(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 18, Number 4, 1999)
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)
In the fall of 1998, I lost my glasses in Mattoon, IL, while taking a photo of Ed, the sock monkey, in a cornfield behind the Fairfield Inn motel. In the spring of 1999, I returned to Mattoon and searched for them with my banned-from-this-column friend, the Whale, who had lost so much weight due to a food allergy, he slipped back into The Beat unrecognized by readers who had threatened to cancel their subscriptions if he ever appeared again. The emaciated, ever-famished Whale and I were bound for Jasper's Antique Radio Museum in St. Louis, a dream destination I had been too timid to beg my wife Linda to let us visit when we toured the Missouri Botanical Gardens last year.
The Whale and I failed to find my glasses, just as we nearly failed to find the trumpeted Lincoln Log Cabin near Charleston, Illinois. Following the "Lincoln Trail" marked by sporadic road signs depicting a mysteriously clean shaven Lincoln, we ended up at a ruined, tar paper shack with two junk cars out front, including an 1835 Plymouth Duster which the Whale insisted young Abe used to push 11 miles to and from his one-room charter school house.
Further investigation and a series of map-reading blunders by the pastry-deprived Whale took us to the actual historic site, a re-created 19th century farm complete with horses, hogs, potters wheel, and gift shop modeled after those owned and operated not by famous Abe, but by the unknown Thomas Lincoln, his pop. Abraham occasionally visited, claimed the historical plaque, thereby justifying the near-lies and outright deception of the Lincoln Log Cabin highways signs and hoopla.
The ghost of that great deceiver, Thomas Lincoln, apparently haunts the official Missouri Travel Guide with extra hyphens. The typographical error that transformed the St. Louis address of Jasper's Antique Radio Museum from 2022 Cherokee to 20-22 Cherokee took us to the desolate dockyards and into the middle of a drug deal, prostitute/client rendezvous, or domestic discussion gone wrong.
As the Whale backed my '95 Ford Contour away from the lip of the Mississippi River where Cherokee dead-ended, we were nearly dead-ended as well. An insistent woman waved us down, panting that a guy in a pick-up truck was going to shoot her. In proof of her fear and our own lack of prudence, she had us follow him through unsavory neighborhoods until she finally hopped out into traffic at Broadway Avenue-but not before directing the out-of-town rubes to Jasper's.
Fearing similar criminal mischief, Jasper kept the door of his Antique Radio Museum and Tropical Fruit Basket emporium locked. I knocked as the Whale scanned Antique Row for the reappearance of the gun-toting pick-up truck. Safe in Jasper's bosom, our fright soon dissipated beneath wall photographs of Jasper with Richard Simmons, Bill Murray, Tommy Lasorda, Dick Gephardt, NASCAR drivers and Rams cheerleaders. Hoping to parlay our museum visit into an article for radio hobby magazine Monitoring Times--a small circulation newsstand publication with color cover and black and white newsprint pages that pays its writers--I peppered Jasper with questions as he took us through one radio crammed room after another in dire need of "Danger Falling Plaster" signs.
The floor-to-ceiling shelves were packed with a mind-numbing array of crystal sets, Bakelite kitchen radios, wooden table radios, consoles, the first tube and transistor portables, novelty radios, coin-operated radios, shortwaves and military models, plus Catalin and Plaskon units priced into the ionosphere by collectors who covet the bright, pre-plastic colors and deco styling, like the lavender Egyptian Air King #52 from 1933 conservatively valued at $10,000.
Sharing rarity status with the Air King were full-size, floorstanding grandfather clocks with built-in radios, a German portable record player/AM radio combo from the '50s with tuning dial encircling the turntable, and the wall-hung Futura sets with innards concealed in a picture frame and available in three faux oil painting fronts for that Eisenhouwer-era bachelor pad decorating touch. The tour went well until the overconfident Jasper, who claims to have invented the fruit basket in 1949, showed us his walk-in fruit refrigerator, and the starving Whale burst inside.
The sweet smell of citrus initiated a sneezing attack that did not abate until we reached Springfield, Illinois. In front of Abraham Lincoln's tomb stands a bust by Mt. Rushmore designer Gutzon Borglum. Allergy sufferers the world around make the pilgrimage to Springfield to burnish the slain President's bronze nose, and as soon as he rubbed Honest Abe's proboscis, the Dishonest Whale was set straight.
Ever since Buena Vista Social Club won a Grammy, Cuban music is hotter than ever. So hot that the Putumayo label just unfurled a CD called, simply, Cuba, a generalization about as reasonable as releasing a disc called America--unless it included "A Horse With No Name," of course, of course. On the plus side, Cuba narrows its focus to permutations of the son rather than boutiquing everything from Vocal Sampling to Los Van Van, as on the for-dabblers-only Rhino Records compilation !Cuba Sí¡ Pure Cuban Flavor. Cuba also includes two nice tracks from Buena Vista Social Club members Ibrahim Ferrer and Eliades Ochoa. But why be satisfied with these, when both artists have great solo releases of their own?
Of the two, Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer (World Circuit/Nonesuch) is the immediate head-turner, with lush production and a nostalgic approach that taps into the fascination with Cuba as kind of lost world on our doorstep. In fairness, though, the '50s-style pieces interspersed throughout this immensely likable release hie from the days when Ferrer performed with iconic bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez. The bolero "Herido de Sombras" is a romantic ballad that achieves a delicate balance between voyeurism of the 72-year-old vocalist's touchingly ancient pipes and admiration over the smooth grace with which he brings home the emotional bacon no matter what his age. If the fawning female quartet Gema 4 provides a bit of kitsch, the gooey atmosphere is undone by the biting electric guitar of former Los Zafiros member Manuel Galban, whose amplified solo in the tres guitar mode maintains the intensity of "Marieta," a blistering face-off with Teresita Garcia Caturla that's easily the equal of anything on the original Buena Vista Social Club.
Other highlights include "Guateque Campesino," a son montuno that plumbs the same dark ambiance as the first disc's "Chan Chan," featuring tasty licks by producer Ry Cooder and a sax section that swoops in out of nowhere three minutes into the song. "Mami Me Gusto" tackles a fast-paced Arsenio Rodriguez big band-a-rama, subverting its Eisenhouwer-era vibes with a Rubén Gonzáles piano solo that mixes studious mayhem with straight ahead salsa rhythms. Gonzales throws buckets of light on the lovely throwback "Aquellos Ojos Verdes," which gets a mood boost from Gil Bernard, soulful alto saxophonist from the original Coasters line-up.
The antithesis of Ferrer's monied production values is the rootsiness of Eliades Ochoa's Sublime Ilusión on, of all labels, Higher Octave, a new age imprint known mainly for dental anesthesia soundtracks. Sublime Ilusión is the real deal, though, and bears no marks of either synthesizer washes or Social Club fame. While Ilusión may lack the flash of Ferrer's disc and suffers a bit from stiff horn arrangements, it still throws out sparks via Ochoa's mastery of his custom-made eight string acoustic tres guitar plus a strong clear voice tailor made for delivering the classic rough hewn rural son.
Goosebumps are raised by opening cut "Ay Papacito" (Oh, Little Darling) with Cuarteto Patria contributing an urging chorus line, lively horn sections on "Píntate Los Labios Maria" (Put On Your Lipstick, Maria) and "Saludo Compay" (Greetings Friend), plus the title cut, the kind of ballad Ochoa rarely sings. Also unique to this release is a piece backed by harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite--who returned the favor by including Cuarteto Patria on his latest release, Continental Drifter--and featuring Ry Cooder on guitar, "Teje Que Teje" (Weaving and Weaving). A pair of lovely songs at the close of the disc showcase Ochoa and his quasi-tres in a solo setting. While it might be nice to see this Cuban cowboy get the same kind of star treatment as Ferrer, he's probably more comfortable in a comparatively rustic setting doing what he does here, and doing it superbly.
Another dividend from the popularity of the Buena Vista Social Club is the first-time American release of the epic 1979 Havana sessions by Estrellas de Areito called Los Heroes (World Circuit/Nonesuch). Originally issued sporadically in Latin America on five lps and later in truncated form on cassettes, Los Heroes was African record producer Raoul Diomande's and Cuban label Egrem's response to the popularity of Cuban music performed by anyone but Cubans in the late '70s. The New York-based salsa ensemble The Fania All Stars hailed from Puerto Rico, for example, and Diomande thought that originators of this music should receive their due. Sadly, the ambitious project made little splash here or in Cuba, though participants like timbale player Amadito Valdes called it "the most important recording made in the last 20 years in Cuba."
This lavishly packaged double cd is different than any other Cuban release I've ever heard, presenting just 14 cuts spread over almost two-and-one-half hours. Though the distended descarga jamming style is light on structure, the elastic atmosphere allows plenty of space for the type of soloing one associates with the heyday of Blue Note-label jazz. Noteworthy are contributions by pianist Rubén Gonzáles, who lets loose a singular cat-on-the-keyboard solo that resolves itself into a fine-tuned bolero nine minutes into "Mi Amanecer Campesino." Also extraordinary are electrified tres guitarist Niño Rivera spouting off the most erratic chops since Paul Bunyan, saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, and the flute and string section pulled from charanga group Orchestra Aragon. Not content with merely allowing three generations of musicians to strut their stuff, the producers assembled a setting that mixes charanga, conjunto, Cuban jazz, and rural Cuban genres. You don't often hear violins trading licks with trumpets, but it's safe to say that little on this remarkable set resembles what came before or after.
Speaking of Cuban cowboys a while back, the Qbadisc Cuban-music label director and Waylon-Lefty-Elvis-voiced Ned Sublette spreads salsa all over the range, rustling up a hearty hash of Latin rhythms and country attitude on Cowboy Rumba (Palm Pictures/Island). The opening cut, a jiggly merengue cover of "Ghost Riders in the Sky," may suggest a big tin plate of novelty songs is slated for the chuck wagon menu. But Sublette has assembled a bronco-bustin' band of Dominican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican musicians that drive the tropical cowpoke concept into sheer delirium.
At first, the vocals put me off--not Sublette's Texas-accented baritone, but the sheer fact that I wasn't used to hearing Latin genres rendered in American English idioms. It helps, though, that the lyrics are witty enough to merit attention, such as the line in "Cheaters Motel" that goes, "Yes, I'm an alcoholic, but I ain't no common drunk." And the call and response chorus of "Feeling No Pain" is as funny as it is exhilarating, even though it's clear that pain is precisely what the singer does feel. Sublette's adherence to country conventions stands up admirably in the face of white-hot arrangements capable of melting lesser conceits. Subject matter is typical of country radio--broken hearts, too much drink, faithlessness, and too much drink--but the liveliness is in a pasture of its own. Especially big hearted is Sublette's cover of his idol Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" with Cuban guaganco rumba group Los Muniquitos de Matanzas, which sounds as if santeria drummers ambled into the wrong studio by mistake.
Not that I'm complaining, but it's nice to get a break from breakneck paced Scandinavian music with overheated accordions and wheezing fiddles. Kirsten Braten Berg, possessor of the most instantly recognizable voice in Norwegian folk circles, was waiting in the Nordic equivalent of the green room to go on stage when she and jaw harpist/vocalist Bjørgulv Straume began noodling around with a pair of West African musicians. Senegalese kora player/vocalist Solo Cissokho and Ivory Coast vocalist/percussionist Kouame Sereba join the two Norwegians on Berg's From Senegal to Setesdal (Six Degrees Records) for a most unlikely merger of north and south.
In contrast to crazy-ass worldbeat mishmashes where outlandishly contrasting genres and instruments are thrown into a blender and poured over microchips, this quiet release strives for homogeneity rather than surprise. Sometimes the ensemble chooses fission over fusion by letting the Norwegians and Africans perform without excessive interaction with one another. A case in point is a pair of back-to-back songs where Berg delivers her pure contralto in solo setting on the Medieval ballad "Lill Lisa," then Cissokho and Sereba perform the similarly somber and ancient piece "Atolago." The best of both approaches is certainly the gathering of tragic tales that constitutes "Horpa/Kino." We get a Nordic piece backed by jaw harp, an African song backed by mouth bow, then Berg singing to a gorgeous kora accompaniment. The transitions on this disc are so deftly made that the accomplishments seem more conservative than they really are.
Another blending of traditions that works well enough is Mountain Tale (Zebra Acoustic Records) by the 19-member Bulgarian women's choir Bulgarian Voices (a.k.a. Angelite), Russian vocal and instrumental group Moscow Art Trio, and Tuvan folk troupe Huun-Huur-Tu. Bulgarian Voices and the Moscow Art Trio share a classical music preciseness, and even whimsical pieces like "New Skomorohi" with pulsing French horn, rapid vocal sections, and reed and accordion riffs recalling Philip Glass reveal the weight of composition. Huun-Huur-Tu is as far removed from chamber music as feet from scalp, so their contributions are trickier.
On "Early Morning With My Horse," the Tuvans pluck a piece from their repertoire with the Bulgarians cautiously serving choral duties in the background, "Dancing Voices" subordinates the folk ensemble to ostinato vocal rhythm machine, and the grand finale, "Grand Finale," shrugs off the differences by essentially giving each of the three groups its own solo moment in the spotlight. Though not a perfect experiment, Mountain Tale as judiciously offered is beguiling in spots.
Of the three discs just released in Rounder Records' Alan Lomax-produced Italian Treasury series, The Trallaleria of Genoa held my unwavering attention. When he recorded this ancient polyphonic vocal music of the Genoese fishing community in 1953, Lomax remarked that the style constituted the most perfect choral music he'd encountered in Europe, and the proof is on this disc.
The trallaleri style (named for tra-la-la sung vocables), is both unsettlingly chaotic and disciplined to a T. Posited in the middle of a closed circle of singers, the leader improvises in the tenor range, while a falsetto male voice skates above him. Chitarra vocalists who imitate guitar strumming fill in the midrange as baritone and deep bass singers unleash bovine tones far below. The richness of timbres is amazing, as is the fact that so much seeming looseness is precisely orchestrated. I must confess to loving the idea of a tough Italian fisherman nourishing a falsetto technique indistinguishable from a female singer and pitying the poor fool who wants to make something of it.
Lomax finds links with this music to Georgian table singing, and I hear centuries old roots shared by Sardinian and Corsican genres. The last three cuts on the disc all but predicted the fate of this fascinating music. The penultimate two, composed rather than inherited, betray modern, neatened-up arrangements, while the final song is a trallalerian rendition of Glen Miller's "In the Mood." Fortunately, preservationists have lately rescued the pure Genoese style from oblivion.
I expected diversity on Calabria (Rounder) Alan Lomax's folk music recordings from a history-steeped mountainous, coastal region of Italy. But I didn't expect the wailing calls of swordfishermen that open the disc. Recorded during Lomax's 1954 trip to Italy's toe, the many musical genres here reflect centuries-old contact with the Greeks, Romans, Germans, French, Albanians and Spanish plus the hardships of depending on the fickle sea for the Calabrian's livelihood.
Poor and underdeveloped when Lomax visited, the region was well into the process of losing its local identity when these tracks were preserved on tape almost half a century ago. Most of this material is released here for the first time and includes lots of bagpipe ditties, harvest songs reminiscent of dissonant Bulgarian styles, romantic songs and tarantellas performed on accordion, unusual polyphonic vocal pieces, lullabies, a "baby bouncing song," "olive gathering song," a "tuna fishing chantey" and lots of other rough-hewn, salt-of-the-earth, pre-technological music no Italianophile or world music completist should be without. Otherwise, pick up the sampler Folk Music and Songs of Italy (Rounder), which contains excerpts from the Italian Treasury recordings.
You gotta have at least one Balinese gamelan CD. If nothing else, it plays great in the background scrunched down to a volume level low enough to suggest a tuned rain storm. But I happily crank up The Bali Sessions (Rykodisc), a three-disc set on which producer Mickey Hart gives gamelan diversity the extended treatment it deserves. Hart focuses on the rarer ensemble styles and pieces, such as gamelan gong suling with 13 end-blown flutes spread across four registers playing the various layers, gamelan genggong, on which a quintet of amphibian-throated jaw-harps provides a fantastic stand-in for mallet instruments, and the orchestra with a bamboo xylophone heart, gamelan jegog.
Also on board are traditional bronze instrument pieces and a gamelan suara ("voice orchestra") kecak composition excerpted from a dark-of-night performance of the Ramayana. More popularly known as the "monkey chant," the kecak highlighted here has melodic interludes where the singers imitate bronze gamelan instruments along with the aggressive interlocking "cak" outbursts, helping justify the piece's nearly hour-long duration. Disc three contains free-flowing modern compositions for metallophones that don't tax the listenability threshold like the experimental music on the Lyrichord label's admirable if baffling three-CD series of contemporary Indonesian artists issued a few years ago.
Shed a tear for the lonely bagpiper. While Maria Kalaniemi and others have raised the lowly accordion to modernist status, the old airbag is inescapably stuck in the rut of folk instrument. A piper could join an aggressive neo-trad group along the lines of Scotland's Battlefield Band. Otherwise, short of the annoying avant garde, there's little else to do but plop with heavy feet into the ambient-new age milieu per Spanish bagman Hevia on Tierra da Nadie (Higher Octave). The press release informs us that Hevia mother's wept with embarrassment the first time her son played the pipes in public, and it may be to protect his family further that he now limits himself to a one-word moniker. Maybe mom also takes exception to the didgeridu that starts off this disc, but I find myself not actually hating the uses to which Jose Angel H. twists traditional Asturian music-what else are you going to do with it, after all? And the pieces with rustic-flavored female harvester choir sharing bytes with techie rhythms are kind of cool as the H-man blows and fingers his music-making bellows like it's 1999.
Yes, we have no Mustaphas, we have the Reptile Palace Orchestra today. On Iguana Iguana (Omnium), Madison Madison, Wisconsin's best export since Michael Feldman's "Whad'ya Know" leans hard on the amplified Balkan beats and on the irony, as well. And while I gotta love a band that pens a tribute to the Black Hills' Reptile Gardens tourist oasis ("Enchanted Reptile Palace"), I also gotta wonder why even bother revving up a tongue-through-the-cheek version of The Godfather theme "Speak Softly Love" except to perpetuate these self-loathers shtick as the wedding band that wouldn't leave. I think it's all a kick, especially the reed and string driven Ivo Paposov-esque "Bucimis" which peppers the audience with junk culture jingles (was that the "Mexican Hat Dance" just now, or the "Batman" theme?), a vaguely East European cover of Brian Eno's "Sombre Reptiles," and a space-ified version of the Bulgarian dance tune "Gankino Horo." Techheads will want to know that this enhanced CD contains ten additional songs in the brave new MP3 format, but my curiosity didn't drive me that far.
Whenever I get devotional cds in the mail-including a meditation disc by some character named Freed-Om-they go right in the "plague" pile. Besides being suspicious of their irascibly sunny nature, I lack the qualifications to put them to their intended use. Due to a nice e-mail from Conrad Praetzel and my curiosity over Sufi vocalist Sukhawat Ali Khan, Receive (Paleo Music) made it to my Discman, and I'm glad it did.
Sukhawat certainly has the real goods, an impassioned yet somehow reasoned singing style, but I had trouble with Praetzel's admittedly proficient synthesizer and percussion treatments, mainly because I kept reading the otherworldly soundscapes as indicators of higher states of consciousness, and such states shouldn't lead to tracks called "Devi" or "I Am What I Am" (Popeye's theme?). However, "Ropes and Ladders" hooked and uplifted me with an unexpected acoustic slide guitar, modulated white noise recalling the glory days of Can, and a general wide-openness that just about blasted me out of my body. "Eternal Wife" is just as good with a mysterious, quavering Karnatic vocal and deep electronic sounds. Not quite groove music, not quite artichoke hearts of space, Receive kept coming back with fresh psychedelia every time I thought I had it figured out.
I give drunk drivers and sampler cds the same wide berth, because they both tend to be all over the place. Tracks are chosen to wow at the expense of a cohesiveness that makes the best discs more than the sum of singles going steady. But for rarely heard kinds of music, samplers are a necessary evil, and Rough Guide to Australian Aboriginal Music (World Music Network) justifies its existence, even though I'm not convinced traditional wangga songs make any sense sharing album space with modern styles.
It's worth picking through the jumble to hear Ruby Hunter, whose bluesy "Kurongk Boy, Kurongk Girl" has the power of a top-notch Tracy Chapman piece and an equally beguiling vocal. Husband Archie Roach is strong on the guitar and voice lament "Native Born", Christine Anu's sophisticated art music approach intrigues me on "Sik O," and Mark Atkins successfully mixes electronic processing and straight-ahead didgeridu playing in a way that elongates the oft-diluted instrument's mystique on "Bullima." But none of this holds a candle to the unearthly force and mystery of wangga dream songs by Alan Maralung, Arnhem Land singers, Budah Lardil and others whose compositions invoke tens of thousands of years of what we call prehistory and which the performers probably call a living tradition.
Hamza El Din is the rare performer known outside of world music circles due to his outreach on projects with the Kronos Jazz Quartet. His oud and tar hand drum playing coupled with a quiet approach to the music of the lost Nubian nation is so ravishing, that he has also ended up on pricey audiophile label limited edition lps. On the title cut of A Wish (Sounds True), his first cd in a few years, he's joined by cellist Joan Jeanrenaud and pianist W. A. Matthieu, but as the ten-minute oud instrumental "Sunset" proves, Hamza El Din commands attention all on his own. A Wish is recommended for people who love North Africa music, because it's as authentic and non-fussed-with as an ouevre gets.
I also recommend it for those sensitive souls who quail at the strident
boil over often associated with Arabic-rooted genres, because the approach
here is subdued without rounding off too many corners. One of the strongest
cuts on the disc, "Greetings," underscores the romanticism at
work here as a married couple, forced into divorce by feuding families,
sing to one another from behind the walls of their neighboring houses. The
historical Nubian homeland was swallowed up in 1962 by the artificial Lake
Nasser, product of the Aswan High Dam. While Hamza El Din celebrates the
diversity of recent emigres to the resettled Nubian villages on the south
shore of the lake on "A Wish," it is the longing and regret of
"Greetings" that establishes the tenor of this wonderful album.
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)
[Copyright 1999 Bob Tarte]