(from The Beat, Vol. 25, No. 1, 2006)
I don't remember when I had ever driven so fast. The engine bulged out the front of my Ford Focus, nearly popping open the hood, while the rear axle lagged almost a quarter of a mile behind. Houses, trucks, trees, and fence posts flickered in my peripheral vision like visual disturbances at the onset of a migraine. Streaking under an overpass, I fired up a King Sunny Ade CD to calm me down, but my speed elongated the sound waves to frequencies below the range of human hearing. I grabbed the 28th Street exit, lurched through five lanes of heavy traffic, and in a cloud of dust and oil skidded to a halt in the bookstore parking lot. I was ten minutes late, having trusted my faulty memory and lazed around the house until Linda had reminded me, "Isn't that thing of yours at seven?"
The manager didn't look up from his newspaper at the front counter as I straggled through the door. I knew he couldn't be happy about Tarte being tardy and hoped that he hadn't been forced to make a raft of excuses for me. "Sorry," I mumbled, "I had a scheduling difficulty," failing to mention that the difficulty lay in having no schedule at all.
"Oh, good to see you." He smiled and shook my hand. His nonchalance under pressure impressed me until I realized that not one single, solitary person had been impatiently awaiting my arrival. Not even him. Snaking through Children's Literature, he led me into a side room, snapped on the light, and left me to contemplate rows of folding chairs as he interrupted a lighthearted Mozart romp to announce my arrival. The announcement stunned the dozen or so shoppers into catatonia, though a few recovered sufficiently to snap shut their books and stampede to the store exit.
Two friends of mine trickled into the room: brothers Tom and Ray O'Malley, whose surname and vague familiarity with my book distinguished them from Car Talk hosts Click and Clack. "How did you find out I'd be here today?" I asked Ray, anxious to hear whether news of my appearance had spread throughout the greater Grand Rapids area.
"I saw the sign near the cash register this afternoon," he told me.
A woman seated herself in the back, then got up and moved to the corner that put her at the greatest possible distance from the podium. A chubby baby-faced man paused at the entrance to the room. Behind his utterly bored expression I could infer a raging internal debate. Should he return home to his vacuous life and an evening spent sorting socks, or should he stay and listen to my talk? By the minutest particle of dryer lint, my talk won out.
"Thank you for coming, everyone," I told my audience of four. Normally at book signings I'd read a passage about our tyrannical parrot Ollie from Enslaved By Ducks. But since a full quarter of the audience – i.e., Ray – had suffered through that at a signing a year earlier, I instead addressed a subject dear to city dwellers everywhere. I spoke about the differences between ducks, geese, and chickens as pets. To prove my intimacy with waterfowl, I postulated the intellectual superiority of the brutish, red-faced Muscovy ducks.
"Our Muscovy duck Victor can even catch pieces of bread crust," I bragged. "Last night he caught five pieces in midair in a row." Tom and Ray smiled. But a full half of the crowd seemed unimpressed by waterfowl stunts, so I hit them with my biggest gun. "Patricia Heaton, star of Everybody Loves Raymond, recently bought the dramatic rights to Enslaved By Ducks. She's interested in producing a movie based on the book, and she wants to play my wife Linda." On that triumphant note, I looked around the room.
"Any questions?" I asked, fixing my eyes entreatingly on Tom and Ray, but they were enjoying my discomfort too much to toss me a lifeline. Finally the baby-faced man with the unsorted socks broke the silence.
"What do you think of the AFLAC duck?"
As I tried to decide what my opinion might be, the woman in the corner slipped out. The bookstore manager strode in and announced that I would now autograph books. As if by magic, Tom, Ray, and the argyle guy – and in another part of the country, Click and Clack – dispersed and disappeared. The manager peeled off five paperbacks from the stack of 50 on the podium and asked me to sign them for the store. "The others, too?" I asked.
"Oh, no, these will be enough," he assured me. Unsigned books, of course, could be easily returned to the publisher when they didn't sell.
"How did it go?" asked Linda after I got back home.
"Typical," I told her. Then I thought a moment. "Maybe a few more people than usual."
Sometimes I think the audience for world music titles is about four people. With cd sales dwindling in favor of mp3s and the Grand Theft Auto video game, the youth of today needs added enticement to surrender its plastic. The answer seems to be cd-dvd sets which augment the usual audio disc with a concert video, a documentary, or a mixture of both. And while this concept isn't exactly next year's news, since the first such sets cropped up during the tail end of the Nixon administration, these combos are becoming almost as common as corvids.
If you want an indication of how Hawaiian music might have sounded in the early 1800s shortly after the import of the Spanish guitar – and before the avalanche of outside influences – grab a copy of Songs of the Volcano, Papua New Guinea Stringbands with Bob Brozman (World Music Network). This cd/dvd package collects the effervescent string band songs of the Tolai people of the East New Britain province of PNG, which has few links to the modern world and thus developed its combo sound more or less in isolation from commercial market considerations.
Steel guitarist Bob Brozman, who enjoys a history of collaboration with artists of various islands (Reunion, Okinawa, Hawaii), traipsed and boated across the region recruiting and recording area ensembles for this project. Unlike his other albums, on which he blends his own style with the homegrown musical genres of the featured performer, he stays in the background on Volcano, providing embellishments and thickening the overall sound. Behind the scenes, he does plenty, though. He refurbishes and provides instruments, stages concerts, rehearses and records the bands, and assures each musician an equal share of the royalties. The documentary dvd tells all about it. The back-story about preserving a highly regional style is easily as compelling as the music itself. And the video shows these energetic ensembles at work, including the Alir Pukai Stringband, Eagle Voice Band and Drop Sun Band, to name-drop a few of the most memorably named.
A PNG string band aficionado like Brozman would undoubtedly hear more differences than similarities in the approaches of these groups. He is, after all, Adjunct Professor of Music at Sydney, Australia's Macquarie University. I'm a pet book author, and I hear similar qualities of languid strumming, high-pitched singing, and simple melodies in most of the selections. Adding verve to the tracks are slippery rhythms, surprisingly full acoustic guitar arrangements, and unbridled joy in the face of a continual rain of ash from Tavurvur, the volcano which destroyed 80 percent of the town of Rabaul in 1994. The verse-chorus song structures make these ditties feel like local folk-rock, though the vocals suggest traditional underpinnings. And speaking of vocals, if you're still on the fence, it's worth springing for this set to experience the otherworldly falsetto singing of Gilnata Stringband on its eerie yet peppy paean to geological forces, "Tavurvur." One word of warning: hear disc opener "Alir Pukai" exactly twice, and it will rattle around inside your empty skull for days.
Väsen Live in Japan (Northside) is the Swedish neo-folk ensemble's second concert recording released here in five years. As usual, the trio flawlessly plays its repertoire of playful yet often formal sounding traditional-based polskas and other Nordic styles performed on viola, fiddle, nyckelharpa 'keyed fiddle' and 12-string guitar. While 2000's Live at the Nordic Roots Festival served as a kind of career retrospective, most of the material on Live in Japan hails from the recent studio cd Keyed Up. It's lovely, but the distinctive tenor of the instruments that initially attracts my attention tends to push these songs into the background over the long haul. I find myself wishing someone would pick up a pair of maracas to shake things up or even huff into a dreaded didgeridu. Silly me.
Fortunately, the accompanying dvd rekindles my interest, thanks to a wonderful piece called "Tales of Two Tunes." Through conversations with band members Olov Johansson and Roger Tallroth, rehearsal footage, and concert snippets, it traces the development of "Fallandepolskan" (The Falling Polska) and "Johsefins Dopvaltz" (Johsefin's Waltz) from idea to stage performance. "Two Tunes" helped slow me down and give this intricate music the concentration that it deserves. The dvd also includes an all too short primer on the nyckelharpa (which looks like a cross between a zither and viola), a feature on collaborations with Nordic artists JPP and Annbjorg Lien, and a biography documenting the expansion of the band to five members and contraction back to a trio.
Although performing with drummer André Ferrari netted Väsen a Swedish Grammy for its biggest selling disc to date, 1997's Whirled, Johannson admits that the demands of playing to a tight percussive groove made music less fun for the three founding members. They breathed a collective sigh of relief when Ferrari decided to stop flying after September 11. Footage of the four-piece band, which played all original material, showcases a forceful incarnation of the band at its creative peak. But it's also tough to argue with the melodic and textural pleasures of the more relaxed all-string ensemble. If I have one quibble about the dvd in general, it would have to be the brevity – and small number – of performance videos, but all in all it makes a worthwhile addition to the audio disc.
If you find yourself blessed with $90 to spend extravagantly, consider Kraftwerk's double-cd/double-dvd Minimum - Maximum package complete with hardcover book documenting the pioneering band's 2004 international tour. But all you really need is the plain vanilla double-dvd version of Minimum - Maximum (AstralWerks), which will set you back a mere $17. Although the dance music world of electronica would seem far removed from world music, a pet book author might maintain otherwise. Thirty years ago, Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider invented a genre that uniquely mirrored an aspect of the German soul – most notably the conflicting yearnings for innovation and stasis. And just as Congolese music exploded its local borders to sweep the African continent, Kraftwerk's robot-tempo compositions that simultaneously celebrated and bemoaned technology hit a nerve. They became a vital influence in the development of hip-hop and eventually helped define the sound of modern music in general.
Does that mean that the ensemble's creation represents a kind of post-industrial German folk music run amok? Watch the dvds and note the extent to which the band members repress their individuality in service of the content of their compositions (even replacing themselves with motorized mannequins at one point), and you've halved the distance between pop and traditional music – minus the tradition, in Kraftwerk's case, of course. Even if you don't buy my premise that this is essentially a regional sound, which was at one time highly radical, the free radicals in your brain will combine with pleasure molecules at the ridiculousness of witnessing the least spontaneous live performance in the history of concert recordings.
Four members stand at consoles topped with laptops that appear identical from the audience's point of view, though infrequent over-the-shoulder shots reveal Ralf and Florian playing keyboards while Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz manipulate mixing consoles. But the question arises: are any of them actually doing anything that affects the sound we're hearing, or are we in mime and lip sync territory? The music is so precisely mated to projected visuals of yesterday's trains, automobiles and fashions, along with computer-generated displays, that improvisation seems absolutely out of the question. Somehow this makes the concert extraordinarily fun, and the band has updated Kraftwerk standards just enough to retain the original flavor while making them feel cutting edge.
I hadn't found myself overly enamored with the heavily distorted amplification of the Kinshasha-based Congotronics sessions on Congotronics 2, Buzz 'n' Rumble from the Urb 'n' Jungle (Crammed Disc). Although I'm far from a high-fidelity nut, my teeth still gnashed at a purposeful style that sounds as if my speaker cones are ripping apart. Before watching the video, I consoled myself with the knowledge that this project revitalizes traditional-based music rather than transplanting someone's mainstream style from elsewhere. And that's always a good thing. But the $64,000 question was whether the accompanying dvd could mitigate my indifference to the cd.
It could, and it did. Seeing Sobanza Mimanisa strut their collective stuff banishes the fuzz that barely separates the amplified likembe thumb piano, electric guitar, and overblown vocals on the audio disc. Watching who does what precisely when differentiates the blaring instruments and removes my sense of hearing them from the wrong side of a steel door. Kasai Allstars looks as if they've just wandered in from the bush, and according to the liner notes, that's just what these trance musicians did. The gal dancers in halter tops and grass skirts – or with the guy dancers in grass skirts, if that's your thing – put this way in the plus column, as do the call and response vocals, funky drum, beer bottle, and hand drum percussion, and a marimba that appears to have been someone's window sill the day before.
Bolia We Ndenge kicks off its performance with a dollop of theater as a soldier in the service of King Leopold II gives the enslaved Lake Mai Ndombe people a Belgian-made accordion to calm discontent. The result as seen and heard here is beautiful throbbing music that took me back to the cd. But not for long. I soon revisited the dvd for the marvelous body ornamentation and synchronized dancing that reminded me of soaring cranes. And that barely scratches the surface of a jam-packed audio/video combo that goes a long way toward turning me into a Congotronics convert.
One of the more unusual cd/dvd packages is Silver Solstice (Living Music), which documents the Paul Winter Consort's 25th annual Solstice Celebration at New York City's Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Thirty-two compositions span two cds, offering the Consort's symphonic amalgam of Native American, Celtic, Latin and European motifs. Guest stars include Mickey Hart, Brazilian singer Luciana Souza, Armenian percussionist Arto Tuncboyaciyan and Russia's Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble. While you might expect the dvd to contain a video of the silver anniversary concert, you would be as mistaken as I was. Instead it includes another audio version of the exact same material as the two cds, but in 5.1-channel high-resolution surround sound for folks with multi-speaker home theater systems. I would imagine that the sound is stunning in this format, but lacking a fancy-pants AV set-up I have to rely on my imagination. As each selection plays, its title plus a single uninspired graphic twiddles its thumbs on your TV screen. A video of an abbreviated concert that would have fit on a single dvd would have made a far more enticing package. Based on the gallery of still photos on the dvd, the visual aspect of the concert looks remarkable. But you won't see it here. If you enjoy a Riverdance-style New Age-flavored global pastiche, the music is fine. Consider it a wasted opportunity on the dvd side, though.
I wish we had a video to accompany the startling music on field recordist Steven Feld's The Time of Bells 3, Musical Bells of Accra, Ghana (EarthEar/VoxLox), but we're lucky to have any recording of these unusual Ghanaian bands at all. Building an ensemble solely around percussion and old fashioned bulb-type brass car horns isn't actually as avant-garde as it may seem at first blush. According to Feld's liner notes, "The music developed into a style like the mmenson elephant tusk ensembles of the Akan Kingdom, but with a distinctive tire pumping dance." (I'd love to see that dance.) Closer to home, think of traditional keyless-trumpet and percussive Haitian ra-ra bands and you somewhat approach the controlled cacophony of La Trotro Drivers Union Por Por Group's "Medley for Bells and Car Horns." Imagine Harpo Marx honking along with a bouncy herd of belled dairy cows, or a 100-bicycle traffic jam. While the comic effect of the blatting horns sinks in first, the insistent appeal of the clanging rhythm soon conquers.
The bell-driven "M.V. Labadi for Bells and Voices," also by Por Por Group, approaches gamelan territory, though the pulse and warbling vocals are distinctively West African. Chirping ambient weaver birds, highlife guitar figures, talking drum, balafon and vocals take charge of the first three minutes of Accra Trane Station's "Suite for Bells and Instruments," until clanging, tinkling and a scratchy fiddle change the pace. Trane Station's jazz-influenced pieces with woozy sax excursions challenge the ears. But despite or because of the weirdness, The Time of Bells 3 has more pleasures than pitfalls. You just can't beat the sound of a bell, and this disc has all you need. [www.earthear.com]
Ladysmith Black Mambazo have a peculiar problem. They are brilliant practitioners of the South African a cappella mbube style, but that style's conservative conventions tend to blur one album into another. To add some distinction, the group tried recording with symphony orchestras on 2004's No Boundaries, and on Long Walk to Freedom (Heads Up Africa) stirs in a heaping helping of guest stars, including Lucky Dube, Melissa Etheridge, Taj Mahal, Zap Mama and Thandiswa. These strategies risk diluting and diminishing Ladysmith's strong points and also lead to a not always welcome recycling of songs. Thus we get new versions of "Hello My Baby," "Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes," "Amazing Grace," and other standards. The good news is that this time around they are very good versions indeed which reinforce the rhythmic and vocal idiosyncrasies of the ensemble rather than shoehorning them into western idioms. So it boils down to this: if you want a kind of refreshed greatest hits cd, you won't go too far astray on this Long Walk. In fact, the "Homeless" collaboration with Sarah McLachlan is flat out gorgeous. And while there isn't an accompanying dvd, pop the enhanced cd into your computer and watch a couple of low-res videos from past Ladysmith releases.
Okay, what's a loon doing calling at the beginning of "Waruna" on Set Luna (No Format/Sunnyside Records)? It made me think that Julia Sarr and Patrice Larose might be closet Minnesotans, especially since the cd cover renders Patrice's surname as Larøse. But the disc is unmistakably an artful blend of Larose/ Larøse's flamenco-based guitar and percussion and Sarr's expressive Wolof-language vocals. Her overlapping overdubs and deliberate pacing are reminiscent of Rokia Traore, matched by slightly jazz inflected instrumentation. Youssou N'Dour has never sounded as much in his element in a guest appearance as he does on the title cut "Set Luna Djamonodji," which sparkles with the clarity of a lucid dream. Play this disc at any hour of the day for instant dose of late night atmosphere, but don't be surprised if Sarr's amazing vocals jolt you wide awake.
Brazil leads the world in the space race. I'm talking about the spacey mixes assembled from 11 albums on the anthology Ziriguiboom, The Now Sound of Brazil 2 (Six Degrees). Wigged out DJs, producers and songbirds build the ambience for ethereal gliding sambas (Bebel Gilberto, "Simplesemente")' samba hip hop (Bossacucanova, "Samba da minha terra"), folkloric-futuristic mash-ups (DJ Dolores, "Trancelim de marlim") and retro-lounge (Apollo Nove, "Inexplicata"). Get out your micrometer and name the styles yourself. Don't expect interstellar flights here. These easy-going numbers tend to focus on moonlight rather than Doppler shifts, though DJ Dolores and Thievery Corporation opt for orbiting debris in place of a romantic atmosphere.
Less fey, more feverish. That's the skinny on Afro Novalima (Mr. Bongo) a collection of versions and remixes of Afro-Peruvian songs, some nearly 100 years old. Four Peruvian musicians living in Barcelona, Hong Kong, London and Lima banding together as the Novalima Project put lots of grit into these studio recordings. Though the music is nothing like reggae, it's got the toughness of dub and the deep bassline to match. Stripped down mainly to percussion, voice and a smidgen of instrumentation, these street-savvy mixes borrow from hip hop and electronica but keep it all down to earth by emphasizing the traditional drive of the music. That means maximum indigenous drumming and minimum computer clatter with a live sound instead of reconstituted crud. Featured performers include Peruvian heavyweights Nicomedes Santa Cruz, Lucila Campos, Lucha Reyes and Zambo Cavero.