Pacing at the foot of a hillock of stones dredged from the Mississippi,
I grumbled to my wife, "We're running out of time." In reality
our trip west was only hours old, but I couldn't bear relinquishing control
of my carefully wrought schedule this early on. Plus, Linda had already
found two blood red agates at the quarry our friends had recommended just
outside Kammanche, Iowa, and all I had to show for 120 minutes on my knees
were three crumbling sandstone Silurian Period coral fossils resembling
thrown scoops of mud. I consoled myself with thoughts of the Badlands, the
tranquil landscape of tortured eroded shapes glimpsed 18 years earlier on
my trek to graduate school and reputedly brimming with Titantotherium vertabrae
and prehistoric camel teeth.
Settling into a Super 8 Motel near midstate Grinnell, Iowa as darkness
descended, Linda bubbled over her lucky find while I calculated the day's
total expenditures at a mere $78 including gas, room, and three meals for
two. Cheered by this petty triumph, I cued up Knut Reiersrud's Footwork (Shanachie), intent on chalking up
a few laughs at the expense of the concept of bridging the lush and passionate
music of West Africa and the somber folk traditions of Reiersrud's Norway.
But Knut makes the unthinkable flow as smoothly as a downhill stream courtesy
of a puckish sense of adventure and the willingness to submerge his own
ideas in those of his collaborators. Love of a universal pop vernacular
doesn't hurt either. Thus, if Reiersrud's visit to Senegal unearthed a fresh
rendition of the blues war-horse "Baby Please Don't Go" tied to
Juldeh Camara's one-string riti fiddle, why not completely recast it with
a touchingly bravura lead vocal by his own pasty-faced self? And while he's
playing Arctic bluesman, he tops the nerviness ladder by belting out "You
Ought to Treat a Stranger Right" (based on Blind Willie Johnson's "Everybody")
fronting for gospel greats the Five Blind Boys of Alabama.
Reiersrud's ear for the grace beneath the surface of inherently awkward
juxtapositions keep the bravest experiments from banging into self-indulgence.
The formidable talents of the musicians--including kora player/vocalist
Alagi M'Bye, vocalists Camara and Amadou Sarr, percussionist Paolo Vinaccia,
and guitarist Reiersud-bring a fluency to Footwork as it wanders from the
clog-dancing "Trampin'" to a Fulani "Wrestling Theme,"
the ambient "Lamin," or to "Fjording," a Norwegian pastoral
built around an Indian sarangi-style slide guitar. Despite its kaleidoscopic
shiftiness, Footwork neither taxes in the short snippet nor over
the long haul. Recording half the songs live to tape in historic Norwegian
churches seems to have embedded an air of serenity amid the crackling spontaneity.
A field recording-quality mix bolsters the authenticity quotient, as in
the Moslem inflected "Jarabe" which pits M'Bye's needle-pinning
vocals against Reiersrud's softly strummed acoustic guitar fitted with a
tuning "stolen from one of my favorite guitarists--Joni Mitchell,"
as the liner notes reveal. With the disappearance of the 3 Mustaphas 3,
I've missed a Michael Palin-esque sense of whimsy in a world beat scene
increasingly stacked with high-concept, over-processed products. Footwork
goes a long way toward restoring my faith in human fallibility.
Hunched over the steering wheel for nine hours, I chased lost time past
Des Moines, Council Bluffs, Sioux City and Sioux Falls as the countryside
grew seductively flat around us. In Mitchell, South Dakota, we pulled up
to the curb in front of "The World's Only Corn Palace," a Moorish-style
architectural monument to agriculture whose outside walls were decorated
with 3,000 bushels of longitudinally sliced ears of corn, plus millet, milo,
alfalfa and other local grains. Besides dazzling visitors, the seed-by-number
murals stimulated the local starling population, which treated the facility
as the world's largest birdfeeder. A few blocks away, the weekly residents
of the Palace Motel held an open house in several units adjoining
our own, but we were too exhausted by the sights of the day to attend. After
tallying up our per diem expenses--$73 including gas, food, lodging, postcards
and a cheap pair of headphones--I let Linda enjoy the merrymaking through
the plasterboard as I submerged myself in an appropriately diverting cd,
6 & 12 String Slack Key by Cyril
Pahinui (Dancing Cat/Windham Hill).
The love of American folk music that Cyril displayed on 1992's The Pahinui
Bros. pop cd is all over this disc too, modernizing slack key just enough
to free up the piano-roll syncopation that often identifies older songs.
His use of a 12-string guitar is an interesting innovation that thickens
and slightly blurs the sound. Fast pieces like "Moani Ke'ala"
have a near-carillon sound, while the deliberately paced "Marketplace"
takes on a hymnal resonance. But as sweet and sweeping as the material gets,
it never collapses into dreaminess due to Pahinui's vigorous approach that
even in delicate passages kept snapping me into appreciative attention.
His 12-string adds so much texture, this is the one solo slack key release
I've heard where I'd have trouble imagining any added accompaniment, and
he's also by a whisker the most satisfying vocalist in the traditional island
style in the Dancing Cat series so far. Closing out the disc is "Lullaby
for Pops" a beautiful instrumental tribute to his father, slack key
legend Gabby "Pops" Pahinui, which does the old man proud.
Just before our trip west, I received a letter from Beat reader Beverly
Mendheim containing the sad news that Sonny Chillingworth died this summer
after a long battle with prostrate cancer. This influential slack key guitarist
was a favorite of many Hawaiian musicians. Writing about her time living
in Hawaii, Beverly told me that Chillingworth and other slack key guitarists
whom she saw in concert impressed her with their lack of anything approaching
a star aura. This humbleness helps make Ledward Kaapana's Led Live Solo (Dancing Cat/Windham Hill) a delight
in an off-the-cuff performance that mixes exacting musicianship with aw-shucks
patter, one false start to a song, and, judging by the audience response,
a demonstration of his trademark slack key tricks such as playing with one
hand stuffed in a paper bag or fretting with his forearm. The casual atmosphere,
though seemingly at odds with the ethereal melancholy of the music, is consistent
with the inherent intimacy of slack key. This is a great introduction to
the genre that heaps in everything from a Hawaiian-bred "Turkey in
the Straw" ("Glass Ball Slack Key") to a string-melting version
of Sonny Chillingworth's "Whee Ha Swing," along with more traditional
material. A few of Kaapana's own compositions seem destined for longevity,
too, especially "Na Ka Pueo" which highlights his lovely falsetto
with tenor electric guitar.
Nothing prepared me for the desolation of the Badlands, not even the
chipped and weathered 20 ft.-high "World's Biggest Prairie Dog"
two miles north of the park entrance. As I approached the first scenic turnout,
the landscape seemed of a piece with the blasted South Dakota plains, but
as I moved toward the edge of the overlook, as far as I could see, a vista
of barren, grotesquely eroded rock and hardened mud ridges emerged, a disorientingly
alien jumble of jagged edges and incongruently soft pastel colored strata
whose scale defied measurement. Cost of the park per vehicle: $4. Tears
rolled down my eyes as I struggled to contain the scarred and awful beauty
of this foreboding, emotionless setting. Chills of ecstasy wracked my body.
I remember falling and scuffing my forehead on the gravel footpath, then
the voice of a park ranger waving off spectators, commanding anyone who
would listen, "Get this man some calypso."
Ice Records' klassic kitchener, volume two
finds the legendary calypsonian at his bawdiest and funniest in this collection
of recordings originally released from 1963-76. Sure, "My Pussin,"
about Lord Kitchener's alleged argument with a young woman over ownership
of her 'cat,' couldn't have seemed long on wit even when it captured Road
March honors in 1965, but other cuts have held up to the passage of time.
"No Melda" concerns a "jammette name Emelda" who threatens
him with his life unless he joins her in the "upside down dance"
that "I don't dance with me lawful wife." The hilarious "Flag
Woman"--Kitch's remarkable 1976 Road March comeback--has him encouraging
a majorette to move her hand as she raises his flag staff, while he responds
with strained aye-yi-yi's. Since calypso finds both its power and ephemeral
nature in its commentary on passing events, it's to Kitch's credit that
most songs here remain wildly entertaining out of their original context.
"One to Hang," apparently about a famous murder trial of the day,
chronicles an unfortunate defendant who, turning state's evidence against
his accomplices, is the one who gets the noose. But klassic kitchener's
high point may be a potshot against the upstart Mighty Sparrow, assailed
in "No More Calypsong" for ruining Carnival with excessively wordy
songs delivered without the "real Calypso twang." Wonder what
the good Lord thinks about soca and ring bang?
Like the Badlands, The Long Way Home (Shanachie)
by Dama and D'Gary was difficult to take in at first breath. In remarkably
understated fashion it is a work of startling scope and originality. While
retaining the distinctive filigree and elusively complicated rhythms of
Malgasy guitar-based pop, this collection of gorgeous acoustic ballads,
sung alternately by Dama and D'Gary, has a statelessness of wide embrace
due to Dama Mahaleo's decades-long love affair with American and French
singer/songwriters from Bob Dylan to Jacques Brel. Recorded in Louisiana
during the francophone Festival Internationale, Long Way features Cajun
fiddler Michael Doucet in an airy duet with Dama's kabosy mandolin on "Mpanjono
Mody" (The Fisherman's Return), occasional electric guitar from Sonny
Landreth and producer Henry Kaiser, and percussionists Pana and Lava from
the Rossy band. But anchoring the disc in pure Malgasy substrate are contributions
by mindboggling guitarist D'Gary, who ties "Sahira Toy" in intricate
circular knots, burrows deep into rustic longing with "Mpiarak' Aomby"
(Song of the Cowherd), complete with livestock-urging grunts, and spins
honey around the exhilarating song of release, "Andeso Aroy" (Go
On With Your Life).
Missing my chance to hunt for fossils at the Badlands, I tried scouring
the grounds of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, but busloads of tourists
gawking at four huge stone heads kept getting in my way. Linda suggested
searching for indigenous animals at the auspiciously named Custer State
Park 17 miles south in the Black Hills, and I assumed she meant surreptitious
digging for extinct species until a pack of wild burros nearly leaped into
her Ford Escort for the reward of my 75-cent chocolate chip cookie from
the Perkins restaurant chain. Safely planted in bleachers at Reptile
Gardens, we later watched a trained pig shove a mining cart, a rabbit
shoot a ping-pong ball gun, and a chicken win at poker, though the full
show was canceled due to poor attendance.
In sparsely populated Whitewood, Linda asked the waitress at the Howdy Restaurant
about the "We reserve the right to refuse service" sign, which
puzzled us since the South Dakotans we had met were exceptionally well-mannered,
even the bikers who operated the motel in Rapid City where we had stayed
and almost slept the night before. "We get some local folks coming
in drunk and on medication," she explained. Our room next door at Tony's
Motel was so antiseptically quiet, I fired up some music. Expenses for
the day, including gas, food, lodging and entertainment: somewhere above
my $80 limit.
I used to consider fat electronic rock crescendos the height of musical
muscle. But the bold percussive improvisation by Septeto Tipico Oriental's
Aristides Serrano stands out from the refined atmosphere of the acoustic
guitar break like gunshots at a wedding. Against the rippling background
of "Descarga del septeto," his first intermittent bongo bursts
feel crazy and reckless, but they soon mesh with the complicated rhythmic
logic of the traditional Cuban son on Casa de la
The disc is named for a house in Santiago de Cuba where the seminal trovadores
included in this anthology meet and play, including Cuarteto Oriente, Duo
cubanos (in probably their last recorded appearance), Cuarteto Patria, and
Sones de Oriente. The results of this release are so faithful to the spirit
of the Casa, that house director Luisa Blanco reportedly cried when she
first heard the cd, and I guess I did, too. The line-up is impeccable, the
top-notch material includes two songs each by Nico Saquito and Miguel Matamoros,
and every second is suffused with entrenched hurry-up-and-take-it-easy rhythms,
taut yet totally forgiving of the nerviest liberties, like guitarist Alejandro
Enis Almenares' spidery changes on Cuarteto Oriente's "Mueve la cantara
mulata." And just when you think the groove can't furrow any deeper,
in kick Guitarras y Trovadores' Manuelito Semanat and Ernesto Carrey on
tumbadoras and bongos--or Quarteto de la Trova's Reynaldo Prades erupts
in delicious rounded--vowel vocals-and all celestial heaven breaks loose.
On Marie Mozege (Sterns), Zaire's Les
Super Stars want us to believe langa langa and other souped-up form
of soukous never happened. I'm willing to feign amnesia for the sake of
classic rhumba al a Franco sweetly served with stirring harmonies and icy
cold lead guitar runs by alumni from a couple of Zaiko incarnations, the
Choc Stars, Familia Dei, and O.K. Jazz. Exceptional guitar playing is, of
course, de rigeur for anything Zairian, so what makes this disc click
is the primacy of singers Bimi Ombale, Defao Matumona, Malage de Lugendo,
and Endho, who when not breathing fragile sighs or swooning into plaintive
leads, join forces in exhilarating two- or three-part harmony--only occasionally
lapsing into the aerobic instructor chanting of contemporary soukous. In
a nod to modern mores, some sampled and synthesized percussion helps keeps
pace, but the microchip attack is admirably restrained and placed well behind
the wall of the vocalists' heart-swollen humanity. All that's missing is
a real horn section.
On the first day of fall in Whitewood, South Dakota, I awoke to a dusting
of snow on the ground and reports of more to come in the northern Black
Hills where we were headed later in the afternoon. "Let's go home,"
I pleaded to Linda, terrified of being stranded overnight in Deadwood, burial
site of Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and Potato Creek Johnny. But, luckily,
sanity prevailed. For reasons too complicated to explain here, I'm convinced
that a being from another planet contacted me on the telephone at my parent's
house in 1974, and I was foolish enough to hang up. Our planned loop into
northwestern Wyoming to Devils Tower would give my deliverers a second chance
to catch up with me, I reasoned. Unfortunately, loudly as I panted the "Close
Encounters" alien theme as we walked the 1.5 mile trail around the
tower base, I ran into nothing more bizarre than a woman from Indiana and
her serviceman husband.
Car radio barking out hog reports-just like home-we eased out of Wyoming
past hillsides of snow-tipped pines and took Spearfish Canyon into Deadwood,
which I had looked forward to as a deteriorating wild west town stuck in
time. But Deadwood was the scene of insidious renovation, a cleaned-up,
quainted-up reworking of the old sin strip that by civic agreement stopped
just short of neon. The air smelled of mob money, and we were unable to
find a single restaurant in town where the gleaming heads of brand-new one-armed
bandits didn't loom above the tables.
Turning vaguely toward home on I-80, we fled for the night to New Underwood,
home of the darkened Jake's Motel and little else. The office manager
had to be roused from the cash register of the gas station/convenience store
across the scrub grass lot to check us in. It was cold and we wanted heat
in our room. After six sprints back and forth from the store till to a heater
that had to be lit with a match, she finally produced a sustainable gas
flame along with creeping noxious fumes that made Linda and me headachy
and dizzy by the early morning hours. To keep the room from spinning, I
tried writing a few reviews.
Combining Malian traditional music and flamenco is one of those great ideas
that's only unlikely until you hear it, and 1989's Songhai collaboration
between Spanish neo-flamenco band Ketama, kora player Toumani
Diabate, plus other musicians made many critics' best-of lists that
year. Songhai 2 (Hannibal/Rykodisc), featuring
the same core artists plus two additional West African instrumentalists,
illustrates why the two styles mesh so well. Both musics have common African
roots and are primarily performed by members of musical families that go
back generations. Both also share dense rhythmic structures, passionate
Islamic-inflected vocals, and lead instruments that simultaneously carry
out melodic and rhythmic duties.
But it's the different characters that allow one genre to complement the
other, as the defining angst, aggressiveness, and starkness of flamenco
is offset by balafon- and kora-based Malian music's lush instrumental balm.
A case in point is "Monte de los Suspiros," where Ketama's lead
singer establishes a lonely, yearning atmosphere that's immediately soothed
by an upbeat counter-theme on Keletigul Diabate's balafon. When the same
theme is later voiced on flamenco guitar, however, the effect is bittersweet
at best. Bolstered by a West African female chorus, this interplay of moods
creates a continuous dialog that never loses its intensity. Adding another
dimension is Danny Thompson--whose bass on "Mali Soja" sounds
like a talking drum as it rumbles in the background, then develops to gently
roll the music forward--and Spanish bassist Javier Colina, who overlays
a jazz attitude on the already brimming "Djamana Djana," an Iberian
rhumba/Malian salsa which resembles one of Gilberto Gil's mutant sambas.
Unlike other fusion projects which import exotic instruments into readily
definable genres, Songhai 2 is a true collaboration that creates
a new sound anchored in ancient logic.
For much more flamenco, I recommend Duende
(Ellipsis Arts), a three-cd, slipcased set with profusely illustrated 48-page
book containing a history of the genre and detailed notes on performers
and tracks. The package design is beautiful, similar in format to Songs
of Freedom and Tougher Than Tough. The selected material is quite
good, though weighted against archival performances that would have given
the collection more depth in favor of better-sounding tracks from the modern
recording era. One happy exception is a heart rending solares from the 1930s
by superb vocalist Pastora Pavon--better known as La Nina de los Peines
(the Girl with the Combs)--which appears on Disc One, Passion. This
set continues the Ellipsis Arts practice of establishing somewhat artificial
themes for each disc in the collection rather than presenting the material
via chronology, region, or style. Disc Two, titled Magic,
lays emphasis on the flamenco guitar and includes songs by old timers Paco
de Lucia, Eduardo Rodriguez, and flamenco fusion pioneer Sabicas, plus a
number of new flamenco guitar avatars. Disc Three, Exploration, takes
an overview of new flamenco's embrace of various nontraditional styles,
from Ketama's rockified and Songhai strategies, to other artists' jazz,
Afro-Cuban, Karnatic, blues and classical music outreach. Though not quite
the historical document that the genre deserves, this is a richly rewarding
anthology providing hours of some of the most rousing and passionate music
It's the battle of the Bulgarian women's choirs and a round of conflicting
title claims that ought to confuse just about everyone. With the Mesa label's
1992 disco recording From Bulgaria with Love came the announcement
that the Bulgarian State Vocal Choir had changed its name to Le Mystere
des Voix Bulgares after the highly successful pair of American releases
by that title. A live cd by the same group was issued in 1993. Now comes
a recording on Elektra Records called Ritual
by a second group of singers also referred to as Le Mystere des Voix
Bulgares, which, according to the press release "is a registered
trademark... and an exclusive title for the Bulgarian State Television Female
Vocal Choir." This ensemble is said to be the group which sang on the
two original Le Mystere recordings. I can't tell the difference, except
that the Elektra bunch establishes itself as the classier outfit with this
recording of sonorous Thracian Christmas hymns, playful St. Lazar Day songs
appropriately flirty for a village fertility holiday, and the unexpected
bonus of swirling, chimerical instrumentals such as "A Shopski Tantsek,"
which whips up a dust devil of gadulka fiddle figures and shivering gaida
bagpipes. Augmenting the choral treatments of traditional Bulgarian material
is a three-song Sephardic "Jewish Triptych" which nestles right
into the choir's distinctive oeuvre. I'm still not such which ensemble is
which, but this is the first Bulgarian vocal release since the first Mystere
disc to hold my interest.
I nearly passed over a worthy anthology because of its appearance on a new
age label, but Triloka Records' Trance Planet
is that rare collection that manages not only to find high quality songs
that haven't been anthologized to death, but to sequence together tracks
with a similar production sound. The release lives up to its name on the
strength of the first half dozen cuts, in which rootsy material is presented
in a cavernous studio setting where electronic textures rattle past the
ear like so many escaping bats. Orchestra Marrabenta Star de Mocambique's
"Nwahulwana" showcases the woodwind-esque pipes of lead vocalist
Wazimbo in a soaring performance bathed in ultraviolet ambience, kicking
right into Les Nouvelles Polyphonies Corses' "Anima," producer
Hector Zazou's turbulent montage of Patrizia Poli's voice wound around an
a cappella Corsican song and backed by John Hassell's treated trumpet. Zakir
Hussain wails on acoustic and electronic percussion on "Balinese Fantasy,"
and "The Game" places Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali
Khan in an atypical setting of amplified keyboards and guitars plus African
Trance Planet's essentially acoustic half lacks the spacey attitude
of the initial barrage, but contains solid tracks by Cesaria Evora, Rossy,
and the Tahitian Choir, plus a stunning closer by Mercedes Sosa, "Gracias
a la Vida." Forced into exile in the 1970s by the Argentine junta,
Sosa returned in 1983 and recorded this emotional hymn to freedom in front
of thousands of fans, whose phenomenal, thunderous response to the closing
bars makes this the most moving concert recording I've ever heard.
Another excellent compilation is--take a breath--European
Forum of Worldwide Music Festivals Presents: Strictly Worldwide X3 (piranha),
which promises to deliver "tomorrow's worldwide music secrets today."
Produced by shadowy Mustapha operative Ben Mandelson, the collection shies
from the glossy stuff of Trance Planet in favor of earthy, piston-popping
material, like Ferus Mustafov's hot-wired sax and accordion cocek from Macedonia,
an urban cowboy polka via Germany's Erich und das Polk, fiddle sawing blurs
from Hungary's Okros Ensemble, or Thierry Robin's gypsy reel from France.
Other compelling material hails from West and Southern Africa, Eastern Europe,
and Cuba, but for comparative purposes I found X3 most useful for
giving me a perspective on Reunion pop band Ziskakan thanks to a roots cut
from that island's family group Granmoun Lele, and for helping me measure
Finnish girl group Vartinna against Angelin Tytot's estrogen-laden assault
on the peppy Lapland standard "Golbma Irkki."
Less successful is the long anticipated A Week
or Two in the Real World (RealWorld/Caroline), a souvenir of that
British world music label's marathon recording weeks of 1991 and '92, where
musicians from around the planet were shoehorned both singly and collaboratively
in the Wiltshire studio complex. It's not that any of the material is weak,
but simply that six of the 16 tracks are recycled from existing releases.
I had been hoping for alternate takes at least of the excellent songs here
by Turkmenistani folk group Ashkhabad or Mozambicans Ghorwane--and more
one-off collaborations on the order of Van Morrison and the Holmes Brothers'
perfect meld on "That's Where It's At" or Jam Nation's staid yet
unsettling collusion between a traditional English ballad and full-tilt
sequencing on "She Moved Through the Fair." Good songs by Hassan
Hakmoun, Farafina, Toto La Momposina, Lucky Dube and others abound, but
the hyped adrenal presence of those intense recording sessions is completely
On our way back home, we treated ourselves to pallid sundaes at the Sweet
Shack in forgotten Kadoka. A sign posted over a doorway inside the restaurant
admonished, "Chewing tobacco and sunflower seeds are no longer allowed
in the game room because of recent incidents," reinforcing my theory
that public eating places are hotbeds of antisocial behavior in South Dakota.
Hours earlier in New Underwood we had watched a flustered woman order a
slice of pie and cup of coffee for breakfast, then bolt out the front door
as they were being brought to her table. At the Badlands Petrified Gardens,
we took in the last memorable vista of the trip, a parched lot containing
idly placed specimens of vitrified slab wood, tree trunks, and rock piles
surrounded by the type of sheet metal fencing that usually quarantines a
junkyard. Both Linda and I remarked on a vague sewage smell in the air.
Finally, just off the I-80 exit east of Murdo, I stumbled onto the major
fossil discovery of the trip, scarfing up perfect specimens of a phacops
rana trilobite, hoploscaphites snail, and pentremites echinoderm. Cost:
only $5-15 each at the Ghost Town Rock Shop. Once I arrived in Michigan,
however, friends roundly denounced them as sloppy forgeries--"You can
even see where they painted the rock," the Whale insisted--but I know
they're just jealous of my paleontological acumen.
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