While editing a hospital publication recently, I was taken aback by the
masthead, which read: Willis Holmdene, M.D., Editor; Brandon J. Stewart,
M.D., M.S., Associate Editor. What amazed me about these credits is that
neither of these men had anything whatsoever to do with the publication
other than lending their names. Their participation was a lie. In fact,
I wrote the Editor's Message on page two that concluded with Dr. Holmdene's
signature--and which he'll probably never even read.
This isn't the worst lie I've perpetuated. A few years ago, as a freelancer
for a company in Florida that sold corporate art, I was asked to write the
company president's introduction to a catalog of lithographs by a Spanish
printmaker. My job was to describe the president's meeting with this artist,
detailing his impressions of the man and why he was attracted to his style.
I called the president for an interview, but he was too busy to give me
his time. "You'll make something up," he directed, and that's
just what I did, lying about everything from a description of the artist's
studio to his methodology, physical build and personality. At the bottom
went the president's name.
I doubt that I'm telling you anything new. We all know that everything we
read is to a greater or lesser degree biased, invented, or otherwise inaccurate.
But for the sake of my own conscience I'm compelled to let you in on the
dirty little secret of Technobeat. Since this column began in 1990, it has
been written by three, maybe four, different people under the Bob Tarte
byline. I'm only the latest Bob Tarte. The first Bob Tarte left Technobeat
to found a Fashion Magazine for the Large Woman. The second Bob Tarte,
a female, was rumored to have been muscled out of the magazine by Technobeat
enforcer, the Whale, who has already begun coercing me to include him in
every column. The Bob Tarte just before me couldn't take the strain of the
continual two-month deadline and dropped out of journalism altogether to
start a ferret breeding business.
So, the Technobeat baton was passed to me one issue ago after three successive
articles detailing Bob Tarte's psychic deterioration set the stage for the
stylistic differences of a new writer writing as Bob Tarte--beginning with
the bathtub psychedelic substances column (Vol. 14, No. 2) and ending with
the revelations about Bob Tarte's addiction to the anti-anxiety medication,
Zoloft (Vol. 14, No. 4). The idea was that if my writing sounded any different
than that of the preceding Bob Tarte's, Beat readers would simply
blame the powerful prescription drugs. But my shame is just too overwhelming.
While I made a game attempt last issue at the Bob Tarte oeuvre of a sardonic
but ultimately sweet farm animal and woodchuck yarn, I don't think my strengths
lie in continuing in this vein, despite the qualifications that led to my
appointment as the latest Bob Tarte. Those requirements included a working
knowledge of English, experience in poultry husbandry, proximity to a rural
aquifer, prior publication on an Internet newsgroup, plus a layman's acquaintance
with world music.
In a bold attempt to forge my own identity and to avoid being mistaken for
any of the other Bob Tartes, I finally decided to toss vanity to the winds
and get fitted for the glasses I've long needed--consequence of my 21-inch
fixed focus from 15 years of VDT use. But the effectiveness of the disguise
was minimal. At the local Barnes & Noble outlet, I was skulking around
the periodical racks trying to find a copy of The Beat when a flock
of teenage girls threw down their copies of Kirk Cameron Update and surrounded
What will I be writing about in the next Technobeat, they demanded. Will
I be telling any more farm stories? When I stammered that I wasn't sure
yet, that it depended on the cds I decided to review, the girl with the
chin ring shook her head and commiserated, "You've had some bad times
lately, haven't you?" The others added words to the effect that, compared
to the enthusiastic eccentricity projected by my column, in person I was
disappointingly nondescript. "Tell us a joke," the first girl
prodded. Wistfully, I turned my attention to the front door of the bookstore,
hoping in vain that all four of the preceding Bob Tartes would stride in
from the parking lot to rally to my defense. The five of us together could
certainly have passed muster as a single personality, I believe.
Back in print, I'm doing my best to stick to the Bob Tarte stylebook in
the reviews below. If you have comments, I've held on to my predecessors'
e-mail address of email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to your
What annoys me about a lot of world beat fusion music is the idea that the
artist is trying to sell me something--not just a song or a cd, but an entire
genre of music. It's as if the artist is saying, "Look, flamenco isn't
quite as unlistenable as you may think. And to prove it, I'll borrow a few
flamenco elements and submerge them beneath a style we're all more comfortable
with, like blues, folk or rock."
Now look at the back cover of planet soup,
a beautifully packaged 3-cd set with 48-page booklet from the lower-case
obsessed ellipsis arts label--"a stirring collection of cross-cultural
collaborations & musical hybrids," i.e., world beat, reads the
jacket copy. The track listing on the slip-case takes fusion salesmanship
to a new level by actually omitting song titles, and in some cases artist
names, in favor of a steady stream of blurbs from an advertising copywriter's
pen: "Moroccan Berbers meet Spanish flamenco," "New wave
Mediterranean folk from the U.K.," "African kora meets German
jazz fusion," or "Genghis Blues unites Tuvan throat singer Kongar-ol
Ondar and bluesman Paul Pena." With statements of high concept replacing
names of songs, there hardly seemed any point in cracking the cellophane--in
fact I was afraid to do so. But once I steeled myself to the subject matter
and prepared for the worst, I discovered that planet soup was probably
ellipsis arts' most successful boxed release to date.
The problem with the label's earlier broad-based theme releases is that
the material never lived up to the promise of the packaging. The four-disc
Global Meditation and Global Celebration sets were traditional
music catch-alls--with a few inexplicable pop inclusions--that seemed as
stiff and artificially organized as the big bang's "explosive exploration
of percussion music around the world" was loosely tossed together with
Baka pygmies sharing disc space with Emerson Lake & Palmer. All three
boxes boasted splashy graphics, fat accompanying booklets and oodles of
worthy music, but were undone by the lack of a perspective or presentation
capable of grappling with their encyclopedic heft. In contrast, check out
the Corason label's Antologia del Son de Mexico or Africa en America
sets, where at any given moment, liner notes, track flow and overarching
logic tell you not only what you're listening to but why.
But planet soup avoids its predecessor's pitfalls by completely dispensing
with aspirations of importance and inclusion. No cultural heritages are
on the line, no traditions in danger of succumbing to the short shrift,
nothing to be taken out of context other than the context-deprived music
itself. Soup serves up cut after giddy cut by artists I've never
heard before, such as Tajikistan's romantic balladeer Oleg Fesov, AngloMediterranean
trad punks La Cucina--sounding like XTC strapped and stranded in Italy--Arab/Israeli
mini-orchestra Bustan Abraham, Japan's Akira Satake doing an eastern-accent
Celtic reel ("Tail Wag Dog Jig")... and that's only disc one of
three. Just to prove that the most illogical mergers yield the anticipated
results, the same cd yields Genghis Blues' worst-expectation fender-bender
of amplified blues and Tuvan throat styles, Dodo Da Bahia's proof that rap,
global sunshine, and Brazilian beats offend in any language, and "Forest
Orchestra," Ray Lema's sweat-on-sheets AfroBulgarian bad dream. Yet
in soups' high-pressure sales hawk of the previously unimagined, even the
clinkers zip by on the verve of sheer nerve, and in the end you gotta hear
them again to convince yourself it wasn't all a transient ischemic attack.
Continuing the Triloka label's compulsion for inserting the word "trance"
into their ambient-oriented world music releases comes Trancendence
by studio group Tulku--comprised of the Little Wolf Band's Jim Wilson
plus Jai Uttal and Geoffrey Gordon from Uttal's Pagan Love Orchestra. By
"trance music" I'm beginning to understand that the Triloka illuminati
mean songs launched by traditional-based rhythms which sound computer driven--and
the seamless mix of sticks and microchips is everywhere in evidence. The
results evoked a longing for a snooze rather than a heightened altered state,
though "Life Force" opens with great promise by overlaying the
sampled "Rapa Iti" Tahitian Choir with Uttal's evocative harmonium
and (I swear) gubgubi patterns. The cut works because it feels as
if two separate, recognizable worlds collide without diminishing either
as qawwali rapture meets Pacific piety across a whiz-bang ocean of
technology. But elsewhere on the disc we never find the same pairing of
strengths again--just dreamscape genera lit by patches of Uttal's engaging
More of a disappointment is another Triloka release, Mother
Tongue by the Ethiopian-inspired, Toronto-based Ashkaru.
Like Trancendence, Tongue leads with its strongest punch, the Amharic language
"Maray-Wollelaye." Beautifully blended mbira, atmospheric synthesizer,
Yared Tefaye's yearning lead vocal, and a Bulgarian-flavored chorus take
the song to uncharted territory that pretty much sums up all that ambient
fourth world music can achieve. The next cut, the funky horn driven "Tigel"
with attractive interwoven vocal lines is different enough to fool you into
thinking you've laid hands on an anthology. Fair enough. Horizons quickly
darken, though, as expatriate fervor yields to stateless sentimentality.
The Enya-esque "Ring My Faith" is bad enough, but when "Sigh
Like You Do" presented the same detached voices drifting on about "sing
a song of sixth sense, a pocket full of tears," my New Age Optimism
alarm went off. I had to pull out the battery to survive the rest of this
crazily uneven disc. Better bet is buying Triloka's first Trance Planet
world music anthology for Ashkaru's "Maray-Wollelaye" and listenable
music from other artists.
It may be masochism that keeps me reaching for ambient fusion discs, but
Ancient Future, Deep Forest, Geoffrey Oryema and a few Jon Hassell
relics convince me that success is possible--and Finland's Mo Boma
seemed a safe bet based on a trackless cut off Trance Planet, Vol. 2,
and an affinity for Zairean pygmy songs, from which the band derives its
name. Myths of the Near Future, Part Two
(Extreme), is rife with compelling rhythms, judiciously applied samples,
and spacy synth fills, which taken by themselves could have constructed
an affable collection of airy dribs and dabs of uncertain origin. But Mo
Boma ignores pygmy music's prime directive of letting melody rise subtly
from a shimmering background by choosing the most tactless moment to tack
on obtrusive guitar and synthesizer leads. Even more distracting, these
solos take the form of genre cliches, like the heavy metal fretting exercises
amid "Bombolionheart" or Passport-style jazzisms on "Bataloo"
that throw a woody backbeat to the winds. What's the point of elaborate
"near future" boundary blurring if you're going to fence yourself
into the past?
After the three cds above that sputtered after the first cut, I basked in
the uniform high quality of The Lion is Loose
by Eliades Ochoa and Cuarteto Patria (Corason/Rounder), which starts
strong with the son montuna "Venga Guano" and peaks six songs
later with another son, "Sabroso." Since this column already bristles
with caveats, I might as well point out that this isn't exactly the same
Cuarteto Patria featured on 1993's A Una Coqueta. Though new bongo
player Roberto Torres lacks Joaquin Solorzano's dramatic flair for the delayed
flourish, his tireless attack complements lead guitarist Ochoa's unexpected
delicacy on many cuts--check out the atypical classical music reference
on "El Gallo Ejando"--until the moment after the guitar solo when
the band grabs a song by the throat and shakes it senseless. It also took
me awhile getting used to the higher register of the new vocalists, but
per the billing of this disc, Lion, unlike Coqueta, has the feel
of an Ochoa solo release with expert backing. Still, it's an embarrassment
of riches in the rural, Eastern Cuban pre-brass, pre-amplification style
whose seductive beat forms the core of scores of Latin-based genres from
salsa to soukous. This disc's a quiet killer.
Tailor-made for the fidgety, The Secret Museum
of Mankind, Vol. I. and Vol. II (Yazoo/Shanachie)
distills the music of the world recorded between 1925-48 into bite-size,
three-minute bits--consequence of the maximum side-length of 78 rpm records.
Audio quality isn't much of an issue. Fans of vintage Franco, classic calypso,
and original ska recordings accustomed to sacrificing the top and bottom
end for the sake of reveling in historic music will find similar rewards
here. Volume II is my favorite with rare tracks from Crete, Corsica,
New Caledonia, Cape Breton and Kazakhstan, but only because it gets off
the ground a nanosecond faster than Volume I's parallel geographic whirl--and
we are talking world land speed records here, since even Indian classical
music clocks in at egg-timer duration. It is ironic that the abbreviation
of performances somewhat defeats the collection's value as 'pure' music
from a more globally isolated past. Another irony is the title, which the
compilers ought to know derives from a condescending and often insulting
photography anthology of the '20s (composed, rumor has it, of pictures pilfered
from National Geographic magazine). Nonetheless, Secret Museum
is a fascinating collection of beautiful, little heard music that's a great
companion piece to Rykodisc's Music for the Gods early '40s Indonesian
The Original Music label's Telephone Lobi
hit me with the same punch from left-field that Rounder's first calypso
classic anthologies delivered. I knew I liked Ghanaian danceband highlife
from the '50s and '60s , but never realized what a brilliant invention the
form was--nor how many bands were busy releasing exceptional records. Thirteen
are featured on this 23-song anthology--including E.T. Mensah and his Tempos
Orchestra, Black Beats, Stargazers Band, and Spike Anyankor's Rhythm Aces--with
several bands shuffling members. Unlike the forced fusions of today, highlife
evolved slowly enough to hide its seams. Cuban, American, and African elements
are immediately identifiable--but try separating them with any degree of
The horn charts and muted trumpet on the Broadway Dance Band's "Hunua"
mix a Latin flavor with an American big band thang, and the creamy smoothness
is predominantly West African, but they're all in the foreground at once--and
complicating matters is a sibling resemblance to calypso. Among the discs
many highlights are the faux-tearful collapse of Zeal Onyiah's vocalist
on "Vicy Nyem Afum;" the too cool crooning, sax breaks, and electric
guitar chording on Builders Brigade's "Mbra Nimfo Quist;" and
the jangly tropical frenzy of the title cut. Audio quality, though far superior
to Secret Museum, isn't any better than it ought to be, meaning,
appropriate to the material, I prefer the warm and rounded mid-fi here to
the sharp digital edges of many newer recordings.
Of all the adjectives I might use to describe African music, "nutty"
has never come up before. Then again, I've never run into anything remotely
similar to the Original Music label compilation Money
No Be Sand, featuring what compiler John Storm Roberts terms "Afro-Lypso,
Pidgin Highlife, Afro-Rock, Afro-Soul" from Ghanaian and Nigerian bands
of the 1960s. A virtual encyclopedia of African eccentricity that should
appeal to anyone with a soft spot for rock gone wrong, off-kilter funk,
and inspired kitsch, Money boasts such oddities as ska, Chuck Berry
and surf licks bumping noggins on "Eje Ka Jo" by the aptly named
Jimmy Solanke & the Junkers, Pepsi-Orlando & His Young Star Band
bending juju logic via "I Love You" (complete with anomalous melodica
solo), and the sandpaper calypso of "Timber" by the over-stimulated
Eric Akaeze and His Azagas. Even the respectable E.T. Mensah & His Tempos
Band and the Ramblers Dance Band weigh in with a trio of novel pieces that
anchor the few oases of sanity on a disc of the closest thing to West African
garage rock you'll ever find.
In the past, I'd always thought of polka as a single style of oompah music
best enjoyed at Catholics weddings or via Saturday morning radio shows.
But my longish stint at the Beat has exposed me to polkas not only from
Eastern Europe but also Mexico, Scandinavia and Chicago. Texans Brave
Combo take this diversity and run with it on Polkas
For A Gloomy World (Rounder), then add their own idiosyncratic razzle
to the mix plus a pair of original compositions. "Hosa Dyna,"
billed as a traditional Polish love song but resembling full-tilt klezmer,
opens the disc by setting a frenzied pace nothing else could possibly live
up to. So Brave Combo earn their claim to bravery by following it with the
slight, self-penned whimsy of "Flying Saucer," admirable for its
good-times drenched dispiritedness. But the lovely Norteno-style "Eloina's
Marbles" restores hope, slightly undercut by a lovely lock-step waltz
two cuts later, "The Faithful Hussar." When "Mystery Spot
Polka" tootles past I again catch the whiff of fatalism reinforced
by the illogically rollicking "Potato Chip Polka" and finally
confirmed by the Czech classic, "In Heaven, There Is No Beer,"
which kicks the transcendental door shut. In between is constant nagging
merriment that provides a multifaceted expression of gloom.
The metallophone kulintang music of the indigenous people of the
southern Philippines should appeal to fans of Indonesian gamelan, especially
those occasionally intimidated by gamelan's complexity. While kulintang
is formidable in its own right, the material on the 39-minute Kulintang
cd (World Kulintang Records) by the California-based World Kulintang
Institute's is less impressionistic and rhythmically daunting than many
Indonesian styles (kebyar, for example) and the primary melody resides with
a specific tonal group rather than being segmented, looped, and temporally
shifted among all layers of the ensemble.
A typical kulintang ensemble consists of five or six musicians playing horizontally
arranged knobbed brass gongs, suspended gongs, kettle gongs, and the tuned
goblet-shaped drums which race the compositions along at martial tempos.
The liner notes lament that kulintang has begun to be mainstreamed and exploited.
Kulintang's commercial readiness isn't difficult to envision, since
cuts like "Kapagonor" and "Duyug I" (named for demonstrations
of different styles) sport lead lines that with scant modification could
be transmuted into a vibraphone solo from a jazz quintet. Just add a little
swing. Though these wonderfully played songs lack gamelan's dream-inducing
magnetism, they are insistently otherworldly. Forget ambient music underachievers.
This is the real trance music. [7255 Canby Ave., Reseda, CA 91335]
I usually brace myself for a new soukous release with mega-doses of caffeine
to approximate the careening, high-speed, no-brakes downhill ride. But the
revived maringa-kebo beat from Zairean rumba's youth on Hello Hello (Sterns Africa) is more steady percolation
than wild swing to ecstasy. The disc marks the return of former TPOK Jazz
guitarist Mose Fan Fan with a reformed incarnation of his Somo Somo
band, now earmarked Somo Somo Ngobila just to complicate the retro
update. For a guitar players' disc highlighting Mose and Syran Mbenza, heroics
are unexpectedly subordinated to the cool, no-hurry mood and predominating
group vocals. Not even Sam Mangwana guesting on "Ndemdeli" makes
much of a splash. What mainly caught my ear was the English-language interjection
on "Sherita" that "if you like me, you'll pay by check"--I
guess currency's a problem--and the grinding Christian hymnody of "Odile."
Not a barnburner by any means, but the classic-style two-part songs go down
nicely despite a criminal lack of requisite hornplay.
By the time you read this, the Mesa/Blue label should have released E Dide, which the company is calling King
Sunny Ade's "first studio recording for the U.S. market in more
than ten years." The bad news about the new album, recorded in Seattle,
is its smattering of English-language vocals, hearts-of-space synthesizer
patches, and songs that clock in at an average of four minutes. The good
news is that the English is confined to a couple of cuts, the tinkly synth
is sparsely used to update a familiar, nearly formulaic style, and while
I miss the extended grooves of earlier releases that play to juju's greatest
strengths, the shorter songs have a bracing economy. "Oshodi Oke"
is as exciting a track as the Nigerian bandleader has ever cut, pitting
talking drum intensity against Ade's sleepy vocals and chopping itself off
at the trunk just as it blossoms. Every track is decent as long you accept
the inevitable recycled riffs and forget the risk-taking of his best Island-label
releases. The solidity, i.e. predictability, actually becomes appealing
in light of last year's languid, solo-soggy Live at the Hollywood Palace
release for the EMI Hemisphere label and the potential of even more intrusive
concessions to American trends. So welcome back to yesterday.
I just received a selection of cds from the Finnish Music Information Center
after running into them on the Internet. None of the discs are released
yet in this country, but can be ordered through Helsinki-based Digelius
Music via their World Wide Web page at http://personal.eunet.fi/pp/dighoe/
or by mail at Laivurinrinne 2, 00120 Helsinki. A few are good enough to
justify the effort it takes to get them. Liner notes of all are in English.
Those Finns sure like single-instrument ensembles. First there was JPP with
its flatbed truckload of violinists, then came The
Helsinki Mandoliners on their eponymous KICD-label disc--featuring
JPP member Arto Jarvela on mandolin, Ottopasuuna's Petri Hakal on mandolin,
and on mandolin Olli Varis of Koinurit and Aldargaz fame. The Mandoliners
play folk tunes squeezed through a classical-training filter which generally
promises sterile results. But the Sibelius Academy Folk Music Department
from which most of Finland's leading musical eggheads hail must be a fairly
freewheeling joint, given the creativity in evidence. My favorite cuts are
traditional fiddle tunes arranged for (you guessed it) mandolin, but the
trio stretches out by sneaking eastern European, bluegrass, jazz and Celtic
changes into "Mandoliners polka" or waxing lute-like on the wonderfully
archaic "Stundars menuett & polska." Dizzying dexterity, deadpan
humor, and mandolins abound on this highly recommended disc. Bug the Green
Linnet label--which brings us JPP, Varttina, and other Finnish artists--to
license these guys but pronto.
Equally enjoyable is the Kantele Duo's Finnish
Folk & Favorites (Ondine/Octopus), another single-instrument
concept group consisting of Sinikka Jarvinen and Matti Kontio interpreting
Finnish and other compositions on the kantele, a 38-string Balto-Finnic
harp. But don't expect anything approaching traditionalism here. With that
wacky Sibelius Academy whimsy, the duo proves that the kantele can twinkle
one moment like a phonograph needle stuck in the middle of The Nutcracker
Suite ("Polska 125"), rattle, chug and wheeze on rusty rails on
the "Mexican Express," and spin a woozy low-register narrative
complete with rain and thunder on "Mickey Mouse Lost at Sea."
As irreverence follows caricature, exaggeration, and near-Buster Keaton
soundtrack, the Duo stakes a claim not only as excessively talented musicians,
but as a two-person repertory review.
On their self-titled KICD-label release, eight-member a cappella "girl-group"
MeNaiset plumb the Ingrian folk sources
that funster sisters Varttina follow to jollier terrain. These Sibelius
Academy alumni perform an ancient song called "Tulkaa Tytot" which
is almost identical in melody and arrangement to Varttina's "Sulhassi"
(off Green Linnet's Seleniko)--minus the attitude--indicating both how much
and how little the V-gals add to their material. Rousing but straight-faced
festival songs mingle with dissonance-wracked ditties reminiscent of Bulgarian
choral pieces--minus the ecstasy. In fact, if I didn't have the liner notes
in front of me I'd swear about half of these compositions were Balkan. The
polyphony is impressive and many of the pieces are pretty after a medieval
fashion ("Markina-Aato" could be a cautionary British ballad),
but the sobriety drags a bit.
Have I mentioned the Sibelius Academy yet? Faculty and students unite in
the brooding quintet Troka on another
of those eponymous cd that the Finn's can't get enough of--this time for
the Olarin Musiiki Oy label. Consisting of fiddler Matti Makela and fiddle/violinist/mandolinist
Ville Ojanen of JPP, young accordionist Minna Luoma, aging harmonium maestro
Timo Alakotila (last heard here on Maria Kalaniemi's eponymous Green Linnet-label
cd), and part time JPP-er Timo Myllkangas on bass, Troka fulfills my European
folk music wish-list. Forboding songs with mad, lurching rhythms take shape
around a blur of wheezing reeds and unison violins mining midnight textures
whose intensity eclipses the occasional sprightly melody. "Balkan,"
with its Morse-code tempo is one of the choicest selections along with the
sawtooth Hungarianisms of "Lazzlo." It's a highly recommended
whirl through Finnish and other folk style that should especially appeal
to fans of Muzsikas.
The Allman Brothers meet Balkan and Turkish gypsy music on Slobo Horo's
Esma (RockaDillo Records), which throws
twin lead guitars all over the Macedonian-originating "Ruzin cocek"
and folds a Bo Diddley riff into the Bosnian title cut. Not immediately
my cup of tea--but by the time "Tombalaci" met up with "Aqualung"
on the fourth cut, I started taking the heavy rockisms as a given and listening
for the woodwinds and vocals instead. Besides, Esma especially sounded good
after another RockAdillo release, the eponymous disc by Wimme,
practitioner of the Sami shamanistic joikhing vocal style. Wimme's
chilly vocals are compelling but reduced by ambient music backdrops that
made me think I had fallen into the computer game Myst. (Now, how
do I get out of Channelwood again?) Fellow Lapplanders Angelin Tyott--the
Angel Girls--modernize the joikh on Skeaikit
(Mipu Music), where the lyrics are appealingly sassy: "There has to
be 29 Norwegian girls to equal one girl from Samiland," the Angels
crow on "Gouktelogiovcci." But when the boast turned into rap,
I turned off the disc.
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