(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 14, Number 2, 1995)


Reading Jay Stevens' history of the psychedelic movement, Storming Heaven; LSD and the American Dream, I had pangs of nostalgia for what Stevens termed the Other World. It had been years since I'd visited that strange interpersonal realm of ontologically rooted symbolism, cultural archetypes, and talking Sunmaid raisin boxes, and I began wondering how a domestic invertebrate agoraphobe like myself could get ahold of some Sandoz laboratory-quality hallucinogens.

The ex-wife of my ex-friend Fauntleroy recently told me of a West Michigan mushroom cult she had discovered that was collecting, boiling, drying, and consuming fly agaric toadstools, but as a morel, chicken polypore, and oyster mushroom enthusiast, I knew just enough about mycology to grasp the folly of putting any fungus on my dinner plate I hadn't plucked from the soil myself, especially a member of the deadly amanita family. Plus the fly agaric is no gentle escalator to the mighty clouds of joy. Come to think of it, what was? Recalling my last brush with psychedelics in 1982, I realized I was probably done with them forever. My pal the Whale had swallowed a sheet of desk-blotter acid and harangued me for the next six hours by repeating with algorithmically increasing incredulity and hysteria, "Gene Autry owns a baseball team."

Other cultures less pummeled into numbness by commercial jingles, tv theme songs, mall Muzak, background themes for sports reports, car horns, doorbells, high school marching bands, musical greeting cards, the am and fm radio spectrum, smoke detectors, wind chimes, street corner violinists, motion picture soundtracks, ringing telephones, cds, cassettes, lps, boomboxes, videotapes and video games use music to alter consciousness. Why not me? I had only to temporarily cut the sensory umbilical cord that has driven us all mad. My already-mentioned ex-friend Fauntleroy, timid ufo researched turned neoplatonic fundamentalist, had once bought an isolation tank with his inheritance, and I considered groveling at his feet begging forgiveness for the wrong he had done me (see The Beat, Vol. 12, No. 3) in exchange for an evening's use. Then I remembered that, too terrified to use it, he had converted the tank into a hot tub. This led me to my solution.

I filled my bathtub with 100-degree water, adding three cups of Hallite rock salt for buoyancy. The I locked the bathroom door after affixing a sign to the outside suggesting that if Linda had need of toilet, tub, or sink, she might consider following the dirt road beside our barn down the hill and past the swamp to our neighbors house on the Grand River floodplain and see if they wouldn't invite her in. Before settling into the steaming water with a stack of new cds, I swallowed a pharmacological concoction of my own design to give my neural impulses a boost: 500mg of niacin, one Tylenol caplet, a can of bee pollen granules, a lump of sugar and a swig of 7-up.

First on my play list was The Sweet Sunny North; Henry Kaiser & David Lindley in Norway (Shanachie), and sure enough, a few minutes in I was beset by visions of vast ice fields, blowing snow, and a chainsaw-wielding neighbor poaching my trees for firewood-until I got up and shut the blinds. Unlike others discs of Norwegian music that emphasize the pre-Christian inheritance of a country whose climate, geography and sheer crabbiness isolate it from downtown Europe, The Kaiser/Lindley compilation grounds its impressive roster of artists in reassuringly smooth folk quirkiness rather than pursuing the downward, brooding spiral of the hardanger fiddle into the darker regions of the psyche. For most listeners, this probably isn't much of a negative, because what Sunny North lacks in sustained mood it gains in the impressive diversity last seen on the Kaiser- and Lindley-produced World Out of Time Malagasy music samplers.

I already knew the folktale oeuvre favored by singer Kristen Braten Berg where extraordinary horrors are deadpanned in chilly matter-of-fact detail, such as "The Exiled Men" (Dei Frealause Menn), a cheerlessly riveting tale of shipwreck, cannibalism, and redemption. I was also vaguely familiar with the microtonal macro-perplexing joik spirit vocals of the Sami people we were taught to call the Lapps. But I knew nothing about Nordic big band music as set forth by the Brazz Brothers' rousing inflation of the hardanger fiddle war-horse, "The Devils Dance" (Fanitullen)--nor could I have predicted 16-year-old Deepika's Norwegian pop flavored with Pakistani vocal stylings. I was completely thrown off balance into the hotwater faucet by Chateau Neuf Spelemannslag's piercing "Goat Call" (Geitlokk), which bends a lone, keening voiced theme into an a cappella jazz vocal for choral group. Part of the credit for the scope and shape of the project belongs to consultant and guitarist Knut Reiersrud, whose jaunty solo cd Footwork successfully juggled Norwegian and African material. Praise should also be heaped on Kaiser and Lindley themselves, who blend smoothly into local styles when not, in Reiersrud fashion, giving a hemispheric turn to the performances by adding Turkish saz to Ailu Gaup's improvised tundra joik, "Reindeer Against the Wind," Hawaiian guitar to Susanne Lundeng's "Polsdance from Saltdal" fiddle breakdown, or leading local musicians in the American Civil War ballad, "The Sweet Sunny South."

For unfettered traditionalists, Sunny North also features Elisabeth Kvaerne's beautiful composition for langeleik dulcimer, "The Bell Tune" (Bjolleslatten), 77-year-old Hans Brimi's demonstration of the timeless power of the sympathetic-stringed hardanger fiddle on Blue Silence ("Bla Stilheit), the stuck-in-time, stretched beat tempo of "Little Kari's Last Dance" (Vesle-Karis Siste Dans), and other tamper-resistant pieces. Though not exactly the most forthright harnessing of the pagan allure that gives Scandinavian music its eerie dawn-of-consciousness feel, the compilation is good enough to make me long for solo offerings from most of the participants. But except for a few deliciously dark spots it fused rather than enlarged the crack between worlds I sought in the sanctity of my tub.

The most intriguing part of Sunny North was the liner-note description of Hans Brimi playing his violin for the mythical beings called the vetter who live underneath the mountains around his home-just the sort of chthonic journey I was geared to take. So it was with great expectations that I came to a disc by fellow Scandinavians Garmarna, whose Omnium-label cd title Vittrad is Swedish for "crumbling away." The unrelentingly dreary tenor and subject matter of the material didn't disappoint, nor the prerequisite songs about enchanted children who come back to murder a wicked parent ("Straffad Moder & Dotter," Mother and Daughter Punished) and the medieval dysfunctional papa who sells his little girl for half a loaf of bread on "Den Bortsalda" (Sold Away).

With almost gleeful glumness, Garmarna snap to chronicles of woe with such instrumental savvy I was shocked to note the twentysomethingness of the band members. But as the disc pressed me down into ever deepening strata of relaxation and scented bath oil, I noted not only the folk rock ethos at play, but a certain workmanlike flatness to the bowing and plucking of native instruments compared to the stylings of their more angst-ridden elders. Still there's much to like. Emma Hardelin launches songs on the same sort of strident kid-sister vocals that make me want to pinch Vartinna's collective Finnish cheeks, Jens Hoglin's drums and Rickard Westman's guitars spin the calendar forward while still lurching respectfully atop their ancestors graves, and the tongue-in-cheek, jaw's-harp-in-teeth, flute and violin arrangement of "Namndemans-Ola" (Commissioner Ola) is sharp-edged and winning. With just a little crass marketing-say a name change to Dead Swedes Can Dance-Garmarna's forte could spread like the plague.

I had momentary fears that I'd gotten into a bad batch of bee pollen when I fired up Cafe's first cd to find a filtration of Caribbean, West African and other non-northern genres performed by Finns and sung in Finnish. The band's well-played, self-produced disc may raise a hoot in Helsinki, but will undoubtedly strike Beat readers as irrelevant, plus it's nigh well unobtainable south of the North Sea. Hardened Urgophiles in want of a copy might contact the Cafe label c/o multi-instrumentalist Jussi Kivimaki, Kastelholmantie 4C73, 00900 Helsinki, and haggle out currency exchange rates.

Any guy willing to bear the public ridicule of billing himself as Nomad is a visionary in my book, and the promo material from the Australian Music International label evoked a mental pictogram of an Aussie Jai Uttal stoned silly on the Aboriginal culture. The first cut , "Nomad", on Nomad's cd, Nomad, was real, real gone as the big N's accomplished digeridoo choo-chooing gave an unnamed traditional musician from Arnhem Land a solid platform to sing upon while a dangerous chasm filled with synth goo, processed insects, and sampled clapsticks chortled below. Even better than Deep Forest, Nomad seemed just the ticket to whisk me to imaginary primeval terrain. But just as a sunning gecko morphed into a nude Blair Brown, "Mountain Walk South" cast off the dreaming song vocals for ersatz tribal chanting cloned from the Johnny Clegg songbook. "Gathering" and "Wildlife" recovered ground with guest Mor Thiam's lovely singing and Senegalese djembe, but by the time "Mountain Walk East" plunged me into the middle of documentary soundtrack cumulus, my first neck-bristling brush with happy nowhere was a far away speck. But Nomad's exuberant scatting and hefty digeridoo chops do sound great on our local public access radio station when sandwiched between those damned Spanish monks and 19-year-olds straining to sing jazz.

Graham Wiggins and friends, known collectively as Dr. Didg, explore a less lunar approach to accompanied didgeridoo on Out of the Woods (Hannibal/Rykodisc), whose best piece, "Brolga," has been shuttled to last cut. Originally comprising Outback with Baka Beyond's Martin Craddick, Wiggins struts his strongest huff-and-puff stuff on "Brolga" embellishing a recording of an Aboriginal songman's composition, but as Ian Campbell's drums and Mark Revell's electric guitar rise, the distinctiveness of the concept vanishes beneath recycled rock clutter. Few other tracks even get this far. Unique as the didgeridoo may be, it's not a versatile instrument under the best conditions, and on Out of the Woods Wiggins relegates it to a kind of rhythmic blacksmith's bellows furiously pumping life into songs that aren't very compelling otherwise.

Another disc to avoid is a second Australian Music International release, Dawn Until Dusk; Tribal Song and Didgeridoo, which buries traditional aboriginal songs beneath a recurring pasted-on ambient shamscape of cockatoos, kookaburras, honeybees and eagles. For the stark and compelling real thing, get Bungdridj-bungdridj: Wangga Songs by Alan Maralung (Smithsonian/Folkways) instead.

Soured by the above, I thought it best to get expatriate Zairean Ray Lema out of the way before anything else waylaid me en route to nirvana. No sooner did my big toe fuddle upon the 'play' button than I spun into a strange world of dripping foam that turned out to be my wife washing her hair a few feet above my easily-ignored supine form. Replacing the bathroom door on its hinges, I resigned myself again to Ray. Unlike his last few releases, though, Tout Partout (Buda Records) has the edgy fun of a group of musicians who all got off the wrong planes and try to make the make best of it. Draped together in the terminal lounge at Orly, they concoct an airy combination of township rhythms, Gallic accordion, jazz noodlings, and the odd Bulgarian yodel. While Ray's studious arrangements probably generated heat in the act of composition, by the time the notes hit the instruments they radiate a lukewarm cool that's still vastly preferred to his usual bouts of stiffness. In fact, the disc is shot through with an academic sort of whimsy that will probably have ethnomusicologists roaring at capricious innovations like the world's only honky-tonk kora on "Louyindoula," the dialog between Meredith Monkish vocals and overblown flute on "Lansine" and other jibes that sailed over my head. You can rarely count on Ray Lema for consistency, but depend on him to keep experimenting. Tout Partout has sufficient pay-off moments to keep the alchemy alive.

Ice Records' latest four releases of collected tracks by calypso greats promised a different route to timelessness via evocative retrospectives Mighty Sparrow, Volume Four and the first Lord Melody anthology, Precious Melodies. But just as I was mingling my atoms with the flickering edges of an improvised historical film, two attention-riveting entries in this series of music that refuses to age pulled me back into the pea-sized chunk of my brain where I spend my normal near-waking hours.

On the strength of his contributions to Calypso Carnival, Rounder Records unbeatable anthology of classic calypso performance, I'd decided Roaring Lion stood head and shoulders above other T&T artists. But the highpoints of Ice Records' Lion collection Sacred 78s are the same cuts that appear on Carnival, and I ended up paying more attention to the orchestration than to his so-so double entendres--when not entirely tuning out farces like "Miss Tina" with rhymes on the order of "your face like a whale and as if you now come from jail." The closer Lion plays cards to chest, the better he fares, thus the consumer item wish list that forms the libretto to "I'm Going to Buy a Bungalow" turns name brand name dropping to a savage tee, "Charming Trinidad" is such sweet propaganda it gets funny, patois-laden pieces "J'ouvert Barrio" and "Rhumba Dance" revel in intoxicating rhythms, and nonsense lyrics in "Boo Boo La La" and "Bamsee Lambay" anchor road marches so tough they nearly fly off the cd player. Lion's preachy compositions show his wordplay at its best. "Love Thy Neighbor" takes a bubbly multisyllabic approach to the promulgation of brotherhood, "Wash Your Hands and Clean Your Fingernails" is a verbal balancing act between the hygienic and the bawdy, and "Ugly Woman" get its humor from the singer's pretense of dispensing sage advice.

It took Volume Three of Klassic Kitchener (Ice Records) to make the obvious fact of the first two volumes apparent to my slow wit. In a genre that often seems driven by one novelty cut after another, Kitch's graceful command of the ridiculous gives ephemeral songs a shot of longevity. Unlike other calypsonians whose material is primarily reactive, the man is constantly inventing ways to both claim traditional roots and expand the form. "Tribute to Spree Simon" is a call to conserve the name of a forgotten originator of steelband, Winston Spry, and "Bees Melody" describes the composer's ability to hear a song in the most ordinary or hazardous circumstances, as Kitch braves sting upon sting to memorize the melodic hum of a defending swarm of killer bees. Looking ahead, he gives us "Pan in the 21st Century" and the utterly dazzling miniature symphonies "Pan in A Minor," "Pan in Harmony," and "Symphony in G" which turns classical music motifs into pure bacchanal. As if this weren't enough, we also get Kitch adopting the usual diverse personas and spinning the expected ripping yarns. A magnificent collection.

After the 300th internal chorus of the Statler Bros. "Countin' Flowers on the Wall" it dawned on me that sensory deprivation includes shutting one's eyes, but Central Asian folkies Huun-Huur-Tu project a ghostly atmosphere on The Orphan's Lament (Shanachie) that had me continually wheeling my head around to make sure no one was sneaking up behind me. Though this timidity may bar me from the everything but the antechamber of transcendence, I'm grateful that on their second American release the Tuvans devote their disorienting harmonic singing, croaking, and human didgeridoo effects to mysterious, hook-filled craggy slabs of still-life that persist in memory longer than Dali's mustache. On the easily pronounceable "Steppe," Kaigal-ool Khovalyg's one-stringed igil fiddle throbs in unison with his shimmering vocal overtones, while Anatoli Kuular's solo vocal tour de force "Borbanngadyr" pulls blubbering fish from a mountain stream, yanks ravens and songbirds from the limbs of burnt-out trees, and wrestles a wicked northwesterly wind into submission. Impressively, these irreproducible shamanistic throat-singing techniques neither overwhelm Huun-Huur-Tu's delicate adaptation of folk melodies nor undercut the stark and beautiful instrumentation. More than anything, I come away from Orphan's Lament carrying the emotive force of heartfelt performances, though I wish I was also left with a nifty bull scrotum and sheep kneebone rattle like percussionist Alexander Bapa's.

Determined to surrender myself completely to the "trance music" promised on the back cover of Niamey Twice (Sterns), I cut a ping-pong ball in two and secured the halves over my eyes with a couple of rolls of masking tape. After crawling back up the basement stairs and finally locating bathtub, cd player, and disc, I prepared to be mesmerized by never-heard-before music from Niger. The first six tracks are by Moussa Poussy who wields a charismatic waif's voice and soaring melodies. The next six cuts, darker, more rhythmically complex, and stretched taut by Ali Maliki's intricate guitar knots, are by Saadou Bori, whose big band supplies the might behind both vocalists. This is one of those seemingly faultless African pop releases where every element is in perfect place, from brisk horn charts and sensuous female back-up singers to wonderfully cheesy synthesizer riffs. But despite the engaging Khartoum via Bamako sway of instruments and beats, the sheer drop-dead cumulative power of the songs, and Moussa's unexpected boo-hooing on "Weino," there's something too generic in arrangements and production that ends up blunting the impact. Less fusion and more folklore next time.

No cd has been more patient with me than Mansour Seck's N'der Fouta Tooro Vol. 1 (Sterns Africa), which quietly suffered the indignity of being relegated to pleasant background music until the moment when I was finally ready to receive its considerable fire--then the sparks flew so furiously I was nervous about my immersion in water. Even more arresting than Djam Leelii, his 1989 collaboration with Baab Maal, N'der Fouta Tooro finds the blind Senegalese guitarist teamed with Maal on one cut and with vocalist Ousmane Hamady Diop on four others, with back-up including kora, rhythm guitar and handdrums. Songs have the kind of forcefulness usually associated with full-tilt pop, but except for the infinite-space production, the sound is primarily acoustic and rooted in traditional music. Like longtime friend Maal, Seck leans toward a hypnotic, emotionally charged delivery of voice and instruments that needs time to unwind, as on the long parched outcries "Allah Waya Ko Hana" and "Tabakala". But Seck's guitar is lush and direct, and its drama should appeal to fans of Ali Farka Toure

I'm always annoyed to see a cd hyped per Niamey Twice as supposedly trance inducing when I've never succeeded in falling to the ground and frothing at the mouth under the spell of any music that wasn't way too obsessively repetitive to qualify as pop. Even mildly consciousness altering cd substances are annoying under the majority of listening conditions. Thus Betawi & Sundanese Music of the North Coast of Java, Topeng Betawi, Tanjidor, Ajeng, the Smithsonian Folkways label's fifth release in its Music of Indonesia series, proved to be a severe detriment to productivity when I tried using it as a soundtrack to editing an annual report for a neck-brace company. Insulated from such crass bread earning, however, my nervous metabolism instantly clicked with Grup Topeng Betawi Panca Mekar's unceasing rebab bowed lute against the unceasing tin-pot drumming and gonging of gendang, kentung, kenong, kempul, goong and kecrek-instruments whose names provide a pretty accurate indication of their sound.

Betawi music, a product of the meeting between European and indigenous cultures, apparently hasn't smoothed out much in the 194 years since the Dutch founded Batavia (now Jakarta) as their Javanese capital. The three styles presented on the disc, especially examples of tanjidor and ajeng, come across like an art school student's wetdream of fourth world jazz--hubris, miscalculations and all. Tanji Modern Grup Marga Luyu jolt unfamiliar meandering tones and unsettling harmonies from familiar European brass band instruments, from the fractured waltz through the rubble of a Bavarian beer garden on "Was Pepko" to the mewling saxophonics raising hackles against an exhausted New Orleans funeral parade on "Gaple"--or "Ucing Belcek" whose title literally translates as "cat with white gunk in its eyes," according to Philip Yampolsky's liner notes. Yet even this assault on the vaguely recognizable is pathetic preparation for the sheer unwavering intensity of the three ajeng tracks, which feature a local Pharaoh Sanders blowing endless circular breaths through a complaining shawm. Around him, members of a gamelan ensemble speed up or throw on the brakes as inspiration seems to strike them in the rare metallophone-driven pieces on all of Java that toss cyclic structure to the trade winds.

Unfortunately my mind was too cluttered with the garbage of daily experience to vibrate on the same subtle string as the unbelievably intimate Night Music of West Sumatra, Music of Indonesia Six (Smithsonian Folkways), which features short excerpts from an all-night narrative form for solo singer and saulang flute, or solo singer and rebab. As I tried tuning into the delicate nuances of vocal inflection and echoed instrumental phrase, the lack of known signposts and the snail's pace with which I was conveyed through this claustrophobic terrain clipped my breathing to short, shallow gasps and threw my heart into arrhythmia. Though I did experience a fleeting vision of a vastly improved me able to one day to reap the pleasures of saulang, rabab pariman, and dendang pauah, that ethereal Bob hot-footed it from this leaden, consumer product-laden realm as soon as he'd descended, leaving me with the easier to grasp delights of another Smithsonian Folkways release, Royal Court Music of Thailand.

"Sounds of the Surf Overture" by His Majesty King Prajadhipok, Rama VII, generated an argument between my briefly awakened higher self and my usual nay-saying personality over whether we were hearing a composition of genius or an act of royal presumption by a pampered and patronized monarch. But "Surf Overture" is so fun, its greatness barely matters as a seesawing shawm rides the crests and troughs of xylophones, tuned gongs and drums in a perfect auditory description of a small boat tossed by the waves--or the soapdish which nearly capsized as my stomach convulsed with glee at this childishly whimsical composition. Undoubtedly Thai court musicians dread the inevitable request from the royal audience for this 1920s vintage crowd pleaser just as midwestern bar bands cringe at repeated drunken demands for "Freebird." The vocal pieces on this disc are marvelous too, especially the appropriately named "The Floating Moon," where a microtonally advanced singer bends her lithe larynx to strike quavering notes I swear I've never heard before in my entire life.

But still no hint of the Other World. Then again, I'm barely in this world either. Stepping out of the tub and my wet clothes and into a faux-silk smoking jacket, I glided into the living room and turned the satellite dish to the brand new Game Show Network. For the next three, four, six, eight, ten, twelve or maybe fourteen hours, I joined my faraway but very near and dear friends Henry Morgan, Dorothy Kilgallen, Bennett Cerf, Steve Allen, Hal Block, Arlene Francis, Hy Gardner, John Charles Daly, Bud Collyer, Tom Poston, Kitty Carlisle, Peggy Cass, Garry Moore, Bess Myerson, Hy Gardner, Fred Allen, Richard Dawson, Polly Bergen, Brett Sommers, Gene Rayburn, Jan Murray, Jack Narz, Bob Barker, Gary Burghoff, Allen Ludden, Betty White, Alex Trebeck, Orson Bean, Bill Cullen, Faye Emerson, Fannie Flagg, Bobby Van, Elaine Joyce, Betsy Palmer, Jayne Meadows and Jack Barry. Who says reality bites?


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