(by Bob Tarte, originally published as "Hamming It Up" in The Beat magazine, Volume 13, Number 2, 1994)


Decades ago when I was in high school, I had an amateur radio license permitting me to tap Morse Code to anyone who could pick up my puny signal. But the people I met on the airwaves were so serious and self-possessed about the pastime, that I let my license expire and took a hammer to my transmitter. I missed an important point, however. It's the fanatics who enliven any hobby by giving it a dark, obsessive spin--like the mushroom hunters who insist on calling themselves mycologists and have an aversion to taste-testing unidentified luminescent fungi, or the potters who stuff their bodies into dank Kentucky caves to mine their own ball clay, which they fire in hand-built kilns.

An innate opposition to constructive activity sent me idly tuning my shortwave receiver through the amateur radio bands recently just to hear what I could hear, and a few of the stations I picked up were strange enough to penetrate my fog of boredom. I heard NOAA researchers at the Scott-Amundsen South Pole Station discuss the 9,347-foot-thick pack ice beneath their feet. I heard Baptist missionaries in the Amazon basin ask stateside relatives to airmail them macaroni. I heard Bosnian Serbs pooh-pooh the war from the safety of Serbian-held territory. I heard Tom and Irma Christian, Pitcairn Island-bound descendants of famous mutineer Fletcher Christian (portrayed by Clark Cable, Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson in a trio of sea sagas). I even heard Jordan's King Hussein hooted off the air by Americans still huffy about Desert Storm. But I lusted after even greater thrills.

I thought I had found them when I starting hearing amateurs from Gambia, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Malawi, and throughout the Caribbean. Here's my chance, I thought, for intimate, kitchen-sink details about foreign lands that I'd never get from news reports. But the American hams I heard in conversation with their farflung counterparts exhibited a startling lack of curiosity about life outside these United States. Most of the exchanges consisted of little more than trading callsigns, names, locations, and signal reports--the minimum information required for adding a new country to the log. If the operators felt like getting really intimate, they might also discuss the size of their antennas or the atmospheric conditions for that day. The situation depressed me, until I realized I had blundered into the bottomless center of the hobby.

To verify that they have worked a foreign country, hams exchange proof-of-contact postcards called QSLs. Getting a QSL from a rare location generates levels of obsessive behavior unparalleled in any other non-income generating enterprise. If enough hams want a card from, say, Bangladesh, where there are few amateur radio operators, they might band together to buy equipment for a chap they've targeted in Chittagong. More common and much more expensive is the so-called DX-pedition, where hams trek to inaccessible, inhospitable spots--often pseudo-countries where no one lives at all--just to contact other hams by radio. Last year's big event was an arduous journey to the remote Pacific atoll of Kingman Reef, in which six American and European hams operated four stations 24 hours a day from a 20-foot-wide strip of land rising a mere six feet out of the choppy saltwater. In four days, despite jellyfish bites, coral lacerations, drenching rains and 120-degree temperatures, the hams made a staggering 24,000 contacts with amateurs around the world.

That's 250 contacts an hour or 4.16 a minute, which seems utterly impossible until you eavesdrop on one of these short-lived stations and experience the pandemonium. You don't know what you've tuned into--it could be the floor of the New York Stock Exchange--as hundreds of hams clustered around the DX-pedition frequency simultaneously shout out a two-letter abbreviation of their callsign in desperate hope of recognition. Contact, when it comes, is terse enough to make the usual interaction with a foreign station seem like a chapter from Bleak House in comparison. "Charlie-Fox, five and eight," the Kingman Reef station might reply to a ham with callsign W8CF; or "Zulu-Bravo, four and seven," to station K3ZB. That's it. Five rapid-fire words containing acknowledgment of contact and a numerical signal report is the sum and total contact--paralleling, in a sense, the Kingman operators' fleeting, navel-focused contact with the landscape.

This winter [of 1994] a handful of multinational amateurs will attempt to land and operate a station from the even more adverse Peter Island, a wave-battered flyspeck in the Norwegian Antarctic Territory where the mercury rarely peeps above zero degrees Fahrenheit. To the testosterone-charged adventurers involved, DX-peditions such as this probably carry the same manhood-testing allure as mountain climbing, though to my mind they're more equivalent to flying to the great cities of Europe but never leaving the airports. Still, I can't get enough of them. It's not so much the reward of finally picking a short-lived, exotic location out of the electromagnetic haystack after hours of brain-deadening searching, as it is the existential pathos of tuning into the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth of scores of hams obsessed with contacting terra incognito, a throng of the thirsting damned satiated by as damned little as a mere five words of recognition. I can think of few better ways to waste away an evening than listening in.

If you have a shortwave radio that can receive SSB signals, information on ongoing DX-peditions is broadcast each weeknight during an on-the-air meeting of the INDEXA radio club 6:30 p.m. eastern time on 14,236 kHz. Frequencies such as this where hams meet for a given single-minded purpose are known as nets. The DX nets listed here are the prime spots to hear Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific amateur operators. Keep in mind that shortwave reception conditions can change drastically from day to day.

Not since pop badboys Alvin and the Chipmunks crashed The Ed Sullivan Show in 1961 has chirpy perkiness carried this big a stick. Ignore the many rumors about Varttina. They are not, in fact, cross-dressing sardine fishermen, the fairy twins from Japanese Mothra epics, musical dolphins, nor even cartoon voles. Once a 15-member chorus with pipes and girth to rival the Bulgarian women's choirs, the Finnish speed-folk chorale has slimmed to four-girl brat-pack for their American debut disc, Seleniko (Green Linnet).

Backed by five hapless males on acoustic instruments, the women tear through Ingrian rune chants, ancient wedding songs, and centuries old village insults like there's no yesterday, twisting odd metered 13/8 or 5/8 snips of history into maddeningly affecting jump rope jingles. As defeated sounding violin, accordion, sax, even a tin whistle burble along behind them, the four-headed, single-voiced mutant offspring of ABBA kicks its legs in giddy blurring of the chaste and libidinous with results that occasionally transcend novelty act status. The opening and possibly title cut "Seelinnikoi" is one of the best, coupling a must-clog-dance rhythm with water fountain overlapping vocal parts pure enough to dab the spine with electricity. But watch out for the anthem "Kylä Vuotti Uutta Kuuta" which nearly squanders whatever grandeur the solo singer trucks to the opening, when she passes the baton to a singing adenoid whose delivery cracked the ice on my rooftop and sent it thudding down the shingles. Luckily, the rest of the Värttinäs jump back in and, with the help of a churchy organ paean, rescue the cut from terminal sinusitis.

But why attempt the stately when sassy is the group's forte? The midnight sunners shine on the a cappella "Sulhassii," in which handclaps mimic the constant knock of suitors on the towheads' door, and on "Leppiäinen," when they gleefully enunciate Finno-Urgic homonyms "seksi" and "saksi" as "sexy." All falls down, however, before the hormonal force of "Matalii Ja Mustii," which brands the local boys as pigs and dismisses fellow village girls as crows. The unintelligible lyrics are soon dispensed with, though, as the girls erupt in an astounding string of oo-ee-oo-ee-oo-ee's that not only state the final self-satisfied word, but wrap such insidious tentacles around memory that those syllables wait like time bombs primed to explode in the mind's ear hours or days later in the middle of an intimate romantic moment. The only possible response, I guess, is to call out, "Gammera!"

Nowhere near as startling is Finnish instrumental group Ottopasuuna, whose eponymous first U.S. release (Green Linnet) mixes local tunes with Celtic and bluegrass phrasings filtered through the sensibilities of Helsinki's Sibelius Academy. Though violinist Kari Reiman also fiddles with Värttinä, these musicians aren't exactly wild, except in a reserved subarctic kind of way. "A schottish composed by our jocular melodeon maestro, Kimmo," reads the liner notes description of a sad ditty backed by Kurt Lindblad's droning Estonian bagpipes, while Reiman scours the periphery with an ice-encrusted fiddle. "Kimmo's bizarre sense of humour again," chortle the notes to the utterly placid "Honkolan mamman kirnumasurkka," an accordion-led mazurka with Gaelic overtones. I'm definitely missing the hilarity--as well as the long season of darkness that my favorite Scandinavian folk reworkings encompass.

Once I accepted these guys as classicists, however, the disc burst open up into a charming world view that in a subdued fashion does for Finnish folk what the 3 Mustaphas 3 do for klezmer. The beer-barrel arrangement of the Satakunta schottish, "Tyyska," even reminds me of the Mustaphas "Ti Citron," with its odd blend of clarinet and other instruments--here, a harmonica that toodles out the lead against a shuffle-paced rhythm guitar.

In fact, one of Ottopasuuna's goals seems to be to induce little heard moods from familiar instruments--like the sweet and quiet accordion of "Viialan vanhaa kansaa," a tribute to the old folks at jocular Kimmo's home, and "In dulci jubilo," which finds the appropriate grace for a psalm inside a bagpipe--or to place familiar instruments in unlikely settings, such as the harmonica that races along with Reiman's fiddle in the 19th century Finnish polska, "Kolmospolska," or the Ingrian shepherd's tune transposed to mbira on "Havulintu." The same care and cleverness that go into these arrangements is shown on the choice of material, which in true folklorist fashion was unearthed by band members from such obscure sources as a 1914 wax cylinder recording, an acetate disc from the 1930s, and an old music book dating back to the early 1800s. Eggheads they may be, but the fun the Ottos generate is in the long run more satisfying than Värttinä's bang.

I'm no longer competent to differentiate the tiny issues from the large, the localized from the general, so that when the tenth or so listening to "Caso Perdido" by Los Dos Gilbertos suddenly revealed a sarcastic kiss to a shiftless lover by guest vocalist Beatriz Llamas, that single moment made the entire song for me--eclipsing even an instrumentalist's crazed "aye-yi-yi" after a particularly pungent Llamas lyric, my favorite blip on the entire disc until I finally caught that caustic smack. A whole cd of this group's material would have been hard to top, but even more marvelous is what we actually get on the Smithsonian/Folkways label Borderlands: From Conjunto to Chicken Scratch, an anthology of music from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and Southern Arizona. Choice moments abound, like the clattering roll of dice that sets in motion Los Cachorros de Juan Villarreal's peppy tale of woe, the corrido "Dado Cargados." But in the larger scheme of things there's also a great choice of material and a bulging variety of styles, including trailblazing accordionist Narcisco Martinez's skittery-fingered 1946 performance of the polka "La Cuquita" and 1975's rhythm busting huapango, "La Calle Flores" by Oscar Hernández with bone-jarring tempo shifts around every corner.

Even more enticing than song after song of solid melodies and passionate vocals is the peppering of oddities that sets this disc apart from other collections of southwestern music I own. The smoky bolero-mambo "Un Rato No Más" by Beto Villa Orquesta with Carmen y Laura is a hefty dose of big band barbiturates circa 1950 lifted from one of my recurring dreams where I haunt the neighborhoods of my youth searching for a decent sandwich. Is it just the muffled master tape, or are singing sisters Carmen and Laura doing their Cuban femme fatale impression behind tomato-proof Plexiglas? "Quedate" by Roberto Pulido y los Clásicos demonstrates how out of touch I am with up-to-date Tex-Mex. This 1987 forerunner to a style now taken for granted beefs up the conjunto sound with a fat sax section and less melodrama in the vocals.

My jaw didn't actually drop, however, until the last four cuts showcasing little-heard songs from the reservations of Southern Arizona. "San Javielpo Chu'kuy Kawi" is a harp and violin driven example of the pascola dance of the Yaqui people. The jittery back and forth cluck-cluck rhythm is pure poultry in motion--yet this isn't even chicken scratch, the style played by members of the Tohono O'odham Nation, formerly known as the Papago. Chicken scratch, like conjunto, derives from polkas, schottisches and other European rhythms and features the melody line performed in tandem on accordion and saxophone. Appropriately, one of the examples offered on Borderlands is a polka ditty locally known as "Old Man Rooster," but imagine my shock when I realized that tough looking hombres the Molinas were ripping through a twangy, spirited rendition of none other than "Turkey in the Straw"--which struck me at first as the equivalent of the Blues Brothers racing through the theme from Rawhide. But the more I hear the mischievous "Old Man Rooster" the closer I come to jettisoning my idiotic cultural references to it source.

A few notches less essential but still packed with pleasures is ¡Conjunto! Polkas de Oro, an anthology of all-instrumental Texas-Mexican border music from the Rounder label. Stripped of the happy distraction of vocals--except for the cry "More beer!" in the middle of one cut and "¡Es todo!" ("It's finished!") at the end of another--conjunto comes across as a demandingly precise form of pop, where absolute virtuosity is the bottom of the scale and savants like Tony de la Rosa make the impossible believable. The down side of this mastery is that the absence of rough edges and the primacy of sparkle sends these pieces spinning toward the southwestern equivalent of elevator music. Not even Los Dos Gilbertos' fancy-pants anachronism, the redova "El Guero Tostado," or Conjunto Internacional's showpiece "Joe's Special" can reverse a slippage in my attention the way the vocal numbers in the preceding disc grab me with both hands. After a dozen or so listenings, only de la Rosa's "Lolita" keeps playing in my head as he gives his accordion a jumping-jack work out while barely seeming to touch the buttons. Valerio Longoria's version of "Beer Barrel Polka" is also memorable, but it's no "Turkey in the Straw."

They take their mariachi music seriously in the state of Jalisco. None of that slowed down, smoothed out, simplified ranchera version of the genre that broke out of Mexico with the boom of the national film industry in the 1940s and '50s--and gave the mariachi a sleepy-eyed, romantic image that forever imprinted the really big sombrero on the international psyche. On Sones de Jalisco on the Rounder-distributed Corason label, Mariachi Reyes del Aserradero play the traditional form of the music complete with sweeping melodies, urgent tempos and a textural complexity that nearly overwhelms the other elements. It's not just that the music is busy, veering from tight tenor vocals to trumpet exclamation points to sloping violin glides, it's that these can happen all at once, underpinned by furiously chugging guitars sweating out the task of tying everything together.

The rather odd mix on this disc emphasizes the stratification rather than neatly sorting out individual elements, so that just when I'm getting the hang of a sung melody line, the trumpet and violin counterpoint punches in at higher volume and I'm suddenly wandering a new leg of the maze. But it's probably a realistic representation of a live performance, which is how this music lives, and the miniaturist in me is amply rewarded by the violin donkey brays in "El burro polillas," the inevitable yips in the sweet tempered "El cihualteco," and a bevy of other neatly constructed hooks and catch-alls. Though I find this traditional mariachi more formal and rigid than my favorite son styles, it's bursting with grandness, and Mariachi Reyes del Aserradero are wonderful.

The music on Oumou Sangare's Ko Sira (World Circuit) is so good, I was shocked to read the English translation of my favorite song, "Sigi Kuruni" (Advice to a New Bride), which counsels, "If your husband calls you, run to him without delay and without grumbling," "When your husband's mother insults you, do not answer back," and, most extraordinarily, "When your husband's brother beats you, do not attach any importance to it." While this doesn't exactly turn Sangare into Buju Banton, and one may argue the merits of different behaviors in other cultures, it's a far stretch to imagine an environment in which putting up with casual violence would be desirable as a general principle.

Separating sound from sense, there's much to admire here. Sangare is a remarkable vocalist, commanding and forceful one moment, two beats later as subdued as Sade, and the arrangements modernize traditional Malian music without setting it apart from its sources. Just the small touch of electric bass on "Kayini Wuna," for example, blasts the song into pop territory, and Aliou Traore's slightly off-kilter violin gives the songs the drowsy sensuality of Sudanese merdoum--throwing a much needed shot of cold water on the guitar and lute which engage in intense dialog at the slightest opening. Some discs as melodically strong as Ko Sira quickly wear out their welcome with me. By the fourth or fifth listening, the tunes have gained enough weary familiarity that simply playing them becomes redundant. Arrangements here, however, are abundantly rich, and should I wish to exit the foreground of "Dugu Kamelenba" before the cheerfully nagging scat-sung chorus pokes up its head, I merely drop down to enjoy the jingle-bell percussion or, a floor lower, revel in the lute backbone.

Ali Farka Toure's unconventional approach to traditional Malian music has created a succession of releases that each strike out in a slightly different direction. On his latest cd, Talking Timbuktu (Hannibal/Rykodisc), he teams up with American guitarist Ry Cooder with results that indicate a brilliant collaboration which stops short of being fully realized. The chemistry between the two musicians borders on telepathy. In cuts like "Bonde"--or "Lasidan" with its peppering of Sunny-Ade-style chip-chops--the guitars are so tightly meshed there's scant reward in trying to separate rhythm from lead and acoustic from electric, but the high points come in pieces where two divergent styles complement one another with rapturous effect. On "Soukora" Cooder slowly chords a soprano melody above Ali Farka's pulsing figures and trumps the meditative atmosphere of "Gomni" with mysterioso dashes of surf guitar against the click of calabash percussion.

But the mile-deep textures and overdubbed glosses can't disguise the fact that many of these cuts are simply jams rather than the meticulously arranged compositions that have always been Ali Farka's hallmark. A plodding, generic blues piece like "Ai Du" never would have made it on any of his other releases but for the presence of violinist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and drummer Jim Keltner. To compensate for the off-the-cuff quality, producer Cooder builds his instrumental contributions into a contrapuntal dramatic development to each song that tends to undermine Ali Farka's essential approach, which has always emphasized the extended moment instead of a storyline in need of beginning, middle point and end. The music remains beautiful--"Diaraby" with its layering of marimba, accordion, and acoustic and electric guitars is ravishing--but taken as a whole Talking Timbuktu succeeds without playing into the greatest strengths of its performers.

An ancient release by Ancient Future happens to be their best to date. Though the Philo label's reissue of 1981's Natural Rhythms is billed as the progenitor to world music, I don't hear the world in many of the cuts despite the proliferation of ethnic instruments. But that's the genius of this disc, not a shortcoming. True, the improbably lovely "Frogorian Trance" with degung-style gamelan melody could be slipped into the soundtrack of The Year of Living Blissfully, but most of the songs here are object lessons in creating evocative instrumental pieces that owe no debts to any specific genre or border crossing. While the Bay Area ensemble's duets with Balinese and Pacific frogs on several cuts don't quite live up to the liner note hype as "interspecies recordings" (did the croakers have a say in the mix?), the blend of bamboo percussion instruments, zither and peeps from the pond is enchanting, far better realized than shared billings with wolves, dolphins, whales, lemurs or porcupines encountered elsewhere.

Maybe the graceful simplicity of the pieces appeals to me. Guitarist Matthew Montford plays with far more proficiency today than he shows here, but I've never liked him better than the pale fire he unleashes on "Somaloka"--he has to, to keep up with Phil Fong's breakneck sarod improvisations--or the majestic arpeggios that introduce the hurtfully beautiful "Hummingbird," a showcase for Future co-founder Mindia Klein's bansuri flute in a performance so breathtakingly lovely I'm grateful for the puffs of breath between phrasings as proof that this isn't interspecies jamming with an ethereal lifeform. Benjy Wertheimer on tabla and beer can inspires on either instrument, and guests on assorted acoustic instruments contribute to the otherworldly mood.

Bosnia: Echoes from an Endangered World (Smithsonian/Folkways) begins on an appropriately sorrowful note with vocalist Nada Mamula quietly singing the praises of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, in a recording of "Kad ja podjoh Benbasu" (When I Went to Benbasu) that pre-dates the current war. Detailed liner notes to this wide-ranging anthology indicate that the leader of the orchestra on this cut is now deceased, as is engaging singer Himzo Polovina and his saz player, Selim Salihovic, on "Dunjaluce, golem ti si" (World and its People, You Are Great), a ballad extolling the beauty and historical tolerance of Sarajevo. Numerous performers on this disc, in fact, are noted as dead, wounded, missing or prisoners in the ongoing carnage. Television has already humanized the war, though the screen simultaneously distances us from the violence. This collection, however, brings home the consequences of destroying not only individuals but a culture of diverse voices.

The pop tunes and ballads are derived from centuries-old forms, like the dervish ilahija that eventually found its way into "Benbasu," and the traditional styles on this disc sound significantly older, some as creaky as the far flung roots of western civilization. The zurna (vernacular oboe) and snare drum duet in "Svatovsko kolo" is reminiscent of rhiata pieces from Morocco, a trio of dissonant-harmonic vocal pieces by a rural women's group sounds similar to rough-edged Bulgarian village music, and two ecstatic zikr pieces from the Naqshbandi dervishes sound like nothing I've ever heard before, waves of repetitive chanting that gradually gain momentum with results for the listener as disorienting as immersion in the Balinese kecak monkey-chant. My favorites are the more easily absorbed ditties, such as the accordion-slung "Vila vice sa vrh Trebevica," whose translated title no sane man could resist (The Mountain Nymph Shouts from the Top of Trebevic) and an a cappella piece highlighting the purity of Alma Bandic's expressive voice.

My favorite klezmer freylehks make me feel as if I'd been shot out of a circus cannon, and the best laments reaffirm my essential doubts about the value of bothering to do anything. While none of the material on the new cds by the Klezmer Conservatory Band and Shirim Klezmer Orchestra hit either of these extremes, both discs have their virtues.

Per their name, the Klezmer Conservatory Band are preservationists rather than innovators. Their thirteenth anniversary album, Live! (Rounder), is a concert recording of klezmer classics from the 1920s through the '50s plus traditional Yiddish material. Arrangements are updated for modern tastes while remaining true to the heyday of the Yiddish big bands--meaning that the anachronisms don't really become intrusive until the group has established an affable enough presence that almost any cornball transgressions can be forgiven. The well-paced, revue-style show intentionally or not highlights the contributions of klezmer to mainstream American music. The obvious example, Ziggy Elman's "And the Angels Sing," fits effortlessly between a cut from a 1926 Yiddish operetta and the traditional "Russian Sher." A medley from a recent video production of the Russian folktale "The Fool and the Flying Ship" packs a virtual history of Jewish music in a six-minute suite that goes easy on the embalming fluid.

But how much you'll enjoy Live! depends on your affection for jazz-age klezmer, which wore well enough with me until the cumulative effect of the vocal pieces left me with a sucrose build up. The audience participation number, "Tum Balalayke," commits the sin of being an audience participation number, and a Mickey Katz-penned romp, "Dos Geshrey fun der Vilder Katshke" (The Cry of the Wild Duck) suffers from an interpretation by otherwise enjoyable vocal Judy Bressler that pumps preciousness at the expense of Katz's eccentricity.

Shirim Klezmer Orchestra play with more spark than flash on Naftule's Dream (Northeastern), and out of sheer laziness I initially let their aloofness sour me. Then, quite abruptly, their idiosyncratic approach shattered my defenses, and now I don't see how I ever missed the pleasures of their ingenuity. Stinging vocal numbers like "What Can You Makh?" (What Can You Do), performed by Betty Silberman as if yanked from a lost Brecht-Weil score, mingle with instrumentals obsessed with bringing a secret klezmer subtext to the fore. On "Waiting," penned by bandleader and clarinetist Glenn Dickson, you can almost hear the gray matter bubbling as cool piano and trombone parts interrupt a repeating clarinet motif that never does connect with the Electrician or Godot, while the title track unwinds a mystery in a tone poem dedicated to Yiddish clarinet legend Naftule Brandwein. While not as blatantly adventuresome as genre-scramblers the Klezmatics or Toronto's Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band, Shirim's bracing mix of traditional music, jazz, program music and theater is still visionary.

Many a cd has sold through the grace of a single outstanding song, and the Ethiopians' retrospective Owner Fe De Yard (Heartbeat) kicks off with the killer title cut that's all the more remarkable because it languished unreleased in the vaults of Studio One since 1978 or '79. Illuminated by a casual vocal delivery that at first seems too frail to handle Leonard Dillon's heat-seeking lyrics, the voices gain momentum until they finally rival the force of fierce Nyabingi drum bursts and edge-of-the-universe guitar skank, turning a song about personal dignity into a declaration of cultural independence.

And "Yard" isn't even the best cut in the collection. Those honors go to the rambling testament, "One Heart," in which lead singers Dillon and Steven Taylor trade apocalyptic bromides, slogans, and epithets, vying to one-up each other in their descriptions of the terrible end-times to come. For a while the match is evenly met, but Taylor ultimately triumphs with a vision of Jah's wrath that has a delighted Dillon congratulating him with, "Bitter, man, bitter. Well spoken, brother." Then both men erupt in appreciative cackles as a tough sax and guitar groove by Lyn Taitt and the Jets signals the imminence of Judgment Day--but keeps on playing and playing. And I keep hitting the "repeat" button of my Discman.

Between "Yard" and "One Heart" is another good song, "I'll Never Get Burn," and after "One Heart" are other good songs, but the standard has been set so high that nothing else quite measures up in the slow diminishing that follows. By the time we reach "Cherry Pee" the bite is all in Dillon's ganja pipe rather than in the lyrics, whose memorable chorus states, "Cherry pee, cherry pee, chip, chip, blah, blah, blah, tra-la-la-la-la"--eloquent enough, but hardly on a par with the surprising finish to one of the title cut's Rasta Goose rhymes, "I know I went to school / And I took in the golden rule / I know that I'm no fool / And I'm no colonial stooge." All things averaged out, this is a very worthy disc.

Gone are the days when I could recite the titles of every song in correct order on a frequently played release. When "Ozdole Ide devoitche" follows "S'gaida na horo" on Tour '93, my short-term memory ceases to exist. But I'm off the hook. This 22-cut live performance by the Bulgarian Women's Choir--not to be confused with Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares, which I guess is another group--culls tracks from the Mesa label's double-disc Melody Harmony & Rhythm for reissue on a single cd. As I mentioned in my picaresque "Sauce for the Goose" Technobeat review a few issues back, if you enjoy the melody harmony & rhythm of neatened-up Bulgarian vocal music, you'll find the heavy artillery here. But if you prefer your ambiance ecstasy & gloominess unbroken by applause, best look to other sources for your shot of the ineffable.

The Cameroonian George Benson, Vincent Nguini, throws around slabs of sunlight on Symphony-Bantu (Mesa), a hi-NRG blend of highlife, jazz, rock, funk, new age and telephone "hold" music that makes a good morning accompaniment to a couple of squares of toast. But it lacks the essential vitamins and fiber I need to make it through the day. Saxophonist Michael Brecker plus vocalists Maxine and a couple of other Waters contribute to this world music equivalent of V-8, stirring together so many different ingredients in such small doses, the end product is inevitably familiar and undistinguished despite Nguini's engaging vocals and blameless guitar work--especially the synth-balafon patterns per Les Tetes Brulees on "Mavro." As much as I enjoy the idea of the artist listening to Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix in his youth and using those influences to broaden the base of his music, African pop with American elements as a departure point almost always fares better than the opposite which, in sensibility and production values, is what we get here.


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