(from The Beat, Vol. 26, No. 4, 2007)
I recently received an email from my good friend and fellow Beat columnist, Dave Hucker, threatening to drag me in front of the International Web Crimes Tribunal at the Hague unless I added his recent “Hey Mr. Music” installments to my technobeat.com website. And by ‘recent,’ he was referring to the fact that I hadn’t updated the site since 2003.
Remarkably, despite the dearth of any material post-dating the break-up of the Beatles, the Technobeat website still received between 1832 and 2681 hits per day this month – which made me wonder how much traffic I might get if I actually caught up the content. But content wasn’t the only problem. I designed the site late last century in the days before large monitors became the norm. So it also needed a more modern look that replaced the postage stamp-size area I'd reserved for text and graphics to a window you could view without resorting to scanning electron microscopy.
By the time you read this, I should have finished the reconstruction. That is, if Mr. Hucker, who egged me on to update in the first place, gets around to sending me the info he wants on his home page. Otherwise, I have no choice but to drag him in front of the Internet division of Interpol. All of this I do simply to serve the public – and also with the hope of pointing more traffic toward my bobtarte.com website and selling copies of my two books, Enslaved by Ducks and Fowl Weather, which every reader of this magazine should immediately buy.
Check out the site, which includes all “Technobeat” columns since 1990 and all “Hey Mr. Music” columns since 1997, and let me know what you think of the new design.
Michael Brook re-invented legendary qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s music with the albums Musst Musst and Night Song in the mid-1990s, and Massive Attack parsed the title song into a huge international hit. Brook collaborated with – and had to satisfy – a flesh-and-blood Nusrat for his two recordings. But London-based producer/composer Gaudi only had to please himself while placing the late artist’s vocal tracks in new instrumental settings on Dub Qawwali (Six Degrees Records). Pakistan’s Rehmat Gramophone-label allowed Gaudi access to previously unreleased 1968-1974 studio performances, so you might imagine that he was free to soar far beyond even the imaginative musical settings that Brook created.
Instead, Gaudi tethers Nusrat to a classic reggae beat, relying on unusual textures and one famous and quite unexpected riff to extend the reach of the genre. That’s the bad news here, if it’s bad news at all. The good news is that this is top-notch reggae, tight as a heated goatskin, lean when it needs to be lean and elsewhere ornamented with a mix of electronics and ethnic Indian instruments – and with Nusrat’s remarkable voice at the center of it all.
I'm guessing that Mohandas Gandhi didn't take the spiritual view that life is a just game of chance, so the sample of a steel ball hitting a roulette wheel makes an odd introduction to a snippet of the Mahatma speaking about eternal persistence on opening track “Bethe Bethe Kese Kese.” It is terrific ear candy, though, as is the sarangi flavoring that floats in front of a burbling electric organ and warm keyboard washes. Small touches like these that testify to creative depth abound on Dub Qawwali. “Tera Jana Kere Rang Lawe” includes a wonderful little rhythmic exchange between a chugging keyboard and a tabla. Meanwhile, Gaudi's digital drumming and throbbing bass guitar provide the perfect counterpoint to Nusrat’s honey vocal.
“Dil Da Rog Muka Ja Mahi” nestles the singer inside the keyboard riff from Kraftwerk’s “The Model,” of all things. It's a surprise, to be sure, but it isn’t as much of an off-the-wall pairing as it first appears. One of the words Nusrat keeps repeating (‘mahi’) sounds enough like ‘model’ to have possibly triggered the association. Philosophically, Kraftwerk's deadpan putdown of consumer culture meshes nicely with the sufi skepticism of the world. Gaudi’s moist and gooey analog synthesizer makes the song the ultimate gimme. Terrific on its own, the song merely awaits a aggressive remixer like Massive Attack to whirl it around the globe.
Even the echoes and reverbs on this disc sound proprietary, as if Gaudi wrote all these effects from scratch, and he might have. The gorgeous, realer-than-real falling water droplets that close “The Model” have such textural complexity that they suggest a symphony of their own. Other must-hear moments include the walking bass beats and soulful cello that straddle the violin on “Ena Akhiyan Noo.” “Abhi Apna Abhi Paraya Hai” improbably suggests a slice of dancehall toast, and “Othe Mera Yar Wasda” delights in the over-the-top happiness of a Bollywood soundtrack romp.
The long and short of it is that the man who was perhaps the greatest vocalist of his genre has inspired Gaudi to craft a reggae album for the ages and one of the best dub discs ever. Yes, it really is that good.
I’m not sure anyone makes more engaging music than Habib Koité, Afriki (Cumbancha) has the smooth flow and hushed grace of samba, plus the drive and rich instrumentation of Malian styles. The largely acoustic tack with echoes of American blues suggests Koité’s late countryman, Ali Farka Toure, but without that great performer’s essential rough edges. While I appreciate the soft glide of a typically thoughtful approach, Afriki leaves me hungry for music with a more direct connection to the deep emotions that elevate world music over most mainstream pop. But on “N’ba,” for crying out loud, Habib breaks into a whistle mid song, just like Bing Crosby on “White Christmas.” This is one laid back dude. What he lacks with his manicured roots approach he certainly gains in accessibility. Try topping the good vibes spread by balafon, talking drum, and harmonica on “Africa.” That same balafon meshes perfectly with his pearly guitar picking on “Mali Ba,” which finds him singing with passion and traces of fire. I was hoping for more of that fire, though. Or at least a persistent smolder.
Oliver Mtukudzi is another smoothie, and on the opening track of Tsoka Itsimba (Heads Up), “Ungadé We,” he’s got a small combo jazz thing tugging at the seams of his Zimbabwean tuku style, which makes me wish he’d cut a disc of American standards. I can almost hear “Ain’t Misbehavin’” sung in Shona in my head. Though Mtukudzi never seems close to working up a sweat when he sings, in a few perfectly modulated phrases his smoky voice suggests he’s seen it all. His band is first rate, too. Nobody wields a pair of sticks with as much snap as drummer Clive Bobby Mutyasira, who helps anchor the pleasing tug of war between the choppy rhythm and the fluidity of Clive Mono Mukundu’s lead guitar, Samson Mtukudzi's sax and Namati Mubariki’s and Mary Bell’s backing vocals. The opening tack, with its stuttering swing tempo, does it all the best and keeps pulling me back to this pleasurable cd.
Imagine that your favorite local bar band included a few ex-pat East Africans, and you’ll get an inkling of what Extra Golden’s Hera Ma Nono (Thrill Jockey Records) is all about. This benga/honky tonk hybrid features flavorful electric piano, snappy guitar runs, and engaging bi-lingual vocals. The unison singing and rolling drums on the first two cuts seem closer in spirit to Lynyrd Skynyrd than Shirati Jazz, though the hyper-extended song lengths are less about jamming than about keeping the dance floor pumping. “I Miss You” is a lovely country music ballad that bypasses the exit ramp to Nashville and motors on Nairobi instead with English-Luo lyrics and plenty of attitude. “Night Runners” starts off in an Earth, Wind and Fire vocal mode before throwing the African throw down switch.
The fusion overheats as the “Street Parade” passes by. Southern rock meets Sly Stone at the local bowling alley with clamorous results, though the track gets points for fuzzing up the herky-jerky rhythm with wild and wooly psychedelic guitar bursts. It’s not just extra golden, it’s extra crispy, too. But the Janus perspective doesn’t exactly snap into sharp focus. Unlike Chicago’s Occidental Brothers Band Dance Band International, which re-invents classic African pop by way of a jazzy minimalist approach, this Washington D.C.-based crew tips in everything but the kitchen cutlery to make a cut rock out. While the world definitely needs a heaping helping of benga, the minimum daily requirement for bar band boogie has yet to be established.
Sones de México Ensemble Chicago blend Mexican roots music with Woody Guthrie on title cut Esta Tierra Es Tuya (This Land is Your Land), the Second Movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major on another track and elsewhere a 5/4-meter version of Led Zeppelin’s “Four Sticks,” and they do all sources proud. Such implausible fusions usually turn fissionable, but pulling prejudices apart is sort of the point here. After 13 years in the US, these overachievers bring so much authenticity to the regional folk styles, so much virtuosity to the orchestral excursions (on which they play over 50 all-acoustic instruments), and so much fun to everything they touch, that you can't help but surrender to their creativity.
Some of the tracks play it more or less straight with traditionalism, such as the razor-honed son huasteco “La Presumida,” boasting a duel between the stinging violin and a dancer’s boots, plus octave-hopping yodeling vocals. “Tabasco Suite” ornaments a son de marimba medley with guest Ramón Sánchez’s piccolo and saxophones, and I’m guessing he’s the contributor of the uncredited soprano sax break on son de tarima “Yo Vendo Unos Ojos Negros.”
A disc of these would have more than satisfied, but the Ensemble ponies up the trumpet and sax led love song “Eres Bella Flor” by music director and lead vocalist Victor Pichardo, and surprises with the medley “Los Panaderos,” which opens with fast harp work on a trio of sones jarochos from Veracruz before plunging us into a festive Puerto Rican plena. If we needed a demonstration that there’s plenty of sparks left in Mexican folk genres, Esta Tierra Es Tuya revs up an impressive musical engine. The cd includes a better than average booklet plus a separate foldout insert providing song lyrics, credits, notes and a guide to the instruments.
I know squat about chicha, but I’m pleased to meet’cha when a genre this fun introduces itself. This Peruvian concoction from the late 1960s added Andean melodies and the reigning American rock sound of the day to Colombian cumbias. The Roots of Chicha, Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru (P&C Barbés Records) drenches the unsuspecting listener in waves of wah-wah and a frenzy of Farfisa organ. Chicha’s obscurity may seem well deserved as the first surf guitars lash out, but in addition to the infectious cumbia beat, “Carinito” by Los Hijos Del Sola is redeemed by rousing highland vocals, while the clattering percussion of the lusty voiced Juaneco Y Su Combo saves “Ya Se Ha Muerto Mi Abuelo” to the accompaniment of a Question Mark and the Mysterians keyboard throttle. Fans of acid crazed West African pop of the 1970s will find much to groove on here.
Bob Brozman has recorded albums with artists as diverse as Hindustani slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya and string bands of Papua New Guinea. On Lumiére (Riverboat/World Music Network) he collaborates with himself, or should I say, clones of himself assembled as the Bob Brozman Orchestra. The various Bobs in the ensemble play plucked stringed instruments – including, but not limited to, guitars, charango, kantele, ukulele, Hawaiian and steel guitars, shansin – and double up on percussion, while co-producer Daniel Thomas bangs on, shakes or rattles something on most tracks. The resulting compositions have a spidery, shimmering quality that’s quite lush through headphones, and various Brozman-manned slide guitars add much-needed glissando to the staccato strata. Although the massed-string presentation is unique, you wouldn’t confuse Lumiére with any non-Bob assemblage of musicians. Brozman’s trademark old-timey guitar style careens through the cuts, lending a tinge of Hawaiian gypsy swing to whatever he thinks up.
Zing! go the strings on “Lumiére de la Mer,” suggesting a coasting blends of Papua New Guinea, Hawaiian and Indian Ocean styles glued together by the might voice of a reso-rango resonator ukelele that is surely a Bob Brozman confabulation. Zong! goes “Mars Over Sorrente,” on which a 14-string Hindustani slide guitars orbits above Spain. A 22-string version of the same – zounds! – caresses crisp sanshin arpeggios and oodles of other strumming on the lavish “Chaturangui Gazal,” while “Aloha Laie” borrows some of Brozman’s favorite hulas to pay tribute to legendary steel guitarist Tau Moe. Would a dab of singing have added some relief from the unrelenting picking and grinning? Most zertainly, but this album is still a hoot.
As I listened to the first track of Techari Remixes (Six Degrees Records), the piano-based romantic flamenco ditty “CorreLola Corre,” I never imagined that three cuts later this disc would morph into full-tilt techno territory. The various producers involved weren’t quite working with virgin folkloric material here, but faced the challenge of slicing and dicing songs from the 2006 Techari cd byBarcelona-based rumba hip hop band Ojos de Brujo. Contributors include Nitin Sawhney from Asian Underground, Peruvian remix-master Novalima, and DJ Panko from Ojos de Brujo. London Elektricity Club take a Techari track the furthest with their techno attack on “Silencio,” which flaunts robo drum, disembodied vocals, and only a passing reference to the source material. Max fx’s version of the same song may lack its predecessor’s manic lunge forward, but regains ground with a smooth yet unsettled signal-processed muted trumpet solo that eventually takes over the mix. Novalima’s version of “Sultanas De Merkaillo” threatened to break new ground in radical rhythm intervention until I realized that the shattered beats weren’t actually the fault of the producer. My dirty disc needed cleaning. But it does give a remix artist something to aspire to.One cd that I didn't get around to reviewing this issue is Kush Arora’s From Booklyn to SF (Kush Arora Productions), a hard-hitting bhangra, dub and hip hop hopscotch that should appeal to fans of in-your-face genres. More stripped down and less cartoonish than some of the American-based bands previous releases, it didn’t quite have the out-there quality I crave from genres I’m otherwise not fond of. So, I’m saying nothing about the fact that some infectious tunes and downright nasty rhythms are on board.