(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 21, Number 4, 2002)
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)
It sure feels like genuine 1970s nostalgia as Geraldo Pino testifies, "Get down you people. We've got a brand new gal in town." The organ burbles heatedly in the foreground. The Fender bass bounces a melodic riff off a wah-wah rhythm guitar. But as the song grinds on, it might not quite mesh with your fondest recollections of big hair, gold chains and pimp chic fashions from the glory days of funk. "The way she walk, the way she talk, the way she does the funky dances," sings Pino, "She's really really heavy."
She's really blurry, too. The lyrics are just too general and disconnected to paint more than the barest skeleton of an image. They're like an imitation of jive talk instead of the real thing. If the music sounds second-hand as well, that's because "Heavy Heavy Heavy" was originally aimed at West Africa rather than the projects. The exuberant eight-minute opus appears on Afro-Rock, Vol. One (Kona/Evolver), which anthologizes one of the most obscure genres of African pop you're ever likely to encounter.
Influenced by equal parts James Brown and the late Nigerian Afrobeat superstar Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Afro-rock has seldom been heard in America before. A lack of decent source material is one of the problems. The liner notes apologize that master tapes for the 11 cuts on the disc weren't available, because those tapes were continually erased and reused by cash-strapped African studios. "All that remains are the worn vinyl copies and now the record on your turntable," writes compiler Duncan Brooker, an apparent victim of memory erasure who forgets that we're listening to a compact disc. But never mind. The sound quality of the songs on Afro-Rock is in fact quite nice, closer to a pristine eight-track tape than a scratchy 45 rpm single plucked from a cardboard box at your neighborhood Goodwill store.
While it's a treat to hear this energetic style at last, brace yourself for a few awful moments. Fela Kuti's immensely popular Afrobeat invention was sort of a mutant stylistic offspring of Ghanaian dance-band highlife and Bay Area funk ensemble Tower of Power. On "Envy No Good," the Mercury Dance Band tries besting Fela with brass blasts that surge into overload and a frog-voice "la la la" stretch of singing better imagined than actually heard. Ishmael Jingo's "Fever" from 1974 gets off to a promising start with an explosive drum break until fingernails-on-blackboard falsetto vocals float another of those seemingly inevitable "way you walk, way you talk" couplets. But that's the worst of it. If you're able to inoculate yourself against funk clichés and an overall ambience resembling the soundtrack for a chase scene in a 1970s tv cop show, there's a lot to admire here.
From Ghana, K. Frimpong and his Cubano Fiestas succeed with a lighter take on Afrobeat that, despite a certain loosey-goosey ethos to the performance, could stand on its own in almost any African pop anthology. The 1976 single "Africa" by Kenya's Steele Beauttah is a flute-driven anthem boasting engaging harmonies reminiscent of Black Uhuru during the Puma Jones period. Even the tracks that set your teeth on edge benefit from the joy of hearing superb musicians play ditsy songs with uproarious gusto. Bad is beautiful, and discerning listeners who realize that garishly awful music can be every bit as enjoyable as blander fare from virtuosos will discover that Afro-Rock, Vol. One is really good indeed. And really really heavy, too.
Also just released on the Evolver label are three albums from the late 1970s featuring drummer Tony Allen commandeering Fela Kuti's Africa 70 band. The original Nigerian-issue lps Jealousy and Progress easily fit on one cd wisely titled Jealousy -Progress. Another disc called No Accommodation for Lagos-No Discrimination includes Allen's vintage albums of the same name recorded respectively with Africa 70 and an outfit called the Afro Messengers. For a couple of reasons, I have to give Jealousy - Progress a slight edge. The title takes less time to utter. And I admire the liner notes fashioned from tiny, hard-to-read type that when attacked with a magnifying glass shatter into pixelated fragments. With care, these still reveal Allen's history with Africa 70. But they do not solve the mystery of why a man of Fela's well-documented monstrous ego turned over his musicians to Allen for these recordings while, according to the liner notes, sitting in on sax and piano.
However the sessions happened, the music is first rate and on a par with Fela's own releases minus his charismatic vocals. There's even a smattering of variety from song to song, though formula is practically everything. Most numbers kick off with a tough but understated groove building to a mighty entrance from the horn section. Fela or another keyboard player vamps on an electric piano for a while, then a soloist breaks the tension with heavy reed compression. More vamping follows, leading to another solo or a repeat visit from the brass section, then possibly a vocal. Shampoo. Rinse. Repeat. While it ain't exactly Duke Ellington, the recipe does add up to some of the most exciting African groove music you're likely to hear. My favorite cut is the instrumental "Hustler" from Jealousy - Progress, which features a top-notch drum solo from Allen that in any other milieu but African pop I'd say goes on a bit too long. But in this setting, the drumming's definitely the thing, and so is this blazing performance. Buy one disc. Buy 'em both. And don't even trouble yourself trying to tell them apart.
Few folks are liable to turn handsprings at the thought of a double cd of traditional music from East and Central Asia. It suggests a listening experience loaded with nutritional value but perilously low on the enjoyment scale. But The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan (Smithsonian Folkways) plows new ground by opening disc one with a song from Iran that is drop-dead gorgeous with its heady mixture of santur hammered dulcimer and zarb goblet drum playing a rippling ornamented composition that moves like a dexterous Indian raga. The pleasures snowball as songs roll by that were apparently chosen for their high thrill quotient. Aygul Ulkenbaeva makes the Kazakh two-string dombra lute chug, glisten, gallop and sing a song of honeybees on "Balbyraun." "Dance of Tamir Agha" performed by Gevorg Dabaghian on the duduk vernacular clarinet suggests a Renaissance court bacchanal in its performance of an Armenian ritual dance. Most Japanese shakuhachi recordings on disc are blander than cornstarch and water, but Kojiro Umezaki's "Lullaby from Itsuki" will never land on a new-age anthology thanks to the buzzing, bracing blowing of a hurricane trapped inside a bamboo stalk flute.
With the exception of a few selections from Japan and China, most of the songs on Silk Road flow from the Central Asian segment of the historical trade route that flourished from 200 BC to 1500 AD, including Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbeki-stan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and various other difficult-to-locate-stans. The material is so consistently dazzling, it immediately raises a couple of questions. How can mere humans be making these sounds, and why haven't we heard any of this before? If the first question is imponderable, the second is easy to answer. The majority of the songs on Silk Road have never been commercially released until this moment. Many come from the private collection of producer and field recordist Jean During, who traipsed geographically remote and tourist-shy regions of Asia in search of little-known and under-recorded musical genres.
Disc one, Masters and Traditions, is devoted to court music or art music sporting a high-falutin' level of refinement. Disc two, Minstrels and Lovers, is packed with comparatively ragged folk material emphasizing emotive oomph. Some songs may live up to your worst fears of folk music from the hinterlands with strident vocals, meandering tunes, scratchy fiddles and twanging strings. But get beyond the quest for prettiness, and there's still a lot to like, including the "Jew's Harp Melody" from Kazakhstan that might as well be a Tangerine Dream synthesized rhythm track from the mid '70s. "Tepen Kök" showcases Kelek Kumaqayolu's remarkable one-person duet of end-blown sybyzghy flute and simultaneous throat-singing resulting in an eerie polyphony. The Khakasian ensemble Sabjilar blends a plaintive melody on the spike fiddle (the earliest surviving antecedent of the modern violin) with throat singing that evokes the windswept, barren land of Turkic horse herders. Consider it as a Central Asian version of Delta blues and the strangeness begins to melt. "Mizghan-i Siyah" (Black Eyelashes) is a rousing example of the type of native music that the Taliban suppressed in Afghanistan. This exuberant Tajik festival song compares the eyelashes of a beautiful woman with the skill of an archer, though if your Tajik language skills are lacking, the high-profile singing and vernacular clarinet should get your toes tapping.
This remarkable double disc is one aspect of the Silk Road Project founded in 1998 by Yo Yo Ma to study the ebb and flow of ideas among different cultures along the Silk Road. Don't confuse the Silk Road cd with Ma's similarly named traveling ensemble of Asian musicians, which reportedly deserves a disc or two of its own.
If you're going to play the music of another culture, you had better
be bringing something unique to the table, or you risk being seen as a poseur.
Paul Simon eased into Graceland by marrying South African township
music to strong lyrics and a forceful if winsome persona. Tropical Brainstorm
was first and foremost a Kirsty MacColl album on which she playfully bent
Cuban music to her will. Other cultural borrowers aren't so successful.
South African-born Sharon Katz is certainly no
poseur, but she lacks the strong central presence that's needed to carry
off the African music roots of Imbizo (Appleseed).
The nostalgic mood struck by Bahamian Ballads: The Songs of André Toussaint (Naxos World) conjures up visions of tourist culture. Despite the lounge-performance ambience, Toussaint's ménage of calypso-flavored songs in French, English and Spanish has genuine stealth appeal. Haitian-born Toussaint makes the most of a smooth voice and unassuming delivery presumably developed to blend into the tinkle of glassware at Blackbeard's bistro on Nassau's Bay Street plus the hotels and eateries where he performed until his death in 1981. Highlights of these recordings of uncertain vintage include the Cubanesque "Bambino" with big band accompaniment and a charming cover of "Cu Cu Ru Cu Cu Paloma" (originally made famous by Harry Belafonte), which reaps the benefits of Toussaint's Spanish guitar dexterity and gliding yodels. Approach with caution and enjoy of glimpse of the Bahamas' heyday as a holiday destination from the late 1950s to the mid 1960s when Cuba was closed to American tourists.
For Bahamian folk music too gritty for travelers, delve into Bahamas 1935: Ring Game and Round Dance, another Rounder Records' release in its archival Alan Lomax Deep River of Song series documenting music that ethnomusicologist and Library of Congress field recordist Lomax collected from 1933 to 1946. In his song-gathering visits to the Bahamas, Lomax discovered the oldest surviving examples of African-American music he had ever encountered. The vocal music with goombay drum accompaniment has strong links to West African rituals. But what makes the disc fun for pop music enthusiasts is the equally strong connection to the call and response of gospel and blues-styles that's way up front in jumping dances "Oh, Tilla" and "The Devil Roll Like Thunder." For a broader palette of lost Bahamian music, look for the 1999 Alan Lomax Collection release Bahamas 1935: Chanteys and Anthems from Andros and Cat Island, which includes the antecedent of the Beach Boys' classic "The Sloop John B."
When Kulturshock's lead singer Gino Yev-djevich was a guest on the NPR program "Fresh Air" in early June, host Terry Gross announced that the Seattle-based Gypsy punk band just released a new cd, but she discreetly avoided mentioning the title Fucc the INS (Kool Arrow). Back home in Sarajevo, Yevdjevich was a teen pop music star before the war with Serbia changed his priorities. He honed his vision during the war years by staging an ironic production of the musical Hair. The fact that a victim of Slobodan Milosevic would now direct his invective at the INS goes way beyond irony, and the liner notes perform a back flip to justify the reference, but never mind. Kulturshock's oeuvre needs no explanation. The bracing recasting of Balkan Gypsy music with grunge guitars, shouted vocals, hip-hop references and snippets of prog rock is loads of fun. The transition feels so natural, it's as if Gypsy melodies had been waiting hundreds of years to be liberated from the accordion and violin. At times, INS is as bad as Eastern European rock can get with the lounge-singing noodling in "Seamstress and the Officers" and a general lack of grace that thankfully finds scant application here anyway. But the horn section meshes beautifully with Mario Butkovich's lead guitar, the energy level is apocalyptic, and dark humor rules.
Not having seen Y Tu Mamá Tambien (or any other movie made since 1939), I had been expecting an all-Latin music soundtrack. Instead, the Anhelo-label cd includes a bunch of Anglo cuts that any hip Mexican teen might be hearing, like Natalie Imbruglia's "Cold Air" and Bran Van 3000 parsing Eek-A-Mouse's "Go Shopping," along with scene-setting cinematic tunes from Frank Zappa and Brian Eno. That ain't necessarily bad news, though if you own a radio with an "on" button, you can do about as well on your own. Much better are the contemporary Latin tracks. On "Insomnia," Café Tacuba comes across with a mix of surf and doo-wop harmonies that crosses the Beach Boys and early '60s Cuban pop group Los Zafiros. Plastilina Mosh and Tonino Carotone with Chalo from Volován update Mexican son roots with electronica on "La Sirenita." Honors for biggest hoot go to German-bred, Chilean- based Uwe Schmidt and his band Señor Coconut, which accomplishes the miraculous by recasting Kraftwerk's "Showroom Dummies" as a cha-cha-cha complete with frigid horn section and mallet instrument melodies. Several tracks by several artists make me want to hear more, and that's what a good anthology is all about.
Back last century when I was feeding myself a steady diet of rock music, my generic complaint about world music was that it lacked the noise factor I craved. My nutritional needs have long since changed, but Sierra Maestra's Rumbero Soy (Riverboat/World Music Network) doses its update of classic Cuban big band music with an undercurrent of cacophony. The go-for-broke production is partly responsible. And so are little surprises like the appearance of noise guitarist Marc Ribot on several cuts. The constant clamor certainly builds excitement. Even the mid-tempo "Unto A Un Canaveral" is delivered with the urgency of a tarpon thrashing to release its lip from the fisherman's hook. But someone should tell producer, recordist and mixer Chris Birkett that if you push every single instrument into the foreground, there's no background left for contrast, which may be fine for parties but wears you out for casual listening. When the title cut was playing, I told myself, "I'm gonna try this sucker again once that darned freight train passes." But there wasn't any train.
The smooth and largely acoustic Bana Congo (Tumi) by veteran musicians Papa Noel and Papi Oviedo is the perfect antidote to the clutter of Rumbero Soy. It would have been nice to hear a true collaboration between the seminal Congolese guitarist an d the vituoso Cuban tres player-like Papa Noel's contributions to Tóto la Momposina's Pacanto-rather than performances that highlight one man or the other, but the cd still moves from rumba to son styles without hiccups. The block of classic African rumba cuts that opens the disc feels less nostalgic than the Cuban songs that follow, with lean guitar, vocal and layered-percussive arrangements that come across as neo-"bush" rather than old hat. While Oviedo's cuts are squarely in the classic mode, there's nothing square about the streamlined energy that drives them. It's a wonderfully pleasant recording with solid musicianship from start to finish.
With excited anticipation of yodeling, alphorn and oompah music, I popped
The Rough Guide to the Music of the Alps
(World Music Network) into my cd player. But this collection isn't exactly
a trip down memory lane. Swiss songstress Laurence Revey weaves her yodels
into stratified song lines delivered in obscure Gallo-Romanic patois and
backed by bellydance drumming patterns. Swiss modernists Alpine Experience
hitch the venerable alphorn to a quartet horn setting accompanying lively
hammer dulcimer and more examples of yodeling. Austrian post-modernist ensemble
Attwenger deconstructs the traditional oompah band format using a diatonic
harmonica, punk attitude, electric bass, and, you guessed it, more yodeling.
France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia also weigh in with enough variety, texture
and additional yodels to make you drop your monocle in your pilsner as this
Alpine anthology provides - well, what did you expect? - one peak experience
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)
[Copyright 2002 Bob Tarte]