(by Bob Tarte, published in The Beat magazine, Volume 11, Number 6, 1992)


The utter strangeness of small-town America can hardly be exaggerated. Until recently, the most significant discovery of my life was that the Mason-Dixon Line has suddenly shifted to the Michigan/Indiana border. How else to account for the Smoky Mountain accents that unfurl as soon as you hit the Michigan City Sunoco station? But that's nothing compared to my latest theory that the membrane-thin border between causality and random connection is severed once you drop below a minimum population threshhold of 20,000--as if the maintenance level for sustaining consensus reality demands greater agreement.

I'm not simply restating a David Lynch perspective on rural towns as seething cattle troughs of repressed desire and expressed violence. Sure, all that goes on. Far more disturbing are day-to-day encounters with a suspension of accepted standards of reckoning. But it even goes deeper than that. A sign as apparently innocuous as "Lowell: City Limit: Showboat City" masks a descent into dream logic whose intensity increases in proportion to the attentiveness of the hapless observer/subject.

Trivial annoyances abound, like the recent front page headline of The Lowell Ledger: Library to get New Magazine Rack. Or the woman my age who owns the Music Master record store, who answered my request for the new Peter Gabriel cd with, "What kind of music does he play?" What worries me is that she may not actually be out of the cultural loop, but was temporarily acting as mouthpiece for quark-like forces that regularly undermine my grasp of essential facts I thought I knew. What kind of music, indeed?

Lest this sound like paranoia at worst or at over-scrutiny of parallel lines at best, consider that when I first moved to Lowell I was tortured by a signboard outside a restaurant up the street that apparently read, "Congratulations Bob Tarte." This bothered me no end. Who knew I had just bought a house? Who should care? Closer examination revealed the actual content of the message to be, "Congratulations Bob & Tate," but why the strange confluence of names the week of my arrival? What person is first-named Tate?

More irritating is I'd already begun calling my microscopic farm "Tubby's" both as a tribute to my lankiness and an irritant to my wife... Longtime readers of this column may recall my metaphysical dilemma with clowns, who have prickled me with unwarranted coincidences since I was nearly run off the road by Bobo the Roller Clown in Plainfield Township more than a decade ago. So I shouldn't have been surprised this August when three consecutive issues of the Grand Rapids Press lamented the passing of Lowell's Tubby the Clown, an allegedly well known figure who to my knowledge generated not a single ink stroke of publicity in my three decades of west Michigan residence.

Yet there was a color, front page picture of Tubby's funeral, the disturbing image of a flag-draped coffin borne by pallbearers in full clown dress, the story peppered with surreal comments such as one Ed the Clown's observation, "His heart was bigger than his clown shoes. I don't think there'll by anybody, any clown who could fill his clown shoes." And I ask myself, is this an actual event from my community or an outtake from the episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" about the death of Chuckles the Clown?

Any hope that Tubby would remain at some remove was shattered by a phone call from my friend Steve Lewis, one of over 1,000 practicing attorneys in nearby Grand Rapids. Williams, who works at a union legal services office was randomly assigned an estate settlement case involving an ex-General Motors employee. Tubby the Clown. Consider the odds of this event occuring, especially given the fact that Williams is one of only two friends of mine similarly subjected to the clown onslaught over the last decade.

So is there a reality here larger than the exaggerated in-bred connections small town life inevitably engenders? I think a universal principal is at work.

I think the perception of comedy is our acknowledgement of a rhythm as qualitatively real but subtler in form than the cycle of the seasons or the annually increasing number of shopping days until Christmas. When we find something funny, rather than imposing our own interpretation against a custard glob of seemingly happenstance events we may simply be attuning ourselves to a pre-existant level of symbolic content, a symmetrical piece of the plastic glue that holds the 10,000 things together. But did I say I rhythm? Timing isn't everything. The pun, the juxtaposition of events, is equally important if the joke is to have a center. If this sounds ridiculously speculative, consider that what I'm referring to is marrying a beat with chords, and we all know the pleasures of music.

"A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer in your pants," was Chuckles the Clown's motto, after all.

I guess the joke is on me that one of my favorite new cds has been released by the very label on which I heaped abuse in the last installment of this column. The eponymous album by the Pahinui Bros. distributed by Private Music--known purveyors of new age, Lo-Cal and Liverpudlian beatless rhythms--spoons out such rich dollops of pure pleasure, that my label resistance and crossover misgivings lasted about three songs, never to return.

I'm a sucker for Hawaiian music. It's ethereal, wafting harmonies have the fragility of a distant radio station tuned-in on a late-night drive on a lonely stretch of road between Big Rapids and White Cloud, with a stop for watered-down coffee at the Union 76 near Bitely. So I wrinkled my nose at first when I realized the repertoire wasn't entirely traditional. Hawaiian standards sung in English, island takes on country and western plus a reggoid cover of a John Lennon song seemed to forecast a tropical depression.

But The Pahinui Bros. disc is brilliant, its boundary busting all enhancement and no dilution--not a speck of cereal--especially in the case of the country cuts, since both American cowpoke and Hawaiian pop sprouted from guitars and singing techniques brought by Portuguese cattle hands in the 1830s. The cowboy version of the Fijian classic "Isa Lei" is thus a natural-born transformation. "Do You Love Me," a duet with Dwight Yokum, is even stronger. And if Youssou N'Dour can diddle with mainstream rock, why shouldn't these Hawaiian jalis--sons of slack key guitar pioneer Gabby "Pops" Pahinui--spread their toes in the grass a little by laying a heartfelt reggae consciousness on a poignant version of Lennon's "Jealous Guy"?

Gorgeous harmonies are everywhere, shimmering on the edges of perception in "My Old Friend the Blues," the kind of tears-in-beer ditty I usually can't stand, or threading through the low slung strummed guitars and clipped Hawaiian language syllables of folkie cuts like "Kowali." Heavy session help from Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Jim Keltner and Van Dyke Parks help stake the claim that above all this is American music, but it's the island roots that punch through low amplitude when this disc is spinning in the living room while you and someone you love only half listen from the bedroom.

Another new age label, Mesa, does its fling into African music right with a band led by Sunny Ade alumnus bassist Ken Okulolo. As expected, Kotoja's frictionless blend of highlife and Afrobeat on Sawale lacks the grit of the source materials, but solid songwriting and unflagging energy compensate, plus an aura of such convincing good feelings I had to re-check the lyric sheet to make sure I wasn't being seduced by a sneaky Christian Contempory artist. Highlights include the instrumental "Evil Eye," with gravel-scratching beat and chicken-clucking organ riff--and a cover of Fela Anikulapo Kuti's "Water No Get Enemy," wherein Okulolo's samba-soft voice turns a typically fiery Fela song into a pulsating pidgin koan.

Though the west coast version of West African isn't exactly a religious experience, inspired touches abound--the Motownish boy-girl duet of "Axe Da Fe," "Iye Iye's" talking drum break, and Danjuma Adamu's brash lead vocals on "We No Dey Run" (he should be doing the Fela covers). More important, this doesn't sound anything like an American band trying to sound Nigerian, it's a vital pop exeriment where consistently hard rhythms hide fangs beneath a sunny Californian sheen. The meek will probably never inherit the earth, but Okulolo's smooth attack provides a buzz that masks the clamor of things falling apart.

No namby-pamby one-hour regression of the clock hands for me as we mess with our circadian rhythms in acknowledgement of winter. I'm going on Klezmer Savings Time, lurching back to 1990 to pull from obscurity a terrific cd from Flying Bulgar Recordings (#396-401 Richmond Street West, Toronto M5V 1X3), Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band.

Florid, frenzied, ostentatious, the Toronto-based Bulgars lean heavily on a vaudevillian style complete with carnivalesque extravaganzas, weepy show-stoppers and traditional east European pieces arranged with an eye cocked toward the worldbeat meld of the 3 Mustaphas 3. Unlike the Mustaphas, though, the Bulgars keep their wanderings within the ample backyard of the Jewish diaspora, meandering through Turkey, Macedonia and the Middle East as well as scratchy 78s by blazing clarinet avatar Naftule Brandwein, but never stepping outside of the Yiddish ouevre, not even on the single 'modern' composition, the jazzy "On Saturday the Rabbi Stretched Out."

The musicianship is exhilarating, mixing the pinpoint precision of a symphony orchestra with a saloon air of unabashed abandon. There's almost too much going on here to absorb: Allan Meyovitz's quavering tenor milked full-hilt on the a capella "Fishelekh in Vasser," "Kandel's Hora," which whirls the dust off a traditional Jewish dance, Anne Lederman's mercury-laden violin solo at the top of "Dance Medley," "Der Rebbe Elimilekh"'s implicit promise of a living-room appearance by Joel Grey. Hitting all the emotional buttons at once, the Bulgars break through the other side of corn to posit klezmer as the wisest counsel on the planet. Mannered and noisy, maybe, but wise nevertheless. A new cd is promised before next summer, so fall back now, spring ahead later.

I'm used to music as mere diversion, an equivalent leisure hour choice to sitting glassy-eyed in front of the tv or searching for African stations on shortwave. But in those parts of the world where indolence is less plentiful than in the fog of Tubby's Farm, even a pop song can serve a therapeutic or instructional purpose. Kenya's Zuhara Swaleh starts out with the premise that life is difficult, writing and performing taarab music that offers comfort to those in desperate situations. "You may be poor, and may be really downtrodden, you may think about eating poison," goes her cheery observation in the liner notes to Jino La Pemba (GlobeStyle). "It is not only you who is in trouble, it is the world."

Taarab can claim to align itself with an alternative to human suffering, because it is the most recent manifestation of a musical form dating back centuries. Amazingly, its catalog of social ills is an integral part of wedding bashes of the Swahili people, a last minute barrage of injunctions and marital advice for the bride. Like all music whose roots go deeper than the shifting sands of this week's Billboard, taarab is tense and packed with contradictions. It feels alive, boasting of having stared down traitorous hearts and neighborhood gossip, even as it coils in readiness for more lumps about the head.

Performing with Mombasa's Maulidi Musical Party, Swaleh engulfs herself in the musical equivalent of a beautifully restored black and white film. She sings in a resigned yet animated voice whose inflections sum up the genre's unresolved locus of rhumba-on-the-Nile and borrowings from Indian film music. Maulidi's band is superb, anchored by Jumaa Bakari Chera's electric bass, whose throbbing voice emulates a battery of drums, and organ swirls by Mohamed Adio Shigoo torn between evoking the plucked strings of a ganoon and an outtake from the Doors' first lp. "The insect inside the mango stone," Swaleh sings on "Mdudu." "How did it enter?" Can't say. But if you seek immersion in a core course on taarab, Jino La Pemba flings its doors wide open.

Don't bother telling Junior Reid he's wrong. Not only is he dead convinced he's right, he already dusted off shelf space for himself in the hall of martyrs and prophets, whose members include Bob Marley, Martin Luther King, John Lennon--andJFK? Some revolutionaries, those girl-happy Kennedys. Usually it takes a rap star (or Axl Rose) to combine boast with gaffe this well. But on Long Road (Cohiba) ex-Black Uhuru vocalist Reid triumphs with a energizing set of songs connected more to reggae by one-world, one-love attitude than anything resembling a consistently recognizable reggae sound--especially as dancehall blurs the distinction between rap, soca, house and rock.

While rock stars can get by on sheer sullenness. Reggae stardom demands charisma, which Reid possesses in Lucky Dube-size quantities. A microtonally astute vocal delivery (after Michael Rose) launches the usual apocalyptic brimstone, made memorable as much by inventive production as solid songcraft. Reid's collaborations with cut-and-paste experts Coldcut on "Stop This Crazy Thing" and "Action Speak Louder Than Words" are two obvious crowd pleasers, though my favorite is the sufferers' anthem "World Cry," with rap attack reminiscent of Grandmaster Flash's "The Message." Apocalypse now or later, look for Reid to loom large in reggae's future.

Zahar (Knitting Factory Works). On Gift of the Gnawa, Moroccan vocalist/sintir player Hassan Hakmoun brilliantly combined traditional north African music and jazz by enlisting Don Cherry, Adam Rudolph and Richard Horwitz to the cause. Zahar's Moraccan-roll fusion is more subversive yet, but Hakmoun's thrash accompaniests aren't the equal of his former jazz partners. Bill McClellan raises an unholy clatterdom on drums when focused brutality would be to the point, and Anthony Michael Peterson's Zani Daibate-flavored fuzz guitar feels oddly outdated for such a forward-looking meld. I did enjoy the rawness and spontaneity, but if blending Moroccan trance music with numbness inducing western sonics is the intention, how about a session with My Bloody Valentine instead?

Batak of North Sumatra (New Albion Records, 584 Castro #515, San Francisco 94114). It's appropriate that the music of the Batak region of Sumatra should appear on a label devoted to both western classical recordings and the modern avant garde. The fairy orchestra sound of gondang hasapi that opens this cd of mainly traditional songs is so rarely heard outside of Indonesia it could be mistaken for an experimental composition for toy instruments. Except that it's too ferociously giddy for any academic exercise.

Not all of the music on this generous selection from a recent Festival of Indonesia performance goes down this easily, though all are pretty accessible for one reason or another--gendang lima sendalanen for the eerie intonation match between wooden flute and human voice, gondang sabangunan for its powerful ensemble of tuned drums topped by crazy soloing on the oboe-like sarune. For sheer listening pleasure, I'd even rate Batak slightly above Music of Nias & North Sumatra, a Smithsonian/Folkways disc of similar material reviewed here last month. Get both and you'll own the sum total of Batak music on cd, unless I can't recognize the start of a craze.

Mad Professor, True Born African Dub (Ariwa/RAS). There's something deliciously perseverse about reducing to skin and bone none other than human ginzu knife U-Roy himself, who entered my world 15 years ago fuming above a skinned and scaled Johnny Clarke. Not only is U-Roy filleted here--Sandra Cross, Kofi, Steel, Sister Audrey and other members of the RAS posse fall sliced and diced through the cracks and yawning chasms the Mad Professor opens up between notes, as he pushes dub closer to the brink of absolute chaos than other producer I know. Then just when you think you can't stand the tension, brief snatches of melody come to the rescue, like Patrick Augustus beautiful pan workout on "Sistren Version"--or "Dub Pon Me Corner," which stops just short of disintegrating into "The Ballad of Jed Clampett."


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