(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 14, Number 3, 1995)


I'm not the kind of person who gets obsessed about anything. OK, women's open-toe shoes, but nothing else I can think of keeps my pint of blood percolating very long. But my nine miles of nervous ganglia have been suddenly possessed by the idea of the Internet, even though I've yet to go on-line--and despite the level-headed counsel of the pea-sized area of my brain where my consciousness usually resides.

There's nothing for you there, the voice cautions. It's a technology in search of consumer usefulness, like CD-ROM. A fad. Still, the idea of logging onto computers in Helsinki and Jakarta, for no other reason than the capability of doing so, clogs the dream content of my waking and sleeping states. When a client at work asks me how best to state the issue of job security in a hospital publication I'm editing about an organizational restructuring process that will cost huge chunks of the support staff their jobs, I hear myself vaguely answer, "Oh, that sounds okay"--because I'm really wondering whether I need both FTP and Telnet software for an Internet SLIP connection, or if I should seek a PPP hook-up instead.

This extended stimulation has put me a bad mood. I'm loathe to share my attention with any subject other than the Internet, including this column. To make matters worse, my blood sugar dipped precariously toward the teeter-totter edge of depression when the postman handed me the 37th compact disc in six months heralding itself as "trance music," a term like "global village" so meaningless as to denigrate the concept of cliche. I meant to throw Trance Gong by Gamelan Pacifica (?What Next? Recordings) immediately into the might-listen purgatory pile, but because the baffling relationship between Gopherspace and Archie servers distracted me as I packed up for a quarter-day at the office, I accidentally tucked the disc into my lunch pail instead. At least it will be good for blocking out the incessant prattle around me, I decided an hour later clapping headphones to ears in the middle of a client meeting. It was much, much better than that.

In no time at all, Trance Gong transformed itself from diversion to wrap-around experience, bathing the chilly marble walls of the Michigan National Bank outside the conference room window in awakened meaning. The carved cross-like fleur-de-lis. The huge arched windows only missing the stained glass. The Indian trader sculpture at the cornice standing in for savior or saint. I was seeing, I suddenly realized, an authentic stereotype brought to fruition in stone and grout, an honest to God Temple of Commerce so obvious I couldn't believe I'd never noticed it before. How could such a blasphemous edifice exist for decades in Grand Rapids, I wondered, hotbed of fundamentalism, predestined world headquarters of the Christian Reformed Church and home of endless Grand Rapids Press editorial page letters delineating the evils of Sunday supplement bra ads, the pagan perils to the soul of Halloween revelry, the Satanic agenda of new age puppet shows performed in elementary schools to teach children to relax (i.e., meditate), and the filth of most non-Biblical literature. But not a word ever appeared in any irate letter about the abomination on the Monroe Mall clearly revealed to me by interlocking gamelan puzzle parts of this brilliant contemporary music by a Seattle-based ensemble at the Cornish College of the Arts directed by Jarrad Powell.

No mere academic exercise is this, even though the integer-based approach to imbal and kotekan rhythm techniques evokes a Balinese computer furiously downloading the catalog of the human genome project. Innovations include signal processed harmonization of the traditional suling bamboo flute on the Jon Hassell-flavored "Small of My Back," a non-traditional aluminum gamelan used on three selections, and the brain bursting entry of Roto-Toms paradiddles over tuned drum cloudbursts on the title cut. Still, except for the sweet and squeakless erhu spike fiddle solo on "Gending Erhu," first world smarty-pantsing is subordinated to the all and everything cosmology of the gamelan itself. It may not precisely be trance music, but as I focused on a single metallophone figure in "Rain" and tried to follow it through all its intricate permutations, the complexity of the underlying and overarching layers in one sense intensified but in another shrunk to reveal a peek at the huge homogenous structure. I have no idea what makes this complicated music tick-tock, but mystification here is truly bliss.

Equal parts gnostic and gnomic, Kiss Closed My Eyes (Improbable Music) by Canadian singer Laurel MacDonald reproduces the dark atmosphere of Bulgarian vocal music without attempting to clone the form. If Trance Gong maps out a dizzyingly intricate polytheism, Kiss lurks in the infinite blank space between everyday objects where the only transcendental possibility is the echo of one's own voice. Appropriately, the beautiful opening cut, "Kyrie" finds MacDonald crying out for God's mercy in the cavernous claustrophobia of Banff's Tunnel Mountain Water Reservoir. Chilly overdubbed harmonies in the choke-throated Balkan style up the miserere ante as ominous bass rumbles below. Collaborator and world shaper Philip Strong--producer, engineer, and mixer--distills what might loosely be termed an instrumental by assembling samples from the rest of the disc and boiling them in nitrogen on "Aslumber." But his greatest contribution is envisioning an elaborately processed electronic environment which owes more to the glacial pace of continental drift than to technopop--the brief eruption of drums on "Oran Na H-eala" and the title cut are startling--and which is too far abstract for ambient listening. Hardly a mood breaker, Kiss requires a solid step down from the workaday just to meet the few sharp peaks that poke above ground. And while MacDonald's voice and arrangements are extraordinary, Kiss also demands a playback system with robust bass response, since so many of its pleasures are nearly subsonic. [P.O. Box 16010, Toronto, ON, M6J 3W2 or 1-800-JOE-RADIO to mail order]

Speaking of producers, I miss the hands-on influence of Guy Trepenier, who has been kicked upstairs to executive producer status on Kashtin's largely self-directed Akua Tuta (Tristar Music). Except for the signature loons and eagle on the title song, gone are the sound collages that gave the Northern Quebec duo's first U.S. release, Innu, a slice of Canadian geography to accompany the Innu-language songs. Gone too is the album-rock frame of reference in favor of a sleepy Nashville kick, and though this never was a band about power chords, their earth-love now reads as complacency, leaving half of the message behind. Closest we get to a whisper that First Nation concepts aren't exactly the currency driving the Americas is a heartbroken vocal by Claude McKenzie on "Nuitsheiuan" (My Friend) and terse fretting from the Dire Straits school on "Ne Puaman" (My Dreams). All else is Kashtin's instantly recognizable melodic gift wrapped in seductive production that misfires by doubling up on emotional cues when suggestion is enough. If becoming world-class folkies means conveying an inescapably broad message, Kashtin was better served by an insular '70s vocabulary that at least had bite.

Kef Time's cutting-edge merger of Armenian and American styles on their eponymous Traditional Crossroads label cd was way ahead of its time when originally released in 1968 by Kef founders' SaHa Records. Like klezmorim who keep their traditions alive by regenerating rather than embalming them, the Kefsters sharpen lessons learned from first generation Armenians fleeing the Turkish-Ottoman Genocide of 1915 by inventing the fiercest, most breathtaking approach to music from the region yet. Though American influences are nowhere obvious, rock dynamics lurk in the fusillade kick of Buddy Sarkissian's multiple-dumbeg backbeat, jazzisms waft through the taksim improvisations that send each selection to oxygen-starved heights, and udist Richard Hagopian brings bluegrass and flamenco fingerpicking techniques to his mastery of the middle eastern lute. In its pure folk form, Armenian music is a rich mixing pot of themes appearing in everything from Yiddish to Egyptian to Russian repertoires, and Kef Time widens its sources' embrace on this 72-minute disc of passionate, highly ornamented songs. Listen in the late night hours at your peril to this aural triple shot of espresso.

Okay, so I'm at this party where the host has bullied me into bringing "some of that foreign music you listen to," and I figure that the easiest way to finesse a no-win situation is to cue up Papa Wemba's latest RealWorld release, Emotion. As the disc opener, "Yolele," kicks in, I'm positive that the combination of Wemba's extraordinary voice, the sweetness of his back-up singers, and a straight-ahead melody will make an instant convert out of everyone in the room. But I hear grumbling from the direction of the cheeseball on the order of, what is this, cha-cha music--as if that were even a negative. "Mandola," a powerful dance track that flirts with the suburbs of soukous, gets a few toes tapping, but I can't tell if it's out of admiration or impatience. Faces light up, though, as an English-language chorus introduces "Show Me the Way," and I row with the momentum by pointing out the "Band On the Run" synth doodle. "You know, this guy isn't half bad," ventures a composite guest as Wemba tries on the soul classic "Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa (Sad Song)" before coasting into the lovely mid-tempo ballad, "Rail On." But by this time it's me that's smiling wanly. "Let me get this straight," I begin as the mythical partygoers dissolve into my own living room furnishings. "We've got flashes of inspired Afropop that the mainstream crowd won't like--and mainstream songs that will probably appeal only to steadfast Papa Wemba fans. I smell a big hit." Everyone agrees.

I knew that Cuban acoustic music had a life of its own, but nothing prepared me for the strange metallic breathing of the marimbula on !Ahora Si! Here Comes Changui (Corason/Rounder). Changui, an acoustic guitar-led song form originating in the province of Guantanamo, dates back as far as 1860, and compared to the smooth ride of its relative the son, is something of a bucking bronco. Tres guitar and bongos confound expectation by flip-flopping roles. Plucked guitar figures maintain the pace while fragmented bongo bursts explode in the background, leaving the job of rhythmic glue to the lowly scraper. When the guitar briefly abandons its timekeeping role for a melodic solo, as on Grupo Changui de Guantanamo's "Fiesta en Cecilia," the entire song threatens to fly apart. Deep in the background, the marimbula bass--a cross between a giant thumb-piano and a packing crate--adds its own rumbling encouragement. A peculiar combination of physics and acoustics transforms the vibration of the stiff metal keys into the wheeze of a monstrous bull or the groaning of an ancient water pump--listen for it behind the vocals on "Mi Son Tiene Candlel" or "Laos, Cambodia y Vietnam." Five groups from Guantanamo are featured on this exceptional disc. La Familia Miranda contribute the helpful "Nengon," a logically titled example of the nengon form where a hypnotically regular flow of instruments provides a rare steady-state view of the elements of changui that scatter in every direction on the other cuts.

Having begun this very day gathering up the shredded remains of our pet duck, Martha, following a nocturnal visit from a propane tank-size raccoon, I was hesitant to test another Corason label release, Essential Merengue--Stripping the Parrots. This disc of rustic dance tunes from the Dominican Republic spotlights the style of the semi-island's national music known as perico ripiao, meaning stripped or plucked parrot and named after the main dish served at wild country parties--none of which will be attended by my African grey Timneh, Stanley, thanks so much. A particularly frenetic bunch, the perico ripiao bands tumble through songs of moderate European influence, more melodic than heavy African roots style merengue but also more essential and stripped down (there's that word again) than commercial merengue. I suspect that at many live gatherings this highly charged music is a blur of overamplified vocals and accordion, but recording engineer Enrique Ramirez de Arellano pushes the percussion instruments to the fore--tambora two-headed drum, guira scraper, and a marimba wooden-box bass like the one used in changui--while waving the clamoring accordion politely into the background. The result simultaneously emphasizes the delicacy and power of the cross-rhythms while leaving plenty of open space for vein-bursting vocals.

Several subsets of merengue appear on the cd, though I can't tell the merengue apambichao "Maria Moreno" by Rafaelito Arias y su Conjunto from Los Cuatro Alegres Dominicanos' pambiche on "Que Linda Mama." In fact, I can barely tell those songs apart. Just to confound the listener further, "Cana Brava" and "Compadre Pedro Juan" are both simply labeled "merengue." But the former, performed by Sexteto Peravia and led by clave and tres guitar, resembles a souped-up Cuban son montuna, and the latter by Rafaelito, etc., adds a burbling sax to the expected merengue chaos. As on the preceding disc (see above if you thought you could skip it), in special consolation to greenhorns like me struggling to unravel the tangle of melody and rhythm, a slower style is included as a sort of deciphering device: herein, Cuarteto Hernandez's "El Carbine," a logically titled example of the carbine. In the end, the nutty intensity of all six featured bands renders such nit-picking moot. But keep your plucking mitts off my pet birds.

Latin pop purists needn't fear David Byrne's guest vocal on Byrne's Luaka Bop label's stunning anthology The Soul of Black Peru, where tough songs from the coastal barrios replace my notions of a nation of pan-pipers. Spurred by devotion rather than dilettantism, Byrne launches one of the most heartfelt, unaffected performances of his career in his take on the stirring "Maria Londo," which he reserves for last place on the disc. The original version of this song by Susana Baca kicks off Black Peru in an elegant fever of percussion and guitar, leading into the cumbia-with-Andean-guitar antics of Manuel Donayre's playful "Yo No Soy Jaqui." The diversity of Afro Peruvian artists and styles is impressive, as is the prominent role of women in a music which until now has rarely reached North American ears. Stand outs include "Toto Mata," in which Peru Negro's stabs of sassy horns and salsa piano riffs barely contain the wrought edge vocals by Lucila Campos, and the same band minus vocalist Campos sounding like a carnival parade of percussion on the fat and juicy "Son De Los Diablos."

Van Morrison can serve up Celtic soul, so Vartiina shouldn't be denied a shot at Finnish funk on their third U.S. release Aitara (Xenophile/Green Linnet), even if the honking brass owes less to James Brown than to an angry goose. I'm not sure the experiment succeeded exactly as intended. "Mie tahon tanssia" (I Want to Dance) hits the dancefloor with the grace of baby elephants on parade, "Tumala" seeks shelter from estrogen-laden calisthenics in a leisure-suited Kenny G-derived sax swank that makes a right turn for the roller derby midsong, and the extraordinary opening cut "Katrina" stakes a claim for a brand new genre of high-speed recitation rhyming which I propose from this day forward be known as yap. It would be crazy to call this a clomping around a misstep, though. The teeth chattering enthusiasm of the four female vocalists' manic Urgic folk-pop bulldozes both the subtleties and vulgarities of their traditional instrumental accompanists. Thus the decision to scatter the pieces in the air emphasizing differences rather than laboring over neat fusion provides the fun of the wildest Indian film soundtracks as well as surprisingly convincing moments. "Niin mie mieltynen" (The Beloved) transcends the singers' nasal passages and reaches squarely for the heart, helped along by Riita Potinoja's simpatico accordion and Antto Varilo on chorded guitar. The result, incredibly, is Varttina's most cohesive pop release to date.

It's the same stuff they were calling "belly dance music" a decade ago, so don't pay much attention to this year's snappy moniker, Egyptian Rai (ARC Music US). These lush and snaky instrumentals from Hossam Romzy and his Egyptian Ensemble borrow zilch from synthesizer-heavy Algerian disco, owing more to traditional Middle Eastern compositions filtered through Egyptian film soundtrack orchestration. Also disregard the hype about Hossam Ramzy's participation in Robert Page and Jimmy Plant's unstoppable world tour and avoid pondering whether Led credentials validate or diminish the man. Because as great as the percussive backbone of this disc may be, it's the propulsive orchestration and back and forth yakety-yak among accordion, strings, ney flute, oud, and saxophone that push Egyptian Rai deep into the pleasure zone. I use it as a primer on scarce dance music from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Morocco, Lebanon and Egypt, and for quenching a thirst most recently awakened by Mambo El Soudani, Salamat's Nubian funkfest, here recalled by jazzy excursions on "El Ataba Gazaz." I do draw the line at the harmless New Age pudding, "The Star Collector," wisely relegated to last cut, but who can second-guess any move by an Egyptian willing to bill himself as The Sultan of Swing? [P.O. Box 11288, Oakland, CA 94611]

Two historic recordings by Milton Nascimento--originally issued as double lps in 1972 and 1978 for EMI Odeon, Brazil--have been released for the first time in America on a pair of separate cds. Clube Da Esquina and Clube Da Esquina 2 (a two-cd set) both grew out of Nascimento's summer rental of a house in Piratininga with his chief collaborator on the discs, Lo Borges, and a melange of Brazilian musicians including Eumir Deodata, Luiz Alvez, Wagner Tiso, Flavo Venturi, Murilo Antunes and others. I've yet to leave a lingering footprint on all three discs. Nascimento's topiary approach to roots music leaves me lukewarm in spite of--or is it because of--his monolithic genius. But the Esquina cds offer hours of harmonically rich, constantly shifting songs built around Nascimento's indescribable nine-octave voice, plus more orchestral drama than the Bee Gees' Odessa and Cucumber Castle combined.

You're Canadian (let's say), and you've decided to take a romp through Balkan music in the manner of Ivo Papasov's Bulgarian folk-jazz crazy quilt. But the absurdity of the proposition seems to demand acknowledgment. So what do you do? If you're the Angstones, you don fezzes and plug in wacky lyrics about baklava and tribal chieftains, while sprinkling your songs with references to Eastern European geography. After all, the 3 Mustaphas 3 made the same kind of shtick stick. But where the Mustaphas ran with the premise of a far-flung kaleidoscopic klezmer as home base, Ontario's Angstones aren't bouncing off their own ethnic roots on When Ahab Met Moishe (Canal Records). Nor do they faithfully tow the line of the disc's possibility-rich premise of soundtrack to a non-existent film--or we could have had parody as brilliant as 10cc's "One Night in Paris." But we still get infectious ditties such as "Wild Boar" and "Jagomir Jagr" and--best of all--hip displacing arrangements throughout which toss Cajun and cowboy motifs at 13/8-time dance rhythms. Plus, the 'Papslavian' (read: Papasov-ian) work outs for Peter Kiesewalter's accordion, Rob Frayne's soprano saxes, and the rest of the immensely talented band hit the right excitement buttons. Good fun! [P.O. Box 57029, 797 Somerset St. W., Ottawa, ON, K1R 1A1 or 1-800-JOE-RADIO to mail order]

It swells my heart to find accomplished musicians like the Angstones making music with the loopiness knob turned up to 11. On Sitar Power II (Batish Records), California-based sitar and synthesizer alchemist Ashwin Batish messes with well-traveled American rhythms from hip-hop ("Hi 5") to samba ("Sitar Mania") by piling on classical Indian music complications. My favorite tracks remind me of a strip by British cartoonist Glen Baxter, where an illustration in the style of boys' adventure books from the '40s shows a pair of grizzled cowpokes on horseback coupled with the caption: "'To me the window is still a symbolically loaded motif,' drawled Cody." Similar surrealism oozes through Batish's 18-stringed rollicking, punning bluegrass breakdown on "Cowboys & Indians" and a summer of love shoot out with Dave Harnish's fuzz guitar on "Surfing With the Sitarman." "Cerebral," a nine-minute duet with his father Shiv Dayal Batish contributing Carnatic vocals, is the most traditional song of the disc--and still we get synthesized mbira, drums, bass, bells, and processed sitar to spare. I can think of few other fusion discs this amiable, and at 41:28 it's exactly the right length. [1310 Mission Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95060]


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