(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 22, Number 4, 2003)

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


For just a few moments near the end of "Boadan Nuppi Bealde," Mari Boine briefly launches her NorthSide-label cd Eight Seasons - Gavcci Jahkejuogu into the realm of the eternal, an obscure and not necessarily welcoming abode into which few pop albums venture. Pop music isn't too concerned with timelessness. It's all about flesh and gratification instead. A singer who emotes about eternal love is really describing an obsession glued to the immediate present. And pop songs that trace a finger through dusty bones are less interested in a philosophical discourse on the subject of death than they are fixated on the bad mood of the singer, unless the song is steeped in irony like Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper."

The subject of Boine's "Boadan Nuppi Bealde" - which means "I Come from the Other Side" in a language of Norway's arctic Sámi people and alludes to the unseen world of the spirit - is as vague and open-ended as the notebook scribblings of a college English major. The poetry isn't particularly evocative. "Your words scented, filled with unspoken invitations, me forever searching," she sings as Bugge Wesseltoft's synthesizer quivers, and jazzster Jan Garbarek's tenor saxophone adds a sensual voice in counterpoint to Boine's. "If you would only say my name," she urges someone or something, and her unspoken question trails off into a fog of layered keyboards and synthesized percussion.

Just as the moody disc-opener winds down, Boine shifts to a Sámi vocal expression called the joik, which somewhat resembles the chanting of American Plains Indians, and for a few stunning seconds she hoists her performance to a higher plane. Up until that moment, Boine was singing her song, but suddenly her song is singing her as she breaks into a potent stream of "hey-hey-hey" vocables whose intensity puts the wailing sax and synthesizer to shame. If your neck hairs don't bristle at the sound of this unexpected answer from the other side, then you probably don't have neck hairs. It is a remarkable moment unlike anything usually achieved in pop music and unmatched by other songs on Eight Seasons. It isn't that another singer couldn't easily imitate Boine's chant. In fact, "Liegga Gokcas Sis´" ("In A Blanket of Warmth") and "Silba Várjala" ("Let Silver Protect") also contain fine examples of Boine's joiks, but they don't kick open the same door as "Boadan Nuppi Bealde."

Joiking originated in the chanted vision songs of Sámi shamans perhaps predating the Sámi migration into northern Scandinavia from the southeast 2,000 years ago. But this improvised style of singing that is less about actual words than melody and vocal textures also became part of the larger Sámi culture. A person could joik about a hunt, a frozen stream or the birth of a baby. But what makes these fluid songs with no fixed rules unique is that they aren't considered to be about a subject. The joik, and by extension the joiker, are said to actually become the subject. So when Boine seeks an affirmation from a nameless power or lover, her joik returns the very answer that she seeks, giving the final moments of "Boadan Nuppi Bealde" enormous energy. And you don't have to believe in spirits or channeling to experience the rush. Call her joik the summoning of the unconscious or a wordless connection with the deepest archetype of song itself, and its surge is equally impressive.

Joiking smelled of pantheism to members of the Scandinavian revivalist Laestadian Lutheran movement, who moved into Sámiland (AKA Lapland) in the 19th century and discredited native customs and art forms as they began making Christian converts. When Boine was a teenager in the small village of Gámehhisnjárga in the 1970s, the Laestadian Sámi community discouraged her interest in joiking not only because her assertiveness defied the Laestadian view of a woman's subordinate place in society, but also because her music asserted the worth of Sámi culture. The folk music revival that swept Scandinavia in the late 1970s helped Boine gain a national voice. The politically charged songs on her first album, 1985's Jaskatvuooa Manná for Norway's Iout label, were often critical of the Norwegian government's long history of interference in Sámi affairs.

But as the 1990s wore on, Boine's music supplanted its militancy with a kind of natural mysticism that celebrated life and the environment, but her paeans sometimes seemed a little simplistic. "Song for the Unborn," the second track on Eight Seasons, undermines the power of the closing moments of "Boadan Nuppi Bealde" with an English- and Sámi-language lullaby that somehow feels generic despite its unusual imagery of skin and bones. "Butterfly" relies upon the soggy device of a "butterfly trapped in a mould of molten steel" to suggest the conflict between the manmade and natural worlds. But the problem with both songs has as much to do with delivery as lyrics. Despite her perfect fluency in English, Boine nearly always deadens her music when she strays from her native tongue and switches to pop vocal cadences. And she only scales the heights of passion when she leaps from Sámi to wordless joik. Unlike Finnish joiker Wimme Sari, who in his four NorthSide-label cds has never recorded an actual lyric, Boine is first and foremost a singer, and her chosen style is world music--flavored pop. Ironically, the limitations of pop are what give her joiking moments such a jolt as she suddenly knocks down a wall we never even suspected existed.

The singing, songwriting and musicianship on Eight Seasons are high caliber, and the songs have a quiet strength that unfolds after repeated listenings. "Boadan Nuppi Bealde" is the exception. You'll hear its power the first time through. But don't buy Eight Seasons for a single song. Buy it for a moment within that song, a small epiphany which few other pop vocalists can touch.

Speaking of epiphanies, I was driving through the countryside when a European Starling sailed across the road just as Bembeya Jazz hit an instrumental break on "Sabou." Four guitars were churning out polyrhythms as tight as the thickets of brush on both sides of the street, then an adrenaline-pumping horn section soared above the groove with a punchy tattoo that put me right in the starling's body as the bird glided more than hundred feet without a single wing flap and landed precisely in a patch of grass alongside another bird. It was as inspirational an example of avian flight as I had ever witnessed, and illuminated by the genius of Bembeya Jazz, participating in that small experience suddenly made life seem worthwhile.

Though not as showy as goldfinches Orchestra Baobab in that Senegalese band's 2002 comeback Specialist in All Styles, Bembeya's first release in 14 years, Bembeya (World Village), has the right stuff plain and simple. Back in the 1970s and through the 1980s, Guinea's Bembeya Jazz was one of the hottest bands in West Africa, and the sinewy Manding rock on these new recordings of classic songs gives ample reason why. Don't look for a lot of showboating here, since Sekou "Diamond Fingers" Diabaté is generally content to fire off his guitar solos deep within the rhythmic strata of songs that submerge the inevitable Cuban influences beneath fluid neo-griot arrangements, though his Hawaiian guitar action provides the focal point to "Gbapie" and "Yelema Yelemaso." It's easy to imagine balafon, kora and other local instruments standing in for the constantly engaged guitar section, and that traditional reference also helps explain how these ever-shifting riffs stay out of one another's way. While the results aren't always pretty, they are profoundly beautiful. "Soli Au Wassoulou" is as close to a perfect melding of American funk and African groove as you'll ever hear, with sharp horn parts, a skittering guitar solo and urgent vocals. About four minutes into the song, a horn section change-up and a ferocious drum solo announce an intensification as the rippling guitars turn into surging waves to create a sound and a sensation that no other African band can duplicate. While the singers' voices occasionally betray their ages, the playing remains as vigorous as that of any young whippersnappers on the planet.

Now here's a mystery wrapped in an enigma. The second half of Synchro Series (IndigeDisc), a collection of archival King Sunny Ade material, contains a sizeable chunk from the 1983 Nigerian album of the same name. "This album was a medley of remixes of earlier tracks, dub versions and outtakes from the Island sessions," compilation producer Andrew C. Frankel informs us in the liner notes. But compare the Island/Mango Synchro System 1983 American lp versions of "Synchro Feelings/Ilako Medley," "Synchro System" and "Synchro Reprise" to the Nigerian lp versions collected here, and you'll find they are note-for- note identical. That's a surprise. During the early 1980s, I remember another juju bandleader criticizing King Sunny for diluting the music he released abroad with synthesizer and studio effects while issuing a more Nigerian style back home. But that clearly wasn't the case here. And the cavernous, ultra-spacey "Ja Fun Mi Dub" from Synchro Series, released in the U.S. for the first time here, shows that Nigerian fans were treated to a far more technologically tilted album track than the straightforward "Ja Funmi" on Island's Juju Music.

The three Synchro System tracks on Synchro Series are sequenced consecutively rather than spread across an album per the Island/Mango lp, and this bundling gives the songs better impact. But they still feel more like fragments than like characteristic Sunny Ade jams. "Synchro Feelings/Ilako Medley" fades up in the middle of hot playing and fades out the same way. "Synchro System" ends on a fade, too. Extended versions of these songs from the Island Synchro System sessions must have been available to King Sunny back in 1983, yet he fills out the lp side of the Nigerian release with the comparatively folkloric "Ota Mi Ma Yo Mi," which feels out of place. It's not a bad cut, though the three tracks from the Nigerian release Gbe Kini Ohun De sound livelier. Perhaps genuine Island session outtakes will surface eventually. If not, I'm still indebted to IndigeDisc for giving us a peek at Sunny Ade's Nigeria output during those same years.

Good heavens, what's this? A children's chorus on a Klezmatics song? Okay, it's not as scary as kids crooning with Insane Clown Posse, but hearing Lorin Sklamberg's crystalline tenor answered by a faux-Hasidic boys' chorus on the excessively cheerful traditional romp "Tepel" is disorienting, to say the least. Like every one of the New York City-based klezmer ensemble's albums, Rise Up! Shteyt Oyf! (Rounder) combines brilliant musicianship with inventive arrangements, a dash of show biz, and nerviness to spare. "Kats un Moyz" (Cat and Mouse) interrupts the wailing horns and reeds of a feverish Balkan-flavored instrumental bash with a piano solo by guest Steve Sandberg that duplicates the discursive irreverence of a Cuban keyboard break right down to the Yiddish--Latin montuno riff that signals the re-entrance of the band. Holly Near's "I Ain't Afraid" with its titular "rise up" refrain gets an English- Yiddish lyric treatment along with guest vocals by Adrienne Cooper, Sherryl Marshall and Maddi Myles. "I ain't afraid of your Yahweh," "Allah" or "Jesus," they sing in a ditty particularly appropriate to our times, "I'm afraid of what you do in the name of your god," and if the anthem goes on a little bit too long, hop to the slightly shorter "English Edit" of the song at the end of the disc. Alongside the innovations, Rise Up! nourishes continuity with klezmer roots via the accordion and cimbalon opening to "Bulgars #2 (Tantsn Un Shpringen)," a scratchy 78 rpm-record introduction to "Davenen (Prayer)," and "Perets-Tants," a mostly a cappella piece written by founding member Frank London, which explores a folksy, almost-street-corner doo-wop side of Yiddish music. All that's missing on this disc are the spine- tingling electric violin solos from the now departed Alicia Svigals, but Rounder's new reissues of seminal Klezmatics albums Shvaygn = Toyt and Rhythm + Jews help fill the void with plenty of Svigals' fine fiddling.

When Debashish Bhattacharya and Bob Brozman sat down together and pressed the red "record" button, Bhattacharya didn't make Brozman hitch his Hawaiian slide guitar to an Indian raga, and Brozman didn't ask Bhattacharya to batter "Tiny Bubbles" with his Hindustani slide guitar. Instead the two men cooked up a third thing on Mahima (World Music Network) that saw Brozman leaning into Indian modalities, while Bhattacharya played with Western chord changes. "Bahu Dur Dur" is a sweet no-brainer that gives the nod to Indian film music, which has always borrowed heavily from Western pop culture, and the spy-movie sensibility complete with yearning vocals by Bhattacharya's sister Sutapa gets the disc off to a freewheeling start. "Sur-o-Lahari" playfully resembles Bombay flamenco, while "Maa" finds the soprano sighs of Bhattacharya's slide guitar suggesting a love- struck female singer until he and Brozman lay lush chords on top of one another. Brozman plays all manner of acoustic guitars on the disc, including a charango, while Bhattacharya uses custom-made 24-string and 14-string slide guitars, which often suggest the sound of other Indian instruments. On "Jibaner Gan (Song of Life)" his rapid-fire style resembles a blazing sarod solo to percussive backing from Subhashis Bhattacharya (another Bhattacharya sibling). Meanwhile, Brozman (not a Bhattacharya sibling) pulls off some lovely Hawaiian slack-key guitar lines on "Konkani Memories." Although this disc has a pickin'-and-grinnin' easy-going affability, the songs feel solid and finished on this thoroughly enjoyable project.

You know those cds where every single song sounds the same? Well, Frifot's Sluring (NorthSide) certainly isn't one of them. The first cut alone ("Mikkel Per/Kus Erik") boasts more variety than the cereal aisle of your local supermarket, and less sugar, too. The start is sheer whimsy as Lena Willemark's Norwegian-language vocal poses the question, "Who shot the moose?" and rattles through other gossip from her snow-packed home village. A mandolin and violin sputter in the background, matching her odd cadences, but just when you might think you're doomed to an entire album of artsy noodling, you're whisked into a polska that moves from pleasing dissonance to a rousing campsite jig complete with lumberjack-style harmonica from Ale Möller plus wildly whipping violins from Willemark and Per Gudmundson. Willemark's vocals alone could carry the whole disc, but the virtuosity of the other two-thirds of the trio plus ingenious arrangements never give her a chance. All three lead the way in the a cappella "Werlden är Underlig" (The World Is Strange), whose dark medieval underpinnings lightened by Frifot's good humor set the tone for Sluring. Want a suite of six halling melodies, a medieval ballad about a bewitched woman doomed to carry her child for nine years, a bit of Viking jazz or a piece performed on the double-pipe flute whose sound resembles the bagpipe? They're here along with a video of "Mikkel Per/Kus Erik" plus a recipe for the Swedish dish called sluring. Fans of Scandinavian folk music will appreciate the way that the ensemble's modernisms enliven traditional-based material, and they sound like they're having heaps of fun along the way.

It's a pity that In a Beirut Mood (Piranha) isn't a DVD. Jalilah of Jalilah's Raks Sharki 6 - and, yes, there were Jalilah's Raks Sharki 1 through 5 as well - is a dancer who doesn't make obvious contributions to this disc of raks sharki belly dance music, other than penning the liner notes. But her fame is responsible for drawing top-notch Lebanese musicians together here, most notably conductor and co-producer Ihsan Al-Mounzer, who also plays bass and piano. Six violinists add the opulent sway, the cinematic sweep that made raks sharki the kernel of Egyptian film music in Cairo's glory movie years of the 1940-50s, which in turn inspired the classic Bollywood film soundtracks. Belly dance is nothing without overheated drumming, and Tony Anka and Bassem Yazbek contribute the tabla and Arabic percussion that take a no-holds--barred solo on "Tales of the Sahara," an 11-minute epic that manages to cram in everything you need to know about the genre. While Mohamed Haidar's tootling accordion and Ali Al-Ghazal's wistful nay flute contribute much to the romantic mood of these pieces, I can't imagine a series of torso undulations without the ripple of a kanoun zither, tremulously provided here by Abdel Nasr El-Deen and Jamal Zarzour. It's dreamy stuff. Just be sure and wake me for the video.

Egyptian percussionist Hossam Ramzy has played with Peter Gabriel, Deborah Harry, Chick Corea, Boy George and Led Zeppelin as well as carving out a career as a jazz drummer in England. But he's also found time to release 18 albums of Egyptian dance music with sales of over 200,000 to date for England's ARC Music label. Classical Egyptian Dance: El Sultaan is a fast-moving collection of raks sharki songs sporting a less-theatrical approach than those on In A Beirut Mood. As you might expect from a drummer's album, the arrangements move briskly, cutting right to the essence of each song without foregoing the ornamentation that is almost as important to belly dance as the rhythm, like the sassy back-and--forth between the string section and Mohammed Ali's kawala bamboo flute on "Ana albi elik mayyal" (My Heart Favors You). Soloists get their moment, too. Samy El-Babli amazes on "Ranner khol-khali" (The Ringing of My Ankle Bracelet) with one of the most impressive trumpet demonstrations I've heard in any genre, as his softly blown horn emulates the microtonal swoops and curves of a mizmar vernacular oboe. Highly recommended.

The splendid if generically titled Music from Sudan (ARC Music) by Azza contains the most cryptic liner notes I've read in a long time. "The songs on this album are from a certain period of time in Sudan's history. This period is called Hoqbab meaning 'a selected period put in a bag or bouquet.' Therefore it was named Haquibat Al Fann - the 'Suitcase of Art.'" Got all that? Fortunately the briefcase of track descriptions clarifies the bouquet of confusion by dating the songs here to the 1920-30s. Judging from the high quality of these peppy tracks, this was definitely a good time for Sudanese folk music, which here feels reminiscent of the Nubian Egyptian repertoire of Salamat or Ali Hassan Kuban. But lighter, less filling! Percolating hand-drum rhythms and electric bass lay the foundation for quavering lead vocals and unison singing responses, while Atef Reyhan's accordion and Aasem Al Tayyeb's violin dart in and out, sometimes calming and at other times stirring up the hypnotic effect. Female lead vocalist Salma Al Aasal burns up the joint on the 1920s-vintage "Ya Samir," in which she asks, and asks, and asks her beloved for just the slightest hint of recognition, and with pipes and timing so persuasive, who could possibly refuse?

(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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