(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 12, Number 6, 1993)


"This is the best African music I've ever heard," I lied, hoping to trick Linda into shutting her window or opening it more than a crack so that I could tell a lead vocal from a saxophone solo as the wet pavement hissed past us. Hurtling along the coast of Lake Superior, we were still an hour away from Wawa, Ontario--first stop on our circumnavigation of Lake Superior--and I was determined to install us in a $26 motel before the evening gloom turned to darkness. Once north of Pancake Bay, however, overnight choices narrowed to pricey lodges or tracts of stony ground awaiting tent stakes, and a vague sense of worry started in on my stomach lining.

Majurugenta by the Mozambican pop group Ghorwane seemed the obvious choice for counteracting anxiety. Slow Latin tempos, tight everyman vocals, and horn charts from the days when hi-life was king summon a free-floating nostalgia intense enough that after three or four listenings to this RealWorld label release, I could swear these songs had been rattling around in my head for decades. The band plays modern pop based on traditional local rhythms, but an emphasis on personality over technology makes it difficult to jam this disc into the player without plunging headlong into seductive stage-crafted warmth--or avoiding the teeth that keep softer moments from disappearing into the black hole of Bhundu Boys-style blandness.

Ghorwane plays out the inevitable tension between African music past and present with so palpable an edge, it turned out I was crazy to choose Majurugenta as a soundtrack for racing thunderheads to Wawa. Drummer Riquito Mafambame creates bucketsful of tension with skittery chops that taunt and stress the beat by lagging just behind it by sheer milliseconds--if my laboratory equipment is measuring correctly--but long enough to suggest daredevil brushes with disaster as he continually toys with missing the rhythmic deadline. His bungee-jump approach propels most cuts while it downright rescues others, notably the lost in bliss "Sathumba" which eventually yields the throttle to the real star of this disc, saxophonist Zeca Alage.

Against all logic, Alage reminds me of a honey-dipped Fela Kuti. His suave attack avoids Fela's bark plus the apparent carelessness that characterizes the Nigerian bandleader's hottest solos, but both men share some phrasings along with an overpowering faith in jazz as a lingua franca capable of storming specific experience and throwing it open to the widest possible emotional context--awakening the generic in a local genre while sacrificing nothing except insularity. Alage has a genius for arrangement as well, notably on the title cut where a taut structure suddenly throws its head back, stretches and redefines itself, risking a bass, drum and trumpet vamp followed by sleepy keyboard noodling that threatens to unravel the song. Then the vocals reassert themselves, paving the way for Alage to slide in like John the Baptist, supercharging the air in anticipation of a monstrous brass coda that nails the song to the center of my forehead.

Tragically Alage was beaten to death by Maputo thugs last April, a loss that would devastate most bands. But Ghorwane has managed to survive long years of poverty through Mozambique's crippling civil war, and band members have vowed to go forward in the memory of their friend. The question is whether they'll make a noise this bright the next time we hear from them.

The sun ducked beneath the horizon before we reached the highway 17 bypass into Wawa. In the darkness we missed the huge steel memorial to the goose which gave the town the Ojibwa name that has made a surprising number of appearances throughout my life. My first girlfriend, Vickie Plumb, soured our nascent romance by forcing me to listen to a children's record called "Little Wawa" over the phone. Twelve years later, my partner in a backward-technology typesetting venture revealed that as a teenager his mother had sent him to a Christian-run reformatory at a remote spot in Ontario called Dog Lake as punishment for breaking into neighbor's houses for the adventure of intrusion. He escaped as far as Wawa, which I've known most recently as my friend Steve Lewis' jump-off point for wilderness trout-bonding, fanny-patting weekends with his lawyer and cop buddies.

As ill-defined archetypes go, Wawa remained an enigma even as I took it in, a tourist trap with few tourist trappings that somehow required a main street wide enough to U-turn a logging truck. As we sat in the glare of an antiquated hotel fitted with an unsavory-looking restaurant, my wife and I marveled that a town of 4,846 supported not one but two taxi services flitting around the front door of the hotel. One of them discharged a trio of mini-skirted women so incongruously out of place in make-up and high-heels, we made our own wide U-turn away from the hotel to resume the search for cheapo lodging.

I shoved in a cassette I'd made of the new release by the former Bulgarian State Radio and Television Choir, now known as Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares after the choir's best known cd (gruesome details abound in Technobeat , Vol. 12, No. 2). An air of mystery might recast my first impressions of Wawa, I hoped, but Melody Rhythm & Harmony (Mesa/Blue Moon) failed to spirit our car above the potholes. Newcomers to Bulgarian choral music could reasonably start with this 2-cd set recorded live in front of a flu-stricken Norwegian audience. I'm still spoiled by my first brush with this genre, however, when the 4AD label release was the only such recording available, details about the history and survival of the music were sketchy, and the eerie harmonies seemed to waft from the catacombs of an ecstatic medieval religious sect. Later releases continued to hold my attention, even last spring's pairing of the choir with computer-generated dance tracks which struck me less as a betrayal than an unfathomable goof.

But beautiful as the music on Melody Rhythm & Harmony may be, I can't adapt to a concert setting which cages and isolates each song between tin sheets of applause. Talk about a mood breaker. I understand the realities of the dark marketing forces at work here, but is transforming a tradition into a traveling museum piece the best way to keep a cultural artifact alive? Live recordings make sense to me only when a concert captures elements which elude a studio setting. I buy live discs primarily to hear improvisation, new song arrangements, or the immediacy that can revitalize familiar material. The rationale I don't accept--especially with pieces this tightly scripted--is a live set as cavalcade of hits or other attempt at inclusiveness. Studio tracks always sound so much better, and the wild applause of a digitized audience doesn't move me any more than laugh tracks.

I left the Bulgarians bawling as we shuttled our luggage into the drab and wonderful Agawa Motel in downtown Wawa, complete with "No Noise" and "No Cooking Allowed in the Room" signs on the inside door and a belligerent Ukrainian behind the front desk. When I complained to him our room had no heat--the thermostat said 62 degrees--he told me to set the thermostat at 72. "It's already set at 78, and nothing's happening," I said.

"Seventy-eight degrees?" the Ukrainian exploded. "What kind of people are you to want to sleep with it so hot!"

"I didn't set it at 78," I explained. "It was already set when we came in."

"Of course you have no heat. Do you think I spend my money heating empty rooms?"

"So you'll switch on the heat from your office," I asked him.

"Go back to your room!" he demanded.

Minutes later as I was recounting the episode for Linda, the Ukrainian rapped loudly on our window. "We do have heat," I mentioned, holding my hand over the register.

"Fine. Now you can have barbecue," he growled. Then he took me outside to the deserted parking lot and claimed the rear tire of my car was touching the white line of my allotted space. "You will have to move, or no one else can get in," he said and stormed off.

The next morning, Linda's steam iron shorted out an extension cord and blew a fuse in our room. We barely managed to throw all our belongings in the trunk and pull out into the street just as our host was marching grimly toward our door. We ate a hurried breakfast at the Big Bird Restaurant down the street, fearful that the Ukrainian would rear up behind me to wrap the charred extension cord around my neck.

After breakfast I had to choose between accompanying Linda to church or hopping on the pygmy bandwagon. I chose church for the local color it provided and let the pygmies take us to the town of White River later. Heart of the Forest: Music of the Baka People of Southeast Cameroon (Hannibal/Rykodisc) contains some of the most beautiful and varied pygmy songs I've ever heard. Recorded by guitarist Martin Cradick, co-founder of the recently disbanded worldbeat band Outback, Heart lacks the large group performances I've come to associate with other pygmy peoples--such as the Aka and Bayaka, where members pass melodic phrases back and forth, momentarily rising above the freewheeling polyphony then submerging again into the thicket of voices.

The Baka's music, in contrast, emphasizes rhythm more prominently. Most tracks by a solo or handful of performers have a simple percussive accompaniment that interlocks in complicated fashion with the pattern of the yodeled vocals. The effect is a style of music that can be immediately grasped--hear a snippet of a piece, you have an overview of the entire song--yet is almost unfathomably deep--subtle variations mesh vocal and rhythm in seemingly nonrepeating juxtapositions. The percussion itself is fascinating. I'm not sure how many of the beats are induced from fashioned instruments and how many are made by sticks, pop bottles and other found objects, but all are remarkably effective. Three cuts feature "water drums," a panoply of percussive sounds made by slapping fingers, palms, and fists on the surface of the river.

Plucked string instruments like the limbindi bow and the ngombi lute also serve a primarily rhythmic function, though the tight spiral melodies add a kaleidoscopic intensity to the groove. Stand-out cuts include "Venolouma," an evocative rain forest blues for lute and voice that Ali Farka Toure should consider covering, and "Ieta," where a woman's gentle voice above a rippling string melody coaxes a songbird to rapturous accompaniment.

Cradick's stay with the Baka inspired the music of Heart of the Forest's companion volume, the collaborative Spirit of the Forest (Hannibal/Rykodisc) by Cradick's new band, Baka Beyond. Most of the compositions on the disc were reconstructed in London by Cradick from musical jams with the Baka or were co-written in Cameroun with the villagers. Others set guitar, violin and other European and Baka instruments to rhythmic ideas from the pygmies. The triumph of Cradick's Spirit is that he has created a nonderivative style that avoids trying to either duplicate or dilute the songs of the Baka, while still managing to capture their highly-charged lightness of being.

One of the best cuts, "Ngombi," pipes the birdlike call of a forest flute above the compelling narration of Cradick's acoustic guitar, while fellow Outback (and Malicorne) alumnus Paddy Le Mercier goes for the emotional jugular with a romantic, gypsy-flavored violin. A Baka rhythm ties the instruments together. The title song begins with a snippet of pygmy vocal stretched across a driving Baka drum riff then disappearing in a swell of Cradick's chiming fingerpicking--invoking a simultaneously journey both in and out of the forest, mallet percussion standing in for the snapping of twigs, the steady hum of insects mimicking the blur of city life. In moments like these when separate planets intersect and pull apart, Spirit is brilliant. But its virtues require attention, or the disc too easily recedes into the ambient--not just because of the delicacy of the music, but because its instruments are recorded with a timbral similarity that merges flute with vocals, vocals with violin, and violin with guitar, as if the players were striving to recreate the canopy of interacting pygmy vocals.

No such problems of subtly dog Deep Forest (Epic), which begins with a pitch-shifted Klingon-esque voice-over informing us, "Somewhere deep in the jungle are living some little men and women. They are our past and maybe, maybe they are our future"--ample grounds for jerking this disc from the drive and sailing it into the trees. But as spurts of sampled Baka vocals attached themselves to computer-driven Eurobeats, a horrid fascination kept me listening. I'm glad I did, because Eric Mouquet and Michel Sanchez's crazy-quilt cultural graft reminds me less of the giddy but ultimately depressing corporate merger of Bulgarian vocals and disco rhythms on the similarly assembled "From Bulgaria with Love" than it recalls the inestimable charms of Holger Czukay's evanescent combination of Arabic vocals and studio-recorded tracks on 1977's "Persian Love."

On the negative side, the sampled Baka voices often flit across the synthesized environment like firefly blips from a video game or disembodied cartoon characters. I'm utterly helpless, however, against "Sweet Lullaby," where a throat-catching female voice floating on its own above a perfectly innocuous background is affecting enough, but when it switches to a thick, multi-tracked chorus of the soothing balm of the ages, I'm ready for the big sleep myself. This is a song that shouldn't be missed. You might also be drawn to "Nightbird," a fine example of octave-jumping pygmy vocals that's spliced into a metallic-treated chorus and surrounded with almost obligatory jungle twitterings. In every case the extraordinary vocals take primacy over the workmanlike back-up beats and synth textures, but at least the electronics verge toward an Eno-Rodelius moodiness instead of matching the buoyancy of the vocals with new age tinkles and glitter. But the real genius is in the witty manipulation of samples that ranges from the organic to the absurd.

Kudos go to all of the three recordings above for donating proceeds from sales to charities dedicated to maintaining the habitat, and thus the lifestyle, of the Baka. Each disc is strongly recommended, especially--and I'm surprised to hear an acoustic doyen like myself admit it--Deep Forest for its state-of-the-art cleverness.

No pygmy would have been as out of the place as the hapless Korean pastor of the Methodist Church in Wawa, whose halting English delivered an impenetrable homily that segued from his wife's driver's license test to the seven plagues of Egypt and included--possibly in reference to the written portion of his wife's exam--a description of "millions frogs jumping all over place." But the fun wasn't in the bravery of cleric, who must have sinned against the world Methodist body to be exiled to the fringes of domesticated Sundays. It was watching the congregation's dumbstruck faces as they struggled to make out three consecutive words of the sermon.

On our way out a lumbering parishioner button-holed us within earshot of the pastor to demand, "Did you understand any of that?" We said, yes, of course. "He's new here," the lug howled, as if the pastor's difficulty with English was tantamount to deafness. "And he hasn't even been ordained yet."

We walked briskly to our car and headed north to the town of White River, whose answer to the steel goose monument in Wawa is a towering statue of Winnie the Pooh in the Honey Tree--based on the convoluted yarn that the bear which inspired A. A. Milne was plucked from there and shipped to a London zoo. A sign elsewhere in town advances the equally believable legend that White River is the home of the lowest recorded temperatures in Canada. Baffin Island be damned, I suppose. The remainder of our trip we stopped at 16 waterfalls, foraged in an amethyst mine, visited the Beaver House in Grand Marais, MN, climbed thousands of wooden steps at Michigan's Porcupine Mountains in an alleged wilderness area, and aired out one musty smelling motel room after another. But every other stop on our Lake Superior circle tour paled compared to Wawa, home of both the Black and White Cab Company and the Wawa Taxi Service.

The kick off of A World Out of Time, Vol. 2: Henry Kaiser and David Lindley in Madagascar (Shanachie) is literally a hoot as a group of indri lemurs let loose their wailing souls over Rossy's drum machine in a taping accident that turned out to be fortuitous. "Lemur Rap" is a fitting intro to this disc, which is filled to the brim with amazing sounds of the incredibly varied music of the island. As with Volume One, Kaiser and Lindley mainly hover in the background allowing local performers to do their turn--including Roger Georges, Mahaleo, Tarika Sammy, Rakoto Frah, and others.

When the Americans do pick up instruments and join in, they're successful to the degree that they wrap themselves seamlessly in local genres. But when they set their own styles against the Malagasy's, as with a trademarked Kaiser noise-guitar solo at the concluding bars of "Tsaiky Mboly Hely," a salegy collaboration with Roger Georges, the result is jarring and out of place. Curiously, the reverse situation doesn't hold true, for when the island musicians put their own spins on American material, the results are nearly miraculous. Rossy's rootsy take on Merle Haggard's "I'm A Lonesome Fugitive" makes Malagasy country and western seem like a natural born fact. But the disc's most vivid moment out of so many gorgeous performances is a one-off improvisation by 72-year-old flute master Rakoto Frah atop Lindley's impromptu slide guitar rendering of the 1956 Ray Price classic, "You Done Me Wrong." Rakota Frah's sodina flute inventions expand the scope of the song to such a degree, it's a shock to read the liner notes and learn he'd never played--and probably never heard--the song before.

Highlight follows highlight on this disc, from Tarika Sammy's plaintive lokanga fiddle and kabosy dulcimer/mandolin mountain music with South Seas echoes on "Revire," to Rakota Frah's band of pipes backed by military tattoo ("Viavy Raozy"), to a music box-like duet for valiha zither and Malagasy guitar called "Afindrafindrao" by Sylvestre Randafison and Germain Rakotomavo. Closing A World Out of Time with a huge metallic bang is the clamor that greeted Kaiser and Lindley when they first stepped off the plane to the island, eight minutes of Tarika Ramilson's churning brass band chaos that would have sent me back to the Boeing in search of a floatation device. Luckily, stouter hearts prevailed.

On their first American release, The Jungle Book (Worldly Dance Music/Triloka), German worldbeat trio Dissidenten invokes Kipling, Coltrane, the Bhagavad Gita and recite poetic musings on the significance of rhythm. A bit pretentious? Sure, but the band is gracious enough to let guest artists the Karnataka College of Percussion on vocals, tanpoura, violin, and drums steal the show song after song--especially on "Monsoon" when the Ds strip down to jockey shorts and electric piano to let a female member of the choir strut her karnatic pipes. In fact, so many guest performers take front and center in this sense-spinning amalgam of classical Indian music, funk, and rock, you'd think the three Germans had relegated themselves to session musician status. The band plays expert backbone, though, organizing a complex project that easily could have thudded, but the right choice of chakras keeps the music lean and airborne. I knew I was in for a good ride the first of many times I asked myself, "What the hell is going on?"

Label-mate Yosefa should take a lesson from Dissidenten on her eponymous cd (Worldly Dance Music/Triloka), which suffers, among other sins, from haplessly cluttered arrangements and muffled instrumental tracks recorded behind a wadding of seven veils. Not that there isn't the germ of a good idea in letting Yemenite beats erupt into a disco inferno, but even the patience of rai diehards may be challenged by the cheesy drum machine hammering that drowns out a battery of vernacular percussion. This and the fact that this pleasant-voiced Israeli feels obliged to transliterate part of each of her songs into English shows a puzzling lack of faith in the exotica that's otherwise so aggressively peddled. I'm willing to grant that it's a presentation problem, when at the bottom of an electronic chasm I hear echoes of a tough acoustic band. But presentation is everything.

The Elipsis Arts... label (former the Relaxation Company) irked me a while back with a multi-disc set of Global Meditation music, a hodgepodge of international pop and traditional music that interwove the obvious and the obscure. The company's newest release, Global Celebration: Authentic Music from Festivals & Celebrations Around the World--another beautifully packaged four-cd boxed set produced by Beat contributor Brook Wentz--has a better flow and much more cohesive feel than its predecessor, thanks to an emphasis on ritual that links artists as disparate as Irish flutist Matt Malloy, Yiddish blues demons the Klezmatics and the Rev. James Cleveland and his gospel choir. Disc titles organize the material nicely while remaining loose enough to allow a few surprises--like finding Kenya's Virunga on Passages: Turning Points of Life or Mozambique's mega-nutty popsters Mil-Quinhento "1500" & Conjunto Popombo de Nampula on Gatherings: Joyous Festivals. What? No Grateful Dead?

Besides letting me re-hear songs I already knew by putting them in a different context, Global Celebration is packed with deliciously esoteric styles like Basque trikitixa, Lapland joikhing, Haitian rara, Tuamotu paumotu, Azerbaijani Koranic singing, Estonian vocal music, and songs from New Caledonia, Tahiti and the Cook Islands. Discs are available separately as well as in the set, but you do need to buy the whole shebang to get the 32-page descriptive booklet.

Other new anthologies include the first release by the Putumayo label (better known as an import clothier), The Best of World Music, Africa, a spotty collection which sets best-of standards that allow both Mory Kante and Johnny Clegg to slip through the transom. Superb for trying on culottes! Another definition muddier is The Higher Octave Collection: Music from Around the World for Around the Clock (Higher Octave), a 2-cd set of faux flamenco (Ottmar Liebert), hyper-synthetic African (The Soto Koto Band), hyper-synthetic synthesizer (Cusco, Himekami), and dental chair anesthesia (William Aura). Read label directions carefully before using. Since "world music" is never actually promised, I suppose I can't complain too much about the content, though I ache to think of the readers whose relatives will gift wrap this for the holidays with the best intentions in mind.

Toto La Momposina expended no small effort learning and gathering the music of the Colombian countryside that makes La Candela Viva (RealWorld/Caroline) a jaw-dropper. "You have to be a warrior or gypsy to research this music, so that it doesn't matter when you sleep, what you eat or how hot it is," she says in the liner notes, recounting her arduous journeys along her country's Caribbean coast which comprised a near-shamanistic immersion in the complex Spanish/Indian/African culture of the region. Don't accuse her of being a folklorist, though. She's got the magic and she knows how to use it, percolating her percussion-centered ensemble into a froth that thickens time into an eternal ecstatic present. The band's style is so rootsy I was hit over the head with two cumbias without recognizing the beat through the polyrhythms, and on a carnival style called garabato--and a song titled "Adios Fulana"--I don't hear the African-based drumming at all, just the irresistible slide of Toto's voice as she arches up way past falsetto.

Lots of music gets described as haunting, but few recordings deserve the epithet as much as Moon Shines at Night (All Saints/Caroline) by Armenian duduk player Djivan Gasparyan, in which the deepest emotional resonance is carried in an atmosphere of dead calm unperturbed by peaks or valleys, just modulations of the flavors of grief. Not exactly party music, but once I accepted the tenor of the songs, I was dazzled by Gasparyan's mastery of the vernacular oboe, which he variously transforms into clarinet, flute, violin and trumpet. His style not only separates a warm shade of grey into an array of pastel colors, he's got the physics of his instrument down cold, pushing the limits of form and gemometry in pursuit of wringing out the last nuance of meaning so that the sound of wood and the shape of the instrument are constantly palpable. Accompanying him are two other musicians on duduk and harmonium, who don't so much play along as provide a pulsating drone counterpoint--though "Tonight" comes close to a duet and two cuts feature vocals ("7th December 1988" and "Mother of Mine"). Highly recommended.

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