(by Bob Tarte, published in The Beat magazine, Volume 11, Number 4, 1992)


The Whale's life took on a glint of meaning when, in the wake of the attempted coup in Caracas, he heard a commentator on "Nightline" opine that the country cried out for a strong-man president.

"I never met a Venezuelan I couldn't pin," mused the former Wawa-Thunder Bay-International Falls wrestling circuit heavyweight contender. "A man of girth is a man of depth." But before he packed his steamer trunk of cocktail sausages, herring fillets and freeze-dried ice cream wedges, I suggested he carefully consider his career change from bedsore insert entrepreneur to despot.

"Certainly the people will mob you as soon as your barge pulls into drydock."

"Certainly," he agreed.

"But do you expect the Venezuelan Coast Guard will let a man of your charismatic bulk simply drift into a leadership vacuum?" I recommended he borrow my portable shortwave receiver. Armed with a smattering of Spanish gleaned from a VHS cassette of the 1962 Juarez bout between Bobo Brazil and Chief Jay Strongbow, the Whale could suss out the local situation before making his political move.

"Shortwave!" he exploded. "As in the despicable Radio Norway, broadcaster of filthy, northern-leaning lies about my match-up with cheating Fafnir fart, Man Mountain Odin? Shortwave is nothing but self-serving, Scandanavian-skewed propaganda."

My behemoth buddy had a point. Stations like the VOA or BBC are essentially best-foot-forward governmental mouthpieces. But the Tropical Bands are different. The 540-1600 kHz AM radio band gets more prone to noise and static the closer you are to the equator, making it useless for anything but short range transmissions. So, many tropical countries also use shortwave for domestic broadcasts. On a clear winter night, you can hear great local radio on the Tropical Bands--like Cotonou, Benin's hot soul and soukous mix or marimba mania from Radio Tezulutlán in Cobán, Guatemala.

Fidelity is admittedly poor. Atmospheric pops and scratches turn hi-tech recordings into the equivalent of dusty 78s. Fickle reception conditions mean the more farflung stations may fade to nothing after 20 minutes. Still, there's nothing like listening to a samba over Radio Clube do Pará at the same instant the residents of Belém, Brazil are tuning in, and for the rare American polyglot, the informational value of non-Western news broadcasts can be priceless.

Venezuela, I told the Whale, comes in well most nights. "Radio Rumbos on 4970 kHz plays some pretty good cumbia, Radio Táchira, San Cristóbal on 4830 leans toward folksier acoustic stuff--"

"Screw the music. What about the voice of my people?"

"I was about to recommended Ecos del Torbes, another San Cristóbal outlet on 4980 kHz. Lots of news and commentary and an EZ-listening romantic Latin ballad format to suit your sentimental temperament. Shouldn't you be writing these frequencies down?"

"I got it," he bristled. "The echoes station. Now gimme the CB."

For the first few nights he had the radio, the Whale's normally dour demeanor turned giddily upbeat. Monitoring commercials for local businesses on all three stations, he called me repeatedly to report his theory of a pattern of code words, innuendo and coincidences that stopped just short of demanding his immediate arrival. "New refrigerators are on the way," he hinted darkly. "The time for the big man's clothing sale is now."

Enmeshed in my own petty life, I failed to register my friend's absence in the days that followed, becoming curious only as I began to miss the "As It Happens" current affairs program I robotically listen to each evening on Radio Canada. I rang the Whale again and again without success. I phoned his butcher, his baker, the awning company that makes his jeans. No recent sightings, though, and I worried that he'd been rash enough to leave the country without adequate preparation or the courtesy of returning my Sony.

When I arrived at his apartment on the loading dock of an abandoned lardery, a dim bulb burning over the shipping desk indicated he was home. Hanging from the skylight/Reeses-pieces-chute, a massive belt buckle antenna trailed a strand of doorbell-wire into the caramel corn-scented gloom. "Are you alive?" Echoes of my voice caromed off three distant walls. Heading toward the acoustical dead-spot, I found the Whale huddled in an inflated Zodiac raft, A Gavin McCleod "Love Boat" captain's hat balanced on the orb of his head. "Go away," he half-sobbed, half-snarled.

Amid the confetti salads, platters of steaming meats, mashed potato urns, three-layered desserts and swan ice-sculpture of a mock cruise-ship buffet, the voice of an unhappy honeymooner struggled to emerge from a relish-piled radio speaker. "You're eavesdropping on ship-to-shore telephone calls?" I asked in amazement.

"Shush! It's the SS Norwegian Princess somewhere off Mexico." A shaft of corn-curl colored moonlight struck his cheek. "Monday..."--he could barely speak--"I heard Olga"--he swallowed--"my former masseuse. Calling Congressman Fred Grandy." He broke down in bitter tears. "Such firm hands," he sobbed to himself. "Such a way with a compressed lumbar." I sidled away from his pain.

Outside in the parking lot, I gazed back through the lardery door at the silhouetted globe of a lonely friend framed by shipping pallets and a single unsteady column of packaged pies. How could it come to this? I wondered. Why isn't my radio dishwasher safe?

Lucky Dube, House of Exile (Shanachie cd). Heavy lies the crown of Successor to Robert Nestor, which Lucky D. has turned into a tamper-resistant cap. The man's most mature release yet is his first to sound greater than the sum of disparate tracks, with deeper grooves and stronger songcraft solidifying what has come before. But the guy's too young for maturity. How about some experimentation instead of the umpteenth recasting of "Slave"? If you seek variety, concentrate on the world's most overworked drummer or CPR horn charts that strive to differentiate one mid-tempo ballad from another. A new songwriter may be hoping for too much. But pull the plug already on that "hopeful breezes" synthesizer patch.

Angelique Kidjou, Logozo (Mango cd). It had to happen. With George Bush's proclamation of a One World Rhythm, it was just a matter of time before a Parisian computer programmer developed the AFR-1CA dance-beat chip. Here it sounds terrific, especially in the emulation mode where data from a West African Female Vocalist (WAFV) merges with Zouk-Rock Waveforms (ZRWs) to create an excited pitch envelope that never falters, not even on the promising title cut. Heavy names mingle with heavy riddims, too. Manu Dibango, Ray Lema, Tonight Show bandleader Doc--I mean Branford--Marsalis limn a dream ensemble so real you've got to remind yourself it's only a machine.

Radio Chortis, Jocotán, Guatemala (3380 kHz). Local radio at its best, this peanut-powered single-kilowatt station provides a keyhole glimpse into another world with broadcasts in little-heard indigenous languages like Chorti and a gritty format as folksy as a shout across the neighbor's fence. Other Guatemalan outlets on higher frequencies offer more reliable reception, but none play such a variety of local musics from homegrown conjunto to amay and tambor festival marches. Worth seeking out when summer static levels ebb.

Márta Sebestyén, Apocrypha (Rykodisc cd). In her first American solo outing without her Hungarian band, Muzsikás, Sebestyén's pale, remarkably expressive voice finds water in solid rock and fertile ground for hope in the dust of limitation. But the most affecting moments lie in arrangements that stack woody-sounding pulses against electronically treated acoustic instruments, eking out low-key house music for the dispirited. Who would guess these songs were culled from three European albums of Christmas music? Not that the theme of nativity is misguided. The quiet, deliberately enclosed calm suggests the aural environment of the in vitro world.

Therese Schroeder-Sheker, Rosa Mystica (Celestial Harmonies cd). Medieval philosophy as passion is probably easiest when you're not living in the remnants of centuries old prejudices and ethnic feuds. Sheer intellectual luxury for an American, one might expect. But commitment to a "lost" spiritual path strewn with roses, grails and ecstatic souls sings with each string of Shroeder-Sheker's harp and the flute-like transparency of her voice. Vision is the key. And discipline. I'd love to hear a tightly wound Robert Fripp work up a sweat in counterpoint, but the chasm between notes of these simple Irish, Roumanian and Sephardic hymns is too great to fill with anything but ringing silence. Exception: the chilling title song, where her willingness to let a howling wind intrude on the recording of a 12th century litany (performed on overlapping psalteries) reveals not so much a New Age "let it flow" openness as the gnostic meeting point between Islamic surrender and Christian self-denial.

Kalesijski Svuci, Bosnian Breakdown--The Unpronounceable Beat of Sarajevo (GlobeStyle cd). Faster than a Turkish squaredance. More powerful than a gypsy polka. Able to defeat totalitarianism in a single Bosnian hoedown. It's the Svuci-men, of course, purveyors of the meanest post-traditionalist thrash this side of zydeco. Armed with fiddle, vernacular guitar (sargija) and electric bass, the most popular band of the Balkans' latest most-troubled locality transforms diverse urban, rural, and ethnic sources into a feverish dance beat chimera, whose mercurial east-west mood swings reflect a sad history of superpower tug-of-war. Fraught with exhilarating dissonance, discordant vocal harmonies and furiously sawing fiddles, this irresistible music stokes a fire of unbelievable antiquity.

Radio Orion, Johannesburg, South Africa (4810 kHz). A few years ago Radio RSA had so many outlets aimed at every corner of the globe, it was hard to avoid their deceptively sweet acoustic guitar theme. Now that the government has given up on selling bona fide apartheid, they've cut the network off at the knees, leaving a few regional megawatt outlets like Radio Orion's imitation of BBC Radio One. Forget mbaqanga, though. This is the home of elevator music and '60s pop, symptomatic of nostalgia for the Vorster era, I guess.

Bratsch, Transports en Commun (Griffe cd). You could think of them as the French 3 Mustaphas 3. Same blend of east European-inflected musics loosely tethered to a klezmer attack, same fondness for opalescent clarinet epiphanies. A studied boozy looseness ("Sicar Mangue Drom," "Nane Tsora") is par for the ethos of the road, but these purported gypsies are unable to mask a taste for high culture that elevates a ragged Gallic fiddle/wind/accordion troupe to moments of rich ensemble luster. We get breathtaking speed, diversity and transmutation. We lose the seat-of-the-pants recklessness that flings the Mustaphas airborne.

Shoukichi Kina and Champloose, The Music Power from Okinawa (GlobeStyle cd). What could this reissue of a 1972 live recording of Okinawan banjo ditties possibly have in common with reggae--Bob Marley impramatur or no? Shoukichi's songs resemble bits of comic banter, his delerium feels poured, and his back-up gals crack glass like no one since Neil Young. Underneath the bubbly goodtime vibes lie a tenacious declaration of cultural identity and commitment to roots that challenges the island's status of pawn at the hands of occupier of the moment (today, the Japanese). A pair of bonus studio tracks smite Babylonian excess with a gale force amplified reproach.

Radio Southern Highlands, Mendi, Papua New Guinea (3275 kHz). So mountainous is Papua New Guinea that domestic shortwave outlets barely penetrate from one rugged corner of the country to the other. But on rare deep winter mornings, a half-dozen PNG Tropical Band broadcasters may miraculously scatter weak signals as far as our Atlantic coast. Pidgin a trifle rusty? No sweat. The aboriginal music goes down well with a cup of coffee and crack of dawn dread.

Dave Tarras, Yiddish-American Klezmer Music, 1925-1956 (Yazoo/Shanachie cd). So klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarras didn't teach Benny Goodman to swing. Bandmate Ziggy Ellman brought the Yiddish influence on jazz out into the open via Goodman's "And the Angels Sing," and where would the Andrews Sisters be without "Bay mir bistu sheyn?" Neither of these is included here, but the package provides a capsule history of a little known American great via a 36-page biography keyed to 78-sides, radio transcriptions, theatrical performances and more. Few musics are as downright fun as klezmer, zooming from cartoon-soundtrack joy to delicate waltzes, and the Ukranian-born Tarras provided some of the best.

Rockin' Steady: The Best of Desmond Dekker (Rhino cd). His unmistakeable voice is irrevocably tied to the rock steady era--not a question of limitation but the versatility the times demanded. Dekker could be light as a sigh in the strangely portentous "Fu Manchu," wax comic in "Licking Stick" or summon enough raucousness to blow down a picket fence ("Warlock"). At his most righteous he never succumbed to preachy, shifting instead into an otherworldly eccentricity that shaped an oustandingly memorable body of work, including one of the most transcendent records in anybody's canon, the still-jarring "Israelites." Gift us again, Desmond.

Explosive Rock Steady: Joe Gibbs' Amalgamated Label 1967-1973 (Heartbeat cd). If ska reflected the clamor for Jamaican independence in the early '60s, rock steady signified the hopeful innocence of a new beginning. It bubbles through the stuttered bass line and pre-reggae skank but primarily in fragile lead vocals and yearning choruses perpetually on the verge of a swoon. Except of course for Lee "Scratch" Perry, whose "Upsetter" signature song bristles with understated menace--and whose pointy producer's ears honed classic performances by Roy Shirley, Errol Dunkley and the lost-in-the-mists-of-history Overtakers.

Leon Redbone, Up the Lazy River (Private Music cd). Absolutely amazing the things I get in the mail.

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