(by Bob Tarte, published in The Beat magazine, Volume 11, Number 5, 1992)


Nothing is more gratifying to witness than the triumph of the underdog--especially when a person has the courage to slough off a lifetime of bad decisions and make a bold new public beginning, frailties be damned.

Saul of Tarsus immediately comes to mind. Jimmy Carter. Lee Meriwether. Osiris. Or Zairean musician Rigo "Ringo" Star, whose talents have been wasted on electric guitar since his days with Kanda Bongo Man. Listen to the fervent soloing on Kwassa Kwassa's "Lisote" and recognize a man aching to grasp a pair of drum sticks. Check out the fret work running through his 1986 Mayala release, Rigo and Koffi: Ai, Ai, and hear chording that yearns to burst into voice. Through a string of ill-fated soukous showcases over the last six years, I've wondered what this guy was doing strangling his heart's desire.

With the unexpected release of Time Takes Time on the Private Music label, Ringo--now a Starr with two r's, lest anyone doubt his capability--finally plays his strongest suit, beard, sunglasses and breakthrough crewcut in a disc that blazes its own fashion contrail. The credits list four producers--Don Was plus newcomers Jeff Lynne, Peter Asher and Phil Ramone--but the vision thing is clearly Rigo/Ringo's, as he crafts an experiment in African pop that makes Youssou N'dour's latest leap look like a plate of red beans and rice.

Few tracks reference soukous at all, veering closer to a rhythm apparently derived from Morocco's Gnawa people. But the lingua rigo is a gutsy attempt to concoct modern pop from the remnants of '40s British dancehall, skiffle, the Saxon bardic tradition and the faintest ghosts of R&B and Northumbrian bagpipe reels. Influences aside, the biggest surprise is Ringo's voice, not so much his affectation of a working class Liverpudlian accent, but sophisticated microtonal phrasings which place him cagily on the flat side of every note. "Maybe your daddy never held you like he should," he intones on "Weight of the World," "Maybe your mama just held on the best she could," and you'd swear not only is this the voice of the common man, but an unextraordinary one as well.

It's on drums, however, that Ringo's star burns brightest. No slavish devotion to layered percussion here. A refreshing concrete-block approach to the drum kit lays the accent clearly on the one-and-three, where it belongs. Next to the polyrhythmic force of his earlier work, the effect feels strangely beatless, but it works so well I wouldn't doubt that we're seeing the beginning of a trend. Brace yourself for beatlessmania!

While noteworthy as a departure from standard African fusion, Time Takes Time's daring does raise serious questions. How come all the jacket photos of Ringo make him look like a nerdy white guy? What's with the lyrics' fixation on guilt, disappointment, bitterness, references to a bygone era and a boozy, burnt-out point-of-view? Why does the phrase "back-off boogaloo" keep running through my head? It's a bold first step our fledgling rocker has taken here, and a certain incompleteness shouldn't mar the scope of his accomplishment. Though Time Takes Time may not be perfect, it easily quenches my thirst for novelty until the release of Diblo Dibala's long-promised Gilbert and Sullivan tribute.

I wish I could work up a similar lather over the latest from Youssou N'Dour (now on Spike Lee's 40 Acres and a Mule Musicworks label). Fueled more by thought than sparked with thunder, Eyes Open--its title to the contrary--delivers a meditation closer to acquiescence than illumination, unless the flashpoint is the eclipsing effects of weariness on artistic vision.

"Here's why I'm not thrilled about having a baby," he begins a litany of complaints on "Couple's Choice." "So many troubles bring me down," "Country Boy" laments. Over an uncharacteristically stark acoustic guitar and hand drum arrangement, "No More" mulls the empty promises of the first world to the third in pointed English lyrics that end on angry repetitions of "too late," "nothing" and "no more"--leading into a denunciation of global tv culture in the kicky "Live Television." We're a long way from the bittersweet nostalgia of 1989's "Old Tucson" or even the vague hopefulness of last year's Set. Then again, I don't know anyone who isn't wracked by pessimism these days, except the woman at my workplace who clots the blood flow to her brain with motivational tapes from Amway.

"Where do you want to be in five years?" she asks me, as if the cataclysmic changes of the last two were mere blips on a marketing curve. Anyone would be depressed. But I didn't sound expect the music to sound this defeated, so overcooked in the studio, too far removed from the joy of live performance to exhibit much life, spontaneity or confidence. Pretty textures, arresting individual moments abound, but these are isolated within a soupy, almost drowsy context that's shifted from slyly outward looking mbalax to the same glassy-eyed embrace of an easy-listening jazz/rock aesthetic that nearly shortsheeted recent discs by Papa Wemba and Ismael Lo. Get a clue, Youssou. Then give one to me.

A softer edge also threatened to turn Senegalese comets Les Têtes Brûlées into this decade's Kahoutek. At least that was the fate foreshadowed by the opening songs of their second Shanachie release, Bikutsi Rock--their first without musical director, lead guitarist and molten core, the late Theodore "Zanzibar" Epeme. By the fourth cut, "Nkulnnam," however, the balafon-guitars throw down a West African challenge to soukous with wild bleating vocals and rhythm patterns that played havoc with my neurotransmitter system.

Barely had I fended off migraine visual disturbances, when the title cut whisked me into the loosest, spaciest African jam imaginable, levitating disembodied snatches of solo sax by guest star Manu Dibango over an etheric corpus of Doppler-shifted horns, synthesizer sputs recalling old episodes of the Carl Sagan-hosted Cosmos, and rock vocals channeled from an unmarked grave outside Mussel Shoals, Alabama. The reference point of this extended, blissed out nonsense mantra may well look back to effigies of John Coltrane, but the bridge to jazz threads through the fringe rock experiments of the '70s from French flying saucer contactees Magma and Gong to America's own link with the mothership, Funkadelic. Who else but an alien intelligence could so successfully dangle musical clichés in front of our noses not as signposts to where we really are, but as disorienting globs of disinformation? The old gods return in many tricky forms.

The first in the Smithsonian/Folkways Indonesian series to be programmed in a "can you top this?" sequence, Music of Indonesia 4: Music of Nias and North Sumatra moves matter-of-factly from one marvel to another. The disc focuses on the music of three of the seven ethnic groups who share the administrative district of North Sumatra, none of the styles resembling one another or, for that matter, anything else in the world. Each of the forms is strictly local, owing little or nothing to European influences: gendang lima sedalanen from the Karo people, hoho from the island of Nias, and the Toba people's gondang sabangunan and gondang hasapi.

Music of Nias and North Sumatra
begins with a bang, then keeps getting better. Gendang lima sedalanen consists of plague-of-locusts soloing on the sarune--a kind of high-pitched oboe--atop popcorn percussion bursts from a trio of the planet's smallest drums (with two-inch heads). Think of a furiously buzzing Egyptian mizamar set against a hail storm in a scrap yard--or a tabla performance played back at twice the recorded speed--or how your head feels after a hangover. Better yet, add a moon-eyed female vocalist to the second cut, and you're close to the effect of this bright and brittle music.

Soothing in comparison are the sonorous a capella hoho choral songs from the thickly forested island of Nias. Built on a measly four-tone scale, hoho sounds far richer due to the dramatic modulation of notes by the male leader and back-up singers as they perform overlapping phrases, the sharp precision of the pieces accented by the megalithic courtyard where the music was recorded. Hoho sounds like tones extracted from stones, a tapping into essential harmonies similar in sacred resonance to the chants of Tibetan monks. Readers versed in Pythagorean lore may recognize philosophical significance in a reliance on the tritone interval, but to me the interlocking phrases and cyclical repetition reflect a healthy intimacy with the rhythm of the seasons, night and day, life and death--not exactly a dance beat, but guaranteed to prickle the hair on your arms. Featured here are abbreviated versions of hours-long funeral pieces, hence the rather hoho-less nature of these hoho.

Though North Sumatra's Toba people share geography, an agricultural livelihood and some instrumentation with the Kora, their music is markedly different. In gondong sabangunan, tuned drums playing full melodies lay the groundwork for literally breathless flights on the sarune. A circular breathing technique allows the sarune performer to blow nonstop for long durations without having to come up for air, no doubt encouraging the trance-like intensity of these seemingly boundless solos. Deeper and throatier than the smaller sarune used by the Kora, the instrument resembles a saxophone enough that you can fool yourself into believing you're listening to a Pharoah Sanders' experiment in controlled possession rather than centuries old, carefully scripted music.

Gondang sabangunan with its wider range of instrumentation--adding lutes, flute and xylophone to the mix--is even more impressive, a dizzying example of the Indonesian genius for multilayered music that eschews such niceties as harmony and polyphony, but nonetheless rakes a thousand separately glowing embers into a single source of heat and light--a tinkertoy jig perfect for lapsed Catholics like me who think ritual is at bottom comic. These brisk appeals to the spirits can't help but hit the highest targets.

Great idea on the scale of Toots in Memphis: take the stars of '60s Kenyan omutibo music, Abana Ba Nasery--last heard on GlobeStyle's same-named collection of archival singles--bring them to London to cut their first record since the '70s, then, just because you can, toss in a couple of Mustaphas, Oyster Band members and folkster Ron Kavana. Despite the thickened mix and bolstered personnel, however, Abana Ba Nasery's Nursery Boys Go Ahead! isn't one of co-producer Ben Mandelson's rural electrification projects in the manner of the bass and drum driven Jali Roll or Orquestra Durão.

Studio treatments are restrained, adding just a hint of glimmer to Shem Tube and Justo Osala's glistening acoustic guitars, never crowding the arrangements with so much fiddle, pipes and percussion that the katydid chirps of Enos Okala's Fanta bottle artistry disappear. With their sweet backroad harmonies and witty lyrics about cattle rustlers, lice infested leg casts and the instant getting of religion, the Nursery Boys affably withstand Mustapha mischieviousness and the Oysters' Celtic muse. The reversal of continental drift succeeds mainly because the juxtaposition of European and Kenyan folk is less an attempt at integration than a brightening through contrast, and the resulting divergence comes surprisingly close to a universal traditional music.

From omutibo to virunga, from benga to taarab, it's tough to name an East African music that doesn't conjure up images of passion and sweat. Maybe because expat Samite of Uganda has been separated from the harsh realities of his country for a while, the songs on Pearl of Africa Reborn (Shanachie) reflect tranquillity and ease--or maybe he simply has a different agenda than local African dance bands. Whenever I hear the phrase 'family values,' I instinctively reach for my quail gun, but this gentle, stateless music dedicated "to mothers around the world" makes me crank up the volume instead. Not to worry, moms. At full amplitude the patted handdrums, music box mbira and Middle Eastern-inflected wooden flutes will only lull your little ones further into Nod. And while I'm usually bored by music without an edge, I understand the charms of seduction and am childish enough to succumb to the picture-perfect domestic hearth that warms Samite's voice and multi-instrumental touch. Plus acoustic guitarist Anthony Michael Peterson almost quashes the lullaby tenor of "Ekitobero" with a jumpy "Me and Julio"-style Caribbean riff.

Jimmy Cliff, Breakout (JRS). In the real world, you can't always get it if you really want, especially when past is past, and, tribal elder liner-photo hat or no, the aspiring chartbuster must inevitably acknowledge rap on one side and AOR slush on the other. Or we might hold out for country, given the hoked-up hiphop ebullience of "I'm A Winner" or the cologne commercial ooze of "Peace"--rushed out as in a single in the wake of the LA riots not for commercial expediency, you understand, but to help the healing process.

Still, I can't resist the substance if not the shape of this oddly detached take on reggae recorded partly in Brazil--setting a once-removed-from-home tone the Jamaican tracks continue--and in one instance with some entity called the "Franko O.K. Jazz Band of Zaire" (hope an Elvis impersonator wasn't involved). Whether for the nostalgia it invokes or the vivacity that hasn't left, I credit Cliff's amazing voice for this disc's success, plus his willingness to mainline every kind of popular music, whatever it takes to float an infectious song like the Studio One-flavored "Haunted." I just keep telling myself authenticity is for PBS documentaries not pop releases--and that sincerity isn't always an attribute of the committed. It's just as much the property of the self-involved.

Mingo Saldivar y Sus Tremendos Cuatro Espadas, I Love My Freedom, I Love My Texas (Rounder). Conjunto's got to be one of the most instantly engaging musics anywhere, so to call this slice from Saldivar's canon irresistible is to stake an obvious claim. Except that this disc shatters the perception of redundancy that characterizes tejano music as easily as it breaks the language barrier with Spanish vocals as faithful to norteno as the English segments are convincingly cowboy. The bilingualism rings true because Saldivar is less interested in reaching two different audiences than he is in expounding cultural richness and exploring social tensions. He's excelled at playing both sides of the border for 30 years. Witness "Rueda de fuega," a ranchera that teases with a skittery accordion intro before erupting into a cover of "Ring of Fire" tough enough to stand toe-to-toe with the original. His keyboard attack is equally fierce, allowing pain to well up within choked chords or in runs as tentative as a heavy heart trying to pull away from a lover.

Music of New Mexico: Hispanic Traditions (Smithsonian/Folkways). Even the small-town radio stations in mid-Michigan play a few hours of conjunto a week, largely for the migrant communities which arrive each summer. But traditional hispanic music almost never hits the airwaves, hence a scant two recorded sides in the course of legendary New Mexican fok violinist Gregorio Ruiz's 90 years. Those gems are collected here along with many other hispanic styles including liturgical and secular ritual music, social dances, ballads and more. Both pros and amateurs are amply represented. Los Reyes de Albuquerque put a classical violin spin on a schottisch-ized "El Paseadito," while Mercedes López sings unaccompanied songs from her youth. What amazes me is the tenacity of a culture that arose isolated from its sources yet continues to renew itself through a diversity of expression. What moves me are the dance tunes--and poetry that equates romance with affliction and destiny with a bad car that lacks the grace to roll over and die.

Ofra Haza, Kirya (Shanachie). On the title cut, Israeli songstress Haza throws a voice like a funeral shroud over barbed wire bass and percussion and ghostly vernacular woodwinds by Ali Jihad Racy--indicative of the best moments of this cd, which unfortunately come a stingy dollop at a time. The worst moments are so pervasive it's difficult to choose between them: the refrain of the holocaust memorial "Trains of No Return" ("Yehh... we need the rain / Yehh... to wash away the trains"), Iggy Pop's "Rocky Racoon" narrative on "Daw Da Hiya," an odor of unflinching nationalism or Don Was' woman-of-mystery production which doesn't know lip gloss about world beat.

Croatian Folksongs and Dances (Harmonia Mundi). I don't know exactly what I was expecting from this collection of Croatian music seeped in the traditions of other ethnic groups originally from the Carpathian Basin--Serbs, Bosnians, Dravian Croats to name three. I had a dim hope of gleaning some insight into the hatred and madness of unravelled Yugoslavia, but there's not a grain of intolerance or inflexibility apparent. The songs are as untroubled and good spirited as any folk music you'll hear, especially the Bosnian dances which call to mind American bluegrass, the bagpipe pieces bearing faint echoes of Renaissance court music or the close-interval singing resembling a lighter-hearted version of Bulgarian mystere vocals. This wide-ranging anthology is rooted in recordings from the '50s and '60s by musicologist Tihamér Vujicsics--who inspired a generation of Hungarian folk groups including Vujicsics and Muzsikás--and supplemented by newly recorded tambura-based gypsy songs. Worth seeking out.

Lloyd Daley's Matador Productions, 1968-1972 (Heartbeat). Maybe the '50s-rock tone of the organ threw me back to my own youth in the days of Freddy Cannon, but on the basis of sound alone I would have placed these emotionally wide-open songs a decade earlier than their acknowledged dates. This anthology just seems more archaic than collections from Daley contemporaries like Joe Gibbs or Sarah Pottinger. The nostalgic lilt of vocals one half-step removed from mento (Audley Rollens" "Repatriation," The Ethiopians' "Owe Me No Pay Me") or tied to early Beatles (The Caribbeans' "Let Me Walk By") almost allow lyrics steeped in awakened black consciousness to slip by undetected--almost, that is, until U-Roy erupts in a scathing creation of the future and The Abyssinians, true to their name, wail "Y Mas Gan" from the mists of some timeless abyss. Less dramatically, Blake Boy's "Deliver Us"--wherein a Lee-Perry-meets-Eddie-Haskell delivers duplicitously shallow pontifications--verifies how weird this label really was.


Technobeat Central  
Columns by CDs and Artists / Columns by Date
Columns by Subject / Page of the Whale