(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 13, Number 4, 1994)


I should have known I was courting a stroke when I invited my friend the Whale to ride with me to Madison, WI, to watch a taping of APR's radio quiz show, "Whad 'Ya Know? with Michael Feldman." My entrepreneurial ex-wrestling buddy told me to pick him up at Fatterton Estates, the housing development he had bought for conversion to a landfill. The annoyances began at once. He kept me waiting in his driveway a full half-hour while he changed the bathtub water for a foundling Canada goose he'd rescued from stone-throwing subdivision kids. "It's an omen!" he insisted through a series of toll-booths between the Hinsdale Oasis and Rockford, IL. Unfortunately, I guessed his meaning. After he and Anne Murray had appeared together briefly on the Nova Scotian tv series "Singalong Jubilee" in 1965, he'd had his one and only drink with Murray at the Halifax wharf-front pub, The Bleeding Goose. "Finding that honker on my outlawn is a sign my little Snowbird is flying back to her muscleman," he sobbed as we crossed into Wisconsin.

When we finally reached Madison, I'd envisioned a stress-free evening, beginning with cheap food at the Og Hall cafeteria on the University of Wisconsin campus. But no sooner had we checked into the Ivy Inn Motor Hotel than the Whale pleaded urgent business 45 miles north at the resort town of Wisconsin Dells. Hoping to salvage something from the trip, I agreed to go on the condition that we took highway 21 via Baraboo, original home of the Ringling Brothers and Gollmar circuses and present site of the Circus World Museum. In Baraboo I hoped to find evidence of my spiritual nemesis, Bobo the Roller Clown, a deceased carnival clown turned universal principle who has tormented the Whale and me since 1981 and ruined attorney pal Steve Lewis. But the gangly little town was stingy with its secrets. Two genetically damaged offspring of roustabouts gave us contradictory information on whether the eight-building, 50-acre museum was open for the season, so we retreated to the safety of endless roadside signs announcing the imminence of the Dells.

Between Tommy Bartlett's Robot World and The Copa Banana--across the street from Pirate Cove Family Funland and cater-corner from Noah's Ark--we pulled into the parking lot of the boarded up Cheese Factory, which the Whale planned to transform into the Anne Murray Supper Club. The idea was not only to lure Murray back into his flukes, but to con her into co-hosting the world's largest fish boil. Hope soured when the Whale's hurried footfalls triggered a cave-in of the underground cheese storage vault which dislodged the static electricity ball at what the Whale termed "Bartlett's cheap little clip joint" next door. Fearing an expensive spoiled cheese clean-up, spite litigation from Bartlett, and ground too unstable to support The Whale's Two-Story Butter Slide, he abandoned the site, spewing anti-Bartlett invectives the entire trip back to the Ivy Inn Motor Hotel.

The next morning, however, it seemed the Whale had turned a dorsal fin to his troubles. As we took our seats in the Parliamentary Room of Vilas Communication Center, my behemoth buddy entertained me with a moist-eyed reminiscence of the Badger Breakfast Special he had just engulfed. Plus, the tiny studio reminded him of a delirious seven hours spent 30 years earlier as an intended regular on "Don Messer's Jubilee," until the clumsy wrestling hold that started his ringside career dislocated fiddler Messer's neck and shattered his prized Manitoba-spruce violin. The gentle giant's rectitude couldn't have made me happier. Seeing "Whad 'Ya Know? with Michael Feldman" live was the trip of a lifetime, a persistent dream since I'd first tuned into the show on my honeymoon in 1990 after visiting Linda's northern Tennessee branch of the family.

I was so contented, I didn't even raise my hand to participate in the famous "Whad 'Ya Know" Quiz at 45-minutes past the hour. Then, to my disbelief, as the Bob Newhart-esque Feldman descended from his tv-tray desk into the audience, wireless fm mike in hand, his fidgety eyes locked on mine. "Now this guy looks interesting," he said. No man or woman had ever uttered those words in reference to me before. I was on the verge of rising and proving my host right with anecdotes from Papa Wemba liner notes and a timely plug for Technobeat, when the boiling bulk of the Whale bowled me over. Grabbing Feldman's mike and shoving him into frail, veteran announcer, Jim Packard, his lip quivered as he took his best and only coast-to-coast shot at reclaiming Murray's affection by expelling a sea-shanty rendition of her January 1973 hit, "Danny's Song," including the ad lib:

Even though I ain't Tommy Bartlett
I'm still in love with my cutlet
Any fax from Halifax brings lo-o-o-ove...

...and other lyrics excoriating Robot World, the Baraboo Chamber of Commerce, Wisconsin Public Radio, the EPA, cheese, CC Smith and the Beat.

I couldn't get home soon enough. But in my absence Linda had decided to surprise me by teaching a new trick to our African Gray Timneh parrot, Stanley. As I stumbled shell-shocked into the house and my wife threw her arms around me, I was broken to hear the bird gleefully repeat, "Whad 'Ya Know? Whad 'Ya Know? Whad 'Ya Know?"

My retreat was a pair of headphones and the first disc of the Dancing Cat label's Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Master Series, Punahele by Ray Kane. Besides sealing me in a small, self-absorbed vault, phones are the optimal way of listening to this release, not just to catch the squeak of fingers against strings, but because the dynamic range is so great that if you crank up the speakers to bring out the chimed overtones of "Pauoa Liko Ka Lehua," Kane's rich baritone vocals will rumble the knick-knacks off your shelves.

Though Kane made his first recording in 1961, Punahele is the only release to feature his acoustic guitar in a solo setting. Slack key, or ki hoalu, originated in the last century when Hawaiians adapted the guitars brought by Portuguese paniolo cowboys to indigenous melodies. Its name comes from the loosened-string tunings intended to match a singer's vocal range. Like many American styles, slack key is characterized by the steady pulse of fingerpicked rhythm over a thumbed bass line, but with an unmistakable island lilt modulated by mainland influences beginning in the days when Hawaiian music was an Edison cylinder sensation. A slowed-down ragtime tempo shapes the classic tear-jerker "Pua Sadina" (I Never Will Forget) and the five-song seamless instrumental medley that follows kicks off with a lush snippet of Hawaiian country blues. Kane plays and sings with emotions thrown wide open, inflecting happy Polynesian cliches of lapping water and flawless sun with pangs of sadness for the era when traditional ways still ruled.

Dancing Cat's slack key cds have a dreamy, ambient feel appropriate to their distribution by Windham Hill and production by new age avatar George Winston. But the eccentricities of Sonny Chillingworth's Sonny Solo keep the steady bliss from blanding out. His incorporation of country and western, Puerto Rican, and Mexican styles means his songs aren't always immediately identifiable as Hawaiian. But once I started thinking about him first and foremost as a singing cowboy, his amalgam not only made perfect cohesive sense but set him apart from other musicians from the islands. Anyone who can deliver a narrative about a rider who falls into a lava tube with his horse without generating buckets of unintended humor deserves respect. "Kaula ili" in fact turns out to be quite touching, showcasing Chillingworth's quavering Mauna Kea-tumbleweed voice and dexterous guitar work as he deadens the strings during strategic parts of the story to add poignancy to the tale--as does his association of the "get up and ride again" philosophy with his own ongoing battle against cancer. This disc could glide by easily on resonance alone, but Sonny plays like a man at the peak of his powers navigating the demanding waltz "Halona" and decorating "Ho'omalu Slack Key" with hammer-on and pull-off effects. Forget Ry Cooder. For chops and soulfulness, this is the guy I want to hear with Ali Farka Toure.

The first casualty of a concert recording is usually the sound quality, and King Sunny Ade Live at the Hollywood Palace (IRS/Hemisphere) hobbles on a nonexistent bottom end that ought to have been fatal. But the Nigerian guitarist's reorganized ensemble, The New African Beats, isn't the thunderous juju engine of the past. It's become a stripped down vehicle for monophony that succeeds to the extent that individual soloists inspire. Recast as a jazzy Dead-style exploration, "Ja Funmi" is a model of economy as reckless guitar, slide guitar and keyboard noodling pulls miracles from a taut yet yawning groove. The empty spaces of "Ni Tori Awa," however, play laid back merely as laxness, raising serious questions about rehearsal. The key to the new beat philosophy may reside in the glittery synth textures that coat each song. If the marketplace was indifferent a decade ago when Ade broke fresh ground melding trad Nigerian to American new wave, why not try a comeback geared to Hearts of Space audiences long since primed for an ethnic music transfusion? While I do admire the sales savvy, if the consequence is a concert as strung out as mid-period Pink Floyd, I hope the strategy never makes it as far as the studio.

Time for a spot quiz. What's the common link between J.S. Bach and the West African country of Gabon? Dr. Albert Schweitzer--the Nobel Prize-winning humanitarian who established a hospital at Lambarene on the Ogowe River in Gabon in 1914--and who also wrote a two-volume study of Bach. In tribute to Schweitzer, Parisian-based musicians Pierre Akendengue and Hughes de Courson have devised an unlikely mingling of the classical music of two continents by combining well-known compositions by Bach with analogously themed traditional songs and dances of Gabon. Lambarena (Celluloid/Melodie) by all rights should have sunk under the burden of this conception, but several factors make this sweeping disc wildly successful. Instead of taking the easy way out via MIDI tracks and sampling, Akendengue and Courson have assembled 13 formidable vocal and instrumental ensembles to perform these compositions in a symphonic-like setting. Balancing the academic tinge is the sense of humor and adventure that immediately won me over. Rather than sanding the edges off the audacity of the idea via Ray Lema's 1992 Euro African Suite, differences in styles are so strongly etched, compatibility problems melt away as moot. The sturm und drang of the chorale prayer "Herr, Unser Herrsher" is underscored by fierce percussion, a Bach violin suite floats above a balafon in another cut, and the Gabonnaise vocal piece "Pepa Nzac Gnon Ma" allows just enough room for a peppy string counterpoint from "Prelude de la Partita pour violon no. 3." It's rousing, heady fun that would have kept Schweitzer's trusty Victrola cranking for hours.

I don't know anyone who held hopes that a reunion of the surviving Beatles would generate a single decent new song. Yet somehow, 25 years after Brazil's Tropicalismo pop movement, wizened, occasional collaborators Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil join heads with hardly a creak on Tropicalia 2 (Elektra Musician). We do get a few anachronisms, like the Sgt. Pepper in Funkytown orchestral coda to "Nossa Gente" that's probably meant to be bittersweet, or the syllable collage "Rap Popcreto" that shoots blanks at sampler-dependent musicians. But we also get a stunner called "Haiti" reminding us that the instruments of repression are just as obvious in democratic countries as elsewhere once you look for them, the African guitar-driven "Cada Macaco No Seu Galho (Cho Chua)" which shows that after all these years Veloso and Gil are still recombining pop influences in fresh ways, plus the expected samba pleasantries too polite to call attention to their age.

There's a definite shock of the new to the first international recording by Ziskakan (Mango), a Creole band from the Indian Ocean island of Reunion. A western rock noise blended with local and imported rhythms comes off in its strongest moments as an iron-plated Boukman Eksperyans and at its worst like the 3 a.m. show at the Cabaret du Bombaste. Every song on the cd builds up to then drops away from the formidible "Bonbon," which posits a chugging uphill skank against screaming guitar bursts, Gilbert Pounia's Bono-esque vocals, dance-around-the-campfire backing voices, and chunky bass drum hits that continually suggest but never deliver on an atmosphere of impending menace. The band has got a great touch combining instruments as disparate as rhiata, sabar drums, harmonica--and even Baaba Maal's keening fills on "Baba Priyer Maloya"--without grinding the gears of an elaborate fusion machine. Africanisms, Gallicisms, and romanticism alike are swept up cleanly in the big drama that nearly eclipses formula. But formula it is, though I wouldn't bet against Ziskakan live and unleashed.

Rene Marino Rivero plays unaccompanied bandoneon in Bandoneon Pure: Dance of Uruguay (Smithsonian/Folkways), but don't look for the influence of native peoples to transform this big brother of the accordion into an outlet for indigenous culture. The Spanish and Portuguese who settled Uruguay eradicated the local Charrua Indians, and one way the conquistador's descendants continue to pay this debt of blood is through a national music of unbridled stiffness. Rivero does a remarkable job with his material, bringing orchestral ranges of timbres to a repertoire that came into the country largely inside a bandoneon case. Until World War II, the best instruments were imported from Germany, and musicians like Rivero taught themselves to play using the supplied songbooks packed with Bavarian ditties. The inability to hear firsthand the source material they replicated helped merge the material with Spanish-derived traditions, spawning styles and techniques specific to Uruguay. Despite the stuck-in-time, stubbornly individualistic feel of these highly ornamented pieces, most are beautiful--in particular, the dramatically flourished milongos written expressly to take advantage of the bandoneon's colossal and expressive bellows. Read all about it plus more details than you thought possible in the 80-page book that accompanies this fascinating collection of short, quirky, highly Europeanized pieces.

Another well-documented traditional recording from Smithsonian/Folkways is Bungridj-Bungridj: Wangga Songs by Alan Maralung, a 63-year-old Aboriginal composer from Northern Australia. Wangga are dance songs given to a songman in dreams and usually performed with didgeridu and corroboree clapsticks. Maralung received his compositions from a bird spirit called Bungridj-Bungridj and the ghost of a songman named Balandjirri. His interactions with the spirits in composing songs are described in the excellent 44-page booklet by Allen Marrett and Linda Barwick which accompanies the cd. Marrett and Barwick consider Maralung to rank "among the most intellectually and musically skilled performers to be heard anywhere in Australia," and I have to take their word for it. While I'm too far removed from the artistic context to appreciate the particular genius of songs which vary almost imperceptibly from one another, I still find myself drawn to the austerity and odd eloquence of music more of the other world than this one. A huge chunk of the innate mystery of being, which our own culture takes such jolly pains to sidestep, palpates on the surface of this recording. Highly recommended.

On Sheila Chandra's The Zen Kiss (RealWorld), Sandy Denny gets reincarnated as an abbess to preside over a spiritual world denuded of any soul except Chandra's shining self. Her lovers in "Love it is a Killing Thing" and "A Sailor's Life" wound her with their absence. The womankind of In "Las Sagesse (Women, I'm Calling You)" is an abstraction too sapped of strength to answer her lazy question, "Where do I go to find images of woman a woman made?" The child of "Woman and Child" embodies the artist's creative act in a poem of reconciliation to her vulva. While I'm not as taken with Chandra's voice as she is, I admire how it blooms in a signal processed environment scrubbed clean of distractions, including instrumentation. "Killing Thing" and "Sailor" are effective interpretations of traditional British material, though she's battling upstream against Denny's indelible Fairport Convention recording of the latter. Funny thing about this project is that Chandra's talents never seemed so dependent on exotica than when she's moved half way from her Indipop oeuvre toward a mystical Celtic milieu.

Chandra's navel gazing couldn't get me to care two hoots about her nether regions, but Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has me obsessing, who's this "Sahib Teri Bandi," and how does he merit an ecstatic 12-minute rave-up of Pakistani sufic juju on The Last Prophet (RealWorld)? Any disc by Ali Khan is so reliable, I forget it's also profound and exciting even without containing anything I haven't heard before. But I guess that's the point of the universal truths qawwali expounds via the mystic star's gravel-strewn voice wafting to heaven on a current of exuberant backing vocals, jump-up, pumping harmonium, and a fusilade of percussion. My meager understanding of sufism is that, unlike the big three religions of the Levant, this second-stream to Islam sees physical being less as a corruption to despise than as a condition to use as springboard to higher states--hence the sensual imagery of love and drunkeness that provides not only a philosophical frisson but brings intoxication to this incredibly compelling music.The songs rock so hard, it's obvious why theocratic police states like Iran won't tolerate the sufic declaration of freedom in this life. Come to think of it, it isn't well regarded here either except in Jeep commercials.

When the Scanadavian folk revival turned giddy in Finland, I took it as a nationalistic manifesto, an in-your-face, up-thrust finger to the other midnight sunners that said, we Finns know an alternative to being dour. Damned if the chaos hasn't spread to Sweden as Absolut Folk pepper their own interpretations of ancient farm culture tunes with intimations of whimsy on the engaging Musiques Traditionnelles de Suede (Silex/Auvidis). Armed with clarinet, soprano sax, and violin, Roland Keijser, Anders Rosen and Kjell Westling tootle through dance and ceremonial instrumental music, burnishing it into round and woody shapes with hardly a rough edge. Though "Farmors Brudpolska Efter Ewert Ahs" is a nicely dark geometric exercise for violin, Gunnar Stubseid's harding fiddle version of the same on 1992's Musique des valees scandinaves is a barefoot climb up a thorn tree in comparison to Absolut's found nostalgia. Improvised sections of songs similarly veer toward the conservative, with the accent on conservatory. But the disc is still a joy, and when the jolity boys break clean of the prevailing unison-style format to let modern harmonics trickle into "Halling Fran Gudbrandsdalen," I swear that from somewhere at the bottom of the mix I detected an unchecked sniffle of glee.

With much African pop becoming safe and predictable, I was glad for the nerve-wracking journey without a map of Etoile de Dakar's breakthrough 1980 release, Thiapathioly (Sterns), one of the wildest, fastest rides any music can offer and still claim to be danceable. This disc, in fact, created such abandon that it launched the robe-lifting ventilateur dance craze whose reputed lewdness scandalized Senegalese society as it also launched lead vocalist Youssou Ndour into the international spotlight. Ostensibly drawn from more conservative Latin-based African styles but supercharged with Wolof rhythms, this first burst of mbalax resembles only faintly the more reined-in music Ndour would later bring to an American audience--and not at all his recent Renaissance Man attempts to unite African and European pop under conditions of mutual disarmament. Even after repeated listenings to Thiapathioly, the music still seems fraught with danger, lit with weapons-grade bursts of sabar drums and vocal parts passed back and forth between Ndour and El Hadji Faye like relay runners smuggling messages behind enemy lines. With this kind of monument in his past, no wonder Ndour still feels compelled to overachieve.

There's nothing worse than a convert, and because my years of foolish resistance to Cuban music was only cracked open a few months ago, I'm ready to call Africando, Volume 2, Tierra Tradicional a major epiphany. Like its predecessor volume, Trovador, Tierra Tradicional hitches three Senegalese vocalists with New York-based Cuban, Dominican and Puerto Rican musicians who clearly know their way across two continents. My point of entry into Cuban styles was via country genres like the son, so Tierra Tradicional instantly won my heart with "Sama Rew," a taut revisiting of Trios Matamoros' "Ven Para La Loma." Production by Dakar-based record label owner Ibrahima Sylla and Malian flautist Boncana Maiga are powerful persuaders as well. Treatments are crisp and spacious, retaining a rootsy, big-bottom ambience but with uncrowded charts that allow ample room for neck-hair prickling solos. Felix Ferrar's rural swing vioin on "Sama Rew" seemed untoppable, until Eddy Zervigon's flute seesawing quickly upped the ante. But the real stars are the vocalists, who not only bring a soaring clarity to these classic songs, but also turn Wolof into the natural born language for Latin grooves. "Ken Moussol Guiss Li" is electrifying, as Medoune Diallo adds a surprising spin to a chugging piano and fat sax intro with a minor-key vocal zoom from tropical nirvana that on its own wings compensates for the one duff note on the entire cd--"Sabador," a fun but disposible reworking of "La Bamaba," which I'd never wanted to hear again in any form.

Seamless isn't the word for the Arhoolie label's Don Santiago Jimenez collection, His First & Last Recordings: 1937 & 1979. From the get-go Jimenez punched unforgettable melodies into his conjunto accordion rhythms, and except for shifts in audio fidelity I'm not sure I can distinguish the late sides from the early. Thank modern technology, though, for delivering a crystal clear mix on the '79 sessions that underscores the power to nudge of Juan Viesca's string bass on the ranchera "Eres Un Encanto" or in a polka with the pep of telemetry, the aptly named "El Satelite." Also supporting Jimenez on these later songs is son Flaco on bajo sexto and backing vocals. One superb cut follows another, old as well as new, but in my ignorance I feel a little like I do when watching a Charlie Chaplin film, conscious of the genre defining nature of the genius, but unable to particularize it due to the extent to which everyone who's followed has built off the original work.

When the Whale and I were at Wisconsin Dells, we visited the endless midway to try one of the rides I'd been hearing about, Wonderful by Shades of Black (TriStar). Though the park operators had trouble getting the seat belt around my bulky friend, I was glad they strapped me down, because the spin quickly made me woozy. Not that the well oiled Desvarieux-Lozahic production machine allowed the ride to be marred by jolts, bumps, switch-backs or other tension inducing maneuvers. It was the sense of inevitability at every turn that got to me, including the section of the tracks where a mainstream nozzle watered us down just as we entered the Tunnel of Zouk. Once the last bubbly melody sloshed to a halt and my feet hit solid ground, the Whale smiled through his disappointment and suggested we find something to eat. Sure enough, my stomach felt pinched and empty, as if I hadn't eaten anything nutritious in days. "I don't know what it is," I told him, as the ride revved up again behind us, "but I'm suddenly in the mood for something predigested."


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