(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 13, Number 6, 1994)


Day 1.

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.

Day 2.

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.

Day 3.

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).

Day 4.

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 Trova (Corason/Rounder).

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.

Day 5.

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 around.

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 drums.

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 absent.

Day 6.

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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