(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 20, Number 3, 2001)
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)
Back in 1978, the Paul Winter Consort made a kind of musical history on Common Ground by incorporating the calls of wolves, birds, and humpback whales into the group's material. Ancient Future upped the ante in 1981 with the interspecies recording Natural Rhythms, which found Matthew Montfort interacting live on zither with peeping Pacific tree frogs. Could collaboration with instrument-playing animals be far behind? Been there, done that, says a groundbreaking, drum head-straining disc by Dave Soldier, Richard Lair, and various pachyderms on Thai Elephant Orchestra (Mulatta Records).
Director of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC) Richard Lair and musician/neurobiologist Dave Solider came up with the unusual idea of an elephant orchestra in 1999 during one of Lair's rare trips back home to America. Domestic Asian elephants boast massive brains, a keen sense of play, and a highly social nature, so Soldier and Lair wondered if they couldn't teach them to enjoy making communal music. Since the elephants at TECC must earn their keep entertaining tourists, the pair designed large-scale versions of traditional Thai instruments in an attempt to please the site's mostly Asian visitors. Slit drums, renat marimbas, a bass drum, kaen mouth organ, and a gong joined western instruments including harmonicas, a string bass, a theremin, and a synthesizer.
Rather than teaching the pachyderms human-written melodies, Soldier decided to give them basic instruction on their respective axes and let them improvise. His compositional contribution was limited to cueing the mahout trainers to start and stop the elephant players at appropriate moments during a particular piece. The results are far less random than one might imagine and nothing like carnival chickens pecking at toy pianos for kernels of corn. Instead of bashing madly about, the elephants play rhythmically in duple meter, triple meter, and a meter of dotted eighth and sixteenth notes. Opening song "Thung Kwian Sunrise," in fact, suggests youngsters patiently practicing Thai temple instruments.
As to the artistic validity of the results, Soldier suggests you play the compositions for friends without revealing the identity of the performers and see if anyone doubts they are hearing music. I would go further and in philistine fashion raise the specter of the infamous grade-school children's artwork favorably compared to bona fide abstract paintings by gallery owners and art critics who thought schooled adults had made them. I've got LPs in my collection by avant garde musicians David Toop, Max Eastley, and John Zorn that are far less appealing and seemingly more random than what three-ton, 18-year-old female elephant Phangkhawt can accomplish by swinging her trunk.
The first 12 cuts feature elephants jamming by themselves. The last seven songs bring humans into the act, but the pachyderm pieces are more emotionally compelling. "Swing Swing Swing," showcases an elephant setting the pace on slit drum while another adds wind-chime coloration on the renat. A pitchpipe adds a wistful sigh, then a second elephant drummer counters with an uplifting bounce that sends the blues scuttling back into the nearest mousehole. Three renats and a slit drum create a steadfast rhythm for manual labor on "Heavy Logs." Reeds carry the day as two harmonicas establish a carefree tenor on "Harmonica Music" reminiscent of Van Morrison's primitivist mouth-harp intro to "The Waiting Game." Pachyderm percussion and diddley bow basslines gradually enter, lending drama that underscores the sunlit atmosphere. It's tough imagining Soldier can top the appealing the strangeness of this project, though he confided to me he had plans of teaching tame birds such as canaries to play instruments scaled to their dimensions, temperaments, and talents. My first thought was that he had to be putting me on. My second thought was to start scouting pet shops for a budding prodigy.
The butcher bird (Cracticus cassicus) whose bugling song opens Rainforest Soundwalks (Earth Ear) doesn't need instrumental accompaniment to inspire the Bosavi people of the Southern Highlands province of New Guinea. Like the pygmies of Central Africa and the Tuvans of Siberia, the Bosavi draw upon bird songs, insect sounds, frog calls and other natural voices in the creation of their music. Field recordist Steven Feld previously documented the aural landscape of the Bosavi in his Mickey Hart-produced recording Voices of the Rainforest in 1991. Feld is at the forefront of sound gatherers who believe one valid way of understanding a culture is by immersing oneself in what he calls a people's "sonic way of knowing." But the relationship between the Bosavi and their rainforest goes even deeper. Feld's Bosavi friend Seyaka Yubi claimed that the extraordinarily varied butcher bird performance Feld caught on tape was actually the spirit of Seyaka's father, Yubi. "To you they are birds," Yubi once told Feld. "To me they are voices in the forest." Soundwalks documents 24 hours of environmental sounds squeezed down into a series of 'walks' through a short section of rainforest during morning, afternoon and night. Feld seamlessly blends up to four stereo recordings at a time to emphasize individual bird and insect soloists, the better to convey the exhilarating canopy of critter songs. It's one of the most captivating nature recordings I've ever heard, and a beautiful companion to Feld's just-released triple cd of Bosavi songs. [www.earthear.com]
The stages that a people's music passes through in moving from traditional songs to pop styles is the subject of a doctoral dissertation somewhere. To start with, traditional songs must abandon their ceremonial context. Next, the resulting folk music has to make the wrenching change from speaking for the collective to making individual expression meaningful, not to mention catchy. It's usually a long, drawn out process which over 60 years of archival recordings reveal at work in Africa, for example, as European orchestral music collided with local styles. E.T. Mensah in Ghana, I.K. Dairo in Nigeria and Franco in the Congo were men whose pop vision shook a continent, but they had plenty of transitional material as inspiration due to centuries of international contact through commerce, conquest and colonialism.
For the Bosavi people of New Guinea, the invention of pop music has been shatteringly abrupt. The arrival of waves of missionaries in the early 1970s gave the self-sufficient, inward-looking Bosavi their first culture-altering introduction to the outside world. The construction of an airstrip plus mission clinic along with visits by anthropologists, curiosity seekers, and laborers brought foreign influences including radio and cassette tapes to their isolated villages. Due in part to evangelical prohibition and in part to rapid social change, ritual music lost its hold. The pop songs that struggle to fill the void are the subject of Guitar Bands of the 1990s, first disc of the beautiful three-cd set Bosavi: Rainforest Music from Papua New Guinea (Smithsonian Folkways), recorded by Stephan Feld from 1976 through 1999.
Sophistication isn't much in evidence in these songs. If you don't like the simple melodies and forced vocal styles applied from a couple of decades of exposure to Christian hymns, you're out of luck. Not only isn't obvious song-to-song diversity evident, but the 11 different bands here are also pretty much cut from the same cloth. But that's small potatoes when weighed against the jolt of experiencing the actual ground zero of pop invention by the first generation of Bosavi string bands. Flush with an out-of-place, almost Appalachian flavor and buzzing with slightly discordant guitar harmonies, the performances are so full of enthusiasm and steely attention to newly emergent craft, it's hard to turn your back on their sheer joy. The subject matter is blissfully free of guile. My favorite is "Sadness," a song performed on New Year's Eve of 1999 evoking nostalgia for 1998. "We were together in 1998," observes Lus Mangi Grin Neks String Band, named for a regional brand of beer, "And it is going out now."
While the core style comes from imitating cassettes from other New Guinean pop artists, closer influences are apparent in disc two, Sounds and Songs of Everyday Life. The women's sago preparation songs have the same melodic simplicity, and the arrangement of a track titled "Men's vocal quartet with seed-pod rattles" suggests that by adding a couple of guitars the next local pop hit is close at hand. Closing this disc is a 25-minute aural portrait of birds, insects, and the villagers, which hints at the richness of Rainforest Soundwalks. The music on the third disc, Sounds and Songs of Ritual and Ceremony, is remote and mysterious by comparison to compositions made for sheer pleasure. Some of the songs not too surprisingly draw their inspiration from local fauna, such as the bird calls which help to shape the funerary weeping pieces. As a snapshot of the pre-contact Bosavi and a document of music now abandoned, this disc holds interest, especially when you lean on the notes in the 80-page accompanying booklet. But as outsiders we can hope to glean little from the Bosavi's ancient ritual songs except trying to extract listening pleasure where none was ever intended. You might as well eavesdrop on physicists discussing the latest intangible particle. The guitar music disc keeps everything nice and simple, and that's always been the secret lurking behind the most successful pop.
It could be a music lover's idea of hell. A Madagascar ensemble coos the Ronette's 1963 hit "Be My Baby" in French and English while backing Indonesian musicians add tuned percussion and mournful violin. Far from being an annoyance, though, the song is a fun if forgettable blip on Soul Makassar (Triloka Records), an unlikely collaboration between Malagasy folk-rockers Tarika and members of producer Gugum Gumbira's Sundanese house band. Tarika's leader Hanitra Rasoanaivo made the trek to Indonesia to dig up the roots of her people, who settled Madagascar from Indonesia some 1500 years ago. A month among the Bugis, Makassar and Torajan people of Sulawesi revealed similarities in customs, language, food and religion that floored her.
Musical similarities are less forthcoming, though. The radiant vocal attack favored by Tarika is oil to the aqueous charms of the Indonesian's melancholy jaipongan pop, which owes more to timbral complexity than to hummable melody. The collaboration succeeds as well as it does not so much by attempting to blend the two styles but by mutually giving way. Typically it's Tarika's show with vocals dominating the Malagasy rhythms and bits of space cleared for curlicues of Sundanese suling flute or strings. "Sulawesi" boasts the pleasure of a Malagasy valiha zither chiming in one's right ear while an Indonesian kecapi zither ripples in the left. It's a lovely piece with requisite dollops of Sundanese flute and violin, but the slower tempo bogs down Tarika's girl group harmonies. Much more compelling is the event-packed "Kingsong," which marries the anticipation-fraught Madagascar salegy beat with a laid-back jaipongan ambience. Economical bursts of guitar strike and coil around a tiered vocal arrangement that's peppered with party shouts, pebbly percussion, and predatory panting from one of the Indonesians.
Soul Makassar is produced by part-time Java resident Sabah Habas Mustapha, aka Colin Bass, whose own cds with Gumbira's Jugala All Stars have launched hits in Indonesia and Europe. The same multi-pronged approach is clearly at play here. While "Be My Baby" is the only obvious nod to America, "Set Me Free" features an English-language chorus consisting exactly of those words and a vaguely western arrangement. "Tovavavy" is the kind of mild eccentricity world beat enthusiasts eat up. It resembles a tears-in-beer country ballad enlivened by zither cascades, lush harmonies, strummed cowboy guitar, accordion, and an energetic slide guitar solo. My favorite cut, "Madindo," is held for last, presumably because Tarika merely tags along as the Indonesians unleash a tongue-twisting rap name-checking local ethnic groups. A steam-train "I Am the Walrus" rhythm, beep-beep backing vocals, and stuttering violin compete with out-of-body vocals and general astral hilarity. Too bad Frank Zappa died before he had a chance to hear this controlled chaos, or he would have beaten Tarika to Bandung in a heartbeat.
Another Hanitra pushes the boundaries of Malagasy music on The New Voice of Madagascar (ARC Music). Hanitra Ranaivo floats her effortless voice through a few traditional-based songs and lots of moves in different directions. "Kalo" borrows its low-key chops from samba, adding pepper with Brun Jofa's violin solo. The Euro-ballad "Omeko Anao" is destined for ice rink interpretations, though the soggy synthesizer might forestall triple axels. "Habakabaka" envelops a faux-mbira with Hanitra's multiplexed vocals, and "Lavitra Anao" pulls the disc further into ballad territory with a tearjerker about forbidden love. The pieces based on local dance rhythms wield the most oomph, but this woman's got a pretty enough voice to sneak in through the mainstream, and she frequently surprises by turning a sleeper like "Tara" into a barnburner through a folkloric climax.
Speaking of Indian Ocean islands, it's a wonder the saltwater doesn't boil away due to the scorching Creole ensemble fronted by the self-titled 'Great Witchdoctor' of Reunion Granmoun Lélé (alias Julien Phileas) on Dan Ker Lélé (Indigo). Reminiscent of Haitian ceremonial music but with a sweetness to the backing female singers, these energy-charged maloya songs about island life and history throw off Carnival-style exuberance the same way an atomic bomb throws off electrons. The performances have the flavor of dead-of-night rituals where a battery of drums and shakers provide the only competition for the lead and massed voices. Look closely beneath the heavy aura of spirit possession and you just might find a suggestion of pop sensibility not too far removed from Nigerian juju and fuji, which is why I keep going back to this disc for more brain-scrambling mayhem. And with its sophisticated interlocking vocal parts, the cautionary love fable "Tele Mofo" might even be mistaken for Zap Mama alumnus Sally Tribu's African art music. [Distributed by Harmonia Mundi]
Out of retirement for the second time in their long career, South Africa's Mahotella Queens pack each and every single syllable of Sebai Bai (Indigo) with more wattage than most artists accumulate through the course of an entire disc. With its smattering of English-language lyrics and change of pace songs like the anthem "Masibambaneni" - which spotlights the women's sterling harmonies plus their turn-on-a-dime timing - along with the rock steady rouser "Dlhaya Mhunu," this is the royals most accessible release yet. If the authenticity feels blunted, it may have less to do with the aforementioned than the loss of founding members Malathini and West Nkosi and the gain of a young back-up band to whom mbaqanga is as quaint an anachronism as ragtime. The great-grandmother status of the principals is a contributing factor, too. While the feverish intensity that made me once suspect the Queens were barking mad is gone, this reformed world beat outfit definitely delivers exemplary pop. [Distributed by Harmonia Mundi]
Banning Eyre's book In Griot Time about his stay with and tutelage under the Super Rail Band's lead guitarist Djelimady Tounkara may well be the reason why Indigo has just reissued Mansa. If so, I'm hoping that the Bamako band's essential releases from the 1970s follow this tasty, slightly updated offering originally on the street in 1995. Tounkara, according to Eyre's account, skipped the Havana recording sessions which became the first Buena Vista Social Club disc in order to court a wealthy patron at home. His amazingly fluid guitar work, always sounding spare even when lashing off a delirious run of notes, hint at what he might have added to Ry Cooder's project. The Super Rail Band de Bamako made history by harnessing the firepower of Congolese rumbas and yoking it to griot praise songs. Some 25 years later on Mansa, that initial charge still shoots out sparks with its regal horn arrangements, rock solid song craft and a sense of swing rivaling the Cuban big bands. [Distributed by Harmonia Mundi]
Brooklyn's Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra revives Fela Anikulapo Kuti's big band Nigerian dance music on Liberation Afro Beat Vol. 1 (Ninja Tung) right down to the click of the clave and the irresistible guitar chug at the basement of each song. The members have got the politics down, too, decrying no smaller demon than capitalism itself, a rather exotic stance these days that suits this retro music as much as cover art adapted from I-Roy's 1997 Crisis Time lp. It's heady, hearty stuff flaunting a beefy horn section and Martin Antibalas' honking baritone saxophone leads. The only drawback is that the egalitarianism deprives this unit of a charismatic central ego, and the laser-sharp arrangements lack the loopy, lurching, offhandedness of Fela's sprawling performances. (1751 Richardson Suite 4501, Montreal, Quebec H3K1G6 or www.antibalas.com)
I'd almost forgotten that Gregory Isaacs hasn't always waxed romantic. Mr. Isaacs (Blood and Fire) exhumes an album first released in 1977 just before the Jamaican crooner hit it big. His smooth purr of a voice puts an unlikely edge on a nicely crafted song cycle that slips tough lyrics about the "black man's hell" into the passenger seat of a shiny pop vehicle. Standout track "Handcuffs" describes one of the singer's first arrests for drugs with an understated intensity that doesn't flinch from conveying pain. Adding to the harrowing mood of this and other tracks is Sly Dunbar's remarkable percussion. Love songs "Story Book Children" and a vaguely ominous cover of the Temptations' "Get Ready" are sufficiently wistful to tuck into the loss and deliverance motif. Compiler Steve Barrow extends the range of the original lp by adding Dillinger's "Take a Dip" take on Isaac's "Slavemaster," the long version of "Mr. Brown," 1978's 12-inch "Mr. Know It All" with superb backing vocals by the Heptones, and a couple of other goodies.
Orquesta Aragon celebrates its 60th anniversary on La Charanga Eterna (Lusafrica), though this staple of Cuban radio and recordings is wet behind the ears compared to Septeto Habenero, Septeto Nacional and other state-supported ensembles able to recall the halcyon years before there was a Jethro Tull. Doing what they do best under the direction of the late Rafael Lay's son Rafael Lay Bravo, the Aragonians hitch their breezy flute flounces and swaying violins to classic songs by Arsenio Rodriguez, Ernesto Lecuona and a couple of the band's old hits. Papa Wemba visits his high-pitched pipes on "No Quiero Llanto," Omara Portuondo gives CPR to "Siboney," and Orquesta alumnus Felo Bacallao hits the mike a couple of times. While these popularizers of the cha-cha-cha are unlikely to strike lightning again, this utterly pleasant collection is smooth as they come.
The denizens of the office where I do freelance writing each morning love to luxuriate in classic rock radio. As a balm against the noise, I've been hiding behind headphones and Danish folk-rock group Sorten Muld's second American release, III (NorthSide Records), the appropriately-named follow-up to Mark II. Lulled by Ulla Benedixsen's whispery voice, I thought of this mixture of acoustic instruments, electronics, and computer rhythms as ambient. And while "Ulver" and a few other songs never do rise above the background effects, I was taken aback by a current of aggressiveness when I plunked this on my home stereo and tried it for evening listening. "Lørdagskvaeld" (Saturday Night) is propelled by manic drumming reminiscent of Can's Jaki Liebezeit, while guitars swollen with feedback puncture the gauzy surface of "Roselil Rose." Though the hip-hop rhythm of "Velven" (Fortune Teller) blunts the forward motion by virtue of its canned quality, the druggy chorus with overlapping vocals recovers the momentum. "Ramund" is a similar case. Just as a song circles the void, threatening to sink into undifferentiated obscurity, one of the Mulds flings out an arm, clings to an interestingly shaped piece of debris, and jabs it squarely into the listener's memory.
Hermits on the lookout for a soundtrack to solitude won't do better than Pekka Lehti's duets with fellow Finnish folk revivalists on Outo Voima (Aito Records). Lehti is the bassist for the exuberant girl group Värttinä, whose tonsil power no doubt contributed to his decision to reside on the quiet fortress island of Suomenlinna. His taste for the subdued is reflected in the self-effacing 37-minute duration of his first solo project and the stillness of songs that retreat deep into the plaster and mingle with centuries-old lichens. "Vainajalan Tango," a stately collaboration with Värttinä's Timo Alakotila on accordion, is as wild as matters get. Even Samiland's most prominent joiker, Wimme Saari, plows uncharacteristic rows of introspection on his two cuts. "Veijo" is genuinely eerie as Pekka matches Wimme's shamanic chants by bowing an electric bass. The loveliest bits include JPP's Arto Järvelä sawing violin to a bouncing bassline and Jarmo Saari adding jazzy electric guitar to the umlaut-laden "Päivölä." [C83A9 Helsinki, Finland 00190 or via www.musicfinland.com/pekka]
I needed to pry open my mind to appreciate Kirsty MacColl's Tropical
Brainstorm (Instinct Records). This final project by the late daughter
of British folk godfather Ewan MacColl dabbles in Cuban music the same way
Laurie Anderson appropriated salsa on Mr. Heartbreak. She even makes
a point of honor of avoiding backing musicians with a background in Latin
styles. Given MacColl's emergence after a long hiatus and the current trendiness
of Cuban music, Brainstorm raises a red flag. But the innocence this
music biz pro brings to Caribbean fare makes the conceit sound fresh. Her
skill with a wry lyric plays nicely against a deadpan delivery as foreign
to the genre as Buster Poindexter is to soca, and look what happened there.
The closest we get to emotion on this disc of party tunes is the feigned
shock and arousal peppering the charanga-spiced "Here Comes that Man
Again," a tale of late-night e-mail encounters with an Amsterdam pornographer.
"In These Shoes?" juxtaposes the spontaneous amorousness of the
singer's suitors with her own practicality in suiting shoes to appropriate
tasks. Though it's probably too precious to appeal to Latin music lovers
preferring straightforward pleasures, Brainstorm has an endearing
to-hell-with-it abandon along with an mpeg video of "Mambo de la Luna"
for the computer crowd.
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)
[Copyright 2001 Bob Tarte]