(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 15, Number 5, 1996)


I still kick myself for selling my copy of the Bee Gee's Odessa (Atco) 12 years ago to a vinyl collector who coveted its red flocked velveteen cover. Released in 1969, long before the Gibb brothers' dolphin-voiced take on disco, Odessa found the transplanted Aussies wailing in stacked harmonies about shipwrecks, icebergs, Thomas Edison, and other non sequiturs with an incongruous outpouring of angst and a quavering, vaguely East European melancholia. On S'Amore 'E Mama, Sardinia's Tenores Di Bitti recapture the doomed romanticism of Odessa if not the pinched stridency of Robin Gibbs' lead vocals in a RealWorld-label collection of traditional songs produced by Michael Brook. Eschewing the hi-tech polyps and polish of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's Night Song, Brook is content to amplify the medieval strangeness of the Sardinian droners with touches of cavernous reverb that suggest this material is best appreciated in catacombs, bunkers, monastic chapels, Queensland cattle stations and other Masonic fortresses of male identity.

While the entirely a cappella Tenores De Bitti's lacks the lush strings that gave Odessa its Gothic flavor, odd-interval harmonies reminiscent of the Gibbs at full tilt abound. Check out the title cut and tell me it isn't just possible that the brothers have trumped their '90s has-been status by anonymously joining a secret Mediterranean brotherhood. In parts of "Sos Ojos Lagrimosos" I swear I hear the whistling overtones that have recently brought Tuvan throat singers to the forefront of sampling theft as the lead singer's voice combines and blurs with his hormonally overcharged island mates--a trick I'm sure Robin, Maurice, and Barry could have mastered once they reconciled the Black Sea/Baltic Sea geographic confusion that gave their double album its eerie, stateless charm.

Most pieces on S'Amore 'E Mama are slow moving and reverential, ranging from the magnificently depressing "Lamentu" to the comparatively playful but still essentially funereal "Anghelos Cantade," which had me mouthing endless "mo mo mo mo" phonemes along with the incantory chorus while stuck at a series of traffic lights. The stark atmosphere is buttressed by the limited melodic range of the material. While the leader might bounce around as many as a half dozen notes, the back up singers park themselves on a monotone, milking a minor-key resonance in Gregorian chant fashion for bars at a time, then planting their flag atop another tone just in time to keep the listener's head from exploding. Plus, in the manner of the pitch-shifting Tahitian Choir showcased on 1993's Rapa Iti (Triloka), the Sardinians have a habit of vigorously descending a half-tone en masse, making it feel as if the floor has suddenly dropped beneath my feet. Over the long haul, the manly gusto wears me down, but cut for cut I revel in performances that also bring to mind Ladysmith Black Mambazo with a bad case of the blahs. Really, there's nothing wrong with Tenores De Bitti that a shot of estrogen couldn't cure. Just ask the Gibb brothers, if you can't find them here.

Imagine my initial elation discovering that the Sabri Brothers' new Xenophile-label cd is titled Ya Mustapha, and that sax and electric bass have been added to two cuts. This had to be a surprise qawwali collaboration with the 3 Mustaphas 3, I surmised, a wily response to fellow Pakistani mega-mystic Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who took the pop plunge with third eye open earlier this year on Night Songs. But Hijaz, Sabah Habas, and their Mustapha-mates are nowhere to be found on this still wonderful disc that celebrates a Sufi name for Mohammed meaning "chosen one," rather than the antics of the ersatz Balkanites.

The Sabris take a more visceral approach to spiritual ecstasy than Ali Khan with intertwining lead vocals by group members and powerful unison singing that never modulates the intensity below a 103-degree fever pitch. But what whisks the brothers easily through songs up to 26:00 long is drumming as hot and furious as any African band you can name. The thick wall of bongos, tabla and handclaps combined with the flat-out singing creates a near infinite mass of tension, and I wondered how they could squeeze in another instrument above the calming influence of the harmonium without turning gold into lead. Most times I fire up this disc, however, I head directly for the title cut and its exquisitely judicious use of saxophones. The conceit flirts with danger in its first moments as eastern-looking jazz noodlings follow the free-form vocals. Then, once the main body of the song takes hold, the sax drops away until the chorus when Stax-style sax section punctuation adds an orthodox dose of attitude and swing. It's perfect, as is the fat Fender bass underpinning to "La Ilaha Il-Allah." Qawwali purists may disapprove of the added instruments, but I say, if you can maintain this quality, bring on even more!

I may not have grown up in polka music's backyard, but West Michigan is certainly the carport just down the street. I spent my high school years avoiding Bob "Jasiu" Whitcomb's Saturday morning "Polka Time" local radio show, gaped at him at his Plainfield Avenue party store, withstood at least one polka song at every Michigan wedding I ever attended, and still associate polka with silent-majority blandness, conservatism, bowling and clannishness. Despite these prejudices, within scant seconds I was won over by Jimmy Stuur's Polka! All Night Long (Rounder)--not so much by such eccentric touches as songs by Bob Wills and rock team Chinn-Chapman, guest artists Cajun accordionist Jo-El Sonnier and the Jordanaires, nor even the unexpected presence of Willie Nelson slipping lead vocals into three delicious cuts ("All Night Long," "Tavern in the Town" and "Big Ball's in Cowtown"), but by the sheer exhilaration of the whole shtick.

Rather than trying to update or revamp the music, or even toy with the edges of campiness, Stuur's approach has the opposite effect of turning every outside influence into a scenic variation of Polkatown, USA. A wonderful case in point is "Cajun Fiddle," which begins by welding polka so tightly to country with Frank Urbanovitch's violin, you can't tell where one genre ends and the other begins. As soon as Sonnier's button accordion enters, trading licks with keyboard accordionist Gene Bartkiewicz, zydeco develops an unmistakable Polish accent. All that's missing is the Tejano connection which everyone knows about already. Even Willie is dunked so deeply in Stuur's big band polka mainstream, sans liner notes I wonder if I would have recognized his distinctive voice through the layers of uncharacteristic joy he wraps around the material. On "Big Ball's in Cowtown," built upon a single yet remarkably funny pun about a gala dance, and the rollicking title cut with its bent toward western swing, he's as comfortable as a sitcom regular. In fact, Stuur's exceptional band in pursuit of conventional music is like some kind of Nick at Polka Nite relic from the '50s chock full of flawless cornball talent.

Fantastic in the literal meaning of the word is Deep in the Heart of Tuva (ellipsis arts...) which showcases performances of harmonic throat singing so unbelievable, bizarre, and at the same time beautiful, you'd swear the audio effects were cooked up by a studio stocked to the rafters with state-of-the-art electronic equipment. As instructive as it is listenable, Heart of Tuva is packaged as a 64-page, hard-cover, full-color CD-sized book filled with facts about the mountain-enclosed Siberian republic, including helpful recipes for preparing the delicacy "fat of the lambs tail" plus an unexpected profile on Tuvan wrestling. The track notes are the best I've seen on the subject to date. On cut three, as Oleg Kuular demonstrates a wide range of throat-singing styles, a list of these styles keyed to exact disc timings allowed me to confidently differentiate kargyraa coupled with a trilling technique called borbangadyr (0:46-1:11) from hoomei embellished with ezenggileer pulsation (2:07-2:46) by keeping an eye on my Discman's LCD. Helping me actually hear the harmonies (well, three out of four ain't bad) were notes to "Demonstration of Kargyraa" which identified the tones produced by Aldyn-ool Sevek's unaccompanied voice as an octave below the fundamental, the fundamental itself, a fifth above the fundamental, and the spooky whistle of a main melody made up entirely of overtones.

The material justifies the lavish package with such gems as a hoomei lullaby that traditionally gave Tuvan children an early taste of the vocal art--performed here by 73-year-old Bilchi-Maa Davaa in a rare example of women's throat singing. Representing the new generation and setting the standard for yet another sequel to The Exorcist is eleven-year-old Shaktar Shulban pitch shifting his voice into an unfathomable void in "Demonstration of Sygyt and Kargyraa." Above and beyond the basics is an instrumental "Fantasy on the Igil" that somehow coaxes complex timbres resembling Tuvan vocals from a vernacular bowed instrument, experimental collaborations between Tuvan and Russian musicians, and a gorgeous pairing of popular Tuvan ensemble Huun-Huur-Tu with members of the Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares Bulgarian Women's Choir that proves high-concept occasionally pays off big. Entirely off the scale is a wild modernization of throat-singing complete with electric guitar back-up by Yat-Kha, and on this charmed disc even that effort engages. The biggest thrill, however, is simply marveling at the skill, discipline and exertion required by the solo performers as they paint an aural portrait of the desolate and wind-beaten place they call home.

A lot of cds, no matter how good, still strike me as excessively long. After decades of conditioning by the 20-minute lp side, I usually find I've had enough of any artist at a single sitting after a short spurt of songs. So, the 32:54 length of Suden Aika by Finnish girl-group Tellu (Kansanmusikki-instituutti/KICD) fits my attention span to a tee. Better a tantalizing taste than a groaning board glut, and Suden Aika leaves me wanting more. Bleakly, but playfully, the album plumbs the depths of Tellu Virkkala's obsession with Finnish vocal music and Scandinavian fairy tales. Like any self-respecting alumnus of the Sibelius Academy's folk music department, Virkkala labors over her labor of love, twisting traditional material into exaggerated shapes in this collection of pieces for voice with sparse instrumental accompaniment.

Like American post-folkie Ani DiFranco, Vikkala pushes the boundaries of vocal music, hitting the extended narrative "Kosinta" with every dart and barb her tongue can muster. Even though I speak not a single word of Finnish, I hang darkly fascinated on her every syllable until a booming eleventh-hour bodhran, metallic percussion, and supportive vocals from Liisa Matveinen, Pia Rask, and Sanna Kurki-Suonia enter to relieve the terrible emptiness. The next cut, "Malinan Itku," ups the ante by unleashes an unbearable wailing disguised as melody and signal processed to approximate the murky fidelity of a 78-rpm recording, driving home the forlorn otherworldliness--and "Manaus" is punctuated by either shamanistic yoiking or the cries of an immense and nasty bird. Pieces friendlier to the ear abound as well, such as "Intro," which could be one of Varttina's downbeat numbers, and "Jopa Jouvuit, Neito Rukka," an optimistic-sounding tale about a serf who wastes away to nothing in service of an evil master. Typical Scandinavian themes, in short, but performed with grace and more than the usual amount of anti-freeze in the blood.

Label-mates Tallari rein in the horror on their tenth anniversary cd Komiammasti, which is Finnish for "better and better." The six-member gang of exceptionally accomplished folkies hies to the straight and narrow on this collection of traditional and occasionally sentimental pieces. Meticulous studio craft and arrangements elevate the disc far above the median, especially in the use of the kind of textural hooks usually reserved for pop recordings. Mandolin accompaniment accents a touch of the baroque on "Maatalouskoneiden Vapaapaiva," giving the cut an anomalous Neapolitan flavor, while a cleverly integrated walking bass in "Mita Mina Annan Heilalleni" smuggles in a jazzy bounce. My favorite unpronounceable song, "Orjan Laulu," opens with beautifully layered organ and accordion establishing such an ethereal tone that when tiered, off-center violins invade to crack open the reverie, it seems as if the melody will never go back together again--but a nostalgic vocal soon heals all. Deft creative strategies throughout this disc keep the vigor in traditional compositions without too obviously reshaping them. [Kansanmusikki-instituutti, The Folk Music Institute, FIN-69600, Kaustinen, Finland, or via http://personal.eunet.fi/pp/dighoe/]

More of a Scandinavian soulmate with aforementioned gloomsters Tellu is Sweden's answer to Fairport Convention, Garmarna. On Guds Speleman/God's Musician (Omnium), the quartet takes a slash and burn aesthetic to traditional songs, reveling in the dark aspects of folklore that gave the Dark Ages its fame. With a rockified spirit that ranges from cozy desolation to grand guignol big beats, Garmarna tells tales of ghouls, trolls, werewolves, leaf-eating grubs, and frigid fairy princesses. The band stays buoyant by adopting a deadpan approach that refuses to elevate supernatural themes above the ordinary and avoids conflating their texts into mystical documents or wrong-headed fodder for Freud. Instead, armed with local instruments plus electric guitars and the occasional African drum, members pursue their material with the unbridled joy of college kids discovering historical snapshots in Grimm's fairy tales. [Distributed by Rounder]

So highly regarded was juju godfather I. K. Dairo in his home country of Nigeria, that in observance of the four-day wake following his February 1996 death, the government-run Nigerian broadcasting network played only songs by Dairo, and professional musicians agreed not to perform anywhere in public at all. Compiled and annotated by University of Chicago professor of music (and author of the book Juju), Definitive Dairo (Xenophile) presents an unusual set of '70s recordings by Dairo clocking in at under 8:00 each--a mere eye-blink by the standard of extended juju jams. Rather than suffering from constriction, the radio-friendly lengths reveal a plethora of hooks and a more immediate debt to Cuban styles than I've heard in any other juju material. While strong melodies are no more evident here than elsewhere in the juju universe, catchy vocal parts stick firmly in the head along with arrangements that pack the maximum amount of variations into a limited space. Who would have expected the accordion-heavy "Baba Ngo To Wa" to end with an extended freefall or percussion? I also love the way the opening cut, "Okin Omo Ni," in which the idea of a guitar orchestra is fully realized, subtly increases tempo along with intensity. And the telegraphic guitar riffs sprinkled throughout the songs give literal meaning to the term "chops." It's A+ juju from start to finish from one of the greatest innovators in African music. Those craving more of Dairo's shorter pieces should also search out the Original Music label's Juju Master I. K. Dairo, MBE, which packs 22 nuggets from the '60s onto a single disc.

Let's over-analyze the dramatic power of the Cuban bolero as heard on the aptly named Boleros by Armando Garzon with the Quinteto Oriente (Corason). The dominant throb of the contrabass represents the heart weighted with the cares of the world, the fragile acoustic guitars signify the attempts of human invention to transcend physical limitation, while the percussion, especially the clave and shakers, tick off the short span of an individual life. Garzon's high-floating tenor voice, weary and sober, stands for the spirit that bends but never breaks, its sustained tone the single constant in a tiny conglomeration of broken, staccato parts. Sure, the preceding is sheer hoo-hah, but the fact is there's something stony and impenetrable in the bolero's airiness, a force that seems to demand explanation. Supple yet ultimately static, the form constricts a singer in a manner that makes his illusion of freedom feel heroic, and it's the ageless quality of Garzon's vocals that cut him loose. Hearing him on record, people imagine he's either a female or a much younger man, he reports. His tinge of effortlessness combines with the tightly scripted instrumentation to generate great formal energy. Though I prefer the loosey-goosey ethos of the equally involving son, any Cuban acoustic music this finely performed can hardly be resisted, and the sheer romantic pull is undeniable. [Distributed by Rounder]

Ya gotta love a cd called Armenians on 8th Avenue (Traditional Crossroads). Ya gotta hear it, too, if you're a fan of almost any kind of Middle Eastern music, most of which owes a heavy debt to the Ottoman "art" music and Anatolian folk music collected here. Harold Hagopian's liner notes to 8th Avenue tell the complex story of why the Armenian Diaspora in America would perform and record songs in the Turkish language, given the Genocide of 1915 committed by the Turks. The short answer is that Armenians were integral to the development of the music of the Ottoman Empire, and so continued to disseminate this part of their heritage when they came to this country. The disc anthologizes the cabaret-style songs popular in Istanbul and transplanted to flourish in the Greek-owned nightclubs on New York City's Eighth Avenue frequented by Armenian immigrants. All tracks are from 78-rpm sides originally released on the Metropolitan, Kaliphon, and Balkan labels and feature performances from the likes of kanun-master Kanuni Garbis Barkirgian, flamboyant vocalist Marko Melkon, Madlin Araradian--who contributes the toe-curling lullabye, "Ninni"--Jewish violinist Nisham Sedefjian, Greek clarinetist John Pappas, and a host of other gifted entertainers. Without a doubt, these songs from the '40s represent the high point of Armenian music recorded in the States, and the variety of the material alone is extraordinary as it wanders from classically-themed Ottoman pieces to rousing crowd pleasers like Melkon's "Dokumaci Kiz" with shouted chorus. [Distributed by Rounder]

Just as few cds are exceptionally good, few are truly dreadful. Folk Scat (Nomad/Music of the World) defines the benchmark of worst case world beat scenarios with its inconceivable grafting of squeaky clean Up With People-style '60s scat singing and--I can barely say it--homogenized Bulgarian vocal music. Sure, for perverse reasons, this is a concept I wish I'd invented as a deedle-dum-dee-dee version of Ludwig von's "Fur Elise" precedes the traditional-based Balkan Christmas song "Koledarska Pesen" in which all traces of authentic harmonic discord have been ironed out by middle-brow jazz aficionado and Folk Scat composer/director Stara Zagora. That this pre-digested amalgam is presented straight up without a trace of irony strikes me as a commercial miscalculation since, with a bit of chic retrofitting, the anachronisms along with the members' Biblical tunics and overalls could ride the coattails of sci-fi-inflected bachelor pad music reissues from the Eisenhower years. Intriguing as it may be to ponder the hideous circumstances that spawned Folk Scat in a Bulgaria whose attentions have apparently shifted west somewhat too abruptly, my curiosity is quashed by the irritation of actually encountering a three-song string from this disc on local radio. I thought new age music with tabla and digeridu additives was world music's lowest common denominator. Yet I can't say the buyer isn't duly warned of the content, since there's more than one meaning for "scat."

On Children of Gods (International Rain), Austin-based polytheists Happy Valley combine a tasteful ethic of when to use ethnic instruments with the secret of whisking light rock forward on a flywheel built from chugging acoustic guitars, riffs from the Nile Rogers songbook ("Disco! Disco!), and an octave hopping electric bass--not to mention the requisite dose of irony to temper the nods to Gaia. Songs like "Pulsar" convey the propulsion of computerized tempos through madly infectious guitar chord modulations and stuck-note bassification, while audio snippets from the streets of Cairo stand in for vocals. In the manner of suspected influences Ancient Future, Baka Beyond, Penguin Cafe Orchestra and even Neu and early Love Tractor, you won't find recognizable vocals anywhere, unless the frequent spoken-word montages count. (I especially love the BBC maritime forecast on "Big Blue.") In any case, Jennifer Biggers' vernacular flutes supply joyous lyrics in their own right, right at home with the Venezuelan wrens on the heady "Oxygen Garden." Happy Valley triumphs by carving out a little Shangri-La all their own independent of ersatz, studied, or dictatorial credos of how a blend of uprooted sounds should sound. And not a digeridu within earshot! [International Rain, 6501a Chesterfield Avenue, Austin, TX 78752, 512-458-6417]

From its diffraction-grating, color-changing, Janus-faced cover, to its duet-only performances, Duologue (Lyrichord) promises something different and delivers the goods with collaborations between percussionist Randy Crafton and six other musicians. Most of the 14 cuts went down in a single take, and all were recorded live in the studio during two-hour sessions with no rehearsals and little overdubbing, giving the pieces exceptional brightness plus a level of spontaneity right up there with the best field recordings. "Howard's Island," with Crafton's burbling udu drum and Howard Levy's bluesy harmonic dancing around a reggae-influenced beat, is a peach, as is Crafton's mbira and Amy Platt's clarinet on the pithy "As It Is." Duology admirably demonstrates the vocabulary and range of Crafton's arsenal of drums, thumb pianos, tambourines, pots, pans, and bangers. But the fact is that these sessions sound like improvisations rather than finished songs, and not even improvisations within a scripted framework as in jazz or classical Indian music-with the exception of Amit Chatterjee's "In This World," based on the evening raga "Rag Jog." So, while Duology throws off sparks in all directions, its off-the-cuff attitude played fast and loose with my attention span.

So many cds are over-produced and over-hyped that it's nice to come across one that's humble in intent as well as scope like the half-length, half-price, home-brew release Cafe Instrumentals by G. Whillikers Six-String Band (Sounds Acoustic Music). The band itself is as unassuming as it gets, composed of sole member Gary B. Saylin, a guitarist who recorded and produced the nine original songs at a friend's home studio in Sacramento. The no-frills, no-overdub acoustic guitar pieces in a folksy mode are just the thing for nerve jangled early mornings or bedraggled evenings. Disc opener "Turn of the Century" unaccountably reminds me of Hawaiian slack key, while other cuts quote world music sources more directly, including the well-known Japanese folk ditty "Sakura" given an appropriate slow and meditative reading here, "Wind Haunting Wind," which plucks melodies from Chinese sources, and the only cut to venture into pyrotechnic territory, the South African-style "The New Jive." It's all a pleasant piece of work and from cover art to execution about as distant from professional product as you can get while still caring about tight performances and good audio quality. [P.O. Box 1544, Davis, CA 95617]

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