(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 19, Number 6, 2000)


(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)

Just ten years ago, riding the leading edge of worldbeat was a gaggle of guys in fezzes claiming the last name of Mustapha. The 3 Mustaphas 3 deadpanned that they came to London from the Balkan town of Szegerely by smuggling themselves inside a shipment of refrigerators. They celebrated their love for their 'homeland' by playing a confused mixture of Greek, Bulgarian, Indian, Caribbean and African styles, with the whole melange tasting vaguely of klezmer. The Mustaphas gave many of us our first doses of benga, rembetika, filmi, plus assorted freylehks and horas, demystifying unfamiliar fare by lacing it with vaudevillian immigrant humor.

Their albums still wear pretty will, though the fezzes have not. And as the Mustapha home base at GlobeStyle Records began establishing bona fide world music makers like Ofra Haza and Kanda Bonga Man, the band stepped back from the footlights once their audience grew sophisticated enough to swallow foreign genres whole. Occasionally, a couple of Mustaphas turned up accompanying and producing other international artists. But in the last few years, vocalist and bassist Sabah Habas Mustapha has eked out a low-key corner for himself that, with his third release, bears tropical fruit.

So La Li (Omnium Records) bypasses his former band's familiar watering holes in favor of a collaboration with Indonesian musicians per his self-described "masterpiece/mess" of 1998, Jalan Kopo. This time around, rather than flexing local styles to fit whimsical ditties of his own design, Mustapha dives deep into sensuous Sudanese jugala, a 20-year-old pop invention of Indonesian producer Gugum Gumbira. "On Jalan Kopo I only met Ismet, Agus, Asep and Yadi when I arrived at the studio," Sabah Habas told me via the miracle of e-mail. "Gugum Gumbira had arranged them for me. I had the songs already prepared, more or less. With So La Li, most of the songs evolved in the studio through improvisation."

Jugala transforms the qualities that make most Indonesian music hard on western ears, like its layered heterophony in place of harmony, where multiple instruments all solo at once to different rhythm cycles in the manner of a gamelan ensemble. But the Jugala All Stars' gentle, rippling strata of feminine voice, wooden flute, kecapi harp, violin, and hand drums create an easy-to-love, clove scented cloud. The addition of a trap drummer and Mustapha's funkenesian bass carves out a navigable groove for foot tapping.

Sabah Habas cultivates a decidedly low key presence on So La Li. He sings lead on opening cut "Di Nagara Deungeun," backed by guest-Mustapha, Hijaz, on Nigerian-flavored lap steel guitar. Thereafter he cedes the mike to Tati Ani Mogiono's waifish pipes and a slice of traditional senggak style rap from Asep Moung ­ whose songbirding on suling flute gives jugala its distinctive sound ­ much of the time all but disappearing except for his bass and guitar accompaniment. "I really wanted this to be a group effort and to push the concept of the Jugala All Stars as a working unit with a distinctive sound," said Mustapha. "I wanted to credit the CD to just the Jugala All Stars but was advised against it by Omnium and my colleagues at [my European label] Kartini."

Mustapha told me he's become stuck on jugala, because "it seems to sonically induce very relaxing endorphins while captivating with its delicious percussive melodies, not to mention the melodic percussion. Realizing how beautiful the planet can be always reminds me of the brevity of life, and thus I attach great value to melancholia." I hear that, but I also detect a distinct party atmosphere at work. "Geulis" effectively takes the last chaotic seconds of "I Am the Walrus," appends a croaking lead vocal, muttering elf voices, a saw-tooth violin, and a refrain of "so la li" for a four-minute cut so nice, Mustapha included it twice, reprising it as a karaoke version at the end of the disc. So La Li's off-kilter bite continually surprises, and surprise has always characterized the Mustaphas' charm.

Musicologist J.D. Elder calls calypso "undoubtedly the national song of Trinidad and Tobago" in his notes to Trinidad Carnival Roots (Rounder Records), though today that 'national song' has all but gone the way of its 19th century predecessor, kalenda. A collection of 1962 field recordings by Alan Lomax, Carnival Roots recalls the glory days long before rapso and soca's reign when calypso was synonymous with a national pride that looked forward to a pan-Caribbean West Indies Federation. The Federation was a bust, but Lomax chose his moment well for documenting the musical culture of Trinidad, capturing maypole songs, Venezuelan castilians and pasillos, stick fighting songs, and other now-defunct styles that collectively spawned calypso.

John Cowley's creative editing of Lomax's material beautifully isolates source elements. The romantic Venezuelan dances show the Spanish melodic influences, "Israel on the Road, He Coming" by Matthew Thomas and Kalenda band demonstrates African-West Indian rhythm and melody, while "Fire Brigade Water the Road" by Vasco de Freitas and Tamboo Bamboo Band hits hard with what Lomax terms "a brand of polymetric music of which any African tribe would be proud." Roots of the loquacious side of calypso are found in an outrageously bragging "Midnight Robber" speech derived from the first part of the 20th century when the chief of a stick fighting gang would goad a rival into potentially mortal combat. It's all very interesting, but even better, it all sounds great. Lomax was at the height of his command of portable recording equipment here, putting the listener at dead center of the music, and the music is exciting enough to pay its own way. Interviews with participants add fascinating bits, including a harrowing description of the "blood hole" where stick fighters would collectively drain their wounds after battle and a less sanguinary talk with Jean Eustache Stoute about the maypole song tradition and T&T patois.

Gathered a few years earlier, Calypso Awakening (Smithsonian Folkways) found calypsonians afire with post-Independence fever in the late 1950s. These field recordings by audiophile pioneer Emory Cox boast even better sound quality than Lomax's. "Saturday Night Blowout" by the jazz-influenced John Buddy Williams Band blazes with raw energy on an instrumental jam at the Carib Theatre in Port of Spain as the audience shouts its acclamations at the horn section. Cox's favorite trick was to capture spontaneity that usually eludes formal recording sessions by pretending to turn his machine off after taping a couple of songs, and that technique hits paydirt here. Other big plusses are Carnival recordings of Lord Melody and Mighty Sparrow when both men were at their peak, plus a trio of cuts from Small Island Pride, a tough outfit I've never run into before. You-are-there bits include Sparrow performing "Yankee Gone" ­ later to strike gold as "Jean and Dinah" ­ recorded from audience perspective over the patchy PA of a calypso tent, a pincong verbal duel between Melody and Sparrow flinging far more enthusiasm than wit, a musician patiently beating his pan into tune with a hammer as onlookerz kibbutz, and steel band paraders playing their own rendition of "Yankee Gone" as they pass. This last bit is verité taping at its best. As the band fades into hearing range, the crowd starts singing out the lyrics, illustrating Sparrow's popular triumph with this song.

Lord Invader garnered fame as the wronged author of "Rum and Coca-Cola," stolen by comedian Morey Amsterdam and made into a hit by the Andrews Sisters in 1944. He eventually won the plagarism case which kept him in New York City for several years, attracting the attention of Folkways label founder Moses Asch. Though Invader is ranked as one the calypso greats, I have trouble fitting him into the vaunted pantheon of Lord Kitchener, Roaring Lion, and Growling Tiger. Still, these Asch-recorded pieces on Calyspo in New York (Smithsonian Folkways) have appeal as Invader's high-pitched, cartoonish voice is most successfully paired with soaring clarinets and Venezuelan-style arrangements. The newly remastered recordings bring pretty good sound to classics like "New York Subway," "Sly Mongoose," "Tied-Tongue Baby," and "God Made Us All," a fine bit of writing as Invader pens a breakthrough black consciousness piece. Taped at a Union Hootenany in 1946, the previously unreleased version here has the odd distinction of vocal and banjo backing by Pete Seeger. I wonder if Pete later engaged Invader in a pincong duel.

Pérez Prado was a flat-out modernist. In 1949, he envisioned a style of Cuban music that was louder, bolder, and brighter than anything that had come before. Shrieking trumpets, abrupt stops and starts, and overheated solos that seem to distort the very shape of the instruments haven't lost their power to startle a full 50 years later. Small wonder that he wandered in the wilderness of the Mexico City film industry before the record company poobahs at home elected to give him a shot at greatness. While Prado may not have invented the mambo, he concocted the variety most everyone knows with chugging horn-led rhythms and more prickly textures than a day in a cactus garden. Cuban Originals ­ Perez Prado (BMG) collects gaudy yet irresistible supercharged instrumentals from Prado's early years, including two cuts whose woozy, slip-sliding trumpet breaks pre-figure his number one American hit "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White." Lots of outrageous arrangements find a home here, like "Sabor A Mi," where a picaresque muted trumpet scales peaks of throbbing brass, or the bombastic annunciation of "Besame Mucho" punctuated by Prado's trademarked belt-cinching grunts. Surely the epitome of hubris is his mad arrangement of "Flight of Bumblebee," in which the lead trumpet squeezes in a piercing, wobbling insect genius mutation of the familiar melody with the nonchalance of a clown turning cartwheels while juggling cutlery.

Missing from this disc is Beny Moré, often remembered as a swooning crooner. But Moré had a mean way with a mambo, too, and Prado is partly the reason why. Moré made his name at the microphone of Conjunto Matamoros, the latter day version of the first modernizers of Cuban popular music, Trio Matamoros. During a recording stint in Mexico in 1949, he hooked up with Pérez Prado, and from 1950-52 their explosive teamwork shook up the Cuban music scene. Onboard Cuban Originals ­ Beny Moré (BMG) are choice Prado/Moré collaborations such as the mega-mambo "Pachito E' Che 1950," though most of the disc is devoted to Moré's work with his own jazz-influenced orchestra. On "Y Hot Como Ayer," recorded in 1955, he glides from a mid-register croon to effortless horn-like glissandos, his big band pulsating behind him, while he plays a sonero to a 't' on 1957's "Que Buena Baila Usted," one of many memorable songs he penned himself.

[For reviews of all 16 CDs in the Cuban Originals series, click here.]

Moré's repertoire continues to strut his stuff. Kicking off Eliades Ochoa's Tribute to the Cuarteto Patria (Higher Octave) is Silvestre Mendez-Lopez Moré hit "Yiri Yiri Bon," whose memorable short chorus builds intensity in the manner of the Buena Vista Social Club's "El Cuatro de Tula," a song first heard on Ochoa's 1993 CD with Cuarteto Patria, A Una Coqueta. Unlike most of the Social Club principals, Ochoa wasn't whiling away his time in forced retirement when Ry Cooder sought him out. Throughout the 1990s, he'd been busily releasing albums of campesino music in the rural 'cowboy' style of eastern Cuba. Ochoa's first post-Social Club CD, Sublime Ilusion, was pleasant but rather stiff. Whenever the horns sounded, I glanced around expecting a toreador to enter the room. Tribute has the same swing as Ochoa's Corason-label releases of the last few years and more variety to boot. "Por Culpa de las Mujeres" ("Blame It On the Women") features a guest vocal from Faustino "El Guayabero" Oramas on a humorous piece that rationalizes his reputation for womanizing. "Son a la Casa de la Trova," saluting the well-known Santiago de Cuba showcase for musicians, is a sneaker-upper that wraps Ochoa's spangly tres guitar and Jorge Masporel's percussion in an arrangement that gets mucho energy from the backup singers. "No Quiero Celos" ("I Don't Want No Jealousy Around") rockets out of the gate with a vocal from Ochoa's sister, María, before turning into a descarga jam that fades out just as the trumpet gets going.

María Ochoa has a CD of her own with her group Corazón de Son dedicated, not too surprisingly, to the rural Cuban son. Asi Quiero Vivir (Blue Jackel) is a good example of keeping the campesino style alive, and it's got a nice, open sound similar to her brother's disc. But her singing tends to be a little too declamatory for my tastes, and the arrangements don't offer a lot of variation. That means any two or three tracks in a row are welcome, but beyond that I find myself tuning out.

For similar reasons, Buena Vista Social Club Presents Omara Portuondo (World Circuit/Nonesuch) is a bit of a misstep. Except for a reworking of Ernesto Duarte's "¿Dónde estabas tú," a mambo made famous by Bény More, the disc is all slow tunes. Ibrahim Ferrer ran with the romantic boleros on his BVSC-sponsored CD due in no small part to brilliant supervision by musical director Juan De Marcos. Unfortunately, De Marcos is replaced by Demetrio Muñiz here, and while he's great at throwing spotlights at Portuondo's soulful voice, the material is relentlessly downbeat. And I could've gone another decade without a Spanish-language version of Gershwin's "The Man I Love" ("El hombre que yo amé"). The first three cuts are wonderful, especially "He perdido contigo" with its deep, moody clarinet interludes, but these early successes garner expectations that the material just doesn't fulfill.

Armando Garzón presents a fresh alternative to the traditional Cuban trova on Escándalo (Corason/Rounder) by embracing a larger Latin perspective. It's not just his unusual countertenor voice, which reminds me of a Cape Verdean chanteuse. Garzón salutes pivotal Mexican boleros that influenced the Cuban bolero-style of the 1940s and 1950s by putting a requinto guitar alongside the tres. The harp-like sweetness adds a touch of the ethereal to a repertoire that includes a number of songs from Mexico, including the melancholy title cut.

With Cugu (Northside) Finland's Wimme shinnies further out on his favorite limb with another grafting of traditional joiking vocals onto cutting-edge electronica. The branch still holds his weight. But it's a shaky business when his quartet leads him too far from the recognizable chanted vocables of the Arctic Sami people formerly known as the Lapps. The collaboration works best when joiks that seem to bubble up from the earth and erupt through Wimme Saari's elastic voice are yolked to moody techno environments, like the dripping stalactites of "Silbabiedju" (The Cave) or the runaway mytosis of "Eallima bárut" (Waves of Life). The title cut "Cugu" (Puppy) impressively balances Wimme's free-form yipping joy with robotic computer beats softened by the interplay between a quacking treated clarinet and unvarnished acoustic woodwinds. The tail wags the dog on the riskiest cut, "Texas." Imagine the main theme from the old tv western Bonanza rendered as clamoring electronic rhythm that nearly bucks Wimme off its back as he whoops and bawls out "Texas, Texas, Texas, Texas." Wild it may be, but it reduces the channeling of the animus to mere animation. If the inventive backing tracks up their profile another notch, next time around Wimme may be as dispensible as a session drummer.

While Wimme will never be accused of making music for the masses, Finland's Gjallarhorn revs up an attractive set on Sjofn (NCD) formulated to turn the unwary into Scandiophiles. The didjeridu is always a sign of puffing after large-scale appeal, and in this case I'm following the old ant-eaten log into the believer's camp. "Djelill och Lagerman" is one reason why as Tommy Manskivva-Aho growls and spits Finnish phonemes into his tube and Jenny Wilhelms emits high-pitch herding cries sure to interfere with ultrasound procedures at your local medical center. Because the group leans on dynamics to rouse its mythopoeia to flight ­ ganging fiddles, Asian percussion, and vocals into sonic swoops ­ the merely accomplished and pretty passages are at worst down-letting and at best a harbinger of community radio airplay. [Handelsesplanaden 23A, FIN-65100 Vasa, Finland or www.gjallarhorn.com]

Prettiness isn't one of the mandates of the Italian Treasury series culled from Alan Lomax's 1954-55 field recordings. Thus Sicily guiltlessly diverts the momentum of the ornamented "Carrittera" cart-merchant's solo song that opens the disc by following it with Roberto Genovese's "Battle Between Orlando and Rinaldo," an eight-minute recitation culled from a 680-hour nearly year-long performance that's sure to sail over the heads and glaze the marrow of nonspeakers of Sicilian dialect everywhere. Back on track are robust songs of tuna fishermen, saltworkers, sulfur miners, and farmers, each carrying centuries-old resonances from the pre-Christian era when the cycle of the seasons ruled daily life. The diversity of these now-extinct worksongs plus occasional flute or bagpipe dances are as intriguing as their eastern modalities. I'll proudly file this as a reference recording with the more accessible volumes of the Italian Treasury series, but won't be sliding it out of the shelf for casual listening.

Prettiness is the ostensible goal of Italian Musical Odyssey (Putumayo), songs from Italian folk revivalists that brim with lovely voices, crisply plucked strings, skittering accordions, and less grit than you'll find in a peeled shrimp, with the exception of Cálic's "Attinde," which creatively draws upon Sardinian polyphonic singing. The anthology is fine if you like a little goo, and the melodies could grow on me if I gave them half a chance. But the gap between the feel-good songs here and the genuine articles in Lomax's Italian recordings is seriously off-putting. So off this one goes.

For the best of all Mediterranean folk worlds, including songs from Southern Italy, Sardinia, Sicily, Greece, the Holy Land, and North Africa, tilt an ear toward Mediterranea (Sounds True). Savina Yannatou wields a voice like pure glass that lets ancient melodies blaze through, and her backing band Primavera en Salonico Ensemble throws just the right amount of strings and percussion at pleasingly stark arrangements. The mood is ascetic, the singing just this side of monastic with a whisper of the freshly mown field where the scandalous and the sacred join hands and whirl.

The same-named "soundtrack" to Banning Eyre's book In Griot Time (Temple University Press), which I briefly reviewed last issue, led me to seek out the writer's account of his extended stay with Malian Rail Band guitarist Djelamady Tounkara in his quest to learn the music of the griots. Had he been a fly on the wall, Eyre could hardly have picked up more intimate details about the pitfalls of traditional musicians in Bamako striving to break out of the local scene and achieve the status of Oumou Sangare or Salif Keita. On the whole, Tounkara's generosity shines through as he almost immediately includes the author in Rail Band public performance, a trial by fire that makes sure Eyre progresses on guitar. But there are moments of ugliness and selfishness, too, particularly in Tounkara's treatment toward his wife, though even these are eclipsed by his disastrous failure to make a trip to Havana for the recording sessions that developed into the original Buena Vista Social Club CD. The best part of the book, which lives up to the "reads like a novel" cliché, is the tension in Manding culture between preserving the brilliant but increasingly marginalized 'big-string' bajourou electric griot sound pioneered in part by Tounkara while moving forward with a more contemporary approach. This makes Eyre's account less that of an outsider trying to squeeze himself into Bamako society as a view of local musicians attempting to expand their artistic boundaries.

(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)

[Copyright 2000 Bob Tarte]

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