(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 22, Number 3, 2003)

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


My e-mail from Dave Hucker had gotten weird.

Weirder than usual, that is. The subject line of an e-mail from Dave informed me, "E-mail Problems? Yup this is all I can do, no text in message body. Grrr!"

When he phoned the following week to report that he had fully reconnected with the world, I had a technology snafu of my own to report. The Technobeat Web site had disappeared without a trace. Typing in the URL www.technobeat.com burped up a "Cannot Find Server" error message every time.

"It's the government," insisted Hucker. The war in Iraq had just begun, and Dave figured the Feds were onto us. "They know we're subversives, and they've shut us down."

The good people at Pacweb, who host the Technobeat Web site, had a more reassuring explanation. Last December, I had renewed my domain name through January 2006 via a company called Network Solutions. It turned out that Network Solutions had taken my money but hadn't bothered to actually renew the domain name. It took three phone calls to Network Solutions over two weeks to get the Web site back up.

Technology was once again my friend.

Then on April 4, when most of the country was enjoying bikini weather, West Michigan got hit with the worst ice storm in 30 years. We lost our electricity and shivered the first night as the outdoor thermometer plunged to 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately, Linda and I had fallen for the Y2K hysteria back in 1999 and had bought a portable generator that weighs more I do. We had also had an interface installed that allowed us to plug the entire house into the generator as if the house were an enormous toaster. So we were able to keep our parrots and other pets from freezing.

Learning the nuances of life with a generator was a challenge. The infernal contraption puttered ominously whenever we ran too many appliances at once, requiring frequent gallops down the basement stairs to flip off the well pump circuit breaker as the water heater flickered on - or to shut down the refrigerator in favor of feeding the stove. Satisfying the generator's thirst for gas meant waking at 4 a.m. to greet the night air in ski jacket and pajamas, though I only half-slept anyway as one ear monitored the whine of the engine for potential maintenance problems.

Just letting the thing run wasn't an option. It wanted an oil change after the first eight hours of operation, an air filter cleaning every 24 hours, and complex valve maintenance after 48 hours that I skipped for want of a mysterious tool called a torque wrench. As two days without electricity ground on into three, the generator grew increasingly reluctant to allow us any luxuries beyond heat and water, which admittedly was more than many other people in our area had.

"Be glad we're not in Baghdad," Linda told me. I knew she was right but still felt sorry for myself until that glorious moment when, after shutting down the generator to gas it up, I switched back to the Consumers Energy grid to find our electricity restored.

"We've got power again." I told my parrot Stanley Sue. "You're saved!"

Unimpressed, she squawked to come out of her cage. Seeing the light in the dining room window, the geese honked a loud complaint from their outdoor pen. And in London, Dave Hucker growled.

Gigi's gorgeous voice is an infrequent visitor to Gigi: Illuminated Audio (Palm Pictures), producer and bassist Bill Laswell's re-imagining of Ethiopian singer Ejigayehu "Gigi" Shibabaw's 2001 release, Gigi. Despite a star-packed backing band boasting Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Pharaoh Sanders, Henry Threadgill, Aiyb Dieng, Nicky Skopelitis and Laswell, Gigi owes its success to Gigi. Even the supple reeds of the jazz legends on board can't top the twists and turns of an acrobatic voice that never stretches too far, even when bending notes, hopping octaves, straddling continents and blurring genres.

Vocals on the original Gigi are not limited to Gigi as soloist. She's buttressed by a mile-deep chorus of Gigi sound-alikes, while overdubbed Gigis flit in the background adding layers of ornamentation. Studio effects enhance the silkiness of her delivery, swaddling and bathing her in honeyed signal processing that builds dreamy, slightly spacey textures. The vocal swirls on the airiest sections of "Gud Fella" (Trouble Is Brewing) even suggest what an ambient version of the track might sound like.

Palm Picture's Chris Blackwell was so taken with the first Gigi, he asked Laswell to rethink the project and bake a fresh remix. If you have never heard the source material, Illuminated Audio is a triumph of skin-tight rhythms, smooth horn and keyboard solos, plus an undercurrent of tense percussion. But the groove-based, instrumental song montage has so little to do with the artist Gigi that her name probably shouldn't be on the release. Check out the first four cuts. "Abay" (The River Nile) begins promisingly enough as snippets of her voice create a melodic fragment that's evocative enough to describe an entire mosaic. But she's absent the first four minutes of the 6:23 "Tew Ante Sew" (Please Stop What You're Doing to Me). Sneeze six times during "Mengedegna" (Always on the Road) and you'll miss a few syllables of Gigi spliced in as dub effects. Two short vocal phrases repeated infrequently during "Kahn" (Priest) lay the groundwork for a brief climatic flurry of voices, then she's lost again in the vacuum of space. Weighed against the instrumentation, she's hardly on the disc at all.

And that ain't all that's missing. While the 2001 version of Gigi showcases Ethiopian music in its most modern setting yet, it still reveals deep roots in the brief pop flowering of the late 1970s, before the Marxist dictator Mengistu shut down the nightclubs of Addis Ababa, then hamstrung the recording industry. Wayne Shorter and Henry Threadgill lay down soulful horn melodies that angle sharply through the marketplace, Karsh Kale's drum and tabla stuff launches a bellydance and raga creole, the guitarists throw down Fela Kuti-style Afrobeat riffs, and Gigi ties the package together with Middle Eastern-flavored Amharic-language vocals that flirt with the glory years of American Top 40 radio. But the East African r&b is AWOL from Illuminated Audio. And without Gigi's lead vocals, the luscious microtonal melodies have vanished too. What's left is a multinational conglomerate that feels as African as flat bread. Tasty, sure, but generic. Where did Ethiopia go? If you're searching for illuminated audio, stick with the original edition of Gigi. Then augment it as you wish with the misnamed remake that hides its brightest light under a bushel.

British producer Marc Minelli's collaboration with Mamani Keita evokes claustrophobia compared to Laswell's disc, which, omissions aside, is all about extended bliss. On Electro Bamako (Palm Pictures), Minelli takes the African electrification project another step into the future by walling each composition inside a busy techno environment. Instead of leaning on obvious computer rhythms, industrial noise and rave music's avoidance of a song format, he opts for more traditional elements. "These songs are structured the way the Beatles' songs were," he says in a press release. "Intro, first verse, chorus, second verse, bridge, et cetera." Piano, bass and guitar orbit a loosely packed core that references the nightclub jazz of the 1960s. And because he assembles his arrangements around Keita's vocals, the Malian sensibility remains at front and center.

"N'ka Willy" opens the disc to a cool sax duo as an organ burbles a reggae beat. A walking bassline and vamping piano chords suggest a laid-back jazzy ambience that's at odds with edgy cut-and-paste dub production, a looped recitation from tv or radio, snare-drum bursts, and microbursts of sampled hash. Not only do Keita's vocals inhabit this tilted planetscape with ease, but the swing phrasing of Manding music, from which blues and jazz arguably arose, also adds to the delightful sense of dislocation. The voice and delivery are clearly African, but the unfamiliar Malian note intervals may suggest to Western ears a detour through Pacific Rim genres. It's easy listening, but difficult at the same time.

While there is virtue in keeping Keita's voice pristine and untouched by electronic effects, she floats above the song construction like a ghost at the scene of a fatal accident. Minelli hadn't even met her when he began lifting her vocal tracks from tapes and squeezing them into clever if occasionally cluttered arrangements. Techno eschews human warmth and makes intimacy irrelevant, so on that front the divorce of her intent from his instrumentation is just another facet of the genre. But the grafted-on approach does take a toll. Keita never connects with the spliced musicians in a way that would deepen the songs. And a voice as coiled as hers is powerful enough to swat down the UFO that menaces her in "Macary," scatter the goblin chorus on "Mirri Ye," and, by God, break loose from the confinement of artifice. Too bad he never gives her the opportunity.

Pharoah Sanders' often-tender tenor saxophone provides the perfect voice for Bill Laswell's production and arrangement genius on With A Heartbeat (Evolver), pairing Sanders' silky playing with Graham Haynes' interstellar electronics and cornet. The four raga-length compositions tilt slightly toward India as Trilok Gurtu establishes a gentle tabla pulse and Nicky Skopelitis contributes electric sitar plus guitar. Laswell's serpentine bass meets keyboards from Jeff Bova plus the heartbeats by Dr. Jean-Louis Zink that introduce each piece. The organic feel of the arrangements, suggesting a real band instead of solo players electronically cemented together, gives the pieces a low-key yet powerful pull, and the once frenetic Sanders demonstrates the beauty of cool fire on a disc that elevates the spiritual to the plane of physical joy.

Folk music plus electronics wouldn't seem to equal roots. But Clothesline Revival's Of My Native Land (Paleo Music) shakes and stirs up cowboy, country and mountain melodies with techno instrumentation for results that even a pop Luddite like myself laps up. While Leadbelly's voice from 1944 weighs in on "Cow Cow Yicky Yicky Yea," and a young Ora Dell Graham chants a game song from 1940 on "Pullin' the Skiff," this isn't a rehash of Moby's Play grafting field recordings to industrial rhythms. Clothesline members carry the lead vocals with plenty of verve. Tom Armstrong does Hank Williams proud on a cover of "Ramblin' Man" straight from the cattle car of a lunar-bound shuttle. Traditional ditty "Gypsy Laddie" marries round and woody-sounding percussion to Wendy Allen's harmony duet with herself as spectral keyboard notes drift by. Atmospherics expert Conrad Praetzel, who also produces the disc, possesses sophisticated radar for avoiding genre clichés as fiddles and harmonicas make nice with fuzz guitars and drum machines. This playful project embraces the past with affection bordering on fanaticism, while simultaneously glad-handing the cartoon cast of Futur-ama. It's technology done right. [www.paleomusic.com ]

Longevity is both a blessing and a curse for any band. Sure, you've got yourself a nice career, but, pop music being what it is, as the decades grind on you've got to keep reinventing yourself. Finland's Värttinä did just that most spectacularly in 1996 with the group's hook-filled Karelian folk-rock breakthrough Kokko. But after the departure of founding member Sari Kaasinen, the Finn femmes gravitated toward epic song cycles grounded in Nordic mythology. While these releases yielded some top-notch songs, they also battled the threat of creeping bloat, which the new release Iki (NorthSide) lays to rest. Pared-down arrangements and a mainly acoustic approach recall the band's earlier, rootsier material, though enough drama and flash strut their stuff to satisfy pop addicts.

"Syyllinen Syli (Part 1)" (Faithless Arms) opens the disc as a lovely a cappella harmony piece that shows an unexpectedly melancholy side of the band. "Tuulen Tunto" (To Feel the Wind) adds a moody accordion and acoustic guitar to the unison singing while stepping up the pace just a smidge. "Sepän Poika" (The Blacksmith's Son) feels like an extension of "Tuulen" with eccentric plink-plunk percussion until the women explode into hyperspace with scary "ay-yi-yi-yi-yi" vocals, though the other instruments remain subdued. On "Tauti" (Disease), Värttinä finally rises up in full whirling dervish glory from churning violins to galloping voices, though the famous speed singing doesn't kick in until the sixth song, "Nahka-ruoska" (The Leather Whip). However, "Maa-hinen Neito" (Earth Maiden) arrests the momentum with the gathering clouds of a doom-laden atmosphere that does contain some of the band's prettiest singing to date. All in all, this somewhat downbeat disc doesn't quite reshape Värttinä enough to give longtime fans the jolt they may have hoped for. While they won't confuse Iki with the sheer exuberance of the band's first releases, they will find that familiar elements seldom sound this good.

I can't exactly term Wimme's Bárru (North Side) a return to roots. After all, the joiking Finn's career is built on rafting his updates of the traditional song-chant style of the Arctic Sami people over the electronic rapids frothed up by avant garde Finnish band RinneRadio. But compared to his last disc Cugu, Bárru reins in the accompaniment. Although the synthesized bumps and growls remain far from ambient, this time they don't compete with Wimme's voice as much as providing it with a perfect expressive setting. On "Fádnu" a didgeridu, hand-drum and drum-kit loop whiles away its time seemingly unconcerned about tracking the progress of Wimme's swooping whoops. But suddenly the song explodes with color and light just as Wimme ratchets up. It is no small feat simultaneously staying out of his way and giving him enough of a structure to climb and then survey all that lies beneath him. "Cearret" (Arctic Tern) uses flutes, a metallic huffing-puffing and a touch of soulful sax to suggest flight without rubbing our faces in it. Occasionally Wimme's abstractions dip too low and bang a claw on the concrete, as on "Kalkutta" with its ersatz Indian vocalization or the implied ommmm of "Goalki" (Calm). Its cubism, and just a minor distraction from an ethereal mood that also carves out space for the occasional belly laugh.

You want roots? How deep do you want them? Pulifunie (Higher Octave World) by the nine-member male vocal ensemble I Muvrini mines centuries-old polyphonic music of the Mediterranean island of Corsica. The mixture of sacred and secular pieces becomes even more impressive once you start listening closely to the three separate vocal parts - secunda (lead), terza (ornamentation) and bassu (bass) - and notice the ghost of a mysterious fourth part hovering above them. Like Tuvan throat singing and chants of the Tibetan monks, the complex tones spawn eerie harmonic high notes that add to the intensity of not-for-partying pieces like "Kyrie" and "Requiem." For all its sobriety, however, Pulifunie (Polyphony) soars as high as an Irish jig. The beautiful acoustics of this recording with their cathedral-esque reverb may induce you to postpone any planned naughtiness for another day.

Juan de Marcos Afro Cuban Allstars' Live in Japan (DM Ahora! Music) is packed with long, elastic versions of familiar songs like "Distinto, Diferente" brimming with show-stopping solos. It's also got the exuberant vibes you might expect plus a wildly enthusiastic audience. But if the cd isn't a substitute for the concert experience, pop the included DVD from the double-disc set into your $12,000 high-end home theater system with five-speaker surround-sound 56-inch plasma tv and subwoofer the size of Texas. Or do as I did, and load it into your computer's DVD drive. If the result still isn't a substitute for the live show, the video is pretty darned exhilarating. And you need the visuals to fill in those rather awkward places that never quite make sense on a concert cd. A case in point is Dave Alfaro's elegant piano solo on "Amor Verdadero," which begins as softly as the flapping of butterfly wings, then stays at that faint volume a little too long on the cd version. But on the video, the camera work and stage ambience make his solo a dramatic highlight of the show, and there's even an extra bit borrowed from "Hernando's Hideaway" that doesn't appear on the cd. The DVD also gives us a last look at 76-year-old vocalist Manuel "Puntillita" Licea, who passed away recently. Here's hoping we see a lot more of these cd-DVD combos and that all of them are done as masterfully as this concert by the Cuban masters.

Salsa Creole (Tinder) goes a step beyond many niche anthologies via the wide appeal of the artists on board this collection of Francophone Caribbean tracks. Standouts include full-throttle Latin piano jazz on "Adelante" by Martinique's Mario Canonge backed by Cuban conguero Miguel "Anga" Diaz, smooth big-band Latin jazz by zouk godfather Henri Guédon on "Afro Blue," and "Merci la Vie," an earthy cabaret-influenced salsa number by Haiti's Dominique Sylvain. Cut after cut is superb, making this the easy equal of the label's Salsa Mundo and Salsa Africa discs.

Get bitten by a tarantula, and Italian tradition suggests you'll find a cure in the trance dance known as the tarantella. Jittery percussion, wild violin, twanging jaw harp and Alessandra Belloni's powerful singing on Tarantelle and Canti D'Amore (Naxos World) may well cure what ails you if a paucity of rootsy Mediterranean dance music is your complaint. No mere archivist, Belloni is the real thing, a practitioner of music therapy to ease the emotion pain of men and women who "have known the feeling of being stuck in a spider web." I know what she means, I was raised a Roman Catholic. She spent decades tracking down this obscure and fading tradition in remote villages in Southern Italy. The songs feel strikingly old and impressively pagan. And Belloni's wonderful performances are rousing fun.

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

[Copyright 2003 Bob Tarte]

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