(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 22, Number 5, 2003)

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

In the early 1970s, when the American flower-power movement of the 1960s had long since withered and blown away, hippie culture invaded West Germany and changed its popular music. In America, the Woodstock generation had revitalized the still-young rock idiom by infusing it with fresh dollops of blues, gospel, bluegrass, Appalachian music and other roots genres. But dipping into the past was more problematic in Germany, where Hitler's exploitation of the culture of the "common people" (das Völk) made the embrace of folk music distasteful to baby boomers. German hippie bands like Amon Düül and Ash Ra Tempel took the easy path by aping American psychedelic music. More progressive bands adopted a clean-slate approach that looked to invent something genuinely new. Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream created divergent streams of electronic music - one minimalist and repetitive, the other lush and pseudo-symphonic - whose influence still persists in club music and film soundtracks.

The Cologne-based band Can went down a bumpy road all its own, adopting a scatter-shot approach that appropriated elements from sources as diverse as world music and compositions by electronic-music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen - whose students included Can keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and bass player, tape-loop manipulator Holger Czukay. The most revolutionary aspect of Can's approach is something we simply take for granted in popular music today, but at the time it seemed unspeakably and unhummably odd. Neo-tribal drumming took the lead in a Can song. Melody, such as it existed, along with the piling on of textures that passed for development, were both subordinated to the engine of pure rhythm. And the rhythms could be bizarre. "One More Night" from the 1972 album Ege Bamyasi flaunted a mixed meter of alternating 4/4 and 3/4 measures set to a bouncy ambience derived from Brazilian samba. Vocalist Damo Suzuki added to the sense of international dislocation with heavily accented English-language lyrics, whose staccato delivery turned his voice into yet another percussive element.

As an outgrowth of its rhythm-based excursions, Can anticipated world beat fusion music with its Ethnological Forgery Series recordings (collected on the anthology Unlimited Edition) that created ersatz African and Asian styles. And songs on 1974's Soon Over Babaluma and 1975's Landed toyed with Brazilian flavors, while reggae flicked a sinuous tongue at 1977's Saw Delight. Czukay took foreign music appropriation to an avant garde climax with his 1980 solo album Movies, which featured "Persian Love," a song built around Farsi-language vocals plundered from a shortwave radio broadcast using the tape-splice precursor to sampling. North African-influenced drumming by Can percussionist Jaki Liebezeit added to the borderless feel. David Byrne and Brian Eno acknowledged "Persian Love" as the genesis for their 1981 aural collage album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. More recent works like Moby's merging of roots music and techno tracks on Play and Clothesline Revival's Of My Native Land also owe a sizeable ancestral debt to Czukay.

When Czukay left Can in 1977 to work on solo projects, bassist Rosko Gee and Nigerian percussionist Reebop Kwaku Baah - both from Steve Winwood's jazzy British rock group Traffic - stepped in to try and recover the momentum that had been slipping away since Suzuki departed in 1974 to become a Jehovah's Witness. The band's final album, 1978's Out of Reach (Horgi Music/Caroline) is the only title that hasn't been re-released on Can's own Spoon Records label. Its ragged eccentricity may be the reason why.

Complaining that Out of Reach is light in the songcraft department is to miss the point that the band always put spontaneity way ahead of form. "November" opens a can of wriggling worms as Michael Karoli unfurls thick ribbons of distorted electric guitar over a rock-ified Nigerian juju rhythm. Schmidt throws his whole body into pounding out doom-laden piano chords, while Gee's bass bucks and dances like a fire raging against wet wood. The trance music clatter must have sounded scarily exotic 25 years ago and still recommends itself as theme music for an Animal Planet international safari series. But aside from building up intensity, "November" doesn't really go anywhere except into the inevitable fade-out. "Seven Days Awake" suffers the same fate despite an ominous hand drum and bass opening somewhat reminiscent of Burundi ceremonial drumming.

Two of the three songs with vocals sport efforts so bizarre, they make you wonder if anyone in the band even bothered listening to the playback. On "The Pauper's Daughter," a weak-voiced Gee sings the Jack and Jill nursery rhyme in a performance that should have served for the guide track to a finished vocal rather than the end product. (Think Paul McCartney releasing "Yesterday" as "Scrambled Eggs.") On "Inobe God," a funky-disco song with reggae undertones, Baah's double-tracked vocal doesn't just sound like drunken karaoke, it sounds like drunken karaoke on a particularly bad night. While you can't listen to the cut without wondering what the group was thinking when they committed it to vinyl, the clumsy exuberance is oddly compelling, even endearing.

The entire album is something of a train wreck, but it's a train wreck that nags you to keep revisiting the accident to search for survivors. Its strange appeal is partly due to the bristling energy, and partly to the idiosyncratic mix of tightly scripted and loosey-goosey elements. Nothing else remotely resembles Out of Reach or any other Can album, which may be why such an obscure band maintains a following that seems disproportionate to its body of work. Apart from a few flawless, forward-looking moments on Ege Bamyasi and Future Days, the band's missteps stand out, rather than its accomplishments. But that just makes Can the model of a band willing to try anything to avoid recycling clichés.


Austrians Axel Hirn and Flo Fleischman call themselves Noiseshaper, but don't expect raucous industrial clatter on The Signal (Different Drummer). The faux lp surface noise on opening cut "All a Dem a Do," which merely signals we're in classic reggae territory, is the closest this seductive disc gets to anything like dissonance. Even though Axel and Flo serve up a barrage of dub effects worthy of the Mad Professor, they do so with a "wee hours of the morning" sense of cool that turns every surface smooth, including lead vocals devoid of Austrian accents. Singers Spikey Tee, Jackie Dean, Juggla, Kwasi Asante and others sound like homegrown Jamaicans and sound consistent from cut to cut, thanks to a preponderance of double-tracked vocal warmth plus an abundance of hooks that makes every song seem like a potential hit. Echo-swaddled melodica melodies reminiscent of Augustus Pablo set the scene for Asante's gliding voice in "Jah Dub," but Hirn's sparse guitar (which turns fuzz-drenched in the hard-as-asphalt "Wise Up") nearly steals the show. "Sunstarson" targets the squishy heart of the sun with a keyboard-powered mellow engine, while the title cut's performance by Blood and Fire's Spikey Tee energizes itself to a crisp. It's a top-notch release from top to bottom with attitude and atmosphere that look back to reggae's golden days while staring fixedly at the future. [Distributed by Caroline.]

The Slackers don't slouch on the opening cut of Close My Eyes (Hellcat). "Shankbon" wields the most scorching ska this side of planet Mercury with full-tilt honking jazz trombone and sax, followed by a bubbling organ solo straight out of a volcano cauldron. While the New York City-based band strives for Studio One immediacy in its songcraft and sonics, the delivery is often closer to English two-tone post-punk bands the Specials or the Beat. Balancing the grit are irony-laced lyrics and trickiness along the lines of unexpected accordion accompaniment to "Axes" or a shift to waltz tempo mid-stream in "Old Dog." But all this is to generalize about a disc with more variety than any 10 other bands might display, as "Real War" signifies about the world situation with straight ahead seriousness, and "Close My Eyes" keeps an unadorned "who knows what tomorrow might bring" lyric afloat with inspired horns and reeds. For a band that bites off a lot, the Slackers bite through nicely.

The buttery music on El Congo Brazza Kin (Marabi/Harmonia Mundi) evokes rather than duplicates the classic Cuban-influenced music of the Congo, which in its heyday carried more than a hint of brashness. The quasi-acoustic approach partners low-key amplified guitars with up-front percussion and vocal harmonies so soothing they make sleep seem laborious in contrast. Most of the core repertoire of songs made famous by African Jazz and African Fiesta is carried here by the Rumbanella Band. This third-generation rumba outfit was formed in 1986 by singers Madou Lebon Mulowayi and Lola Bivuatu, bassist Bolita Mzela Zimbika and guitarist Kankonde "Serpent" Joseph to keep alive the old-time Kinshasa sound. Tabu Ley Rochereau's "Kellya" gets a Hawaiian vocal lilt plus guitar arpeggios with a few slack-key-style pull-offs, while the gliding "Ngalula" probably isn't an ode to hairy female legs despite a typo to that effect in the liner notes. Rumba pioneer Wendo Kolosoy fronts his band Victoria Bakolo Miziki, bringing yodeling vocals and a dash of golden-age Ngoma label-style grit to "Botiakitembé." His reprise of his 1948 hit "Marie Louise" strains his pipes a bit, but Rumbanella fills the vocal cracks with effortless instrumentation. Veteran likembe thumb-piano virtuoso Antoine Moundanda contributes improvised song "Bounsana" about the recent civil war in the Congo that for all its loveliness feels out of place on a rumba disc, as does his "Wendo Likembé" with Kolosoy adding vocals. Think of them as added texture on a nearly flawless release.

Väsen drummer André Ferrari had grown loath to tour with the band outside his native Sweden. So Olov Johansson, Mikael Marin and Roger Tallroth began performing as a trio on their trips abroad. The songs developed by the trio on Trio (NorthSide) survive the loss of percussion with aplomb. Chugging acoustic guitar provides a snappy backbeat to the various violin, viola and nyckelharpa keyed-fiddle sections, giving the folk based material an extra push. But Väsen's approach has always been intense and involving. While the music may be pastoral, it doesn't describe sunlit pastures. "Mitt I Livet" (In the Middle of Life) and the miniature suite "Morska Bräder" (Norwegian Boards) evoke craggy, windswept landscapes, isolated homesteads and the rhythm of a driving rain. This classically trained threesome may bring consistently astounding virtuosity to their performances along with chimerically complex arrangements that sweep by with the speed of a swollen river. But there is nothing pedantic about guys who title their songs "Lost in the Sugar Beet Field" (Vilse i Betlandet) or "Play Tag in Church" (Kuli i Kyrkan). And their love of between-the-cracks semi-tones foreign to most Western folk fare, such as the dentally challenging note that ends repeating phrases in "Drak-skeppet" (The Dragonship), keeps the wild Viking roots hazardously underfoot. Watch the band at work on a pair of music videos included on this enhanced cd.

You've got to give credit to budget label Naxos World for releasing an album of Icelandic chanted poetry that will probably sell upward of 10 copies. The excerpts from epic songs on Rímur boast benefits that are mostly lost on non-Icelandic speakers unable to follow the narrative poems whose origins date back to the age of the Vikings. But once you get over the shock of an entire disc of mainly unaccompanied solo vocal performances by Steindór Andersen, you'll find much to admire in this collection. Andersen has a resonant voice beautifully suited to the complex intonations that characterize these chanted songs that he has meticulously collected from rímur composers of the last 200 years. The rhythms are quite varied from track to track, as are the haunting melodies. The natural acoustics are splendid, too. Producer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson chose a number of traditional locations for recording Ander-sen's performances, ranging from a small turf church with a winter storm howling outside to the concert hall which finds the vocals augmented by didgeridoo - which works surprisingly well - or a modern musical ensemble. Hilmarsson praises his sophisticated portable recording equipment for its ability to capture spatial information and becoming "in effect an auditory time-machine" which enhances the timeless flavor of the material. While a single example of rímur may be enough for most people, you just may find this unusual project growing on you after a couple of listens. And when another Icelandic pop phenom like Björk rises up from the geysers, these songs could provide a link to whatever folk elements lie beneath the commercial trappings.

I haven't heard any pop from Thailand since the GlobeStyle label's Isan Slété cd way back in 1989, and The Rough Guide to the Music of Thailand (World Music Network) opens the floodgates with a dazzling array of songs and styles. Surasak Donchai offers a rippling exposition on the northern Thai version of bluegrass on his lute-like phin on the aptly named "Transcendental Technique." Mike Piromporn gets funky with a merger of the local morlam and lukhung rustic genres by adding a sweaty saxophone to "Lerk Dai Lerm Bor Dai." The "Motorbike Man" Motorgai, who likes to be photographed with plaster on his permanently broken nose to foster a macho image, surprises with the sparkling "Hae Nang Maew," an infectious confection that's about as testosterone-laden as Michael Jackson - or high-pitched songbird Namoiy Thammalangka, who splits the ether with the jangly, torchy "Lam Yai Lam Poon." Sao Somparn takes 1970s California rock to Bangkok on "Tam Ha Kujee," a chunky-guitar version of the 'cha-cha-cha' lukhung style that'll keep you looking for even a single "cha." And just to prove that the campy hip-hop mutant China Dolls aren't part of a totally alien species, members of the Thai Elephant Orchestra play specially designed instruments on the oddly affecting "An Elephant's Swan Song." The delights go on and on.

Bau proves his mastery of all manner of stringed thingies on Cape Verdean Melancholy (Evolver), including the four-string cavaquinho guitar and the violin. This American release from the musician born Rufino Almeida is compiled from his four solo releases for the Paris-based Lusafrica label. Songs like the bittersweet, slightly flamenco "Racquel" (used in Pedro Almodovar's film Talk to Her) and the wistful "Blimundo," which is driven by a signal-processed violin, are lush and multi- textured. The combination of Portuguese melodic elements and African rhythmic complexity is highly sophisticated. But to some extent, Bau falls victim to his own virtuosity. His meticulous arrangements and instrumentation directing morna diva Cesaria Evora's band on her albums provided an etched contrast to her earthy voice that seemed capable of turning an unexpected corner at any moment. Without that counterpart, these instrumentals verge on perfection of the squeaky clean variety that makes it easy to imagine their dissemination from round ceiling-mounted speakers in a Cape Verdean-theme restaurant. The smokiness and promise of spontaneity that characterize the best of those islands' music go missing on Melancholy. It's lovely but somewhat static.

England's ARC Music label gets all medieval on us with its The Music of Corsica anthology. Even pop singer Petru Guelfucci's performances seem channeled from a bygone century with his clear, quavering voice framed by close harmonies in the Corsican polyphonic vocal style that gets the full folkloric treatment by Madricale on "U Lamentu du Pastore." The earthy yet ethereal tight harmony singing is appropriate to an extravagantly mountainous country which in days past depended on strong-lunged residents for keeping tabs on herds and family members. The influence of Italian music is more pronounced than that of the French, who occupied the island off and on throughout history. But far deeper is the canticle-like quality of songs reflecting ancient Greek and Byzantine culture, not to mention entrenched liturgical traditions. Only the instrumentals by I Amici bring anything close to a festive air to this decidedly plaintive yet inarguably pretty collection.

With her supermodel beauty and unlikely mono-moniker, Ishtar didn't seem to hold much promise on her first solo album Truly/Emet (Sony Music-France). But some behavior is simply hard-wired to the most primitive layers of the human brain. Feed me salty food, and I reach for a drink without even thinking about it. Send me a promotional flyer with suggestions of female nudity, and I'll pop the included disc in my cd player without a moment's reflection. As it turns out, this Israeli-born daughter of an Egyptian mother and Moroccan father of Spanish extraction is sort of the 2003 heir to Ofra Haza, the Hebrew star whose Yemenite Songs hit big as club remixes in the late 1980s. Ishtar's blend of Middle Eastern, flamenco and bubble-gum hip-hop fares best when she lets the Arabic vocals unwind with full microtonal complexity. On "Daf Hadash," when she adopts generic Western mannerisms, she becomes just another generic Western dance-floor diva. And the English-language sections of "C'est La Vie Baby" are even blander - as banal as the title suggests. "Ls'orech Ha Yarn," a duet with Haza that ought to have been heartfelt, if nothing else, is disappointingly mechanical. But "Allahalek Ya Sidi" with its pumping horns and rattling percussion is a blast, "Nasse Ve Tiré" has a great rai-style arrangement, and few tracks get any worse than pleasant world-beat nonsense.

(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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