(by Bob Tarte, originally published as "Hell on Wheels" in The Beat magazine, Volume 15, Number 4)


The Technobeat Summer-Fall '96 National Tour is underway, and I've had a great time reviewing cds in front of live audiences from Lake Erie to the Big Muddy and beyond.

The breakfast regulars at the Traxler Cafe in Newton, Iowa, went easy on the homemade tart-cherry pancake syrup and heavy on the compassion as I served up an on-the-spot appraisal of a bittersweet favorite of my own, the Cooking Vinyl label's American release of the late Biggie Tembo's 1992 Out Of Africa album. Maytag Co. employee Martha Dysart, 26, whose hobbies include herb gardening, crewel stitch, and minding her own damn business (she joked), elbowed table mate Susan Greiner, a fit and trim 32-year-old Gemini who also works the Maytag assembly line, as I pecked away at Technobeat's Mac Classic computer I'd set up along the breakfast bar. Traxler Cafe co-owner Dave Roda, an outspoken quintagenarian whose hard-bitten edge hides a softness for economical prose, suggested I take advantage of the early morning fresh air as a stimulus to thought. While that left me nowhere to plug in, falling back on pad and ballpoint pen forced me to slow down and reconsider this cd as I planned my route out of town.

As I had been telling Ms. Greiner before her unfortunate coughing bout, Biggie Tembo's final solo release is a biggie, one of the rare cds where you can find something to say about every single track. The off-again, on-again member of Zimbabwe's U.K.-based Bhundu Boys crams so many elements into his jit mixture of southern African and Anglo pop styles you'd expect the cracks would show. But even the sleepwalker "Harare Jit"--which purposely strives for the generic--easily soars above its mundane intentions, thanks to a vocal exuberance that prods the stalwart pace and melody to life. Busy arrangements with lots of changes keep everything in constant motion, and the resulting complexity brings an edginess that makes me think of the more aggressive songs as the musical equivalent of pointillism. "Mushonga" is a miracle of engineering. Squint half attentively and it holds together as a unified object. But focus on the individual instruments churning with gamelan intricacy, and you may wonder how any band member knows what to do and when to do it. A frantic high-hat seems to be backing anything but the phrases chanted by the vocalists, while the lead guitar ties itself in unfathomable rhythmic knots as the intervening rhythm guitar and bass follow their own arcane internal clocks.

Wonderful as the instruments are, the songs on Out of Africa are indisputably the property of the singers. Biggie and the boys steal the show with power harmonies, hooky refrains, comic groans, motet tricks, and other acrobatics, and whenever the singers are absent even the most compelling instrumentation ends up marking time for their return. For proof, check out "Ngaraire" where a fluttering bass drum pedal and out-of-breath horns set the stage for the most protracted, dramatic entrance by a fat man since Sidney Greenstreet in "The Maltese Falcon." After delivering just a few verses, Biggie drops out again for a long, extended stretch, then the cut slams shut shortly after his reappearance. The one song to avoid is the title cut, whose lament over continent-wide troubles is easily read as Biggie's despair over his career. "I am running away from myself, leaving behind what I am, trying to be what I never can," he complains. The irony is he made an amazingly good record in the process.

After putting the finishing touches on this last review in the heavily trafficked lobby of the Quality Inn motel in Davenport, Iowa, I found myself unexpectedly delivering an off-the-cuff lecture to a bright-eyed group of students from Henry W. Armstrong High School in Rockford, Illinois. "You youngsters have your whole lives ahead of you," I told them. "So beating me up and stealing my car will only lead to serious trouble later down the road." A friend in need, and thus a friend indeed, was Jason Mulvihill, 41, the night manager of the local Wendy's restaurant who joined our gathering in the parking lot when one of the high-spirited high schoolers used the Technobeat columnist to block the drive-through window. After escorting the teenagers off the property, Jason invited me inside his place of work for a late night cup of coffee, an order of Biggie Fries--fittingly enough--and a napkin compress for my nose. I tried this out on him:

The Bhundu Boys sans Biggie Tembo put in a game performance on 1993's Friends on the Road compilation, also just issued in the U.S. by Cooking Vinyl. Friends finds the Bhundus crafting warm fuzzies with a variety of collaborators, including U.K. group The Latin Quarter, country crooner Hank Wangford and Celtic harpist Savourna Stevenson, who contributes one of the finest moments on this spotty disc, a gorgeous remake of the Boys' "My Foolish Heart" called here "My Foolish Harp." Creative pairings such as this plus songs where the Bhundu Boys are clearly at the helm indicate what could have been but for a limp choice of material. The album starts strong with "Radio Africa" a peppy jit-drenched English language ditty co-inhabited by the Latin Quarter, a song with so much going for it from kindling guitar to sultry vocals that the steep plummet of the two other Latin Quarter cuts is especially disappointing. "Bitter South" appears to have been written in a dry spell after falling asleep to Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble," and "Church on Fire" throws buckets of ironic attitude at another Graceland-derived hulk. As bizarre as the former songs are bland is a version of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" which shows how well the Bhundu's layered guitar sound can mesh with American country music. But this warhorse is too tired to resuscitate and Wangford offers nothing new to the vocals.

Not every stop along the Technobeat Summer-Fall '96 National Tour has been unscheduled. After writing ahead to dozens of book stores, including national chains Barnes & Noble, Brentanos, Little Professor, Waldenbooks, and Borders, I received an invitation from Crook's Used Book Nook in Chillicothe, Ohio, home of the Mound City National Monument. Beverly Gerrard, proprietor, a round dynamo of a woman in her late '50s, jumped up from her plain wooden desk at my arrival. Informing me how glad she was that I could make the trip, Beverly immediately installed me on the linoleum in front of the Mystery and Adventure paperback stack where I sorted and priced a carton of recent Historical Romance trade-ins. At noon she graciously allowed me to half-man the front desk while she retired for a bowl of minestrone soup at the Evermore Avenue Dunkin' Donuts, brewer of the best cup of coffee I've ever tasted from a pastry franchise--I know because she brought me back a partial cup. Beverly's absence gave me the break from the Fantasy and Horror inventory duties I needed to assess a new African/Latin music meld that for all its New Authors energy might better occupy the Classics shelf.

Kinshasa-born Californian Richard Lemvo rips up a tough set of Afro-Cuban songs with his band Makina Loca and assorted guests on Tata Masamba (Mopiato Music). Guitarist Syran M'Benza and his Les Quatres Etoiles bandmates throw sparks all over "Prima Donna (Petit Nzele)" as soon as it settles into a flat-out soukous groove, Sam Mangwana adds vocals to "Minha Querida," and legendary Zairean singer Nyboma thickens the chorus of two other cuts. Lemvo's energetic take on Cuban sources of enduring African popular music styles is reminiscent of Africando's two cds, but without the wildly creative arrangements that made their every note seem new. Lemvo's more interested in updating and expanding the sound of great Cuban bandleaders like Bene More, whose "Yiri Yiri Bon" closes the disc. The result is consistently satisfying but lacking a knock-out punch, especially in the bouncy but unexceptional horn charts that add more texture than muscle. Still, it's a long way from pro forma with song after song instantly imprinting itself in memory. So if my response to Lemvo's cultural juxtapositions is how familiar the innovations seem, that might be precisely his point.

A big hello to all my friends in Peebles, Ohio, just a holler away from the Kentucky border. Peebles is home to the serpent effigy mound and Technobeat reader Jamie Prucell, who sent this columnist an e-mail taking him to task for an unfavorable review of Mickey Hart's 100th Olympiad opening ceremonies invocation theme in The Beat, Vol. 14, No. 7. An Internet search quietly netted Prucell's full name, address, and phone number, but I didn't call ahead since I wanted my visit to be as unexpected as her shucking of my musical judgment. For two days I parked a couple of houses away from the Prucell family home, watching the comings and goings of husband, Walter, cute-as-a-button kids Walter, Jr. and Normandy, and taking down the license numbers of neighbors and visitors. I followed Prucell to the IGA Food City market, tailed her to Slaphappy Baby Daycare, and crept up on her that evening as she left an anorexia nervosa support group meeting. "Ms. Prucell," I demanded, stepping out of the shadows and imposing myself in front of her 1994 Mitsubishi Gallant. "Got any fancy opinions about Romanian Gypsy music?"

I told her how Taraf: Romanian Gypsy Music (Music of the World) contains a wealth of styles glued together by the unmistakable gypsy flair for dizzying instrumental intensity and speed plus vocals that seem to burst through a crack from forgotten centuries. The songs teeter between the fringes of a shadowy east and west, carrying the roots and responses to nomadic styles that sprouted flamenco, klezmer, fado, plus some Turkish, Armenian, and even Celtic vernaculars. The performances here opt for fever over frenzy with throbbing double bass and dulcimer rhythms and mostly accordion and violin leads. Two long suites of love songs and entertainment songs at the front of the disc help set the sustained mood of expectation, and the choice of common denominator material for the entertainment of a wide gagi non-Gypsy Romanian peasant audience contributes to the seamlessness of this excellent collection. Among the standout cuts is the dissonant bluegrass ritual wedding dance, "The Hora of the Fir-Tree," where the plucked dulcimer resembles a skewed banjo as the violins launch a tempest of a hoedown in a mere 1:11.

It's a physiological fact that listening to the Village Pulse label's Bougarabou: Solo Drumming of Casamance actually gets my heart racing faster than my morning cup of mud. Playing the disc at work is a disaster, because I end up zipping through jobs in record time, defeating the whole purpose of charging by the hour. This collection of solo pieces by Saikouba Badjie, member of the Jola people of Senegal's Casamance region, is anything but stark. Saikouba augments his superkinetic hands with bracelets of jangling banana-shaped bells and the women accompany him with palm-frond clackers, clapping them in double or triple time and contrary to his rhythms for a dizzying dose of complexity. Shouts and other vocalizations also add to the excitement. A four-cut improvisation is the centerpiece of this pristinely recorded cd, functioning as a virtual history of bougarabou drumming as Saikouba begins performing on a single drum then progresses to all four. Until this century, according to Adam Novick's liner notes, the Jola played just one drum, adding two later, then finally graduating to three or four in the late '70s perhaps as a response to the popularity of Cuban salsa in the region. Solo Drumming is a terrific disc, but don't play it if you're trying to cut down on stimulants.

One day on the road blurs into another. I wake up in a mom and pop motel on Ohio's effigy mound stump circuit, kick the groupie out of my room--in this case, it's pop--apply Lotrisone ringworm ointment to my cheek, and try to forget yesterday's run-in with the cops in the last small town. My spirits rise as I drive through the village of Newark past Buchanan Road to Fairway Avenue and salute the guard at the wrought iron front gate of the Mound Builders Country Club, a golf course which incorporates the prehistoric Octagon Mound of the ancient Hopewell peoples. Though I have neither club membership nor bag of clubs, I have no trouble gaining access to the grounds. A pair of bolt cutters goes through the chain link fence like butter at the shaded west side of the course. Once inside, I marvel at the sight of golf carts bobbing up and down the ancient earthworks, and wait until the girl at the snack bar steps out for a cigarette so I can slip in and steal three slices of cold pizza and a two-liter bottle of Pepsi.

Crouching under the bridge at the water hazard, I do an on-the-spot review of Spirit Chaser (4AD) by U.K.'s gloom merchants Dead Can Dance. Ever since the duo of Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard ran short of 17th century Italian dances to plunder, they began adding Bulgarianisms and Middle Eastern glossalalia to their millenarian milieu. Now the world music influences have grown to include Mesoamerican, flamenco, Australian aboriginal, classical Indian and other motifs standing side by side with guitar quotes from Neil Young's "Down By the River" ("Song of the Stars"), cello glissandos plucked from George Harrison's "Within You Without You" ("Indus") and instrumental noodling straight outta King Crimson's "I Talk to the Wind" ("Song of the Dispossessed"). Pop quotes plus world beat divided by pretension usually yields a negatively compelling big bang of a bore, but I have to admit an increasing fondness for this disc once I realized that the Dead probably don't take this piffle any more seriously than I do. In fact, I find portents they're actually having fun after a poker-face Buster Keaton fashion. Perry drops his Francis Albert Ian Curtis Sinatra crooning in favor of a more relaxed Perry Como mode. Plus, who else would even think of transforming salsa into a dirge?

England's technopop world beat cut-ups Loop Guru make Dead Can Dance seem like classicists on their debut American release Duniya (Waveform). It isn't just the omni-reliance on synthesizers, which the Dead also use to cavernous effect, it's the incessant primacy of the drum machine which strips body, soul and momentum from one sample-heavy assemblage after another. Gurus Salman Gita and Jamuud cite Can as a major influence in the liner notes along with Captain Beefheart, The Mothers of Invention, Franco, Brian Eno, Jon Hassell, and many others whose potency comes from their capriciousness and a rhythmic elasticity that canned bits can't match. Loop Guru's loopiest material is predictable as a stuck clock as ethnic instrument emulations and foreign language vocal snippets beat empty skulls against beat box tick-tocking that eschews development for the consistency of a robotic beat. Even Kraftwerk knew better. Even "Aphrodite's Shoe," where a dubwise reggae rhythm caresses floating Bulgarian vocals, is ultimately static, lost in the tiny interior of your favorite labor-saving electronic appliance.

Speaking of gurus, Krishna Das left his in India in order to spread his fame in the West, and the result is One Track Heart (Triloka Records). Teaming up with Indi-beat repeat offenders Jai Uttal and Jim Wilson, the modestly monikered Krishna modernizes traditional Bhakti Yoga chants by transmogrifying them into yogi rock. How useful you'll find these amplified texts depends on your reaction to the inside back cover liner note photo, in which Mr. Das strikes a devotional pose with an anthropomorphic statue of the monkey god Hanuman reminiscent of Maurice Evans' best-known role. If you own more tubes of incense than pairs of shoes, you may want to tuck this insanely exuberant disc inside your Indian cupboard after all. But as a hedge against inadvertently transgressing divine law, I'd recommend reprogramming your cd player so that the first track every time you pop in One Track Heart is "Prayer to the Goddess for Forgiveness."

Speaking of devotion, casual listening couldn't crack Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Party's Intoxicated Spirit (Shanachie). While I enjoyed hearing pop's newest avatar sing traditional qawwali compositions with his Pakistani bandmates on harmonium, backing vocals, tabla, and handclaps, sprawling song lengths plus coughs and throat clearings throughout this live recording put me off. Phlegm and rapture usually don't mix. But Ali Khan's Sufi roadmap to the divine plumbs allegorical connections with earthly excess. He compares a state of bliss to continual drunkenness and--in lyrics that must give stricter Moslems fits--equates his beloved with the Kaaba, telling her, "Since I have found you and have become the worshipper at the altar of your love, I don't require a mosque to prostrate myself and say my prayers." These strategies are interesting enough to warrant and often reward pious attempts to drown myself in the boisterously prayerful atmosphere. Still, music that promises a glimpse of enlightenment has heavier goods to deliver than your average fm-radio ditty. Live, Nusrat and Party would probably tear the top of my head right off, but here the ebb and flow of ecstasy in 23:00-long cuts is tricky navigation indeed. Just as limbs began to tingle in response to lusty group vocals and Ali Khan's swirling scat singing, the bottom would drop, stranding me in another false denouement all stressed up and with no known place to go. This may be all part and parcel of the brotherhood's wake up technique, but, thanks, I can lose my way on my own.

Deciding to give the bookstore franchises another chance, I made my way to Barnes & Noble Booksellers on Coliseum Drive in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Concave chest puffed out with pride, I located several issues of The Beat hidden at the back of the magazine stacks, dusted off the most recent, and moved it to the front tier next to the current copy of Dog Fancy. At the Software Center, I plopped down at a Mac that was demo-ing the medical adventure game Cyst and replaced it with Bob Marley's Soul Almighty, Vol. 1 (JAD Records) which I'd borrowed from the CD sales area. "Gather round me!" I cried. "I'm about to write a review." Software Specialist Jan Smits deadpanned, "I've notified security about you, sir." I teased her back, "I'm armed with musical knowledge--and dangerous," and produced a photocopy of the unanswered letter I'd sent to the store manager announcing the Technobeat Summer-Fall '96 National Tour. As Jan relocated her customers to the parking lot, I toured the CD-ROM section of the disc until an inexplicable power outage confined to my section of the store curtailed my explorations.

Soul Almighty contains laboriously restored musical tracks from Bob Marley's 1967-68 sessions with producer Joe Venneri and leading R&B musicians of the day. Read all about it in The Beat founding editor Roger Steffens' liner notes. The audio portion of the disc is great, if quirky, positing digitally reconstructed and in some cases re-recorded instrumental tracks with vocals that are occasionally so constricted they sound phoned in. Of course, it's a miracle these tracks exist at all, and the performances and material--plus the dynamics of the instrumentation--are strong enough to make this disc a must for Marley fans. What really puts Soul Almighty over the top is a batch of multimedia files playable on CD-ROM-equipped Windows and Mac compatibles. This stuff is great fun and includes photo galleries, biographies, a Bob Marley discography, interview snippets with the producers and others, a video of the "What Goes Around Comes Round" re-mix featuring generic footage of the Wailers plus inserts of new vocals by Lynette Lewis, and a chronicle of Haile Selassie's visit to Jamaica that I have yet to locate.

Graphically, the interface is beautiful, full of photo treatments sporting earth-tone tints, weathered edges, haloed typed, and other hip Adobe Photoshop effects. Operationally, the interface suffers a few minor hiccups. For instance, each time you leave the main screen for the Rude Boys submenu, "Strangers On the Shore" starts up, providing mood music as you decide which direction to go from there. Click on a pic to hear an interview snippet with a Marley insider, and when you return to the Rude Boys submenu, "Strangers" starts all over again--and again each time you revisit that screen. Every submenu is similarly tied to a particular song. I'd rather have songs cycle randomly than trudge through the kind of repetition that CD-ROMs are tailor made to avoid. And be careful when you access the CD Jukebox screen which lets hear a track from the audio-only portion of the disc by clicking on the title. The sound kicks in at a substantially higher level than on the CD-ROM-only material, so mind your ears and speakers.

Soul Almighty's biggest wow is a feature which lets you toggle back forth between the original, unenhanced versions of a song and the restored versions, revealing the extent of producers Joe Venneri and Arthur Jenkins' genius. For $15.99 retail, this disc is unbeatable. The multimedia portion is as extensive as a few pricey first generation CD-ROMs I own. (Roger Steffens estimates there's ten hours worth of material to read and listen to on your PC.) In terms of presentation and sheer smarts, I'd also rate it higher than some current $50-and-up CD-ROMs such as Peter Gabriel's Xplora 1.

Too bad there isn't a CD-ROM component to El Caiman, the Corason label's showcase of the furious son huasteco. Though the canon of this Mexican folk style is small and the songs stylistically similar, the individuality of the ten trios in this anthology is as obvious as a pie in the face. My favorite change-up comes once the first group, Los Caporales, shows its stuff with the nonstop, bumblebee violin, chugging huapanguera guitar, and yodeling interplay the style is known for, only to be succeeded by the unexpected grittiness of Los Cantores de la Huasteca--featuring outstanding falsetto vocalists Martin Godoy Sanchez and Juan Balleza Rodriguez, who also snaps out an unnerving rhythm on guitar. Among the gems on this irresistible disc are early performances by Los Camperos de Valles vocalist Marcos Hernandez, recorded in 1971 when he was the 17-year-old wunderkind of Los Cantoes de la Sierra, the restrained sizzle of Los Camalotes' Veracruz variations of the son, and Los Trovadores del Panuco led by Esperanza Zumaya, the only woman I have ever heard sing huapangos. I only wish there were a video included on the disc so I could see what this amazingly energetic music looks like when it's being performed.

I didn't think there was a band alive older than Jethro Tull, but lo and behold from Cuba comes Septeto Habenero, founded in 1920 after an aborted start three years earlier as Cuarteto Oriental. The line-up has inevitably changed over the decades, but not as frequently as you might think. Lead singer Manuel Fure joined the Septeto way back in 1952--the year I was born, I believe--and German Pedro Ibanez broke his first guitar string with the band in 1964. As expected, the Habeneros excel in the classic style son, but with nary a trace of creakiness on 75 Years Later (Corason/Rounder). The first thing that got my attention was a trumpet rising boldly from the tres guitar, bass, and bongo backbone, and though it initially seemed jarring by its lone self in a stringed instrument setting, a few minutes of listening confirmed its essential role in the band. Trumpeter Barbaro Teuntor's parts are as economical as they are sharp, leaving ample space in several six-minute-plus numbers for tres guitarist Felipe Ferrer to chime out brightly. The Habeneros have honed plenty of tricks over the years for generating excitement, such as gradually increasing the tempo of "Cuartos Palomas" and "Guaguanco de Tipico," adding a jump-up bongo solo to "Cuando Me Toca a Mi", or piling on the call and response climax of "El Orgullo de los Soneros"--though all it ever takes to up the intensity several notches is for Manuel Fure to switch to his declamatory style as the cowbell kicks in behind him. This is easily one of the strongest releases in the Corason label's American releases of traditional Cuban music.

I apologize to the Latin musicians for the slapdash manner of these last two reviews, to the unknown resident of Erie, Ohio, who loaned me a car for a couple of hours, and to the sanitation workers at Cedar Point amusement park, Sandusky, Ohio, for another unfortunate incident. My own weak nature plus the strain of living in the shadows of one small town after another has undermined what I had hoped would be the public relations coup of a lifetime. Watch what you say and do the next couple of months. Look around before you step out of your workplace to a street that seems deserted. Don't trust the stranger leaning back in his seat beside you on the bus. Above all, stay away from your newsstand. Technobeat is coming to your town.

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