(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 9, Number 4, 1990)


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

The folks at Shanachie Records told me they will no longer be issuing new releases in the lp format. Just cds and cassettes. RAS Records has also discontinued production of vinyl 'long-players.' Other companies (Mango comes to mind) can't be far behind. Those who mourn the end of vinyl for intertwined reasons of history and mystique can take heart. Research into digital sound reproduction has uncovered obscure phenomena of the same quasi-religious nature as quarks, quasars, and dark matter.

Writing in the May 1990 Stereophile, the hi-fi junkie's bible, John Atkinson performed exhaustive lab tests on 'tweak' items designed to enhance cd sound. These include cd sound rings-which add weight to a disc to reduce jitter and consequent laser-reading errors-and the notorious Audioprism pen for painting the edge of a cd green. This supposedly cuts down 'laser-scatter' for clearer, better focused sound. So convinced was Rykodisc of the efficacy of green paint pens, the label briefly gave them away as promo items.

Audiophiles scoff at such fixes. "Digits is digits," the saying goes, meaning with cds you're dealing with either-or binary information that's there or isn't. There's no there in between. So Stereophile's Atkinson felt duty-bound to lay the tweak ghost in its coffin by subjecting this sonic-quackery to rigorous Aristotelian investigation. Using a bank of state-of-the-faith digital test instruments, he analyzed cds before and after tweaking. No surprise. Both sound rings and green paint had zero measurable effect on error reduction or enhancement of frequency response. "Most of these tweaks would appear to border on voodoo, with no basis in fact," Atkinson noted. Yet despite what his equipment told him, his ears were "flabbergasted" by the dramatic audible effect of the green paint pen: "Soundstage depth increased, mids and highs were smoother with less grain, and the presentation became more musically involving."

How to explain such intangibles as Atkinson's sudden musical involvement? "Just as in analog audio, there are things going on in digital audio that have not been identified, but influence sonic characteristics," he wrote. "I am convinced that undiscovered optical phenomena in cd playback affect sound quality."

I'm wondering now when someone will announce a correspondence between digital-optical phenomena and the formation of British crop circles. For the record (or is it now the disc?), though the green paint pen allegedly works wonders on cheap and grand players alike, I noticed not one whit of improvement with my Jali Roll test-cd. A friend of mine who owns a high-end audio store confided he can't hear the miracle either. But he sure sells scads of pens. Maybe I've got tin ears. But I doubt it, considering my glee in a number of recent world music releases. Such an avalanche that I'll be even more abbreviated than usual to wedge in all I can.

Masters of Turkish Music (Rounder 70-min. cd). Despite the seemingly formidible nature of a collection of early 20th century Turkish court, folk, and pop music, lovers of pure voice can't help be swept away. There's much to marvel at, including Safiye Ayla's note-for-note mirroring of an ud melody on "The Long Nights" and Münir Nurettin Selçuk's penetrating interpretation of a Sufi text on "A Disturbed Nightingale Am I." This anthology elicits the same compelling feeling one gets when finding an antique photo album of startling portraits and wondering who the charismatic figures were.

Annabouboula, In the Baths of Constantiople (Shanachie cd). Until I lay hands on Soup of the Century this ancient-world/modern-mess collision more than quenches my Mustapha craving. These Athens-NYC commuters backpack the best bits of funk and bazaar cultures, detouring onto Planet Claire to stake out "Haman," touching tale of a voyeur, or crowbarring folk rembitiko music inside-out on "The American" with noise guitar worthy of a non-middle path Steve Tibbetts. The rare continent-straddling, bold experiment without seams. Irritatingly hummable, too.

Chaba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoudi, Hana Hana (Mango cd). Removing the cheesy synthesizer from rai is tantamount to stripping reggae of its skank. In conscience can't be done. So Ben Ali runs free-rein with a rebab-timbred keyboard that sprays useless fire extinguisher squirts on the Chaba-Cheb Algerian disco inferno. The Arab-language vocals fit the patched-in instrumentals spandex-tight, each incomprehensible phoneme a moaned double-entendre-laden invitation to dance. "Ma Nesbarchi"'s trumpet hook even sounds like the inevitable slide onto the floor. For whatever.

Eus Komariah with Jugala Orchestra, Jaipongan Java (GlobeStyle cd). The indigenous gamelan-driven pop of jaipongan-stitched together from folk forms by guru Gugum Gumbira-is fueled by a rhythm so complex and capricious I felt I was listening to a random number generator fortuituosly striking a steady stream of primes. Not that it's cold or distant. This is sassy stuff where Eus sings her lovesick tales, bandmembers shriek assenting or dissenting glee, and kendang demon Agus beats a burbling octave-deep drum. To my green ears, one dazzling cut is pretty much undifferentiated from another. As one can argue of snowflakes, except close-up.

Maulidi and Musical Party, Mombasa Wedding Special (GlobeStyle cd). The press of bodies on the band is the sole glue holding arrangements together. Maulidi sings distractedly, as if his mind is on broader vistas than the next urban wedding shindig. But the man exudes confidence supreme and his musicians spin in place like a faithful ceiling fan, rhumba upon ngoma. If this Kenyan taarab lacks the narrative drama of its Zanzibari counterpart, the casual warmth and familiar pop references almost compensate. The documentary-style production enlightens by anchoring the form to location and event, adding just enough gloss to avoid the dry aesthetics of your typical field recording.

Lee "Scratch" Perry, From the Secret Laboratory (Mango cd). Though this has neither the shock nor unexpected sweetness of Time Boom, his previous collab with producer Adrian Sherwood, the mix is texturally rich and sufficiently varied to suggest actual songs hanging from the wooden spike of Perry's co(s)mic rants. Useless comparing the cut-and-paste style to acid-house, when Scratch's psychedelic shack pre-dates the trend by decades. Solid stuff.

Lee Scratch Perry, Message From Yard (Rohit cd). Without the flesh of strong arrangements, Perry dissolves into disembodied voice, like the the black astronaut stranded on the moon in the "In Living Color" skit. This is a plus. Disc-length his uninterrupted babbling turns into an echoplex mantra, a jazz scat solo in search of a combo. Dream ticket: Perry and ex-members of Gong.

Lee "Scratch" Perry with Mad Professor, Mystic Warrior (Ariwa/RAS 33-min. cd). Here you come to hear the band, which-whether or not existing in physical time and space-comes across as a cohesive group effort rather than recombinant ping-ponging multitracks. Another surprise: ballasted by a pair of strong Marley covers, the music actually resembles reggae. And Perry actually sings-a bit like John Lydon's whiny vocal shennanigans, perhaps, but the old rascal cares enough to bother to lug around a tune.

Mad Professor Captures Pato Banton (Ariwa/RAS cd). Pato may rant righteous elsewhere, but here he's a party animal plain and simple, transmogrified into a likable chattering gopher by the Professor's research-driven dread-in-a-test tube formula.

Mahmoud Ahmed, Ere Mela Mela (Hannibal cd). Sorry, I don't get it. The backward-sounding vocals, stuck-needle grooves and peppery sax of the first two cuts promise a dark and spiralling excursion. From that point this goes nowhere, unless your idea of locomotion is shlock rock lifted whole hog from an Ethiopian Holiday Inn. Unforgettable, yes, but name six good songs by the Doors.

Muzsikás, Blues for Transylvania (Hannibal cd). If a Dionysian spirit of dance rose up from the earth, would you dig in heels to join her or stand back watching dumbstruck? These frenetic Hungarians would whip out fiddles and saw away until they'd corkscrewed that restless sucker back into the ground. Praises are due not just for these somber stomps but the democracy with which they are executed. Despite female vocalist Martá Sebestyen's rising star as solo artist, here she takes her humble place as just another inhumanly talented bandmember.

"Two Girls Started to Sing..."-Bulgarian Village Singing (Rounder 60-min. cd) Not your usual Bulgarian vocalscape for lunar eclipse. These burry, rootsy duets from the southwest country are about forgetting the sun during the drudgery of heavy field work. The photographic-quality recording jealously captures in situ each murmured aside and creak of a door as context for this stirring music before it surely fades. Dandy, extensive liner notes, too.

Majek Fajek, Prisoner of Conscience (Mango cd). Nothing else on this bright disc of Nigerian reggae lives up to the magnificent "Send Down The Rain." Fajek's "Redemption Song" cover provides the clue, its upbeat mood so at odds with content it makes sense only as tribute. "Africans Keep Your Culture" compounds the problem, basing an entire song on a Wailer's throwaway line. If he plans to succeed as more than a Marley footnote, Fajek should remember that prophets rarely ordain themselves.

Lucky Dube, Prisoner (Shanachie cd). For one thing, this South African doesn't pretend finger pointing solves the problem or necessarily states the situation in full. For another, he backs up voice and attitude with songs as good "War and Crime," one after another, for the strongest reggae on disc since Foundation's Heart Feel It. But his touch is so much lighter, even when the spirit is weary. And the Peter Tosh vocal resemblance is just a footnote.

Jali Musa Jawara, Yasimika (Hannibal 33-min. cd). Not merely music, but a sensual overload-a great interlocking overlapping of kora, balaphon, and male and female voice, melodically succinct while lush and sweeping like a treeful of goldfinches. The short playing time of this disc of Manding songs of praise was undoubtedly the product of a compromise between some nervous state senator and the PMRC. How much ecstacy, after all, can even the virtuous bear to witness?

Balafon Marimba Ensemble (Shanachie cd). The concept stinks of throwaway: Washington staters discover someone else's musical heritage, but conviction and a shrewd choice of material win out. Instead of laying out a sprawling world music buffet of finger food gathered from here and there, instrumentalists concentrate on meat and potatoes chimurenga from Zimbabwe, ringingly and joyfully delivered. The Ephat Mujuru-assisted "Taivera" is enough to renew my faith in the elusive notion of global community-or, that failing, may point to a realiable energy alternative to fossil fuels.


[Copyright 1998 Bob Tarte]

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