(by Bob Tarte, published in The Beat magazine, Volume 12, Number 2, 1993)


I had no idea a transformation of this magnitude had taken place. No flash of light in the midnight sky to warn me. No unexpected climate shift, mass extinctions, precession of the equinoxes, sunspot cycle interruption, geomagnetic anomalies nor Weekly World News cover story heralding the event. Without so much as the customary change of clothing in a phone booth, the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Choir has abruptly assumed a new identity, transmogrifying into Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares after choir's best known cd.

It's a new benchmark in marketplace morphing, as shameless as if Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens started calling themselves The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, Ladysmith Black Mambazo renamed themselves Graceland, or Thomas Mapfumo became a solo act known as The Chimurenga Single. Five years ago when I first read in Rolling Stone that Paul Simon was recording an lp of dance music in South Africa, I figured the item had to be a joke, a cruel commentary on a career that was running out of steam. But the seeming incongruity of that piece of news is nothing compared to the concept behind From Bulgaria With Love (Blue Moon/Mesa), which finds the normally solemn choir cutting up with a babbling Italian rapster on a disc of computer-crazy house mixes.

The leap from timeless rural music to disposible acid hovel isn't as unlikely a stretch as it initially appears. There's a nascent humor value in the choir's ultra-dramatic ouevre, once you get past your initial awe at an unearthly vocal sound that teeters between the pit and paradise, like the Bee Gees at fult tilt on "Tragedy." Disco achieved it's frisson by mythologizing clubgoers's endless quest for the perfect song with the perfect partner as a Sisyphyean burden on a par with the daily tyranny of the alarm clock. But while the workaday world was repetitive, shallow and no fun, the nightlife was merely repetitive and shallow, sustained as much by images of extended ecstacy as symbols of eternal damnation, where Grace Jones and Dracula were the ultimate partygoers. Though I would have preferred Bulgarian Stars on 45 as the group's new name, Le Mystere is a suitably show-biz description of this latest notch on the torture rack of the music that refuses to die.

Equal parts horrible and marvellous, From Bulgaria With Love is the Foucault's Pendulum of world music or an episode of "Mystery Science Theatre 3000" with sampling standing in for robot commentary. In fact, the flesh-and-blood choir has little real-time interaction with instrumentalists on this disc. It's mainly digital sleight of hand, with phrases and fragments of a few of Le Mystere's standards fluttering and stuttering atop gothic machinations like stolen shards of Ofra Haza. While "Bulgarian Rhapsody" and "The Voyage," synth-driven mixes by Robin Carrs, provide some of the most persuasive moments as mock classical motifs caroming off hell's kitchen sink of electronic cliches, From Bulgaria's meat is the cd I'm waiting for next: more tracks by Vladimir Ivanoff and TranceFormation, the choir's live band--or what sounds like one, at least.

Even their name is appealing, the kind of dully thudding pun that could only spring from the brow of fluent speakers of English as a tertiary language. TranceFormation's dervish approach to pop via traditional instruments drilling speed metal circles means "Devoika" and "Guns and Paprica" fail to lodge as readily in memory as the pre-digested doumentary soundtrack fare of the studio assembled cuts. Their innovation nearly spoils the cd by blocking its shot at achieving an unprecedented form of perfection. After a single brisk runthrough, I was all but ready to proclaim From Bulgaria the first musical release so immediately accessible there's no need to listen to it twice. Every bit of pleasure--and the pleasures are manifold--can be harvested at the first and only hearing. The audaciousness of the concept is staggering. Think of the hours to be saved, the amount of information that can be absorbed, if every new cd could be mainlined, savored, then discarded.

The whole package, indeed, says throwaway--from the front cover photo montage of choristers intimidated at gunpoint into collaboration, to the back cover Andy Warhol banana art rip-off, doodled song titles such as "Sofia Sound Machine" and "Bulgarian Rhapsody," as well as the disc's giddiest cut, "Pippero," wherein Italian MC Elio e le Storie tese teases, conducts and raps with the pre-recorded choir in great one-night-stand comic style. I ordered my copy to go with a order of fries on the side, but a stubborn grain of sand prevented me from swallowing this slick world disco whole. Again and again I keep returning to the songs with TranceFormation, lapping up a folkie driven emulation of technopop that one-ups Enigma by dipping back to primary sources. Tantalizing as the hi-tech dance tracks by Robin Carrs (and Steve the B. & Ulrich Bassenge) may be, those performances exist solely in cyberspace. TranceFormation takes the real risks, meshing with the choir in a real ensemble setting, hashing out a modern Eastern European sound.

Ray Lema fares slightly better with the same or similar similar group of Bulgarians on Ray Lema / Professeur Stefanov et Les Voix Bulgares de L'Ensemble Pirin (BUDA Records), another rural electrification project. Lema has successfully translated African rhythms into the language of MIDI on Nangadeef and Gaia, but it's another matter trying to reinvent vocal music whose beauty rests on the irreducible uniqueness of its balance between starkness and grandeur. Nothing can be subtracted, or the integrity is lost--hence the fate of Trio Bulgarka in a supportive role on Kate Bush's The Sensual World--so the alternate strategy is embellishment.

Unlike From Bulgaria's producers, Lema shows appropriate respect for the choir with arrangements that don't merely try to float one genre on top of another. His intention is a dialogue between Balkan melodies and tropical beats using jazzisms as a bridge. But instead of a full frontal encounter we get tracks like "Nalelela" that relegate L'Ensemble Pirin to female back-up vocal status or "Po Droum Mome Pobegnalo," which thrusts the choir into the foreground as Lema literally hums along. And what else can he do? This and the choir-only "Vila Ssei Gora" demonstrate that the power of Bulgarian vocal music is its ability to stand alone bearing the weight of the world on its shoulders. Any additional burden so far feels superfluous, though the nonwestern harmonies and extravagant timbres cry out for an avant garde setting per Meredith Monk--or a potent homebrewed collaboration with Ivo Papasov. [BUDA Musique, 188, boulevard Voltaire 75011 Paris].

I've been enjoying We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse, a book by James Hillman and Michael Ventura which deflates the pop-psych concept of the pure and wounded inner child, whose injuries and deprivation supposedly shape the person we become. Instead the authors start with the adult life and look backward to childhood experiences not as external blames that determine what will be, but as younger phases of innate and unalterable characteristics--"as foreshadowings, as smaller mirrors of the larger person," according to Ventura. The acorn is already essentially the oak. I am and always have been the afternoon nap.

Adam Rudolph takes this notion of the unchanging thing within a step further on Moving Pictures (Flying Fish). "In the great mystical traditions of the world, inner and outer realities are reflections of one another," he writes. "Similarly, every music one can imagine in the mind's ear already exists or has existed in its own unique interpretive design." Sounds like the prescription for a ponderous cd, but no. While Moving Pictures is utterly devoid of the eye-rolling giddiness of the Bulgarian discs, it's sheer nerve is far more exhilarating than wailing babes in an electronic womb.

A glance at the back cover art makes it clear where Rudolph's priorities lie. No list of tracks. For these you have to get out the liner note booklet and delve deep inside (oh, I get it). Instead, the back cover holds a roster of bandmembers that provides a better indication of musical content than song titles ever could. Scanning the personnel, it's dizzying to try and imagine what kind of sounds could come from the collusion of Shankar on double violin; Wah Wah Watson, electric guitar; Jihad Racy, Middle Eastern flutes; Susan Allen, concert harp; Ralph Jones, saxophones, woodwinds; and G.E. Stinson, bottleneck slide guitar, to name a few--plus Rudolph on hand drums and samples.

Such eclecticism could easily add up to a cacophonous mess or a new age bland-out, but the level of professionalism is so high, what we get is the world music equivalent of jazz elders deftly improvising around one another, mapping out genre juxtapositions that make other recombinant experiments seem tame. Rather than starting out with a recognizable style and pushing it to the limit, Rudolph and company unleash everything at once, layering disparate forms and elements in a manner reminiscent of modern repertoire Indonesian gambang kromong, where small-group jazz orchestration meets a gamelan sensibility (per Smithsonian/Folkways Music of Indonesia 3, one of the wildest rides traditional-based music has to offer).

Rudolph has been scrambling genres at least since 1977 while a member of Mandingo Griot Society, Foday Musa Suso's kora-funk experiment, but the seeds for Moving Pictures were sown in 1991's Gift of the Gnawa--with Hassan Hakmoun, Don Cherry and Richard Horowitz--which combined Moroccan and Indian rhythms as the kernal of jazz-based explorations. The closest thing here to that comparatively straightforward release is "Walking the Curve," where a Gnawa backbone provides the saddle for cowpoke slide guitar, Lon Cheney synth, sax chirps and karnatic vocals and violin. On "Alchemy," a few cuts later, a Balinese shadow puppet show meets Egyptian film music on the Altiplano before flirting with the "Mission: Impossible" theme. Rudolph's gift is making these unlikely aggregations seem like natural formations rather than hoked-up tourist attractions.

Moving Pictures is aptly named, provoking visuals powerful enough to blow away a Madonna video, though my reductive mind continually denigrates the mystery of being into tv movie mysteries. Hence, "What I Fell Past" evokes a tableaux of shadowy figures conspiring in the gazebo of a coffee mogul's estate as peacocks call from beyond the hedges--a vision hardly on a par with Dante's glimpse of Beatrice's petticoat, but the closest I've come to a mystical experience lately is falling on the ice in front of my house and landing squarely on my face. The bright flash of heat that crackled through my head on impact was reminiscent of "Radiant Vision," but rather than recalling sweeping synthesizer textures my consciousness at that instant was vainly turning on whom to sue.

Firm evidence that the blow of sidewalk to head misaligned my brain cells: My first reaction to Tarika Sammy's Fanafody (Green Linnet/xenophile) was a critique of the guesting Mustaphas. Were Sabah Habas' mbaqanga basslines out of place? Did brother Houzam's drum kit step on the delicacy of "Rabeza" and "Toga Vahiny"? Was this extra oomph really necessary? Unlike fellow Madagascarans Rossy, Takira Sammy have advanced their craft by eschewing hi-tech electronics, slyly fusing island styles into beautiful songs that feel like unadulterated folk even as they draw on an expansive pop vocabulary. The populism of vocals that are in solo vulnerable but collectively rock solid is underscored on a song like "Transport," where the just-folks atmosphere is so convincing the lightning strike virtuosity of a marovany box-zither break astonishes.

Fanafody, which means remedy, magic and good luck charm in Malagasy, stays close to small town subject matter, with songs about homesickness, the town drunk, inter-village transport, drought, railway station chat, island customs and love. Instrumentation is almost perversely orthodox. Rare is the stateside listener able to tell a jejy voatavo from a lokanga bara even when the wind is right, so the liner note glossary is essential. With their emphasis on all things local even while embracing an international audience, in sensibility as well as sound--and in their acknowledgement of the superlative if not the supernatural in every day events--Tarika Sammy increasingly remind me of an Indian Ocean Boukman Eksperyans minus the hand drum bottom. None needed. Claves and shakers whisper with enough authority not only to anchor the lilting music but to propel its sweetness forward into realms of dangerous trance as transfixing grooves sneak up on guileless melodies.

And those session players, also including John Kirkpatrick on accordion and Ian Anderson, slide guitar, are for the most part sympathetic participants, sometimes adding coloration so subdued I wasn't even aware of it until the second or third playing. But I'm glad the GlobeStyle team resisted the urge to bring western musicians to Mozambique, adding only their typically superb on-the-spot production to !Saba Saba!, a field recording (from a Nampula movie house) of local bands Mil Quimhento '1500' & Conjunto Popombo de Nampula and Conjunto Nimala de Lalauah. It would have been unfortunate updating or augmenting the jarring noise these bands manage with modest instrumentation in the service of fiendish energy.

Conjunto Popombo all but rattle the listener around inside the high-impact shakers that maintain a reasonably manageable rhythm as explosive overlapping vocals pop across a furiously strummed, jangling pankwe, a board zither resonated by tin can and calabash pots. As if the resulting African-gaucho-on-mood-elevators sound wasn't already fractured and stacatto enough, factor in the steady throb of the nlapa, a combination bass drum and single-stringed contrabass fashioned out of a tea-chest.

The pace is as fast and furious as Colombian vallenata, but without a single softening influence, such as the wheezy accordion which drives Conjunto Nimala de Lalauah. In place of Popombo's trademarked start-stop 'beep-beep' vocals, Nimala offers call and response herding call yodels--placed so far back in the mix they seem to waft in from the hills of Malawi--and a resemblance to sotho that's only undercut by incessant metal ring percussion supporting an off-kilter Latin rhythmic feel. Thumps on an oil-drum bass drum also called the nlapa stand in for sotho's thundering bass. Both of these bands play pop as rootsy as it gets, not far removed from what sounds like an origin in spirit possession rituals. Highly recommended.

Mouth Music got their first cd across on the strength of an unlikely conceit, the bouncy marriage of Celtic and African music. Even though half that disc was synth instrumental filler, the tracks that worked forced me to rethink my relationship to the reel and got me wondering whether a historical connection didn't actually exist. As it turns out, an ancient text called the Book of Invasions tells of a people called the Milesians who supposedly came to Ireland from Egypt, Scythia, and Spain. But the long passage of time eradicates fragile links; in the two years between Mouth Music and Mo-Di (Rykodisc), the Mouthsters have boosted the yawning synth quotient at the expense of the unexpected, abandoning innovative genre splicing in favor of generic dance tunes with occasional Gaelic lyrics and a few broad Africanisms.

To its credit, "Hoireann O" imagines the mind meld of Joni Mitchell and Shriekback, but for ethnic adventure I'll take the Pet Shop Boys over packaged exoticisms destined for the soundtrack of "Going To Extremes"--you know, the inevitable scene where some white boy's borrowed jalopy sinks to its axles in island mud. Why a group with one good idea should opt for mire over matter baffles me, unless they know of a ready-made market I can't even envision. Maybe this passes for a cultural experience on campuses these days. Who could have predicted Enya, after all? I did enjoy the credit on "Milking the Cow" that reads "cow noise: quee macarthur." A little of that verve wouldn't have hurt the music.

I dare anyone to try and put Tex Avery Cartoons (Milan) to a techno beat. Scott Bradley's 1942-1957 soundtracks for Droopy Dog, Crazy Squirrel, a libidinous big bad wolf, and two presumably married propeller driven planes who somehow spawn a jet move in so many directions at once, the most ambidexterous mixmaster would quickly be shaken to pieces. I will look for some of these potent soundbites on next season's crop of synthesizer modules, but Bradley was way ahead of the sampler generation with nonstop quotes from show tunes, opera, vaudeville, and Tin Pan Alley. His demanding scores, the story goes, taxed one conductor until his fingers hurt. But the frantic pace and constant mood swings were mandatory if Bradley was to keep up with Avery, who helped Warner Brothers steal the animation momentum from Disney with the creation of acetate's enduring anarchist, Bugs Bunny--then for M.G.M. went on to wreak undreamed of technicolor mayhem that set the standard by which Ren and Stimpy's carnage is measured.

While "Little Johnny Jet " (not the song by Television) and two others on the disc contain the full cartoon audio, including voices, the cuts with just orchestra and sound effects make strange listening as they spin finely focused narratives against the wheels of imagination--unless you remember the original cartoons. I recalled exactly one, but it wasn't "Cell Bound," a chaotic assault that wordlessly describes escaping prisoners who, confronted with the mess of the modern world, retreat to the protection of their cells. "TV of Tomorrow"'s plot is harder to guess, but its ever changing map anticipates cable's channel jumping age, whatever the original intention. And the way each track begins with identical fanfare that soon dissolves into an idiosyncratic barrage is probably nothing more than the mandatory nod to the studio's signature tune. But I like to think Bradley was teasing us with a few orderly seconds before all hell breaks loose.

The Klezmatics, Rhythm + Jews (Flying Fish). A bebop attack meets Middle Eastern angst in this klezmer on a hot bed of coals irresistible to anyone with a sympathetic foot in Eastern Europe--or who's willing to be swept away by gale-force brass and woodwinds sliced apart by blistering drums. This is music so overpowering I have to listen a song at a time, stop the cd player, then stare out into space marvelling at the all and everything these fierce New Yorkers encompass. Klezmer purists may scowl at the unrestrained passion of the solos, but I've never heard Naftule Brandwein as open and raw as this arrangement of "Araber Tants," where Alicia Svigals' MIDI violin gives me new appreciation for the emotive possibilities of synthesizers. A brilliant example of how the world music scene has redefined and revitalized klezmer--and one of the most exciting releases of any kind I've run into in a long time. Co-produced by Sabah Habas Mustapha.

Lee "Scratch" Perry, Soundzs from the Hotline (Heartbeat). Too many Perry reissues and thrown-together new releases these last two years have given me a Scratch resistance I thought nothing could penetrate, but Soundzs, as it turns out, is exceptional. The musicians on these Black Ark recordings from the '70s are first rate, including Aston Barrett, Sly Dunbar, Willie Lindo and Augustus Pablo. More important, the Upsetter himself puts in such an effort sides of him I've never heard before burst out like multiple personalities. Note "Standing on the Hill"'s Marley-esque delivery or the rock steady tenor on "News Flash." I even catch myself straining to untangle the knotted vocals on "Ashes and Dust," though it's a foregone conclusion they'll zing right over my head. The funhouse atmosphere was never more seductive nor flirted with convention to this extent before. The nuttiness is full strength, but you don't have scrounge a couple of Dramamine to weather it.

Tom Ze, Brazil 5, The Hips of Tradition (Luaka Bop). Eccentricity seldom cracks the cultural barrier. An artistic stance that's shocking in Oran may soak into the background hiss of Cincinnati, and irony, tied even more tightly to local convention, fares worse. But when Northeast Brazilian Ze sings of lighting bonfires "to appreciate the lightbulb," the meaning is as clear as the manner in which he uses traditional rhythms to uncover the symbolism of technology rather than the other way around. Because he's less interested in modernizing Brazilian music than dissembling it, Ze chooses from a sweeping pop vocabulary whose hurricane eye is an aggressiveness that translates most readily as avant garde rock, but he's craftier than that. And more mysterious. I like David Byrne's contributing vocal on "Jingle do Disco" better than anything I've heard him do in years, because his own eccentricity flows naturally in Ze's urgent throw-away setting. Nothing here is forced, but nothing is easy either when every explosion is sublime.

The Soto Koto Band (Higher Octave). I still don't consider Soto Koto's music African any more than I think of Velveeta as cheese, but there's no denying the joyous kick of this over-processed Gambian band in overdrive. Smooth sonics pull the best qualities of Aquarian Age atmospherics into a lush big band setting, where every instrument from sax to vaseline-fingered kora floats on a purified etheric field--even when delivering nothing more demanding than nouveau cuisine dinner musique. The problem is the size of the portions. Too many songs like the 2:50 "Rainbeat" peter out just when my resistance is dwindling and I'm willing to be washed into a catchy groove. A cloudburst isn't enough. For this to succeed, I've got to be drenched silly.

Ray Lema & Joachim Kuhn, Euro African Suite (BUDA Records). Sunday, 9:12 a.m. Slept in, but still too early to face CBC Radio's special report on facism. Hop on exercise bike, placing parrot on shoulder to stop his squawking. Switch on new Ray Lema cd for an accompaniment to lukewarm coffee. Peer outside, still pedalling. Low grey clouds. Bright, keyboard-led jazz with AfroEuro beat meshes with squeak of pumping handlebars. Mind drifts to dream of colleges days sharing dorm with prodigious but predictable friend and driving a potato chip truck around campus. Probably a message here, but none remarkable enough to register. Pass the parrot a corner of toast and watch in amusement as he clenches it in one foot and begins to eat, all the while deftly maintaining his perch on sweater.


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