(by Bob Tarte, published as "The Gods Must Really Be Crazy" in The Beat magazine, Volume 12, Number 3, 1993)


[The author regrets that the opening segment of this historic column is too icky to put on the Web. The reviews from the column follow as before.]

The Fauntleroy letter put me in a bad mood that was compounded by the hospitalization of my tube amp, an extremely unreliable piece of equipment an ex-client sold me two years ago. Sonic bliss but frequent fits. Fortunately, a preview cassette of Nicky Skopelitis' Ekstatis (Axiom) managed to fit into my Toyota's seldom used tape player, but I could never keep straight which track I was listening to. Part of the problem is that my car deck is auto reverse, so even after I'd masterminded which way was up when I popped in the cassette, I still might be hearing either side depending on the whim of the machine. But the heart of the matter is the nature of this self-described "Dub/Trance Rock," a code term meaning "don't expect to be able to tell one cut from another even after a hundred playings," and I barely can.

Yet I like Ekstasis just fine. The surprise guitar solo in the middle of "Tarab" hit me on my way to work at a red light in front of the Amway Corporation, and the combination of grunge and soap powder fumes caused my hand to slip from the gear shift lever. I'm still uncertain if the blaring horns came from behind me or were merely part of Skopelitis' dustpan approach to world music, which sweeps various ethnic instrumental grit and grime into the whirling blades of co-producer Bill Laswell's shop-vac. Contributing to the unholy mess are Foday Musa Suso on kora, oudist/violinist Simon Shaheen, gospel organist Amina Claudine Myers, percussionists Zakir Hussain, Aiyb Dieng and Guilherme Franco, and, consistently providing the most bracing moments, Bachir Attar (leader of the Master Musicians of Jajouka) raising hell on the plague-of-locusts vernacular oboe, the rhaita.

Skopelitis keeps his head down most of the time, supplying frippertronic sine waves one moment, chording beautiful rhythms the next, but never hogging the limelight just because his name happens to be on the cover. He modulates his instrument so many ways, at first I couldn't even find him until I realized he was everywhere. Dilemma of a great session guitarist: you can play anything except a style to call your own. The guest musicians that give Ekstasis its identifiable punch are ex-Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit and ex-PiL, ex-reformed Can bassist Jah Wobble, who rescue a few cuts otherwise in danger of dinkiness. Case in point is "Jubilee" which Liebezeit's rock of the world, march-or-die rhythm nearly imprints in short-term memory. Better a release that leaves a shallow footprint rather than becoming naggingly familiar, and when Ekstasis' free-floating anxiety is at its peak, I pretend this is the disc by Can I've been waiting for since Ege Bamyasi.

While my amplifier was in the shop, the low-tech audio of my Magnavox cd boombox enhanced my enjoment of Calypso Carnival 1936-1941 (Rounder). For years I resisted any pre-high fidelity music. Even a collection this great of classic calypso would have passed me by, but I'm finally coming around to looking at world music as more than a few million far-flung cassette machines playing different songs simultaneously, but also as a rhythm that recedes in time along the fourth dimensional axis of my ignorance. With its relentless rock steady reissues, Rounder Records has long made learning fun, but this is the first time a 50-year-old sound has caught me off guard with anything besides quaintness.

A couple of reasons for this. The first is a vaguely mysterious quality to a music that evokes the shadowy world a decade or so before my conception, a world whose ambience bled through my early years just as today's kids will grow up nettled by the voices of the '60s. Having recently turned 40, hearing music from the beyond the veil tears smalls holes in the inevitability of death, implying that if I can transcend the velvet wall of birth, I may be able to pop over the opposite end of the continuum too. If nothing else, these strange yet familiar songs evoke as close to dreamtime as a non-aboriginal white boy can get.

I've also begun to realize that bouncy, tuneful songs can be as disorienting over repeated listenings as the aggressive noise I ate up in my youth. The strategy of Tiger's "Bandandea" and, say, the Clash's "Janie Jones" is pretty similar: an assault designed to bypass reason and sneak its message down into the bone marrow. Tiger's method is simply subtler than the Clash's as his song about the problems of an immigrant anesthetizes the listener with insane repetition and a wide-eyed Latin arrangement instead of willful amateurism. And for sheer power little in the Strummer/Jones cannon matches the metallic attack of the out of tune horns on Codallo's Top Hatters Orchestra's "I Want to Build a Bungalow," which comes hot on the tail of Lion's "I Am Going to Buy a Bungalow" and its answer song, Atilla the Hun's "I Don't Want No Bungalow." Some refutation. Atilla's only argument with the Lion involves dropping a different set of brand names in hopes that the manufacturers will reward him with the products he covets and plugs.

Better are the story telling numbers. The Growler spins a cautionary yarn in "High Brown" about marrying a light-skinned woman who considers herself superior to blacks. King Radio's "Neighbour" lambasts the man next door for messing with another's wife. "Saga Boy's in Town" by Lord Invader ridicules the slick-suited unemployed dandies who prey on women of means. All of these are reported with calypso's characteristic sardonic eye and barbed word play, though none so eloquently--while making fun of eloquence--as the Lion's "Vitalogy," a send-up of some singers who dubbed themselves "masters of English," piling on the convoluted language in an attempt to wow their audience.

But the most memorable cuts on Carnival exploit language for its sheer rhythmical possibilities. I wish I could get Lion's virulently infectious "It's the Rhythm We Want" out of my brain, an early example of a road march that sends me trooping across the rug in Pavlovian reaction. Even tougher is Wilmouth Houdini's "Mama, Call the Fire Brigade," a 19th century style, pre-calypso calinda that drills home sharp cadences with maddening bamboo stamping tube and tin can percussion. As with nearly every cut in this collection, "Fire Brigade" is impossible to resist. So barricade yourself in a small room with this cd and let it burrow into your brain.

One of Carnival's virtues is its inclusion of early calypso pieces in the old Creole French patois. But when I turn to the Mighty Sparrow I expect to hear dazzling lyrics on a par with "Sparrow Dead" or "Music and Rhythm." Unfortunately, Mighty Sparrow Volume Three (Ice/RAS) starts out with a few primitive clinkers that nearly soured me on the whole cd, with wit in the realm of "Girl when you shake, my heart does ache / And when you wine it blow me mind"--and the less said about "King Kong" ("Big and black and strong and ah coming") the better. But if you can grit your teeth and focus on the singer not the song or on Sparrow's hot band, the situation substantially improves. "Life Down in Hell" is the mighty one at his funniest, gliding through the unlikeliest conceits ("Lowness was a virtue / freshness was like mildew") as if they were cliches while spinning an engaging story. "New York Blackout" and "Idi Amin" are other winners.

I take it that the general weakness of Volume Three is due to its focus on Sparrow's later songs when he was past his prime--liner notes or even release dates would have been appreciated--but I'm happy to report that his latest cd, Dancing Shoes (Ice/RAS), at worst descends to mediocre material superior to large chunks of the preceding disc and at best shows a continuing love of language in the service of senseless merriment. In fact, by soca standards "Poom Poom Shorts" and "Check Me Out" are bardic masterpieces, and unlike 1989's disastrous comeback attempt with Party Classics (Gutu), he isn't eaten alive by the drum machine. Bonus points for simultaneously eschewing nostalgia and trendiness.

As comebacks go, however, none can be more remarkable than the Lion cracking the market at 80-years-old-plus with his first ever album release after decades of 78s, Roaring Lion, Standing Proud (Ice/Ras). According to an introduction by Ice label owner Eddy Grant, Atilla the Hun has praised Lion as calypso's great experimenter, and certainly his cuts provide some of the meatiest fare on Calypso Carnival. But how does the former innovator hold up to contemporary treatments of some of his classics? Reprises of the hoary "Mary Ann"--a Lion composition which in and of itself establishes ground-zero credentials--"Dorothy Went to Bathe" and other standards tuck neatly into a soca setting, thanks to Grant's astute arrangements which emphasize the timeless virtues of the material, including a continuous stream of bawdiness and double entendres that are never out of date. Lion's wizened vocals benefit from the lusty support of a trio of backing belles aided by David Rudder and Grant plus an extraordinary band with drop-in pan legend Len 'Boogsie' Sharpe. Here's hoping this is the beginning of a brilliant new career.

I generally don't pay attention to world music samplers. The sense of Germanic control that is reflected in my writing means I live and die for consistency, but the majority of border-hopping anthologies aren't assembled with an ear for flow as much as to nudge more cds into the listener's shopping cart. Like MTV, it's advertising disguised as entertainment. Plus the fun of most single-artist releases is the slow build up to then rapid collapse from peak experience. Often no more than a couple of good cuts can carry an entire cd. But anthologies are bent upon piling thrill upon thrill, which contributes in a circular fashion to my own sense of awkwardness and alienation--and too many peaks jammed together in an hour add up to a boring plateau.

Folk Masters (Smithsonian/Folkways), as you've probably guessed, is an exception to the arguments above. These live recordings of mostly North American music culled from a series of National Public Radio broadcasts aren't standing in for another group of products, they're the thing itself instead. Since all the artists on this 70-minute disc were recorded in the same space (the Barns of Wolf Trap in Virginia) with the same equipment, your living room acoustics aren't torn apart and reconfigured each time a new performer steps up to the microphones. The sound is as consistent from cut to cut as a single evening's performance.

More important is the attention that has been paid arranging the order of compositions according to a happy logic that emphasizes common instrumental elements. The bluegrass fiddle of the Johnson Mountain Boys' "Last Goodbye" primes the pump for Dewey Balfa's heavenly violin on "Orphan's Waltz," a cajun ditty which cracks the door open for the explosive entry of Boozoo Chavis and the Magic Sounds' accordion-crazy "Jolie catin," leading to a peppery cut by Santiago Jimenez, Jr. featuring one of his trademarked stuck-key squeezebox solos--and on and on through various commonalities until some eight songs later I arrived at a Serbo-Croatian kolo without having hit a single air pocket.

Folk Masters contains solid material by performers I know and like as well as great pieces by those I've never heard of. Favorite's include the achy-breaky yodel and classical guitar adaptation of the Hawaiian slack-key ukelele by Ledward Kaapana; Familia Colon's Puerto Rican jibaro, featuring fierce flamenco-style cuatro picking; Klezmer Plus' unreconstructed "Hebrew jazz," propelled by clarinetist Sid Beckerman, who cut his first recording for Colombia back in 1923; and the proto-rap of the McIntosh Shouters from the Georgia sea islands, preserving a worship tradition from the days of slavery. A generous 32-page liner note booklet provides a wealth of information on musical performers and styles, including a couple of suggested releases by each if you want to hear more. But this doesn't quite bring us full circle, since few of the cited references are on the Smithsonian/Folkways label or its distributor, Rounder Records--except for a forthcoming release by the Shouters that I'm anxiously awaiting.

Another justification for compilations is tempting the hapless consumer with songs and versions of songs otherwise unavailable. The second Axiom compilation, Manifestation, showboats the label's aggressive aggregate of traditional formats and urban innovation, including a mind-bending "Tarab Dub" transmuted from Ekstasis, the "Kora in Hell Mix" of a cut by Foday Musa Suso's griot dance band Mandingo, plus reality shifts by Material, Praxis, the Master Musicians of Jajouka, Bahia Black and Turkish saz-ist Talip Ozkan. Redeeming Manisfestation from the particularly painful rung of Purgatory reserved for ambitious anthologists is the fact that many musicians guest on one another's compositions, resulting in a big fat holistic ambience bolstered by Bill Laswell's genre-straddling bottomless pit production. This is the sound of psychedelia to come.

I never met a Heartbeat reissue I didn't like, but Kingston Town: 18 Reggae Hits is among the few I haven't loved. For sheer pop look no further than these Clancy Eccles-produced hits from the early days of reggae. For intimations of the apocalypse you'd better search elsewhere, though. Tracks that do transcend "Sweet Jamaica"'s for-export sensibilities cap reggae's breaking beat with broke rock steady vocals heavy on the maudlin affectations. But if the singers rarely advance from melodrama into passion, the efficient use of emotion catapaults the sparse instrumental tracks way past starkness and styling, thrusting them like a dagger through the heart of mystification. Listening to the articulated skank guitar both out-power and out-nuance Lord Creator's voice on "Kingston Town" is to hear a song suspended at the moment of its birth. And just so nakedness doesn't run amok, Eccles augments his icy backgrounds with idiosyncratic signatures that soften as well as set in hooks: "Come Together"'s popcorn drum beat, the organ hit on "Tears in Your Eyes," and most of all the Telestar blips on King Stitt's "Vigorton Two," a nutty, shouted testimonal to a health tonic that blows these words right off the page. And production assistant Lee Perry is Lee Perry is Lee Perry.

It's been a long time since I've liked what Burning Spear was doing as much I've liked the idea of Burning Spear. It's impossible not to respect his message, but I haven't been moved by the songcraft since his early releases. The World Should Know (Heartbeat) doesn't tamper with Spear's sleepwalker's delivery but urges it across the plus side of monotony with swirling instrumental backings that brush up against dancehall and jazz. It's an appropriate setting, since ironically I connect best with the voice when I erase the lyrical content to concentrate on phrasings and a timbre that reminds me of a reed man's repetitive probing. He's still reggae's Perry Como as priest, singing to us from a world away, but this time we get the flesh as well as the spirit in "Sweeter Than Chocolate"'s lighthearted litany, "Make me a snack please my love / Give me juice I'm thirsty / Make me a snack please" and other foolish delights. If you think I'm selling a legend short, note that one of World's brightest dance tracks ("Mi Gi Dem") has Spear repeating over and over, "Mi gi dem whey dem want yes mi gi dem," and he gives it up so well.

Accompanying producer Henry Kaiser to Madagascar in 1991 for the World Out of Time cd series, David Lindley referred to Ernest Randrianasolo (D'Gary) as "the monster guitarist from hell." Fair enough, but Lindley should have placed him on the temperate side of the pearly gates considering D'Gary's magic in making a classical guitar emulate the valiha tubular harp as well as the marovany box zither and other stringed instruments on Malgasy Guitar--Music from Madagascar (Shanachie). Even sitting knee-to-knee with D'Gary in the recording studio, Kaiser reported he was baffled how this complex music was being made. "If you're a guitarist at home trying to figure out what's going on here," Kaiser writes, "well, all that I can say is 'Good Luck!'"

Though he picks with only thumb and index finger, on most cuts D'Gary sounds like a minimum of two guitarists, interweaving gentle waterfalls of bass, rhythm, and melody with his unassuming but effective vocals. As if his interpretation of Malgasy harp and zither music weren't accomplishment enough, D'Gary stretches himself further by picking out an accordion tune on "Anary Tany" or incorporating sextuplet bluegrass changes into his solos on "Zarazarao" and "E! Nama Inona Ny Anzarnao." Another example along with Tarika Sammy's Fanafody of the evolving traditional-based music of Madagascar, Malgasy Guitar is an extraordinarily beautiful recording that dazzles with quiet grace.

These days when I think of Malian music, a massive electronic weight sinks upon my brow, so the acoustic approach of Bajoura on Big String Theory (GlobeStyle) is welcome. What D'Gary does for Malgasy harp and zither, guitarists Bouba Sacko and Jalimadi Tounkara do for kora and ngoni in this release of acoustic Manding pop. As in traditional griot songs, the mood is consistently serious as if matters of great importance were being relayed, and indeed the courting-age youth who listen to bajoura are counseled foremost to have respect for the oldsters who have come before them--hardly the stuff of youth music in the west. But the pulsing, layered guitars are unavoidably persuasive, Lafia Diabate's deliciously relaxed vocals slip the declamatory moorings of the traditional jali style, plus "Fanta Barana"'s extra measures and the off-center riff that's the cotter pin to "Jodoo" sound like break-outs to me. I'd love to hear the electrified version referred to in the liner notes. No synthesizers, drum machines, sampling, or digital processing, please. I'm waiting for the emergence of garage bajoura to kick soukous' ass.

Mix the Gyuto Monks Tibetan Tantric Choir in a stoneware bowl with the Brothers Four, add copious amounts of the nectar of the grape, a dash of Gregorian chants, and you might get something close to The Tsinandali Choir. Table Songs of Georgia (RealWorld/Caroline) is a musical expression of the Georgian cult of wine, a celebration of the grape linked to mystical Christianity but undoubtedly with more ancient roots going back as far as the ancient mystery religions. The toast that launches an evening of drink and song, in fact, is taken from a bull's or ram's horns, suggesting links to Mithraism or Persian warrior cults. The result is choral music as exciting as anyone could want, with sky-filling harmonies as earth shattering as those overextended Bulgarians and a lustiness reminiscent of Sufic qawwali praise songs--same attempt to simultaneously express and invoke a transcendental experience, though here the goal is social community rather than spiritual intoxication.

Maybe as my friend the Whale offered, the mystification of the grape is a convenient justification for long bouts of drunkenness. But showing signs of tipsiness is a major faux pas at night-long gatherings where these performances typically occur interspersed with endless toasts (twenty or more) and artery clogging helpings of roast suckling pig, lamb kebab, aubergines stuffed with walnut sauce, and other Jenny Craig horrors. The heaviness is reflected in the songs--no wonder giddiness is frowned upon when the music is this sharply stabbed with shadows. I'm nearly a teetotaler myself. A single Advil threatens my already tenuous connections to reality. But listening to these powerful a capella pieces puts a rosy glow in my wan cheeks. The slight pitch discrepancies of the harmonies throws the floor and walls in motion as the dense polyphony over a droned bass section orchestrates the fine chalk line between exhilaration and wooziness. This isn't merely mind or body music. Table Songs induces an alternate environment.

Good thing I've got the aural equivalent of industrial strength espresso to slap me back to normal somnambulism. There's even "Majando," an old Dominican coffee grinding song, but I feel more like the churning, disintegrating bean than the hand that turns the crank as !Ultramerengue! (xenophile/Green Linnet) spews pellets of joy in every direction via "dynamaestro" Francisco Ulloa y Su Conjunto Tipico Dominicano. It's got everything I like about Latin music in one easy to use, affordable package! Plenty of popcorn accordion runs, fruity harmonies, a shot of lovesickness even in the peppiest numbers, and percolating bass and percussion counterpoint to beat the band--any band. Straddling the old-timey merengue of the countryside and the Vegas-style big band variety, Ulloa and company manage to maintain the spirit of rootsiness while updating to modern tastes with the devilish speed of his eleven-fingered squeezebox solos--such as the anxiety-ridden standard "Juanita Morel" which he refers to as "slow merenue" with a straight face. Ulloa claims he composes most of his songs in his dreams, but if mine bounced and zigzagged this much I'd never sleep at all.

Coupé Cloué, Maximum Compas from Haiti (Earthworks/Caroline). Unlike the Beat's resident Caribbean experts Gage Averill (who contributed notes to this release) and Gene Scaramuzzo, I wouldn't know a compas from a sextent, so I was surprised at the Latin influences on this 1960s-style Haitian pop. Based on the same guitar-based Cuban music that sent rumba paroxysms through Africa that continue to this day, with its ringy, tremolo rhythms patterns, this could just as easily be Port-au-Prince surf music as the slower, elder uncle to modern soukous. Because my Creole is in worse shape than my Urdu, the punning naughtiness of the lyrics pass me by, but the bedspring rocking beat insinuates as much, and so does Cloué's voice. He may have resisted modernization, bucking the horn sections and synthesizer trends of the '70s and '80s, but Cloué sounds as up to date as any other revived style in the hands of a grizzled veteran.

Kanda Bongo Man, Soukous in Central Park (Hannibal/Rykodisc). The downfall of many a live concert is reckless excess, but if Soukous in Central Park has a flaw, it's the flawlessness of the performance. Studio polish turns the best soukous into a perpetual motion machine whose pacing and mastery warrants full suspension of disbelief, but in this stripped down setting devoid of backing chorus, horns, and other honey, I hear the continuous application of a brilliant formula, and I do mean formula. Never would have occured to me had I been there moving my feet, but underwhelmed by Magnavox boombox sound I need a bone in place of easily observed spontaneity. I appreciate the comparative rootsiness of a four-man band setting that puts a growl in the Bongo Man's voice. Not since Pete Townsend has a lead guitarist filled so many spaces at once as Nene Tshakou. "Bedy"'s chiming hammer-ons are delectable. But these are subtleties, and I'm used to extracting such extravagant pleasures from the Bongo Man's soukous that nothing hits me except pure sensory overload.

Rossy, One Eye on the Future One Eye on the Past (Shanachie). Rossy's newest appeared in my mailbox just as I was finishing this column, so no time for cleverness--not to mention substance--since I haven't even heard the whole thing straight through. On the evidence of what my headphones are telling me even now, this is the band's most successful recording to date, one which attempts to merge the various musics of the 18 different tribal groups of Madagascar into a single modern pop vision. I've only counted 16 by the middle of track eight, so I'll have to take the rest on faith. But the miracles here are many and varied, including the Merina "high-society" mini-opera, "Faraniaina," which underscores the island's connections to Pacific trade routes and the luscious music box and accordion introduction to "Marary Vady," composed by local legend Bao Angele and augmented with spine-tingling string work. I'll be playing this cd a lot.

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