(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 15, Number 1, 1996)


I suppose we could have chosen a worse time to visit Quebec--say, the day after the rancorous referendum to split from Canada failed by less than one percent. In mid-September when Linda and I made the trip, we hadn't heard a peep in the American media about the impending October 30 vote and were unprepared for the seething cultural climate. Armed with no more foreign-language skills than a non-Quebecois, European French phrasebook, we found ourselves enveloped by separation anxiety and an overcurrent of hostility toward Anglophones as we skirted the north shore of the St. Lawrence River on the way to Tadoussac, 270 kilometers northeast of Quebec City. Though Rick Steves' French Phrase Book, 2nd Edition, helpfully prepared us with "Je suis couvert de piqures de punaises" ("I'm covered with bug bites"), it ignored the more practical "May those foul English-speaking Canadian bullies rot in Ontario."

Our first hint that we were entering a nativist pressure-cooker came at Saint Anne's Falls, just east of the Catholic stronghold of Ste.-Anne-de-Beaupre, when a Quebecer buttonholed Linda at the park turnstile to boast, "You'll never see waterfalls like these anywhere else." "Except over and over and over and over again in Michigan's Upper Peninsula," I wanted to say. "And the skiing here," she continued, "there is nothing else like it." "Except throughout the northern hemisphere," I thought. "Quebec is the most beautiful country," she said with finality, as if daring us to suggest it was still actually a province. As respectful and fearful visitors, we kept our opinions to ourselves. Plus we were still reeling from an incident in Ste.-Anne-de-Beaupre when Linda repeated "Je suis vegetarien" two or three times to the waitress while ordering a grilled-cheese sandwich and got a smirk and a cheese-and-bacon sandwich for her trouble. (I ate the bacon.)

The last time I was in Ste.-Anne-de-Beaupre--at age 15 with my parents--the only humor to be found in the Catholic pilgrimage town was the high-school sophomoric wit I trucked in. Overshadowing the town is a Notre Dame-style arch-basilica dedicated to the mother of the Virgin Mary, who for arcane reasons is a favorite of sailors as patron saint of wayfarers. Numerous churches to Saint Anne pepper the St. Lawrence region. The church of Ste.-Anne-de-Beaupre is the site of miracle cures commemorated by a cluttered display of crutch and brace leave-behinds. Back in 1967 my parents directed us to the Holy Stairs inside the shrine which are scaled kneeling, one-at-a-time, a Hail Mary recited on each step. "I'll use the Holy Elevator," I remember quipping. These days the town supplies its own chuckles via a motel with stained-glass windows just across the street, a seedy souvenir district, and a theater called the Jerusalem Cyclorama, which particle-accelerates patrons back to Bible times to a circular diorama of the Holy City.

The number of villages in Quebec dominated by a central oversized church made me think the province had its head in the clouds, until our journey paused with Tadoussac in sight but just out of reach. The only road eastward on the north shore of the St. Lawrence halts at the hamlet of Baie-Ste.-Catherine. In lieu of a bridge, which would seem the practical solution, cars load onto ferries for a 15-minute trip over steely grey water whipped silly by the wind. As the waves flung us around the front seat of Linda's Escort, I came to admire the efficiency of the approach, which allows the traveler to get seasick and carsick simultaneously. Earlier, in the town of La Malbaie, road construction workers with the deadpan faces endemic to the job guided our car directly into the spray of a center-line painting device, gifting us with a jaunty yellow stripe on wheels, rocker panel, and driver's side door. This could be revenge, I suggested. At the start of the day, as we circumnavigated Ile d'Orleans just beyond Quebec City, Linda had stopped the car to shoot a snapshot of a stone cottage with Monday's wash on the clothesline, only to find the madame of the house glowering out at her. A few phone calls may have been all it took to arrange our spray paint payback.

Searching for a whale that would stay in the water and not force himself into Technobeat, we bought a ticket for a three-hour boat tour in Tadoussac--a picturesque town clinging lichen-like to the rugged Saguenay headlands. Tadoussac suffers a single fault in addition to the year-round cold. It lacks the gaudy tourist amenities of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, or the Wisconsin Dells and which, aside from a hearty try at Niagara Falls, Canada is unable to master. Due to the snooty tastes of the local European tourists, Linda and I were hard pressed to find a restaurant with standards low enough to suit us. The Restaurant Chantmartin adjoining the Motel Chantmartin seemed a sure bet, but catching a whiff of our guidebook Frenglish, the waitress refused to seat us after a perfunctory attempt at explanation involving, as near as we could determine, a procession--though no churches to Saint Anne lay in the vicinity. Fortunately, even the higher ticket eateries in town betrayed a dash of the proper tourist elan by devoting an entire menu subsection to frittes, the indigenous variant of the french fry favored in a hearty gravy. Hamburgers arrived wrapped in a single folded napkin, as if ashamed.

Ten passengers could just squeeze into the tiny whale-watching motorboat waiting for us at the quay. We were passengers 11 and 12, forcing me to lean over the railing at the stern (that's boat talk) while the skipper doused us in frigid spray from the flume (that may be boat talk, I'm not sure). I had great confidence in our captain--out of necessity, since contrary to the full-color brochures of our happy outing, none of us had been supplied with life jackets. My wife and I had lots of questions for out skipper: Would we actually see some whales? What kind? Where are they from? And he had lots of answers, all of them of course in French. But in no time at all we magically made our way to an impressive pod of five 70-foot-long fin-back whales, which our captain magically located by tracing the convergence of an impressive pod of whale-watching cabin cruisers, zodiac rafts, cruise ships, yachts, and another motorboat like ours. This left scant space for the whales, but hearts bursting with generosity, they made a majestic appearance not more than 50 feet off our starboard (more boat talk).

"Bon jour!" I yelled to the closest cetacean. "Do you have any interest whatsoever in muscling into my column." When the closest whale made no answer, I turned to Linda, a rare smile lighting my face. "That's the one!" I shouted.

Given the proper circumstances, I despise the tyranny of the song. Especially at work, where I do much of the listening for this column, the leg-iron parade of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, ad infinitum, makes me feel even more a prisoner of my lock-step, humdrum, easy life. Among the various anti-song forms at hand, from jazz noodlings to Chinese classic music, most are too complex and tough to assimilate for my terminally weary brainpan. So, Ragini, Fluted Voice of the Goddess (Bamboo Moon Musik) by Mindia Devi Klein is something of a revelation. Longish compositions based on raginis (female ragas), bhajans and Indian folk melodies are freefloating enough to deny predictability a toehold, while the backbone of Dana Pandey's tabla adds a briskness that helps keep Devi Klein's thoughtful bansuri flute poised between meditation and motion.

Though drenched in spirituality and rooted in the eastern classics, Devi Klein's beautiful and evocative performance means this disc isn't just for eggheads, adepts, or followers of the guru. What I love about Ragini is how it fills in the blank spaces around me, suspending me in an ethereal bootstrap a few inches above the booklet on lighting I'm editing for a Grand Rapids office furniture manufacturer. The driest work takes on an inkling of significant ritual. Plus, at any moment, I can reach out to Mindia's flute for a much needed transfusion of ecstasy. Armed with the liner notes, I happily identify the free-form, non-percussive alap introduction to "Rag Durga" and tap a toe in time to the pair of gats that follow, but otherwise the song structures are as mysterious as the relationship between lumens and foot-candles. Yet these pieces never dissolve into an unknowable fog thanks to the extraordinary expressiveness of the performances. We hear much blather about trance music these days--most of it dependent upon microchips for its cohesiveness--yet here each single note is wrapped in the same devotion and intensity that lights the extended experience of the compositions.

Klein was the force behind my enthusiasm for last year's Philo-label reissue of Ancient Future's 1981 release, Natural Rhythms. I also love 1987's cassette-only, Bali-based Balinesedream (Music of Mindia) on which she explores a relationship between natural sound, found music, metallophone, folk guitar, and flute in one of those east/west melds that really works. And for the arrested development crowd of which I'm a member, Balinesedream has the bonus of a cover photo where, hidden behind a statue of the goddess, Devi Klein might just be nude. In a higher realm, the progression from that tape to this year's Ragini is striking. Smithsonian Fellow, Fulbright Scholar Devi Klein has created a wonderfully listenable transportation vehicle that takes several hearings to absorb, while remaining immediately accessible. [Both Ragini and Balinesedream can be ordered via P.O. Box 394, Kentfield CA 94904--phone 415-453-2801]

Squeezing a lot of squeezebox into a box, the 3-cd set Planet Squeezebox (ellipsis arts) showcases so much extraordinary virtuosity that the rest of us might just as well abandon whatever feeble endeavors we're attempting and scuttle into a hole. With a ridiculous, blocky, blacksmith bellows of an instrument, the accordionist forges the nimblest music imaginable. Because it is so young on the world stage--invented in 1829, mass-produced by 1850, marketed as a 'respectable' instrument by Hohner only in the 1920s--the accordion inspires a free-spirited exuberance that has made it one of the most adaptable, expressive, and maligned instruments. If you don't love its tootling, wheezing, bipolar personality, nothing is more annoying than an extended set of accordion tunes. But if you've survived the strolling musical terrorists of your local Italian restaurant and still aren't put off by the claustrophobic intimacy of the bandoneon, concertina, or accordion, you'll salivate over the obvious virtues plus the subtleties of this collection.

With the exception of a few bobbled passages, Planet Squeezebox measures up to its far-ranging subject matter, offering evidence that the accordion fulfills the cliche of being a self-contained orchestra as this collection demonstrates the different approaches to the squeezebox around the globe. On disc one we get the introspective, melancholy styles of western Europe, where even the peppiest Celtic manifestations struggle with the weight of history. Disc two moves into the new world with the celebratory, rousing diversions of North and South America from zydeco and Chicago-style polkas to Colombian vallenato. Disc three gives us the accordion as hypnotic aid in juju, sotho, and other African genres. Then the disc returns to Europe for a barrage of Balkan styles before concluding with a trio of accordion performances from Asia.

This nicely sequenced, well-documented, typically attractive, slip-covered whiz-bang from ellipsis arts--makers of Planet Soup and other world music boxes--emphasizes roots music and nostalgic sounds while occasionally letting a blast of the avant garde slip through for better (Attwenger's crazy Bavarian deconstruction, "h.e. zaum," or Guy Klucevsek's new music polka, "The Grass It Is Blue"), worse (Lars Hollmer's bag of honks from Uppsala, Sweden, "Endlich ein Zamba"), and in-between (Pauline Oliveras' drowsy "The Beauty of Sorrow"). It's also brimming with surprises, such as how much the Basque trikitxa style ("Bizkaian Zehar" by Kepa, Zabaleta & Motriku) resembles certain Malagasy rhythms, or how close in mood and timbre the old Brittany tune "Ma Commere, Ma Mie" (here played by Jacques Beauchamp) are to Balkan or Finnish songs. There's also a fair number of stunners, including Finland's Maria Kalaniemi's "Skymningspolskan (Growing Dusky Polska)" with frame drum backing, America's Palmer-Hughes Trio sinking deep into Debussy's "Prelude to L'enfant Prodigue," swing-era Alice Hall melting the keyboard in "What Is a This Thing Called Love," and vallenato duo Binomia de Oro taking the accordion into songbird territory on "Pointe Chevere."

Quibbles with the set? The third disk is the weakest, mainly because in the African material the accordion shifts from lead to supporting instrument--and we only get a single instrumental, Egyptian Hassam Ramzy's "Yahliw (You Little Beauty)." Trio F.A.'s lovely "Tsapika 2000" from GlobeStyle Records' Madagasikara Two anthology would have been a perfect inclusion. Plus, Asia is given short shrift at a scant three pieces, and only two are truly accordion numbers (Yang Zhangping and Wan Jingui play the ancient lusheng reed pipe on "Huanle de Miaojia"). Nevertheless, this is a terrific collection that only a squeezebox scrooge could disparage. Pick one up and strap it on.

Here's a world music variation on the old "who's buried in Grant's tomb" joke. What country are the Cuban Marimba Band from? Buy yourself a vowel if you guessed Tanzania. The Dada Kidawa anthology (Original Music) takes us back to the '60s when imitation of Cuban sones rose to the flattery of a homebrew concoction of chachacha and son montuno rhythms, Congolese guitar firepower, taarab-flavored vocals and percussive bits, plus the unmistakable ambiance of western rock, combined in an irreducible Tanzanian melee. The joy of this mix is the professionalism the Kiko Kids Jazz bring to a tremolo lead guitar straight out of Ventures territory on "Tanganyika na Uhuru" (Independence for Tanzania), the Cuban Marimba Band's sobbing vocals on the paean to self-pity "Naliya Naliya" (I'm Weeping), and at least three cuts built around the "La Bamba" riff--the most obvious being the Kiko Kids' "Kiko Mwanisakama." Like all infectious music from another era, this becomes less dated the more you live with it, and chances are a few of these cuts still enjoy dance floor reprises, since alumni of these great bands continue on in some of the most popular present-day Tanzanian orchestras.

I was afraid that the more accessible installments of Smithsonian Folkways' Music of Indonesia series were behind me, but Volume 8, Vocal and Instrumental Music from East and Central Flores, insinuated itself with ease. Flores is the second largest island in the chain formerly known as the Lesser Sundas, which includes the home of the man-eating komodo dragon, whose raptor-like hunting skills are loving described in Lawrence Blair's eccentric book on Indonesia, Ring of Fire. Appropriately, Flores serves up lots of manly singing--in particular, men's choruses from the Sikku Regency performing a cross between Polynesian vocal music and raucous English football songs. Melodies of these first group of pieces are simple, but the dynamics bring them alive, as a lead vocalist backed by sparse percussion is unexpectedly joined by an entire throng ringing out a rounded-vowel chorus that put me in mind to sign up with a truck driving school. Deedle-deedle vocal counterpoints ornament the Lero Men's chorus on the second cut, while the Sora Men's chorus favors throbbing handdrums. Elsewhere on the disc are male and female vocal duets disturbingly similar to Bulgarian village styles right down to the verse-concluding "whee!" on "Lalu Gogok." Series editor Philip Yampolsky found more diversity on Flores than he had imagined, calling the island "a textbook anthology of vocal music" and devoting two discs to the performances. Volume 9, Vocal Music from Central and West Flores is an admirable follow-up if you enjoy the styles on Volume 8, but I found the relentless dissonance somewhat off-putting.

I've long admired the Dancing Cat label's catalog of slack key guitar music, but wasn't sure how compelling an entire evening would be when the Aloha tour came to Grand Rapids. As it turned out, the performance was one of the most involving I've seen in years. With his bluesman's persona and deft touch on the steel strings, 70-year-old Ray Kane provided a casual and often funny introduction to the kihoalu style--with added poignancy as he exited the stage in his wheelchair on what may be one of this legend's last tours. George Kahumoku generated surprising textures from a 12-string guitar, told stories of his extended family, and brought orchids for everyone in the audience. But the strongest performer and obviously no mere mortal was Keola Beamer, whose sheer presence was difficult to explain. Laid back, almost sleepy in the Burning Spear mold, he played with such intensity that for brief moments I stopped hearing his guitar and voice and fell into the realm of pure music, certainly beyond my normal senses. And when I asked him after the show to autograph my poster and told him my name was Bob, he demonstrated unusual prescience by replying, "Is that with one 'O' or two?"

I've enjoyed both of Beamer's recent cds, but it'll take a live recording to capture the ecstasy he's capable of unleashing. In the meantime, the Dancing Cat label kicks off its Hawaiian Acoustic Steel & Slack Key Guitar Duets series with a ravishing release pairing Barney Isaacs' ghostly steel glissando with George Kuo's nostalgic fingerpicking on Hawaiian Touch. Great as both are together, it's Isaacs who steals the show, first by effortlessly summoning the inevitable romantic images of swaying palm trees, lapping surf, and seabirds frozen in flight, then by adding a Nashville resonance to cuts about Hawaiian cowboys, lending touches of Texas swing to the love songs, and risking a quote from "Taps" on the frisky "Maui Medley." More than these shiny accomplishments, though, as Kuo expertly ticks away and Issacs hitches his soul to extended, sighing notes, the pair crafts moments suspended from the ordinary flow of time. From tear-stained waltzes to reworkings of Tin Pan Alley blues, their mastery is impressive.

Conjunto is one of those genres that often sounds too dainty on disc to justify its reputation as a tough music of the underclass. But the grit is right in the forefront of Chulas Fronteras & Del Mero Corazon (Arhoolie), thanks to the directness of the performances plus live settings where the audience frequently rises to the decibel level of the artists. Soundtracks to a pair of classic documentaries on TexMex music by Les Blank and Chris Strachwitz, Chulas Fronteras & Del Mero Corazon is the first CD appearance of a 20-year-old collection of songs that are strong enough to stand outside the visuals as an absolute audio must-have. Highlights include Lydia Mendoza's bitter rendition of "Pero Hay Que Triste" (But Oh, How Sad), where the applause mid-song is either a tribute to her passion or appreciation for the coyote yips of an overenthusiastic fan, Rumel Fuentes closing his set with Doug Sahm's in-your-face anthem, "Chicano" ("Some people call me violent, 'cause I'm no longer the silent pobrecito mexicano..."), and the beautiful accordion filigree of Narcisco Martinez's mazurka, "Luzita," whose classicism is anything but delicate. The 24-cut, nearly 80-minute disc also includes songs by Flaco Jimenez, Santiago Jimenez accompanied by Santiago Jimenez, Jr., Los Alegres de Terna, Andres Berlanga, and other hard-hitting legends of Norteno music. Arhoolie offers both videos on a single VHS cassette in both American and European formats. Based on this amazing document, I'm ordering.

Though she's performed nontraditional material on her solo discs before, Marta Sebestyen has never strayed further from her Hungarian base than on Kismet (Hannibal/Rykodisc), which finds her hitching her quavering microtones to Bulgarian, Irish, Greek, Indian, and Russian ditties. In theory, this gives her much to surmount, especially considering the unfortunate Kismet title which pits a '50s buzzword favored in David Niven films against a tooth-jarring Broadway musical and a Yahtzee-wannabe dice game. But the fates have been kind, granting Sebestyen an accent impenetrable enough that the English-language "Leaving Derry Quay" might just as well be in Croatian, and a co-arranger canny enough to quench the songs in sufficient Balkan instrumentation that this never bottoms out as crossover. Kismet does raise the inevitable question, do we really want to hear Sebestyen performing Celtic or Indian pieces? The answer is a qualified yes, since she brings a compelling darkness to the material reminiscent of her best Hungarian work, and as a singer of great subtlety and emotion, she is top of the heap.

Global Divas (Rounder) is another of those multi-disc sets that I don't quite get. The premise seems to be, 1) there are women in every country of the world, and 2) some of them make music. Once you've recovered from that thunderbolt, you can enjoy one of the few recent anthologies that doesn't include Cesaria Evora's "Sodade." Diva's back-straining diversity embraces Marlene Dietrich, Miriam Makeba, Patsy Klein, Guiness-book record-holder Lata Mangeshkar (for 40,000 songs in the can), Dimi Mint Abba, Aretha Franklin, Gal Costa, Varttina, Lydia Mendoza, Idjah Haddjah, Marta Sebestyen, Edith Piaf, the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir... Over three discs, the list goes on and on. Makes you wonder who compiler Brooke Wentz left out. But some hint as to the intended audience can be deduced from a pair of introductory quotes by Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell, the antipodes of radio pop. Thus, Diva makes a great birthday gift for that person into women's issues, but not so deeply as to want to hear P.J. Harvey, Courtney Love, Diamand Gallas, or Meredith Monk.

Not to damn Telling Stories to the Sea (Luaka Bop) with a single word, but I mostly found this compilation of music from Cape Verde, Sao Tome, and Angola interesting. I also found it a little perplexing, because if this is the tale of Portugal's colonial legacy in its former African territories, what happened to Mozambique? Highly listenable, Telling Stories spins its Old World-New World connection via resemblances to Brazilian music with gently bucking pieces that suggest a meta-samba--from Angola, Vum Vum's "Salale" and, from Cape Verda, Cesaria Evora's surprisingly uptempo "Bia Lulucha" are two examples (Evora's "Sodade" also makes an appearance). "Amor Divino" by Cape Verdeans Bana and Paulino Viera reflects the continent's strong links with Cuban styles, which Sao Tome's Africa Negra throttles straight into guitar heaven on "Bo Lega Caco Mode Bo." Best bundle of beats is probably wrapped up in in Cape Verde's funana music, here showcased by Pedro Ramos' "Luis di Kandinha" and Jacinta Sanshes' tropical waist-twister "Vizinha Ka Bale." A solid collection, Telling Stories still somehow lacked the necessary oomph to stay on top of my pile of discs this month, but Brazilian music devotees should welcome it.

Swedish acoustic trio Vasen apply the same fire and diversity to their country's folk music on Vilda Vasen (Drone) as the new generation of Irish bands like Altan bring to Celtic fare. Armed with fiddle, guitar, and the nyckelharp--looking like a cross between a sitar and mandolin--Olov Johansson, Mikael Marin, and Roger Tallroth unleash the characteristic brooding signatures of the region heavy with medievalisms and where only a change in title differentiates a funeral tune from a wedding dance. More than this I cannot determine from the Swedish-language liner notes, but the disc is worth seeking in import bins for an instantly sobering injection of plaintive, pagan, pointy-tooth polska, schottisch, and polka fun. [Drone Music, Mox 37, S-401 20 Goteborg, Sweden]

With its wall-to-wall computer ambiance, sample-heavy logistics, and liner notes fat with Internet-gathered data subbing for a human factor, Zion Train's Home Grown Fantasy (Mesa) wins points for remoteness. Fellow Brits African Head Charge come off as warm and fuzzy in comparison to disembodied if not disemboweled songs transmitted to the listener by telemetry from the nearest irie asteroid. Whether the end product calculates as a big plus or zero degrees Kelvin depends on your attitude toward techno styles. Once I got used to bytes in place of roots, I began enjoying the flash-frozen take on reggae with solid songs, vocals and musicianship performed by clever robots, androids, clones, replicants and audioanimatronic figures. In context, the appearance of acoustic instruments--like the melodica in "Free the Bass" and skittish horn sections throughout--are touching in their antiquated bravura. A densely packed accompanying booklet of factoids gathered from the web give you something to do with your eyes until the CD-ROM release. We learn about the use and cultivation of marijuana around the globe, the weight of Elvis on various planetary bodies, outlandish conspiracy theories from the virulently antisocial, plus a catalog of objects that emergency rooms have removed from people's rectums. Add this disc to that list.


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