(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 10, Number 1, 1991)


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

The most impassioned Western music seems to generate its heat by setting fire to something else. The history of jazz and rock can be viewed as an ongoing process of creation founded on the destruction of what has come before. Brimstone prophets, those musicians that really matter--Faustians Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, anarchists Little Richard, Dylan, The Sex Pistols--each reinterpreted established genres to the point of their near obliteration.

While the most innovative jazz seeks new languages of the heart, reserving its oppobrium for dialects that falls short of a precisely articulated pentecost, rock's slash and burn is less concerned with critiquing intellectual theory than wreaking a big cultural noise. So the targets are correspondingly large--politics, social standards, sexual roles--the content a resounding condemnation. Even positive messages tend to be expressed in the negative. Stop the war. Fight the power. Stop making sense. Shut up.

Behind this spirit of denial stands a profound lack of faith in social institutions, which we debate almost exclusively in terms of freedom versus confinement. The Constitution, our country's poetic soul, is interpreted as a set of legalisms rather than a repository of illuminated thought. But it's different in non-Western cultures, where wisdom as well as spirit are considered to reside in fixed tradition that addresses every conceivable aspect of life. Renewal, when required, is only a matter of generating sufficient heat to thaw and revitalize an existing truth.

Hence the fire of Sona Diabete's brilliant Girls of Guinea (Shanachie cd), music as passionate as expected from any angry young rocker, folkie or jazz-woman of American birth. But instead of calling out opposition, song after song vigorously upholds standards of Diabate's country and culture, transposing the traditional Mandinka pulse of kora and balaphon to twin acoustic guitars. "Koloman" celebrates the laborers of Diabate's land. "Horro" lights a candle to the archetypal honest man. "Nassannaba" praises a member of the Touré royal family. Not obvious barnburning material.

Such fare in a western context would amount to dull propragandizing and sloganeeering, especially since Diabate is hardly divorced from the political institutions of her country. Both she and arranger-guitarist Demba Camara are members of the national gendarmarie. But far from some cross between Up With People and Sgt. Barry Sadler, Diabate, sister Sayon, brother Sekou, and Camara create music of irrefutable emotional force, made all the more immediate by its live capture to two-track digital tape. Guitars ripple steadily in the background, gently diving then resurfacing, like a river's testament to timelessness. Diabate and sister cut wide swaths through winter-sky stark arrangements with impassioned vocals in love with their own love of faith. Even "Kankele-ti," a celebration of romance, is delivered with the pointed urgency of a street singer who sees the last chance to get out the message as night deepens and pedestrians dwindle. Raw-throated and unsweetened, there is sharpness in her admonitions to follow the old standards, but so much emotional outreach that Diabate places our hands with hers on the hilt of the knife.

American Gospel music shares some of the same tone and sensibility, and, as defender of traditional Christian ethics, would seem to stake out similar cultural territory. Except that while gospel is centered in religion, Diabete's music, in sound and sense, is rooted in the sweet African land. Where gospel pits itself against the perceived decadence of a separate secular world, Diabate reaches out her arms in embrace to present us with an unselfish, inclusive gift.

Delicately balanced between two worlds, Najma's Atish (Shanachie cd) recasts ancient Persian ghazals in a modern setting, flirting with the instant gratification of ecstatic sax solos and lush synthesizer washes, then, buttons and zippers deftly rearranged, pulling away at the last possible instant. Eyes cast heavenward, this British Muslim opts for denial as mystical marriage with her sought-after beloved. But things are seldom as simple as one's best intentions. Betrayed by her own voice as it descends from soaring, flutelike peaks to full-bodied sensual awareness, the singer keeps colliding with the concrete realities of physical attachment. "My lover is jet black," she broods in "Nikala", "Keep the white girls away. I am also dark, like a beauty spot, so keep those white girls away." Lest we mistake a flash of jealousy for expulsion from the garden, Atish closes with an object lesson. Contrasted with her earlier unbearable joy of longing, Najma's reading of J.D. Souther's "Faithless Love" is all empty aftermath, an emotional hangover from immersion in the wrong kind of love. As the disc's only song in English, the only one with a western pop arrangement, "Faithless" is also an admonition against dissolving too far into the fickle material world. Plus it demonstrates the psychic inferiority of country and western to qawwali.

As I first sat down to Gnawa, Music of Marakesh--Night Spirit Masters (Axiom cd), I had a hard time believing I hadn't stumbled onto the work tapes from a lost all-acoustic Led Zep opus. Isn't that the bridge from "Dazed and Confused" at the end of "Mimoun Mamrba"? Or "Tramin" a John Bonham tom-tom sketch? There's no mistaking it. Grounded in as close to a fundamental rhythm as I've ever heard, somewhere between a brisk walk and cardiac arrest, this traditional fusion music of Morocco and the Niger River peoples offers unshakable direct evidence that Africa invented rock n' roll. Using sentir for Fender bass, laying on the cymbals and drums, these Saharan spirit doctors serve up a wicked, therapeautic funk as a balm to the depressed and disturbed or to open up the consciousness for visitation by the saints. Sounds good to me. One blast of "Hamouda" and you know the gods must be cool.

It's as if a petty demiurge told Ousmane Kouyate to go forth and forge a Guiniean-based world music from exhausted Stax horn charts and assorted rock cliches--then stood back ashamed as Kouyate mixed a vibrant pallet from such milky potato water. Neither as musular nor trendbreaking as Youssou N'Dour's latest, Domba (Mango cd) displays a dazzling sense of flow, its songs in constant flux. Don't care for "Kounday"'s lounge lizard ambience? In an instant it turns reggae before coasting to a miraculous griot climax. If mosaic isn't your thing, ignore the fuss and bother and concentrate on Kouyate's encyclopedic approach to electric guitar.

I'm not sure what impressed me more, the gutsy, lovely songs or the tragic stories behind them on Singing in an Open Space: Zulu Rhythm and Harmony, 1962-1982 (Rounder cd). That artists as gifted as vocalist Mhleneleni Mtambo or accordionist Raymond Mbele came to a bad end isn't a fate peculiar to black South Africans. That we don't know for certain what happened to them can only be explained by the arrogance of a culture which valued Zulu music only as far as the closest bank. Cheated out of his royalties, Mbele disappeared into a mining job. Mtambo and others simply disappeared. Saddest may be pioneering guitar stylist John Bhengu, who died after a 30-year career without ever having told the story of his life in music. Herein he testifies eloquently.

Youssou N'Dour, Set (Virgin cd). Eschewing trend and fashion, Set manages to sound absolutely contemporary without sounding like anything else--though I wouldn't be surprised that, once the frenetic arrangements were slowed down to sub-dolphin tempo and analyzed, any given millisecond contained a cross-section of every current genre of pop. In fact, by sheer speed not a few cuts flirt with the noise factor missing from much allegedly dangerous but squeaky-clean world music (see zouk). The whirling dervish horns at the close of "Alboury" are as intense as any punk or rap I've ever heard, while that Voice soars above the chaos involved but unconcerned. Intriguing idiosyncracy: continent-spanning music paired with location-specific West African lyrics on 7 songs out of 13 songs.

Ketama, Y Es Ke Me Han Kambiao Los Tiempos (Mango cd). Stinging acoustic music from Spain tough enough to proclaim flamenco the axis mundi of worldbeat--yielding enough to let violins and brass flesh out the tonal colors their previous work already implied. Don't let the generic labels fool you. Tango, buleria, rumba, not even "Shivarita"'s warning of something called bulesalsa eases the shock of multi-pronged attacks disguised as miniature suites. The lute/electric guitar confrontation on "Pirata" is choreographed violence from David Lynch's wildest dreams.

Zein Musical Party, The Style of Mombasa (GlobeStyle cd). The variation between any two styles of taarab equals the distance from ska to dancehall squared. Throwing out Zanzibari traditions and urban amplification alike, Zein L'Abin Ahmed Almoody's embrace of the oud opens the floodgates to Nile civilization influences. Then, just to show he listens as well as absorbs, this homebody Kenyan entrepreneur spins stunningly complex webs that reach all the way to Spain (the string solo "Taksim Bayati" especially). If you can decode the supplied chart of relationship between rhythms and modes, and you're not some kind of an initiate, let me know.

Aswad, Too Wicked (Mango cd). As if they needed adversity to achieve, these Brit superstars triumph when locked in combat with the soul devouring sampling machine ("Fire") or when facing down the whole demented world at once ("Confidential"). But "Best of My Love" and "Perhaps" provide insufficient resistance to test their mettle. Eyes closed, hands clasped behind their heads, they slide down the reggae pop chute like nothing. And I mean nothing.

Martin Swan, Mouth Music (Rykodisc cd). Irish music is worldbeat's poor relation. Even bluegrass gets more respect, though Celtic echoes run through pop as far removed from Cork as Soweto. And at full-tilt a reel is as Dionysian as your average runaway juju locomotive. So why doesn't this trial marriage of trancy Gaelic vocal rounds and African rhythms gel? Electrical disturbance. Swan's self-absorbed synthesizer virtuosity spawns chilly planetscapes when he should be sowing fecund matter for vocalist Talitha MacKenzie's hymns to Demeter. Plus the try-this-now-that cut-to-cut diversity seems less a sign of mastery of form than the whatever-works shotgun scatter of a demo disc.

Andanzas, Songs of South America (Northeastern cd). Panpipes and Andean flutes choke some of the finest musicians with nostalgia, perhaps because the vestiges of Incan folk music haven't evolved on their own into broader form of pop. While Californians Huayacaltia construct a subjective pre-Columbian soul history from traditional shards, East Coast-based trio Andanzas plays the original texts with deceptive straightforwardness. Harp, guitar and woodwinds evoke brisk patches of sunlight deftly split into prismatic components, easy on the bouncy melancholia. Good taste bonus: lesser known Argentinian and Venezuelan songs.

Paul Simon, Rhythm of the Saints (Warner Bros. cd). He's taken grief for grafting words and melody on pre-recorded rhythm tracks, as if most contemporary American music is made some other way. As far as back as I can chart, Simon's conversational vocal style dangled just above the surface of the music. Here, both pools are dark, devoid of Graceland's hope of faith, a blown apart window on an exhausted spirit occasionally lit by the wonder that emptiness provides any nourishment at all. If this is coasting, it's with wings, and the scenary is gorgeous.


[Copyright 1998 Bob Tarte]

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