(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 18, Number 3, 1999)
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples via amazon.com.)
Hollywood rarely consults me anymore. Sly Stallone's best film, "Rhinestone," sprang squarely from this forehead. The storyline of Luciano Pavorotti's blockbuster "Yes, Giorgio" was freely adapted from "Mr. Whale Goes to Madison" (The Beat, Vol. 13, No. 4). If only Louis B. Mayer had followed by suggestion to cast Penny Marshall instead of Gwyneth Paltrow, "Shakespeare in Love" would have tripled its box office. "Give me one good reason for not making a new Charlie Chan picture," I asked Zanuck just yesterday via Western Union. Stop.
Much more modest in scale, my latest idea is a guaranteed seat-filler, because it grows out of my love of song. It's a suggestion for Mr. Lucas. In the upcoming "Star Wars" epic chronicling Adama's early years, scenes of the Cylon storm troopers mustering on their battlestar should be accompanied by "Keerginchik" from Yat-Kha's first American release, Dalai Beldiri (Wicklow Records). Set to a slow march tempo with crunching, full body armor percussion, this cut from the Siberian steppe posits the heroic, operatic voice of new member Aldyn-ool Sevek against the blood-curdling, human subwoofer rumblings of group founder Albert Kuvezin emitting growls only a warrior could utter. Bolstering this rousing anthem's unlikely pairing of Dudley Do-right bravado and Genghis Khan ferocity are khomuz jaw harp boings that echo eerily against the metal halls of Ming The Merciless' rocketship. Talk about atmosphere.
Dalai Beldiri moves Tuvan throat singing from the folkie genre to pop status via amplified local instruments plus unexpectedly well assimilated electric bass and guitar. The modus operandi thankfully glottal-stops far short of anything approaching techno.
Apart from what may be a synthesizer howl at the tail end of "Kazhan Toren Karam Bolur," the spirit here hugs the early days of rock--when the sheer novelty of plugging in hatched new ways of making music--and rejects the recycled numbness at the frozen heart of modern sample-based formats. Though definitely not the stuff of dance floor cantering, Zhenya Tkachov's deep percussion sets the perfect high-step tempo for herding mares or staring at a flat horizon. In place of a drum solo we get the opus "Opei Khoomei" on which an a cappella Sevek demonstrates nearly every imaginable permutation of throat singing and attendant harmonics. The one forms he leaves out, everyone's favorite high whistling zygyt, shoots like a bow through disc opener "Kaldak-Khamar" against Ponderosa ranch rhythms, Alexei Saaia's morinhuur fiddle and a Tuvan banjo.
This disc is so utterly surprising, so unlike any combination of sounds I've heard before, I don't know whether to laugh, cry or hit the skip button as a metallic electric guitar riff built around a Siberian folk motif on "Khemchin" underpins bass profundo Kuvezin while he scours his jaw through a gravel pit. The singer's most audacious moment is certainly "Charash Karaa." Gentle guitar arpeggios so quiet you can hear fingers squeaking across the frets set the romantic mood for the Tuvan frog's tender melodic croaking. Think of a Tibetan monk crooning Bacharach at a karaoke bar in Kabul or a Klingon serenading Dr. Beverly Krusher, and you come within spitting distance of this wonderful and oddly touching slab of sheer testosterone. As Lucas' new epic bangs its lens filter against the moons of Pelucidar, this is the music I expect to hear, or my name's not Bob Hollywood.
The Music of Laos (Rounder) seems almost familiar compared to Yat-Kha, but that could be because the songs here have roots in some of the oldest and most influential music on the planet. The Laotians take credit for inventing the gong that plays an integral part in Asian ensemble music. They also developed the khene "mouth organ," a series of bound-together bamboo tubes containing open reeds. The cheng, a Chinese derivative of the khene, was taken to St. Petersburg in the 18th century and provided the foundation for the harmonica, harmonium, and accordion. Whether you wish to thank or blame the Laotians for this depends on your attitude toward these instruments, but the examples of khene compositions on this disc have a huffing-puffing quality and woody drone that put them in a class by themselves.
The khene's almost human wheeze nicely compliments a pleasing vocal piece by Mr. Miss Lam Se called simply "Folk Song of the North" and therefore selected because its vocal ornamentations are characteristic of the genre. But I prefer the ensemble pieces that are played on bamboo frame-mounted, circular arranged arrays of small gongs. Best on disc is the playful "I Shall Return" ("Khernokburi"), which finds a parrot praising the countryside that nurtured him via the gongs and vernacular fiddles of the palace orchestra at Luang Prabhang--which uses the same basic instrumentation as the orchestras of the ancient Khmer that influenced Himalayan Indian music. So there.
A new CD by Hedningarna is usually an occasion for cheers and thumbs in ears. The Finnish folk rockers can be too willfully abrasive for extended listening below the pain threshold. A visit to Karelia where, according to the liner note photos of Karelia Visa (NorthSide), the inhabitants make due with very little, convinced Hedningarna to do the same. Eschewing excessive arrangements and amplification, the band threw themselves into the spirit of the runosong, the ancient genre of the region, to produce their most engaging music yet.
Karelia is historically an ethnic region of Finland, but a big chunk known as Ladoga Karelia was grabbed by Russia during World War II. Only ten percent of ethnic Karelians remained in Russia, and this tenacious bunch keeps an iron grip on tradition. The feeling of having unearthed a lost Finnish tribe infuses every note of this CD. For once Hedningarna plays with a passion that isn't born of reinterpreting the violent Viking past but is a response to the plight of an isolated pocket of humanity. A lone groaning violin or sputtering wooden flute establishes the emotional ground.
The real power, though, belongs to female vocalists Sanna Kurki-Suonio and Anita Lehtola, who sing in a tight unison style that allows just enough looseness for one to dart free and urge the other on. The strongest example is "Ukkonen" ("Thunder God") where a looped string instrument/electronic disturbance sample is trodden beneath short verses sung in an insistent, nose-to-the-grindstone directness that rises from prickly beauty to unearthly hectoring. A chorus of fallen-angel "ahhs" keeps the push and pull between the women from erupting into open warfare. If the nursery-rhyme runosong tenor sounds naggingly familiar, popsters Varttina dip into the same ethnic well--though the starkly arranged shards here will never be mistaken for the chirpy V-girls.
The 1930s was a tumultuous decade. The Great Depression took hold. Hitler rose to power. King Edward VII abdicated. And Atilla the Hun invaded New York City. Along with Atilla came Roaring Lion, Growling Tiger, King Radio, and other calypso potentates availing themselves of top notch recording facilities (complete with house orchestra Gerald Clark and his Caribbean Serenaders) and a large West Indian audience in NYC hungry for news from home. Roosevelt in Trinidad, Calypsos of Events, Places, and Personalities 1933-1939 (Rounder) documents front page stories in Trinidad, such as the killing hurricane of 1933, the 1932 rum-fueled Port-of-Spain Government Treasury fire--which threatened the city with a river of burning alcohol--and various sporting spectaculars. Equally important, the Trinidadian troubadours filtered other news of the world through their wry points of view, putting a local spin on topics like modernity, celebrity, and the American presidency.
Considering Trinidad's colonial status at the time, it follows that several songs choose British royal affairs as their subject. Not as much of a given is the intimacy with American popular culture. "Bing Crosby" and "The Four Mills Brothers" garner lionizing songs from Lion, but he flips the coin the other way on "The Vendor's Song" which portrays a protagonist driven giddy by a Madison Avenue-style advertising jingle he can't get out of his head. But Tiger trumps Lion's obsessiveness on "Movie Stars," a dizzying Latin-flavored litany that shoehorns almost 50 Hollywood names into a three-minute ditty with a great cast but little plot. One of the few edgy pieces here is a debate between Atilla and Lion over "Modern Times," which gives Lion cause to utter:
Lion's glibness points to the big plus of this collection, a command of the language so superlative it eclipses the disc's great orchestral arrangements in the cinematic tropical music style of the era. Calypso's mix of high-falutin' language and low subjects is part of its considerable charm. "As lovely as the soft sylphs of poetic dreams" is the unlikely description of Bing Crosby's wife in Lion's paean to the crooner, and more double entendres than a prime time sitcom inhabit "Body Line," ostensibly about cricket technique but actually a tribute to an island gal's romantic prowess. Though less pointed and bawdy than other calypso retrospectives, Roosevelt brims with strong melodies and hooks, courtesy of the greats of calypso's golden age.
When Tiger recorded one of his last calypso albums in the '60s (issued on Rounder in 1998 as The Growling Tiger of Calypso), he lamented how difficult it was to put together a backing group that played in the old Venezuelan string band style. "Rose of Caracas," one of the highlights of that disc, joins other gorgeous Latin waltzes on Goodnight Ladies and Gents (Rounder), an anthology of tunes by prolific Trinidadian composer, pianist, and orchestra leader Lionel Belasco. As Scott Joplin was to ragtime, Belasco was to West Indian music, formalizing it according to European standards imposed by piano-based arrangements and giving it a tinge that was already nostalgic by the time he made his name in the 1930s. While tamer than road marches, his songs are still the real thing, appearing on many a classic calypso anthology (see Roosevelt, above) with singer Wilmouth Houdini at the microphone on three cuts here, and E. Peters on three more.
The earliest piece on the disc was recorded at the staggeringly early date of 1914, and the two latest a full 47 years later in 1961, one of them including faux piano roll sound effects that brings the collection full circle, since one of Belasco's early gigs was cutting rolls for player pianos. This disc really brings home the close ties between "indoor" calypso and Venezuelan dance music, and with motives more commercial than cultural, Belasco preserved many lovely examples.
Alan Lomax called David Pryor the best singer he ever heard, ranking him an artist of Huddie Ledbetter's caliber after hearing him in the Bahamas in 1935. Lomax's field recordings from that year have only just now been released on Bahamas 1935, Chanteys and Anthems from Andros and Cat Island (Rounder). Outmoded in the most positive sense of the word, the song styles of the Bahamians represent what Lomax considered to be closest to those existing in the days of slavery owing to the isolation of the islands well into the 20th century. The material from this pre-tape age was recorded direct to record-cutting machine, and the sonics are a bit scratchy as result, but you can't argue with the pull of the polyphonic vocal pieces which are about evenly divided between recognizable gospel music and sea chantey work songs. Pryor, who sings lead on many of the songs and bass on others, was a sponge fisherman along with virtually everyone else on Andros and Cat Island.
Included here is the earliest known recording of "Histe Up the John B. Sail" about that notorious sponger boat with the tipsy crew. "John B." is a minor denizen in a collection of melodic songs sung primarily in what Lomax called the "rhyming style," an antecedent to doo-wop featuring a freewheeling, improvising lead singer backed by overlapping bass and alto parts at slightly different tempos. The material on this disc is so rich and varied, I can't really single out David Pryor for individual praise in a compelling genre which, when Lomax revisited the islands in 1974, had already faded into oblivion.
Huddie Ledbetter, aka Lead Belly, appears in the unlikely setting of Texas cowboy songs on Black Texicans, Balladeers and Songsters of the Texas Frontier (Rounder). But the version of "Home on the Range" known everywhere came from a black San Antonian bartender singing into John Lomax's wax cylinder recorder in 1908. Four percent of all Texas cowboys in the 1880s were African-American, and the percentage of black farmers was much higher. Only a handful of the pieces here are readily identifiable as range roving music to a tenderfoot like myself, including "When I Was A Little Boy," which I can imagine the Sons of the Pioneers covering, and Lead Belly's version of "The Old Chisholm Trail," here called "Western Cowboy." Many are blues based or are chants designed to ease hard, repetitive tasks like axe-cutting or railroad tie tamping, but it's still a fine collection of John Lomax's field recordings from the 1930s.
Apart from Jess Morris' version of "Goodbye, Old Paint," the stuff on Cowboy Songs, Ballads, and Cattle Calls from Texas (Rounder) didn't conform to my idea of campfire songs, either. Even "Colley's Run-I-O (Lumberjack Song)" and "The Buffalo Skinners" adhere closer to their English folk song origin than my preconceptions from a misspent youth watching Roy Rogers movies. A nice antidote to the Hollywood depiction of the free and easy life of a cowpoke are the depressing portraits "The Cowboy's Life Is A Very Dreary Life" (which could be an 18th century whaling song with a few minor word changes), "The Dying Cowboy," and "The Dreary Black Hills." Want exuberance? Plug into the "Cattle Calls" track on which Sloan Matthews reluctantly gives John Lomax a taste of various range whoops and hollers on this disc of material recorded in the 1940s. It's a hoot.
Dub Like Dirt 1975-1977 (Blood and Fire) by King Tubby and Friends is far from a greatest hits package, since Tubby's prime cuts are already propagated. But these rarities and previously unissued tracks are great reminders of how far a visionary could crank a four-track studio that would tie most engineers' hands today. Bunny Lee, who produced all of the tracks here, is joined by musicians of such hef, it's mindboggling to think of any three of them in a studio at the same time. Sly and Robbie add bass, percussion, and eccentric touches like the plucked reverb unit-spring gunshots on "Bag A Wire Dub." Jackie Mittoo's jazzy organ keeps "Fatter Dub" aloft on a track originally issued by Mittoo only in Canada.
Also onboard are luminaries Earl "Chinna" Smith, Cornell Campbell, Bobbie Ellis, and probably the most dubbed vocalist ever, Johnny Clarke. Highlights include "Dub Ites Green & Gold", a deconstruction of Johnny Clarke's version of the Burning Spear classic, and "Beat Them in Dub," Bunny Lee's reply to a truckload of songs based on a harmonica riff Roy Richards improvised over a Studio One version of Little Richard's "Freedom Blues" in 1968. It's tempting to blather on about the necessity-based Jamaican economy where people live on other people's cast offs and how Tubby turned this re-use into art, but his invention is such a mother it's useless concentrating on anything but sheer, bracing, beautiful music.
Chroma by Canadian vocalist Laurel MacDonald (Wicklow Records) strays about as far from folk/pop conventions as you can get without retreating to a garret. Whether singing in English, Gaelic, Latin, or a concocted tongue, MacDonald wields an eccentric delivery that disconnects her voice from the lyrics, melting away the textual meaning. The words themselves often offer little help. On disc opener "A Wing and a Prayer" she resurrects a centuries old children's ditty that assigns mysterious significance to corvine numericals ("four crows a boy, five crows silver, six crows gold") in a setting that tilts toward an identifiable Canadian folkie milieu only to be pulled away by old world intonations reminiscent of the Balkan-dipped austerity of her last cd, 1995's Kiss Closed My Eyes.
"Seek Ye The Lambs" sets Celtic sail on the sea of the same emotional detachment that wraps its soul around phonemes while cold-shouldering morphemes. Set to an Egyptian melody and sung in Latin, "Agnus Dei" is even odder, beginning with a gawky-edge voice that grows more rarefied while maintaining a pragmatism that resists the devotional content of the lyrics. These song equivalents to abstract painting are far removed from the neo-Celtic box her label may see her as occupying, but Wicklow owner Paddy Maloney is undoubtedly smarter than that. For myself, I can hardly get enough of Chroma not only for the beautiful textures, intriguing arrangements, and MacDonald's superb and intelligently used voice, but also because I keep hoping to decode what's going on.
Sometimes the chip falls off the old block at an odd angle. When I first powered up Juan Carlos Formell's Songs from a Little Blue House (Wicklow), I wondered if the label hadn't slapped the wrong title on a Hawaiian music CD. "Canto del Deltin" continued the slack key vibes, but the addition of Cuban percussion told me I was on the right track. And soon enough Formell's acoustic guitar is joined by a second to form an intense tangle that would go down well with the Casa de la Trova back in Cuba. Son of Juan Formell, founder of Cuba's best known band, Los Van Van, Juan Carlos avoids his papa's hard charging approach while still managing to get rootsy with examples of the son and changui featuring beautiful, classic trumpet work that meshes well with Formell's chops. The same yoga sensibility that reputably got him in the trouble with Havana spreads bliss all over this disc and adds yet another shading to the many permutations of Cuban stylings.
Don't call them Gypsies. That's just shy of a pejorative term, according
to the liner notes of the therefore inexplicably titled The Gypsy Road (Alula Records). Nevermind, this
anthology contains excellent examples of the wide range of musical styles
assimilated by the Rom along the path of their migration from India to Spain.
My favorites include "Kana M Uvonigjum" by the Yuri Yunakov Ensemble,
on which the former saxophonist from Ivo Papasov's Bulgarian band Trakija
plays breakneck tempo dance music I can't imagine anyone dancing to, "Jelem"
by Russian violin show-offs Loyko, whose fiddles imitate every other instrument
but the tuba, and joyously noisy purveyors of the real heavy metal, Kocani
Orkestra with its raucous Balkan brass band blare. Also on tap on are lively
cuts from Spain, Turkey, India, France, Hungary, Italy, and Romania.
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples via amazon.com.)