(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 21, Number 5, 2002)


(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)

You might be excused for suspecting there's a secret subtext to A Man About A Horse (ECM). Minnesotan guitarist Steve Tibbetts admits that the ebbing and flowing compositions, held together by Indonesian drumming patterns, sheets of feedback-laden electric guitar, and delicate acoustic guitar passages, gang up to tell a story. But he's keeping mum about the plot, not wanting to spoil our internal video of his emotionally charged, if cryptic, saga.

But there's another tale to this Horse, and hornets take the starring role. Tibbetts was cleaning the rain gutters of his house and keeping a respectful distance from a formidable wasp nest. But the hornets wanted a larger personal space than Tibbetts had allowed them. They streamed from the nest in an angry funnel cloud that deposited him on the ground, right hand first. He didn't realize the fall had broken his wrist until the crack of his bat at a softball game harmonized with the crack of bone. The solution for staving off long-term arthritis was to allow a surgeon to "slice my wrist open, pin the skin back like a frog in biology class, and drill, screw and suture things together with bone shavings 'harvested' from my hip," he explains in a background bio. The procedure had to wait until Tibbetts could afford it, which meant after a 40-city tour with Tibetan nun Choying Drolma, who collaborated with Tibbetts on Cho.

Since Tibbetts wouldn't be able to play guitar for six to eight weeks after surgery, he put together a go-for-broke album ahead of time, first laying down percussive tracks culled from his 1991 drum studies in Bali, then performing what he calls the "beserker" electric guitar parts in a single night. "Much of the guitar on this album is from that night. It's sliced, diced, turned inside out and backwards, and often left as-is," he says. While you'd be hard pressed to say that the results fit the usual world music pigeonhole, the Asian instrument samples are omnipresent, his guitar style is influenced by Indian sarangi player Sultan Khan, and an Eastern philosophic cloud hangs over the whole shebang. Shimmering metallophone notes, choral murmurs and buzzing guitar textures rise and fall in an atmospheric setting with more layers than a memory of early childhood. The inward directedness suggests devotional music of India or the Himalayas. That's no surprise considering Tibbetts' numerous treks through Asia and his continuing Buddhist studies.

Eschewing typical song development, compositions surge with naturalistic energy in place of narrative thrust. The approach resembles Chinese traditional music, which mulls over such themes as the ripeness of a fig, the fall of leaves on the Yangtze River, and other worldly events that unfold without a climactic resolution. The unrelenting descriptiveness can lead to listening drudgery. As free-floating melodic motifs and exotic timbres pile up, it's easy to feel overpowered by sonic sensations and underwhelmed by structure. The trouble is compounded because Tibbetts is cagey about the objects and events his songs describe. The title "Red Temple" seems to provide insight into one song until you scan the back cover to find "Black Temple" and "Burning Temple" included too. Ultimately these titles lapse into high-mountain names "Locahan," "Chandoh" and "Koshala" that do little more than reinforce the fact that drop offs and sheer cliff walls surround us.

Headphones are essential survival gear. Or find a place where you can listen loud enough without disturbing spouses, neighbors, innocent yak herders or yeti. Let your attention waver, and Tibbetts' big looming landscape suddenly evaporates as quickly as a snowflake on the stove. Yet even a few moments of dedicated attention hatch gorgeous moments such as the bronze-instrument guitar figures near the end of "Burning Temple" that open up just enough to allow the entry of a songbird. And while you miss the middle section of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" or the Beatles "I Am the Walrus" at your peril, you can wander unstairs during Tibbetts' "Glass Everywhere" to feed your cat, confident that more perfectly rendered micro-events patiently await your return.

Probably 80 listenings or so would establish the great, grand groundwork from which this inner well flows. Fortunately, Horse is unobtrusively rewarding enough to hold up to that many listenings, and it sounds different nearly every time it plays. If anything, the concentration required to reap the disc's rewards becomes the theme of the song cycle. The music functions as a summons to, metaphysically speaking, wake up, because you need to be awake to appreciate the music. Like a mandala, Horse is both a map and the thing that's being mapped.

Lots of musicians collect instruments and genres from Asia and assemble them into dance tracks or ambient fare with the inevitable stereotyping. Tibbetts yokes Asian instrumental sounds and percussive patterns with a way of thinking about music that isn't obviously derivative of East or West. The result approaches a true world music open-ended enough to find an audience just about anywhere on earth, depending, of course, on the amount of slack you're willing cut him. And then there's the wasp attack, and the irony that a man whose guitar playing resembles a monstrous cloud of hornets should fall victim to the stinger and tumble to the ground. It sort of serves him right for Horse.

I had nostalgically high hopes that the native music of Australia would spur Peter Gabriel to the kind of creativity he last exhibited in his soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ. But Long Walk Home: Music from the Rabbit-Proof Fence (RealWorld) is mostly about scene-setting. Not only do these sonic sweeps cry out for the accompanying visuals from Phillip Noyce's film about Australian aboriginal children taken from their parents and trained as domestic servants, but at times the compositions also reminded me of the music to the computer game Myst III - Exile. Ominous haunted-house effects and electronically treated environmental sounds run the full dynamic range gamut. For minutes on end the pieces are so soft you've got to crank the volume way up simply to remind yourself there's a cd in your player. Then come the inevitable horrific crescendos signifying dramatic happenings lost on the non-moviegoer. Lacking Birdy's lyricism or Last Temptation's songcraft, Long Walk Home suits its Australian Outback setting by evoking mental pictures of a vast, arid region where nothing much of interest happens.

Thanks to the latest life-extension medical advances, those of us who bought lps way back in the 1970s are still alive today to wax nostalgic about the experience. In that bygone era long before either compact discs or today's "world music" category were invented, enthusiasts sought out the occasional African or Latin American recording in the "International Music" bin buried at the back of a record store near the sound effects lps. With the advent of the Nonesuch Explorer Series, that bin was seldom empty.

By this time, anthropologists, ethnomusi-cologists and other multisyllabic professionals had already been collecting music from different cultures for decades. But the required recording gear was dauntingly bulky, not to mention primitive. In 1941, Bruce and Sheridan Fahnestock lugged Presto record-cutting machines and two miles of insulated microphone cable to Bali to capture three-minute-length snippets of local music on aluminum 78 rpm platters. When Alan Lomax trekked through the European back country in the 1950s, he outfitted himself with the latest reel-to-reel tape recorder, but anything approaching high-fidelity sound quality just wasn't there. By the time the Nonesuch record label released the first lp in its Explorer Series in 1967, vastly improved technology had suddenly opened up remote locations to aural hunter-gatherers as equipment got simultaneously better and smaller. David Lewiston took less than 70 pounds of recording equipment to Bali and emerged with the near studio-quality stereo recordings featured on the groundbreaking Music from the Morning of the World album. So began the modern era of world music recordings.

Few of the Explorer lps ever made the transition to compact disc. But Nonesuch is reissuing the entire series of 92 albums made between 1967 and 1984. The ambitious revival kicks off with the release of 13 African music titles in September 2002 and grinds to a halt in February 2005 with 15 Indian recordings. The question, of course, is how relevant the albums remain today given the impressive amount of music now available from around the world along with a far better informed audience than existed back in 1967.

For the most part, the African discs hold up nicely. Much of the focus is on traditional music, including song styles that were endangered the day they were recorded and by now have presumably vanished. The "El Molo Hippo Song" featured on East Africa: Ceremonial and Folk Music from the Lake Rudolf region of Kenya was nearly extinct when grabbed by David Fanshawe in 1975. Its languid passages probably won't vault to the top of anyone's playlist; in fact, the entire cd is more interesting than listenable. Thankfully, Fanshawe's companion recording East Africa: Witchcraft and Ritual Music is big in the jangling rhythms department and should easily stay put on any cd player that it meets. But even that pales compared to the rousing percussive dances that pack West Africa: Drum, Chant and Instrumental Music and Ghana: Ancient Ceremonies: Dance Music and Songs, both recorded by Stephen Jay. The vernacular flute and lute pieces are an added bonus. Boasting songs played on vernacular flutes, boun-kam gourd clarinet, musical bow, hodu lute and balaphon marimba, Kathleen Johnson's Burkina Faso: Savannah Rhythms is so tuneful it could be a pop music release, and Burkina Faso: Rhythms of the Grasslands doesn't lag far behind.

By far the most surprising release of the lot is Burundi: Music from the Heart of Africa, recorded in the early 1970s by Giuseppe Coter. The rich repertoire is often reminiscent of Malian traditional music, especially "Bees," a dialog between a singer and the bass notes of his inanga eight-string zither, which sounds as much like American delta blues as anything out of West Africa. The eerie "Walking Tune" performed on idingiti fiddle is the spiritual sibling of the divinatory repertoire of the Sahel's njarka one-stringed violin. And, of course, this disc includes a fine example of the Burundi large-ensemble drumming style that slid into Western pop music via Bow Wow Wow and other punk pranksters of the late 1970s.

Speaking of pop, the one disappointing disc in the collection is Ghana: High-Life and Other Popular Music from Saka Acquaye and his African Ensemble, an outfit that can't hold a candle to the African Brothers Band or almost any other highlife band you might mention. The music undoubtedly sounded more novel in 1969, which brings up a general complaint about the Explorer Series reissues. Aside from a couple of name changes, the albums are essentially identical to the original releases. No new material has been added, nor are liner notes updated in any meaningful sense. When Rounder Records decided to reissue the entire Alan Lomax catalog of American, Caribbean and European recordings, the label didn't merely reproduce old titles. Each installment in the 150-volume series includes extensive notes that explain and enlarge the context of the historical material. Even better, each disc takes advantage of the 70-minute-plus capacity of compact discs by containing several previously unissued recordings. A similar strategy would have significantly enhanced the value of the Nonesuch material, but even without those additions, this is one sweet series.

Complaining that some of the material on the Machito anthology Mambo Mucho Mambo (Columbia/Legacy) feels dated is like griping that Buster Keaton's The General is a silent film. But Frank Raul Grillo, AKA Machito, was every bit as forward- looking as the "great stone face," even if he didn't look as snappy in a porkpie hat. Few innovators escape the eventual codification of the genres they pioneered, however, and by the 1950s when the "Complete Columbia Masters" on this cd were produced, Machito's freshest work lay in the past. The mambo had become such a huge craze in America that New York's Palladium dance hall, which Machito called home, instituted an all-mambo policy in 1952. As a result, the Columbia recordings are long on swaggering horn-fed rhythms and short on Machito's more adventurous jazz excursions, which previously found him collaborating with legends Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Dexter Gordon.

Fortunately, the low points of Mambo Mucho Mambo are few, and even these can be fun. The exception is "Mambo A La Savoy," which sports an English-language vocal by '40s swing harmony group, the Skylarks, that larks around too much for its own good. "Bongo Fiesta" fares about as well as you might expect, though the problem is less with the reverb drenched "jungle" bongo attack than faux movie soundtrack changeups worthy of an Yma Sumac release. "Oboe Mambo" reduces Machito to novelty song purveyor as none other than Mr. Sing Along himself, Mitch Miller, plays the titular oboe solo with all the swing of a philharmonic greybeard. Peaks include a terrific transformation of Dizzy Gillespie and Chico O'Farrill's "Baiao" into the cooking and comparatively folkloric "Carambola" with Machito singing and signifying. "Sambia" by pianist/arranger Rene Hernandez boasts turn-on-a-dime horn section work and oodles of exuberance. As icing on the cake, vocalist Graciela has everything you'd expect from a Latin diva, including a voice that cuts through the densest orchestration with ease, flawless timing and broad sex appeal she dishes out as farce in the naughty, quasi-orgasmic "Sí Sí No No." Thanks to the revival of pre-Revolutionary Cuban music styles not to mention the simmering resurgence of lounge music, this mambo-heavy collection has fewer cobwebs than a lot of 50-year-old recordings. Here's hoping we soon get helpings of Machito's adventurous stuff.

In the 1970s, the Fania All-Stars gave the dance music of the day the Machito treatment by gloriously blending salsa with cool jazz, funk and mainstream pop. The cream of a quartet of All-Stars lps recorded between 1976-79 graces ¿Qué Pasa? (Columbia/Legacy), which flaunts a pantheon of Latin gods and goddesses including vocalists Ruben Blades and Celia Cruz, percussionists Mongo Santamaria and Ray Barretto, pianist Papo Lucca and flutist Johnny Pacheco. This wasn't a mild feint toward consolidating genres. A disco string section kicks off the Celia Cruz vehicle, "Isadora," with a snippet of Tchaikovsky. Steve Winwood adds high-voltage electric guitar to a one-foot-on-the-ground, one-foot-in-the-heavens meltdown of Tito Puente's "Picadillo," flaunting the tightest rhythm machine in the time- space continuum, Stax-style hot-buttered horns, and an uncredited trombone solo transmitted from Planet Jazz. "Ella Fue (She Was the One") switches into overdrive each time it shifts from a slick funk chorus to hard salsa charge, and helping hold the crossover together are fluid Carlos Santana-esque guitar lines from Eric Gale. Ruben Blades, who contributes too many jaw- dropping moments on the disc to tally, composes and sings the stuffing out of the moody nine-minute mini-opera "Prepara" to a backing of dramatic strings courtesy of the Salsoul Orchestra and a crisp piano interlude from Papo Lucca. These crossovers not only succeed beautifully, but they've also held up to something like 25 intervening years with few signs of aging, give or take a few disco sound effects.

New York's salsa scene gets a nice retread with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra's Un Gran Dia En El Barrio (Ropeadope). Pianist and arranger Oscar Hernandez leads a band composed of old timers and new lions alike through a tribute to the greats of the genre. Call it the Buena Vista Salsa Club, maybe, but the result is tough Latin music with so many passionate solos there's scant room for nostalgia within the timeless grooves. My pre-release copy was stingy with information, not even supplying song titles, though it did list personnel, which include New York greats Frankie Vasquez, Ruben Rodriguez and Bobby Allende.

Let's not forget Cugie. The Original Latin Dance King (Columbia/Legacy) pays tribute to the first bandleader to give national exposure to Latin music. Known in later years as Charo's hubbie and a painter of big-eyed children, Spanish-born Xavier Cugat began popularizing the rumba in the late 1920s, in the early 1930s headlined New York's Waldorf Astoria and the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, and by the 1940s starred in a national radio program that led to Hollywood film roles. The secret to Cugie's success was a mixture of hard mambo pieces like "Jamay" and Latin Lite novelty songs that soft-peddled exotic rhythms to audiences that didn't know merengue from key lime pie. Eye candy was part of the recipe. Cugat's fourth wife Abbe Lane, who injects unwitting camp into three cuts on this collection culled mainly from the 1950s, participated in a floor show heavy on pretty female dancers, including Cugat discovery Rita Hayworth in the early 1930s. But his band also included top musical talents such as singer Miguelito Valdés and flutist Esy Morales. While "Cuban Mambo" with lead vocals by 3 Beaus and A Peep is sure to provoke a grimace, skin-tight arrangements of songs by Arsenio Rodriguez, Pérez Prado and other breakthrough Latin composers of the day illustrate Cugie's orchestra at its inarguable artistic apex.

Norwegians are seldom accused of whimsy, but Annbjørg Lien's Aliens Alive (NorthSide) is shot through with playfulness that provides a nice counterpoint to the plaintive sigh of her hardanger fiddle. "Luseblus" gets an organ-and-guitar blues riff send-off before veering toward more traditional-based Norwegian motifs. "Morning Mood" finds Lien plucking the well-known Edvard Grieg melody on the sympathetic strings of her instrument as flutist Hans Fredrik Jacobsen contributes a wake-up yelp. And Sami vocalist and shaman Ailo Gaup plays the part of a throat-singing troll in the extended middle section of "Origins." It's all part of constructing a chimerical phantasmagoria that accents the otherworldly artistry of Lien's dynamic violin and nyckelharpa keyed-fiddle playing on these live performances from her 2001 Norwegian tour. While the progressive rock reach and ambient music atmospherics of "Loki" add up to heady fun, opening and closing selections "The Rose" and "Fykerud's Farewell to America," which find Lien on unaccompanied hardanger fiddle, easily contribute the most magical moments on this disc. The buzzing, ringing overtones along with relentless minor key modalities burrow deep into the listener's psyche with up-front intimations of wilder, ancient days. The mood is just right in the dramatic title cut. Lien wields her fiddle with controlled fury, Vasen's Roger Tallroth whacks away at the guitar, and drummers Rune Arnesen and Per Hillestad threaten to split open the earth's crust. Sound quality is quite nice for a live recording, although a slight note-smearing never lets us forget the concert setting.

The Rough Guide to Youssou N'Dour and Etoile de Dakar (World Music Network) showcases the Senegalese crooner at the top of his game. Contrary to N'Dour's often-bloated solo efforts, these performances from the early 1980s include no synthesizers, no duets with Neneh Cherry, no English-language crossovers, no world beat dilution, and no grandiose overworked statements. Instead we get a wild merging of Cuban rumbas and peppery Wolof rhythms accented by the startling concussion of the tama hand drum as N'Dour's Islamic intonations issue a muezzin's call to dance. Replacing the personnel-shifting Etoile de Dakar on the final two cuts is the better polished but still diamond-edged Super Etoile de Dakar as Youssou's mbalax began entering the international spotlight. Thus the dynamic "Independence" and seemingly unstoppable "Wadiour" ushered in superstardom while simultaneously shutting the door on the most exciting segment of the singer's career.

In 1978, field recordist David Fanshawe embarked upon what turned out to be a 14-year odyssey gathering local music from Pacific Islands. Considering the remoteness of most of the locations and the numerous technical challenges he faced, the sound quality of the songs on Music of the South Pacific (ARC Music) is staggering. "Pukapuka Drum Dance" from the Cook Islands plunks the listener in the middle of a circle of throbbing tin canisters, slit-log drums and a robust bass drum. "Wagi Brothers Bamboo Band" preserves every bizarre nuance of a fuzzbox guitar dueting with an amplified bamboo xylophone beaten with rubber flip-flop sandals. "Gilo Stones" flaunts the uncanny timbre of "tuned" stones struck with a handful of bamboo tubes, while "the heathen God's sacred song" is revealed via ghostly "Pan Pipes of Buma" from the Solomon Islands. Also included on this 27-cut collection culled from Fanshawe's 2000 stereo reel-to-reel recordings from his Pacific voyages are several gorgeous examples of the merger between Christian gospel music and island choral singing.

(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)

[Copyright 2002 Bob Tarte]

Technobeat Central  
Columns by CDs and Artists / Columns by Date
Columns by Subject / Page of the Whale