(from The Beat, Vol. 23, No. 2, 2004)
Wimme Saari isn't just unplugged on Instinct. He's completely unhitched from any kind of instrumental accompaniment. Wimme, as he is most often known, made his name on four previous Northside-label albums marrying the joik chants of the Scandinavian Arctic Sámi people (once known as Laplanders) to dance beats and electronics. In fact, he's had the distinction of combining perhaps the oldest sounding vocal style on the planet with the least derivative instrumentation in memory thanks to backing from members of Finnish techno-jazz band RinneRadio.
Although the 34 short vocal pieces on Instinct feel about as ancient as permafrost, the liner note translations reveal that these joiks are his compositions. The approach his album takes ends up revealing more about the nature of traditional Sámi chants than a collection of vintage material probably ever could. "I'm gonna make a fire, after waking up to a phone call sometimes before noon," he chants on "Morning Coffee." And, sure enough, we hear the fire crackling in the background and Wimme sipping on his java in his cabin as he sings. The immediacy is telling. Joiks are neither painstakingly composed, nor are their texts passed down through the generations. Instead, these free-form chants are primarily the products of instant composition. They acknowledge things and events that the joiker experiences in the course of daily life. You might think of them as meditative, or as a way of erasing the distance between the doer and the doing in finest Finnish Zen methodology.
The joik seems to have originated millennia ago with the spirit possession rituals of Sámi shamans. These songs had a sacred function and used pure vocal sounds as their primary text. While modern joikers like Wimme and Norway's Mari Boine depart from this aspect of traditional joik by chant-singing actual lyrics, vocables still play a vital role in Wimme's songs. "The Dream Stream," for instance, consists of breathy syllables recorded against the burbling of a stream. The playful and mercifully brief "I Stall" repeats a single hummed note, indicating that the singer is between activities and between joiks as well. "The Cold and Frosty Wind" features Wimme's whistling imitation of his subject. "Now where did all the words go?" he asks in "Speechless," which immediately follows his wind piece. "I try to put a tonal contour here and there, so that words won't be necessary." That's as good an explanation of the genre as you're likely to get anywhere.
One surprising turn near the end of the disc is the inclusion of seven traditional Christian hymns derived from the Psálbma, the Sámi language book of psalms. Through the first half of the 20th century, the dominant conservative Lutheran church in northern Sweden, Norway, and Finland had suppressed joiking and its celebration of the spirit within objects and nature as an expression of paganism. Wimme's performance of "Take Me Under They Wings" and other pietistic songs in the context of this cd either indicates that he doesn't feel a conflict between Christianity and pantheism, or it explains the lack of transcendental expression in his primarily descriptive joiks. Although his gravelly-voiced renditions of the hymns have charm, he is far more effective as a joiker than as a singer.
The hymns do help break up material that otherwise doesn't exhibit an astonishing amount of variety. Play the three-cut sequence "Rieban" (The Fox), "Rievssat" (The Grouse), and "Boazu" (The Reindeer), for example, and try to determine without looking at the LED display on your cd player where one chant ends and the other begins. As a result, you probably won't come away from Instinct singing any of its songs on your commute to work. But it is difficult exiting a session with the cd without Wimme's vocals and lapping rhythms echoing in your head like the memory of waves after a day spent at the beach.
In addition to the songs, this enhanced cd includes three Quicktime videos of Wimme's solo chants recorded on location outdoors. These are less useful than they could have been, since two of the videos present Wimme's point of view rather than him in performance. "I Stall" depicts a bubbling underground stream, while "Father" focuses on the bow view of his rickety powerboat as he emits throat singing-like noises to accompany the purring of the engine. "Fox" does it right. The bandana-wearing Wimme crouches on stark and scrubby Arctic terrain that altogether suits the minimalism of his three-line ode to the straightness of a fox's tail. He is in his element, and his joik brings a sense of intimacy to the wild world that unfurls around him.
The word 'remix' almost invariably implies radical surgery that drastically alters the cosmetics of a musical performance. But every once in a while, the procedure turns out to be surprisingly noninvasive. Take Tangle Eye's re-envisioning of 11 classic Alan Lomax folk recordings from 1947-60 that were recently reissued as part of Rounder Records' 13-volume Southern Journey series. Rather than turning a field holler into a dance cut by grafting on digital musculature, the New Orleans-based production team of Scott Billington and Steve Reynolds keep their reconstructions roots-based on Alan Lomax's Southern Journey Remixed. The added instrumentation maintains an acoustical instrumental feel on the mostly a cappella songs that musicologist Lomax collected in the rural south.
Lomax's collections have had a profound effect on American popular music. Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, and Mississippi Fred McDowell are among the important artists first recorded by Lomax and his father John initially for the Library of Congress. His work and that of folk archivist Harry Smith, who reissued commercial hillbilly and blues songs from the 1920s and '30s in his 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, inspired the folk revival of the 1950s and '60s along with rock bands from the Stones to the Byrds. Most recently, Lomax recordings were used in the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, while Moby's "Natural Blues" sampled Vera Ward Hall's "Trouble So Hard."
The artists selected by Tangle Eye from the Southern Journey series avoid the better-known names in the Lomax catalog in favor of amateur singers with extraordinary voices, such as the Bright Light Quartet, a group of Atlantic Coast fishermen. On "Chantey," Billington and Reynolds transform an African-American work song into a thumping, pumping rock steady blow out complete with Chris Wilson's snapping bass and a brass section by teenage virtuosos Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews and James Martin. The quartet members' energetic voices mesh seamlessly with the Jamaican arrangement, recalling the glory days of gospel-tinged harmony groups like the Heptones or the Mighty Diamonds and nudged toward the spiritual by Dow Brain's churchy organ.
But the sea chantey "Evalina" on the Southern Journey Velvet Voices CD, which forms the basis of this track, is anything but focused on the next life. The Bright Lights lustily glorify the titular gal with her "money 'cumulator right between her legs," boasting, "I can get it any ol' time I want it, three times a day." The earthy lyrics come as a surprise on a song whose vocal style suggests a rousing hymn, even though the words are loud and clear on the Tangle Eye mix once you listen past the heady instrumentation. Especially fun are the "come on, come on" cries between verses that seem to urge on the newly added rock steady musicians. On the source recording, these interjections are longer and probably served as timing devices as the fishermen hauled in nets to the rhythm of the song.
Thanks to the O Brother soundtrack, the song "O Death" has become identified with bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley, who wails like the reaper himself in his angst-ridden rendition. Bessie Jones is more subdued in a performance from 1959 which Rounder reissued on the Georgia Sea Islands CD. Tangle Eye matches her wearily mournful delivery with lonely old-time fiddling by Dirk Powell. The interplay between voice and violin underscores an aspect of the "O Death" which remains obscure in Ralph Stanley's performance: the song is a dialog between a sinner and the Grim Reaper. Meanwhile, David Torkanowsky's Hammond B-3 organ adds an icy overlay.
"Hangman" demonstrates the evocative power of a brief vocal snippet. The song opens as Almeda Riddle repeats a single line against a developing background of Johnny Vidacovich's thrashing drum kit and an uncredited reed flute accompaniment, but it doesn't feel as if the producers are simply dropping in her vocal samples. Her sweet bleat of an entreaty makes an organic fit, and when she finally launches an entire stanza of verse over the intensifying accompaniment, her words carry the force of an incantation.
"Soldier" does even more with less. The 1960 source recording "I am a Soldier in the Army of the Lord" on Velvet Voices was captured in a full tilt church performance with unusually muddy audio for Lomax. Billington and Reynolds clarify the Peerless Four's shouted line "I am a soldier" so that it sounds better than the original — floating it within a house arrangement that blooms into a full-tilt gospel extravaganza as Davell Crawford's keyboard spits curlicues of fire.
The genius of this and other tracks on the disc is the way the instrumentation deepens the impact of the vocals. Even when the inventive backing tracks burst into dazzling solos, they support the singers instead of supplanting them. And the singers are extraordinary. Their heartfelt performances are the musical equivalent of folk art, possessing power and authenticity few professional vocalists can touch. Tangle Eye's ability to meld these voices from the past with fresh arrangements speaks well for the future of the remix.
Taking a page from Scandinavian neo-folk groups like Hedningarna, the Warsaw Village Band transmutes Polish traditional music on People's Spring (World Village) by pumping up the Dark Ages ambience. Or is the title a commentary on the bleak years of Soviet-style collectives? You might even think you're hearing a Swedish hardanger fiddle ensemble in the first few bars of "Chassidic Dance" until the hammer dulcimer stirs up a Yiddish accompanying melody. A singing style called 'white voice' adapted from shepherd calls that's reminiscent of Bulgarian mystère choirs turns "At My Mother's" into the obligatory soundtrack to your next harvest festival, then a trumpet unexpectedly adds jazz ornaments. All that's missing from this geographical and temporal crossroads of a disc is the bright face of the sun presiding over songs about dishonesty, melancholy, and death. Even the declaration of feminist independence "Who Is Getting Married" or the "Traditional Rural Polka" feel more funereal than celebratory. But gloom is inseparable from the mischief that culminates in a pair of mad remixes. "Matecka" re-envisions "At My Mother's" as a droning detour across India, while "Joint Venture in the Village" rolls up a tale of loss in the bump-bump of a dance floor groove that will get even the wandering mendicants tapping their toes.
As a contrast soak up a joyful blast of Balkan brass on Boban Markovic Orkestar's Boban I Marko (Piranha). The extraordinary part of this disc should be flugelhorn maestro Boban's 15-year-old son Marko, a flugelhorn prodigy who plays unison leads with his old man on "Sat" as if the two were joined at the lip. And the kid is a whiz. But Markovic packs his ensemble with virtuosos. Clarinetist Dilber Jasarevic "Bibe" shoots out a swooping, soaring microtonal solo on "Southern Comfort" that'll get you reaching for the Dramamine. Durak Demirov's equally dizzying sax caps "Mundo Cocek," which quotes Mozart's Symphony No. 40 just for kicks. While purists lash out at Markovic for bringing outside influences into the raucous party mix, his extensions of the gypsy genre usually make good sense. Collaborating with Frank London's Klezmer Brass Allstars on "Magija" gets a pass, since klezmer draws heavily from gypsy styles. And the cover of A. R. Rahman's Bollywood soundtrack piece "Mere Yaara Dildara" connects with gypsy roots in India that are otherwise manifested throughout this disc in the ecstatic percussion that keeps goosing the brass. It's easy to see why the Orkestar is an institution in Serbia, and it's an institution on wheels of fire.
Tito Matos gets to the heart of Puerto Rican musical traditions on Viento de Agua Unplugged's Materia Prima (Smithsonian Folkways). 'Unplugged' is the percussion-and-vocals core of New York-based ensemble Viento de Agua, whose name refers to the water-filled wind that comes in advance of a tropical storm. Think thunder! Bandleader Matos strips away everything but voice and explosive beat to explore the old street corner version of the call-and-response bomba, derived from early 19th century plantation songs of Puerto Rico's West African slave population, and the next century's plena, a 'newspaper in song' commenting on topical issues in the manner of Trinidadian calypso. The music hits hard with percussive artillery that never leaves African roots in question. The lead and unison backing vocals are strong and stirring, especially Roberto Cepeda's oddly intoned foreground to ancient spiritual bomba "Del Oyé." While it's hard to call out stand out percussion on a disc that's comprised of little else, "Ola de la Mar" (Ocean Wave) rides the distinctive sound of a polyrhythm of bells arranged by Matos. Typically excellent Smithsonian Folkways liner notes place tradition and innovation in appropriate perspective.
I'm a sucker for Tango Project (Caliente Records), a tribute to a classic Latin musical style that here feels dated every which-way, from Horacio Ravera's reverb-laden, achingly romantic vocals to the weirdly recorded orchestral accompaniment. The exaggerated dynamics could well be the product of the latest cutting full frequency digital technique, but above all it accentuates the antiquated exuberance of the performances. Three DVD-format videos included on the CD illustrate the tango as dance, and these look at least 50 years out of date. And that's not a negative. For the same reason Hollywood movies from the 1940s are irresistible, Tango Project glows with a vivid and simple brilliance that never stoops to simplemindedness. It's far too sophisticated in its straightforwardness, and the musicians are first rate.
There's a lot of discussion as to what constitutes a mambo. The classic style is best represented on The Rough Guide to Mambo (World Music Network) by Pérez Prado's "Mama y Tata," with its technicolor reeds and brass growling the rhythm. But Mike Chadwick's liner notes tell us, "The origins and definition of mambo are… unclear even to the most respected of Latin music aficionados." So the UK's Snowboy and the Latin Section kick start the disc with a steep incline toward jazz on "Mambo Rage," as does Mamborama on "Night of the Living Mambo," Cal Tjader on "Mambo Macumba," and, well, the list goes on and on. On the historical side, Machito, Bebo Valdés, Xavier Cugat, and others weigh in with the kind of fat horn arrangements that made mambo a phenomenon in the 1950s. And for lovers of lounge silliness, Denise Cook recites the retro poetry of "I Don't Speak Spanish… (But I Understand Everything When I'm Dancing)" as a dialog with the Bobby Matos and John Santos outfit. There's a lot to like, and it's worth noting that the Rough Guide releases are currently celebrating their 10th anniversary, and that's 10 years of typically outstanding discs like this one.I forgot to mention in my last column that Gary Stewart's fascinating and indispensable history of Congolese pop music Rumba on the River is now out in paperback, published by Verso. Even if you only occasionally dip into African rumbas, you'll find it a hugely entertaining read.