(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 16, Number 4, 1997)
The rarest North American songbird is the Kirtlands warbler. Out of all the forests on the continent, it chooses to nest only on a tiny sliver of jackpine-infested land in trackless northern Michigan. Diehard birders whose encyclopedic sighting logs include such elusive species as the yellow rumped skuppy and the porcine breasted dowager go to their graves without ever catching a glimpse of the Kirtlands warbler. Little did I know our paths would intersect with this coveted bird when Linda and I embarked on a dream weekend at the Toledo Art Institute and the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.
Usually our trips to exotic locales include a six-pack-size cooler chocked with ice and cold compresses for the L4 and L5 region of Linda's ailing back. But my wife discovered heat packs serve her better, so this time we shunned motel ice makers for convenience store microwaves to charge up a hot compress of her own design: the infamous Stinky. Stinky started life inoffensively enough. Linda's Edison-like search for a granular, heat-retaining material ended with a bag of uncooked white rice poured into a snake-shaped pillow. Endless reheatings eventually scorched this organic stuffing, resulting in a pungent charred popcorn smell each time the compress left the radar oven.
In service station after service station, I'd bide my time quietly fueling the car while Linda recharged her heat pack, then I'd slip into the building to savor an overpowering scent resembling an electrical fire at a cereal plant. In this way, Linda, Stinky and I blazed a trail across two states whose aromatic hotspots could freeze a bloodhound in its tracks. I pictured infrared satellite imaging digitizing our Ford Contour as a glowing ochre colored mass with a dun-colored 300-mile-long contrail in tow. Stinky's influence addled my senses, turning what should have been a three-hour trip to Toledo into an inexplicable five-hour marathon that brought us to the Art Institute 45 minutes before the stingy 4:00 pm closing time. "Why did we ever come to this stupid city at all?" I hollered at Linda, though it had been my idea. "Why didn't we just take a trip into the country?" I demanded, though this had been her suggestion from the first.
Dodging endless freeway construction and urged on by gleeful orange Department of Transportation signs advising us, "Expect long delays, choose alternate city to visit," we took blue highways out of Toledo that inadvertently led us to the Ottawa Wildlife Refuge at Crane State Park on Lake Erie. A great white egret waved us past a logjam of birders in minivans hoping for a glimpse of the scissortail flycatcher. We headed for the woods, triumphantly emerging with pricey morel mushrooms which had gone unnoticed at the birders' unexplored foot level. When Linda accosted a ranger to find out that the duck-like diving birds we'd been seeing were in fact old coots like me, he added that at the Magee Marsh site a quarter mile down the road a Kirtlands warbler had been spotted on the beach. There didn't seem to be any point in looking for a bird we probably couldn't find and wouldn't know if we did, so we spent the night at the Gull Motel throttled by passing freight trains in Huron, part yuppie marina town, part ConAgra factory wasteland.
At the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo I lectured Linda on every animal we saw, explaining how each one reminded me of her. However, my mind was elsewhere. I was preoccupied by a stuffed monkey I'd seen for sale near the zoo entrance. The toy held the promise of companionship for Ed, the recently rediscovered sock monkey my grandmother had sewn for me as a boy and who came with us on the trip with only Stinky as company. Crushing disappointment followed, for when I finally had the chance to examine the monkey's pouting molded vinyl face up close, it was clear the mass manufacturer had little respect for hominids. "Don't say anything to him about it," I whispered to Linda, inclining my head toward the back seat as we returned to Huron for dinner at Denny's and an evening walk in the rain along our favorite slippery, broken stone slab pier without safety railings.
Morning got off to a bad start as Linda realized that between the zoo and Denny's she had managed to lose her favorite stocking cap, Sagey, who now joined the ranks of missing hats Greenie and Grapey and misplaced sweater Piney. Linda's mood brightened when we stopped back at Crane State Park. The boardwalk at the tail-end of Magee Marsh was a smorgasbord of songbirds fluttering in the thickets on both sides of the path. Without moving a muscle we had within arm's length a bewildering array of warblers tired and tame from their migration: Blackburnian, chestnut-sided, yellow, black and white, black-throated blue, common yellow throated, myrtle, magnolia and others, plus we blundered into a green heron hiding in the bulrushes. Emboldened by our effortless success, Linda asked a birder weighted with binoculars, cameras and spotting scope whether anyone had sighted the Kirtlands warbler that day, and he gave us what I considered needlessly precise directions to the bird's last known appearance on the beach.
I envisioned a hushed and tedious wait across from a stand of trees, a flash of feathers in the foliage if we were lucky, another long wait, then the trudge back to the car spent reassuring one another, "We certainly saw something." But this was not to be. Instead at the promised spot on the Lake Erie southern shore we met a flock of slack-jawed birders in a 30-foot diameter circle. At the center leisurely pecked and hopped a small yellow bird with an air of casualness and self-effacement at odds with its exalted status. At one point this elusive warbler actually skittered between the legs of one dumbstruck observer. A pair of women next to me were making quasi-orgasmic noises at the spectacle, while a father placed his hand on his son's shoulder and told him, "You have now joined a very select echelon of birders." My mood was closer to that of another couple who upon arriving asked me, "That's it?" as the warbler, fresh from wintering in the Bahamas and one of only 1500 in the entire world, bobbled unconcerned along the ground.
"How many of these are here at the park?" I asked the father and son unit. "Just him," the father answered. The experience raised too many questions to contemplate. In a park of several hundred acres, how did people manage to locate a single tiny solitary bird, how did they keep from losing him overnight, and why didn't he just fly to a spot where he could enjoy his privacy? I fantasized running with arms waving into the center of the circle to send the bird winging across the lake to northern Michigan, but my courage was at a typical low ebb. And I couldn't get Stinky out of my mind - the coincidence of the omnipresent smell of burnt rice clinging to our persons and the rare appearance of a bird that only nests in a species of scrub pines which grow in the charred wake of a forest fire.
Speaking of birds, the final peep from the 3 Mustaphas 3 is the noise of something hatching as GlobeStyle reissues the parabalkanites first pair of recordings - the mini-LPs Bam! Mustaphas Play Stereo (aka the Swimming Pool album) and Le Orchestre "Bam" de Grand Mustapha International and Party (aka Local Music) - on Bam! Big Mustaphas Play Stereolocalmusic. The swimming pool session cuts (actually allegedly taped in a Georgian-style empty pool in Islington) have the air of a one-off Istanbul fratboys' recording as the fezzed poseurs never quite seem to recover from the disbelief of preserving their global goofs on vinyl. This is not to slight a straight-ahead rendition of Kenyan warbler Zuhara Swale's taarab classic "Singe Tema" or the all-and-everything anarchic jam "Mehmeteli," and is to slight the recitatory "A Chilling Tale Pt 4/Belz" and other filleresque matter.
But what a difference a year and a gaggle of henchmen make. The sax and trombone solos by Jolly Party guests Andreos Blake and Telor Borrachon Pavel give "Vranjanski Ekspres," the first cut from the Le Orchestra LP, so much polish you can barely see the Mustaphas' reflections. But never fear. A five-track string beginning with the Romanian hora "Lui Marin" nails down the witty arrangements and fanciful eastern abandon that propelled the band into the bargain basement of world beat mythology. The big surprise on rehearing these airy romps more than ten years on is the nose-to-the-grindstone seriousness - though that would change with 1986's ridiculous Si Vous Passez Par La 3 Mustaphas 3 ep (preserved on GlobeStyle's Friends, Fiends & Fronds). It also bears recalling that in the mid '80s the world music racks at the local record shop consisted of a smattering of West African, calypso, and Bulgarian "mystere" LPs, so the 3M3 gave me my first identifiable brush with klezmer and its many influences, plus whatever else struck the band's fancy. The Mustaphas made all of it instantly palatable. In fact, with so many new releases each month by so many artists from so many places, it takes the Lebanese sprung-watchspring shenanigans of "Ainy La La/Ak Ya Assmar El Lawn" or "Niska Banja" peering inside a Turkish bath to penetrate my numbness. [www.acerecords.co.uk]
The silliness of Brave Combo's Group Dance Epidemic (Rounder) left me gasping for air before I even slit the cellophane. There hardly seemed to be any need to listen to a line-up that included "Mexican Hat Dance," "Limbo Rock/Hand Jive," "The Chicken Dance," and "The Bunny Hop." The concept said it all. But listen I did, and at the forefront of surprisingly tasteful versions of relentlessly tasteless songs is a rockified "The Hokey Pokey" (a go-go version follows later) and a lean and mean version of the flounciest of disco hits, "The Hustle." I'd find more use for these tunes here at no-party headquarters if more followed the lead of the "Jeopardy" 'thinking song' which Carl Finch and crew transform into a schottische - "Limbo Rock" as cumbia, for example. There is a delicious perversity to a group so skilled at obscure genres launching itself full tilt at pieces so far embedded in our national unconscious that it's tough paying attention to them at all. That the Combo succeeds in restoring a dash of ethnic integrity to "Mexican Hat Dance" and "Never on Sunday" is appealingly though mildly subversive. Unless Group Dance intends on cashing in on the lounge music craze, I'm not sure where its audience lies apart from diehard fans of the band, especially since the material lacks the sleaze-factor that gives bachelor pad music its frisson. But at least in the Mustapha vacuum another group of artistes tirelessly toils at annoyances.
I braced myself for more merriment in the Mustapha mold with Akira Satake's Cooler Heads Prevail (Alula Records), a junket by banjo through international folk styles. The songs move briskly as Satake pulls off the feat of transposing Irish jigs, mbaqanga, West African, mideastern and Indian music to banjo without turning the concept into a mere conceit. His fluency with lots of genres along with a roster of guest musicians folded into smooth arrangements makes the overlapping of anomalous bits and pieces a natural. Thus, the entry of Bulgarian-style vocals in "Tail Wag Dog Jig (parts 1 and 2)" or Makota Little Eagle's Native American chanting on the Dublin-via-Soweto ditty "A.I." are by no means jarring. But the songs on Heads often lack the ability to surprise that this kind of project needs to take full flight. Too many cuts strike me as set pieces capable of swallowing any playful input imaginable but never quite filling the stomach. On "Mr. Fulla Bullets," banjo, electric guitar, kora and bass wait in line for solo stabs at the Fulani-flavored riff, while on "A Taste of Loomi," I never could quite banish the thought of the players "doing" variations on mideastern music. It's a vexing release that strikes me differently each time I put it on, sometimes seeming fresh, other times warmed over. But there's no denying the charm of the oriental ditty "Basho" and the all-encompassing "All Else Pales," songs that spring from Satake's fertile brain without owing a large debt to what's been heard before. [P.O. Box 15867, Durham, NC 27704 or www.alula.com]
Though harder on the ears, I prefer Hedningarna's aggressive mish-mash on Hippjokk, compliments of the new American NorthSide label dedicated to Scandinavian artists. Hedingarna, aka The Heathens, lean toward synthesizers that sound like massed folk instruments, massed folk instruments that sound like synthesizers, electronic drones and thumping kick drums in death march tempo. Good stuff! The idea is to turn up the juice on the gloom and doom of medieval dance music that must have been designed for cavorting around plague-dispatched corpses. While "Hoglorfen" stabs thumb in eye with its big noise disc opener, "Navdi/Fasa" proves these funsters don't need decibels to make their point as guest artist Wimme launches a hair-raising Sammi joik chant over a sparse and effective background. His wolf joik here is one of the highlights of Hippjokk along with his bear joik on "Bierdna." Also welcome is the cameo on "Skane" by Norway's Knut Reiersrud supplying deep moans on the electric guitar reminiscent of a damaged hurdy gurdy. I've mentioned Reiersrud in every Technobeat column since the release of 1994's Footwork (Shanachie) as the one international artist who seems to share the Mustaphas' Michael Palin-style puckishness, and it's great hearing him again even in this limited setting. [530 N. Third Street, Minneapolis, MN 55401 or www.noside.com]
Norwegian violinist Annbjorg Lien leavens the mournfulness of the hardanger fiddle on Prisme (Shanachie) by leaning on upbeat arrangements of traditional and original material. Still, the songs here are moody as hell. Even quick steppers "Villvinter" (Wild Winter) and "Luseblus" (Sweater Blues) are better vehicles for returning circulation to frost-bitten limbs than for dancing lightly in the dew. Combating the melancholy is a crackerjack band on folk instruments plus atmospheric touches of synthesizer and a few unobtrusive world beat influences slipping through Rune Arnesen's percussion arsenal. Lien is a wonderful violinist and a powerful composer who draws great beauty in the midst of potentially oppressive material, notably "Korstag" (Crusade), which begins in the mold of one of Hedningarna's grand guignol excursions until a flurry of pipes and bells break through the clouds. When the finer points of sweetness and light fail to overthrow the gathering storm, her clear-eyed fierceness carries the day. [www.shanachie.com]
Whimsical and wonderful without bursting a vein trying to concoct novelty is Khac Chi Ensemble's Moonlight in Vietnam (Henry Street/Rounder). Much of my fascination with this disc comes from compositions built around folk instruments I've never heard before, though the songs are lovely in and of themselves. "On the Mountain Top" (Tren dinh nui) highlights the traditional Vietnamese version of Joe Walsh's voice-bag guitar gimmick, the ko ni stick fiddle, which sports a resonating disc held in the player's mouth and acoustically connected to the instrument by silk strings. Changing the shape of the mouth cavity while fiddling adds vocalization effects to the music. The bouncy "Forest Love" (Tinh yeo rung) boasts an amplified dan bau one-stringed lute producing a ghostly tone resembling a theremin or musical saw, plus a khen be 16-reed bamboo mouth organ - sort of a vernacular accordion without the bellows - and tuned upright dinh pa bamboo tubes played by striking the open ends with the palms. Frisky "hoo!" vocal interjections take "Forest Love" to the top of my joy meter. On "Spring is Coming" (Mua xuan den) we run smack into the k'longput, a giant bass mutation of the Peruvian double pan pipe that's played by clapping hands in front of the open ends of a pipe. Completing the fairyland orchestration are a suspended bamboo xylophone, bamboo flutes, bamboo buzzers, a hammer dulcimer of Chinese origin and various chimes and percussive instruments.
More than any other music I know, Sundanese degung conveys a sense of bliss. The pulsating percussion and warbling suling flute have got the mixture of relaxation and a heightened sensory state balanced exactly right. So why mess with a sure thing? No Risk No Fun provides the answer on Sunda Africa's GlobeStyle label cd. Recorded in Bandung, West Java, in the Jugala Studio owned by jaipongan jive innovator Drs. Gugum Gumbira, No Risk is the brainchild of Barcelona-born Vidal Paz, known popularly as Django Mango. According to the liner note lore, Sr. Mango followed his love of drumming around the world, settling on a South China Sea island with no phones, no lights, no motorcars, not a single luxury, poking up his head to guest on the occasional cd. Here he assembles a stellar group of Indonesian players to subtly subvert degung's gentle glide with imported rhythms and percussion. One pleasure follows another on this delightfully crafted disc that has the flavor and spirit of degung right down to Buhran's gorgeous suling, but also a bit of extra spice as Django adds tabla, congas, derbuka and djembe, while a chap named Dodong punctuates the proceedings with his genggong Jew's harp. A word of warning, though. This is so low-key that any room noise gobbles up everything except the plucked kecapi zither, so use headphones to practice total immersion.
Not as subtle but very smart is Kenneth Newby's manipulation of Indonesian instruments on Sirens (City of Tribes). Treatments are everything here, so you'll have a tough time pinning down an acoustic instrument that isn't signal processed. Even DB Boyko's vocals on the title cut more closely resemble Jon Hassel's breathy trademark trumpet timbre than a human voice. In fact, the music as a whole owes much to Hassel's oeuvre on Dream Theory in Malaysia, though his jazz-influenced fourth world shtick never got as spacy as this band at full tilt. In happy contrast to most electronic music making the rounds these days, Newby's compositions can take eons to unwind, fussily sniffing at a groove before settling down or eschewing one altogether as on the bottomless "Howe Sound." Joining Newby, who plays Indonesian suling, piri and percussion and performs aptly named "sound design" duties, are City of Tribes label-mates on an eclectic assemblage of folk instruments - including Stephen Kent on the dreaded didgeridoo, which disappears nicely in the psychedelic hum, buzz and throb. [3025 17th St, San Francisco, CA 94110 or www.cot.com]
Though I miss the vocal pieces on Keola Beamer's collection of ki-hoalu slack-key guitar instrumentals, White Mountain Journal (Dancing Cat Records), the melodies are strong enough in several songs to create instantly memorable islands that are easily revisited during casual listening to this disc of many intricacies. But you have to approach Beamer's quiet music with a degree of concentration to catch a glimmer of all that's happening. I don't know anyone else who can make a nylon-string guitar reverberate like he does on "Sweet Lei Mamo," and it's easy enough just getting lost in the harmonics on any of these songs. His arrangements for two guitars on "Kaula 'ili" (The Lariat) and Gabby Pahinui's signature tune "Hi'ilawe," or for three guitars on "'Imi Au Ia 'Oe," are so tightly meshed you might swear you're hearing a single pair of busy hands. Technical notes helping to decode Beamer's encyclopedic application of hammer-ons, pull-offs, tunings, matchbook-cover methodology and other effects are supplied by producer George "Keoki" Winston, who sits in on "Pua Tubarose" (Tubarose Blossom). This is an outstanding example of deeply felt Hawaiian music. [www.dancingcat.com]
For pointlessly, wonderfully happy Hawaiian ditties, cock a grin at Kika Kila Meets Ki Hoalu (Dancing Cat), duets by Bob Brozman on slide guitar and Ledward Kaapana on slack key. The mood here is jarringly bright nostalgia for the early days of recorded Hawaiian pop, kicking off with fingers flying all over a high-energy rendition of the Tau Moe Family's signature tune, "Maikai No Kauai" on which Brozman's National steel guitar stands in for Rose Moe's vocals (she's best heard on 1989's Brozman-produced Tau Moe Family scrapbook Hoomanao I Na Miele O Ka Wa Ui, Remembering the Songs of Our Youth). Even the weepers are exuberant. "Maile Lau Li'ili'i" is ripe with country-esque vibrato effects, while "'Akaka Falls" offsets the slow pace with a fast 6/8 waltz smuggled in as counterpoint by Kaapana. Brozman exploits his basement full of Hawaiian 78 rpm records to draw upon scads of old timey favorites from the '20s and '30s - check out "Hula Blues" with its proto-Bob-Wills swing - and even dips back to 1882 (the year Beat editor CC Smith was born) for the hoary "Ua Like No A Like." While the tendency in slide guitar/slack key duets is for the slide to steal the show, Kapaana spills his bright and shiny technical guts all over the road to joy with machine gun fingerpicking, soulful strumming, and the whole trick bag of ki-hoalu effects.
Light up that "Applause" sign! While the Klezmer Conservatory Band's nostalgic revue approach to klezmer on Dancing in the Aisles (Rounder) isn't my favorite method of wrapping arms around the genre, fans of the musical theater will embrace it. This spirited live recording puts klezmer in a setting not so far removed from where it originally took root on the Yiddish stages early in this century. It's just that I prefer more hard edges to the instrumentals and less Thespian projection to the vocal numbers. Still, these talented pros break a leg putting on one heck of a show, and the irreverent magnum opus "Freylekh Fantastique" based on too many classical music themes to count is an absolute hoot.
The diverse and complex music from the Transylvanian region of Romania gets a thorough work out on The Edge of the Forest (Music of the World). Mostly gypsy musicians display the forceful violin style that has almost become a cultural cliche, though there's nothing but fire here - especially in the instrumental ensemble pieces from the Oas region of Transylvanian, which use a piercing cetera fiddle with shortened bridge and high-pitched tuning that emulates the falsetto voices of the singers. "Dant de tipurit" from Oas is of a kindred spirit to Mexican huapango music with its inventive string work, chugging rhythm guitar and teeth-rattling singing by Ion Ciorcas. Another highlight is the lyric song "Hore cu nodori" with glottal-stopped vocals by Marioara Muresan that seem to combine both Balkan and Turkish influences.
Equally good is another Music of the World cd, Ngoma, which collects little-heard traditional music of Uganda. Tunes from seven of the country's 40 ethnic groups are featured, including lovely examples of the adungu harp, enanga zither and akogo thumb piano. My favorite cut is the "Termite Collection" song sporting Busoga-language lyrics entreating the insects to come out from underground tunnels so they can be eaten. Not a particularly tasty image, but this highly-rhythmic log-pounding song is delicious, and I hope Hey Mr. Music's Dave Hucker finds a way to work this track into his club DJ-ing song list. Also noteworthy is the complicated "Mbaire" played on a 20-key xylophone manned by six Busoga musicians, and which gets its body rattling resonance from a sound chamber pit dug beneath the lowest eight keys.
I had hopes for the updated Estonian folk music on Saatus (Alula Records) by Kirile Loo, whose name suggests an exotic northern vireo. Sadly, her delivery is more migrating goose than songbird, at best pouring forth a cooing string of vocables paired with reedy sythnesizers and native instruments and at worst unleashing an umlauted nightmare from the realm of the midnight adenoid. The starkness of the arrangements only accents the stridency, and while I find merit in the invention of nagging ambient music, I couldn't draw much pleasure from these modern takes on Balto-Finnic regilaul runic songs. I did like the inspirational Jew's harp solo on "Taevalaotuse tekkimine/Genesis The Welkin" and nice bagpipe and kannel zither elsewhere on the disc. Perhaps in a lusher production setting, Loo's voice would slip right by, much as Finland's Varttina has tamed their twang. But until then I have puzzling runes from the liner notes to ponder: "It is rather difficult to decide whether the recordings on the present CD portray a runic-song version from the end of the 20th century, or compositions by Peeter Vahi and Kirile Loo." So where's the dichotomy? Send your interpretations to email@example.com...
[Copyright 1997 Bob Tarte]