The derelict hulk of an abandoned Great Lakes freighter lay beached in
stagnant water, fused by rust to the pilings of the rotting remains of a
wharf. From the smokestack of the idle wreck, a thick plume rose then curled
to envelope the ground. I started to choke. Furiously fanning the air with
a magazine, I punched a line of sight between my sweating face and the massive
hulk, which shifted position with a low metallic groan.
The Whale on his couch puffed at an acrid Tenerife cigar. "Shut the
goddamn door. You're diluting the atmosphere."
As the inevitable shock of arrival dissipated, my head began to clear. I
remembered where I was, why I had come. The repayment of a debt. The hamhock
of a hairy thumb dwarfed the copy of Stoma Journal I'd brought him. "Freeze-frame!"
he hissed with glee at an article on elective feeding tube surgery, as I
parted a sea of empty TV dinner trays in search of a dry rectangle of carpet
for my boom-box.
Hoping to execute our transaction as painlessly as possible, I burst the
bubble of gloom in the room with Soukous Siren
(Shanachie cd), Zairean vocalist Tshala Muana's Shanachie cd. A penchant
for strong melodic hooks and the cut-to-cut diversity on this best-of compilation
manage to make a tick-tock zouk-inflected beat not only listenable but pleasantly
intoxicating--or had I succumbed to fumes from the empty beer bottles stacked
thigh-high behind the ottoman?
I should have known mere buoyancy would never penetrate the Whale's thick
hide. Descending immediately to sarcasm, he branded "Ndeka Ya Samuel"
a "two-cigaretter" when its groove extended beyond his plankton-size
attention span. But at the first notes of "Tshibola" he cupped
a post-operative photo spread to his ear.
"Hear the Mediteranean twist to the vocals?" I prompted him. "Tshala's
obviously been listening to al jeel, Egyptian urban pop, especially in this
sort of rap section..."
He shushed me. "What's that sproingy thing?" Nose hairs bristled
as he directed my attention to a rippling keyboard and drum percussive interplay.
"She'd better be careful," he warned. "Sounds like my couch
springs just before I had to reinforce them with boxcar struts."
The phone rang, and I ejected the disk. Like a toxic airborne event drifting
over a town, a smile crossed his face as he took a wholesale order for Dr.
Whale's Bedsore Inserts, made from feathers plucked out of an overstuffed
pillow while he watches Ontario professional wrestling on the Thunder Bay
superstation. While the Whale inflated shipping costs, it seemed the perfect
time to slip away. I had, after all, allowed him to review a cd: ample payment,
I decided, for having inadvertantly saved my life.
I nearly made it to the fire escape. One more step and my silhouette would
vanish in the ash content of his stogie. But just then the Whale slammed
down the telephone and bellowed, "Fire up another, little buddy!"
Disabled by the guilt-inducing reference to a play we once co-wrote--tale
of a lost soul named Gilligan, whose lifelong dream was to move from Niagara
Falls, NY, to Niagara Falls, Canada--I dispiritedly dipped back into my
handful of discs.
My hopes were high for flooring him with Nordisk
Sang: Songs of Norway (New Albion cd), a collection of starkly
beautiful Norwegian songs and lullabyes. Besides Hans Brimi's violin, Irish-plaintive
one moment, gypsy fierce the next, skyblown reeds and keyboards inhabitat
19 sparse, mostly traditional compositions. But it is the unnerving clarity
of the solo vocals that sets this disc in a class with the Latvian Dzintars
and Bulgarian mystere recordings.
Bottomless as a mountain lake, Pernille Anker's amazingly flutelike voice
on "Bla Tonar Fra Lom" is matched by Kirsten Braten Berg's dark
gift of narrative on the runic "Heiemo Og Nykkjen." No translations
need apply, words would only dangle weights from wing feathers in this flight
of the soul to the recesses of suppressed pre-Christian memories. Unconditionally
recommended to fans of Celtic and Hungarian folk music and to followers
of the triple goddess, whose two-headed Pernille-Kirsten incarnation is
too eschatological even in the age of Oppenheimer.
When I explained what we were hearing, the Whale turned livid.
"Norway?" he demanded "That misleadingly spoon-shaped, agriculturally
dessicated lava leaving, overrun with midnight sun- licking fiord foots,
whose idea of a pleasant ditty is the arctic wind whistling over a mutton
chop? Of all the Scandanavians, they're the skinniest--and the least principled!"
Later I would entangle the source of this bitterness: a heavyweight bout
on the Wawa-Thunder Bay-International Falls circuit lost to a wrestler known
as Man Mountain Odin. But for the moment it seemed prudent to calm him down.
A disc by a group of Bolivian musicians didn't even make it out of the jewel
box. "An argument against collectivism," he snapped. Time for
the heavy artillery.
"If you've stayed away from Linton Kwesi Johnson because of
the astringency of early recordings like Dread Beat
An' Blood," I began, "you'll be floored by the embrace of
Tings An' Times (Shanachie cd). Check out the cover art. The
Malcolm-X-as-jazzster iconography and coffee-house bebop boho ambience describes
a spirit of activism rooted in the past and holding out hope for the future,
but marginalized by the present Reagan-Thatcher legacy of impending economic
collapse," I frothed. "So the dub poet simmers in wait for the
time when the crisis comes to an inevitable boil, meanwhile continuing to
deliver the message."
"Your nose is starting to bleed."
"Listen how the shift from instigator to commentator allows wryness
to open up "Mi Revalueshanary Friend," or the way an unsteady
piano stabilizes itself into a model of bootstrap redemption on the title
cut. This kind of wit is everywhere. Never before has Johnson's band matched
the power of his lyrics so well. Hot licks. Hot solos. Hot hearts. Never
before have his recitations swung with such cadence, implied such melody,
in the context of such blisteringly good pop."
Suddenly the Whale jumped up from the couch. "Was that a car horn you
were yammering over? I'm expecting a delivery from Little Hindenberg's PizzaPizzaPizza."
"Uh-uh-uh," A petite woman crouched at the end of the sofa admonished
"My live-in gastroenterologist," the Whale conceded. "She
limits my intake of carbohydrates to four truckloads a day. So how I am
supposed to bulk up for my impending return to the canvas?"
As he argued with the doctor, I made good my getaway, debt discharged in
full. The Whale's heroism, after all, had been a fluke--no pun intended.
We'd been standing at his loading dock when an Operation Desert Storm victory
partier, blitzed by alcohol, blood lust, and historical amnesia, jumped
the curb and plowed his Volvo into my friend's cushy side. The unfortunate
driver suffocated, but I wasn't even scratched. The Whale suffered a case
of indigestion, which he insisted had been coming on anyway.
Depressed by my urban cetacean experience, I fled to the farm for a rollicking
blast of two generations of Nigerian pop.
Like a bellows that fans a steadily building fire, I.K Dairo's elemental
accordion squeezings urge his band to an intensity I hadn't expected from
an oldster who claims the title "father of juju". But the smoke
of "Omoge Super", superb disc opener to I
Remember (Music of the World cd), Dairo's first release in years,
merely obscures the comparatively laconic tunes that follow.
Resembling a cross between a campaign anthem and the dreaded "Abraham,
Martin and John," the title cut salutes the shakers of racial equality
among "the developed people of America." But the refrain, "Anybody
who makes the people happy will be remembered forever" recalls Garvey,
King, or even Lincoln less than it evokes the grinning specter of Ronald
"Don't Worry, Be Happy" Reagan.
Such are the pitfalls of intercultural bridge building, I suppose. Yet the
garbled message reflects an overriding confusion of purpose the cd rarely
transcends. Neither an eye-opening glimpse of yesterday nor a sustained
assertion of continued prowess, I Remember too often sounds just
world weary, redeemed in snatches of "F'eso J'aiye" by accordion
hymnody or Dairo's persuasive vocals. Too bad. More respect than this is
due a juju visionary.
If Dairo's yesterday-blurs-into-today comeback suggests the engine driving
Nigerian pop is more reactionary than evolutionary, Barrister provides
the shock of contrary evidence. Bracing from the git-go--his priestly invocation
to "rise up and dance to my new fuji garbage" is a crazed summons
not easily ignored--Barister's fuji is to juju as rap is to funk, or as
a switchblade is to a butterknife. Stripping the music down to a raw percussive
attack, More Fuji Garbage (GlobeStyle cd)
scours away everything but pure, essential rhythm, save intermittant Hawaiian
guitar chimes and absentminded keyboard wisps. Whenever Barrister opens
his mouth to sing, his wavery, watery voice echoing through the scrubbed
aural environment of the cd's two extended cut sis tantamount to the hair-raising
reverberations of a full-throated cathedral choir.
Baaba Maal's Baayo (Mango
cd) sacrifices the immediate accessibility of his last American release
for a more ambitious goal. While "Baaba" and the title cut, grounded
in empathetic twin acoustic guitars, recall Djam Leelii's tilt toward an
American folk lodestone, most compositions are so lyrically weighted, even
with the help of liner note translation to listen to is feel excluded from
vital verbal nuance and narrative drama--like a monoglot Urdu confronted
with a copy of Highway 61 Revisited.
Yet for all this, Baayo remains a complex and occasionally astonishing
work which amply rewards close listening. Though connectedness to western
pop aesthetics ensures the disc will never be mistaken for traditional Senegalese
music, the multi-tiered textures are faithfully reproduced, resulting in
a hybrid as inspired and organic as Thomas Mapfumo's chimurenga, but more
intimate. Chronicling steadfastness in the face of social dispossession,
Baayo examines the trials of an individual life to discover the inner spirit
of an entire culture. If Guinean author Camara Laye had been born a griot,
The African Child would probably sound close to this.
Ancient Future, World Without Walls
(Sona Gaia cd). Granted this is world music filtered through New Age Ray-bans,
where unfamiliar tunings, discord, and alienating strangeness that give
the real item its cathartic kick are replaced by the steady reassurance
of sheer accomplishment. Still, the generalisms of "Dance of the Rain
Forest" or "14 Steps" snap into specific focus long enough
to impart undeniable pleasures, especially if you're too ground down to
fight back. Zakir Hussain guesting on tabla helps ease the conscience.
The Contemporary Orchestra of Native Instruments, La Paz, Bolivia; Arawi, The Doctrine of Cycles (New Albion cd).
La Paz was the last place I expected to find an avant garde, until I remembered
that, in a number of ways, Bolivia is the end of the earth. Though these
remarkably disjointed pieces for flutes, guitars and hand drums variously
suggest John Zorn, Steve Reich, Fred Frith, John Cage, migrating birds,
crying children, or the ill wind that blows no good, the gut is targeted,
not the brain. Depending on your tolerance for jagged beauty, you might
envision the flat infinitude of the Antiplano or the curved topology of
Lee "Scratch" Perry, Lord God
Muzick (Heartbeat cd). Should a fundamentalist Rastafarian Zoroastrian
with gnostic Christian leanings take over the artificial intelligence community,
you can bet the first computer to achieve logic and reasonings will gleefully
spray saliva with the voice of Scratch on "Free Us."
Tom Wasinger and Jim Harvey, Track to Bumbliwa
(Silver Wave cd). Sound sampler Wasinger and didjeridu-ster Harvey call
this airy Australian soundscape an "artistic response" to the
Aboriginal peoples. I call it the sci-fi ethnography Pink Floyd should have
cut after Animals, and believe me, that's no slight. Just the thing
to redirect Peter Weir's attention to the crack between worlds.
Ras Sam Brown, Teacher (RAS cd).
I had nearly the same response to Sam as to my first dose of I-Roy's "Don't
Touch I Man Locks" two decades ago: awe at an authority of voice doubled
by the leanest instrumental accompaniment I could imagine. But where I-Roy
pulled for persona, Ras Brown bursts with humanity, so his prescriptions
feel like observations and his injunctions like avuncular advice. If this
be preaching, open wide the doors.
Cheb Kader, From Oran to Paris (Shanachie
cd). For a genre that once seemed gloriously unfettered, and which continues
to intimidate the Algerian government, rai has fallen to prey to formulaic
dogmatism faster than Coke appropriated rap. While yesterday's disco still
serves as paradigm--and out-of-breath vocals dust the floor with victimless
arrangements--our man Cheb occasionally looks forward ("Rai Derli")
and even sideways ("El Awama"'s jazz bassline and steel drum reference)
as he puts in time on the assembly line. How about that perfect beat? It
ain't broke. But put that chassis up on the rack.
Tinga Stewart with the Dance Hall D.J.s
(RAS cd). The yin and yang of reggae--lovers rock plus assorted motormouths--combine
to form the hexagram "Increase the Volume". The strategy of interweaving
sweet crooning with the verbal buzzsaw works so well primarily because old
equals new--this reconstructs the origins of DJ style--though topnotch Tinga
deserves no small credit. His version of "Declaration of Rights"
("Release") almost erases my memory of Johnny Clarke, and "Split
Personality" should have been the title cut for two reasons.
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