(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 18, Number 2, 1999)


(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples via amazon.com.)

I'd originally planned to complain how hard the winter is this year, flaunting the fact that one morning it was so cold our Muscovy duck Hector was temporarily frozen to the ground. I intended to describe the inconvenience of suiting up like an Arctic explorer to scale the 40-inch snowpack of our backyard, then detail the labors of hacking at the ice that jam the duck pen doors each day, and the bother of trailing a 75-foot hose from the basement sink to fill their wading pools with water that turns to heavy grey slush by nightfall. But my own weather problems became cold beans when my father fell and died of a heart attack while shoveling snow last weekend.

My next idea for this column was to craft a funeral home survival guide for grieving family members, including tips on the clever use of props to stimulate conversations with visitors ("Why am I wearing fuzzy slippers? Well, here's what happened..."), gambits for avoiding barely recognizable high school classmates who live for alumni-related deaths, the ins and outs of hug etiquette with members of the opposite sex, and suggestions for impromptu coffin ornaments, but my material never gelled. One topic I never considered was writing a tribute to my father, since it would invariably be too maudlin or too breezy, certainly too stilted, since that's my writing style, and unquestionably lacking in general audience interest, which is also my writing style.. Such a tribute would also be superfluous, since Robert J. Tarte already did the job himself when he contributed his memories of the Big Band years to this column in "In the Swing" (Vol. 17, No. 1, 1998).

Instead, apropos of nothing, I've decided to ruminate on the book imp and his penchant for stealing large-format paperbacks. I'm not talking about the brief concealment of a book spine in a bookcase until the moment that the person I want to lend a novel to pulls out of the driveway and disappears down Fulton Street. I refer to more complex mischief. Last Friday while working on the first version of this column, I reached for the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Weather last seen on the cheap plastic parson's table next to my shortwave radio. But the book was nowhere to be found, not even after I had disassembled the two piles of cds on the tabletop, scratched by head and replaced them. In a dither, I furiously rearranged the disorder in the remainder of the room, cleared the parson's table down to its cheap plastic top a second time, and gave up. It had to be there, but it wasn't. A few days later while listening to the Senate impeachment trial, I glanced down on the parson's table, and in plain sight at the bottom of a stack of cds was the Field Guide that should have been exactly there all along, but somehow wasn't.

I misplace books and cds all the time. With all the mindless detective novels I read and the discs that pour through the mail slot eager for review, it's rare when I actually know where a given title is. But the book imp's modus operandi is different, since he only chooses to spirit away those items that I have carefully kept track of. The subsequent reappearance of the missing items is the more spectacular aspect of his craft. After losing and mysteriously recovering my book on the weather, I was at my mother's house the same day going through my father's papers, when my sister, Bette, dropped a pen. I pulled up the couch cushion to look for it, and staring me if the face was the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Weather that I had given her husband for Christmas. So the book imp restored the same book title to me twice within five hours.

The imp's ostentatious flair for restoration prompted my wife, Linda, to put a positive spin on his talents. "How does he know where everything in the house is?" she wondered. But I think a more pressing question is where do things go when they're taken from us, those things that are so well accounted for, but then one day are with us no longer? Where was my Audubon Field Guide before it reappeared on my parson's table? And where has my dad gone? I keep looking at his neatly arranged stacks of big band cds, and I keep hoping for a clue.

Life is a mess. And so is this column. Happily, a nice round world is ours on Tuva, Among the Spirits (Smithsonian Folkways), which limns the artistic exchange between the Siberian peoples of Sakha and Tuva and their rugged environment. Spirits is as much a document of natural sounds as it is a collection of songs, containing vivid, near three-dimensional recordings of songbirds, burbling streams, chattering insects, domestic animals and stampeding wild horses, the latter captured on tape with some peril to the recordist. Flowing through these soundscapes are vocal and instrumental responses that evoke or directly mimic natural aspects. The Tuvans and Sakhans are animists, not surprisingly their religion is rooted in their lives as herder-hunters, and their art imitates life with an intimacy rarely found in music.

Members of the Tuvan ensemble Huun-Huur-Tu take a break from their more structured repertoire to perform impromptu "throat singing" duets with anaerobic entities: a rock strewn stream ("Borbangnadyr with Stream Water), echoing river bank cliffs ("Kyzyl Taiga"--Red Forest), and the wind on a grassy hilltop ("Harmonics in the Wind"). They toss off an example of the xoomei vocal style while bouncing on the back of a trotting horse and pay tribute to their beloved horses with the one-string igil fiddle on another track. Joining Huun-Huur-Tu are Sakhan Yakut musicians from the Yakutsk-based folk ensemble Tos-Khol, who unleash a powerful elemental piece with jaw harp, fiddle, frame drum and quavering chanted vocals on "The Legacy of Ancestors." The big plus of this release is its homogeneity. One cut segues into another, inviting the whole disc to be partaken in a leisurely session rather than laser dropping this cut or that one. This emphasis on context is far more illuminating than any single collection of songs could ever be. My only quibble is that Spirit contains a few too many examples of human imitation of animal voices outside of a musical setting, but, as the liner notes suggest, the animals have the last laugh as the seagulls of "Epilogue" offer a raucous comeback to the limits of human speech.

The domestic animals of Sardinia shaped the sound of cantu a tenores, the island's traditional polyphonic song style. Tenores de Oniferi, one of Sardinia's most celebrated ensembles, perform a cappella modal pieces where the leader carries words and melody backed by repetitive, guttural phonemes from the other three members that imitate the braying of sheep and oxen. Polyphonic Singing from Sardinia (Music of the World) is the group's latest American release, and while I can't find much to differentiate it from their other cds or from those of Tenores de Bittes, whose discs are also available here, it is still captivating. The simple songs have a monastic quality to their limited harmonies and restrained development, so it comes as a surprise that the tenores raise their voices not to Catholic saints nor even primarily God, but to destiny, the goddess of love, the sun and moon, the spirit of the land, and other ancient concepts. There's nothing else like this cantu, and I'm glad that Music of the World is extending its reach.

Weighty, pseudo-classical piano compositions with strings, percussion and other bits comprise the subject of pianist/cellist Alison Hood's Romantic Themes & Celtic Dreams, but the selling point of this BMG-label release is Alison Hood's almighty, barely hooded cleavage. Now I know where she keeps her cellos. Squeezed into a plaster dipped bolt of window curtain, she seems unable to rise to rest in the enormous chair that towers over her on the front cover or to address the piano on the flip side. The promised Celtic content is submerged in Jane Eyre angst until cut six, "Around the Fairy Tree," which finally boasts the lilt of an Irish flute, making this disc better suited to the troubled moods of Michael Flatley admirers than true lovers of the Celtic airs. (Link to cover art).

If sentimentality is the target, far better is Frank Patterson in front of an orchestra singing the grand old songs. Ireland's Golden Tenor: Ireland in Song (BMG) takes us back to the days of the great Irish tenors like, I don't know, Dennis Day, in this soundtrack from the PBS show of the same name. Patterson's voice is so magnificent that once you grant him the nostalgic approach to the Celtic cannon it's hard not to be moved if not occasionally thrilled by his depth of feeling. But that also means you've got to love "Danny Boy," "My Irish Molly O," and "An Irish Lullabye," some of which include Patterson's wife Eily on Irish harp, 12-year-old son Eanan on violin, and the Cassidy Brothers on backing vocals. While I can accept a few of the non-Irish ditties here that still have traditionalist leanings, such as "Red Sails in the Sunset" and "How Great Thou Art," what in Tir-na-nog's apron is "Memory" from Cats doing on this collection? Quick, pass the Allison Hood.

Once in an eon an album comes along that makes me think not only, what great music, but also, what a great invention. Ma Ya (Putumayo) by Habib Koite & Bamada is that rare bird of a pebble-smooth disc from Mali, delivering so intimate a blend of acoustic guitar--tuned to the scale of the six-string kora-like kamale n'goni--and local instruments, including the kora and single-string ngoma violin, that until Habib first sings it's difficult to guess what part of the world the music is from. The loping beat does recall the proto-post-blues of Ali Farka Toure, but with an effervescence Koite matches with easy-going vocals that are octaves apart from the hectoring delivery of a big batch of other folkloric artists from the region. Some will say his voice and the laid-back atmosphere of the disc strip too much of the West African spirit away for the sake of pop-go-lightly, but if you focus on rhythms every bit as captivating as Cuban beats, you'll have no argument with either the style or substance of this intensely engaging release.

Koite also appears on from Mali to Memphis, an excellent Putumayo-label anthology that makes the case for the connection between American blues and its West African sources and antecedents. Only slightly faltering by not including the aforementioned Ali Farka Toure, whose twangy electric style would have formed the perfect segue to John Lee Hooker's "I'm in the Mood," Mali serves up African cuts so tasty I long for a whole disc of the same--especially more by Rokia Traore, whose folksy voice and milieu remind me of Guinea's Sona Diabate. But the homegrown pieces are no slouches either, with such highlights on board as Taj Mahal's radio-friendly "Queen Bee" and Jesse Mae Hemphill's emotion drenched "Standing in My Doorway Crying."

Our own Mr. Hucker of Hey Mr. Music fame penned the liner notes to African Salsa (Earthworks/Sterns), but I'm not jealous. I recently wrote some liner notes of my own. Okay, I printed my name on the lining of my down-filled parka. It's almost the same thing. Here Senegal's masters of rhythm turn their impressive pipes to Cuban beats, and nothing gets away from their arsenal of sometimes smoky, sometimes soaring vocals and intensive natural and canned percussion. Apart from the vernacular language lyrics, it's not easy to define exactly what brings an African feel to the salsa roads taken by Africando, Pape Fall, Super Cayor de Dakar and others--apart from the occasional barrage of Wolof hand drums--only that it's difficult to mistake this for anything else. Standout tracks include a remix of "Yaye Boy" from Africando's second cd featuring an AfroLatinGypsy violin break and dubwise effects. And if you can keep the goosebumps from hatching on your neck when Super Cayor's vocalist launches into Senegalese skywriting, you've got corks in your ears.

To make the ultimate good time music CD, Hawaiian slack key godfather Led Kaapana reached back to the 1940s for many of the songs on Waltz of the Wind (Dancing Cat/Windham Hill) and waltzed himself to Nashville to give the disc a classic country treatment. It's no surprise that country music meshes this well with Hawaiian, since an almost identical steel guitar style is integral to both--and both share Spanish/Portuguese cowboy roots--but Kaapana and his guests still manage to put over a completely new amalgam that integrates the charms of chops of bluegrass as well. While the recording is star studded, no one's coasting here. Alison Krause adds her affecting voice to the title cut, while Ricky Skaggs takes Hank Williams' "Move it On Over" around the block with witty lead vocals and a furious mandolin break. With luminaries such as steel guitarists Bob Brozman or Sonny Landreth at his sleeve, I foolishly feared Kaapana's light might be diminished. But check out his lovely autoharp performance on Rev. Dennis Kamakahi's signature tune "Koke'e," his faux-banjo mandolin playing on the 1941-vintage "Steel Guitar Rag," or his acoustic guitar grace all over this marvelous disc.

Four Hands Hot and Sweet could well be an e-mail come-on from those limitless adult websites, but, no, it's a Dancing Cat label collaboration between another slack key big gun, Cyril Pahinui, and Hawaiian music collector, historian and steel guitarist, Bob Brozman. Both of these men are such prodigious musicians you'd be constantly slack jawed at their skills if the luscious melodies and textures didn't direct your attention to the larger picture. Pahinui plays slack key with a Latin accent due to the rhythm of his bass string strumming, and Brozman draws inspiration from the great slide guitarists of the early days of Hawaiian recorded music, Sol Hoopi and Tau Moe among them. Too precise and laden with warmth to quite qualify as incendiary, the busy duets mine material from slack key's '20s heyday, touches of swing (1928's "Coquette") and country ("Hawaiian Cowboy" with its Bonanza theme-song quote), and songs associated with Cyril's contemporaries--including his father, the legendary Gabby Pahinui. While the pair keeps the showboating to a minimum in the service of transparent loveliness, one of my favorite pieces lets out all stops. "LBC Slack Key," a tribute to Led Kaapana, sports an affectionate flurry of Led's inimitable hammer-on and pull-off effects in a mindboggling display of virtuosity. Highly recommended to anyone disposed toward acoustic guitar music at its best.

No particular attribute tags Virginia Rodrigues as one of the canaries of Brazil on Sol Negro (Hannibal/Rykodisc), her American debut, as she takes a voice as pure and tightly controlled as a virtuoso French horn into expansive pop territory. But the potent mix of African, Afro-Latin and Portuguese genres plus her unforgettable pipes puts one immediately in mind of overachievers Milton Nascimento, Gilberto Gil and Djavan, who contribute to the richness of this disc. Rodrigues' clear, bell-like voice must have spurred a host of nuns to urge her to use her gifts as a tool of Rome, and sure enough she's sung in both Catholic and Protestant choirs. A liturgical quality permeates much of what she does, including "Lua, Lua, Lua, Lua" and "Veronica," spiritually yearning songs that may as well have been sung by a Medieval castrati as by a woman from Salvador. She matches her gifts against ominous synthesizer rhythms on "Negrume da Noite" and "Noite de Temporal," glides into a samba on "Adeus Batucada," and stoops to conquer a slow and sensuous mambo via "Terra Seca." A classically trained, polished sensibility is usually not to my liking, but Rodrigues wields such a singular voice, I lay all prejudices aside.

Zebra Crossing (BMG) by the Soweto String Quartet sailed legato right over my head. The music is inoffensive enough with a decent hummability factor, thanks in no small part to a clutch of songs by Paul Simon and Sting. But I never did get past my first impression that this is born more of concept than consequence, directed to an audience that would cradle the disc and cluck, "Oh, it's Zulus playing chamber music," the very same folks who take pleasure in scat-singing Bulgarians. If the title of this project isn't a tip off to its novelty status, eyeball the clever enough Abbey Road parody in the centerfold of the liner notes or cock your ear at the unison playing throughout that also points to the dead center of mainstream aspirations. Kronos Quartet--or Boyoyo Boys--they ain't.

Two words almost certain to clear a room: bagpipe music. Ladies and gentlemen, please remain in your seats. The piping of and by Bulgari (Latitudes/Music of the World) is a far cry from the strident, martial wail of highland bagpipes, which after all were intended to instill terror before an advancing army, as unarmed Scottish pipes still do to this day. The gadulka played here have a grace and similar lightness of tone to Celtic Uileann pipes, creating an otherworldly, fairy music ambiance with great festivity. And best yet, we're spared a rendition of "Amazing Grace" in favor of cartwheeling Thracian dance tunes with vernacular flute and string instruments. "Graovski Ritma" and "Stareshka Rachenitza" are of dervish intensity and probably best comprehended by hummingbirds and other high-metabolism creatures, while slower pieces along the lines of "Mari Todoro" are enlivened by the throat pipes of Radostina Kaneva, who proves here her status as soloist for the Bulgarian National Radio and Television vocal groups of "mystere" recording fame. I never thought I'd use the words "Bulgarian music" and "fun" in a single sentence, but I do so here without qualification.

(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples via amazon.com.)

[Copyright 1999 Bob Tarte]

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