(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 18, Number 5/6, 1999)
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)
Scooch over Ames Brothers, Kim Sisters, and Staple Singers. Another musical family has hit its stride. In past years, Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers have been as long on talent as the Carter Family but as short on memorable songs as the Cowsills, unless you count the repetitive nuisance factor of "Tomorrow People," which vaulted Zig, Stephen, Cedalla and Sharon to the ranks of middle-period Osmonds. That's all changed with Spirit of Music (Elektra), a solid sibling effort worthy of the McGarrigles or the Andrews Sisters, meaning it's catchy pop as genetic structure, even if the impact is slightly blunted by the underlying professionalism. After all, coming of age in the footlights when the strongest impediment to success is living up to the family name makes for weaker art than a history of keeping your head above the poverty line, as Sean and Julian Lennon, Hank Williams, Jr., and Lorna Luft know.
A strong sense of direction that leans an elbow into r&b rescues Spirit of Music from the watery mainstream that previously dogged the Melody Makers' tracks. Though powerful in concert, on disc the Marley family has suffered from cluttered arrangements that put lots of energy behind simply maintaining energy. Producer Don Was, who lit a similar spark under Brian Wilson a few years ago, unexpectedly steps forward to guide Ziggy and his kin into a pared down sound that grabs hold of a sense of direction right at the start of Spirit's strongest cuts. Instead of the drone of a well exercised music machine, we get real drama along with a narrative pull I haven't heard since "Lee and Molly."
The blues harp wail that opens the disc with "Keep the Faith" defines the territory ahead as a stuttering wah-wah guitar, bass and hand drums provide sole backing, throwing focus on the singer and the song rather than the usual busy beat. Ziggy carries off this minor anthem with great appeal, but rises to his finest moment on "We Are One," another tastefully subdued big unity composition that along with the bulk of the other songs references reggae only via familiar themes and voices. Nothing like a recognizable reggae rhythm drives the material until cut five, "All Day All Night," and then submerges for another four cuts. No matter. When the Zig exhorts us twice in a row to "Wake up!" in "We Are One," he evokes a pure Bob Marley moment, which guaranteed that the first time I played this song, I would play it again immediately.
The songs that follow hang in there, though the thinness of the rhetoric starts taking its toil by cut three, "Beautiful Day," with a lyric whose simplicity points to a deeper meaning in the same way that a truism reveals truth. You can't disagree with the sentiments, but that doesn't make them interesting. The engaging ease with which the songs deliver their messages helps get the music by, and the vocalists can hardly go wrong with musicians like Earl "Chinna" Smith, Tyrone Downie and Lenny Castro. While I initially feared that Spirit had run out of steam after the first handful of songs, bless the gang for putting a rave up like the Nybangi drum-pulsed "Let It Go" way down to cut nine. Chalk it up to an increased self-confidence that shines through the entire disc.
While Spirit is strong, its spirit is suspect. Far be it from me to cast aspersions on a money making enterprise from my weak fulcrum on the economic teeter totter, but when the Zig proclaims, "I will no longer live this life in the flesh" on "Gone Away," unless I assume he's channeling another entity, my inevitable response is a suppressed chortle. Whatever other attributes Spirit reveals, physical abasement isn't one of them, as Steven's fecund rendition of Bob Marley's "All Day All Night" demonstrates on the very next cut. Dad could get away with singing, "I'm gone away to the place where there is no night or day," because the statement wasn't just felt, it was true. But in Ziggy's case I figure he's got to be referring to something like the Red Roof Inn after a particularly grinding stint on the road-and the "oohs" and "ahhs" on autopilot from his under-used sisters confirm my reading of the text.
Still, the religious pronouncements ring nowhere near as hollow as, say, the Statler Brothers doing a dewy-eyed gospel turn or the Lennon Sisters waxing patriotic. But here's hoping that next time around the Marley family consolidates its strengths and delivers a text that's as free of pretensions as the brothers Gibbs at their peak.
I never thought it would come to this, but Salif Keita, please keep Grace Jones out of your studio. Her strange appearance on Papa (Metro Blue) might be appropriate were anyone else singing a cut called "Tolon Wilile (The Party is On)," but Keita attacks this ditty with his usual apocalyptic gravity, and Grace for her part exudes about as fun as a corpse that turns up in the punchbowl. Her decadence is definitely out of keeping with Keita's squeaky clean nobility, which on this disc extends itself to promoting blindness prevention among fellow West African albinos. Thankfully, Jones' contribution is the closest Papa comes to excessive ornamentation-unless you count the flamenco flourishes in the title cut-for a much needed change from a progression of progressive Afro-rock releases since his late, lamented straight-on charges with Les Ambassadeurs. Just as producer Don Was wised up the Zig, Vernon Reid reads Keita that riot act, urging him toward a refreshing no-nonsense release. No jazz noodlings, no French cabaret change-ups, no synthesizer overload. Just emotionally satisfying, crisply arranged songs greasing the wheels for Keita's powerhouse vocal delivery.
You wouldn't expect old 78 rpm records to have an impact on the format of modern recordings. But the editors and authors of The Raga Guide (Nimbus Records) took a cue from classical Indian music platters of the 1930s-40s in determining how to squeeze the most widely played 74 Hindustani ragas onto just four cds. Time limitations of the 78s meant that a raga had to be concentrated and distilled into three-minutes-per-side. The Raga Guide follows suit by reducing pieces that might typically take an hour to unwind to surrender their essence in a mere three to six minutes. From this you might suspect that the individual parts of this encyclopedic survey would be pretty dry and academic-like listening to hours of different scales-when in actuality no matter how much or little one knows about Hindustani music, these ragas are a joy to hear. Whether the core melody is conveyed via tambura, flute, or vocals, each piece is embarrassingly rich in emotion and ambiance with no loss of subtlety and no sense of rushing to a conclusion. Though all are splendid miniatures, my favorites feature the flute playing of Hariprasad Chaurasia, who modulates virtually every note with complex tonal inflections.
Over four discs, the ragas are presented in strict alphabetical order, with the consequence that two ragas traditionally associated for late night performance may bracket an early morning one. Since the fast-paced raga "Jog" is mysteriously tagged for night and its disc successor the dreamy "Jogiya" intended for morning, this time-of-day mixing has no detrimental effect on the flow. Even better, one raga often segues one into the next without a break, creating the effect of a kind of raga suite. Though the Raga Guide is informative, useful and endlessly entertaining, the learned explanations on each raga will unquestionably be of more use to seasoned students than greenhorns like myself. The discussions of ascent and descent and the musical notations lost me as quickly as a tome on calculus, and the front-of-the-book overview moves briskly from simple definitions to the deep water of classification schemes and genres. But this set is a beautiful thing to have and hold, an ultimate reference guide that reflects the decade of work that went into it, and one that will lead me to seeking out extended treatments of the ragas I like best.
Los Zafiros are innovative, talented as heck and a trifle hard to stomach on Bosa Cubanos (World Circuit/Nonesuch), a retrospective of their acclaimed Cuban releases from the '60s. Blending Cuban and other Latin folkie formats with doo-wop, these self-destructive sharpies flaunt gorgeous voices, a gift for arrangement and the sterling electric tres-style guitar of one of only two surviving ex-members, Manuel Galbán, heard most recently on Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer. The original version of Buena Vista's "Herido de Sombras" is one of the standouts on Bosa Cubanos along with the title cut. While the band's best tunes run through my head all day, I have a low tolerance for modernist vocal genres that diddle with effects such as the steam engine imitations on "La Caminadora," which are just as corny as when Appalachians pull the same stunt with a harmonica. The manicured nostalgia here gives no indication of la vida loca that would eventually kill Ignacio, Kike, and Chino. The biggest kicks were apparently offstage and now off-disc unless you've got a hearty appetite for '50s a cappella.
You also need to acclimate yourself to the vocals on Casa de la Trova (Detour/Warner Bros.) to bask in this collection of old-fashion rural Cuban music. Don't confuse this German import with a 1994 cd of the same name from the Corason label, which featured spirited performances from Cuarteto Patria, Septeto Tipico Oriental and other acts from Santiago dé Cuba. The current Casa disc cashes in on the wave of elders riding the curl of Buena Vista Social Club releases and proves that wisdom may often come with age, but not to the producers of the aged. The fun of recent discs by senior citizens Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González, Compay Segundo and others is that these septua-, octa- and nonagenarians play music that's got too much swing to gather cobwebs. But Casa emphasizes trova-style cuts that magnify stiff Spanish roots over African. The songs simply sound old, and so do the performers who may once have been first string but reveal signs of fraying. The biting, close harmony vocals of Candida Faez and Floricelda Faez are perfectly suited to the bitter theme of "Flor de Venganza" (Flower of Vengeance), but wear out their welcome after two more appearances on this disc. Other nice performances are undercut by arrangements that lurch from the commonplace to the bracing. The orchestral backing of Martin Chavez Espinosa on ¿"Y tú qué ha hecho?" packs the song with mothballs, and the Orfeon Choir of Santiago is simply arcane on "Ella y Yo." Folks who enjoy their Cuban folk music spiced with the unexpected and don't mind an approach as rough hewn as a split rail fence are sure to find pleasures here that bypassed me.
I've played New Ancient Strings (Hannibal/Rykodisc) a half-dozen times, and I've yet to find anything wrong with it. I can't definitively tell the songs apart, though one has a knocking effect in the middle that perks me up from my copy of Entertainment Weekly so that I check the front door for a visitor or victim of a motor vehicle mishap. Should any injured step inside while Toumani Diabate and Ballake Sissoko are interleaving their koras, they would surely find calm in this luscious music recorded in the wee night hours in Bamako's acoustically perfect Palais de Congres. On that very subject, shouldn't our U.S. Congressmen have a palace of their own, the better to stage another attempted coup? Anyway, Ancient Strings is the aural equivalent to logs burning languidly in the fireplace. I have no fireplace other than the woodstove in the basement. I don't use it, because dialing up the thermostat on the oil-burning furnace is far less strenuous. Thus, I will definitely rely on this splendid disc when the summer furnace outside abates and Arctic air masses descend.
Charming disparity is the presumably unintended hallmark of Kulanjan (Hannibal/Rykodisc), a collaboration between Taj Mahal and aforementioned master of the kora Toumani Diabate. Talented Taj is too much of a primitivist to mesh well with Toumani, who can't play slowly or flourish-free without sounding like a third-year student of the instrument. Disc opener "Queen Bee," which was Taj's tour de force on the Putumayo-label Memphis to Mali anthology earlier this year, is here quite the mess. Mr. Mahal reins in the forceful riff that defines the song, Mr. Diabate strums as if looking for an opening that makes any kind of sense, and Ms. Ramatou Diakite unleashes a fragile vocal scaled down to bee-size proportions. Oddly, this version has started to grow on me. On other material the principals add to the songs without necessarily enhancing them in the manner of an off-the-cuff session, and though the net result is almost always pleasant, it doesn't have the cohesion I'd expect-especially considering Taj's intimate familiarity with plucked African strings through the course of his almost 40 year professional career. Lack of polish is one of the man's trademarks, however, so the roughness might well be part of the game plan.
I must have been out of my mind when I pooh-poohed the Hannibal label release of Mahmoud Ahmed's Erè Mèla Mèla cd earlier this decade. Uninitiated into the charms of Ethiopian pop, I failed to listen through the cavernous gloom to appreciate the inventiveness and staying power of this James-Brown-in-Abyssinia stylistic leap. Contributing to my appreciation of the brand new French Buda label re-re-release as Éthiopiques 7 is a cleaned up master, extra material and liner notes that put Ahmed's achievement in the context of Mengistu's fundamentalist Marxist dictatorship. Oppressive horn charts, swirling organ figures and wah-wah guitar chops aside, what really carries the tunes here is the singer's conveyance of a state of mind so steamrolled by the woman of his dreams, he is transformed into a lovelorn zombie, stumbling through a fever that veils all the world in darkness except for those faint fragments that remind him of his longed-for. Not rai, not flamenco, not even Julio Iglasias conveys such all-consuming love that deepens its obsession with every cruel twist of a riff. Available for the first time ever is Ahmed's collected musical output for Ahmed Records, Almaz, aka Éthiopiques 6. But I've been too obsessed with Erè Mèla Mèla to penetrate its depths yet.
Bukkene Bruse delivers a highly romantic rendering of Nordic music short on the usual bleaker musings on The Stone Chair (NorthSide). Sentimentality and a decidedly non-Scandinavian desire to wreak pleasant timbres come from these "Official Musicians of the 1994 Winter Games," just as Mountain Dew was the "Official Beverage," I guess. Lovely, somber, almost churchy songs such as "Min Gut" ("My Boy") and "Maria, hun er en Jomfru Reen" ("Virgin Mary") balance the Cherubic voice of Arve Moen Bergset with the driven hardanger fiddle of Shanachie-label solo artist Annbjørg Lien, who shines on the ornate "Kjellstadhallingen" and the old Norwegian war-horse "Fanitullen" ("The Devil's Tune"), an ancient demon-with-a-fiddle ditty older than Charlie Daniels. While Stone Chair lacks the spit and grit of the best discs from the region, it's still mightily accomplished-and this American debut adds seven tracks from the band's first two albums to the 14 brand new old and old-style songs.
Break out the herding calls. Sweden's Rosenberg 7 add a dash of cow calling to their four part vocal arrangements on the intermittently rousing R7 (NorthSide). Sometimes the vocals are reminiscent of the Bulgarian mystére ouevre, sometimes they resemble Finnish girl group Värttinä on a middling day, and the field whoops on "Min Bröllopsdag" ("My Wedding Day") could have come from avant garde composer Meredith Monk's Turtle Dreams. Lest the clever arrangements run out of steam, Susanne Rosenberg and crew give the accompanying string quartet a cut or two all their own. In a cosmos of can-do Scandinavian folk ensembles, Rosenberg 7 stand out by doing it differently
With all this NorthSide-label music making on the part of Norwegians, Finns and Swedes, I was afraid that Denmark may have snapped off and sunk into the North Sea. But great Danes Sorten Muld come nipping at the heels of their fellow Scandinavians with Mark II (NorthSide), a bright folk rock disc with techno trappings. Dowsing north country traditional songs in electronica and spiking them with Ulla Bendixen's waifish vocals, the band crams in the requisite vernacular flute, autoharp, violin, jaw harp, a bagpipe and scads of samples, including a textured riff reminiscent of the outtaspace shapes on Wimme's Gierran. Except for "King Harald" which finds a deep string groove and parks it there, the high-tech touches fall far short of what Wimme, Hedningarna and other Arctic Circlers concoct these days. Too many rhythms on Mark II, in fact, have a 1988 hip hop feel. Nonetheless, the band's got guts and energy enough to get over the hump. Now retire the fuzz guitar and you're almost there.
Whenever I get a disc from an audiophile label like Water Lily Acoustics, I know I'm hardly due for a sonic thrashing that will challenge my speakers, but music so low key I'll need to check to make sure the current is switched on. Sure enough, the new Jon Hassell release Fascinoma is a wide departure from the rhythm intensive pieces he used to ascend with his signal processed trumpet. This time around, Hassell uncaps the natural tones of his horn by retiring into slow extended spaces that require almost as much concentration on the part of the listener as on the part of the musicians. Let your attention slip for an instant from the glacial interpretation of Duke Ellington's "Caravanesque" and you'll surely lose the shape of the whole, nor are individual parts and particles as fascinating as on Hassell's previous discs. Produced by Ry Cooder, who plays across-the-hall guitar on a few cuts, Fascinoma includes contributions by bansuri flutist Ronu Majumdar, pianist Jacky Terrason, plus tambura players and percussionists who all dipped their cups in the same pot of thorazine. Presumably Water Lily is releasing this on lp as well, giving consumers the option of switching playing speeds to 45 rpm and experiencing something closer to Hassell's "fourth world" collaborations with Brian Eno, David Byrne and Farafina.
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)
[Copyright 1999 Bob Tarte]