(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 13, Number 3, 1994)


The cover was intriguing, a digitally retouched image of Peter Gabriel's face festooned with writhing coil tattoos. The concept fascinated me too, the first multimedia release by a pop artist of vision who might even have something to say. Bottom line, however, was that since buying a Macintosh with built-in CD-ROM drive, I hungered for a more fulfilling use of this breaking technology than watching time-lapse movies of button mushrooms popping out of the dirt on my Grolier disc encyclopedia. Swallowing hard, I threw $55 across the phone lines, and a day later received the beautifully packaged Xplora 1--Peter Gabriel's Secret World (Mac Play/RealWorld CD-ROM).

My reactions to Xplora 1 sum up my opinion of the CD-ROM format. Just good enough to frustrate, its multimedia accomplishments leave me grousing there isn't more. Still, it amazes me that Xplora's familiar looking compact disc holds over two hours of audio and video including: four videos from the Us cd boasting the best quality, nearly-full motion color video I've seen on a Mac yet; audio clips from 40 RealWorld cds (click on a cover for track listing and about 30 seconds of sound); A WOMAD Festival tour, featuring concert clips of the Ashkhabad, Farafina, Papa Wemba and others; a hands-on primer of eight ethnic instruments, which you can 'play' by clicking the mouse; a multimedia tour of the RealWorld studios incorporating your own real-time four-track remix of "Digging in the Dirt;" videos about Amnesty International and other Gabriel-supported charities; behind the scenes clips on the making of a couple of Us videos; and a Brian Eno-led interactive jam session with 15 RealWorld artists, where you click on performers to potentially add (or subtract) instruments from 60 possible mixes.

Seems like a lot, and yet having been through the disc once, I've little inclination to revisit anything except the psychedelic Us videos more appropriately glommed on vhs tape than the tiny picture-within-a-picture box to which CD-ROM movies are currently confined. Part of the problem is with the infancy of the medium. When a half-inch-high Gabriel head spontaneously appears in the program to warn, "Watch out for the love bomb," he can only be referring to the glitches which keep many of the non-Us videos from running properly. You often have to run them twice in a row to get audio and pix to sync. And the play-it-yourself ethnic instruments are a disaster. Sometimes a mouse-click over a string or drumhead produces the promised sound, but often nothing happens. Elsewhere, as I fooled with the multi-instrumentalist jam session board, an out-of-place Eno would occasionally interrupt with a quickly strangled repetition of his introduction.

Worse than the bugs, however, is an ill-conceived interface derived from Peter Gabriel's face (I get it), where clicking ear, nose, mouth, or eyes sends you to different parts of the disc. But it's difficult to remember whether clicking on the ears gets you access to the Us or RealWorld Studio videos and why the nose triggers behind-the-scenes clips rather than zipping you more appropriately to the WOMAD food booths. Navigation in general is a morass. The best CD-ROMs I've seen, like the talking book From Alice to Ocean, allow you to access a map at any time showing exactly where you are in cyberspace and letting you leap directly to the destination of your choice. Xplora not only lacks such a discipline, it attempts to make a virtue of its obscurity. Almost non-existent on-screen labels force you to puzzle out the simplest backward and forward movements. You're encouraged to click around and "see what happens," which may be quaint first time through but becomes infuriating if you want to bypass the tenth repetition of the studio tour welcome and jump right to the mixing room--which I've never gained access to yet.

Various segments of the program, in fact, are closed to users unless you complete an inane game that's part of the interface, requiring you to find in one of the more than 100 screens the necessary back stage or studio pass. Otherwise, each time you try to visit the innards of the RealWorld Studio, for example, a fingernail-sized Gabriel head admonishes you, "You can't go in without a pass." Even if you do find the pass--and it's incredibly tiny and easily overlooked--navigating back to the studio is such a long haul, you might follow my lead and shut down to read a Judge Dee detective book instead.

Apple has just released the first of a new generation of computers based on the Power PC chip developed jointly with Motorola and IBM. Once this muscular replacement for the Mac becomes the machine of choice, existing CD-ROM limitations should drop away, relegating to the past bugs like Xplora's--plus the less than optimal eight-bit audio that peppers the stereo sound with pops. But for CD-ROM music-based releases to make the grade as an alternative medium to cds, cassettes, or video, they have to achieve a quality akin to the gotta-play-it-again effect of my favorite albums and avoid the kind of nagging, foot dragging interface we get here which discourages repeated use.

Far cooler than Xplora and cheaply priced at around $50 is a non-CD-ROM program for the Mac called PlainTalk, which lets your computer accomplish the astounding feat of reading aloud any text on your screen in a vaguely Russian sounding silicon male or female voice. No extra hardware required. No need to type phonetically. PlainTalk reads English sufficiently well to determine from context whether the "Dr." you've typed stands for "doctor" or "drive." It's great for proofreading or simply the joy of forcing a machine to recite your composition, as I've must made mine do with this review. I yawned once or twice along the way, but then again I lack the limitless patience of a microprocessor.

A few years ago while listening to San Jose, Costa Rica's shortwave rebroadcast of Radio Reloj, I was roused from the usual slew of romantic ballads by a novelty instrumental with a ringing telephone punctuating the chorus. The unanswered bell was funny enough, but the real good humor of the piece was embedded in a distinctive shuffling beat that lingered long after I'd forgotten the melody. To this day I have no inkling of that song or artist, but I'm wiser in knowing I'd received my first dose of Colombian cumbia, one of the most immediately gratifying forms of pop ever devised.

The British World Circuit label, distributed in America by Rounder Records, has just released a pair of exemplary collections of the choicest cumbia cuts: Cumbia Cumbia, first issued abroad in 1989 and featuring music from the 1950s-80, and the aptly titled follow-up, Cumbia Cumbia 2, spanning 1954-72. Sensational performers abound as expected in a best-of collection, but the indefatigable genius behind the songs on both discs is Antonio Lopez Fuentes, who founded Colombia's first record company in 1934, and 20 years later began shaping the dance craze that's continued through four decades.

Cumbia Cumbia is a cannonball introduction to the genre with selections that make an indelible impression first time around and probably won't stop buzzing inside your head until the relief of the grave. Sharp horn fragments masquerade as riffs, as a rock-steady bass and timbale join forces in a beat too simple and direct to resist and scatter-shot with unexpected drama. If you could corral the great songwriters of four continents inside a tiny room, it's doubtful they could build a better composition than "La Colegiala," Rudolfo y su tipica R.A.7's ridiculously buoyant tribute to a college girl, a woman so beyond mortal comprehension she sends both brass and back-up singers into paroxysms of appreciation. Hot on this cut's heels is "La Subienda," another larger than life declaration which launches itself from the stiff springs of a stodgy trombone riff via Gabriel Romero's nonchalant passion and stifled yelps leavened by the toodling of a Yiddish-style clarinet.

Like klezmer, cumbia's embrace of human experience even at its most personal can't avoid the stylistic sidestep that plunges expression up to its knees in wryness--when not drenched in the full-tilt cartoon soundtracks which particularly bless Cumbia Cumbia 2. This is the disc where the concise cumbia formula is allowed to stretch. My favorite moments include the faux bird calls that start Pedro Laza Y Sus Pelayeros' "Cumbia Del Monte," the Eastern European tropical vacation conducted by Guillermo Gonzales Y Sus Orquesta's "Lupita," the anomalous Polynesian echoes in Los Cumbiamberos De Pacheco's staccato vocals on "Santo Domingo," and that theme for an imaginary spaghetti western, Sonora Dinamita's "Ritmo de Tambo."

Old-style Cuban music gets the nod in the endearing final live performance by singer, songwriter, baseball fanatic, and inventor of the guaracha Nico Saquito, who proves he's no slouch at the guajira and son either on Good-bye Mr. Cat (World Circuit/Rounder). Originally issued in his home country in 1982, Saquito's first American release hitches him at a Santiago concert with Cuban acoustic legends El Cuarteto Patria and El Duo Cubano for a reminiscence-packed retrospective of the then-octogenarian's best known hits, including the ribald title cut that swept the Spanish-speaking world in 1940.

Saquito fine-tunes his raspy voice to the service of social commentaries, specializing in domestic critiques. His melancholy phrasings are wildly successful in farcical depictions of himself as a "henpecked" husband at the mercy of his wife's sexual demands ("Marie Cristina"), though his laments don't quite inspire sympathy, as he exclaims in studied disbelief, "What? Take a bath with you?" In "Meneame La Cuna, Ramon" ("Rock the Cradle") he explains to his appreciative audience, "When people see me with my lady they rush to get married to avoid my fate. Married men who come to my house flee," again painting himself as an exquisite buffoon willing to go to any lengths to avoid his familial duties. Even in translation, the slapstick humor of the double entendre-laden lyrics are laugh-out-loud funny. He tells his woman he wants to the beach to "find some peace and quiet" away from the squalling baby, prompting the retort, "You just want to parade in your trunks." Smoothing Saquito's grit, the sinuous El Cuarteto Patria take over lead vocals on "Me Tenian Amarrado con Fe" ("She Bewitched Me") and add their typically breathtaking soloing, while El Duo Cubano provide much needed cover on the pun-filled "Que Lio Compay Andres" ("What a Mess, My Friend Andres"). But who's ducking?

Many folks kick-off their morning with a blast of rock or dance music, but I start the day in such disbelief that everything has begun all over again, I need to ease into my nervous tedium with soothing fare. Libana, a Massachusetts-based, all-female ensemble, lulls me half-awake with Borderland (Shanachie), a collection of world vocal music backed by sparse yet highly effective vernacular guitars, flute and percussion. Material ranges from a peppy Karelian tune ("Oi Dai") from the portfolio of Finnish girl-group Varttina to a cappella songs of the Balkans and Middle East, where Libana really hit their stride. Standouts include the "Medley of Slav Wedding Songs" and a gorgeous vocal arrangement with hammer dulcimer of the traditional Rumanian cradle song "Joc de Leagne" that first found my artery on harpist Therese Shroeder-Sheker's Rosa Mystica cd. While a minimalizing of dissonance mean you won't mistake Libana's adaptations for the genuine article, neither is the listener persuaded that these women are ethnic vacationers. An exception is the Egyptian trance ritual "Zar," whose ululations suggest that expressions of group ecstasy are best confined to cultures in which they don't simply sound silly.

Speaking of Varttina, the speed-folkies' biggest selling disc, Oi Dai, is now available in the US on the Xenophile/Green Linnet label. Reportedly, one in every hundred persons in Finland bought a copy when it was released in 1991--and if my arithmetic is correct, that's almost 1,500 sold! Every bit as perky but not nearly as aggressive as their Hijaz Mustapha-produced follow-up, Seleniko, Oi Dai delights with the nightmarish joy of bright, unison singing, merry-go-round tempos, and tireless instrumental accompaniment by traditionalist stalwarts. The real payoff is often in the supplied translations of the Finno-Urgic lyrics. Who would guess that the cheerful chipmunks of "Marilaulu," for instance, are actually complaining about village boys whose "mouths are like the entrance to a pigsty. I would be crazy to marry someone from here," or fantasizing, "The old hags nag with their jaws clanking. I should cut out their tongues and fill up their mouths with hot tin."

No such surprises hide between the cracks of the seamless, self-named instrumental disc by accordionist Maria Kalaniemi (Xenophile/Green Linnet). In duet with Swedish violinist Sven Ahlback on the moody "Taklax 1"--transcribed from an early 1900s acetate cylinder--or waxing bittersweet over Bjorn Tollin's dark hand drum groove on "Skmningspolskan" ("Growing Dusky Polska"), the Sibelius Academy professor delivers an object lesson on how expansive and expressive her instrument can be. She transmutes a local melody into an Argentinean tango on one cut and mixes in a thumb piano on another, courtesy of Ottopasuuna's Kimmo Pohjonen, but the willingness to bend boundaries takes nothing away from the essential Finnish nature of the material. As a rustic, I generally turn Philistine when folk renderings carry a whiff of the academy, but Kalaniemi's eggheaded vision coupled with a virtuoso's discipline results in intensely compelling, wonderfully realized compositions. Highly recommended.

Throttle the producers! Talitha MacKenzie's Solas (Shanachie) puts the right foot forward with a multi-layered treatment of a Hebridean walking song nestled in electronics. From here the first solo release by the Mouth Music alumnus keeps getting better--until the deadly half-way point, when the disc doesn't so much run out of stream as it abandons its smarts. Though MacKenzie's former band struck me as an idea in search of execution, on Solas she shows that the eccentricities and earthiness of Celtic music indeed lend themselves to a variety of traditional and avant garde marriages. Cinching the experiment is the wildly successful reworking of a Mouth Music cut, "Sein O," which embeds a clipped-syllable puirt-a-beul (mouth music) lyric in a bogle rhythm introduced by a hair-raising sample of label-mate Huun Huur Tu's Tuvan throat singing. On the strength of this song plus the scary marching ditty that precedes it, I would encourage purchase, but keep the skip button close at hand. The disastrous ode to positive-thinking, "Owen's Boat," recalls the Love Boat episode where cruise director Julie decides she's learned a little bit about herself, and "Chi mi na Morbheanan/JFK" uses St. Jack soundbites about fighting tyranny without a trace of irony, hallowing, I guess, those lofty intentions which eased us into Southeast Asia. Decent songs follow, but try fighting your way back.

With their extraordinary harmonic-whistle vocal techniques, Tuvans could well succeed pygmies as the next sampling craze. Before khoomei, sygyt, kargyraa, and other throat-singing styles invade the latest De La Soul single, catch them in their traditional setting on Voices from the Distant Steppe (RealWorld). From the Central Asian country reputedly settled by the descendants of Ghenghis Khan, folk group Shu-de accompany songs and chants derived from shamanistic rituals with instruments whose sounds are as irreproducible as the vocals, including two-stringed igil fiddle and doshpuluur lute, a particularly articulate khomus jaw's harp, and a variety of drums and rattles. Though slightly less accessible than Huun Huur Tu's 60 Horses in My Herd, Voices dazzles with its addition of two female voices to the predominantly male mix and material diverse enough to combat out-of-sequence liner notes. The wildness of these songs evokes centuries of accommodation to a demanding landscape, but tongue-twister "Durgen Chugaa" goes even further to verify prehistoric associations with a Popeye the Sailor cult.

Little-heard music from Bhutan gets a generous showcase in the four-cd set from Lyrichord, Tibetan Buddhist Rites from the Monasteries of Bhutan. Recorded by John Levy in 1971, these four volumes of field recordings are: Rituals of the Drukpa Order, Sacred Dances & Rituals of the Nyingmapa & Drukpa Orders, Temple Rituals & Public Ceremonies, and Tibetan & Bhutanese Instrumental and Folk Music. I have yet to make it through the entire set--the genre doesn't invite casual listening--but disc one's blend of stark, monotone chants with ominous trumpet bursts paints a convincingly majestic and forbidding portrait of the spiritual world. The folk melodies on disc four, while appreciably lighter, still reverberate with an edge-of-the-earth feel.

The last few years I've developed a tolerance for music that would send the average innocent listener to a kidney dialysis unit, and I must admit that several of my best loved discs nearly killed me before shattering my own prejudices. Struggle as I may with Ukrainian Village Music--Historic Recordings 1928-1933 (Arhoolie), however, through waltzes, polkas and kolomyjkas, the fillings in my teeth ache. The collection is definitely worthy, plus my affection for klezmer builds in receptivity to an obvious root source. The East European hillbilly ambiance has also got me thinking about non-Anglo influences on American bluegrass, but 78 minutes of sawtooth fiddling exceeds my pain threshold. Since I have no argument with content, I suspect that sonics are to blame, namely the trademarked No Noise System of digitally removing clicks and pops from old 78s. I'd prefer the grime to the compressed, metallic and acoustically-challenged results here.

Commercials for the Grammy awards a few months ago annoyed me with the claim that the contest would determine the best female vocalist in the world--quite a statement considering that Angelique Kidjo wasn't even in the running. While award-winner Whitney Houston may have the jump on caterwauling, Kidjo demonstrates on Aye (Mango) she can out-growl and out-holler just about anyone. Aye won immediate points with me for bringing the noise factor into African-esque pop, beginning with the shouted intro to "Agolo" that startles me each time the discs revs up and the mighty if somewhat cluttered dance machine grabs hold. Also startling is how generalized much of this sounds. Almost anyone could be singing on top of these arrangements in English, French, Lingala or Urdu and the gears wouldn't shift the slightest. But few apart from Kidjo could punch through, not only stamping her identity all over the disc, but making assembly-line grooves exciting as the sheer vigor of her voice grinds convention and cliche into the dust.

The loss of guitarist Lamine was a potentially fatal blow for Omar Pene & Super Diamono. But on Fari (Sterns), the overworked band patrols the periphery of the void with furious Sabar drumming and hard-edged, signal processed horns, while the Senegalese vocalist springs a sufferer's catch in his throat so effective it ought to be patented. His mbalax is tougher than the rest, especially on "Supporter," which rides a typically half-smooth, half-jolting groove reminiscent of a stripped-down, fat-free take on Youssou N'Dour's "Live Television." While I gritted my teeth in wait for the inevitable soulful ballad, "Fan" wasn't as dispiriting as expected, and "Boul Warrior" pulls off the rare testament to victims of civil war without sanctifying or trivializing the subject matter, thanks to a stirring chant by his backing vocalists which Pene overlays with a catalog of trouble spots from Angola to Bosnia. Best quality of this best-of is that it never flags. Solid songs emerge to restore weaker moments even as late as the eleventh-hour, eleventh cut, and standards of mediocrity are such that Omar coasting is still a hoot.

The power of some of calypso legend Lord Kitchener's biggest hits is obvious. Who else could deadpan the bitterness of "When a Man is Poor" which opens Klassic Kitchener, Volume I (Ice/RAS)? In this slice of wicked satire, Kitch pontificates that "the rich is not responsible / You must believe in nature's law / There must be rich, there must be poor." And who else could render a song riding on a gimmick nearly indispensable on the nth listening? "Tied Tongue Mopsy" describes the singer's plight when a lover with a speech impediment tries in vain to warn him of her grandmother's imminent arrival, and Kitchener's pretense of matter-of-fact reportage keeps "Mopsy" fresh long after its jokes should have expired. But I can't quite explain the mysterious force behind 1950's "Nora," tale of Kitch jettisoning a London lover on the eve of his return to Port-O-Spain. Though clever, the wit isn't on a par with Lion or Sparrow at top form.

Still I listen rapt each time the story enfolds as if a different ending eventually awaits. This is sheer magnetism at work. Kitchener wields a huge personality which convincingly adapts to a myriad of climates: a gung-ho tribute to Trinidad's winning cricket team, a sympathetic portrait of an elderly local woman, a stinging complaint about racial prejudice, or a burlesque about a peculiar injection "Doctor Kitch" administers to a female companion. His theatricality if not complexity makes it easy to let the attention wander from his great backing bands--Ron Berridge and his Orchestra are featured frequently--and the brass charts make it easy to ignore the other prodigious band members, like the sweetly chording guitarist who first hooked my ear in "VJ Day" and held it through several songs.

Eddy Grant may not have invented soca--per his wild claim reported in Gene Scaramuzzo's "T&T Jump & Wave" last ish--but the Ice-label owner is inarguably a leading proponent of Trinidadian music. As producer/arranger, he's also succeeded where most have fallen before him in expanding the genre without completely gutting it. Though a full third of Black Stalin's Rebellion (Ice/RAS) isn't recognizably soca, song after song hits hard enough to justify and reward the departures. Be it tribute or patronization, "Black Woman Lament" matches a seductive tempo with superb vocal arrangements, "Santi Manitay" presents such persuasion for Caribbean unity I'm ready to declare my Michigan a participating island, Bob Dylan's "I Shall be Released" gains momentum as a kind of talking blues, and "Black Woman Ring Bang" pulverizes my antipathy to dancehall.

The calypso- and mento-influenced brukdon music of Belize is presented with disarming directness on Shine Eye Gal (Corason/Rounder), in which the improbably-named Mini-Musical Female Duet sing a string of street-corner ambiance, colonialist-rooted ditties heavy on the nursery rhyme charm. Arrangements couldn't be simpler: lead voice, soprano harmony, and acoustic guitar. Songs could hardly be simpler either--nor more opaquely local with references about whether to "go Mango walk" and "steal all the number eleven" or the constantly shifting scene of "Good Morning Neighbor," whose sketchy lyrics may well contain a novel in miniature. There's much to marvel at in these delicately barbed, beautifully performed pieces, and surprises follow once the Duet yields the floor to the wild boom and chime orchestras that beat out an African-influenced music on an iron car-wheel drum called the dingadin--plus electric guitar, accordion, donkey's jawbone and congas. A more raucous and spontaneous sound would be difficult to imagine, and every nuance is lovingly preserved via Corason's meticulously rendered, you-are-there recording standards. As brukdon gives way to punta rock, cungo, and other modern styles, Shine Eye offers an intriguing glimpse at a disappearing genre.

Silent dog whistle aficionados will relish the female vocalists of Shoukichi Kina's band, who achieve such high registers on Peppermint Teahouse (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.) they make Varttina seem like the West Point Glee Club. If you own any remote control devices, play this disc at your own peril. The sing-song shrillness of "Hana No Kajimaya" is guaranteed to make your tv blink on and off, and the first few bars of "Michiri Bozu" will immediately clear the clock of any vcr. Thank heavens for the balancing testosterone-pumping energy of Shoukichi himself, whose emergence holds back until the third cut to insure a dramatic entrance. And why not? As the intensely engaging songs here prove, Kina is the indisputable godfather of Okinawan pop, the inventor of a genre that combines elements of local folk music, Japanese-style vocals, western instrumentation, and Kina's axe, the plucky sanshin banjo. With only pre-release notes in front of me, I'm guessing this is an anthology rather than a new studio effort, since the band's huge hit, "Haisai Ojisan," shows up with little fanfare. Great stuff. And for a looser Shoukichi and company, 1991's mostly live Okinawa Music Power (GlobeStyle) is worth the search.

Rai eats influences. Collisions with the world outside its Algerian homeland make the music stronger rather than diluting it. Trouble is, the foundation of this love poetry in the clash between tradition and the technological was long rooted in backward looking dynamics--cheese-doodle synthesizers, castanet drum machine beats, and disco atmosphere. Khaled broke the white-suit barrier in 1989 with Kutche, a hi-tech collaboration with synthesizer wizard Safy Boutella that finally matched the drama of this emotionally charged pop with credible if doomsday colored instrumental muscle.

His latest American release, N'ssi N'ssi (Mango), takes his approach the next great leap forward by veering off at the last moment from the abyss at the end of romantic tunnel-vision and embracing straight-on funk. Algerian style, of course. Four of the eleven tracks produced by Was (Not Was) avatar Don Was lean on David McMurray's jazzy sax, drums by Buster Marbury and bass by Was himself to give Khaled's laments about the chains of love an urban bustle that passes for a leavening of lightness. Five tracks produced and arranged by Phillippe Eidel use cinerama-style eastern string sections recorded in Cairo to arrive at a futurism based on rai's pre-space-age sources. Both approaches pay off brilliantly, strengthening Khaled's reputation as rai's evangelist, perhaps the only Algerian artist capable of scoring a top-ten radio hit entirely in Arabic in xenophobic France. But it isn't such a stretch. The longer I listen to N'ssi N'ssi, the less I notice any foreignness in the forefront and the more I hear through to an irresistible pop machine at full tilt.


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