(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 17, Number 2, 1998)
The Amish have a website. This stunning bit of news gleaned from Emily and Faith Paulsen's Pennsylvania Family Adventure Guide demanded a visit to Pennsylvania Dutch Country. I felt obliged to investigate the impact of tourism on traditionalists who shun modern society in all its forms, venturing out of their pre-technology world only to peddle wares to us "English" or to take in a Harrison Ford film. I knew a crack had splintered the old ways last summer when my wife Linda told me of an Amish quilt maker in a nearby Michigan town who kept a telephone "for business purposes" in her barn. I guess that makes it a tax write-off like my satellite dish, outdoor spa, barbecue pit, gazebo and virgin teakwood-slatted turkey pen, each one an indispensable journalistic tool.
My first impressions of the luridly named villages of Intercourse, Smoketown and Bird-in-Hand, a stone's throw from Lancaster, PA, was disgust at the exploitation of a humble people struggling to maintain their Old World religious beliefs. Evoking a carnival sideshow atmosphere was a mock one-room schoolhouse populated by animated Amish robot figures, souvenir shops packed to the rafters with bearded, literally faceless Amish dolls and stalls offering Amish Buggy Rides or Genuine Amish Cooking. Signs advertised Amish Village, Amish Ironworks, Amish Farms, The Amish Experience and a hydra head of other Amish attractions. Substitute "Jewish," "Catholic" or "Islamic" for any of these tourist traps, and the insult to an entire people is obvious. But where was the outrage?
Determined to document the degradation of these most put-upon of the pure-hearted, I armed myself with camera, camcorder and a thirst for justice. But at the front door of the Amish Candle Barn I was turned back in shame by a notice which requested, "Please respect our beliefs by not taking any photos or videos of us." Here, I thought, was a virtuous attempt at traditional ways by the embattled tradition-keepers. Inside, under a NASA-quality bank of state-of-the-art overhead fluorescent lighting and operating the latest in computerized cash registers stood the black-garbed, innocent eschewers of electricity themselves. One modern shop after another, in fact, was not only staffed but also owned by the so-called New Order Amish, an innovative sect that has apparently decided to meet Babylon on its own terms using the non-believers' own weapons of commerce. In other words, they've become fully assimilated Americans. "I can give that to you for $125," an Amish teen with tightly tied-back hair snapped at Linda, who was holding up a handkerchief-size example of quilt making.
Distancing ourselves from the ersatz folk, we drove far enough into the rolling Pennsylvania countryside to escape the smell of hearty deep-fried foods that clung to the Lancaster region like dinner-hour smog. On a gravel road a couple of miles west of the village of Strasburg, we encountered a middle-aged Amish woman selling homemade pies, breads and sticky buns from the back of her horse-drawn buggy. Leaving Linda to puzzle over the woman's Germanic English, I approached the huge mare hitched up front as it patiently clipped clumps of grass on the edge of the road. Patting the horse on its flank, I happened to glance inside the cab. Just beneath the front window at the level of the driver's bench was a laptop computer networked to a GPS navigational module, fax/modem, ATM machine and satellite-linked weather station.
Gasping for a taste of unspoiled America, we crossed the Gettsyburg National Battlefield off our itinerary, instead opting for investigations of Clyde Peeling's Reptiland, the Anderson Pretzel Factory, Mr. Ed's Elephant Museum, the Red Caboose Motel--where we overnighted in an actual caboose--and other staples of Pennsylvanian ingenuity, including the Haines Shoe House at Hallam, an actual 1940s-vintage residence built in the shape of a shoe by chain-shoe store magnate Charles Haines. A failure of judgment also took us to the Frank Lloyd Wright Fallingwater house near Mill Run. An Amish-like notice at the reception area prohibited unauthorized photography.
"Why can't I bring my camera in here?" I asked the ticket-taker.
"There are a lot of reasons," she said.
"What would be just one of them?"
"I don't know," she explained.
An $8-per-person ticket price to see a house obscured by several stories of emergency scaffolding inflamed my anger, as did the refusal to let Linda take her purse inside the sprawling Frank Lloyd Wright triple-decker lest she with a sudden turn sweep a priceless book or carved loon relic of the former inhabitants off a Frank Lloyd Wright-crafted table. My scorn turned to merriment as we toured one of several outside decks, whose poured concrete walls were flaking away as fast as they were repaired. "If Wright was such a visionary who incorporated eternal principles of nature into his building techniques, why couldn't he design a house that would hold up for 50 years?" I smarty-pantsed to the tour guide. I also wanted to inquire whether Wright built Fallingwater before of after his masterful work on the Shoe House, but why trivialize the accomplishment of a truly benevolent man? After all, the generous Charles Haines built his live-in loafer not to house a single rich family, but as a honeymoon getaway for his employees complete with maid and chauffeur. Unlike the stuffy-atmosphered Fallingwater, the Haines Shoe House encouraged hands-on, purse-equipped, picture-taking browsing and housed a do-it-yourself sundae bar in the heel-located basement, to boot.
Now that's my America.
Another America is preserved on the just-reissued Anthology of American Folk Music, a six-cd-set on the Smithsonian Folkways label. Seconds into any of these discs you know you're hearing a different world. Part of it is the parsed sound quality of recordings lifted from series compiler Harry Smith's collection of 78s, but mostly it's the highly idiosyncratic content. Smith has said in the copious liner notes that he wasn't seeking to make the most beautiful collection of folk music but instead quested after the oddest, and that quality permeates the recordings. In some cases you have to listen a few times to catch on to the game--the nonsense lyrics of Clarency Ashley's "Coo-Coo Bird" accumulates an unsettling potency by degrees--or don a scholarly hat and nod sagely when Smith points out that the version of "Minglewood Blues" by Cannon's Jug Stompers betrays a Memphis orientation, "having an even 'buzzing' vibrato and relatively small intervals between the notes, as contrasted to the larger intervals and smoother vocal tone centered in Texas."
Elsewhere, the eccentricity is obvious. On Disc 3B Dock Boggs charges the cautionary sermon "Country Blues" with bitterness that turns his brotherly salutations inside out while he accompanies himself on the most deathly, uninflected, unimpressed banjo ever put on record. For jovialness little compares with Floyd Ming and his Pep-Steppers' "Indian War Whoop" on Disc 2A which begins with the off key sonics reminiscent of Mexican son huasteco before basking in faux Indian revelry that was already a cliche in 1928 when this disc was cut. But its exuberance is fresh and unforced, buttressing the spirit of novelty and discovery on these ancient records that kick the ass of most modern folk material.
To the great credit of the folks at Smithsonian Folkways, they did not tamper with Smith's original structuring of an anthology originally released in 1952 on six lps--except to secure rights to cuts that Smith essentially bootlegged and to include an enhanced CD for Windows and Mac computers containing interviews, photos of performers and a gallery of Smith's experimental films, paintings and decorated eggs. Sure, the songs could have been squeezed on half as many cds with a lower price tag than the hefty $85, but Smith's ear is impeccable as he moves us from cut-to-cut, and whiffs of a deeper and esoteric logic of sequencing lurks behind the quotes reproduced in the liner notes acknowledging organization inspiration from occultist Aleister Crowley, alchemist Robert Fludd, and mystic Rudolf Steiner.
It's hard to do more here than hint at the marvels on this massive set other than to say I'm still grappling with its presentation of an America where superstition, blood feuds, vendettas, pandemics and violent death were right on the surface as facts of everyday life. Beyond this, this is much wonderful music from the likes of Uncle Dave Macon, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Eck Robertson, the Carter Family, Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, and scores of lesser known performers. Apart from the newly added liner note essays, the best source of information on the daunting scope of Anthology is in Greil Marcus' recent book Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. Republic, which is as much about the Anthology as about Dylan, contains a variation on the "Old Weird America" essay included in the anthology as well as chapters on Dock Boggs and other performers caught in the brief window of the 1920s when folk music was still new and commercially undiluted and record companies had the wherewithal to take a chance with these regional sounds before the Depression scattered everything asunder.
Ounce for ounce, A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings (Rounder) gives the Anthology a run for its money. A penny-pincher's dream come true, this single disc holds 30 vivid folk recordings gathered between 1936 and 1946, and most are outstanding. Treasury starts a little wobbly with fresh renditions of well-trodden territory ("Bonaparte's Retreat," "Rock Island Line," "Pretty Polly," "Shortening Bread"), but it quickly acquires a high strangeness quotient that never gives up the ghost. At the peak of bizarre is "Iron Merrimac" delivered in Adirondack operatic fashion by Judge Learned Hand, but the rest of the songs exude felt experience. Axe murderer Jimmy Strothers' dark homily "Blood-Stained Banders" bubbles up archaic invectives for the devil that huddles behind every stranger's face. (Jefferson Airplane fans will recognize this song as the source of "Good Shepherd" on 1969's Volunteers). Jess Morris' virtuoso violin scuffs the earth on "Goodbye, Old Paint," the prison blues "Another Man Done Gone" packs a lifetime of tragedy into less than a-minute-and-a-half of Vera Hall's time, while Sonny Terry's "Lost John" displays astonishing harmonica techniques, rhythmic improvisations and percussive vocal effects. Though there seems to be a little of everything here--from Woody Guthrie singing "The Gypsy Davy" to a taste of the Sacred Harp choral style on "Northfield"--editor Stephen Wade delivers the best of the best. Hard to believe this material comes from the country I'm living in today.
No need to pack up the "fa-la-la-la-la" cds just because Christmas is long gone. Most of the Sacred Harp hymns on two new Southern Journey cds from Rounder Records begin with the choir singing note names (fa-sol-la-mi), and until the lyrics kick in you would be hard pressed to identify the material as liturgical. The loose-knit, boisterous but never overheated vocals are more suggestive of the deck of an 18th century whaling ship than the pews of a church. A favorite of both black and white churches in the south and lately spreading back to its American origin in the northeastern states and as far afield as Japan, Sacred Harp or shape note singing grew out of the polyphonic singing tradition of Middle Europe at the time of the Reformation--and with bit of imagination you can hear the shared wellspring of Handel's "Messiah" or Bach's fugues. Stretch the sound further and you can also catch glimmers of table songs of the Caucuses and South African mbube.
Harp of a Thousand Strings (Southern Journey, Volume 9) plus And Glory Shone Around (Southern Journey, Volume 10) were recorded by Alan Lomax in 1959 at the all-day United Sacred Harp Convention in Fyffe, Alabama, where the hungry congregation tore through more than 100 songs in gleeful, unsentimental fashion. Unlike the Christian hymnody most of us know with pietistic unison singing decorated by harmony, Sacred Harp is characterized by loose and lagging sounding overlapping vocals, though the four-part polyphony comes right from the songbook. So does the term "shape note." Around 1800, Andrew Law gave notes of the scale distinctive shapes to make sight-reading easier. The heterophony of the hundred-odd choral members gives this the democratic feel of pygmy group vocal music with diving and surfacing voices latching hold of or blurring the lyrics in a rich and exciting fashion as the text bobs along in peaks and troughs with the rhythm of lapping waves. It's the music of plain folks and also something greater, an odd mixture of Bible Belt excess and Puritan restraint. Besides the two Southern Journey cds, Rounder is simultaneously releasing Sacred Harp Singing, Lomax's 1943 monophonic recording for the Library of Congress, from which the cut on Treasury was taken.
Also noteworthy is another re-release with a claim to hallmark status, the Paul Clayton-produced 1956 field recordings of Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians (Tradition/Rykodisc). First presented on the cusp of the '50s folk revival, Appalachians includes Etta Baker's flawless--and now widely anthologized--guitar masterpiece "One Dime Blues," banjo and fiddle pieces by the dazzling Hobart Smith, and other great work by musicians making their first recorded appearances. While vocal renditions of "John Henry," "Pretty Polly" and "Amazing Grace," are so fixed in pop culture that to hear them again is tantamount to torture, these all-instrumental renditions reserve their welcome. While Rykodisc is justifiably proud of itself for bringing this classic back into print, all of the material on Instrumental Music--along with ten other cuts--is identically reproduced on the LaserLight budget label's $4.99 Blue Grass Music from the Appalachians. Curiously enough, this still-in-print, widely available anthology omits the names of any of the artists, except for this cryptic back cover note: "Featuring Eric Darling, banjo, dulcimer, fiddle, harmonica, and guitar."
Surely no church music more raucous has ever been committed to cd than Sacred Steel, Traditional Sacred African-American Music in Florida (Arhoolie). Sacred harp singing and even Pakistani qawwali music seem tame in comparison to these 1993-94 recordings. The collection starts innocently enough with a handful of driving but decorous instrumental and concert pieces in a gospel blues vein by steel guitarists Sonny Treadway, Glenn Lee and Willie Easton. But as soon as the venue switches to live religious services, all the saints and sinners break loose. "This is a Holy Church," the lead singer for the Jewel Dominion Holiness-Pentecostal Church proclaims in the Treadway-penned showpiece cut of the same name, though you'd never know it from the cranked up bass, slip-sliding guitar and atmosphere of smoke and fire. The electric steel guitar first entered the worship houses of Florida in the 1930s, and the vocal phrasing made possible by the sliding steel bar particularly suited the instrument to the exclamatory style of local Pentecostal worship. A skillful player could imitate the low moans and ecstatic cries of the congregation and everything in between, as in Sonny Treadway's instrumental "Don't Let the Devil Ride" where the opening bass notes fool me every time around into thinking I'm hearing a baritone voice. With both the lap-style and pedal steel guitars on exhibition, the music reminds me of the best bits of Hawaiian ("In the Garden"), country ("Pass Me Not, Oh Gentle Savior"), juju (the guitar ornamentation and vocal power of the live cuts), and flat-out R&B ("Call Him By His Name"). [1034 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, CA 94530]
In 1939, Melville and Frances Herskovits installed themselves in the town of Toco on Trinidad, set up recording equipment in their rented house and began collecting music in search of local links to West African culture. Peter Was a Fisherman (Rounder) assembles 34 examples of the 352 songs they gathered in the first of a projected series of cds drawn from their work. Most of the pieces are under two minutes because of equipment limitations of the day, but the scope of the songs is immense. In addition to material pointing to root sources of calypso ("Send She Back," "Paulie Say She Love Me"), there are Shango chants, Yoruban pieces, Baptist spirituals, fishing shanties, carnival songs, bongos, reels, quadrilles and Civil War-era minstrel songs. Though the Herskovits struggled with a temperamental Soundscriber record cutting machine and Western Electric "saltshaker" microphone, the restored audio is surprisingly good--exceptional compared to the Fahnestock Indonesian field recordings from about the same time on Rykodisc's 1994 Music for the Gods. I had no idea such a wealth of different music existed on Trinidad, and the distinctive local character makes for fascinating listening.
Several of the Smithsonian Folkways Music of Indonesia series releases have been beyond the pale of repeated listening for me, but Lombok, Kalimantan, Banyumas: Little-known Forms of Gamelan and Wayang is all but cemented inside my cd player. The highlight is a three-cut performance by Grup Jemblung Sari Budaya, the Central Javanese equivalent of the Bobs. Jemblung, an endangered all-vocal gamelan genre, features three males who mimic the dings and dongs of metallophones while the pesinden female vocalist bravely sings lead as gracefully as if she were backed by the finest Javanese orchestra. Maintaining her dignity isn't easy. The trio pantomimes hitting mallet instruments--along with one another--or grimaces and gyrates in imitation of the shimmering bronze keys. To make matters worse, they interject low jokes such as "Your gong's out of tune, dummy." Despite the burlesque of high culture, the vocal interplay remains as engaging as the most serious court gamelan recording, and the pesinden vocal carries me away with her otherworldly yearning. Bringing me back to earth is a neck-snapping, real-bronze-instrument 31:05 overture to a wayang shadow puppet play by the Kresna Group from southern Borneo. "Memucukane" is a brash piece bursting with stops and starts, speeded up tempos, and archaic utterances by the dalang master of ceremonies as the puppet characters are introduced and tension mounts for the start of the play.
Kalimantan Strings is the only one of the 15 Smithsonian Folkways Music of Indonesia cds released so far that you could probably get away with using as dinner music. I expected the songs of the Dayak highlanders of Borneo to be jagged and intense, not delicate and reflective, though there is a high-altitude mountain-music quality to the material. "Three Dance Tunes" is a string-plucking medley for scallop-fretted sape Kayan lute which joins with bluesy female vocals on "Lupaak Avun" (Waves of Fog), a tune once used to ward off thunderstorms and the threat of flash floods. More in the hoedown mood is "Karungut Saritan Nampui Kampang" with lute, a pair of two-string rabap fiddles, and a scale-straddling vocal by Syaer Sua. All that's missing is the clog dancer. Three songs by Muslim Kutai musicians trade the oriental shadings of the rest of the disc for a sound with probable roots in the Middle East, while two pieces by the Ot Danum people throw in a tapped-out glass bottle backbeat. By far the loveliest material is a trio of songs from East Kalimantan showcasing sampeq lute duets that call to mind intertwined mandolins from a parallel-universe Appalachia. Yee-ha!
Also worth a mention is the label's South Sulawesi Strings, which includes several selections by the Bugis people, whose pirates were so feared by European traders when Indonesia was known as the Spice Islands that bratty children were threatened with the boogie man. A tightly knit trio of kacapi two-stringed lute players weave repetitive figures around one another on the opening cut followed by a soulful narrative song that's a kind of local variation of our grasshopper and ant fable. There are also a couple of brooding violin pieces, songs with a Popeye lead vocal cut from the same mold as Tuvan singing styles, plus a three-song kacapi medley by the Toraja people--whose spaceship-looking buildings are etched in my memory from PBS' Ring of Fire television series.
I don't know where the term krautrock came from as a catch-all for Germany's underground sound of the late '60s onward, but the dadaists in Faust adopted it as the title of a distorted guitar dirge on a 1973 LP. "Orion Awakes," a doom-laden, buzzing opus by Golem on The Krautrock Archive Volume 1 (Caroline) sums up the pessimism that separated Deutschland's hippies from the Haight's. While American rock bands were planting head in sky anticipating the bloodless overthrow of everything, young Germans were looking backward and wobbling under the burden of history. Much of the material on Archive 1 takes as its starting point early Pink Floyd with Syd Barrett lashed to the helm, which makes it tough to wade through these songs without granting them the leeway of a particular zeitgeist that has come and gone. The first of three projected volumes, Archive 1 collects recordings from the Cologne area made between 1972 and 1974 and originally sold in small pressings at art galleries. The obscurities range from the angst laden blankness of "Niemand Versteht" (No one Understands) by Cozmic Corridors to the Terry Riley-influenced pulse of Galactic Explorers' "Lunarscape," to the teutonic menace of Astral Army's truly awful "Interstellar Shortwave." Seekers of next-millennium lounge music may embrace this stuff for its inarguable camp content, but I love it for its insistence on maximum freedom in a partitioned country and respect it as the periphery of an extremely fruitful movement that spawned such visionaries as Kraftwerk and Can.
There are no cobwebs on "Vamos Companeros," the opening cut on Tracks and Traces by Harmonia 76 (Rykodisc), a collection of previously unreleased tracks from the 1976 meeting between Brian Eno and German art rock group Harmonia. With members who did stints in both Kraftwerk and Neu, Harmonia was less concerned with exorcising ghosts of the past or envisioning an apocalyptic future than it was in simply reveling in the new gadgets of the present, especially cheap home recording equipment that made labored studio composition techniques available to monetary-challenged plus the first wave of accessible synthesizers. "Companeros" mixes an electronic rattle rhythm, heavy bass line and sheets of feedback to create a piece barely removed from today's trance music. The song contains the backbone of Eno's "No One Receiving" from Before and After Science just as longer cuts "Sometimes in Autumn" and "Dream" anticipate Eno's On Land with performances so subtle you'll check to see if your stereo is still plugged in. Alas, the closest Tracks & Traces gets to the cosmic riff tomfoolery of "Dino" and "Watussi" (from 1974's lively Musik von Harmonia) is the pastoral kiss-off "By the Riverside." There's a studied ambience to the rest that paves the way for Rother, Moebius and Roedelius' new amalgam, Cluster, but which also leaves the boldest sonic experiments behind.
Can hasn't released an album of new material since 1986's patchy Rite Time, but their music is alive and kicking via a new double-cd of remixes and radical deconstructions by 15 artists and producers. Giving the originals little reverence but a lot of relevance on Sacrilege (Mute) are Sonic Youth's half-speed, strangely effective forking over of "Spoon," Peach's collapse of the road-hogging "Yoo Doo Right" into a compact vehicle with tight suspension, and the Francois Kevorkian & Rob Rives jungle stew assembled from "Blue Bag" and other Canned ingredients. Far from simply updating favorite songs with rhythm machines and cut/paste editing, the new editions are sometimes conservative--as in U.N.K.L.E. elongating and adding extra instruments to "Vitamin C" while essentially leaving Jaki Liebzeit's original drum track intact--but more often involve a complete rethinking of the source material. The Carl Craig & Studio E "Blade Runner Mix" of "Future Days" rebuilds the song around a rhythm cycle half-buried near the end of the original for a gorgeous cut that pats the parent on the head while giving the son free rein, just as Bruce Gilbert's treatment of "TV Spot" arcs toward his trademark post-Wire arty abstraction. More significant than the roster of famous dial twiddlers represented here, including Eno, the Orb and Pete Shelly, are those who refused participation in the project--The Fall, John Lydon, Julian Cope--because they felt the originals couldn't be improved.
If you've ever wondered what would remain of Finnish girl wonders Varttina once you took away the snap, look no further than Loituma in their American debut, Things of Beauty (NorthSide). Pretty, at times even enchanting, this charming disc suffers from the dreaded triple-S--Scat Singing Syndrome--but never mind. The close-knit crooning of three females plus Timo Väänänen, who has more umlauts in his name than any other living human, perfectly matches the lovely tones of the kantele zither. The kantele is featured unaccompanied in church-bell-fashion on "Valamon Kirkonkellow" (Valamo Cloistered Bells) and frosted with contrapuntal vocals on "Minuet and Polska." If the preciousness of the Scandinavian folk treatments start overwhelming you with gentility, skip the music box figurine antics of the appropriately named "Ai, Ai Taas Sattuu" (Oh, Oh, It Hurts Again), and remind yourself that Loituma is staking out middle ground between the Sibelius Music Academy's bulging alumni of unrepentant purists and aggressive innovators. [530 North 3rd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55401 or www.noside.com]
A big-beat Bosnian band near Boston? Make that two. Homegrown Zabe I Babe (Frogs and Grandmothers) teams up with faves of the former Yugoslavia Ansambl Teodosikevski on Drumovi (Bison). I don't know which of the many styles highlighted here is my favorite, the dissonant wailing female harmonies reminiscent of Bulgarian village singing that start the floorboards pulsating (try "Bosiok," "Ganga," and "Lazaricka") or the fast Rom-derived instrumentals that spin the whole room with crazy tempo clarinet, accordion and drums ("Esma Cocek"). Though I wish more of the latter balanced the former, this is still a wild ride with plenty of Balkan soul, occasional blasts of rock-inflected loudness and a great song to the queen bee ("Pcelice") with clicking stones and whistling percussion. [P.O. Box 207, Belfast, Maine 04915 or www.bison.com/zabe]
A few years ago I was surprised to get a cd of a Finnish band playing salsa. My surprise is diminished now by Tinder Records' Salsa Mundo anthology which spins the globe to find Latin rhythms in unlikely spots. Tokyo weighs in on this supercharged collection with Orquestra del Sol's "Campanero," and if anyone can find a trace of a Japanese musical accent tell me where to look. Much of the adaptation of salsa to the world stage is seamless, and the cuts that tip their hand as to place of origin do so willfully. Take Fatal Mambo's Gallic spark on the funny, catchy French-language "Probleme," African Fiesta's classic Congolese rumba "Paquita" and Bago's Martinique approach to "No Volvere" with French Creole and Spanish lyrics. We'll have to wait for the Jerusalem Salsa Band's promised Hebrew-language take on salsa, contenting ourselves with the excellent "Oye Me Israel," which for my money could come straight out of Puerto Rico, though Salsamania, the Finnish band that first got me thinking about all of this, delights with its blend of a clave beat and Finno-Urgic vocals. None of this strikes me as novelty material, just straight forward demonstrations of love for an irresistible musical force.
Speaking of unlikely Finnish influences, Conga Se Menne is back with further chronicles of life in Michigan's Upper Peninsula on Land of the Conga Boys (Conga Records). Set to a reggae beat with a smattering of Finnish-language lyrics are paeans to a perfect day fishing ("Aurikno Paistaa"), the tale of woe of a pick-up truck breakdown in the mosquito-infested middle of nowhere ("Backwoods Road"), and assorted rockified anthems to the Big Lake and a big chainsaw which may or may not be tongue-in-cheek ("Superior," "U.P. Boy") while packing in more sunshine than any given year in the state. Sweetening the guitar-heavy line-up that debuted on 1995's Finnish Reggae and Other Sauna Beats are accordion, steel drums, mandolin, more keyboards, more percussion, cryptic references to one Heckie Luther and a Caribbean accent via Sting that merely glosses over the yooper-speak. Ties for best cut are "Out to the Blind," which wriggles inside the groggy mentality of a hunter shaking off the dawn cobwebs, and a pair of amplified Finnish instrumentals ("Talikkala Schottische/Tule Tytto Tansiin") that never sounded this jumpy at the Sibelius Academy. [P.O. Box 48, Negaunee, MI 49866 or 906-475-9399--available in 8-track format by special request.]
A nice idea with real moments of pay-off is the merging of Indian Carnatic and western romantic music on Silver Dagger's Rays of Radiance (Frequency Glide). Brainchild of producer and guitarist Mark Humphrey, this follows in the footsteps of his earlier east-west showdown-hoedown Calcutta to California with similar giddy-gratifying results. The straight Carnatic pieces that date back as far as the 12th century mostly go it alone without obvious modernization, highlighting Chitravina Ravikiran's heartstopping mastery of his custom-designed chitravina, a 21-one string fretless offspring of the vina, which Ravikiran plays in Hawaiian steel-guitar fashion. Western hemisphere torch songs and laments benefit from arrangements that fold in the chitravina along with tabla, tambora, harmonium, guitar, vocal and dulcimer which together achieve an unexpected yet miraculously cohesive whole. While Silver Dagger's take on "Sugar Baby" doesn't strive for the intensity of the Dock Boggs' version, the Indian instrumentation turns the bitter declaration of a spurned lover into a kind of rumination. Pay no attention that the "Silver Dagger Trilogy" which closes the disc is four songs long. All other equations here add up. [P.O. Box 72, Santa Monica, CA 90406 or firstname.lastname@example.org]
I'm running out air, but I did want to briefly mention two discs of music from Angola. The peak experience of 1995's Afropea 3: Telling Stories from the Sea anthology was "Mona Ki Ngi Xica" by Bonga, and it's a pleasure hearing a reprise of his salty voice, handdrum percussion and rolling proto-samba rhythms on his classic from the early '70s Angola 72 (Tinder Records). Bringing full circle Brazil's debt to Angolan traditional beats is Preta Luz (Luaka Bop) by Waldemar Bastos. Bastos, who also contributed strong material to Afropea 3, fled political danger in Angola in 1973 and ultimately settled in Brazil where he has recorded with Chico Barque and Martinho da Vila. His first American release mixes the tang of soukous with the sweetness of samba, drawing on the Angolan semba rhythm and an edginess that continually refreshes the songs.
[Copyright 1998 Bob Tarte]