"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
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,"
"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
"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
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
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
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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