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
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
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
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
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
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
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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