(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 15, Number 2, 1996)


Unlike lps, cds aren't supposed to wear out. But I've got a cd reissue of Van Morrison's Veedon Fleece (Warner Brothers) that I've finally given up playing, because I can't hear the music anymore. There's nothing actually wrong with the disc. The problem is I've spiraled Veedon Fleece so deeply into my brain that I can't squeeze another drop of pleasure out of it. Yesterday, while playing a cassette of Veedon Fleece in my car, I reached into the glove compartment for another tape, momentarily forgetting I was already listening to music. I had trouble differentiating "Linden Arden Stole the Highlights" from the white noise of the defroster.

The damage is seldom permanent. Generally when overfamiliarity wears a cd down to the silk-screened label art, it will regenerate if I leave it undisturbed in the box for about a year. Thus, I had high hopes of revelations in the Beatles' Anthology (Capitol), because I hadn't sat and listened to anything by "the boys" since the Ford Administration. However, I underestimated the extent to which I'd saturated myself with everything by the group in my reform school through high school days. So much Beatles music bubbles through my bloodstream that I may be inoculated against ever experiencing them fresh. Maybe it's just that Anthology is a lackluster chronicle of a formative period in the group's career that gives the lie to the saw that the Beatles were at their best making straightforward rock and roll. Similarly, the first disc of the Beach Boys' Good Vibrations box (Capitol) is intriguing primarily as novelty, though I had a tough time coming up with a good reason for reprising the likes of "Fun, Fun, Fun." But that was before I stumbled onto the outtakes from Brian Wilson's Smile lp, originally slated for release in 1966, scheduled again for 1973, and prematurely announced last year as imminent.

I love the Smile tracks for their own sake. Only one of the most extreme talents in the world could travel as far from the basic staples as Wilson does on "Cabin Essence," with its magnificently absurd amplification of the contrast between verse and chorus and his insistence with collaborator Van Dyke Parks to corral surf music inside the wide open prairie of other musical cast-offs from the mythic American West. No wonder Smile was never finished. The progression in "Do You Like Worms?" from orchestral noise opening to nonsensical "rock, rock, roll, Plymouth Rock, roll over" lyrics, the harpsichord theme from "Heroes and Villains," pseudo-tribal polyphonic vocals, and a non sequitur climax of Hawaiian-language lyrics could never be reconciled by a mere mortal working outside the avant garde. Another track consisting of a mini-symphony assembled from convoluted sections that missed the 3:35 cut-off of the Beach Boys' "Heroes and Villains" 45 rpm single reveals far too many ambitious ideas for a healthy mind to hold. It's one of rock's greater ironies that the burst brain behind these tracks will forever be associated with the most conventional commercial ditties.

I also love how the Smile sessions have liberated scads of older Beach Boys songs for me which I thought had been worn into the ground. But now I'm hearing them differently. Even a cut whose existence I never wanted to be reminded of again, "The Little Girl I Once Knew," resonates with both the grace of Wilson's Pet Sounds-era angelicism and the nutty dead-end precipice to come. "Don't Worry, Baby," the most heart-rending song ever written about a forgettable teen drag race, pre-figures Wilson's legendary free-floating angst with all the operatic intensity of an Andrew Lloyd Webber showstopper. But the Smile material has done me another turn, too. I've always leaned heavily on musical styles I like as a bridge to unfamiliar material. In the last few years, I segued from my favorite soukous artists to the terra incognito of Cuban son montuno and guarano. Two decades ago, the Beach Boys provided a circuitous bridge to calypso. Smiley Smile, the patched-together mess salvaged from the Smile sessions, pointed me toward Van Dyke Parks' 1972 release Discover America, which in turn spurred me to scarf up discounted Sparrow lps at a local department store.

At the time, I took Parks' lp as a fairly accurate if campy American reading of Trinidadian music. Hearing it all over again last month via Warner Bros.' cd reissue, I know better, but my loss of innocence has only made Discover America seem sweeter. Backed by the Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steel Band and driven by his continuing obsession with the history of American pop as filtered through Hollywood movie scores, Parks uses calypso as a springboard to nostalgia--and oddly enough, as the key to a lost America. Hitting the highpoints of pop culture since the 1940s, he gives equal iconic play to "G-Man Hoover," "FDR in Trinidad," "Jack Palance," "The Four Mills Brothers," and "Bing Crosby," all public figures being equivalent, I guess. Parks knows his material well. The wordy and witty lyrics are convincing evocations of Lord Kitchener-era calypso. But the skewed arrangements make clear that calypso is his distancing device for an outsider's love-hate relationship with American arts and glitz. "Jack Palance," the first cut, stakes out the territory with a period arrangement, faux island accent, and parsed 78 rpm sonics. But on the rest of the record, the modern world constantly interrupts the placid look backward as Parks folds in his own sensibility via montage voice-over, R&B rhythms, and generally eccentric arrangements. Simultaneously smooth and herky-jerky, Discover America's cracked texture is a healthy counterpoint to his bland 1995 Orange Crate Art cd (Warner Bros.) with Brian Wilson which proves that the big wave doesn't last forever.

A friend of mine at the writing factory where I work is a blues aficionado. So I thought that Mansour Seck's N'der Fouta Tooro, Vol. 2 (Sterns Africa) might penetrate his antipathy for African music, since I hear blues all over the thing. But one's man bridge is another man's brick wall. Where I hear both the verbal cadences of blues and a dry electric guitar squarely in the blues spirit, my cell mate winced at foreignisms that never sparked the gap. This surprised me, because if any music breaks the language barrier, it's the combination of unsettled rhythms and urgent vocal performances of Senegalese composer/guitarist Seck and his collaborator from Mauritania, Ousmane Hamady Diop. This is, in fact, one of the most transparent cds I've ever heard, extremely direct in its passion to communicate and one of the rare non-English releases heavily weighted toward vocals that doesn't cry out for a lyric sheet.

The heartfelt nature of these songs almost makes me embarrassed for the hours I've spent grinning foolishly at "Do You Like Worms?" But though Fouta avoids the obsessive strategies that partially devoured Wilson (recreational substances did the rest), there's no mistaking its folk ambiance as anything but carefully concepted. Seck and Diop manage to convey an attitude of pre-modernity in spite of the gripping electric guitar and bass and an enthusiastic nod to western song forms through a half-buried pure pop backbone. Apart from the intensity of the vocals, Fouta stays balanced in tradition's lap using needle sharp layers of kora and ngoni and an overriding astringency that gives its beauties the sting of rubbing alcohol on raw skin. Though its flayed quality means Fouta isn't on my early morning play list, much fun awaits in "Soukumba," a walking griot blues reminiscent of Ali Farka Toure, and my favorite cut, "Afrique Ne," which comes off as rockabilly mbalax. Plus, in moments of ennui, I always find it handy to have an emotional socket to plug into for a fast recharge.

The straight-ahead acoustic guitar pop of Kerestina (Original Music) doesn't sound at all out of place next to Fouta if you don't mind exchanging Seck's apocalyptic tone for a shot of rollicking momentum. Songs in this anthology are so strong and the apparent simplicity so timely to the unplugged craze that mainly the lo-fi sonics hint at the origin of these songs in the Mozambique of 1955-57. Resemblances to a stripped down South African pop abound, since according to John Storm Roberts' liner notes, around 40 percent of South Africa's mine workers were from Mozambique, and they brought some musical influences and took others back with them.

To my knowledge, none of the artists here made much of a dent as individuals on the larger African music scene, though it's tempting to think what might have been had Mozambique escaped its decades of internal warfare since independence in 1962. Alberto Tentowani Mwamosi & Gabriel Maopana Bila launch a verbal barrage reminiscent of Sotho styles while a strangely tuned guitar nearly snaps its strings behind them on "Watasala Warila Nanazifile." Muntano Gomez o Feliciano gets maximum mileage out of a melody that plays with the intonations of everyday speech on "Tsapwa," and Tonganyana Orelio Kowano & Alberto Mutagati Jona Fulani turn exuberance into near anarchy with a parody of contemporary dancebands complete with kazoo solo standing in for horn lines. The title cut by Nacio Makanda sums up everything intriguing and idiosyncratic about this great collection, its guileless guitar bounce offset by a rhythmically complicated, constantly retrenching solo vocal that glides from soft falsetto to Mahlathini-esque groan.

Bayaka, The Extraordinary Music of the Babenzele Pygmies (ellipsis arts...) has the most attractive liner notes I've ever seen. Okay, so it's a coffee-table-style hardcover book with a compact disc tucked in its back pocket. Point is, the music is so compelling that I can't help thinking of Louis Sarno's text and color photos as an addendum to the cd rather than the other way around--which is probably what Sarno would prefer, since it was the music of the Babenzele (or the Bayaka, as they call themselves) which led him to take up permanent residence with these people of Cameroon. In bringing Sarno's field recordings to three-dimensional life, the editing and production skills of veteran sound shaper Bernie Kraus can't be overestimated. Especially through headphones, Bayaka is a wrap-around experience where the music of the pygmies is presented in intimate relationship with their environment, almost as an adjunct to the murmur of insects, bird chirps and animal hoots set within the unique acoustics of their forest home.

I've been reading Walter Evans-Wentz' The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries in which he describes the irresistible music of enchantment of the fairies. The interwoven yodels of "Women Gathering Mushrooms" are the real-world realization of this legend as their polyphony resonates eerily through the trees. "Benediction on a Settlement," an example of yeyi women's music taped from the window of Sarno's house, is another slice of nonordinary reality as a chorus of insects celebrating the end of a thunderstorm gives way to the approaching voices of Bayaka women. Men are enjoined from participating in this ceremony, and frankly I'd huddle in my house as well rather than irradiate myself directly with such beauty. Sarno apparently mustered near-psychic powers to document "Boyobi at Spear-Hunting Camp (Part One)" in conditions of total darkness as a wild hootenanny of voices, jerry can drumming, and chaotic dancers playing the part of bobe spirits collided around him, miraculously sparing his tape deck and microphones. "Walking Song" and "Mondume with Percussion," two pieces performed on the mondume harp zither, are also exceptional. If you don't own a $10,000 stereo system, an expensive pair of headphones like my $24 Sonys are a must for liberating the full presence of these recordings. (For more on this release plus a survey of other pygmy music on cd, see Richard Henderson's 1995 article in vol. 14, no. 5 of The Beat, "Born of Dreams: the Music of the Pygmies.")

About the last thing the world needs is yet another cd smorgasbord of Balinese music, especially one containing the kecak "monkey chant." But Germany's World Network label tosses in a enough surprises to make Bali thoroughly enjoyable, beginning with the all-jaws-harp gamelan genggong ensemble which complements a thicket of cicadas on the opening track with a multi-layered frog-hop of twanging melodies, and closing 13 cuts later with the mournful tones of massive bamboo poles played by the wind on "Heavenly Pipes." Billed as "a suite of tropical music and sounds," Bali intersperses island instruments with an ambient soundtrack, though neither as effectively nor seamlessly as on Bayaka. Still, the technique is used nicely as the pounding of rice with wooden beaters evolves into a bamboo-rattle suite on "Kulkul." On the aptly named "Bamboo wind harp--bamboo xylophone," the clickety-click of a propeller-driven bamboo wind harp introduces the frantic kotekan figures of a bamboo xylophone. In fact, bamboo is everywhere on this disc, nudging out the familiar Balinese metallophones which make a brave stand on "Gending Nyangjangan," a sprightly piece played on one of the oldest iron-keyed instruments on the island. Other standout tracks include "Delem Tari," a hair-raising yet comic vocal piece with gender wayan gamelan accompaniment taken from the wayan kulit shadow puppet theater, and "Gedenderan," which showboats the deep woody timbres of--what else--a large bamboo xylophone. [Distributed in the U.S. by Sterns]

Wind Records, a new Taiwanese label dedicated to Chinese classical music, launches its American distribution with its first two releases, Masterpieces of Chinese Traditional Music by the Chinese Instrumental Ensemble, and Mahakaruna Incantation by the Shanghai Sanskrit Orchestra and Chorus. With its lush orchestration, rippling strings, and quavering erhu solos, Masterpieces is the more appealing disc, though the performances lean toward Westernized popularizations of the classics rather than the implied traditional interpretations. (My press release, in fact, calls the series "first Chinese music especially suited for American ears."). Sweet, harmonious, and sentimental, this collection of short pieces benefits from its live taping direct to two-track digital equipment in an acoustically rich church in Santa Barbara, California. The fidelity is extraordinary due to Wind Records' collaboration with Waterlily Acoustics, a top-notch audiophile record label. The warmth of Jie-bing Chen's erhu breakouts are particularly warm and impressive, but I can't help feeling put off by the film-soundtrack sensibilities of the arrangements. My already raised antennae went into spasm when I started the Mahakaruna Incantation disc. Expecting a hardcore meditative mix of pain and pleasure akin to Tibetan monks with human skull and bone instruments, I got airy washes of synthesizer, which from a Buddhist perspective probably strands this project in deep samsara. But I am looking forward to a promised Wind release with an intriguing title that plays into one of my greatest interests, Sleeping: Music for Efficient Sleep. Anything for self-improvement.

Arabic Coffeepot, composed, conducted and sung by Lebanese savant Marcel Khalife could justifiably call itself "first Arabic music especially suited for American ears." But the huge orchestral pieces on this Nagam Records release are too blatantly hedonistic to take themselves seriously as versions of classical music, though traditional motifs saturate each extravaganza. "Sing a Little, O Birds," for instance, dabbles with romanticism in the same way an elephant dabbles with heft, but the excess is deflected by film score dynamics that signify spectacle for its own sake, with prerequisite tinkling bells, sweeping violins, sighing woodwinds, and constant modulations of mood. Without Khalife's marvelously smooth, assured vocals, the maddening orchestral shifts from foreground to background, melodrama to program music, and cliche to innovation would sink these mini-suites in "Lawrence of Arabia" thematic hell. But these tensions add dimension as west and east take turns swallowing one another, and the whole thing's just too tasty to dislike. [Nagam Records, 13111 Westheimer, Suite 212, Houston, TX 77077]

I pride myself on being adventurous when it comes to music listening, but when it's parameter differentiation time, I'm a pop music slut at heart (see opening paragraphs of this column). When I throw many traditional music cds on the boombox, within minutes I'm either blotting my attention with a diverting activity or finding an excuse to leave the room. Resolving to pay attention to Rhythms of Life, Songs of Wisdom--Akan Music from Ghana, West Africa (Smithsonian/Folkways), I bolted on the headphones, threw the covers over my head, and waited. Isolated from other stimuli, my physiological reactions took center stage. My stomach tightened and my breathing grew shallow as I cast about for a point of entry into this disc. I was already sitting up in bed with my psychiatrist on the phone, when I realized I needn't have worked myself into a knot. True, I have so little connection to the social context of these songs that commenting on their merits as home listening fodder is like judging a car by the standards of a horse. "Nice shiny coat, but a bit wide in the flanks." Fortunately, these songs bristle with energy and display such surface attractiveness that I can get by just enjoying the sound. This isn't, after all, music with an initiation or healing function that I have to learn to use. Despite the performance of these songs at Akan funerals and weddings, they've come to serve primarily an entertainment function.

So, entertained by them I am. "Akosua Tuntum" and, two cuts later, another piece called "Akosua Tuntum" both flow from a fusillade of multi-tiered percussion and ecstatic male and female vocals that make juju and fuji-garbage seem tame by comparison. Because drumming is a male specialty, "Dansuomo" features a female-membership group playing a bevy of metallic bells and a surrogate drum known as the dansuomo, an unusual percussive instrument consisting of a large gourd placed face-down in a water-filled basin. From an instructive standpoint, "Talking Drum" is a gas as it both demystifies and complicates the issue of how the Akan atumpan can mimic the speech tonalities of the Twi language. Just for us westerners, Elizabeth Kumi delivers a short burst of syllables, followed by the same morphemes beat out on the old skins by Joseph Manu. I still don't understand how a beat representing a given syllable isn't mistaken for another of the same tonality, given the syllable per drumbeat correspondence between Kumi's mouth and Manu's hands, but that mystery only makes me want to play the cut again.

My favorite selections on Rhythms of Life, however, are those that use horns unexpectedly. "Mmensoun" blows in on an orchestra of single-note elephant tusk trumpets using a call-and-response pattern echoing the boisterous vocal call-and-response parts between horn sections. But the cut by the Ogoekrom Brass Band No. 2 ("Brass Band") takes top honors, suggesting a Tijuana tourist's worst nightmare as overwrought Latin-sounding figures wrestle with a boozy high-life melody over wonderfully frenzied percussion. While it might seem redundant to once again mention the exceptional recording quality of a release, this is another field recording where the direct transfer of performances to digital tape retains the liveliness and spontaneity of the occasion, as opposed to studio productions that frequently factor the human factor right out.

I don't mind admitting that I usually consider Indian classical music a nuisance--too abstract, intellectual and esoteric, with song durations overly long by a power of ten for a guy as much in synch with the attention-deficient modern world as I am. "Where's Beat contributor Ken Hunt when we need him most," I wondered, upon first eyeing Tabla Tarang--Melody on Drums (Smithsonian/Folkways) by Pandit Kamalesh Maitra. Maitra is the world's foremost virtuoso of the tabla tarang, an instrument consisting of 10-16 tuned tabla drums arranged in a semi-circle around the musician. The tarang form is rather late by the standards of Indian music, dating back to the late 1800s, and Maitra has almost single-handedly kept this artform from completely disappearing.

Tarang means waves, an apt description considering that these tuned drums played in rapid succession unleashes a kind of phase-shifting effect--due perhaps to the interaction of the harmonic complexity of the drums' sustained tones--which wreaks enough welcome havoc with my inner ear to make me feel as if I were floating toward the ceiling. That effect aside, the music remains captivating not only due to the sheer loveliness of the timbres, which in the Pandit's blur of hands evokes a one-man bamboo gamelan ensemble, but also because the compositions have a loosening or awakening quality, making them indeed perfect as morning ragas. Joining Maitra on the four compositions on this disc is jazz percussionist Trilok Gurtu laying down a rhythmic foundation on the traditional tabla drum pair. The two musicians are particularly deadly on the blistering climax of "Raag Bhupal Todi," and they keep even the 45:25 "Raag Mia Ki Todi" within my pleasure zone. Worth mentioning once again is the exquisite recording quality which purposefully puts the listener in the middle of the musicians via Walter Quintus' careful microphone placement. So peel yourself off the ceiling, grab a pair of bongos and join in.

Getting back to the original topic of this column, if there ever was one, Bayaka put me in a receptive mood for ambient world music discs, so I thought I would use its pleasures as a bridge to Yulara'sAll Is One on the dreaded Higher Octave label. Usually reviewing HO's roster of new age ho-hos and ho-hums is like shooting fish in a Perrier glass. But I've developed a soft spot for these songs composed and played by producer/keyboardist Robert Matt and flutist/saxophonist Anne Hilsberg, who met in a Berlin-based African dance band. Per the ambient world music modus operandi, without the sampled exotic vocal snippets and other natural sounds, the songs here would have little connection to world music. I also take exception to how the found sound gimmick is applied.

On "Uno Domini," for instance, we get Japanese Zen monks chanting over a slow funk groove, and on the next cut, "Out of the Deep," we're treated to humpback whales moaning over a slow funk grove--one dominant sample per song, thank you--prompting me to wonder about the thought process that considers ethnic voices and animal vocalizations essentially interchangeable. Still, there's virtue in the lack of clutter to arrangements that give songs the feel of a small combo stretching out without excessive studio glue, grooves are convincing, Anne Hilsberg is as gritty on sax as she is fluent on flute, and in the true spirit of conservation, the best songs aren't heaped at the front of the disc. All in One saves some of its sizzle for later. Thus, plus or minus the sampling, this is an unexpectedly enjoyable release.

Both the group name and title of Endangered Species' Dancing in the Trance (World Pacific) are unfortunately suggestive of a trendy computer-driven ambient music disc laden with samples of blue whales, Kirtlands Warblers, snail darters and lady-slipper orchids. But I don't hear environmental sounds in any of the songs, except the insect chirps in "Mother Earth Blessing" that may well be the aspirated gulps of Kevin Coates' didgeridoo on the only song that isn't built around percussive artillery. The group's rhythmic backbone is set by the late Suru Ekeh, protege of Nigerian-Californian drum legend Babatunde Olatunji. Ekeh's style is compelling enough to deserve a near-solo showcase, and "Drum Talk" provides just that. Elsewhere on the disc, Ekeh and tabla player Krishna Shulka are pushed to the front of the mix supporting Tim Wheater and Kevin Coates' flutes and unobtrusive vocals by Taressa Bell. While there's an almost inevitable recycled quality to cuts in the Native American spirit such as "Coyote Running" and "Mother Earth Blessing," and raga-rock pokes up one of its hydra heads too, Endangered Species' path of generating beauty through stark acoustic instrumentation is commendable. You might even forgive the didgeridoo.

Arctic Paradise isn't the name of a cd but a catalog of contemporary Finnish folk music full of color photos, band descriptions, complete discographies and a list of other Finnish music resources. Though this nifty item can be had for free from Digelius Music, who sells many of the discs shown here, Arctic Paradise is more a guide to what's out there than it is a sales piece. You won't find prices or even ordering info, so my conscience is clear in recommending that you e-mail Phillip Page for a copy at pap@dighoe.pp.fi, or write to Digelius Music at Laivurinrinne 2, 00120 Helsinki.


Technobeat Central  
Columns by CDs and Artists / Columns by Date
Columns by Subject / Page of the Whale