(by Bob Tarte, published in The Beat magazine, Volume 12, Number 1, 1993)


I don't seem to win much sympathy when I tell people I had no choice but to get a satellite dish. Few, though, have suffered as I trying to pull a pair of fuzzy channels from an unmoored antenna that slides further down my tin roof by the day. Get cable? Get real. The sluglike Lowell Cable Company will only extend their wires into minimum population densities of 20 households per mile, and unless you count abandoned hovels, hunters' shanties and woodchuck holes, my swampy neighborhood doesn't even come close.

The leap from a couple of network choices to 20 satellites carrying up to 24 video channels each is, to put it mildly, staggering, especially once you consider there's still little worth watching. Like shortwave tuning, however, the montonous thrill is in the search. Unexpected pleasures even greater than a week's worth of "Wheel of Fortune" episodes in a row crop up on unallocated channels that also carry news feeds, upchucking raw unedited event footage from one corner of the country to the other. Better yet is when these channels transmit head and shoulder shots of correspondents, celebrities and "Donahue" guests parked anxiously in front of a camera for an uninterrupted eternity awaiting cues or a question from Phil. An hour or two spent watching these nearly frozen, occasionally talking heads takes boredom to quasi-hallucinatory levels.

No sooner had I plugged into this geosynchronous Land of Goshen, when a remarkable opportunity occurred. Arbitron, the national ratings instrument, decided that my wife and I inhabit a demographic group of interest to tv programmers and asked us to fill out a viewing log for one week. Nothing could have given me more encouragement to leave familiar terrain behind than scattering ratings blips across '40s Egyptian film music clips on the ArabNet; the Jade Channel's news in Cantonese; "Wendy and Me," a forgettable series starring George Burns and Connie Stevens; a video dump to CBS affiliates--hosted by Harry Smith and Paula Zahn--of logos promoting the sagging "This Morning;" and a nine-minute pre-game shot of the blank Seattle Kingdome scoreboard.

But my obsession during this period became the two Canadian satellites, Anik 1 and Anik 2, which reveal a truly foreign concept of tv. The main character and center of action on CBC's "The Odyssey," for example, is a young boy who spends the entirety of each episode in a coma. Try selling that one south of the border. As his mother hovers over his motionless body, his unconscious self navigates a weird children-only dream world in search of a mysterious figure named Brad. It's a pre-pubescent version of "The Prisoner."

But even this pales next to a music program on CBC-North that for an American is like a diagonal glimpse backward into a time that never was.

"Jubilee Years" is a retrospective of "Don Messer's Jubilee" and its summer replacement, "Singalong Jubilee." Both shows apparently ran until the late '60s, outlasting fiddler Don Messer himself, who first brought his band The Islanders to series television in the mid '50s. Dates are approximate; the original "Jubilee" programs are so familiar and beloved in the maritime provinces that host and producer Bill Langstroth never troubles to set his weekly barrage of bewildering clips in any but the haziest historical context, lending the show an even greater air of unreality to innocent viewers like myself. The Nova Scotian take on Lawrence Welk achieves the mix of ingenuousness, stiffness and dislocation documentary parodies like "Zelig" or "The Last Polka" strain to hit.

It's difficult to describe the musical focus of the show. Langstroth calls it country, but it's country so suffused with Protestantism as to bear a greater resemblance to vestiges of Morris Dancing than to anything like American country and western. British vaudeville, sea shanties, Neopolitan ballads and traditional French-Canadian songs figure in, often via a clearly recognizable Arcadian two-step untouched by the dynamism of black Louisiana culture that sprouted zydeco from these same seeds. Posed on clapboard front porch, meeting hall, barn and ballroom sets, Messer's band plus other assorted musicians, vocalists, dancers and mascots glide through songs on a current of professionalism disguised as effortless folksiness. But there's a fun-sapping formality to the material that matches the austere look of the show, a nostalgia for the rocky, wind-pummeled days of individualism, when maritime life meant stubborn isolation from mainland gratuities.

Standing well apart from this austerity--as out of place as Grace Kelley at an ox roast--is a twentyish, mini-skirted Anne Murray, grudgingly described by Langstroth as "a rocket ready to launch," and in this setting her sensuousness is incendiary. "Singalong Jubilee" producer Manny Pittson augmented the Armistice Day personalities of the "Don Messer's Jubilee" performers with a new cast of forty-something young people spun of beatnik cloth. But he relented his grip on blandness when it came to Murray, foregoing static camera set-ups to circle her in perilous spiral orbits that threatened to thrust the show into the present, production values and all. Even today her performances are astonishingly modern and undated. Only a Judy Carne, sock-it-to-me hairdo betrays her as she skims cool pools of emotion in reflective songs Langstroth acknowledges but does not seem to enjoy. Except for the cracked and reckless "Lucky Me," I haven't liked her songs much either, but her husky alto always awakens memories of my testosterone-producing years.

My behemoth buddy the Whale has taken to installing himself here on Saturday evenings to gape at Murray, but he claims a larger purpose. According to the Whale, before his western Ontario professional wrestling career began, he achieved enough notoriety as a rum-shackled balladeer to win a summer run on "Singalong Jubilee." He rationalizes his failure to appear on the "Jubilee Years" retrospective as the result of lingering acrimony over legal entanglements with Gordon Lightfoot's Regina-based solicitor over authorship of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." As proof, he croons "The Wreck of the Whale," supposedly penned in 1965 after a disastrous canteen breakfast date with Murray. As soon as he embarks upon the verse which starts, "The Whale, it is muttered, never gives up the butter, when he's got a fresh kruller before him," I punch in TVNC, the Innuit-language channel on Anik 2 which favors footage of arctic inhabitants gutting game.

With the Whale on the hoof, I can safely untangle myself from the Clarke Belt and switch on Trans-Danubian Swineherds' Music (Hannibal Records/Rykodisc) without fear of offense. A rabid Quaker Oats and "1812 Overture" glutton like my buddy wouldn't appreciate British ensemble Orbestra's gambit of doing the Tchaikovsky composition method in reverse--subverting classical music elements to the service of unrepentant traditional songs. Don't let the C-word send you running for your Prozac. This is nothing like the work of fellow expansionists The Kronos Quartet, whom I seldom enjoy unless I've sunk into a month-long depression or the Director of the Julliard School is visiting.

Orbestra are eggheads with a solid sense of fun, and while their skittery textural arrangements only occasionally erupt into full-flung dance beats--as on the Turkish-style Macedonian wedding romp, "Skopje"--this is body music nonetheless. Geared to the cellular level it may be, but don't pooh-pooh the power of hell-bent Brownian motion to transform one's personal chemistry. Due to their strong character, Eastern European folk songs fare the best, not merely surviving complex arrangements but prospering in an atmosphere of moody string and trombone counterpoint or orchestral coloration dank enough to enliven the most demanding fatalist. Case in point is the title cut, a six-minute suite based on Bartok's transcriptions of four unaccompanied Hungarian fiddle songs.

Stand out cut outs from other global regions include "Los Cholitos," which marries a loopy klezmer clarinet and tango beat to a tune from Colombia's Pacific Coast--complete with convincing vocal by Patricia Cuberos--and an appropriately Philip Glassian interpretation of a pair of Shetland Island mill wheel and spinning wheel work songs combined into the mesmerizing "Da Rooth." Because Orbestra members personally roam the globe in search of material, this isn't an academic exercise but a project with guts and grit that's as wild and wonderful as modernizations of traditional music get.

Another easy pick for pleasure is an unexpected release from the California-based Triloka Records, primarily a new age label. The Tahitian Choir, Rapa Iti resembles a South Seas' version of the Mickey Hart-produced Dzintars, Songs of Amber, which adapted traditional Latvian songs to a mainstream choral group setting. Though it had too much of a glee club atmosphere about it to prickle the intended short hairs, Dzintars still impressed with graceful sheets of sound energized by eccentric vocal flights.

It's enticing to consider how Rapa Iti might have turned out without the missionary/slave trade influences that irrevocably imposed a Christian hymnody onto ancient Tahitian songs. Still, the labors of producer/engineer Pascal Nabet-meyer paid off in bringing this beautiful music back to the west--unheard on record since a 1906 Edison cylinder. While merely pretty, rather conventional material fills the troughs, the highlights here reflect the small island's remoteness from all other musical traditions. Located 1,000 miles southeast of Tahiti in the Society Island group, Rapa Iti is the last landfall before a good size hop to Antarctica. The choral group recorded by Nabet-meyer in 1991 consists of every adult member of a total population around 300--reduced from thousands at the time of the 18th century thanks to kidnappings and epidemics from the new world.

The best performances on Rapa Iti have a democratic looseness to their arrangements that remind me of the songs of the Zairean pygmies, where in place of a single lead singer waves of individual voices rise and fall against a shimmering background. "Tarema," which describes the origin of the island, and "Te Vahine Ororagni," about wars for possession of drinking water, take this probably ancient, free-flowing form. But the most arresting compositions--"Morotiri Nei," "Ratou Ki Ota" and others--have a disquieting vocal effect I've never heard before, a sudden downward plummet in tone by the female singers as if a mischevious engineer had applied thumb to take-up reel during the final tape mastering--except that the male voices singing harmony do not shift down as well. I've never been trapped in a falling elevator, and the dip of my internal organs as the choir takes its plunge is as close as I want to come. The result may not be beautiful, but it's definitely celestial. So maybe this belongs on a new age label after all.

If you're partial to alien planetscapes, abandon your living room to the extended twilight that opens Asmat Dream, New Music Indonesia, Volume I (Lyrichord). Insects scuttle from their hiding places, clouds roll ominously across the moon, yet the evening refuses to give way to night as "Diya" unwinds a strange symphony of clay drums, metallophones, zithers, multi-tracked voices, tin cans, woks, sandpaper, the visor of a motorcycle helmet, and whatever else the alchemical process requires.

The last two years have seen the release of several excellent collections of Indonesian pop and folk, but none as remote from traditional sources as this disc of experimental contemporary compositions. Only the chilly title cut, built around sampled sounds and voices, leans heavily into microprocessors. Most of Asmat's pieces stretch indigenous instruments to igneous limits, pulling out timbres too exotic for the tastes of Indonesian record labels, which passed on some of the material here.

Nano S.'s "Jemplang Polansky" takes the complex patterning of Javanese court music to one logical conclusion by emulating the sequenced music of the west, adding and subtracted elements from the mix as the Sundanese dub muse demands. In "Galura," also by Nano S., plucked, strummed and shaken kecapi zithers generate fierce emotional heat in a song that seems beyond the pale of anything recognizably Indonesian--until a second version adorned with suling flute snaps the piece into a more familiar context. Through an unorthodox use of voices and a small gamelan ensemble, Suhendi Afryanto's "Mbuh" creates the kind of complex, unsettled textures craved by movie soundtrack composers with megabytes of software power at their disposal. Western avante garde musicians like Terry Riley and Steve Reich have been borrowing from Asian sources for years, so it's nice to see new music renew itself at the source.

Almost slipping into Asmat's wake, segments of Swedish percussionist Per Tjernberg's ambitious They Call Me (Rub-A-Dub Records) have a nowhere in particular statelessness, though even its most abstract, meandering moments fall back on a rockified aesthetic that thrusts otherwise delicate mbira or oud passages firmly into face. Kind of ironic using digital techniques to highlight the pristine beauty of ethnic instruments snatched from every continent except Antarctica. But what keeps this disc of rhythmically charged excursions from devolving into "Plänette Drøme" is my suspicion that these songs are more than dressed up sketches--or else they're retentively reworked enough to do Ryuchi Sakamoto proud.

The rebirth of progressive rock as new age, dragging with it the worst possible jazz and classical influences, shrivels my stomach at the first sign of nine-minute cuts that fail to resolve into beat or melody by 1:05. Darned, though, if I don't willingly follow Tjernberg's most expansive assumptions, trusting that anyone who would launch a nouveau-voodoo groove with a Dr. John sample (special note to Per: he's not called "the Night Tripper" anymore) isn't hiding behind too many pretensions. And those grooves are sufficiently wicked that when bandmember Tommy Adolfsson floats in on a John Hassell-timbered trumpet ("The One," "Full Moon") I'll even forgive the didjeridoo. [Rub-A-Dub Records, Tjarhovsgatan 44, S-116 29 Stockholm, Sweden]

Boukman Eksperyans throws fans a curve by kicking off Kalfou Danjere (Mango) with the Creole clone of something off John Lennon's Imagine lp, the beginning of a reverse historical journey that begins in the new world and winds its way back to the roots--dallying with soukous, mbube, reggae and Afrobeat in the process. My complaint about most releases these days is the lack of variation from cut-to-cut, so I shouldn't fault these Haitians for gifting us with rich diversity in this nearly hour-long collection of gorgeous songs. Their fusions never fizzle; there's never a sense of compromise as the band reaches out to as wide an audience as possible with its linked artistic and spiritual vision.

Problem is, the title-song which culminates Boukman's journey--a magnificent warning of a fate worse than hell-fire for Haiti's illegitimate rulers--generates such intensity and excitement, it eclipses the finer points of everything en route, reducing carefully wrought songcraft to an extended tease on the road to explosive release. Blame my addiction to instant gratification for spoiling what ought to be a major plus, considering that few releases have any destination in mind (the liner notes provide a helpful map). On almost every count, Kalfou Danjere is superior to its predecessor, Voudou Adaje, which undermined strong songs with bland production. Drums are central to the mix even when percolating sub rosa and synth doodles have been replaced by statelier patches. But a single dose of ecstatic energy isn't quite enough. I'll take pyrotechnics over pacing next time.

Though freedom of expression is pretty well shot in Haiti, voices of opposition are making it across the airwaves. One that can be heard well throughout North America is Radio Neg-Mawon, named for the first organized resistance to slave owners in 1781. Neg-Mawon's weekly shortwave broadcasts in Creole from Radio For Peace International, Colon, Costa Rica, are aired Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. EST on 13,630 kHz (USB) and 15,030 kHz and repeated at 11:00 p.m. EST--and Sundays at 7:00 a.m. EST--on those same frequencies plus 7,375 kHz. The program is sponsored by the Nyack, New York-based Rocklanders for Democracy in Haiti. For non-Creole speakers like myself, Neg-Mawon is fascinating to catch for its energy level and snatches of music. [Note: this info is out of date as of December 1996, but is included anyway for your reading pleasure.]

Thanks to Glenn Hauser for this info. In addition to producing "The World of Radio," a long-running syndicated radio program on shortwave broadcasting--on which he has encouraged listeners to subscribe to The Beat--Glenn self-publishes DX Listening Digest, an excellent guide to stations from Afghanistan to Zaire that tells you when to best hear what. For a sample of Glenn's zine, send a mere $2.50 to Box 1684, Enid OK, 73702. [Glenn may have upped his prices since this column was published. Write him and ask what he charges now, and include a SASE.]

Black Uhuru, Brutal Dub (RAS). One of my all-time favorite dubs finally makes it to compact disc, and except for a few too many full-tilt acid guitar solos, time hardly touches this 1986 release. Producers Dr. Dread, Jim Fix and Arthur Baker stir up a steely psychedelic froth neither too overloaded with effects nor too sparsely orchestrated as the singers punch in and out of the mix like keyboard ripples. The late Puma Jones sounds even more otherworldly than usual, dispersing oracular cryptograms while a pinched and parsed Junior Reid mimics the inevitable fuzztone guitar. With the vocalists reduced to Greek chorus status, Sly and Robbie's rhythmic muscle wins morality play honors as the narrative which struggles to hold a crumbling society together. Best track: "Dub You Haffe Dub," where synthesizers growl and flash like eruptions of anger, until the thick organ chord of Puma's concluding harmony spreads much needed balm.

Guy Clark, boats to build (Asylum). Inclusion of a country artist on the (Nonesuch Records) American Explorer Series indicates the presence of either a grizzled survivor on the verge of extinction (Charlie Feathers) or a wiseass with an existential bone to pick (Jimmie Dale Gilmour). Clark's sardonic, unsentimental tone leaves no doubt where his slightly grizzled self fits in, though the way he piles slabs of verbiage on matchwood melodies, you'd think he was worried his own fire was about to go out. That's a wiseass for you--when not fixing to "paint me a hole in the light of day" on "Picasso's Mandolin," he's making a clean breast of his love by a process of negation ("I Don't Love You Much Do I"). Lest we fear he has a soft side, on duets he pits himself against Emmylou Harris, she of the tearful catch in her voice, he of the merely caught up.

Andanzas 2--More Songs of Latin America (Northeastern). With harp, charango, flutes, and voice, Andanzas brings the passion of innocence and hope to their second release--instead of the sweat and dust of battles with life these traditional songs originally documented. That shift in emphasis accepted, the group also offers the kind of clear and uncluttered directness which escapes other U.S.-based ensembles plowing South American folk for the thought-provoking fringes of easy listening. No hint of Huayacaltia-style Rainforest Crunch here. The ambience is just academic enough to keep sentimentality at bay while emphasizing the fragility of heartfelt songs from Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay, Bolivia, Venezuela, Mexico and Puerto Rico. Cynthia Glynn's chiming harp is exquisite, while other members valiantly reclaim the panpipe from shameless digital impersonators.

Dennis Alcapone, Universal Rockers (RAS). Not only do I love the old DJ style, there's no resisting a voice that's so far beyond urgency, it seems as if Alcapone has reserved his final, wheezing breath for the studio microphones. When not creaking like a rusty hinge, he pants out lyrics clothed in death rattles punctuated by U-Roy-style yelps. So it scares me how abruptly most of these tracks end--I half expect an epitaph to follow when "Get Right My Brethren" cuts off in midsyllable. When he summons Lee Majors-character Col. Steve Austin by name on "Six Million Dollar Man," it's bracing because I know he almost likes our junk culture as much as he hates it. True sign of a prophet.

The Mighty Two: Joe Gibbs & Errol Thompson (Heartbeat). No reggae release has a harder opening salvo, where Black Uhuru's workmanlike "Rent Man" finds authority as a lead-in to DJ Jah Grundy's "Resident Man," a punch press of a song about tenement living, then into Prince Far-I's "Heavy Manners." Nothing as light as a love song in sight--even the comparatively breezy "Money in My Pocket" melds into a Prince Mohammed rant--in a sustained attack that follows the pared down, uncompromising creative formula of Gibb's Almagamated label. Except that here the omnipresent guitar skank has been elevated to alpha/omega force, though the seams of rock steady giving way to reggae are apparent as Glen Washington sings "Rockers" to a strict one-drop tempo. A superb collection of classic cuts that still sound cutting edge.

Les Ambassadeurs Internationales featuring Salif Keita (Rounder). Maybe it's the low sonic ceiling of the dated source material, but I've never heard Keita sound warmer and less over-the-top. Instead of pushing songs from the Sahel to international limits, back in the '70s Keita and Les Ambassadeurs were all about bursting regional boundaries, and their self-assurance shows. Arrangements are a throwback to the days when Cuban music still dominated as a primary influence, but the genius of African invention is everywhere--especially the pulsating guitars that wrap songs in a silky net.

Maxi Priest, fe Real (Charisma). Not my favorite kind of reggae, if you can even call it that, with lead vocals that feel like Foreigner and a mainstream approach that makes Junior Reid into a traditionalist by comparison. But for fervent pop this sells lovers' rock better than anything I've heard recently, and the rap parts are as disarmingly affected as the back-up singers who turn every cut into an anthem. Get yourself an electron microscope before tackling the liner notes, however.

American Cafe Orchestra, Egyptian Dominoes (Northeastern). American and Scandanavian folk songs meet Ruthie Dornfeld's fiddle and viola and Morten Alfred's guitar and eggs, plus plucky accompaniment from a string of stringed sidemen. Not as wacky as the title would have you believe, though still more fun than a barrel of lingen berries with odd touches enlivening songs--such as Glenn Jones' catgut-scraping electronic gizmo on the turbulent "Elzic's Farewell." The perfect starting place for assembling your own "Laplander's Home Companion."


I was startled to discover a parcel on my porch bearing the return address of The Relaxation Company. I hadn't remembered ordering any specialty videos, latex products or licorice-flavored massage oil, but just to be safe I spirited the package to the seculsion of my attic, nervously slitting the packing tape in the shadow of a faithful blow-up friend. Nothing to fear. Inside was a neat little box holding a four-cd set called Global Meditation, Authentic Music from Meditative Traditions of the World. It was just the day for a test-drive. The bully who's my major source of income decided I should spend my weekend re-writing a hefty insurance manual instead of hibernating, and I was peeved.

Rather than picking and choosing, I went immediately to Disc One, Voices of the Spirit; Songs and Chants, on the strength of its first selection, "Heiemo Og Nykkjen" by Kirsten Braten-Berg--my favorite cut from New Albion Records' Nordisk Sang anthology. This segued into a song I had not heard before, an Albanian lament recorded live at the 1988 Gjirokastra Folk Festival with doleful harmonies and murmuring clarinet, which in turn gave way to a didgeridoo-propelled Australian Aboriginal chant.

Armed with my remote control I sped through the cd, jumping from country to country and spanning continents as effortlessly as changing cable-tv channels. I did find it relaxing sampling Bibayak Pygmy yodeling, a 13th century Ladymass, Japanese and Tibetan Buddhist chants, a Qu'ran recitation and the almost inevitable Balinese kecak, but the absence of an instructional guide in the booklet or liner notes irritated me.

How was I supposed to use this in meditation? And what exactly did The Relaxation Company mean by meditation, anyway? Were meditation and relaxation--two very different activities indeed--intended as synonyms? I wasn't sure. In fact, I was a little intimidated by the prospect of having my battered astral body whisked off to the realm of the dead just as I was getting comfortably possessed by a helpful loa. Tricky business pulling sacred songs from their cultural context and trying to apply a generic purpose. Might as well hand a Naqshabandi dervish Nirvana's Nevermind and watch the fun!

I played the other three discs with similar outcome. The cuts were too bright and interesting--and even the longest selections too short--for purposes of trance or slumber. No sooner would I begin to sink into a Mandinka praise song on Disc Two, Harmony and Interplay, than the Master Musicians of Jajouka would jolt me back to square one of a new psychic space. It's not for nothing that traditional societies spend hours whipping up a hypnotic ambience. Effacement of conscious demands either lack of stimulation altogether or a stimulus repetitive and insistent enough to play havoc with the body and brain--National Public Radio, for example--and I'm not finding it here.

I guess "relaxation" and "meditation" are meant as buzzwords for the particular market the producers want to pursue, and for those folks just getting their mood rings wet in world music, I have no quibble whatsoever. Compiler Brooke Wentz has taken pains to include hard-to-find gems along with the standards, demonstrating a grasp of the subject expected of a Beat contributor with canny choices like Zanzibari taarab and gamelan trance music from Surinam.

It's a great starter set ,with the caveat that much of the music has little to do with the "meditative tradition" hyped by the title. I also suspect many Beat readers either have many of the recordings excerpted here or desire the material within a less generalized context. It sure beats assembling your own tape of the mainstays, but if immersion and build up to ecstatic charge is desired, better to bury yourself in a pair of headphones and the new Boukman Eksperans cd. I just hope the next time I visit the metaphysically bent Yes Book Store in Washington, D.C., they're not using these discs for background music.

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