(by Bob Tarte, published in The Beat magazine, Volume 10, Number 6, 1991)


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 terms.

"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, I surmised.

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 shut.

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 effects.

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 improved.

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 a year.

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 didn't exist.

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