(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 18, Number 7 1998)
As an experimental alternative to doping the Helsinki water supply with Prozac, Finnish authorities are combating the annual spate of seasonal affective disorder-induced suicides with a treatment that promises fewer side effects than serotonin specific re-uptake inhibiting drugs. Working with an advisory board consisting of faculty members and post-graduate degree holders from the Folk Music Department of the Sibelius Institute for Musical Studies, government health officials have begun installing loudspeaker arrays in Helsinki's commercial and financial districts.
According to Lars Sklömkülästen, Special Cabinet Minister of Depression, Anxiety and Umlauts, "Starting in February, we will be saturating metropolitan office buildings, restaurants, taverns, hospitals, blubber bars, quickie saunas, ice sculptoriums, Huck Finn Waffle Houses, reindeer showrooms, grouchery stores and tan-free frostbite booths with songs by JPP." Sklömkülästen added that it wasn't simply the carefree tenor of the band's new NorthSide Records release String Tease that provides a counterpoise to the legendary dour temperament of the Finns. "They've got chutzpah!" Sklömkülästen glowered, explaining that the usual career path of a string ensemble is as backing musicians for other artists. While JPP has done this to a tee, they have also released a string of solo cds featuring odd renditions of traditional Scandinavian songs and self-penned songs in a quasi-traditional vein.
Even though JPP's all-string arrangements are leavened only by Timo Alakotila's harmonium, which resembles more massed strings, plus an occasional lone percussionist and guests contributing yet again more strings, the ensemble forges on with the certainty of a festival orchestra whose brass, wind and reed sections phoned in sick. Whether uprooting waltzes, polskas, marches or tangos, even the introspective pieces come across as a variation of the square dance from the seesaw motion of fiddle upon unison fiddle and constant waves of legato notes that barely leave enough open space for a frigid breath. Health authorities are confident that the Helsinki citizenry will succumb to the formalism of JPP's classical music approach, allowing themselves to be inadvertently gladdened by lush violin sweeps usually reserved for climactic scenes in a Tom Hanks' film.
"I don't feel quite so hopeless and alienated today," ventured Kirsi Paivan, one of 20 test subjects exposed to the short albeit breakneck pace "Speedy Slam" followed by the deceptively sonorous introductory march to "Wedding Suite" which soon gives way to airy splendor. "Everything about this music is up front, you might almost say pragmatic," monotoned Paivan, a 32-year-old elk commodities trader who seldom makes it through her workday without phoning one of the city's 3,000 crisis intervention centers. "They don't rely on tricky arrangements or artsy stop-and-starts that irritate me with the implied unrealistic abrupt change of mood," she observed. "There's no ostentatious soloing either, nor obvious in-jokes. Not even the distasteful dark ironies that our Swedish neighbors indulge in. Just cooperative virtuosity in the service of geniality."
Hedningarna vocalist Sann Kurki-Suonio failed the JPP feel-good test, though eight percent of human volunteers and six percent of lab rat subjects converted to the Wiccan religion after repeated listenings to Musta (NorthSide). The recording achieves entry to the cheery camp by inches despite Kurki-Suonio's penchant for tombs and gloom in her Hedningarna projects. Aside from the Ono-esque ululations on "Tuulen Nostatus" (Raising the Wind), the joiking on, of all things, a song called "Polska Release," and a few too many glottal stops across the board, Musta is nearly neo-Celtic in attitude. While countrymen JPP cut across the trad-mod gristle with indisputable deftness, this disc flaunts gimmicks destined to annoy boomers with Scandacid bass thumps on "Manaus" (Exercation) (that's a word?), obligatory Tuvan vocal samples and non-obligatory electronic butter churn percussion on "Tuulen Nostatus," and ersatz LP scratches and synthetic crow caws mixed deep into "Ei Musta" (Not a Dark One). Fortunately the microchip folderol plays second fiddle to Sanna's vocals. Her voice is gripping in the montages and roundelays that fill this disc, though on "Pilven Tytto" (The Cloud Maiden) she packs a wallop with her solo lead vocal. But the jazz trumpets on same should take a long walk off a short, steep fjord.
"Ulla Pirtijarvi--joik, frame-drum" reads the cover of Roussa Eanan (Atrium/Warner Brothers), whose solid blue cardboard slipcase broken by three scant lines of lower-case white type seems to promise minimalism. Forget it. If you didn't know a joik was a kind of chant by the Arctic Circle Sami people, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was Swedish for "ambient electronics" based on the evidence here. Might as well put "Arthur Fiedler--baton" on a Boston Pops release. While there's nothing particularly objectionable about the cafe-crowd trance brew of Roussa Eanan, there's nothing distinguished, either. The modernisms are subdued or retro, and the traditional elements are packaged as pop. Call it "Joik--The Movie," and you've got a contender in the music-to-read-by genre.
Steve Tibbetts' duet with Norwegian hardanger violinist Knut Hamre is only slightly less gnomic than its title Å (Rykodisc) might suggest. While the Minnesota-based guitarist shows as much disregard for conventional musical landmarks as he did on Cho, his 1997 disc with Tibetan nun Choying Drolma, Å gets the big A-plus for listenability. Absent are contrived conveyances of melodic or narrative development--or anything else, for that matter, that carries the whiff of artifice. Notice how Marc Anderson's occasional percussion folds into "Huldreslatt" as a kind of textural thickening rather than a signpost we've reached any kind of climax in this puzzling entanglement of repeating violin motifs and passing occurrences of acoustic and far-off electric guitar. The songs on Å imitate life more than art, as chains of circumstances unfurl for a given duration before petering out sans resolution. In fact, the whole "song" moniker is an impossibility here. The measured silences and melodic fragments are so much of a piece, it's best not to focus on any given unit longer than a beautiful collision of acoustical sound or, with appropriate detachment, shorter than the span of the entire disc. In other words, the mystery at the core of Tibbetts' and Hamre's collaboration rewards intermittent attention better than it nourishes pursed-lip scrutiny by wrapping unexpected marvels around the listener. Far more otherworldly than any synthesizer-based excursions, Å begs for the name and modus operandi of the invisible accompanist whose stone-silent direction brings such beauty to this utterly original work.
First we get Knut and Steve's Å . Now there's D, the new release from Tarika on the Xenophile label. With bated breath, I await B and C. The D in this case stands for dihy, which means dance in the Malagasy language, hence this collection saluting "the golden era of Malagasy 45s" according to the back cover blurb. Being only slightly less familiar with the hit singles of Madagascar than I am with the properties of a quark, I take the statement on similar faith and bask in the combination of jaunty rhythms, spine-tingling marovany and valiha solos, and township-style harmonies. What makes this hook-happy assembly go down so well with me are the unexpected instrumental touches throughout, like the saxophone that suddenly appears on "Ditra," the cock-crow that opens and closes R. Clee's 1978 island hit "Corcorico" (and if that ain't onomatopoeia, I don't know what is), and the tasty violin and clarinets in the exuberant dance song "Fety." Could be Tarika's best release to date. [43 Beaverbrook Road, Danbury, CT 06810 or www.greenlinnet.com]
While the Finns toy with aural analgesics, I doggedly search for the most depressing music on the planet. A dark horse favorite hails from our own shores. Songs and Ballads of American History and of the Assassination of Presidents (Rounder) is a Library of Congress compilation half full, or half empty, if you're a pessimist, of sad songs about the Civil War sung by that itinerant hayseed troubador Judge Learned W. Hand, along with Capt. Pearl R. Nye, Warde H. Ford, and Mrs. Minta Morgan, all in recordings from the '30s. Ford's "The Battle of Antietam Creek," about two brothers in opposite armies, may be the cruelest of the bunch. Equally painful though morbidly fascinating is the second half of the disc with five songs about the murders of Presidents McKinley, Garfield and Lincoln collected and performed by the great Bascom Lamar Lunsford of banjo, voice and fiddle fame. Originally issued in 1952, this brief cd earns its keep not merely for curiosity sake, the high quality of the performances, nor even the strength of the narratives, but as a reminder that ordinary people once wrote songs to put their own stamp on titanic historical events. Now we've got James Cameron.
I usually avoid multi-disc world music theme anthologies like the Helsinki flu, since their contents fall far short of measuring up to their "best on the planet" hype. Global Voices (Music of the World) sets modest expectations with its promise of "an ear-opening adventure in human sound," and while it doesn't set forth much we haven't heard before, this nicely packaged collection makes pleasant listening. Best of the bunch is the cd marked Traditional with more highlights than the other two discs combined. Just about every cut is compelling, including an example of the thrown-vocal singing of the legendary "Bauls of Bengal" via Sholagobe Patore Bhashe, who hits qawwali-style enthusiasm in the first few notes and continues to ascend. Also on board are loping "bamboo accordion" rhythms with teasing courtship boy-girl vocal interplay from Laos, Sardinian polyphony from Tenores de Oniferi, unadorned Tuvan throat singing by Huun-Huur-Tu member Anatoli Kuular, and a back-to-back pair of sparkling gypsy and yodeling villager pieces from Romania.
The Sacred disc is another keeper, but its mood is meditative rather than ecstatic with the noteworthy exceptions of the soaring South Indian praise song "Raga Sudha" by R.A. Ramamani and the Karnataka College of Percussion, the lively gospel ditty "Job" by The Sterling Jubilee Singers, and a rousing processional piece by Peru's Qhapaw Negros Singers from the label's fine 1996 Festival of the Andes cd. Otherwise the spirit revealed here is slow and devotional with more subtleties than sparks. Do listen to Tibet's Ganden Monastery Monks through headphones and revel in the high, ethereal harmonics that dance around an entirely independent melody. The Dag Brothers perform what sound to me like vocal imitations of Indian stringed instruments in a leisurely excerpt from "Rag Kham Boji--Alap" showcasing one aspect of the classical Vedic singing style. Also included are solid pieces from Croatia, Nigeria, Hungary, Zimbabwe, Morocco and Cuba.
I don't envy the Global Voices producers the task of compiling the Contemporary cd, since the best pop singers are tied up on major labels with major price tags to boot. Still, this is a pretty weak offering considering what's out there. Why lead with a pair of cuts by so-so a cappella group SoVoSo or hobble us with a cowboy cut from Don Walser whose yodeling takes the back-40 to the steel guitar. Another curious choice is the exuberant yet unexceptional blues holler "Don't Talk About Love" by Deborah Coleman and Skeeter Brandon. Just to see if I was off the mark, I grabbed a few cds in armchair's reach for sake of comparison. I tried "Wind Through My Sails," a filler from Neil Young's Zuma with the dreaded Crosby Stills and Nash on back-up, weighed a James Brown sampler but immediately dismissed it as unfair competition, then settled for a very minor song by British songbird Dusty Springfield ("Stay Awhile") from her three-disc Anthology. Such middling entries blew away the English-language material on Contemporary along with a number of the foreign tracks, and I wasn't even trying. But I don't want to abandon this set without mentioning the great strength of engineering that makes especially the first two discs good listening. Tracks grabbed from studios and concert setting around the world have been meticulously re-mastered to sound as if they all came from the same session, and all with pristine audio. The value of such lovely sonics cannot be overstated.
Finland's Global Music Center acting in concert with Havana's sinister-sounding yet benign Center for Investigation and Development of the Cuban Music gathered up a group of virtuoso musicians from the cigar producing region of the island and reassembled them on Scandinavian shores. Hear all about it on the emphatically uncontroversial controversia genre song "Sobre Amistad Finlandia-Cuba," on which Candido Lemus waxes extemporaneously on the friendship between Finland and Cuba. Pinareno--From the Tobacco Road of Cuba (Alula Records) is at least the third compilation in as many years to sport an ersatz Cuban cigar box cover, but this one is a winner--rich, aromatic and varied.
The first four tracks spotlight the broad spectrum of styles infusing the provincial city of Pinar del Rio, and the rest of the disc never drops the ball. Conjunto Campesino Cuyaguateje kicks off the son montuna "Guateque Campesino" (Country Banquet) with chiming tres guitars and contrasting vocal timbres, only to have the music tugged into the modern era as Orquestra Cumbre lets loose the seven-minute scorcher "Eres picara para amar" (You're a tricky one to love), an urban uptempo recasting of the son with flaring trumpets, pumping piano, percussive craziness, vocals intense as you would want them, and an extended full-bore jam section. Next is a slow, ultra-romantic cancion by Aldo De Rio, whose voice is sure to melt the hearts of senoras and thus-inclined senors everywhere. But my favorite is "El son en Cuba no muere" (Son won't die in Cuba) by Grupo el Organo Pinareno, featuring a punch-card programmed mechanical organ that sounds like a refugee from a 19th century carousel. A septet from the same group follows with a winning son of a more traditional bent, and this wonderful collection keeps on going from there.
Snappy if a bit labored is Rhythm & Smoke--The Cuban Sessions (Intersound), a project that grew out of documentary film on Cuban cigars, culture and music. Over the course of a week, an amazingly varied 19 Cuban groups were recorded, and 14 are presented here. The quality of the music is exceptional with enough examples of the son and other older genres to keep country bumpkins such as myself elated, though these have contemporary arrangements that help blend in with a cappella innovators Catarsis or with Cachibache and their vocal percussive effects on "Qui Bueno Si." Check out neo-trad Cubamar's rendition of "Chan Chan" for a pretty though somewhat fussy reworking of the standard that opened last year's Buena Vista Social Club. Rhythm & Smoke was recorded in the 50-year-old SonoCaribe studio, but don't expect mellow tube-equipment sonics. This high-definition cd (hdcd) format disc is squeaky clean to a fault, so clear and bell-like especially in the high notes that a microchip personality challenges the humanity of the acoustic music. As a footnote, hdcd discs are probably on their way out before they ever became widely established. New 24-bit cd players that will play standard 16-bit cds plus forthcoming 24-bit discs are already here, but these will compete with new 24-bit dvd-audio-only discs that play only on dvd machines. Ironic if standard cds become outdated if not obsolete after only about a decade. [P.O. Box 1724, Roswell, GA 30077]
The Beat editor CC Smith enacted a strong no-flamenco clause for this column--no, I take itback, that was my idea--but I must make an exception for Two Cries of Freedom, Gypsy Flamenco from the Prisons of Spain (ROIR). The concept is irresistible. A cultural group dedicated to the preservation of flamenco staged a contest for the best flamenco singers in Spanish jails. One-upping American song-collectors like Alan Lomax who sought out and recorded African-American musicians in American jails, the sponsors of this contest eventually not only allowed the two winners to record their songs on this disc backed by top flamenco guitarists, but also commuted the prison sentences of the lucky pair. The lot of gypsies in Spain is often dismal, and one of the winners, Jose Serrano, probably did not commit the murder that earned him 18 year in the slammer. And Antonio "El Agujetas" was put away for 15 year on a drug charge, so the freedom prize is more responsible than it first appears. Both singers unleash the raw-throat unstoppered emotion that defines the genre, and there's not a touch of pop sweetener in earshot. This, then, is the real stuff, brimming with felt hardship. Serrano gets the first half of the disc, and "El Agujetas" the second, with the two joining forces for an electrifying finish, "Fandangos." Even if you're not a flamenco buff but simply appreciate top-notch vocals, Two Cries of Freedom is worth the stretch. (611 Broadway, Suite 411. New York, NY 10012 or www.roir-usa.com)
[Copyright 1999 Bob Tarte]