(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 13, Number 1, 1994)


It was the middle of the innocent '80s when I leaned across the international bin at a mall record store fingering the cover of a six-lp boxed set of Mexican sones, barely able to resist hauling it up to the cash register and depressed at the thought of leaving the store without it--but with no real intention to buy. I had little interest in the music. The audacity of owning such a collection appealed to me. In those days, boxed sets were an extravagance reserved for artists of pioneer or visionary status and typically consumed by audio completists like my friend Milo, who enshrined his German-pressed, eight-lp Buddy Holly retrospective in a locked bookcase next to a rare turn-of-the-century photographic portfolio of Cotswold stone cottages.

Eight years, seven months, and three days later, how the situation has changed. A visit to an area record store revealed an explosion of multi-cd resumes promising historic performances by Al Hirt, Donovan, the Troggs, Bachman Turner Overdrive, the Mamas and the Papas, Moby Grape, the Manhattan Transfer, Pat Boone, Graham Parker, Rod Stewart, the Chantels, the Dave Clark Five, Donna Summer, and even Yes. Only the Freddy and the Dreamers bin, it seemed, was content with a single disc career summation. I found two King Crimson boxes. Can Zager & Evans: The Lost Years be far behind?

Amid this glut of boxes bestowing the mantle of must-have status on everything from disco anthologies to radio hits of the '80s, I also noted Rounder Records re-issue of the Corason label Mexican box that set the saliva flowing those many years ago, Antologia del Son de Mexico (Anthology of Mexican Sones). But I let it slide. I still had little interest in Mexican music. Take away TexMex, mariachi, marimba conjuntos and a few festival processions and nothing's left, I shrewdly assumed. Then Rounder sent me two other Mexican cds that absolutely drove me crazy--by Mexican violinist Juan Reynosa and huastecan trio Los Camperos de Valles--and I got obsessed with the box all over again.

The entire box is devoted to a single song style called the son, derived from a collision between 16th-century Spanish sources and the traditions of the Mestizo culture, who claim the form as their own. Sones are played primarily on string instruments--the violin, vernacular guitars and, less frequently, the harp--and accompanied by wonderfully frenzied tapdance percussion knocked out on everything from drums to wooden boxes attacked with boards, reinforcing and mimicking the flamenco-stepping dancers who strut their stuff at festive ceremonies. Even though we get over three hours of this single style of music spread over three cds or cassettes, the repetition factor is admirably low, thanks to eight different geographical areas that express the son each in its own idiosyncratic fashion. And within those eight son categories you can bank on another whole layer of heterogeneity thanks to forms within forms plus the interpretive talents of the mostly old-timers who build fireballs from this centuries-old clay. The results are a revelation of diversity, complexity and rootsy fun easily on a par with Rounder's series of Indonesian releases--and often easily as strange.

The most bracing of the three discs is Tierra Caliente (Balsas y Tepalcatepec), Jaliso y Río Verde, which features versions of the son sufficiently over-the-top in performances and passion to match the supposedly sultry climate of Guerrero and Michoacan. The balsas style features galloping tempos, clanging guitars, and buzzsaw violins flaunted in three cuts by the legendary (i.e., incredibly old) figure the label calls "the Paganini of the hot lands," Juan Reynosa, an octogenarian with more vigor in his arm than your typical heavy-metal drummer and chops so fierce his sidemen brag they're among the few musicians capable of keeping up with his extemporaneous flights. In nice counterpoint to the out-of-breath instrumentation are sober voices recounting sly tales, romantic longing, and other complaints, like seasoned reporters maintaining their calm as artillery shells explode around them. The wild "La pichacua" by Conjunto Póker de Ases is so intense it had to be an instrumental, no way to sandwich in a word as the band blasts through the Guerreroan equivalent of "The Orange Blossom Special," fiddles flailing like rawhide whips.

Tepalcatepec is even hairier, raising the anxiety ante to fingernails-through-palms status by adding glissando violin dissonance worthy of Transylvanian trance music and, in three cuts by the dizzying Los Marineros de Apatzingán, freshly sandpapered vocals more shouted than sung. The group's "El gusto passajero" showcases an ancient fiddle style from God knows what primal source or what region of the soul that growls like a furious alley cat caught between a clatter of voices and steel-toed boots. Just in time comes a trio of tracks in the Jalisco style, which snaps the disturbing balsas and Tepalcatepec conventions into a more comfortable focus--mainly because the Jaliscan repertoire is the root of the familiar mariachi style. Cheery harp arpeggios and loose group singing perfect for a night spent bar hopping carry these songs, but the first moments of genuine sweetness hold back until the raucous Rio Verde style bursts in with irresistible violin figures, a fat bottom hoed by the big panguera guitar, and comically strident singing spinning pithy poetry about heartbreak and the power of woman.

For a respite from the fiddles, fire up Tixtla, Costa Chica, Istmo y Veracruz, my favorite of the three discs. Even though the music remains exponentially rustic, I can hear the polished squeak of pop devices being applied, like the pauses in the ghost story "La petenera" that go beyond dramatic effect to bring the song to a dead stop--or the same band, Conjunto Los Azohuastles, sounding like a Tixtlan addendum to XTC's English Settlement in "El toro rabón." This song, curiously enough, evokes echoes of the samba and also invokes the samba by name, possibly drawing on the African origin of many Mexicans of the Tixtla and Costa Chica states. Sones from this region are appropriately rhythmic, but they're also strongly melodic. "La malaguena curreña" is ornamented by Ismael Añorve's beautiful Andalusian-style vocals and sinewy Spanish guitar, the intricacies of the harp instrumental "Viñuete" may derive from the minuet, and the extraordinary colombias "El pajarillo jiguero" strains longing through the close tenor voices of Conjunto de los hermanos Molina.

Though at times I miss the overturned tables and flying cutlery of the first disc, the primacy of songcraft over virtuosity here is consistently winning. Even the ornate guitar duet "Mediu Xhiga" subordinates showmanship to functionality in a peppy Isthmian wedding march designed to encourage generous donations to the bridal bowl. Much of the material here falls under the heading of what I think of as meat and potatoes music--lots of heart, hooks and smarts but nothing too flashy, putting it in the company of pieces I love by Iris DeMent, Arthur Alexander, and Ali Farka Toure, or kora masters like Dembo Konte who make prodigious instrumental skills seem effortless. In fact, you can hear faint traces of West African lineage in the Vera Cruz style cut "Décimas de la mejer inconforme," where, in true jali fashion, Juan Rocha and Alberto Gómez talk back and forth as Rocha unwinds a ballad over rippling guitars--or in their bluesy "El pájaro cu"--or in the harp-based "El toro sacamandú" by Andrés Cruz e Hipólito Ochoa.

The editors of Antologia del Son devote an entire disc to the son huasteco simply because it's the style they like best, and it's certainly one that's widely distributed. The music on Huasteca comes, logically enough, from the northeastern coastal plain known as the Huasteca plus six states along the eastern Sierra Madre. And it must have penetrated much further afield than the bars and brothels that support it, since the lovely falsetto vocals I associate with Mexican music--co-opted by American popsters at least as far back as Roy Orbison--are the centerpiece of the huastecan style. This disc also reminds me that, without the son, we might not have had the California rock of the '70s, including the Eagles' "Hotel California"--but all our wishes can't come true.

Vocals range from the steady narrative of Trío Regional Huasteco's "El tepetzintleco" to the wild near-glossalalia of Abacúm Fernández y Reveriano Soto on "Los chiles verdes" to the husky voice of Trío de Pánuco's Ema Maza, one of the few female performers of this music. I don't know what quality the high-register voices are supposed to convey in Mestizo culture, but any hint of vulnerability is countermanded by an unusual violin style that makes the balsas of disc one seem conservative in comparison. No effort is made to coax the pure tones from the instrument that we're used to hearing. Instead, as many Jack Benny-style harmonics as possible are wrung out of each sliding note, resulting in the kind of energetic, unpredictable solos one might expect from a punk savant with plenty of musical ideas but little technical expertise as we commonly define it. That some of these punks are well advanced in years and could be the last upholders of a vanishing tradition makes their rough hewn approach even more intriguing.

All three discs in the Antologia del Son box are also sold individually, but buying the whole box is the only way to get an essential booklet containing essays on the music, descriptions and lyrics of each song, and information on the artists. If your budget only allows one disc, I'd recommend the Tixtla, Costa Chica release for its variety of styles and its accessibility.

For a slab of huasteca at full throttle, as an alternative to the son anthology you might try another Rounder acquisition from the Mexican Corason label, El Triunfo--Sones de La Huasteca by the trio Los Camperos de Valles. It showcases the same gorgeous falsettos as the box plus the huastecan violin style at its most inventive. As the steady pulse of huapango guitars bounces behind him, fiddler Heliodoro Copado creates a cardiac episode with precisely unleashed solos that ripsaw any notions of creakiness--or predictability--in this 150-year-old genre. In addition to the barbs, the songs are also laden with hooks affixed to Marcos Hernandez's gravity-defying vocals plus a wildly festive atmosphere.

Juan Reynosa, who plays five selections on the first disc of the son anthology, brings his bee-sting violin to Juan Reynosa Plays Sones & Gustos (Corason/Rounder), a collection of the best tracks from four recording sessions between 1972-1993. Backed by vernacular guitars and percussion, Reynosa brings an impeccable approach to traditional songs that's part local genius, part Stephan Grapelli, anchored in convention but astonishingly creative in its interpretations. On performances like "El toro sin caporal"--one of the classics here which Reynosa wrote--it's hard deciding whether his phrasing or sheer speed is more impressive, or the emotional force that keeps one display of technical perfection after another from becoming an academic exercise. Though the people of Tierra Caliente boast of Reynosa as one of their own, it's one of life's little ironies that, according to the liner notes, when the same folks want to book an act for a party, they instead choose his son, Neyo, who principally plays a more modern repertoire of rancheras and cumbias--but who accompanies his father on two tracks of this release. Most of the music on the Corason discs survives only by dint of the longevity of its performers, and when they pass on, its future is in question. Kudos to Rounder for bringing this exceptional series to an American audience.

I must confess I'm not especially taken with modern Cuban music, because I have trouble navigating the conventions and cliches of the big band format. But stripped-down Cuban sones, the rural music of the island, are a different matter altogether on the two-cd set originally recorded in 1990 for the Mexican Música Tradicional label by two of the producers of the Mexico box, Enrique Ramirez de Arellano and Eduardo Llerenas. Just released here by Rounder, Septetos Cubanos; Sones de Cuba refuses to budge from my cd player despite my bravest efforts to shove it onto a shelf.

Cuban sones arose in the last century from Spanish and African elements in the country's eastern province, gaining worldwide acclaim when the music hit Havana in the 1920s and the ears of American record producers. No mystery why this music both formed and transformed numerous Caribbean, Latin American, and African genres. Its clavé- and bongo-driven beat, counterbalanced by gently strummed guitars, has to be the most seductive rhythm ever devised, creating a step-forward, slip-backward dynamic that wreaks merry havoc with mankind's deepest fight/flight, sin/redemption, go to a movie/stay home dichotomies. Cuts like "El cuarto de Tula" by Cuarteto Patria, where a cowbell marries air to earth, make a case that this perfectly devised music is too perfect to have been devised at all. It seems self-existent, merely waiting to be released by appropriate conditions. According to my trusty liner notes again, those conditions include rhythms of Bantu and French-African origins plus song structures from Andalusia and guitar styles from the Canary Islands. And there's no selling short the gravelly, attractively cornball vocals of Septeto Soneros San Luis crying "Viva la revolucion!" on "A mi Oriente" either.

The disc opens with phase shifted vocals, echo-delay guitar, Pink Floydian chord changes, and spacey lyrics about letting the river flow, set to a slow rock tempo. Gotta be the comeback of Roger Waters, right? In fact it's Beat the Border (RealWorld/Cardiac) by ex-pat Kenyan Geoffrey Oryema, a highly creative mix of Luo and laid back rock that should have been a disaster, since the genres meet on the field of ambient dreams--a woozy terrain amply littered with the rainsticks of fallen warriors. But Oryema neither tries mainstreaming African sources to fit rock fissures nor piles extra beats and instruments on the heads of reluctant western forms. Instead, like any good ambient technician, Oryema subjugates every other element to the service of applying textures so palpably rich you wish you could drizzle them over sauteed vegetables.

The first two cuts, "The River" and "Kel Kweyo," literally swim in atmosphere with their verbal and aural allusions to water. "Lapwony," with thumbed-guitar rhythm shimmers, tremolo-subsumed lead guitar, gank bass, and layered vocals, is a leafy collage of interacting colors and events worthy of a 4AD-label production. Just to prove it's not all dial twiddling, Oryema kicks in with first-rate songwriting to boot. With its instantly imprinting melody plus positive-vibes vocals, "Unoja" is the kind of song Lucky Dube might again pull off if he can get out of his same riff rut, and "Hard Labor," co-written by guest vocalist Adrian Chivers, underplays its themes to great dramatic effect. Guest artists include Brian Eno, fellow ex-pat Ugandan Ayub Ogada on vocals and percussion, and Manu Katche on drums. If you like moody, Peter Gabriel-type music with the added bonus of an optimistic outlook and vibrant African influences, Beat the Border is a must, accomplishing the almost impossible: a steamroller of an ambient release.

Speaking of Lucky Dube, the pop prisoner of conscience breaks out of his usual voice with the surprise falsetto that lofts "First Time," kick-off track of Jam Nation. Not just an atypical RealWorld label release, Jam Nation is also a different kind of dance re-mix project for producers Mark Rutherford and John (Sugar J) Gosling, who previously cut and pasted Madonna and The Cure. Assembled during the 1992 RealWorld Recording Week taping frenzy--seven days, 75 international artists and producers--Jam Nation gave the team access to a bewildering array of existing tracks to sample plus studio walk-ins Billy Cobham, Jah Wobble, Ayub Ogada, Jane Siberry and many more.

The spontaneous atmosphere and crash and burn deadline pressure result in a few instances of nod-off noodling--including two art-damaged Cleo Torres tracks--along with a fair number of stunners, like "She Moved through the Fair," which transposes an angst-ridden Irish folk song above a boppy sequenced bass line which unexpectedly underscores Caroline Lavelle's chilly vocals; Ayub Ogada waxing honey-sweet, refusing to surrender to the drum machine on the deceptively titled "Sleeping;" and the Zapruder-esque "Harmonix," which turns Jane Siberry into a slo-mo bullet aimed at boomerang spatial geometry. Even Daniel Lanois' puffed up delivery becomes palatable thanks to the soukous guitar embers on "454"--the song that gives this disc its subtitle: "Way Down Below Buffalo Hell," which I had taken to be a Malcolm McLaren reference. To quibble that some of the tracks last too long is probably to admit I'm not using them properly. Still, as Bun and Run entrepreneur Happy Kyne was fond of pointing out on the "Fernwood 2-Night" tv show, "It's not a meal, it's just fun."

From the Hendrix-in-a-fez riff of "Bania" to the fuzz-box nirvana of the eight-minute-plus "Challaban," Hassan Hakmoun and Zahar's Trance (RealWorld/Cardiac) is partly about reclaiming territory, asserting psychedelic sovereignty over Moroccan sensibilities hippie hash heads once claimed as their own music base. Twenty-five years ago, Hakmoun's high-amplification drone would have blown Cream out of the stadium, but its thrills-per-wattage ratio today depends on whether or not you're willing to let bygone eras be bygones--or, on two cuts sunk in contemporary mores, how ardent you are about wanting to hear Gnawa music done boggle style. One experiment that reaps great dividends is a stunning a cappella duet between Hakmoun and Carole Rowley on "The Sun is Gone," where the two baptize one another in mutually unreachable longing until Hakmoun finally falls below the horizon, his amazing voice narrowed to a rhiata-like rasp. The pairing is terrific, because for once Hakmoun gets a gift back that's as emotionally resonant as his own, and for once I get to hear a great idea that isn't clogged with electronics.

The acoustic instrumentation that I missed on Trance is all over Songs and Rhythms of Morocco. This beautifully recorded Lyrichord release features such gems as a flute-driven male dance called the "Taskiouine;" two songs performed by entire Atlas Mountain communities and backed by 15 percussionists; "Heddaoua," an evangelical kif rant performed in a magical language by members of the Heddaoua storytelling sect; and two erotic female dances called "Guedra" that make me wish I had this on videodisc. But the centerpiece is a trio of testosterone-charged songs recorded at the all-male festivities of a wedding celebration. The bridegroom is young enough--only 16--but his 11-year-old brother steals the show with a hot-blooded rhiata storm backed by handclapping and appreciative shouts from the other revelers, including the female participants who, according to tradition, peep through a grated aperture from the next room.

I panicked when I first plopped another North African release into the cd player. Moorish Music from Mauritania by Khalifa Ould Eide and Dimi Mint Abba (World Circuit/Rounder) was instantly compelling, but how could I relate? Then something familiar hit me which was confirmed when I read in the accompanying booklet that Ali Farka Toure credits Dimi Mint as a major influence. Just as the music of Morocco's Gnawa people seems to hold the seeds of rock rhythms, the blues is unmistakable in the call and response singing plus weight-of-the-world lead vocals and dazzling string solos--Khalifa Ould on tidinit lute and Dimi Mint on ardin harp--which indeed recall Ali Farka's fiery fretwork. This is especially true of "Yar Allahoo," a soul wrenching song by Dimi that's an Islamic riff on the old blues chestnut of women as distractions from a wholesome way of life, which ironically uses the utter sensuality of its argument to persuade. On the final four tracks, Khalifa switches the lead instrument to electric guitar, plunging this centuries old music into the present and beyond, culminating in "Autoot," which throws the singer into such ecstasy she's unable to hold back from blurting out the secret name of the beloved.

I find the choral music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo so lulling that, if I play a cd and bury my nose in a Dashiell Hammett novel, the singing turns into waves surging around me, and before long I don't even hear it. Nothing wrong with beatific music, but I wondered if I had a use for another similar sounding choir. But Zimbabwe's Black Umfolosi occasionally depart from their mbube music of the spheres to raise an unholy clatter on Festival-Umdlalo (World Circuit). On "Inopembla," the story of a dove that loses its way after stealing from granaries, whistles, drums and handclaps delightfully suggest the bird's confusion and mad beat of wings as it tries in vain to break an enchantment--reminiscent of Howard, my African ring-necked dove, who plucks peas from the plates of dinner guests before perching on their heads. "The Gumboot Dance" is so energized by stamping and slapping, I'd never have guessed the song was a complaint about low wages--which is why the occasional English language lyrics provide an interesting reality check between what I think a song is saying versus what's being said. While endless phrase repetitions in Ndebele sail right by, oar-stroking the same words in English enhances and deepens the meaning the first dozen or so cycles, then proceeds to empty them of everything but glittering phonemes, as on the near tape-loop "Take Me Home." Excellent fodder for my sensory deprivation lifestyle.

I arrived in Washington, D.C., over the weekend for a friend's wedding and was greeted by an EPA warning against drinking the local water. The filtration system had broken down and contaminants had leaked in.

"It is not so serious with the water," the Pakistani manager at the Holiday Inn-Crystal City assured me. "There is not a horse in it."

But there is a horse in the cd by Huun-Huur-Tu that I listened to in my room--and I don't mean the title, 60 Horses in My Herd (Shanachie). I'm talking about a disorienting, even disconcerting surprise that bobs up amid the pretty string melodies. Tuva, a tiny former Soviet republic, is renowned for traditional throat singing called khöömei, similar to a technique used by chanting Tibetan monks. I've never been much impressed by this novelty, where the throat is constricted to produce not just a single note but as many as two distinct overtones: chords from the vocal cords. 60 Horses is marvelous, however, because Huun-Huur-Tu have added the innovation of combining this traditionally unaccompanied vocal music with old songs and tunes of Tuva (per the subtitle of this disc). The dusky, reedy vocals blend in perfectly with the two-stringed igil fiddle, goat-skin drum, conch shell and doshpuloor banjo, evoking images of windswept, craggy landscapes. Though the throat singing is both bracing and unimaginably strange--a voice that can't possibly be a voice--the effect is often delicate, living up to the band's name, which means layers of light.

Another disc showcasing vocals is Tubai Choir (Shanachie), recorded by ethno-musicologist Pascal Nabet-Meyer on the remote French Polynesian island of Tubai. The performance by this large, community choir is similar to the style documented by Nabet-Meyer on last year's The Tahitian Choir (Triloka Records), but without the unusual portamento vocal effects. The repertoire consists of hymns, product of a history of meddling missionaries dating back to the God-thrusters of the early 1800s who stamped out everything pagan and Polynesian they encountered in Tubai's Mahoi culture. Today the Mormons are in the forefront of Christian churches supposedly encouraging a revival of indigenous arts, but from the evidence of this release more has been lost than saved. True, we get robust local melodies and multi-layered unison singing typical of Polynesian music, but the dough in which these treats are rolled is starched with Protestant piety, robbing the songs of any institutionally unsanctioned joy. While I appreciate the extent to which the Mahoi have try to turn a cultural invasion into a reaffirmation of identity, in the end this disc is just another demonstration of how much the missionaries have to answer for.

Basking in the bliss of my room at the Holiday Inn, I had time to enjoy two new Corason label releases that had reached me just before I left beloved Lowell. A Una Coqueta by Cuarteto Patria (featured in the Cuban son double-cd release) is music light enough for use as room illumination, but give it any attention at all and the radiated pleasures are immense. Each old style acoustic song glides along as a smoothly melded whole, belying daredevil individual instrumental parts that rarely call attention to themselves. But Eliades Ochoa's lead guitar moves from tune-cementing fingerpicking to concentrations that focus upon a single string, and then precariously stutter upon an individual note. But don't bank on the bongos for stability. Joaquin Solorzano's repertoire throws rhythm bursts at a beat he helps establish by artful circumvention as bass player Armando Machado sets the pulse. Selections include Cuarteto Patria's versions of songs by Cuban legends such as Trio Matamoros, who profoundly influenced musical styles around the world.

One result of that influence is the material on Méringue--Haïti Chérie (Corason), which evolved from Cuban sones and itself became the source of modern Haitian styles like compas. Sharper edged than sones, this crepuscular music is also more recognizably African with a beat reminiscent of juju, boisterous vocals that recall soukous, and guitar parts so suggestive of highlife and its antecedents that, deep into the breakout in "Mizisyen" by Ti band L'avenir, I kept expecting a young Prince Nico's voice to exhort us to "Rockafil!" The ti bands--or little bands--that have historically played this music consist of four to six musicians on banjo or guitar, bass, conga and other drums, maracas or guiro, and in place of the Cuban clavé an empty bottle tapped with a stone or anything handy. Despite the absence of amplification and the overriding sweetness, the music carries scant suggestions of rural life but carries something of the beat of the city, especially in the relentless urging of the clavé. Highly recommended to aficionados of classic African pop.

Mandinka Drum Master (Village Pulse/Sterns) by National Ballet of Senegal founder Mamdou Ly is about as exciting as music gets. Nothing but drums. No breaks, no bridges, no breathers, just master drummer Ly beating a freight train on the sabaro as two other musicians play interlocking rhythms on smaller drums. Listening to this exquisitely recorded disc through headphones puts you literally in the center of the action--if you think your heart can take it. When one of the residents of Warang, Senegal, where these performances were captured, first began quietly clapping along on the initiatory "Chingo" dance, I snapped off the cd player, convinced that my cat was rattling something on the shelf behind me. Not this time. Obviously, the ambient noises increase the immediacy. But the tracks are hot enough that the uncredited producer could have smothered the microphone with a wool blanket and I'd still want to hear them.


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