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
"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
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
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
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"
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
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
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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