(by Bob Tarte, published in The Beat magazine, Volume 11, Number 3, 1992)


Perched upon the widow's peak of my farmhouse carefully combing my hair, I was delighting in the scrabble of mice hoardes building nests of insulation between the walls and munching on the roof supports, when my delta state was dashed to earth by the relentless splatting of a soggy basketball across the floor of my vestibule several stories below.

Curious, I thought. Mr. Pippen wasn't due for another quarter hour. Then as the rodent din abated, I realized that the source of the infernal incessant throbbing was Zouk Attack, Rounder Records' new anthology of dance music from the francophone Caribbean. Although I treasure trance-inducing monotony as much as any of those 55 million souls who wept at Johnny's farewell Tonight Show, I have to be in the proper dispirit to enjoy the disintegration of done-once-well to done-to-death (known in academic circles as the Yami Bolo syndrome). So I'm renewed, revitalized and refreshed to report a spate of recent cds that display inspiring if not baffling cut-to-cut diversity.

Recommended for clearing the downstairs of drop-in visitors or stunning them into eye-rolling silence, Asia Classics 1--Dance Raja Dance (Luaka Bop) sounds like Mark Motherbaugh's bad night in Bombay or Spike Jones reincarnated as Indian film music auteur Vijaya Anand. Anand's compositions and arrangements gleefully gather the cliches of western pop and cheapen them into even gaudier tin emblems, melting them into a prickly conglomerate that doesn't give a hoot about homogeneity. The man's got a genius for flow, lustily careening at pinball velocity from intimations of jazz to imitations of mariachi, Eurodisco, heavy metal, flamenco, hiphop and bluegrass, anchored by smooth Hindi-language crooning and bubbling Indian percussion.

Why the short attention span? Have bratty ten-year-olds taken control of the studio? As aficianados know, filmi music represents in microcosm Indian cinema's love of cramming all things for all people into every film. Thus a dramatization of sacred Hindu texts is fair game for a giggly pillow-talk dance blow-out--or the soaring biker paen "Loving Hearts" that mysteriously shakes loose from a film called "God Incarnated," counseling us, "Boom, Get, Get, Get, Get, Boom! Get Boom, Boys! Get Boom! Get Boom, Girls!" Isn't this the culture that was down on Mr. Rushdie?

What sets Anand's productions apart from the filmi I'm used to is a juicy reliance on electronic technology that floats each song on a sea of synthesized sputters, coughs and gurgles, rendering even more improbable the romantic ballad fluttering beneath the foil. Such high-tech shenanigans liberate the genre a few vital inches from its foundation in colonial pop remnants by staking a self-conscious claim to India's rightful place in the collapsing modern world. The more I think about it, in fabric as well as philosophy, Dance Raja Dance is the masterpiece Devo might have wrought had the group evolved out of the current humid worldbeat climate.

The Russian anarchists of The Terem Quartet avoid the pratfalls of verse-chorus-verse predictability the better to squeeze the listener between the shrinking poles of "Swan Lake" and the "Rocky and Bullwinkle Show" theme on Terem (RealWorld). Come to think of it, the difference isn't so great when everything's speeded up to boiler-busting calliope tempo. With modest traditional instrumentation, the Quartet transforms every kind of music that could conceivably have entertained the average Muscovite into complex, roiling miniatures. Expanding, contracting and generally convoluting phrases from the simplest folk and classical snippets--with a nod to western pop--the group springs from emotional peak to motionless depth, bypassing normative behavior altogether.

A pair of mandolin-like dombras, an accordion and a bass balalaika with no apparent overdubbing somehow attain the sweep and texture of an orchestra. But play this manic stuff in a quiet place. The Quartet manipulates dynamics as masterfully as it messes with expectations of what a folk group should sound like, so it's easy to lose the delicate passages that foreshadow hair-raising climaxes to the background noise of traffic, the neighbor's dogs or Chester, my ecstatically kibbutzing canary. But hold back from boosting the volume too far, or the loud parts will rip your curtains off their runners.

Avian company excluded, I've never heard a vocalist as arresting as Papa Wemba, who is loathe to let a single syllable escape his throat without first gift-wrapping it in brightly colored knots. Le Voyageur, his American label debut on EarthBeat, has the schwing! of soukous but the scope of recent releases by Youssou N'Dour, hurling itself from Zairean dance cuts to mbalax, mbube and the amorphous Latin thang--not exactly a melting pot, more like a beautifully choreographed brawl. So what's different than any other African artist who moves to Paris to accumulate suits and influences? Papa's got the maturity to make it work, creating a milk-smooth music with enough nervous energy to keep fusion from turning to froth. The cuts in peril of sliding into the dreaded jazz ballad pit ("Zero") or which peck at the bones of prog rock ("Matinda") are awakened by the amazing cockcrow of a voice well in time to soar above the danger.

The first few bars of Ismael Lo's eponymous cd, I thought someone at Mango had put the wrong disc in the jewel box, but no. Then I reached for my nutritionist's phone number, fearing an acid flashback as moody guitar fingerpicking, Dylanesque harmonica bleat, plus the hushed atmosphere of Donovan's "Jersey Thursday" took hold. And if "Tajabone" weren't enough, we get "Ale Lo"'s Manding version of an I-gotta-be-ramblin'-on Dust Bowl ditty bookending the saxy sultry "Raciste," gorgeous pieces of music all. Not until "Jiggenu Ndakaru" hit the rafters did vocalist/guitarist Lo's Senegalese background kick in. Love that jumpy mbalax rhythm. It reminds me of car that runs best on three cylinders as drummers play databursts of percussion, abdicating the beat to the ensemble before hungrily snatching a morsel back again. Like Papa Wemba, Lo should avoid the alleged allure of mainstream rock. Otherwise he cross-pollinates with remarkable understatement.

About time someone yoked the textural complexity of Parisian-based African pop to reggae, giving the music the drive of dancehall without sacrificing rootsiness. Producer Little Steven meets Nigeria's Majek Fashek headlong on "Majek Beware," the single most stunning reggae cut I've heard since time knows when, chocked with talking drums, layered vocals and an incantory intensity surpassing 1990's "Send Down the Rain." If other songs on Spirt of Love (Interscope) lack the sheer startling impact of this dense, primally focused juju fling, Fashek approaches them with such devotion and emotion, you'd think reggae itself was his own invention, a long-kept secret he's suddenly bursting to share. Part shaman, always an astute observer, he's the first international star in ages to make populism believable--if not as a viable force, at least as a samidzat philosophy to treasure. In these totalitarian days, I'll even settle for a misty glance backward at Plato's Atlantis.

Since it's nearly impossible to write about world music without invoking a string of influences (see above reviews), I suggest we need more catch-all terms to indicate precisely what reinvention of genres we're talking about at the moment. For example, in the spirit of Tex-Mex, I offer Lo-Cal to describe a uniquely Californian non-broadening approach to worldbeat, characterized by an utter lack of dissonance, tension and all forms of conscious offensiveness--and with a tendency to slip into the background like basil on a salad. Not a bad thing if you're into dinner parties, but I prefer a brisk slap in the face to humdrum virtuosity, or I might just as well fritter away my life listening to classical music. It's a content thing.

Take Barefoot's Dance of Life (Rhythm Safari), peppy violators of worldbeat's injunction against meaningless self-reference. Any group whose lyrics proclaim, "Listen to that conga beat, makes me want to move my feet," definitely falls into the Lo-Cal camp not only for making small virtue of the obvious but for muddling up subtext with context. I do dig the cover art of frugging, scantily clad Pacific Coast females at the feet of marble titans, especially the fishnet stockinged blonde who trance-danced out of a Las Vegas revue without her top. Long live multicultural patriarchy!

Another repeat offender is Gumbay Dance! by Abdel Kabirr & the Soto Koto Band (Higher Octave World), which claims to represent "the true roots of African music" via western harmonic structures, deburred horns and Ancient Kingdom of Bland vocalists. This release at least is geared for newcomers to African music, and if by this the label intends its own New Age audience, I see some sense in Gumbay as an effort at subversion. But if roots and easy ambience is the goal, why not sign up a solo kora player instead and save all that electricity gobbled up by synthesizers? Spare a tree.

More of a soft spot have I for Strunz and Farah's Américas (Blue Mesa), if for no other reason than that their flamenco-based quicksilver really moves. Doesn't move me a whole lot, however, though I do appreciate the lovely acoustic guitar duets and a deft approach to melody that stresses thematics over hooks. Problem is, the instrumental mastery comes off so effortlessly, goosed by sweat-destroying polished-egg production, I feel awash in EZ-listening aesthetics that seem at odds with the whole point of worldbeat as provider of the essential center our own culture has lost. These guys squeeze out sparks. But instead of LA's melting pot we get a microwave-safe container.

For roots without embellishment turn to Colin Turnbull's classic field recordings of music of Zaire's pygmy peoples. Until now, the only pygmy music on cd was a pricey two-disc Ocora import. But two American labels have just issued compilations of the anthropologist's recordings, both spotlighting the gorgeous, free-flowing vocal style called hocketing, where singers pass short melodic lines from person to person in sort of a round that forms shifting harmonic patterns. Sometimes the phrases are compressed or expanded by individuals, or a singer might burst brightly from the shimmering whole to riff upon a phrase. Think of Terry Riley's "In C" adapted for forest yodel and you get some idea of the complexity. Sonics on both releases are fairly good considering the monaural equipment originally used, but don't expect Don Was-level production values.

Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Forest (Smithsonian/Folkways), culled from two best-selling albums from the '50s, is a rich aural snapshot of the pygmies' life in their camp, ranging from an environmental recording of birds and crickets to songs of hunting, gathering, celebration, play--and the sacred molimo music of the men that will have Robert Bly racing for his tom-tom.

Turnbull's Music of the Rain Forest Pygmies (Lyrichord), originally released in 1961, has a more varied sound because its selections include Mbuti influence on music of neighboring peoples. It also has the kind of quirky, magic moment scientists must both long for and dread. Pleading with a Twa woman for a very ancient song, Turnbull is reluctantly granted the favor of an "old and highly sacred" piece that turns out to be a pygmy rendering of "(Oh, My Darling) Clementine." Whether this was the result of some strange cultural transference or the woman was dissing Colin per Margaret Mead by the Samoans is not commented upon in the anthropologist's liner notes.

Enthusiasts of Turkish music--and I am one--will be pleased by three new cds, two by German/American CMP Records, one on Island Records' adventurous Axiom imprint. Sharki, Love Songs of Istanbul by Nesrin Sipahi and the Kudsi Eguner Ensemble (CMP) is a set of blues for Turkey dating back to the 18th century, chronicling a people's grief at the beginning of the end of the Ottoman civilization during a period of increasing European influence. The despair works as a lens, creating tightly focused, starkly arranged compositions interpreted by the shivery voiced Sipahi, who conveys deep wells of collective sorrow with her subdued delivery. Since many Turks prefer to avoid reminders of their imperial history, sharki are rarely heard today except, ironically, in a westernized orchestral setting. This collection marks the first release of the genre with traditional instruments.

Tzigane, The Gypsy Music of Turkey by The Erkose Ensemble (CMP), with its blend of loose-as-a-goose clarinet solos and clattering handdrums sounds like a cross between klezmer and Egyptian music. Like Russia's Terem Quartet, the Erkose Ensemble builds a remarkably full, emotionally compelling palette from simple instrumentation. Most selections consist of a medley that begins with impressive improvisations call taksim on kanun (zither), clarinet, ud or kaman (violin).

These highly charged pieces perfectly fit the article I'm reading on the convulsive dancing of the Corybantes, worshippers of Demeter/Cybele. Quite different than the gypsy songs I thought I knew, tzigane may well be the source of the more familiar European repertoire. According to CMP Turkish music consultant Kudsi Erguner, gypsies originated in northwest India and migrated to the Middle East before eventually moving west. No one seems to know for sure. In a book on sufism, writer Idries Shah claims gypsies descended from wandering dervishes, so their songs may indeed have served an ecstatic function at one time. Hit "play" and roll those eyeballs back!

In low moments I obsess on how my life might have been different had the Byrds continued moving in the direction of "Eight Miles High" rather than unfortunately inventing country rock. The wait has been long and pained, but finally here are the slurred runs, angular melodies and fractal-based riffs I've craved on Talip Ozkan's The Dark Fire (Axiom). No genteel strumming here. Supported by frame-drum and wooden spoon production, Ozkan lunges into buzzing, stinging forrays, attacking the strings of his saz--a member of the lute family--with cherry wood plectrums he must surely snap in half like Metallica's drummer splinters sticks.

When westerners talk of keeping traditional music alive, we generally mean pieces from the creaky 18th century, but Okzan dips into an established cannon dating back to 1250 A.D. or earlier from Turkey's pre-Islamic past. One of the wildest cuts, "Gah Cikarin Gokyuzune" is attributed to 15th century troubadour Kul Nesimi, member of the Alevi dervishes, who was skinned alive rather than renounce his faith. His fierceness courses through Okzan's performances.

Altan, Harvest Storm (Green Linnet). Irish music is often barred from the worldbeat camp as presumably too old hat or familiar to be of interest, but as the leather jackets on the liner photo indicate, Altan has the punk intensity to storm the gates. Though maintaining a traditional repertoire, the band augments fresh arrangements with the occasional bazouki or didgeridoo, finds bottomless thunder in Tommy Hayes' bass bodhran, and transplants the dynamics of mbube to harmony displays like "Dónal Agus Morag," when Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh hasn't wandered off on her own with a voice like a sliver of cold moonlight.

Reggae for Kids (RAS). The notion is perversely irresistible. Gregory Isaacs warbling the recreational drug anthem, "Puff the Magic Dragon." Potty-mouth Yellowman straining his spleen on a G-rated version of "This Old Man." But it works, thanks to stalwart material, snappy production, a quick pace and performances that don't sing down to the kids--especially Bunny Wailer's cautionary "Back to School." Recommended for curmudgeons of all ages.

Huayucaltia, Amazonas (ROM). With flutes, acoustic guitars and low-key synthesizers, these Hi-Cal West Coasters conjure up an intensely romanticized Latin America, where a celebration of the primordial world blends with sorrow over current political realities. Divided less into separate songs than segmented into soundscapes, Amazonas isn't as overtly memorable or aggressively activist as its predecessor, Caminos--though the advancement of a vibrant Andean-based pop sound and evocation of the Amazonian indigenous peoples amounts to a kind of advocacy after all. And the sequenced sections of "Cholita" barely sound computer-driven. Hopeful music for a green planet.

Remy Ongala, Mambo (RealWorld/Virgin). Last heard on Songs for the Poor Man, Ongala played master cylinder to a high-strung Tanzanian dance engine that brought soukous off its confectionary cloud, rubbing the noses of angels and devils alike in village dust. This time around his suddenly urbanized voice jumps front and center, booming over the intricacies of his band in open-throttle Fela-style empowerment that seeks to reach as wide an audience as possible--thus the songs in English as well as Swahili plus crowd-pleasing Tom Jones touches in "Dodoma." While there's no denying the man's charisma, too often the new delivery system goes ballistic generating bombast instead of heat. Luckily his Orchestre Super Matimila has toughened up too, threatening to whisk the mighty-voiced one into the corner on "What Can I Say"'s extended bridge and girder work.

Lee "Scratch" Perry, The Upsetter and the Beat (Heartbeat). Reggae physicist Perry dabbled in the uncertainty principal for so long, I guess it was only a matter of time before he threw himself into entropy. My hope is that his found-object poetry vaguely juxtapositioned over recycled Coxsone Dodd tracks is a Hugo Ball attempt at transcending the limitations of language and not the twilight of a brilliant career. The disjunction between prattling, Tourette's syndrome vocals and the stasis of nostalgia-invoking, muffled instrumentals almost makes the disc worth owning for sheer annoyance value, always an important consideration with any Perry purchase.

Naka, Salvador (Mango). By African standards, Guinea Bissau's Ramiro Naka isn't an outstanding vocalist, but verve and an ear for the ineluctable Latin groove more than gets him over--plus the wackiest falsetto since Andy Pratt's "Avenging Annie." His enthusiastic back-up singers nearly eat him alive, but he charms, cons and wrangles his ways back to center stage unscathed.

Solid Gold, Coxsone Style (Heartbeat). Harder-edged than any of the smooth Studio One reissues, this anthology confirms my growing suspicion that--until something new skanks along--reggae hit its artistic peak some 20 years ago. Songs are tougher than usual too, including versions of "Rivers of Babylon" and the one-stanza-short-of-perfection "Declaration of Rights," plus flinty instruments by Jackie Mitoo and Ernest Ranglin that led me back to PiL's "metal box." Only quibble: where are the women? With the addition of four new tracks on this re-issue, the compilers could have righted past oversights by easily including the sistren.

La India Meliyara, La Sonora Meliyara (Riverboat/Sterns). I don't know porro from passeo, but can reasonably spot a cumbia when one goes by, thanks to the loping, skanking beat that reminds me of a Colombian twist on reggae. The cogniscenti will hear far more, but what I like about Melida Yara Yanguma's ("La India Meliyara" to her fans) first disc on her own is exactly what I like about cumbia, where all is punctuation to the primacy of the vocalist, from stacatto horns and piano pulse to an oddly pinched chorus apparently recorded several rooms away. The genre's faith in the singer is entirely justified here. La India owns the arrangements without having to dominate them via the malleable pipes we expect plus a strong dose of wit and good-natured posturing. Surely she's incapable of singing without a mischevious grin lighting her face--even on the tear-jerkers.

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