(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 20, Number 1, 2001)
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)
In a nod to the movie Groundhog Day, Linda and I inaugurated our second trip to West Virginia in just four years by revisiting Moundsville's Grave Creek Mound, a 62-foot-high earthwork painstakingly assembled by bygone folks we call the Adena culture. "The construction of this mound took place from 250-150 B.C., requiring the movement of over 60,000 tons of earth," my official Grave Creek Mound coffee mug informed me. Turning toward a potentially more vital source of knowledge, I asked the curator of the Delf Norona Museum and Cultural Center located on the Grave Creek site, "Are there any other mounds we could see along the Ohio River driving south?"
"Just in Marietta, Ohio," she told me, which lay en route to our ultimate destination of Matewan, West Virginia, near the Kentucky border. The epic 67-mile drive to Marietta paid off with countless industrial vistas and a long lunch at Frum's Restaurant in the riverbank town of Ben's Run, WV. We ended up in Frum's by following the directions given us by Eugene Carr, the 78-year-old owner of the Carr's Glass and Gift Shop in the town of Friendly a few miles north. Carr had contradicted the Delf Norona expert by directing us to an elongated mound up the hill in back of Frum's on the grounds of a large factory. Frum's proprietor Dave Frum shared my interest in the mound phenomenon and confided the unexpected information that "the mound builders stood almost seven feet tall," adding that the skeletons were on display in Charleston.
"From the mound behind us?" I asked him. "Naw, that's something they just built a while ago," Frum said. "It's not a real one." But he directed us to a supposedly authentic mound we located in the town of St. Mary's not five miles south of Ben's Run. This neatly manicured hump of earth anchored a retirement village appropriately known as Mound Manor. When we reached Marietta, Ohio, I bought the definitive guide to area earthworks called Indian Mounds of the Middle and Ohio Valley. The book was chock full of maps and diagrams, the sure sign of an exhaustive listing. Yet not only the mound at Ben's Run was omitted, but there was also no reference to the Mound Manor earthwork at St. Mary's, leaving me to wonder if both were bogus. But why bother to fake even one, unless the moundbuilding spirit in West Virginia simply cannot be denied.
Marietta, Ohio is the site of the first permanent settlement of the Northwest Territories continuously occupied by white people since 1780. In the heart of the present-day city just east of the Muskingum River once stood an impressive array of Adena embankments and mounds, plus a raised boulevard. The first Marietta residents initially doted on the earthworks, then began plowing them under once commercial land values rose. A scant few survive. The so-called Quadranaou Mound stands at the head of a local park. The Marietta Public Library is built on top of the Capitolium Mound. A resident told me, "It's the only library I've ever been in where you have to walk up to get into the basement."
The Conus Mound dominates Mound Cemetery, established in 1801. A sign at the foot of the mound salutes the first settlers of Marietta buried in the graveyard, ironically failing to note the precedence of those residents who had built the mounds. Inscriptions on a few of the earliest gravestones indicate that the deceased occupants had been "Killed by Savages." I first thought that these sentiments taken together with the settlers' respect for the Conus Mound combined to form a depressing irony. Then I remembered that throughout the 19th century, American earthworks were popularly ascribed to an unknown race, possibly Roman, possibly Atlantean, but decidedly not Native American.
Back in West Virginia, we drove through towns where the Hatfield and McCoy feud bubbled over in the 1880s. In Matewan we learned about the 'coal mine wars' of the 1920s, when over 10,000 armed miners marched on the mining companies for the right to unionize. The government consulted with World War I flight ace Billy Mitchell about bombing the miners. None of this appeared in my school history books.*
On our way home, we stopped at the Mound City Group in Chillicothe, Ohio, a 13-acre field containing 23 mounds surrounded by a rectangular earthen embankment. I marveled at the fortunate circumstances that allowed these impressive earthworks to survive unscathed for 2000 years when most others had succumbed to the plow. Elated by the grandness of the site, I barely noticed a wooden sign that made reference to reconstruction. But the closer we got to the visitors' center, the more those words began to gnaw at me. "How much of what we see here is a reconstruction?" I nonchalantly asked the park ranger. Her answer shocked me. "Everything above the ground."
In 1917, Camp Sherman, a World War I training and detention facility, was built at Mound City. Twelve mounds were completely leveled, and most of the others were damaged in some way. Luckily, the mounds had been extensively surveyed, and the floors of most of the mounds were left intact. By 1923, the mischief wrought by the military had been repaired as much as possible, and the restored site was declared a National Monument. Dirt was dirt, I realized, but the difference between the original construction of the site a basket of earth at a time and its rebuilding by bulldozer was the difference between a soul and an artist's depiction of a soul. Or the difference between a human drummer and a drum machine.
[*For the full account of Bob and Linda's travels in Indian mound, coal
mining, and Hatfield & McCoy feud country, see "West
Virginia River Trek."]
Oh, the crimes that have been committed in the name of world beat. The United Nations is convening a court in Hague to deal with the atrocities of Scandinavian didgeridu players, scat-singing Bulgarians, Brits performing in made-up languages... The affronts to humanity go on and on. But one merger of West African and Hawaiian styles will never be indicted, thanks to the good humor and beautiful textures of the Djeli Moussa Diawara and Bob Brozman collaboration, Ocean Blues - From Africa to Hawaii (Melodie/Celluloid, imported by Sterns).
Diawara and Brozman, who first met in 1999 at a musical festival on the blue ocean island of Reunion, aren't the least bit interested in carving out a world beat genre, as the pastiche approach of this off-the-cuff session proves. They just want to make music together. Thus the melancholy "Kanun" revels in the deep string strata of Djeli Moussa's rippling kora harp offset by Bob's National steel guitar played Hawaiian slide style, only to be followed by "Maloyan Devil," a comic blues number voiced with Leon Redbone-angst by the American as the Guinean pours an astonishing number of notes per measure through the cracks. It's a bit of a goof in the same vein as the calypso "Uncle Joe." But the crackling energy of two prodigious musicians in love with their respective acoustic instruments throws a dazzling corona around these novelty numbers. Instead of a distancing effect, the sloughed-off humor comes across as a symptom of sympatico warmth.
Both artists have a long history of playing other people's music. Diawara served for years in the legendary Cuban son-influenced Rail Band with his half-brother Mory Kante, then went on to flamenco and techno territory. Brozman, meanwhile, toured and recorded with Hawaiian music titans, the Tau Moe Family, and most recently cut a disc with Okinawa's Takashi Hirayasu which bristles with the same acoustic fire as Ocean Blues. Together, both men prove that plucked instruments are plucked instruments, and two contrasting styles can magnetize providing the pluckers have got the urge, oomph, and smarts to bend their strings a little.
The only drawback to the disc is the hurried nature of the project, which was recorded in a single day in Santa Cruz. "Hip Hop," which begins with faux drum machine beats as Diawara taps out an urban rhythm on the big gourd of his kora, is obviously a jam based on the loosest of ideas. Other cuts are clearly the province of one man's territory or the other's - from flamenco to slack key - with the second guy riding musical shotgun, popping off impressive riffs that still feel as locked in as a mouse in a trap. You can't listen without smiling, nor can you resist the joy as these two artists craft a beguiling mesh of instruments untrammeled by any studio technology beyond what it takes to glue their buzzing electrons onto compact disc.
"Is that the bird or the phone?" my wife and I keep asking each other. Linda's Congo African Grey parrot, Dusty, does such a perfect imitation of our telephone ringing, that we frequently can't tell the difference. Similarly, I inquire, "Is it folk music or world music?" Can't always tell. Blues, ragtime, Appalachian fiddle and gospel generally fall into the former slot and hence are banished from this mag by the powers that be. But what about other bits of ethnic Americana, like zydeco, Cajun music, norteño and their variants? Thanks to the foreign tongues involved, they seem to make the world music cut.
All of the above gather in force on The Journey of Chris Strachwitz, Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Collection: 1960-2000. Arhoolie label-founder Strachwitz combed the country in search of ethnic music, but unlike scholarly ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, he nixed hoary notions of musical purity. In his Lightnin' Hopkins recordings, for example, Chris told Lightnin' he didn't have to play the old style "spooky" acoustic material which the artist regarded as old hat. Instead, he let Hopkins unleash idiosyncratic electric blues like the ragged, comic "Bald Headed Woman" included here. Rather than limiting Bukka White per other record labels to three-minute re-creations of what Strachwitz called "them goddamn 78s he had made back in the '30s," Strachwitz gave the bluesman free rein to stretch out in long, discursive improvisations. Such freedom drew performers to Arhoolie even when the label couldn't afford to pay them much.
Stachwitz personally recorded every cut on this five-cd box. The songs are presented chronologically, and it's a kick noting how his passions expanded over the years. Arhoolie was one of the first labels to give national exposure to zydeco, and Clifton Chenier turned out to be a smash. "Allons A Grand Cotteau" shows him at his vocal and accordion rippling peak in a one-take, feather-light slice of Louisiana joy. The Cajun and zydeco musicians multiply as the set progresses, with entries from Nathan Abshire, the Balfa Brothers, Bois Sec Ardoin, Canray Fontenot, D.L. Menard, and Michael Doucet. Arhoolie also helped put norteño on the map by recording Flaco Jiménez and his father, legendary Tex-Mex innovator Don Santiago Jiménez, Sr. Both are featured on the peppy ranchera "Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio." Other norteño artists on board include Narciso Martínez coaxing the delicate mazurka "Luzita" from his accordion, Trío San Antonio with their "crying" style Mexican vocals, Chavela Ortiz, Lydia Mendoza, and Santiago Jiménez, Jr.
A few cuts were captured abroad, such as a couple of weird Austrian yodeling selections, lovely Mexican Huasteca and Jarocho music, and back in the USA again, a cut here each of Colombian-style cumbia and vallenato, klezmer, Afghani folk and Belizean garifuna. Wotta collection. The best tracks on Journey are so good, they're like a full-course dinner. Play one or two, and I don't crave any other music for a while. Strachwitz was attracted to songs lit with an earthy honesty that commercial music just can't touch. Some of the artists here made their living as musicians at one point or other in their lives, but the rest, in true folk tradition, consist of drifters, day laborers, jailbirds, dreamers, whiskey-lovers or common sufferers. Every hard-won note they play is genuine, because their instruments are hot-wired to their hearts.
Career retrospectives generally demand familiarity with the resumé of the artist-in-the-box to appreciate what you're hearing. But even if you're deficient in the history of Jamaican DJs, you won't be less astounded by the three-cd Big Youth set Natty Universal Dread 1973-1979 (Blood and Fire). The Youth is as outrageous a performer as ever lived, right out there on the edge with Moondog, Sun Ra, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Johns Zorn and Cage, and Liberace. For proof wrap your skull around "Children Children" on disc one, Hot Stock. If Big Youth's slice-and-dice production of backing track "Anywhere But Nowhere" isn't disorienting enough, he surfs the shattered rhythms on a tide of nursery rhymes, yelps, onomatopoeia, scat singing, rants, and screams that would curdle James Brown's blood. The peculiarity of the performance raises a number of questions, such as how does he do it, why does he do it, and how come it works so well? After a few similar assaults of Youth's free-form fusillade, an even greater shock is the man crooning with Gregory Isaacs on the title track.
Big Youth would have made a sizable splash had he clung to the disruptive DJ style he invented, but he shows impressive dexterity throughout the collection. On the Reggae Phenomenon cd, "Plead I Cause" is a graceful chanting from Psalms to the "Daylight Saving Time" backing track. "Battle of the Giants" pits Youth in lyrical struggle against the great U-Roy, and "Every Nigger is a Star" builds a ballad with the help of the I-Threes. The third disc, Hotter Fire, continues the variety with a no-prisoners version of Burning Spear's "Marcus Garvey" and, on the other side of the creek, covers of "Hit the Road Jack" and "Sugar Sugar." Culled mainly from Jamaican singles, Natty Universal Dread features liner notes by Steve Barrow with the same over-the-top enthusiasm as the performances plus as seductive a packaging as I've seen in years. However, the styrofoam spindles that allegedly hold each cd in its cardboard folder plainly suck. I'm not sure if Big Youth knew he was making history when he cut these songs, but he sure as heck had to know he was making inimitable music.
You'd better love that clip-clop donkey-trot beat if you hop on The Rough Guide to Cumbia (World Music Network). More than other cumbia anthologies I've heard,the incessant, nonsyncopated 4/4 da-dum on this disc eats up polyrhythmic accompaniment and spits it out with a maniacal chuckle. Romulo Caicedo hits it right with "La Luna Y El Pescador," emphasizing the lockstep hip grind first with maracas then, in case you still don't get the point, knocking it into the bedrock of your reptile brain with merciless cymbal crashes. A successful anthology has to carefully balance similarities and differences, creating enough sameness to span a clique of songs while still emphasizing diversity. But by the fifth cut of Rough Guide, even the melodic motifs start feeling recycled. Fortunately, the inherent drunken lurch of cumbia urges most performances toward novelty song territory. Helping that characteristic along is Leonor González Mina's excessively high-pitched vocal on "Yo Me Llamo Cumbia," a whooping Mexican flair to Alfredo Gutiérrez y Sus Estrellas' "La Banda Borracha," and enough textural contrast in any given song to satiate Perez Prado.
The Rough Guide to the Music of Hawaii (World Music Network) comes within the hair of a coconut husk of being the perfect Hawaiian music sampler. It starts out on the right note with the best known of all the slack key avatars, Gabby Pahinui, performing "Ku'u Pua Lei Mokihana" with a Waimea Festival Hawaiian supergroup featuring Atta Isaacs and Sonny Chillingworth, whose solo cut follows next. Doing historical duties are vintage tracks by the Sol K. Bright Hollywaiians, guitarist Sol Hoopii, Kalama's Quartet, and others from the early days of the Hawaiian music craze. Ray Kane represents the living legends by singing sweetly with his protégé Yuki Yamauchi on the old march "Lani Ha'aha'a." Upholding the newer breed is Cyril Pahinui backed here by the indefatigable Bob Brozman, and baby boomer Dennis Kamakahi tickling the strings to the lovely "Ulili" E." Dazzles include Genoa Keawe holding her high notes for 20-seconds on "Allika" and Sam Ku West emoting with "St. Louis Blues." But where's the younger generation? Even though they opt for a commercial sound, pop group Hapa would have made a nice inclusion, or grey-haired innovator Keola Beamer's harmonic-laden acoustic guitar meditations.
I was curious how The Rough Guide to the Music of Indonesia (World Music Network) would shape up. The archipelago holds so many different styles, Smithsonian Folkways' Music of Indonesia series was hard pressed to confine Philip Yampolsky's musical survey to 20 volumes. Modernism turns out to be the key as the Rough Guide steers a pop course that seldom goes astray with selection after selection as engaging as many of the country's traditional genres are bracing. Lilting songbird vocals, warbling flutes, chiming metallophones, and come-hither rhythms swoop through dangdut, pop sunda, jaipongan jive, and more, including a nice sheet of continental drift from Sabah Habas Mustapha and the Jugala All Stars (whose latest cd So La Li was reviewed here last issue). Apart from Mustapha and rocker Rhoma Irama, the other artists were all unknowns to me. Terra incognita never sounded so good.
The same label has also released The Rough Guide to Cuban Son, drawing on artists from the 1950s to the present. While a roster that includes Beny Moré, Ñico Saquito, Orquesta Aragón, Septeto Santiaguero, Afro-Cuban All Stars, and ÚCubanismo! yields pleasant listening, devoting a lone, solitary, isolated, disc to this topic makes about as much sense as a single-cd reggae retrospective. What? They've done that too?
I wouldn't have thought Africando could weather its transformation into Africando All Stars on Mandali (Sterns Africa). A different vocalist on 11 out of 12 songs promises desperation at worst or gimmicks in place of focus at best, yet this rock solid set trumps expectations. One outstanding throat after another glides in front of the microphone, among them Salif Keita, Lokua Kanza, Thione Seck, Ronnie Baro, and Hector Casanova. Make no mistake, though. The real stars are the salsa band members and chorus who cook up such an irresistible set of notes and beats, even Christine Aguilera would triumph.
Malian husband and wife duo Amadou Bagakoyo and Mariam Doumbia, aka Amadou et Mariam, go beyond simply plugging in when rendering their acoustic act electric. Tje Ni Mousso (Circular Moves) opts for a pop style that steers clear of both the current wave of Cuban nostalgia and nostalgia-free hip hop. They settle into a groove reminiscent of American radio music from the 1960s back when rock and r&b cross-pollinated like crazy. The Manding rhythm gets funky in a Stax-era "Green Onions" kind of way complete with silky, churchy organ underpinnings, revved up guitar solos, and swooping horns. Blind singer and guitarist Amadou got his start with the Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako, launching pad for Salif Keita. His wife Mariam Doumbia, also blind, isn't as accomplished on her solo cuts as better known Malian divas, though her delivery does have an appealing almost East Asian bounce. But when dueting with Amadou on "Chantez-Chantez" or the reggae-flavored "C'est Comme Ca," she adds the soulful shadings of Black Uhuru's Puma Jones. Nice touches include the Indian violin riff on "Laban," the smooth sax section gracing "Djagneba," and hipster flute accompaniment on "Beki Miri."
I've played the new Sam Mangwana cd Sam Mangwana Sings Dino Vangu (Sterns Africa) more than any other disc in this column in hopes of presenting a rational cut-by-cut analysis, but it's hopeless. This update of classic Congolese rumba whisks me to such an uncharacteristically jolly mental state that I toss down my mechanical pencil and tiny spiral notebook and wiggle my toes instead. I will mentioning how fine it would be if the Cuban son-derived music of the Congo from the 1950s-1970s were accorded the same degree of respect and salivation as the son itself enjoys this moment. Former OK Jazz and Afrisa Jazz vocalist Mangwana sings sweetly as ever with no sign of the crevices of aging. Vangu, who sat with Afrisa Jazz and number of other primo Congolese outfits, helps get the balance between vocals and guitar breaks just right in this collection of songs he penned. If Vangu clambers through the guitar parts as if he had 20 or 30 fingers, no genetic mutation is involved. He has double- and triple-tracked himself on solo, mi-solo, and rhythm guitar parts to accomplish this, but with none of the sterility that often comes through on "I'll do it all myself, thank you" productions. You just can't miss with this one.
Speaking of lost or fading genres, you'll have trouble rustling up a set of Ethiopian swing music in Addis these days, but no problem at all in southern California if you place yourself in the hands of songstress Sinke Assefa. Her debut disc Abaaté (AcuWORK Records) leaps from the mold of missing-in-action '70s pop stars Muluqèn Mèllèssè and Mahmoud Ahmed with brilliant microtonal singing and a hot band that mixes local dance beats in a rocksoulfunk cauldron. That little catch in her voice tugs me toward her more powerful tune twisting, the big-sounding ensemble disguises synthetic horns with real brass to nice effect, and cuts like "Teredaligne" toss a party atmosphere right at you. A treasured moment is the long coda to "Gonder" in which the bands blasts refrains of the lead riff with the determined ferocity of a cat trapped in a sack. [P.O. Box 68, Burbank, CA 91503 or www.acuwork.com]
In 1999, Haroon Shamsher journeyed to Bangladesh to record the local musicians who achieve combustion on Joi's electronic dance release We Are Three (Real World). Haroon died six weeks after his return to England and never got to hear how 14-year-old female vocalist Rojina Beagum, flutist Khutub Uddin, tabla player Panna Dash, and other contributors were spun into brother Farook Shamsher's sonic blender. Like Indian fusion artist Trilok Gurtu, Shamsher favors power riffs as the forces uniting his songs. On "Journey" and "Prem" he sculpts a metal globe and fills it with images from his ancestral home, relinquishing the intensity just long enough for a delicate flute or vocal passage to drift by. The cinematic quality has the richness of filmi. But as the disc progresses, the material thins out like audience members abandoning a concert that's gone flat. The riffs hang on, the computer rhythms churn, but the complexity of Pakistani music is parsed.
Plowing similar synthetic ground is Meeting Rivers by Mpath (Triloka), an East-West, acoustic-electronic amalgam that mysteriously does not count Triloka-label Bengali-theme alchemist Jai Uttal among its participants. The interplay among Indian music-influenced musicians and robot-influenced silicon chips has the satisfying flavor of artists reacting in real time to an ensemble setting, and a line-up including sarangi player Ramesh Mishra, violinist Lily Hayden, flutist David Philipson, and a pair of vocalists generates flesh-and-blood excitement. But the songs still feel boxed-in by the tick-tock of byte-based beats which some call trance rhythms but I call delta wave inducers.
Far better is the putatively acoustic session comprising Searching for Satyam (MELT 2000) on which South African-born Deepak Ram yokes his supple bansuri flute to a San Francisco Bay-based combo, mixing North Indian classical styles with jazz, funk, and even flamenco. There are no production gimmicks, no computer gee-gaws, just a uniquely Californian approach to the lightness of being that delivers a consistently high pleasure quotient. Eduardo Niebla trills his guitar like an African kora on "Danse pour Kooksie Aux Ben," while tabla player Partha Sarathi Mukerjee thows a spell on the swirling title cut. Deep ear massages are given by flute magician Deepak Ram, who flutters far into the emotional heart of this lovely music, bending notes so far you expect to hear the wood crack when his breath isn't joining worlds together.
No, it's not a five-cent harp you found at the flea market. The nyckelharpa is a keyed fiddle that resembles the once-popular Chapman stick tap-guitar and is a sort of cross between an autoharp and violin. In other words, it's the kind of arcane, centuries-old instrument that Scandinavians admire. In true monomanical fashion, the Nyckelharpa Orchestra plays the nyckelharpa and nothing but the nyckelharpa on Byss-Calle (Northside). No other instruments appear on the disc, not even an orange Fanta soda bottle, just six massed nyckelharpas bowed by members of Hedningarna and other usually more aggressive Swedish folk-popsters. Not that the overtone-threshing strings don't possess a certain soul-sapping vigor of their own. Byss-Calle, the 18th century composer who inspired this collection of traditional-based tunes, was said to unleash sorcery with his instrument. The Orchestra could stand to throw a few spells themselves to mitigate the constant sawing. Alternatively, a drumbeat every three or four minutes would heighten the prettier sections here.
When I first starting writing for The Beat back in 1988, the most exotic sound around consisted of Bulgarian women's choirs. The oddball success of the original Le Mystére des Voix Bulgares release with its racked, medieval-haunted vocals and stigmatic dissonance spawned close to a dozen copycat albums. These culminated in 1992's miraculously kitschy From Bulgaria with Love techno dance mix, whose cover depicted traditionally costumed choir members held at gunpoint with a 007ish pistol. Back at the start of another decade is more time-frozen vocal music, this time from the glorious Cosmic Voices of Bulgaria on Mechmieto (Intuition). The National Palace of Culture in Sofia, Bulgaria, lends a stately ambience to the 21-member ensemble as they update your standard village threshing songs with tingle-inducing multi-part harmony and stark, quavering solo parts. It's one of the prettiest examples of the oeuvre I've heard, and if the Bulgarian genre is new to you, this is the disc to grab.
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)
[Copyright 2001 Bob Tarte]