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
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
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
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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