(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 20, Number 4, 2001)

(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)

Our rental car in Albuquerque came equipped with a GPS gadget called "Hertz Never Lost." My sister, Bett, switched it on in our hotel parking lot and programmed it to take us to Petroglyph National Monument just west of the city. We were in New Mexico on a short vacation for our 82-year-old mother, and for two days had managed to find our way based on my sister's previous visits to the area. But we had made a few wrong turns trusting her non-silicon intelligence, and Never Lost intrigued us.

The gizmo, which resembles a bulked-up Palm Pilot, uses Global Positioning System satellites to direct a car via a small screen display of city grids. A disembodied female voice urges the driver to a target destination selected from a database or entered as a street address in such a slow and painstaking procedure that walking is preferable. While Never Lost failed the task of getting us out of the Amberley Suites Hotel parking lot, a synthesized bell chimed, and our robot gal informed us, "Freeway entrance on the left," just as said entrance emerged from the shoulder of the access road.

Anticipating one turn after another with uncanny accuracy, Never Lost flawlessly took us through Albuquerque to within a pumice stone's throw of Petroglyph National Monument, which is located on a 130,000-year-old lava bed. But the computer apparently nursed a grudge against a National Parks Service employee. It abandoned us as we approached the entrance to the Visitor Center. "Please proceed to the designated route," the voice scolded us as we turned to enter the site.

Using much older technology than Never Lost, beginning in 1000 BC residents of the West Mesa escarpment began chipping some 20,000 pictures into the thin 'desert varnish' of surface oxidation on heaps of basalt boulders. "I'll just stay in the car," my mom told us as I threaded a roll of film into my camera. "I think dad and I were here before." Since my dad's death two years ago, my mother's memory has deteriorated. Though she and my dad had been to the southwest before on one of their frequent trips, I doubted they would have bothered with a low-key attraction like the petroglyphs. Devilish winds prevented us from climbing the steep incline to see more than a few pictograms. I was pleased to discover a parrot carving from around 1300 AD chronicling trade with Mexican cultures for precious goods that included macaws. That interested me, because I don't know a single parrot owner who has time to even read a newspaper much less engrave messages in rocks.

"Dad and I have been here a couple of times," my mom reported when my sister and I got back into the car. "It's a nice place to see, but dad and I have already seen it several times." Fighting the 30-mph winds had whipped up our appetites. En route to Little Anita's New Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque's Old Town, Never Lost exposed its ignorance of recent freeway ramp construction. During an unplanned detour through a business district lined with strip malls, fast food joints, and the ubiquitous pawn shops, my sister pointed to the front lawn of a realty office, where a road runner zipped between the bushes. "That's great," I shouted. "I can't wait to tell Linda I actually saw one." Never Lost failed to share my enthusiasm. "Please proceed to the designated route," it sulked. With my map-reading help from the backseat, Bett navigated us nicely through side streets. But the closer we drew to the restaurant, the more insistent Never Lost became that we backtrack a couple of miles to I-40 and take the closed exit its microchip heart had settled on.

My mother beamed as we took in our first vista of Old Town, the original Albuquerque settlement dating back to 1709. ""Fort Wayne sure has a lot to offer," she told us, forgetting that we weren't in Indiana visiting my sister.

"Please proceed to the designated route," insisted Never Lost.

In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain imagined an abrasive New Englander transforming Medieval England into a precursor of 19th century America complete with the plagues of a stock market, baseball leagues, and telephones. Radio Tarifa gave me an equally audacious thought. What if, instead of dispersing throughout Europe hundreds of years ago, the gypsies poured the full force of their numbers into Spain and ended up winning the throne. I'll leave it to a novelist to tell the tale, but for a taste of how Spanish gypsy court music might sound, take a pig and a hen to the market and trade them for the trio's new release Cruzando El Rio (World Circuit/Nonesuch).

A conk on the head sent Twain's hero spiraling back 13 centuries in mind if not in body, hopelessly scrambling past and present. Radio Tarifa treats the listener to the same disorienting fate. Nobles draped in finery wrestle with seguidilla dance steps as an antique crumhorn oboe and ancient lute unsheathe "Osu" to a buzz of reeds and quiver of catgut. But the lords and ladies start to murmur. A shade of rawness and a suggestion of syncopation scuff the shine on their high-heel sneakers. All abandon the ballroom as Benjamin Escoriza scatters guttural flamenco phonemes to the winds, an electric guitar throws off trills plucked from a rumba, and a whinnying slide guitar springs in from Nigerian juju territory. Other songs are just as heterogeneous. "La Molinera" enters nonchalantly as if it's your normal everyday Moorish flamenco Castilian rave up of acoustic guitar, ney flute, santir lute, Moroccan percussion, and darbuka drums. Nothing out of the ordinary, until a crumhorn regiment storms the drawbridge, trading licks with a fuzzbox guitar and spitting tongues of fire.

Outside the castle walls, the two most compelling cuts meet back-to-back. "Cruzando El Rio," according to the liner notes, brings us the sounds "of a lively country fair within this traditional tango from Malanga." But that's all misdirection intended to confuse the uninitiated. Chirping crickets, a chattering chorus of frogs, and thick nighttime ambience suggest a procession by torchlight. As the vocals approach a climax, they fade, and "Pata Negras" forms under a rising moon. Guest musician Joaquin Ruiz, a regular Merlin of the feet, becomes a vessel for spirits that express themselves through tap dancing that's furiously counterpoised against layers of West African percussion. As if to underscore our outsider status in this mystery wrapped inside an enigmatic society, "Gujo Bushi" follows, playfully adapting a traditional Japanese inio song to fit a mournful flamenco arrangement.

From its melange of styles and textures to the timbres of individual instruments, Cruzando delivers one jolt after another. The biggest shock is how the songs knit together to create infectious pop with a regal poise. Radio Tarifa takes its name from a mythical radio station located in the southernmost point of Spain within shouting distance of Morocco. But this amalgam goes beyond myth. It's out and out alchemy. And ye be varlets if ye deny it.

It's a surprise right up there with hearing rap at a nursing home. Buena Vista Social Club bassist Orlando Cachaito Lopez busts out of the senior activity center for señors with a genre bursting release worthy of a youngster. But few urchins would wield the know-how to carry off Cachaito by swaddling its mayhem in five-decades of professional cool. The disc starts off reasonably enough once the bass man finally makes it to the ringing phone of spoken intro "Siempre Con Swing." "Redencion," a classic penned by Cachaito's descarga pioneer uncle, Israel Lopez, yawns, hangs up the receiver, and sets feet slowly on the floor as charanga-sweet violins and butterfly flute lazily usher in the day. This apparent sweep through the hallway of nostalgia quickly uncovers odd-shaped lumps under the rug. As Miguel Anga Diaz beats the congas with mood altering enthusiasm, Clifton "Bigga" Morrison pops in with reggae-inflected electric organ jabs that throw open the door to dub effects. Massed violins stutter and echo, the bottom drops in and out of the mix, Jesus 'Aguaje' Ramos' trombone snarls, and sleep is suddenly a forgotten commodity.

Cachaito is the fever dream of Lopez, Buena Vista Social Club musical director Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, and Ibrahim Ferrer's musical director Demetrio Muniz, who masterminded the fizzy horn and string arrangements here. Together the three men don't so much compress the history of Cuban dance music as elongate it into a format that can swallow and absorb almost any outside influence. The shape-shifting amoeba draws in non-traditional figures like French DJ Dee Nasty, South African flugelhornist Hugh Masekela, and James Brown Revue saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, whose horn charts have occasionally resuscitated Van Morrison over the last 20 years. Ellis' circling melody lines on "Tumbao No. 5" transmogrify a bass and drum exercise into a memorable little slice of tension. Masekela lends so much grandeur to the Jamaican-tilting "Tumbanga," you could chisel his lofty solo in solid marble, and it would still take wing.

But it's the Cuban musicians who consistently provide the disc's most unexpected performances. The pizzicato strings on Arsenio Rodriguez's "Oracion Lucumi" fall like snow in a glass globe shaken hard by a pointed Juan de Marcos tres solo. Groove-heavy "A Gozar el Tombao" spills in on Manuel Galban's reverb-laden surf guitar and a thick miasma of brass. Sonero Ibrahim Ferrer comes out of nowhere with a short ascending cameo of a vocal on "Wahira," the only non-instrumental track onboard. The apparent sentimentality of the piece sets wistfulness at the mercy of clambering horns, wah-wah electric guitar, and the omnipresent Lopez-Diaz rhythmic juggernaut. Like every other composition here, "Wahira, is less than a fully realized song, more than a studio jam. It feeds your head but keeps you hungry. The happiest remedy is to play the disc again and lap up whatever spills over the edges. Cachaito is something of a mess, but, oh, what a lovely mess, a free-range, continent straddling big idea. Its dozen ambitious cuts whisk by with the briskness of a single song and the slight mystery of a tune whistled in the dark.

Vieja Trova Santiaguera might justly claim status as the original Buena Vista Social Club-type ensemble. Back in 1993, Spanish record producer Manuel Domínguez assembled a quintet of talented golden year soneros plucked from the legendary La Casa de la Trova club in Santiago de Cuba: Reinaldo Creagh, Pancho Cobas, Reinaldo Hierrezuelo, Aristóteles Linonta, and Amado Machado. The full story is fastidiously documented in the 90-page, full-color, double-height book that holds the two-disc set Pura Trova (Nubenegra). The subtitle, The Best of Vieja Trova Santiaguera & Live and Rare Tracks, may lead you to assume this lavish package was painstakingly boiled down from a long run of Vieja Trova releases. In fact the quintet only made three albums in its short career. If that makes Pura Trova more of a souvenir than a classic, it still contains lots of enjoyable music with the charm of old timers giving old time material their all.

The second disc with its live performances definitely gets the edge. You might even fool yourself into thinking you're hearing the Social Club crew in concert on "El paralítíco" as the tres guitar zings and rings against a chugging guitar background, and Creagh hands his considerable charisma back and forth to the backing singers. The crowd all but eats up the elderlies, leading to over-the-top soloing, multilingual introductions, and loosey-goosey fun on the rocking "Guarapo, pimienta y sal". Apart from the concert cuts, a few of the rarities may have fared better back in the vault. The wobbly vocal on the previously unreleased "Un canto de amor" due to Machado's failing health does credit to his indomitable spirit but is nonetheless painful to hear. The collection closes with "Los Funeralas de Papá Montero," a rousing performance which sounds less like a death knell than a wonderful moment of triumph. Alternating lead vocals between Caridad Hierrezuelo and Reinaldo Hierrezuelo lock with Lulo Pérez's trumpet to give Papá and these tireless troubadours a glorious send-off.

Takashi Hirayasu and Bob Brozman's first album was an inspired lark, a crash course in collaboration. Never having eyeballed one another previously, the pair scrambled to Hirayasu's stone cottage and quickly hatched Jin Jin / Firefly, which mined joy from Okinawan children's songs. The duo's new cd Nankuru Naisa (Riverboat/World Music Network) struck me as a bit of an ugly duckling at first blush, then I blushed when I realized I simply hadn't been prepared for the poignancy of Hirayasu's adult swan persona.

Nankuru builds on Jin Jin at every turn, from an expanded combo setting including David Hidalgo of Los Lobos plus members of Brozman's band Thieves of Sleep, to its bittersweet songs about growing up on American-occupied Okinawa. The bouncy yet wistful "Koza No Machi" ponders the whereabouts of a lonely prostitute Hirayasu used to admire as she plied her trade near the largest US military base. The slow-paced yet upbeat "Tojo Nite" celebrates the American music he heard as a youth on American-operated KSBK Radio. "James Brown, Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, Ben E. King, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding," he sings in a eulogy to his youth. "In those days I was still 20." The American presence "over the fences" lurks as a beckoning Oz in several songs. His disillusion with the man behind the curtain and rediscovery of Okinawan traditions are the twin prongs that give these compositions an edge.

To pierce the heart of Nankuru, you need to make a little effort assimilating a vocal technique whose unfamiliarity in a pop setting might be initially off-putting. The world music market may have smoothed the way for Tuvan throat singing, Hawaiian yodeling, North Africa melisma, chanting Tibetan monks, and declamatory Malian styles, but it hasn't prepared us much for the swoops, vibrato, bellowing timbres and naked psychodrama of Japanese and Okinawan vocal music. Absorbing these took me exactly two listenings. From then on I was amazed at the range of emotion Hirayasu could summon. Disc closer, "Ayagu," the only song without ensemble accompaniment, generates the most affecting moments on the disc through his mastery of traditional conventions.

That's not to underestimate the pleasures of the musicians who accompany Hirayasu's sanshin banjo, nor the inventive arrangements. Battered silly by Rick Walker's drumming, "Jidai No Nagare" has the freewheeling honky tonk flavor popularized by Shoukichi Kina's band Champloose, where Hirayasu cut his teeth. "Koza No Machi" taps into the French gypsy jazz that captivated him while playing at musical festivals with Bob Brozman. Brozman is as omnipresent as he is wonderful with his National Bottleneck guitar bringing a Hawaiian, American folk, and even an Indian Ocean presence to the songs. The most vivid instrumentalist may well be David Hidaglo. His chiming requinto guitar on the title cut carries off the highly unlikely pairing of Pacific Rim and Mexican music. Now that's a great starting point for the inevitable follow-up.

Speaking of traditional Asian music, the two-disc set Musiques d'Asie (Naïve) is the rare collection whose nutritional content is matched by its enjoyment quotient. Even the vocal pieces taken from the Japanese classical theater tradition are easily approached thanks to the judiciously chosen performances. "Tairyo Utaikomi" offsets Akama Shinsui's highly stylized chant with clipped choral background syllabics reminiscent of the Indonesian kecak "monkey chant," plus appealing late entry shakuhachi flute and percussive strings. The Indian music tracks benefit from performances by Ravi Shankar, including an excerpt from the raga "Ahiri Lalita" which erupts almost instantly into furious finger-work. The Chinese songs spotlight well-known instruments like the erhu vernacular violin and the yangqin hammered dulcimer in easy-going territories. The five selections from Indonesia include a fluttery suling flute and kecapi zither piece before moving on to more familiar gamelan bronze orchestra territory. Capping the set is "Legon kraton," a small-ensemble metallophone excerpt from a Balinese shadow puppet performance. Due to sticker shock, I typically avoid buying import cds. But at two discs for the price of one, this makes an especially attractive anthology. [Distributed by Harmonia Mundi]

The latest installment of Habib Koite's soothing redesign of Malian music is even more laid-back than its predecessors. While that may make Baro (Putumayo) radio-ready for the bevy of world music shows that blanch at anything too jarringly authentic, the lack of edges, rough or rounded, tends to subvert the pleasures of this disc. Koite's arrangements broaden the griot palette to include ultra-smooth lead vocals, ambient flutes, tootling harmonicas, fork-on-china-plate percussion, and short-attention-span balafon solos. Fortunately the textural complexity of the music rises above the ambient genre Koite courts. "Cigarette Abana" is a guilt-free antismoking ditty with Senegalese sabar drums hammering home the point. With its minor-key violin theme, "Tere" nearly passes for an Oumou Sangare slice of Wassalou pop. The carefully crafted Europeanized approach has its moments, and Baro gains momentum the longer it plays. But without a song as memorable as the last album's "Wassive", and with most songs achieving the emotional pitch of a sigh, Koite's invention suffers by seeming slighter than it is.

On first hearing Dorotanety (Indigo), you might think that Malagasy valiha player Rajery attacks his tube zither with unusual vigor on "Malaso" or that he plucks and strums with rare deliberateness on "Embona." But you won't be leaping out of your chair and demanding, "How does he do it, when he's only got one hand?" Fact is, not only isn't Rajery's lack of a right paw an obvious impediment to his music making, but he's also developed a straight forward and melodic style that makes this nicely varied disc more memorable than other valiha releases I own. Tromba trance song "Dadilahi" flaunts a bit of flash on top of Rajery's overdubbed percussion. A harmonica even pipes up on the ecology minded "Malahelo Nytany." His singing brings added warmth to a few songs. The brisk, mostly instrumental pieces include several from the stage musical Kiolonolona, which first put Rajery in front of Malagasy audiences. The loss of his hand as a youth occurred under mysterious circumstances. He's never gotten the real story of the accident. Some accounts blame sorcery, but there's a deeper kind of magic all over this disc. Like blind mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer, who recently scaled Everest, Rajery is a guy who isn't easily discouraged from his goals. [Distributed by Harmonia Mundi]

Zena Becar could probably have recorded Eyuphuro's comeback album under cushy conditions in a European studio. But with the help of German producer Roland Hohnberg, 'Whirlwind' prevailed against adverse conditions to cut Yellela (Riverboat/World Music Network) in their native Mozambique. That success breeds exuberance out of proportion to the melancholy subject matter of songs about loss, betrayal and more loss. But to focus on the voices, rhythms and arrangements is to luxuriate in everything that's good about African pop. With its nod to the classic styles of the 1960-70s, Yellela is virtually a Rosetta Stone of the sounds that put the continent on turntables around the world. "Othiawene" adopts a rumba beat as Zena Bacar's vocal flaunts innocence reminiscent of Kenya's pre-Benga dance music or West African high-life. On "Muanadjulu," Issufo Manuel sets a lyric about a husband's search for his wife against a rhythm borrowed from Zimbabwean styles. In one ear, pointy fingerpicking recalls Thomas Mapfumo's chimurenga. In the other ear, silky guitar lines suggest the more commercial jit of the Bhundu Boys. At dead center, a third guitar tosses off chunky jazz phrases. Most songs add complex, percolating marrabenta percussion unique to Mozambique, nailing the disc as a hopeful look forward as much as a tribute to past pop glories.

I've long considered klezmer to be the child of gypsy music. Its regional variants share similarities with local gypsy styles, Jews filled the same role as gypsies as professional musicians otherwise shunned in many Eastern European communities, and at least one klezmer band, the Golden Gate Gypsy Orchestra, directly acknowledged its ties to the Roma. For some time, I've been curious about the antecedent of the essential klezmer sound, which Frank London of the Klezmer Brass Allstars places in the Black Sea region. Russian Gypsy Soul (Network) provides a piece of the puzzle, but the emphasis turns out to be on vocal performance, and we're apparently too far north for the raucous brass bands that gave klezmer one of its most identifiable and enjoyable traits. But this two-disc collection is well named. Explosive passion dominates the performances, as characterized by the lusty baritone of Victor Busilyov, leader of the Syberian Gypsies, and Nikolai Erdenko's weepy, quavering theatrics. Since I wandered into this box for the wrong reasons, I can't complain too much that the melodrama and rhythmic singing parts are my least favorite elements shared with Yiddish music. I do like the southern ensembles such as Loyko, whose choral work reminds me of Bulgarian choirs. The more open minded will appreciate this set for its inclusion of the four streams of gypsy music that took Russian society by storm as far back as the 18th century.

Nothing succeeds like antecedents, and The Rough Guide to Klezmer (World Music Network) excels by pairing successive versions of Yiddish standards that show how time and tastes shape ethnic fare. The approach cleverly includes most of the big guns of the genre, matching clarinet dynamo Naftule Brandwein's benchmark 1926 performance of "Fun Tashlikh" with New York inferno the Klezmatics' own rip roaring version 70 years later. The old versus new approach gets a twist as Harry Kandel's Orchestra strikes a blow for innovation back in 1923, while Klezmokum's jazzy 1992 arrangement dips an occasional ladle in nostalgic waters. Whatever the permutation, klezmer demonstrates sufficient elasticity to absorb a range of styles and influences. The Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band exercises hipster cool in its rekindling of a Brandwein classic, while the Klezmer Conservatory Band keeps tradition in its vest pocket on "Meron Nigh." Kroke's chamber music meditation lends "The Secrets of the Life Tree" an esoteric edge worthy of the Kabbalah. Aptly concluding the collection is Naftule's Dream with a brassy take on "Oy Tate S'iz Gut," and good, very good, this disc is indeed.

I was about to chalk up 2001 as yet another year without a Franco anthology in earshot, but World Music Network rides to the rescue with The Rough Guide to Franco. Compiled and annotated by Graeme Ewens, the man who literally wrote the book on Franco, the disc presents a great historical overview ranging from the flat-out Cuban rumba of the 1956 "Merengue" to the beginnings of the distinctively Congolese take on Latin music that would sweep Africa and tantalize Europe. "Finga Mama Munu" from 1966 x-rays the secret of the OK Jazz jolt as gilded vocals, cycles of staccato guitar and braying sax shape a weirdly dysfunctional whole that somehow melds together beautifully. By 1971 with "Infidelite Mado," there's not a ripple out of place as the band pours out sounds like mercury. "Kinshasa Mboka Ya Makambo" opens with fanfare befitting a monarch as the Grande Mitre ascends a Zairean television stage to deny marijuana smuggling rumors in a belligerent, bloated performance that's no less fascinating because it's so listenable. I've got about a dozen Franco cds, but few have liner notes, and those that exist are all in French, so this overview to the man's impressive career is welcome. I'm still waiting for a promised four-disc retrospective, but in the meantime I'm keeping this immensely appealing anthology within easy reach.

(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)

[Copyright 2001 Bob Tarte]

Technobeat Central  
Columns by CDs and Artists / Columns by Date
Columns by Subject / Page of the Whale