(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 15, Number 4, 1996)


It smokes my coho that Michigan's backward, desolate Upper Peninsula (pop. 10) typically gets better concerts than the backward metropolitan hub of Grand Rapids (pop. 20) that I call "my home." Marquette, a spiffy grocery store surrounded by clapboard lean-to's on the south shore of Lake Superior, has been blessed with visits by Boukman Eksperyans, Maria Kalaniemi, Da Yoopers, Varttinna, Conga Se Menne (who live there), the ghost of Franco, and the only known performance by the three remaining Beatles. Grand Rapids , in contrast, gets a yearly snoozing-room-only appearance by Christine Lavin plus a stop-over by the Shrine Circus irregulars. But things have perked up the past few months thanks to local radio station WYCE-FM with concerts here from Keola Beamer, Ray Kane, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Patrick Street, Angelique Kidjo, and the Santa Cruzian wild man of the sitar, Ashwin Batish.

Batish's end-of-winter concert was noteworthy for a couple of reasons. He's the only musician I've seen since Milli Vanilli guest hosted "The Muppet Show" to unabashedly play atop pre-recorded tape accompaniment. So big a deal is this issue among live-music aficionados that some posters to the alt.music.world Internet newsgroup were indignant simply because Angelique Kidjo's Fifa-tour road band was shaking its collective butt to supposedly sequenced keyboard parts (a subject undoubtedly far less controversial on alt.music.tangerine_dream). But Ashwin's easy-going manner made popping in a cassette of supporting Ashwins seem not merely casual but logical as he tore through incendiary subcontinental plunges into mutant samba, jazz, funk, and imaginary themes for Star Trek while twiddling with an arsenal of electronic gadgets that would do Robert Fripp proud. Between numbers an all-acoustic Batish demystified sitar and tabla fundamentals, addressing the audience as warmly as if we were guests in the Batish living room. His remarkable intimacy spawned a remarkable incident.

Toward the end of the concert, a 30-ish mesomorph lacking the self-consciousness of a small parrot bobbed up in front of the stage after a particularly exhilarating rock-raga. "Would it be okay if I sat in with you on the bongos?" he asked out of the blue.

"These are not bongos, they are tabla," Batish rejoined, and for a moment I expected the embarrassing scene would turn ugly. But when Batish saw that the interloper would not be gently dissuaded, he let him take the stage "as long as you do exactly what I say." Lowering himself onto a floor-pillow next to Ashwin, the uninvited accompanist confessed his name was Matt--he would turn out to be a golf instructor--and said although he'd played around with some drums at home, "I've never done anything like this before. I hope it's okay," he added, raising his big face for our approval. The situation was so painful, I leaned over to my wife and whispered that this had to be a set up. Matt would prove to be a master percussionist, a friend of Ashwin's from his last west Michigan visit (100 miles north of here, naturally), and he would thrill us.

Batish demonstrated a simple three-beat rhythm pattern whose trickiness was all in the technique of generating mucho volume with mere fingertips and asked Matt to give it a whirl. When Matt took over, he proved true to his word as a bongos enthusiast by slapping out a Maynard G. Krebbs-style solo of his own with the sonic richness of oven mitts on oatmeal containers. As the audience held its breath--and as I wondered if Mark David Chapman had any relatives in the area--Ashwin chuckled and turned the coffeehouse doodling into an acceptable accompaniment for a short sitar improvisation, then bade us all, "Let's give a good hand for Matt. It takes a lot of courage to come up here, and I appreciate his enthusiasm." But relief was not yet forthcoming.

"I thought we might play another number," Matt suggested. As Ashwin explained that he wished to wrap up the show on his own, at long last his manager emerged from backstage to lead Matt away into participatory oblivion--before the crowd decided to accomplish the same end in a firmer and more final fashion. Though Batish did his best to smooth the interruption by jokingly turning it into a plug for the tabla instructional video he was selling in the lobby, the whole event gave me the creeps and I had difficulty concentrating on the rest of the show. Worse than watching back-to-back episodes of The Love Connection, I felt as if I'd witnessed a minor flaw of human behavior blown up to elephantine proportions by the gentility of the environment and, paradoxically, by Ashwin's benevolence in handling a situation that would have earned sharp dismissal from any other performer. You have to wonder what could be going through any non-musician golf instructor's brain that he'd assume he could just piddle along with an artist who had been proving his virtuosity the entire evening. Next time I visit the links, I'm leaving my clubs at home and bringing a croquet mallet instead.

The ludicrous situation had a perfectly absurd conclusion. After the show, Matt took Batish's crowd-mollifying advice to heart and purchased a tape on how to play the tabla. And then he asked Ashwin to autograph it: "To Matt--Thanks for sitting in."

Similar to Matt, I'm also as usual beating fists and head against songs whose iambic feet I am not worthy to wash, beginning with Pua'ena (Glow Brightly) by Reverend Dennis Kamakahi, a new release in Dancing Cat Records' Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Masters Series. Far removed from the lusty approach of Ray Kane or Ledward Kapana's hi-jinks, Kamakahi's style partakes of what I'd have to prejudicially call a Protestant character. His beautiful fingerpicking is restrained and carefully considered, decorous but not excessively ornamented in the manner of a Methodist country church. His vocals, though gently yearning, stop short of reaching for the soulful abandon of heavier-hitting label mates like Keola Beamer. Pua'ena is a disc that immerses the listener in the joys of artistry and songcraft, rather than sweeping its audience into the fecund mystical gestalt of the kiho'alu milieu, as if the attempt to recreate Eden might be a sin of pride, a strumming the nose at heaven from a verdant Tower of Babel.

This handsomely appealing collection of traditional slack key tunes plus originals by the Reverend raises all the primordial questions and doubts I've ever held about the album in general as a container of art. Kamakahi's performances and choice of material are of such uniformly high integrity that a song that might carelessly be termed filler, the piano-roll tempoed "Hilo Rag," taken on its own is an oasis of sheer pleasure in a drab and fallen world. But bracketed by the brisk evocation of deep friendship, "Kapela," and by "Kaua'i O Mano," a tradition-rooted place song with dramatic half-sung, half-spoken intervals, "Hilo Rag" recedes further into the background than it deserves.

The struggle against high water and not-so-low low tide is Pua'ena's continuing dilemma. Two songs on this disc are as extraordinary as anything you'll hear anywhere by anyone. "Ahe Lau Makani," a classic piece composed in 1868 by Queen Lili'uokalani, wields an unforgettable melody that measures satisfaction with the fullness of life against a longing for what the eye cannot see but which the heart still needs to hold, brilliantly interpreted by Kamakahi's no-frills approach. "Koke'e" a few cuts later drives the same point deeper as it evokes the power of immortal memory and anchors it to the unexpected English-language refrain, "Nevermore to say goodbye." (Part of Kamakahi's genius throughout the disc is planting just enough of these English hooks among the Hawaiian-language lyrics to couple the songs permanently to the brain.) "Koke'e" has justifiably become a standard, and to hear it and "Ahe Lau Makani" is to want nothing further from this cd. Both songs achieve a benchmark that inevitably lessens other pieces on Pua'ena. Thus, the solid "Sweet By and By" suddenly feels too uncomfortably sentimental just as the rich island classic "Ipo Lei Manu" seems unjustifiably generic by dint of proximity to near perfection. In a perfect world where marketplace realities held scant sway, these two songs would be enough to fill the disc, satiating us all. But were the world perfect, Rev. Kamakahi would never have needed to become a man of the cloth, for neither evil, nor excess, nor dancehall, nor new age music would trouble a single human being.

A large proportion of the charm for me in listening to hi-life is thrilling to the low-fi 78 rpm sonics of vintage recordings that take me back several decades to an artificial nostalgia for a West Africa I never knew. It must be the blurred connections that old hi-life records evoke to the first Edison-cylinder jazz releases of my youth, so I was shocked slamming into the bright digital wall of Kedu America (Xenophile/Green Linnet) by Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe & His Nigerian Soundmakers International, a state-of-the art studio cd recorded in December 1994 in a single day by the self-proclaimed "Doctor of Hypertension." The airy yet muscular mix of this smoking ten-piece orchestra troubled me until I hit on the solution of stuffing a bedsheet behind each speaker grille to approximate the pre-binary era. Happily I was incapable of muffling the sparkle. This is essentially guitar hi-life, with wild breakouts by Ezikel Uti reminiscent of the loopiest solo moments by Prince Nico Mbarga's Rockafil Jazz, a hot rival of Chief Stephen's Soundmakers in the '70s and '80s. Only Prince Nico's international hit album Sweet Mother outsold Osadebe's Platinum-award winning Osondi Owendi. But in tandem with Osadebe's mildly sore-throated, straining-on-the-pot vocals, it's the horn work that gives Kedu its deep kick. When not vamping the rhythm that's wickedly doubled by the hi-hat, the sax, trombone, and trumpet pop off in tricky section work. Christian Ibekwe's trumpet is particularly distinctive, giving the band a contemporary sound that also ties in tight with the past as, Old Faithful style, he erupts into a Latin solo again and again.

The liner notes include a great story of professionalism and confidence that definitely links this band to another time. Kedu was recorded during a rare North American tour when Osadebe was nabbed for a day of studio recording. When the producer suggested the band might want to cover themselves in the event of any false starts or mishaps by reserving a second day of studio time as well, Chief Stephen asked with a straight face, just how many records did he intend to make? Kedu is quite enough.

Longtime sufferers of this column know that I'm irritated by anthologies with amorphous or catch-all themes like astral projection or weeding. Multi-disc sets are the worst, spreading a single bad idea over hours of my admittedly valueless time. Global Relaxation, fittingly issued by The Relaxation Company label, by all rights should have driven me through the analgesic roof. But instead of recycling a hodgepodge of tracks from extant cds, the uncredited but apparently blissed out producer of this four-disc set does it right by devoting an entire disc to a single artist, creating homogeneity you rarely find on sets with a different performer on every cut. It doesn't hurt that each of the featured musicians are fresh faces with idiosyncrasies that haven't already been beaten flat on the ambient landscape. The fact that each disc is consistent in mood nearly to the point of redundancy is a plus if you take the set at its word and want to drift along rather than bear a fusillade of excitement. A definite negative is that if you're not lulled by one or more of the performers, you lose a big chunk of your meditative investment (though the price for the four-disc set is about the price of two separate cds). In my case, I admired two of the discs and found the other two pleasant but avoidable.

My favorite of the batch is Mbira Dreams by Erica Kundidzora Azim, a collection of mostly solo traditional Shona mbira pieces performed by Azim and accompanied by her whisper-thin, soothing vocals. My experience with this lovely album is that it's unmistakably night music that should be appreciated at high enough volume to catch the delicate nuances and harmonics, and the rasping of beads or shells attached to the soundboard of the Azim's instrument. The couple of times I played Mbira Dreams quietly in the background at my workplace, the faux music-box plinking had me fussing for a ducky mobile to swat while chewing on a soft plastic alphabet block, so it's better used for bedtime or bedding. Zimbabwean music purists may not appreciate Azim's distillation of vibrant song-vehicles for the spirits into expressions of tranquil dead calm, no matter how much virtuosity drive her fingers. But she interprets the material with integrity, and her transformation of the transpersonal to the individualistic is completely up front. It's fun, too, comparing her rendition of the traditional healing song "Shumba" (Lion) with Thomas Mapfumo's mesmerizing chimurenga version on the Hemisphere label's recently issued greatest hits disc, Thomas Mapfumo: Chimurenga Forever.

Amar Sangit by G. S. Sachdev drew my attention with the mournful sonority of the 15-minute disc opener "Subtle Feelings," bringing to mind the tragedy-drenched meditations of Armenian duduk adept Djivan Gasparyan rather than classical Indian bansuri flute music--which I associate with comparatively lighthearted material. Even quick-stepping pieces such as "Bouquet" seem to be hauling a few heavy bricks. The shading of gloom and melancholy are a nice touch for a relaxation disc, since I fall into sleep or deep mouthbreathing most readily when the mood is slightly oppressive--during the coziness of a thunderstorm, for example, as opposed to a fiercely sunlit day. Sachdev plumbs his sad soul with great skill and feeling on this millennia-old North Indian instrument, accompanied by Swapan Chaudhuri whose tabla is mixed a tad too far in the background. The added tension of more forthright percussion would have tipped Amar Sangit squarely in the compelling column, but I'll happily take this dark disc as it is.

In case you're wondering, the other two discs in the Global Relaxation box are Corazon Espanol, pleasant Spanish classical guitar pieces by Cesar Fornes Berlanga with sappy titles ("The Light of Your Spirit," "The Flower of My Mind") and cheery bug and songbird accompaniment, and Jorge Alfano's stark Andean flute and percussion album Noccan Kani that had me plowing through the bookcases for a copy of Iron John.

For a mbira disc with plenty of oomph, seek out the Music of the World label's Shona Spirit, a collaboration between thumb-piano masters Dumisani Maraire and Ephat Mujuru featuring acoustic cuts with all the punch of chimurenga and subtle songs that captivate without nudging the listener toward Nod. Maraire and Mujuru take turns playing solo mbira and contributing hosho shaker and supporting vocals. But the strongest pieces feature seldom-heard mbira duets, including a lovely version of the traditional Shona storytelling song "Chemutengure," with swirling vocals to match the layered mbira voices, and "Mawuya Mayuwa" which was improvised on the spot using a pair of mbiras with dissimilar tunings and recorded in one take.

I don't always enjoy drumming cds because my pop-oriented lazy listening habits keep expecting something more from the material, and no matter how great the artistry, that failure to fill the entire aural space nettles me. Drums of the Firdu Fula (Village Pulse) by Mandinka master drummer Amadu Bamba and troupe is the happy exception to my idiophonophobia. If you can stand the intensity, the unaccompanied drum tracks are so full you couldn't wedge in a melodic instrument with long-handled shoehorn. In fact, the pieces featuring vocalist Jaiteh Baldeh aren't all that far removed from stark, drum-centered West African pop genres like Nigerian ju-ju or, especially, Dr. Sikiru Ayinde Barrister's fuji. Speaking of pop, Knut Reisrud's impish blend of Norwegian and Gambian folk musics on 1994's Shanachie cd Footwork featured a haunting cut called "Wrestling Theme" based on the wrestling rhythms of the Firdu Fula, and it's great to hear two versions of this "Jarawali" theme on Drums. A richness of features maintains my keen interest through each cut, beginning with the dramatic introduction of a simple initial rhythm to its continuing development with plenty of variation. There's also a range of timbres and tones from the crosstalk among tuned drums, rattles, an occasional whistle, and the wild solo sabaro drum. It's hot stuff that goes down easy, and popping on a pair of headphones is to step directly into the middle of the exciting mix, making this one of the best-sounding field recordings I've heard in quite a while.

Who would ever have imagined that those dour Scandinavians would turn out to be Europe's musical mischief makers, bringing us such wreakers of whimsy as Norway's Knut Reiersrud (see above), Finland's Ottopasuuna, and Sweden's Absolut Folk, to name just a few perpetrators. Maybe it's that adventurous Viking blood that stirs the midnight sunners to adopt such conceits as a fondness for single-instrument ensembles, including (get ready for another list) Finland's Helsinki Mandoliners, massed violin combo JPP, the zither-only Kantele Duo, and now Sweden's ultra-unorthodox The Swedish Sax Septet. Composed of Absolut Folk members (no relation to the vodka) plus other high-latitude smarty pants, the Septet takes traditional tunes originally played on violins and rearranges them for saxes on Riff-Ola (Nomad/Music of the World), spawning a kind of anti-funk.

With their weird plodding paces and stodgy signifying reeds, the aptly named "Limping Waltz" or "Anders-Patrik's Boogie-Polska" come off like the Tower of Power horns trapped beneath full fathoms five of icy brine. The performances are so far outside the realm of cool, they sneak in through the exit doors when no one's watching. Before I knew it, I was raising my eyebrows in time to the lurching spirals of "Mats Berglund's Polska" and flexing stomach walls to the muscular section work of the ever changing title cut. At first I was puzzled by the Septet's positioning within new-label Nomad's mandate of presenting "jazz sounds with a world music flavor." Once the pigheadedness of this ensemble's approach began sinking in, however, coupled with the new-music strangeness of the rippling, bagpipe-esque "Thaw Tune" or the justifiably theoretical "A New Simple Polska or Song Tribute to the Beginner's Mind," I realized this was closer to Albert Ayler territory than the Firdu Fula drummers. So get down with the sultans of nonswing. Papa's got a brand new lyarslatt.

If Javanese shadow puppet theater is half as involving as Rounder Records' Shadow Music of Java, some entrepreneur would be wise to smash all the tv sets here and install parchment paper screens in every house instead. My favorite selections on this 73-minute abbreviation of a dusk-to-dawn shadowdrama by Hardo Budoyo Ensemble of Wono Giri, Central Java, are the lengthy patetan and patet nem interludes that open and close the performance. As the gamelan plays a slow, portentous theme, the ghostly-voiced pesinden female singer sets a mood of otherworldliness, urged on by the gerongan male chorus ebbing and flowing around her--adding another improbable layer of complexity to the bubbling gamelan. Playing this disc through headphones as I toil away at the office, I feel the smugness of being wrapped in a mystery that the unfortunates around me can't possibly comprehend. Merely to listen is to cloak my surroundings in a significant secret. I'd recommend Shadow Music as a better narcotic than anything in the Global Relaxation box, except that when the puppetmaster sings his piece, all heaven, hell, and in-between break loose in an explosion of metallophones, gongs, and drums, shattering the calm stage set by the pesinden and throwing this ancient melodrama in high gear.

I've failed at launching another disc of heady Asian music into the middle of my pleasure zone. Echoes from the Palace, Court Music of Cambodia (Music of the World) by the Sam-Ang Sam Ensemble has the right elements for a transportation vehicle. Layers of xylophones, cymbals, gongs, and drums cavort enticingly to the lead of a sralai thomm quadruple-reed shawm and contrasting melancholy vocals. While I appreciate the daunting task of arranging a complex orchestra of percussive rhythms, these traditional dances are highly formal. Rather than losing myself in the music, I keep fussing about the cut of my clothes and checking to make sure my zipper is closed to avoid offending the refined sensibilities of the royal family. A shot of the playfulness found in similarly textured Thai court music would help. It's a beautiful recording nonetheless and recommended to lovers of Mozart, Kant, and Euclid.

How many versions of "La Bamba" should a man have to bear in one lifetime? Bad enough I keep hearing the riff in collections of vintage African rumba, but now comes a piss y vinegar rendition of the song itself from troublemakers Conjunto de Santiago Tuxtla on La Iguana, Sones Jarochos from Veracruz, Mexico (Corason/Rounder). Delicacy is all relative where these acoustic tinderboxes masquerading as folk songs are concerned, but the son jarocho genre from Veracruz ranges in shape from the melodic, harp-based flickering of Conjunto Cosamaloapan to the dangerous Conjunto Tlacotalpan which brings a jagged-edged tambourine to the party on the exhausting "El Cascabel." Between these extremes are requinto-guitar based wonders that do a good job of revealing the close connections between son jarocho and its African antecedents via call and response vocals, cross rhythms, and wild syncopations. As usual, the Corason label does it right by giving most of the eight ensembles on this anthology several cuts in a row to stretch out on the first disc of a promised eight volume series of the eight different styles of the Mexican son. Near-nonagenarian Daniel Cabrera comes across as a mere lad of 60 in guitar-bashing vim if not in voice on four cuts propelled by a rhythm perfect for highballing trucks over the toughest terrain in the country. Trio do Mandinga attack the harp with such speed and ferocity, you risk losing an eye to a snapping string simply by putting this disc in your player.

If a gang of randy alley cats got together to make a cd--and they probably already have for an ambient label--the product couldn't be any more fun than The Corpse Went Dancing Rumba (Corason/Rounder) by Los Guanches. The band yowls on "Canero No. 15," howls at the start of "Sin Anduallo No Hay Na,'" and meows on the bona fide cat cut, "El Gato y La Gata," while happily snapping the catgut. The fur flies on the rest of the disc as well, to beat this thin conceit into the ground. The high-spirited string band Los Guanches (which means "a Canary Islander"--isn't that another cat connection?) prowls the eastern part of Cuba making the rounds with the old-fashioned breed of the rumba in its various son, son montuna, and guaracha pedigrees. (Slap me someone, please.) Los Guanches are the product of a schism which split premier Cuban soneros Cuarteto Patria. In a perfect world (see the first review, or consult with a priest) Cuarteto Patria would never have lost Los Guanches bassist Armando Machado and innovative percussionist, the unpredictable but rock-steady Joaquin Solorzano--and the duo's rhythmic backbone would still benefit from Patria leader Eliades Ochoa's clear tenor and unstoppable tres guitar. But this band of upstarts has the musicianship and personality to go its own way, enlivening traditional songs with vocal harmonies reminiscent of Mexican sones, a witty delivery (especially on the Nico Saquito composition "La Negra Leonor"), and the best damn whistler in the business (must be those Canary islands roots).

I put off listening to Ivo Perelman's Tapeba Songs (Ibeji Records) until it was almost too late to include in this issue, because I was frightened by the little-girl cover art and the concept of jazz renditions of Brazilian children's songs. I needn't have worried, though, since the results are as far from Raffi as Freddy Kruger. Perelman attacks his ditties of the Amazonian Tapeba people with the hardest be-bop known to humankind, blowing Pharaoh Sander-esque note clusters and overblowing his sax in squalls of controlled hysteria. Just the thing for giving nightmares to the tykes or for rattling adults out of complacency. I don't hear generous traces of Brazilian elements, certainly not when Perelman's combo goes full-tilt, but I admire the chaos immensely.

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