(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 9, Number 3, 1990)


Special Historical Interest Technobeat from the Distant Past
(Some facts and opinions may no longer apply)

Try to isolate influences in world music and you usually end up guessing where a particular sound or instrument originated. So many divergent musics have so many elements in common, a vast Atlantis conspiracy theory is the handiest solution, where a monolithic prehistoric culture gifted Hungarians with the secret of Irish jigs and taught Thai plateau dwellers the zen of bluegrass. Still, the Atlanteans could hardly have spun their web into every nook and chimney of the globe.

It's like the identical spiral rock carvings found in points as disparate as Cornwall, Tasmania, and Arizona. Certain basic tendencies in the way all peoples think shave the theoretical hulk of endless diversity down to a finite set of patterns and variation culture after culture can't help but repeat. An arc is still an arc, longing still longing, no matter how a society dresses up its psychology and takes it out on the town. Still, the enigma of the yodel has given me no peace.

The Coral Islanders' "Hui E" off Rounder's exquisite cd Vintage Hawaiian Music: The Great Singers 1928-1934 is cowpoke plain and simple, from aching falsetto to clip-clop backbeat. The Waikiki Stonewall Boys on "Hano Hano Hawaii" are clearly the Sons of the Pioneers in leis. But which came first? Pacific egg or prairie chicken? Try as I may linking frequent naps to creative inspiration, direct A-B causality in life is rare. Imagine then my glee when compiler Bob Brozman revealed in Great Singers' liner notes that Mexican and Portuguese cowboys "besides introducing all manner of stringed instruments such as guitars and ukelele... brought with them a rich tradition of passionate singing, including falsetto singing." Brought these to Hawaii, that is, as well as to the American southwest.

And what of the ubiquitous slide guitar, a staple from blues to ju ju? In another great anthology, Vintage Hawaiian Music: Steel Guitar Masters 1928-1934, Brozman notes that the first documented human to touch metal comb to strings was islander Joseph Kekuku in the 1880s. As to how the technique ranged so far, by 1916 Hawaiian 78s outsold every other genre in the U.S. In other words, this was the first world music craze in the history of sound reproduction. For that fact alone these two cds are must-haves. I grabbed them as curiosities, but their lyricism hooked me. Lost continent or no, those Atlanteans are still at work blending influences, blurring boundaries; the Hawaiian elixir is dissolved in trends of the day-a little corny, yes. But the essence remains strong. Allow the cloudy jazz nostalgia and scratchy-78 primary sources to settle, and gorgeous vocals plus an innocence rarely encountered in pop emerge: the transparent fragility of Rose Moe's falsetto... the familial closeness of the Kalama Quartet's moonlit harmonies... melodies that tighten around the throat before you've credited their power.

The Steel Guitar sampler delivers similar protean punches, from Sol Hoopii's liquid jazz loops to Tau Moe's world land speed record picking, tearing up the otherwise civilized ragtime of "Ellis March." In addition to these two discs, Rounder offers a pair of Sol Hoopii retrospectives plus the Tau Moe Family's 60th anniversary cd, Remembering the Songs of Our Youth, where provocateur Bob Brozman demonstrates a mean streak of his own on Hawaiian steel.

More contemporary but still posited in the past, Smithsonian/Folkways Puerto Rican Music in Hawai'i cd is magnitudes more conservative than its title implies. No merengue-hulas here. Orthodoxy rather than osmosis gets the nod, for these songs by descendents of plantation laborers preserve Puerto Rican music before its influence by Afro-Cuban genres. Fans of traditional Caribbean music should revel in this collection of informal live performances, nearly a field study of the subject. Presentation borders on the encylopedic with meticulous liner notes and a wide variety of styles (plena, seis, bomba, vals and more) served in somewhat meager portions. Still hungry? Spin it again. Need more bombast? See below.

Before our globetrotting forebears dropped accordions from winged discs across Europe and the Americas, they road-tested an early model in Indochina. The kaen, a mouth organ armed with long bamboo tubes, sounds like a breathy cross between harmonica and squeezebox. Or five of them simultaneously, the way Thawee Sridamanee thrashes it out on The Flower of Isan/Isan Slété: Songs and Music from North-East Thailand (GlobeStyle cd).

Clipping melody into beatbox-size rhythmic bites, this man could pump the sequencer intro to the Who's "Baba O'Reilly" while devouring the Steve Reich songbook whole. Though Isan Slété axes acoustic, the ensemble makes a joyful clatter. When kaen, pin (three-string guitar), ponglang (wooden xylophone), and drums let 'er rip on "Lai Lam Toei Sam Jangwa", the effect is of a runaway teak train careening down a mountainside. And mountain music this is, as evidenced by the chipping-at-stubborn-soil rhythms and American bluegrass homonyms: "Lam Phloen"'s bluesy opening, Songsak Prathumsin's mandolin-like pin solos. To clinch it, check Saman Hongsa's duet with his wife on "Hua Ngawk Yawk Sao," where a young woman mocks an elderly admirer until she learns he's loaded. Could flatlanders have such bawdy voices? Shoot, no.

If I can't explain why Thai mawlam music hoes the same row as Appalachian, Indonesian buskers panhandle everything from calypso to Bengali to coin their own slippery amalgam on Street Music of Java (Original Music 60-min. cd). Prepared for mallet on bronze bar, I was shocked to hear a disc mainly of westward leaning guitar-based pop. But gamelan complexity lurks behind the arrangements-notably the anonymous, violin-ukelele-cello group weaving dense magic on "Jasli Jali Kroncong Asli" to create a silky, transcendental East Asian C&W. Other performers get by on sheer exuberance. Jonathan Richman should seek out "Hai Cium Dong"'s flirty, charming naifs, or the impromptu duo on "Katik Ngangg Ngirik" that formed when the ukelele player lacked the chops to go it alone. But spontaneity adds excitement no amount of polish could match. Biggest stand out from all this marvelous music is a tour-de-force comic medley by a young male vocalist deftly playing crowd and hand-drum. The most touching moment belongs to the 16-year old village girl strumming homemade soapbox-and-rubber-tubing zither, tapping out percussion with a pebble.

Compare David Lewiston's Bali: Gamelan and Kecak (Nonesuch 70 min. cd) recordings with his Music from the Morning of the World cd, compiled from two late '60s Nonesuch albums. Performance quality and the breadth of styles are outstanding on both discs. Why, then, the need for yet another kecak (the Ramyana Monkey Chant), a reprise of the "Baris" warrior's dance, or other material already gathered on Morning? Because sound reproduction technology has advanced so far in 20 years, listening to these recordings is to hear Balinese music for the first time. It's not just the richness of timbre-the shimmering attack of the bronze orchestras, the iron-keyed gamelan salunding's introspective roundness. No other release has documented the importance of dynamics this well. Listening to gamelan gong sekaha sadha budaya play in the ferocious kebyar style, I marvelled at the fireworks but the subtleties froze me in my tracks-the startling split-second timing with which the musicians modulate volume to completely change the meaning within a single phrase. The same control appears in the kecak, always a showpiece for discipline anyway. But the additional sonic information emphasizes individual voices as it increases the soundstage of the 80-member choir, humanizing an inhumanly precise a capella composition.

Bali kicks off with an inspired piece of recording, a 12-minute segment of a parade during which jangling instrumental ensembles fade in then out of hearing range. Lewiston here seems to second Street Music's message that art in Indonesian is a boisterous fact of daily life rather than a treasure crated up for occasional, rarified use. Note also the handprint of the Atlantean diaspora in: Ustad Massano Tazi, Musique Classique Andalouse de Fés (Ocora 70-min cd). Mandala-shaped Moroccan classical music played on 18th century strings follows strictures of esoteric medieval Arabic-Andalusian philosophy. Needless to say I got lost in the labyrinth, but much splendid strumming and singing emerge from two lengthy pieces. Perfect soundtrack for reading Foucault's Pendulum, but then you could really miss the point.

Bhundu Boys, Pamberi (Mango cd). If not the return to roots the cover photos and mbira-based "Chitima Kwe" imply, this is something of a return to form-especially on "Chimbira," which transfigures Anglo artrock conceits into narrative with teeth. Wish the keyboard-sounding guitars bit sharper, though. Wish I knew if I keep cranking this up due to the thrill factor or to give it more of one.

Trân Quang Hai and Bach Yên, Vietnam: Dreams and Reality (Playasound 55 min. cd). Trân Quang Hai's zither can be so glissando-wet ("Kîeu Du Xuan," Kîeu's Spring Walk) I expect dew to form between the tines of my restaurant fork. Then Bach Yên's spectacularly clear-skied lilt transports me far beyond the cover art's hostess fantasy. Tran's pretty cool himself when he adds his voice to hers on "Ho Hui" (Soil Beaters' Song), a beat crying out for a wheezy dose of kaen.

Little Lenny, Gun in a Baggy (RAS cd). The wee fellow deserves to know the facts of life at least. 1) 'Gun' is rather too phallic to refer to a woman's nether parts, no matter how much you may fear her sex. 2) Girls don't get gonorrhea on their own. A male is typically involved. 3) That t-shirt's just plain silly, Len.

Towering Dub Inferno-The ROIR Tapes (Rykodisc 60-min. cd) If I've been remiss ignoring ROIR's excellent dub releases (most recently Sanchez #1 Dub and Roots Radics' Hot We Hot Dub) it's because cassette-only doesn't fit the format of a cd-only column. Ryko's sampler fills the bill. More than any music, this ice-cold splash of rhythm deserves the pragmatic sonics of a sampled medium. Lee Perry we expect aloof, stately and mad. Glaciating Sanchez or Black Uhuru demands greater science. Supplied. Take only as demented. Heed the Surgeon General's warning.


[Copyright 1998 Bob Tarte]

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