(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 9, Number 2, 1990)


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

In a 1987 interview in Britain's Folk Roots magazine, Márta Sebestyén of the Hungarian band, Muzsikás, expressed frustration at the west's perception of her country. "Most of the people think, 'Oh, the poor East European singers cannot escape from their country, they cannot come and play in England.'" Fact is, she reported, "We can come and play anywhere"-except that the British and West German governments refused to grant Muzsikás work permits due to pressure from protectionist musicians' unions.

While Budapest may not exactly be a mainstream European hub, this is only a post-world war development. With the barriers down and alliances in question, the future is once more up for grabs. Meantime, Hungary's isolation hasn't been all one-sided. Our ignorance of East European music stems as much from marketplace diffidence as from lack of options back home. This is changing; ironically, the watershed moment wasn't the abrupt disintegration of the Warsaw Pact, but the commercial breakthrough of Bulgarian vocal music two years ago-material both strange and familiar enough to start a stream of eastern material in no danger of running dry.

A pair of releases from Hannibal/Carthage attempt a Bulgarian-style success with bands from Hungary. Between them, the strengths of the mystére recordings are collectivized-vocal pyrotechnics, Asia Minor-flavored, minor-key instrumentation (strings, flutes, bagpipes), and a gnostic world-weariness tempered by bursts of irrational joy. (If you miss Balkan music's ecstatic center, see below for a surprising entry from Latvia.) Named for their mentor, the late ethnomusicologist Tihamer Vujicsics, Vujicsics (vuy-chitch) are preservationalists of Hungarian folk in the same sense that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band maintain the Old Timey C&W and bluegrass perpetual flame. Both groups operate with deserved reverence for pieces of endangered history, so both view the past with a certain wistfulness that threatens to disconnect it from the present.

So when Vujicsics open their eponymous cd with a salt-of-the-earth appetite for happiness, chirping, insisting, "Aye, we're having it good," the volumes left unsaid set their free-spiritedness in brackets. Instead of ringing hollow, Vujicsics' celebratory stance is tantamount to bravery. On the one hand "Malo Kolo" and "Sokacko Kolo" charge forward with the skull rattling fiddle-attack of bluegrass, gleefully refusing to abandon the boiler of the beloved Orange Blossom Special or its Serbo-Croatian equivalent. On the other hand, "Zbogom Selo" reminds us that struggle stripped of joy leaves teeth-gritting determination, the soul of this music, maybe, but the least important aspect of its vitality. "Blow your bagpipe, Zlato!" these virtuosos cry. "Pluck your thin string, Drago! You'll have a Gipsy girl tonight!" With such prospects, of course they'll carry on.

While Vujicsics jig and party like it's 1799, Muzsikás (mu-zi-kosh) are cautionary, nagged by doubt on their exceptional cd The Prisoner's Song. Standing closer to the center of European folk with an approach more lived than learned, they use traditional music as the intermediator between self and state, isolation and communion, and a plague of other dualities-sentencing themselves to eternal exile when reconciliation fails. Four of the ten songs on the disc lament the singer's imprisoned or fugitive condition or otherwise beg a political interpretation. "Eddig Vendég"'s (The Unwelcome Guest) complaint could be pointed at the excesses of the socialist regime: "Up to now you have drunk your fill and had a good time... Come, landlord and throw out this unwelcome guest."

But borrowings from other folk traditions suggest a more encompassing alienation, as does the ancient, time-sick sound of the last days of winter stretching toward a promised, withheld spring. Partly it's the instruments. Primarily it's Márta Sebestyén's extraordinary vocals. Against the hurdy gurdy's evocation of a chill so deep it wracks the bones in "Hidegen Fújnak A Szelek" (Cold Winds Are Blowing), she suggests the weight of being that withers aspiration. "I envy the bird his flight, while I am chained hand and foot," she moans. But her morose glory has strength to outlast the storm.

As Adam McLean writes of Persephone in The Triple Goddess; An Exploration of the Archetypal Feminine, "[She is] the green fuse that drives the flower... mediator between the light-filled upper world and the dark underworld." Intense and elemental, Muzsikás are the band of choice for brooders and worriers everywhere. Gloom rock fans take note.

Worlds apart from either Hungarian group, Rykodisc's Dzintar: Songs of Amber by the Latvian Women's Choir succeeds best the further it strays from claims to rootsiness. The start is inauspicious, a pietistic rendition of a traditional Baltic song ("Blow, Wind, Blow") that reads like Placido Domingo performing "Turkey in the Straw"-beautiful but superfluous. Dzintar finds its nerve as it unfolds, however, daring increasingly complicated vocal feats ("Song of The Wind," "Christmas Masquerade") until the utterly alien final track. "The Tomtit's Messenger" resembles nothing I've ever heard before, acoustic, electronic, or sampled. Beginning with a perfectly held, transparent chord you'd swear came from Daniel Lanois' synthesizer, the women erupt in clattering, pentecostal bursts of tongues, punctuated by cataclysmic silences and icy harmonies fallen from the upper vaults of the troposphere. If beauty without shadow is incomplete, this disc is the slow beating of wings that modulates day into night.

Songs of mourning, songs of praise are cut from the same vivid cloth on Abana Ba Nasery by Shem Tube, Justo Osala & Enos Okola (GlobeStyle 60min cd). This 20-year-old acoustic music from Kenya suggests in its densely interwoven guitar dialog the acknowledgment that joy and sorrow are irreducible facts of life. With equal clarity Shem and Justo report 1) the desperate hunger of a village ("Nilmwacha Muke Risavu", I Had to Leave My Village), 2) the boring sameness of "You Girls of Ebunangwe"'s (Khwatsia Ebunangwe) identical fashionable hairstyles. Not that the devastating is trivialized. Setting experiences, large and small, in song helps contain as much as express them. It's noteworthy this upbeat perspective comes from such poverty the musicians could't even afford to own instruments. But there's no sign of deprivation here, especially not in the peppy cricket-note of Enos Okola's omnipresent Fanta-bottle quijada.

As full-bodied as its music gets (the sax-sectioned "Karola" comes to mind), Songs For the Poor Man by Remmy Ongala & Orchestre Super Matimila (Real World/Virgin cd) still seems to be withholding tantalizing secrets. Maybe I'm just unaccustomed to an intimate-sounding soukous that highlights band members' individual achievements rather than a monolithic instrumental flow, or that promotes a borderless morality in place of sapeuristic self-expression. Perhaps because it keeps its own homegrown counsel, this Tanzanian stuff rocks harder than almost any global outreach African you could mention. What keeps me going back are the unexpected touches ("Kipenda Roho"'s intermittent, interrupted percussion), production that suspends each note in silent space, and the sense that Poor Man constantly poses questions instead of answering ones I never asked.

It's impossible, of course, to play a compact disc at the wrong speed, but in the first few seconds of Emjindini I thought I'd managed anyway. The caroming bass notes, music-box lead guitar, and ebullient female choristers supreme, The Mthembu Queens, took me by surprise. This Rounder Records cd represents the "disco" strain of mbaqanga known as emjindini, popular in South Africa in the '70s. While I never salivated much over American disco, I did find significant the integrated sound that from Donna Summer to the Bee Gees appropriated aspects of black, white and Latin music-blending them so effortlessly the larger implication of mutual co-existence seemed a foregone conclusion. Though no A-B relationship between Emjindi and Saturday Night Fever is evident, something of this same hope operates here. Vocals on several cuts feel Americanized to various degrees (subtly on "Endilini Yomqashiyo" [In the Jive House], significantly on "Asambeni" [Let's Go]) or check out the Latin-flavored "Amazwe Ngamazwe" (Places and Places). Throughout, the driving force behind the music has shifted from mbaqanga's usual anchor of bass and drums to manic chatterbox guitar, like Nile Rodgers having a kinetic breakout. A wonderfully off-kilter outreach that's considerably more than a footnote.

Even stranger than Anzanian disco is the unimaginable Banda Banda (Fulltime cd), which I'd love to chalk up to sampling technology-some recluse loading Meredith Monk, Yma Sumac, and a not-so-well-tempered clavier into an Ensoniq and stirring. But no. This minimalist merger between bare bones four-chord rock structures and nagging, hyperactive keyboards dangles from trial balloon Daphne Scott-Sawyer's precocious tot-style soprano. Sez here the songs are in Krio, national language of Sierra Leone, but you couldn't prove point of origin by me. Only the woodpeckery "O Ma Rijayna" speaks obvious African rhythm. Though the disc as a whole pill wears like a day on a treadmill, any three or four cuts-you choose 'em-are pure hoot. And definitely intriguing. Banda Banda's got a vision, but what they see I couldn't even hazard to guess.

Sister Carol, Jah Disciple (RAS cd). Symbols are supposed to expand meaning, not collapse it. But Sister Carol's assertion on "Lost In A Space" that the Challenger crew died because the mission "challenged Jah" is a subtraction; her insistence "none of them no respect the human race," a presumption. Disappointing, because the rest of the disc proves she's above cardboard dogma.

Flaco Jimenez, Arriba El Norte; Santiago Jimenez, Jr., Familia Y Tradition (Rounder lps). Tex-Mex extraordinaire-bearers deliver demon accordion as wicked as any Brazilian or Colombian. Brother Santiago is the traditionalist with a brand new lp of border standards. The more swing-out Flaco flaunts a casual style elevated to virtuosity in his 1969-80 sides. Mbaqanga fans, try these.

Collector's Edition: Rare Reggae From the Vaults of Studio One (Heartbeat cd). Reggae's Nuggets, wherein the the odd, the obscured and the accomplished intersect. Includes the shockingly misogynist "Music [read: Girls] Like Dirt," Bob Andy/Marcia Griffiths' "Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye" clone "Always Together," early Sugar Minnott and other solid delights.

The Itals, Cool and Dread (Nighthawk cd). Re the recent roots revival, these guys never left. Nor have they ever flagged. Better bet: must-haves Brutal Out Deh and Give Me Power come to cd for maximum bite per bit.


[Copyright 1998 Bob Tarte]

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