(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 12, Number 5, 1993)


I should have known trouble was coming when I slogged downstairs to the kitchen and found the rabbit witches holding Simon on his back--he never liked being held at all--feet pointed straight up and motionless. The rabbit's face was hidden, buried mysteriously in the teenage girl's armpit as the mother worked her way around him with a nail clipper, scattering small crescent moons across the linoleum. I wondered later if these rabbit breeders had brought an illness from their hutches with them. But now that Simon is safely in the ground humoring the crown vetch, I think these rabbit witches were part of the effect rather than the cause--despite their delight in showing off how to make him "go to sleep" by stretching Simon on his back across the girl's right forearm, while her left hand alternately tugged his ears and cupped his eyes.

Without a doubt Pink Pig Pottery attracts witches and other portentous beings, such as the invisible dead animal that polluted our porch pottery shop the weekend Simon suffocated. A year ago a dead mouse cast such a pall across the kitchen, after two weeks I couldn't stand it anymore. I pulled the stove away from the wall and extracted a crumbling body from the transformer the mouse had mistakenly nestled against. The same smell stung my nose the Friday I arrived home from work as a potential customer stepped onto the porch behind me, an unforgiving woman who'd left her husband in the car but had no eye for turn marks and glazes in the presence of the secret behind the wall. "Sorry about the smell," I tried, but what good was that? My wife Linda and I later talked about ripping up the paneling or abandoning our shop until the first hard frost. But once our rabbit's virus overtook him, we forgot about the mouse until three days later when the porch smelled only of dried flowers and dust again and Simon was under the vetch.

Nothing bad has ever happened to me my entire life, but this house is a magnet for other people's misfortunes. Cars routinely break down or run out of gas opposite my front door, and the only day this year I had to catch a plane, a freshly gassed up semi caught fire in front of the barn, forcing me to flee the house half-packed as emergency vehicles shut down M-21 on both sides of the Pink Pig sign. Worse are the cars that overshoot the curve just past our property late at night, tires singing on the asphalt one moment, then the next moment noiselessly squashing insects as drivers sleepily burrow into the woods where we buried our first rabbit, Binky, snapping saplings until the car jolts to a halt if they're fortunate--or if they're not entertaining the engine on their laps.

I knew there had been an accident that night when I heard voices clattering across our pond where no one lives and no one is supposed to be, then a fist on our front door streaking blood against the glass half-roused me from bed. "Don't answer it," I suggested. But what good was that? An injured girl wandered senselessly in the middle of the road, while the 17-year-old boy who scrubbed his face clean in our bathroom seemed shocked he wasn't hurt as badly as the others. In the morning I found an armrest and part of a dashboard impacted in the dirt. The previous owner of my micro-farm died in a wood cutting accident out back in sight of the Grand River. Sometimes when I cut through the thistles, stinging nettles, and coils of raspberry branches to check whether the cardinal flowers made it through the summer flooding, I feel the fallen woodcutter's presence just behind me. But I don't want to know which stump indicates the tree that toppled over on him, or who cut up and carted off the wood after he died and in what state of mind.

It's difficult shaking off the image of rabbits as docile, pliable animals, when the truth is they're stubborn as mules about what they want, and once they've made their minds up they can't be moved. My friend Philip, whose pet rabbits have lived as long as ten years, tells me they're not very smart. I say you have to define intelligence according to the achievement of a set of goals, and Simon never missed an opportunity to slip past us and chew his way into the underside of our couch or to look me defiantly in the eye as he tore another forbidden mouthful of thatch from the living room rug. So it's also difficult coming to terms with the innate resignation of a rabbit once it's taken sick. It's just a cold, we kept telling Simon. Everyone get sick. But he shrugged off common sense to die in our laps in the middle of the night. Stubborn, opinionated rabbit.

Our first rabbit, Binky, was so addicted to routine, once when we had dared to move a lamp to the other side of the room, he expressed his outrage by promptly toppling it over. I love my routines too. All my life I do the same things issue after issue after issue after issue after issue after issue after issue after issue after issue after issue after issue I keep writing the exact same things. But if I could tell you just one thing neither of us knew before, I probably wouldn't be here at all. I'd be up to my ears in vetch, laying on my back completely still except for the tiny movement of my hand as I petted Simon on the head.

Oh, to be in "Wiggle Town," nouveau Yiddish, film noir neighborhood, where it's hot enough to fry John Lurie on the sidewalk as an invisible rain streams from the sky. A hipster in a schmatte, feet embedded in a bucket of ice, leans against a wrought iron railing breathing indifferent greetings through his horn to frightened out-of-towners hurrying past. A young woman peels an onion, flinging aside emotional peaks and carnival bombastics to reshape klezmer into the ultimate expression of laid-back cool.

I must be hearing things. As soon as "Spirits" stops I hit the repeat button again, delighted and somewhat uneasy at this sliver of something familiar I've never heard before, beginning with the mournful issue of Martin Van de Ven's clarinet and ending with handfuls of wildflower seeds scattered in an orchestral pit. This is music that so perfectly captures the ephemeral nature of form, I keep playing "Spirits" over and over, obsessed by the idea that, if prodded enough, the song will resolve itself differently one of these times rather than ending its tale in bare mid-sentence. While klezmer in any shape isn't exactly groove music, the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band's Agada (Flying Bulgar Records) continually confounds expectation. In the heat of a swell of woodwinds, brass, and Mickey Katz-style percussion, the ground might suddenly drop away, ignoring forward momentum to focus on the steam-pipe flutter of an accordion trill instead.

The opening cut, "Cooking Bulgar(s)" stakes a strong claim for tradition, only to diddle with the past as tongue progressively bores through cheek and a seemingly dated arrangement dissolves into a fierce romp that flirts with a tango then a salsa, never quite completely stepping off the klezmer tightrope but loathe to commit both feet at once to any narrow path. The jazz attack on cuts like "Bulgar Blues" hides a sharp didactic point beneath the muted trumpet. While the huge debt of jazz to African music is widely acknowledged, klezmorim like Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras also had a profound effect on the big band sound and the subsequent evolution of pop. But the Toronto-based Bulgars make their strongest case for the Yiddish blues as a viable piece of the future on the rollicking "High Noon in Volgograd," where piano and pulsing clarinets beat out a rhythm of traffic snarls, honking horns, and hurrying feet, dumping the complexity of big city life on a small town atmosphere that at first seems too rarefied to contain the change. But sure enough the village dance is reborn as urban knot.

Agada, according to the liner notes, means a myth or legend, or most tellingly "an envelope used to deliver the truth," and most of this cd definitely goes airmail. The band deftly modulates minimal instrumentation for maximum fun in the manner of Russia's Terem Quartet, never shouting when the funniest jokes can be delivered dead pan. Or if it's sentiment you want, check out "Aleyn in Veg," "Feter Elye," and "Yom Lid," in which Allan Merovitz's beautiful, earnest voice temporarily steals the spotlight from ingenious arrangements. Check it out, that is, if you can find this disc, which unfortunately lacks a U.S. distributor. (401 Richmond Street West, Suite 219, Toronto M5V1X3)

Ashkhabad has accomplished a feat I would have never thought possible by inventing a film music style for a style of film that doesn't exist, unless Turkmenistan's capital has become the new Bombay. Okay, it isn't really filmi, but that's the best way to describe the sumptuous atmosphere of the Turkmeni band's City of Love (RealWorld) with songs reminiscent of Egyptian soundtracks by Mohamed Abdel Wahab or East African taarab's take on Indian film music. The instrumental cuts on this disc follow Wahab's formula of simple but sensuous lead instruments talking back and forth with a lush set of strings, here supplied by British guest musicians on violin, viola and cello. But Ashkhabad does just as well on its own, owing to the creativity of the serp- and nagar-driven arrangements (think of balalaika and saz) spun by violin, clarinet, and tar handdrum plus accordionist Kurban Kurbanov, who continually amazes. On "Yaman Ykbal" (Sad Fate) he lurks on the sea bottom emulating a moody string section only to pop to the surface to supply a few flute-like runs before moving on to take up other orchestral parts.

City of Love is really two discs in one, and the pop vocal cuts are as strong as the ersatz filmi thanks to Atabai Tsharykuliev, or Mr. Versatility as I like to call him (it's easier to pronounce). "Hard rock singers scream just like our Turkmeni singers," Tsharykuliev claims in the liner notes. Luckily he gets no closer to metal than doing a turn as a lovesick warrior shooting quavering arrows at the goddess "Bibining." Elsewhere he's sultry, beguiling, cajoling or humorous, and on "Balam Semni" (My Child) he surprises by erupting in throaty bubbles I first mistook for a laser tracking error, having earlier drooled coffee on my cd. Only the overblown drama of the still lovely "Ketshpelek" (Bitter Fate)--almost a Kate Bush vehicle--or the David Sanborn-style sax break on "Yaman Ykbal" strays from an approach that adapts traditional music without ostensibly modernizing it. Roots are nicely manicured, never butchered, resulting in a brilliant pop release.

I know nothing about the culture of Turkmenistan, not even enough to visualize the kind of cliches that enhanced my delight with Suede/Norvege; Musique des vallees scandinaves (Ocora/Harmonia Mundi). Is the city of Ashkhabad a metropolis or more of an anthill? Did Atabai and friends acquire their vast pop and classical music knowledge from cable television--or from skills passed on from aged grandparents? No such roadblocks to generalization slowed me from greedily consuming a 74-minute anthology of traditional tunes from the dals or valleys of Sweden and Norway. I merely dialed my air conditioner to the Tromso setting, ignoring the short-lived blasts of the Michigan summer as I settled into icy images of sunless winter days, isolated mountain outposts, shepherds separated from the warmth of their homes, tripping and falling on the ice, etc.

Shot through with apocalyptic calm--crisply and starkly presented in 31 short, pristinely recorded selections--Musique des vallees is unmistakably the product of an arctic temperament. Its songs often resemble Irish ditties with much of the fun and passion carefully filtered out, but they're still irresistibly beautiful. What made this disc a must-have for me was Kirsten Braten-Berg, who bristled then froze the hairs on my neck on 1991's Nordisk Sang anthology of folk music from Norway, and she's equally impressive here sharing lead vocals with violinist Lean Willemark and an uncredited male singer.

The first half of the anthology is devoted to Swedish songs, the second half to the improvisationally freer Norwegian pieces. Material ranges from ancient shepherd's songs, medieval ballads and various dance and work songs, to intriguing miniatures called stav or stev that immortalize quick snapshots of the daily grind. Most compositions are not unexpectedly stately and measured, including a delicate, staccato bagpipe performance by Per Gudmonson, who help rescue this Norwegian instrument from historical obscurity. But peppering the stoicism are pockets of a thaw where well-reasoned emotive forces suddenly slip their moorings. "Till flickan som ar tusen ar" is thick with blasts of a salgflojt willow-bark flute, whose flinty harmonics drill deep into the inner ear, while an a cappella jew's harp explores the geography of Braten-Berg's skull on "Bestelanden." Best of all are songs in the vein of "Gyris Anders Svit," whose wild 2+4+3 rhythm scheme and eccentric quarter-tone modalities fly in the face of my preconceptions of an endless history of Scandinavian stoicism. In these pieces the pagan overtones are closer to the surface than any other West European music I know. I hear echoes of a bronze-age, antler-capped shaman vigorously sawing off pieces of his astral body and broadcasting them to the auroral winds, but that only means I've got the air conditioner turned up too high.

In my dreams this was a new Nick Drake release. Same quiet, smoky voice rolling down and tucking in at the end of phrases, same emotional complexity embedded in simple melodies, same spare string pattern pulsing behind the vocals, same suspended time ambiance to every cut. But the songs are all in Luo, the singer readily dispenses advice on how to live happily, and his self-effacement is unlikely to end in a handful of pills. Still, it's for the same reasons that I loved Drake's releases that I'm impressed by Londoner Ayub Ogada's transformation of traditional and popular music from his Kenyan homeland on En Mana Kuoyo (RealWorld).

Like Nick's Pink Moon, this disc first struck me as too subdued to command attention. Then I sprouted ears and realized that the most powerful forces around don't necessarily make a big bang: love, sex, death, food, gravity, rabbits, or the multi-tracked choir of angels on "Dala," a song about togetherness and strength which also shows off the Luo language as a natural instrument of percussion. When the good feelings begin to accumulate into the threat of an avalanche or I get annoyed just remembering that Ogada refers to his nyatiti lyre as his wife, I've only to jump into the throbbing well of the string-dug "Thum Nyatiti" to wish optimism upon myself. Plus it's easy to interpret Ogada's prayerful approach as an admission of the hunger that gnaws.

Wish I could tell you what's troubling me about Watching the Dark, Rykodisc's 3-cd overview of Richard Thompson's fruitful and brooding career. The right elements are properly in place, including a preoccupation with death as remedy for an ignorant descent from an unknowable elsewhere ("Bird in God's Garden") combined with the determination to stare down the grimmest moments of reality. Not that the square-jawed gnashing of teeth doesn't allow a dose of sentimentality if only as balm for constantly losing and regaining faith in the idea of redemptive love of god or woman. So what's not to like? Thompson's venomous Morris dance approach to rock knocked the '60s U.K. folk movement on Jethro Tull's fat bottom.

The trio of 1969-70-vintage songs with Fairport Convention included here are less dated than they are enduringly strange, while unbelievably intense experiments with jigs and reels ("The Knife Edge") cut spirals of sufficient fury to wax langa-langa any day. Much topnotch material is presented in this set, from duets with former wife Linda that would have strangled any marriage, to a concert shot of Thompson strangling a hurdy gurdy ("Poor Wee Jockey Clarke"), to an approach to a traditional tune ("Bogie's Bonnie Belle") that turns a Scottish ballad to a curse laid upon a hangman.

My problem, as with the Marley Songs of Freedom set, is the philosophy of multi-disc boxes which feint toward a kind of completeness by emphasizing chronology, career moves and landmarks recordings. Yet the neophyte like myself who owns four or five Thompson releases at most is frustrated by tracks that strike a blow for fandom instead of history--meaning that instead of going for the jugular, boxes typically detour into alternate takes, rarities and concert recordings best appreciated by listeners already on intimate terms with the studio equivalents. I bought the Marley set, for example, because I have nothing else of his on compact disc and not because of an imponderable need to hear a compressed version of the Catch A Fire lp--or a lackluster live performance of "No Woman No Cry." So why not opt for best quality over obscurity, confining footnote tracks to a bonus disc or a separate release entirely? It's not that I'm against concert recordings per se, either. Some of the live cuts on Watching the Dark feel thin, but for every two of these there are absolute stunners like the vitriolic mantra "Can't Win"--or the no-exit "Calvary Cross," with its nails-in-the-palm guitar solo that eschews the whole damn idea of completion.

Popeye is an equivalent or better singer than Joseph Spence. More often than not he forgets or disregards the words, filling in with nonsense scat and sputter or leaving yawning blanks for his wife to plug up from the kitchen. The way he twists standards, pitch and enunciation, you might suspect he'd fallen into a bowl of rum and never quite managed to crawl out--except that Spence's finger-picking is as detailed as it is incandescent, a rippling storm over sea, sand and frets so intense and convoluted, that when Sam Charters discovered him in 1958 for the Folkways label Music of the Bahamas release, Charters reported, "So much music seemed to be coming from the guitar that I looked behind the wall to see if there was another musician--but there was only Spence."

That release brought numerous American musicians to Andros Island in search of Spence, including Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder and the Kweskin Jug Band's Fritz Richmond, who recorded Happy All the Time for Elektra in Spence's living room in 1964. Newly reissued by Hannibal/Rykodisc with updated liner notes, Happy is still a revelation, full of frothy yet chunky, impossible to duplicate string-pulling. Spence's material of choice is the spiritual, from the jarring "Out on the Rolling Sea" to the sermon-length "Hallelujah Side." Island songs like "Bimini Gal" and "Conch Ain't Got No Bone" also lose their heads to a grunty, syncopated attack that levels everything into a kind of sea shanty built from crazy, contrapuntal guitar lines and wave after wave of good feelings. Glorious!

In my least crabby moods, Farafina's (RealWorld) percussion-powered locomotion hits me as a syncretic rhythm machine and the rest of the time as a folkloric troupe tailoring beats to the marketplace. Though neither of these lesser evils is grounds for exclusion from my pleasure perceptors, the tendency to add training wheel drum parts that show us gangly westerners where to put our feet diminishes the excitement. Strip "Kara Mogo Mousso" of the shaker metronome, or the Gift-of-the-Gnawa inspired "Dounounia" of its electric bass heartbeat or "Nanore" of military tattoos--to name just three tracks in a row--and you'd have something worthy of the talents involved. Then again, zouk fans might accuse this Burkino Faso group of excessive subtlety.

Alternatively, I recommend Tabala Wolof; Sufi Drumming of Senegal (Village Pulse/Sterns), where interlocking drum patterns twist tightly around beats within beats, and it's not so much you don't know where these evocative percussion pieces are going as that you don't feel like you've already been there before. I can't climb the rhythms to whatever ecstatic heights these drum and chorus pieces map out for the Khadriya, members of the world's oldest sufi order established in twelfth-century Baghdad and brought to Senegal in the late 1700s. But I like the way their intricacies confound the intellect--and they linger long in the ribcage, too, thanks to the superb sonics of this field recording that shows what digital sound is made for.

Ethiopian material girl Netsanet Mellesse combines the power of the pout with a voice cleft by the characteristic quaver of Arabic singers, suggesting vulnerability, perhaps, but in full control to yank the Wallias Band back from too passionate a love affair with Blood, Sweat and Tears-era rock. But never fear. The tension between dated instrumental charts and Netsanet's determination to propel the Addis Ababa music scene into the next century gives Spirit of Sheba (Shanachie) enough sustained tension to carry the few weak cuts on this all-out blast. Her band has little enough to apologize for anyway, as they manage to simultaneously bounce and glide, offering just as much to danceaholics as to those of us who prefer collapsing in the heat and letting lush waves lap our eyebrows. My favorite cuts ("Yelew Wekesa" and "Eyenamaye") have the same sweet, butter-sauteed taste as Sudanese merdoum, while the peppery desolation of "Minew Jal" defies description as stabs of soul hornplay, programmatic piano meanders and Jean Francois Pauvros' bowed-guitar cello ease Netsanet's descent into a deep blue whirlpool. She survives. And the more I hear this band--especially on those few weak cuts that feel stronger each time around--the more I think its members would be holy terrors paired with Van Morrison.

In contrast to its predecessor volume, the avant garde material on Mana 689, New Music Indonesia Vol. 2 (Lyrichord) uses traditional forms and instruments as departure points in a manner almost invisible to an outsider like myself. Except for the basso profundo chants and metallic explosions of the title track, I have trouble seeing the damage wrought on local genres in these beautiful experiments with Javanese gamelan and percussive instruments. Nothing on this disc, in fact, is half as strange and forboding as traditional songs from North Sumatra or mainstream stuff the famers outside Jakarta absorb without a moment's pause. For gamelan aficianados, this showcase for modern composers may well be an epiphany. For myself, I have to be content with admiring textures and evocation of atmosphere and wondering about the rest.

The three-cut composition kicking off You're Next (RUB-A-Dub Records) by Swedish multi-instrumentalist Per Tjernberg is the worldbeat equivalent of automatic writing--part inspiration, part plain loopiness, but inarguably charged with spontaneity. As the second cut, "Okay," wound into "Neptune Boogie" in the exact same groove, I began considering this disc as a wanderer's version of Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians--or, worse, as Tubular Bells with Jonas Lindgren's fuzzbox violin solo standing in for Vivian Stanshall. To its credit, the amalgam here resembles new age music not in the least, which is where one usually hies to find a similar mixture of oud, berimbau, didjeridoo and all matter of exotic percussion, though Tjernberg's conception of a world music synthesis is similar to the crystal gazers'. Nice try, but no one yet has figured out how to circumnavigate the globe without sounding like a member of package tour group emptying pockets of coins from many nations. (Address: Tjarhovsgatan 44, S-116 29 Stockholm, Sweden)

For some reason heat-and-serve flamenco is the Lo-Cal music of choice this season, presumably because the acoustic ambiance is easily consumed once authenticity has been scrubbed away. Willie & Lobo's Gypsy Boogaloo (MESA/Bluemoon Recordings) is mostly about image, the rusticity-with-comfort hook that draws adventurers to Baja's fishing villages. Here, say the liner notes, "these itinerant musicians" express their restless gypsy souls by performing nightly at a tourist hot spot and playing on their surf boards by day--precisely like the folks back in Andalusia, I guess. The violin and guitar collaborations are what you might expect from resort culture: pleasant, professional and never a bit distracting.

Another easy target is Jazzmenco by la Vienta (Telarc Jazz) who perform such enticing titles as "Spanish Invasion," "Paisano," "My Desert Home," "Mecca," "Paco's Night Out" and "Shores of Spain." I'm not making these up--only "Pizarros Holiday" is missing. The lite jazz approach of these guitar duets quickly made me nostalgic for Willie & Lobo.

Far better is Bruce BecVar, who not only doesn't sound in danger of falling asleep on the job on Arriba (Shining Star), but also demonstrates flashes of humor--such as the "Chariots of Fire" goof on "Flamenco Highlife"--and a flair for innovative textures and arrangements. I wouldn't trade in my Ketama albums just yet, but I wouldn't kick this off the cd player out of principle either, since sincerity obviously precedes careerism here. Plus his note-for-note duels with his sax players are kind of cool. Keep in touch, Bruce.

Why, you may well ask, do I sacrifice priceless Technobeat space to cds few Beat readers would ever pick up except by horrendous mistake? Once in a great while a disc of merit sets up chops just around the corner from world music but a good city block and an intersection away from the dreaded new age district. Outback's recordings are one example and also Somewhere by Lights in a Fat City. A 1988 recording bewilderingly chosen as the first release by San Francisco's City of Tribes label, Somewhere starts with the disembodied voices, banging dumpster lids, and fire extinguisher hisses from the middle section of Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother Suite, and via Stephen Kent's spitting, yelping didgeridoo herds the mess inside a baby Burundi beat. Deliciously close to my worst fears of how a one-world music might sound, the product of this defunct English group is recommended in small doses only unless your bad habits include designer drugs.

The sad demise of Lights in a Fat City doomed didgeridoo-ist King to scour the earth in search of a similar bunch of kif-heads. Happily he struck gold on City of Tribes' second release, Trance Mission, the only cd ever to tempt me to give a second listen to a '70s LP by the Cosmic Jokers, which I remember as a collaboration between members of Ash Ra Temple and Amon Duul--but I won't succumb to baser impulses and confirm this. Trance Mission admirably continues the work King started in 1988 with Fat City, though I'm not sure I hear the fruits of five years of didgeridoo practice in between. But I do hear Beth Custer's admirably obnoxious Beefheart-style skin-sax on "Bo Didgely" and her try at tacking klemzer clarinet onto tabla on the root-bound "Folk Song." My favorite piece, however, is the solemn 11-minute "Tunnel" which wriggles through a worm-hole of gaseous material unexplored since Gong abandoned its five-year mission over 15 years ago. Too raucous, adventurous, and funny for a new age audience, Trance Mission is worldbeat space rock at full impulse power.


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