
testament to the rich pallette of drums, bells, shakers, string-bows, handclaps,
and vocal percussion, keyboards and guitars aren't even missed, though triggered
samples and hi-tech signal processing intermittantly supply atmospheric
Timbral texture is where Planet Drum excels. But it's ironic that,
considering the master percussionists involved, few cuts are obligatory
invitations to dance. Only "The Hunt" and "Temple Caves"
plow irresistible killer grooves. Nor do the grooves vary much within a
song. Generally, a beat is sketched out at the beginning then embellished
with polyrhythms and tonal colors. Can's "Moonshake," Pink Floyd's
"The Grand Vizier's Garden Party," even Cream's "Toad"
look like developmental marvels in comparison. Of these, only Can shares
Planet Drum's genius for flow.
Niggling aside, Hart's cd provides something solid to chew on. Whether it
works as a companion piece to his Planet Drum book, a visual encyclopedia
of drumming, will be mulled over next issue.
Hassan Hakmoun and Adam Rudolph, Gift of
the Gnawa (Flying Fish cd). Western musicians subtly lean into furious
lute and vocal performances by Moroccan young lion traditionalist Hakmoun,
enhancing gnawa music's already potent fusion of jazzy swing, rockified
percussion, and Mississippi blues ache. While producer Rudolph beats conga
and tabla drums with invocational focus, Richard Horowitz's beautiful ney
flute tones strew roses along a path of cinders Don Cherry splits open to
Devonian Period strata with the first brooding notes of his trumpet. Intense
isn't even the word, because tempering the power is an underlying sweetness--especially
in Hakmoun's double-tracked vocal duets, where our prayers, if not his,
seemed to have been answered.
Kenya Dance Mania (Earthworks cd). This
71-minute anthology celebrates the not-so-distant past, when rhumba was
the beat to reckon with across Africa, and fraternal-twin harmonies ruled.
It's hard not to romanticize the Luo songs, which feign ingenuous shock
as a buffer against heartbreak, or the clear-eyed confidence--with optimistic
vocals to match--of Swahili superstars Les Wanyika's "Sina Makosa."
Just to prove Kenya sprouted nuts as well as mighty oaks, "Wed Today
Divorce Tomorrow" by Gabriel Omolo & His Apollo Komesha hangs an
improbable '60s-style twist beneath a Havana moon.
Lucky Dube Captured Live (Shanachie cd).
His ouvre may be limited--imagine a "Slave," "I've Got Jah,"
"Prisoner" medley--but his charisma is boundless, his message
inarguable, and his generosity inspiring. I've never seen a performer in
concert I liked better. But this is a cd not a video. Missing are the nonstop
choreography, mock jousting, and genial showboating that make the live show
such a hoot. So why does this work so well? Sheer electricity nimble enough
to arc over the inevitable between song patter, band introductions, and
sing-along choruses. In any case, this is the Luckiest Dube yet. Lord, bless
me with such limitations.
Black Stalin, Roots, Rock, Soca
(Rounder cd). A welcome change from synthesized-to-death soca, this retrospective
of Stalin's calypso crown-winners boasts real horns, real drums, real polyrhythms--and
best of all, real lyrics transcribed and contextualized by the Beat's
Gene Scaramuzzo. Gene's essential notes explain the social conditions in
Trinidad and Tobago that provoked Stalin's sharpest commentaries. "Wait
Dorothy Wait," a response to his fans' insistence that he write "something
smutty about a Jean or Dorothy," dangles a mock tantalizing chorus
between verses that enumerate his country's more pressing concerns. "Burn
Dem," a hilarious revenge fantasy, has the singer kibbutzing St. Peter
on which politicos to consign to the fiery furnace. And the arrangements
are as shrewd as the lyrics.
Djanka Diabate, Djanka (Sound
Wave cd) Production this melodramatic might quash a lesser mortal, but Djanka
Diabate, last heard thawing Mory Kante's Touma as back-up vocalist, springs
above the drum machine dynamics of "La Paix," does disco diva
with enough Guinean top-spin to rescue "Malaka," and walks away
from "Moyale"'s Hi-NRG rock gridlock with minor injuries. One
idea at a time, Djanka, until you've mastered those club cliches. Better
yet, point artistic director/arranger Boncana Maiga toward the Metro, grab
your kora player, and run for unexplored terrain.
Roberto Pulido y Los Clasicos/Los Dos Gilbertos, Conjunto
Classics (Rounder cd). One cd, two distinctive Tejano ensembles.
Non-traditionalist Roberto Pulido sings like Ruben Blades, thickens his
conjunto with Balkanesque saxophone-accordion unison lines, and moseys into
baldfaced country and western territory ("Mi pequenito"). The
lushly chorded accordion instrumentals are, as far as I know, Texan/Northern
Mexican stylistic innovations. Yet stolid conservatives Los Dos Gilbertos
nearly steal this disc, proving a familiar form at peak form is not easily
Astor Piazzolla, Love Tanguedia
(Tropical Storm cd). It's 3 a.m. The air is stifling--too hot to sleep.
Your lover has disconnected her phone. Your illegitimate son sabotaged your
job at the bank. Next door a couple is making enthusiastic love. The kitchen
faucet drips. You consider suicide. You put on Astor Piazzolla instead.
The Argentinian's bandoneon reminds you of a fading memory one moment, a
persistant migraine the next. Violinist Fernando Suarez Paz massages an
exposed nerve with each cut of the bow. These are tangoes? Some are soundtracks
to European films that must make "Jean de Florette" feel Spielbergian.
The music calms you like the ceaseless flight of the red second hand away
from its center.
Mad Professor, Hi-Jacked to Jamaica
(Ariwa/Ras cd). For we shivering inhabitants of clammy northern climes,
nothing loosens the creative juices like a trip to a cozy temperate spot
filled with sunshine and surrounded by water. I know I do my best writing
in the shower with the heat lamp on. But that's nothing compared to the
Mad Professor's burst of ingenuity on an intended non-working holiday in
JA. When you get down to the Natty Gritty, dub is less about pharmacological
effects than it is a riddim ting. Here perfect beats abound, from "Creative
Soul"'s bedspring tempo to the Maxwell House percolations of "Rio
Cobre Dub". Besides the requisite snappy synth and thrashing junkyard
dog drums, the Prof fleshes out his compositions with field recorded data
from his trip: crowing roosters, barking dogs, airport terminal announcements,
and snatches of conversation. Fun! I say the man should vacation 365 days
World Saxophone Quartet, Metamorphosis
(Nonesuch cd). As much as I love African music, even at its hottest I often
feel overwhelmed with politeness compared to the gut punch of homegrown
styles. And I'm not necessarily talking rap or metal. The most raucous bare-assed
juju seems to lack the immediate overgratification of big band R&B.
So the jolt of WSQ's Metamorphosis nearly killed me with pleasure, coming
on like some kind of transcontinental merger between Fela Anakulapo Kuti
and the Art Institute of Chicago. Quieter moments are gratifying too. "Lullaby"'s
interplay between Senegalese composer/vocalist Mor Thiam and Arthur Blythe
and Oliver Lake on alto sax and flute is as blissfully ragged as the last
smooth shot of whiskey that puts you under. Track after track, I kept wondering
why no one had thought of this before. Stupid thought. Before now, this
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