(from The Beat, Vol. 23, No. 5, 2004)

"Is this a sea chantey?" Linda asked me.

            It was a fair question, though any North Sea fisherman trolling for sardines would need an expansive vocal range to match Emma Härdelin 's octave hops on "Tordyvelyn/Polska" from Triakel's Songs from 63° N (NorthSide). The straightforward delivery of this Scandinavian standard with no apparent overdubs, no unnecessary ornamentation, plus a simple tune that gets into your head and stays there, isn't an ocean away from whaling ditties.

            The song kicks off with fiddle figures from Kjell-Erik Ericksson that feel joyous in a typical minor-key Swedish fashion, but something is held back. The violin shifts to a pulsating drone as Emma enters with a voice like a splash of clear arctic stream water, then Janne Strömstedt's harmonium adds a half-hearted churchy ambience. This song title translates as "The Dung Beetle's Wedding," and the Swedish-language lyrics describe the titular insect's difficulty in convincing a comely fly to marry him. "While you are creeping amongst the muck, I'm drinking wine from a lady's cup," explains the fly in her refusal before finally surrendering to his dungy charm.

            The ironic arrangement provided the perfect soundtrack for our drive home from P.J. Hofmaster Park on Lake Michigan. Linda and I had trooped through the woods in search of migrating warblers, which we'd heard warbling but couldn't locate in the trees. Stopping at the Visitor Center just before leaving, we looked out the window at an artificial pond to see numerous warblers dropping by to splash around, including Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Black and White, Chestnut-sided and Prothonotary. I felt silly standing indoors directing my binoculars outdoors as people streamed in to glance at the nature exhibits, but that was where the action was.

            I'd birded in odder places. My retired professional wrestler friend The Whale joined me recently at the Muskegon Wastewater facility, where migrating shorebirds from the Canadian arctic showed up in the expansive treatment ponds, including the exotically named Red-necked Phalarope, Red Knot, and Semipalmated Plover. The strangeness of seeing rare birds in an inhospitable environment where caustic chemicals burned my throat was lost on The Whale, who claimed the smell reminded him of splendid boyhood summers near a St. John's, Nova Scotia cod cannery. Remarkably, he also enjoyed the wheezing violin and pumping harmonium on Triakel's "Veit," but he nearly spoiled the song by insisting we were listening to Natalie Merchant.

            "It's the former lead singer from Garmarna," I told him.

            "It's Natalie Merchant from10,000 Maniacs," he argued.

            "No, it's a Swedish singer singing Swedish songs in Swedish from the Jämtland province of Sweden."

            "So it's 10,000 frigging Swedish Maniacs," he growled, while bouncing so vigorously to the stuttering beat I feared for the suspension of my Ford Focus.

            I skipped to the slow song "Min Docka" (My Pretty Maid) featuring an emotionally direct shared lead vocal by guest-folkie Anders Larrson, and The Whale was soon weeping over the sentimental ambience. The last time he had started blubbering in my car, he had run out of bean-and-butter dip for his Pringles, and my upholstery stayed soggy for a week.

            I quickly ejected Triakel and cued up Väsen's Keyed Up (NorthSide). An oven mitt-size hand reached out and cranked up the volume, testifying to the drive that these Swedes put behind their string-based songs. Roger Tallroth's chunka-chunka acoustic guitar supplies the percussive pulse in the absence of drummer André Ferrari, who said 'phooey' to touring a few albums ago and left the band. Olav Johansson's three-row chromatic nyckelharpa 'keyed fiddle,' which is almost a bowed zither, makes Väsen seem much larger than a trio, and their compositions in the folk music mode are more complex than traditional songs due to classically-infused arrangements. Think of the Kronos Quartet performing bluegrass variations, and you'd have something like an American equivalent of this band.

            The Great One ate up the honey smooth tune and peppery backbeat of opening cut "Björkbergspolskan" and smiled broadly at the soprano-string flourishes ornamenting "Glada polskan" (The Happy Polka). But after the last few notes of the change-of-pace "En Gratis" faded, not even the buzzing medieval harmonies of the nyckelharpa held his attention. "Don't they ever do anything different?" he bellowed, which isn't a fair criticism of an ensemble that serves up Scandinavian music with such deft cleverness and good humor. But I Linda had made a similar remark while we listened to Väsen on the way back from Hofmaster Park. Be it Celtic, West African, or bluegrass, any genre recording typically stays within the walls that establish the characteristics of a particular style of music. Some discs bust loose and try for outreach. While Keyed Up includes the vaguely Appalachian-flavored "Appalachen/Polskejig" and the Japanese influenced "Nipponpolka," no one will confuse them with fusion music. But for lovely, intelligent, positively swinging compositions that build brilliantly upon the Scandinavian tradition, Väsen has no peer. At times, though, I definitely find myself missing the drummer.

            Bill Laswell's Version 2 Version (ROIR) isn't very varied either, but this dub-fest doesn't aim for the head, and the lower body doesn't mind monotony. Disc opener "Dystopia" glides in on spacey keyboard chords that hold the floor so long, you might wonder if Laswell accidentally mixed up his master with his 2001 mix of Carlos Santana's Divine Light. Then the drum machine erupts, doubled by Karsh Kale on hand drums, setting the stage for a thunderous entrance by Jah Wobble's 50-foot-tall electric bass. The band achieves the ultimate groove on this track, so it's almost a disappointment that true versions don't comprise the rest of the disc. "Night City" is almost as stellar as "Dystopia," borrowing electrons from a close imitation of a vocal sample from the Abyssinians "Declaration of Rights" and spinning it around an ethereal arrangement. "Babylon Site" gets galactic mileage from the psychedelic electric guitar solo. Version bends dub away from reggae and back again even as the dub spirit never falters, proving that minimalism can have maximum impact.

            Never say 'kante.' Sabou (World Music Network) is a 'kan do' cd indicating that Mory Kanté kan return to his roots and make the trip kaptivating. (I've obviously had too much koffee this morning.) Billed on the back cover as an "all-acoustic" recording, like most other discs that make the same claim, Sabou uses an amplified bass to achieve its modern thump along with intense drumming that might as well be amplified. Despite the kora, balafon, flute and other vernacular instruments, West Africa's best-known Guinean-born griot wreaks beautiful pop music here that just happens to have a strong folkie twist.  Some artists make an acoustic album when they run out of ideas and can't come up with anything else. But this doesn't resemble a comeback album or even a new direction from a fifty-something musician who made his career pushing the boundaries of Afropop. Mory sounds like a particularly talented newcomer on the neo-trad scene, and that's a konsiderable achievement.

            Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango receives his due on The Rough Guide to Manu Dibango (WorldMusic Network). While the career-spanning anthology includes everything from the Congolese-flavored "Ngolowake" to a suave cover of the usually grimace-inducing "Nature Boy," the song that started it all goes missing. "Soul Makossa," one of the most influential pieces of African pop, deserves preserving in its original form, but instead the 1992 update "Makossa Blow" gets the nod. In 1993, Wakafrika found Dibango collaborating with Youssou N'Dour, Sunny Ade, Angelique Kidjo, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and other superstars on a surprisingly good release that should have yielded at least one track here. But this is still a worthy retrospective with plenty of examples of Dibango's inimitable tone and phrasing, plus a keen ear for stylistic stretch.

            The old ant log has returned. A few years ago, you could hardly fire up a world beat fusion cd without risking running into the dreaded didjeridu. The venerable spit tube was fine when integral to the music, but too often the huge kazoo provided just another sound effect that finally faded from fashion along with Bulgarian women's choirs and pygmy yodeling. But one of the best du-meisters around keeps the snarls, buzzes, chuffs and burps flowing on Oil & Water (Family Tree). Stephen Kent struts his stuff on opening track "Oil," a solo showcase that demonstrates why both Bay Area and European musicians have sought out his talents over years. "Khoomei Song" pairs Kent's throaty growls with Tuvan throat singer Igor Koshkendey on an auditory match designed in psychedelic heaven. In addition to his virtuoso didjeridu technique, Kent also contributes guitar, bass, vocals, cello-sintir and tape manipulation to this wide ranging and mainly engaging disc of both earthly and celestial shenanigans, straddling continents and conquering the tubular universe.

            Who among us can resist a product bearing an "As Seen On TV" sticker? From vegetable processors to pocket fishing rods, a gizmo that's been honored by advertising on the tube absolutely ensures the highest quality. Thus we have The Greatest Songs Ever anthologies from the Australian Petrol label and distributed here by Time-Life. Sadly, I missed the first four releases, which included The Greatest Songs Ever from Spain, Brazil, Mexico and Cuba. I guess I must have taken a bathroom break when the commercials ran during Monster House. But I did receive the current four, which promise to deliver The Greatest Songs Ever from Ireland, India, France and Argentina. Whew!

            I grabbed the Ireland disc and was amazed to discover that "Danny Boy" somehow didn't make the cut as one of The Greatest Songs Ever from Ireland, and neither did "Irish Lullaby" nor "Molly Malone." These may not be my favorite Irish songs, but given their history and popularity, you would expect them to number among The Greatest Songs Ever.  However, I do see "Open The Door," "The New Custom House," "Rain and Snow" and other greatest songs that slipped past me over the years. But when you come right down to it, I'm pretty ignorant about Celtic music.

            I felt more at ease with an India anthology and looked forward to hearing the cream of the raga, ghazal and Bollywood soundtrack crop. Sure enough, Lata Mangeshkar weighs in with a couple of signature pieces, but Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan gets a track. Maybe the compiler didn't hear about the partitioning of Pakistan from India a half-century ago. And here are Trilok Gurtu and Tabla Beat Science. I like both of these American-based acts, but do they belong on the India collection, and have they in fact crafted The Greatest Songs Ever? Thank goodness for the reassurance of the "As Seen On TV" sticker. And did I mention that the liner notes include recipes for Guinness Mussels and Green Chili Chutney? Race you to the kitchen!

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