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3 Leg Torso
3 Leg Torso is a trio from Portland, Oregon: Courtney von Drehle, composer of much of this daring, intelligent music, plays accordion with Bela Balogh on the violin and Gabe Leavitt on the cello.
von Drehle's accordion is splendid, investing "Divertissements for Performing Bears" (track 8) with a frenetic, old-world klezmer energy. Musicianship is ubiquitous: hear the nostalgic, sepia-toned cello in "To the Little Radio," (track 5), or the sobbing of Balogh's violin on "Moroccan Jig" (track 6).
For a complete change of mood, go for the heartfelt gravel voice of Albert Kuvezin, singing over the drone that hypnotizes you with the first note of Yenisei Punk, by Yat-Kha. Just when you think your ear can drink no more vinegar, a honey of an acoustic guitar starts track 2. That guitar could be introducing a Joan Baez folk song from thirty years ago; instead it introduces Kuzevin's voice exploring a narrow range of pitch the way Rothko explored a narrow palette.
If my mother hadn't died
I would have eyes and ears.
laments the orphan in track 6, Irik Chuduk (Rotten Log), while the throat-sung overtones whistle like the cold wind across the steppe. Then along comes track 8, "Khadarchy (Shepherd Boy)" with a heavy metal electric guitar. And attitude. This disc is full of surprises.
If aliens land in my backyard and offer me the ride of a lifetime, but I can take only one CD, Accordion Tribe is it. (Not that I think about it a lot.) This music is more beauty-per-second, almost, than humanity can bear.
Five people, each playing the accordion. All terrific.
Guy Klucevsek is a brilliant composer and performer of serious, classical accordion music with occasional lapses such as Polkas from the Fringe, a marvelous blend of the loopy and cerebral.
Lars Hollmer is a prolific multi-instrumentalist from Uppsala, Sweden, with an astonishing oeuvre of energetic, richly textured music.
Maria Kalaniemi is part of the stunning outpouring of sunny music from Finland these days, with expressive, virtuouso playing and a beautiful voice.
Bratko Bibic's downright seductive accordion plays sweet melodies named after women. No doubt it works.
Otto Lechner is a guy with a Dark Side. His accordion is grumbling, reverberant -- it adds a satisfying fullness to the sound, used with particular effectiveness at the end of Hollmer's song "Boeves Psalm" (track 17), when it chimes in last, adding its distinctive dark thread to the rich, intricate weave.
"Boeves Psalm" really might be the most beautiful melody ever written. Whatever you're doing when it starts, your hands will rest, your heart will still; for one Zen moment you will live in your ears only.
Joy, too, is universal: another insufficiently appreciated development of the late twentieth is the end of the cold war. As a duck-and-cover veteran, I sure wish I'd been there to celebrate its demise in the summer of 1992, when the Leningrad Cowboys, a good-time, rockin' bar band, staged an outdoor concert in Helsinki with the Red Star Army Chorus. Yes, that Red Army. The Leningrad Cowboys grew up with Russian and Finnish folk songs, and here they rejoice in it: their version of "Katjusha" will curl your hair. And who would have thought that "Sweet Home Alabama" went so well with "Volga Boatmen"?
And the Red Star Army Chorus -- a splendid, disciplined ensemble -- were never allowed to sing this sort of material, remember? The movie of the concert (Total Balalaika Show) is worth watching just to see their faces; they sure look like they're having a great time! Tears sprang to my eyes when the tubby, formerly anonymous baritone in his spiffy Soviet Army uniform stood front and center before the amassed thousands and sang with a shit-eating grin on his face, "Imagine me and you, I do, I sink about you day and night, it's only right, to sink about the girl you love, and hold her tight, so happy toge-zzer!"
The CD to get is the one recorded in a studio the next day, with actual equipment. It's called Happy Together (1994, BMG). It's terrific.
Lars Hollmer evidently produces music every waking moment, helplessly, the way a plant emits oxygen; music utterly original, 100% true to itself, energetic, lyrical, imaginative, passionate, quirky; in short, a window with a view.
He takes my breath away.
To judge by his output, he stays up all night, too. Since the seventies he's been pouring out albums of richly textured, idiosyncratic beauty spanning styles from rock to folk, circus music, tango, and beyond to the indescribable. Sometimes he plays with a band, sometimes he plays all the instruments himself.
Why is Prince rich, not him?
Ray Lema and L'Ensemble Pirin Bulgarian Women's Choir
The African musician Ray Lema produced a recording with L'Ensemble Pirin Bulgarian Women's Choir, mixing African and Bulgarian material throughout. Those shabout it. I particularly enjoy them singing call-and-response with him on an energetic, up-tempo rendition of Kamulang (track 3).
If you like Mystere des Voix Bulgares and any African music whatsoever, this will set your heart on fire.
A World Out of Time
Henry Kaiser and David Lindley started a lot when they traveled to Madagascar in the early nineties with a Yamaha digital mixer and recorder, about which they wrote: "With the DMR8, recording and mixdown is carried out entirely in the digital realm, within a single transportable unit." [Emphasis mine.] They came back with about five CDs worth of material; the first two (A World Out of Time, Vol. 1 in 1992 and Vol. 2 in 1993, Shanachie) launched world music careers for Rossy, Tarika Sammy, D'Gary, and popularized many others.
Volume 1, Track 10 is a perfect example of the extraordinary luck you can get with this cross-pollination. Tarika Sammy perform "Hana," a haunting song written by Shoukichi Kina, an Okinawan rock guitarist of quirky originality. (Peppermint Tea House, 1994, on Luaka Bop, is not to be missed.) The singer is a Malagasy woman named Claudia Ramasimanana who knows love can be lost. "It became very hard to believe that Hana was not originally a Malagasy song," Kaiser and Lindley write. Okinawan or Malagasy, it's exquisite.
Sadness and longing are neither Okinawan nor Malagasy, of course;Hana is proof that they're universal. Shoukichi Kina has of course recorded the song (twice; with his band Champloose on an album called The Music Power from Okinawa (1991, Ace), but the version on Peppermint Tea House is the winner); so has Detty Kurnia, a wonderful Indonesian singer, on an album called Dari Sunda. The Kurnia version features a spine-tingling violin. Kaiser and Lindley are fans of Kina and brought it with them to Madagascar, where Claudia responded to it like a plucked violin string. Is this not wonderful? Is this not good?
Vershki da Koreshki (Roots and Leaves)
The liner notes to Vershki da Koreshki (Roots and Leaves) tell the perfect late-twentieth world fusion story:
1989, Levin left Leningrad.
1991 in Amsterdam Levin met Volkov from Petersburg.
1994 in Amsterdam Levin met Sylla from Dakar.
1996 in Amsterdam Levin met Khovalyg from Tuva.
Amsterdam really seems the right city for this, doesn't it? You can just see them all sitting in a coffee bar smoking.
Levin plays accordion, "prepared" accordion (I'd love to know!), a low-key, lounge-jazz piano, and three other, more obscure instruments: khomuss, doudka, and sheng. Volkov plays a double bass. Sylla sings and plays kongoma, xalam, and kalimba; his vocal style is throbbing and passionate. Khovalyg, who sang that shivery throat singing in Huun-Huur-Tu, does it here; he also plays khoomei, ighil, khomyss, khoumouz, and amyrga (you tell me).
Already you can see the palette has a lot of colors.
Some of the blends work better than others, but for the most part it's delicious. Take track 10, "Real Life of Plants." Percussion lays down a trance-inducing groove, over which the accordion plays lyrical, complex phrases; meanwhile, Sylla and Khovalyg take turns singing, their distinct styles and timbres in satisfying counterpoint, as if the human voice were not an instrument, but an orchestra.
I Wanna See You Bellydance
When Mikhail Gorbachev declined to start World War III, bless him, these four guys made a beeline for Santa Monica, where they now enjoy the southern California ambience after enduring impoverished childhoods in rural Chernobyl, repression in the Soviet Army, and subzero Siberian cells in which they recorded their rock-'n'-roll samizdat.
Or so they'd have us believe.
One fact is clear: soon after arriving, two of these guys founded Limpopo, a band that had 'em shakin' their booties in Venice Beach with hair-curling versions of Black Eyes or Katyusha. Limpopo put out two albums (Limpopo, 1994, and Give Us a Break, 1995) proving (as if proof were needed) that Russians know from high-energy party music. Both are a gas, featuring such "Russian folk songs" as Rok Eraund Ze Klok and Besame Mucho. (It's a great version of Besame Mucho, almost as good as Brave Combo's.)
The Red Elvises have two previous albums, both of which serve rich treats. On Grooving to the Moscow Beat (1995), The Ballad of Elvis and Priscilla is a masterpiece of musical surrealism worthy of the Residents. And your life is incomplete until you've heard the Red Elvises' version of Hungarian Dance #5, by Brahms (on Surfing in Siberia, 1997).
With I Wanna See You Bellydance, the band apparently has new management; the cover features a naked girlie and the songs are pure good-time rockin' all the way. Except that they aren't. The band has apparently been listening to everything and trying it all; skillful musicians, they mix flamenco, funk, gypsy, surf or swing into a feel-good, high-energy party mix that's irresistible. The intricate, hypnotic drumming that starts Hello from Istanbul (track 2) could power a parade; then the clarinet joins with a plaintive, mideastern wail. Last, the electric guitar strides in and takes over for a seamless transition to track 3, I Wanna See You Bellydance -- one of the most incredible pieces of fun ever turned into sound waves.
The best songs are the instrumentals, such as El Nino (track 6), which features hot Latin guitar. The lyrics, unfortunately, paint a picture of a man emotionally stuck at twelve: the most romantic song on the album starts:
"We were introduced at a party,
nice people were drinking champagne,
mariachis were singing their guts out,
and I couldn't hear your name."
Though the twelve-year-old has occasional flashes of honesty and wit: Sad Cowboy Song (track 9), for example, which skewers country-western bathos, or Suzanna (track 11), a hilarious account of a failed seduction. Plus, we get the surprise pleasures of outsider's insight, as on Hawaii (track 7), where our hero and his love fly off to paradise in a plane "like a candy."
In all, the album is delightful; these guys have more hooks than a fleet of fishermen; they deserve the commercial success they so evidently strive for. And then...
... then, when they're rich and famous, perhaps management will loosen up and let them do the Khatchaturian's Saber Dance.
Aisha Kandisha's Jarring Effects
Historians, note: a machine-generated "Salaam aleikum" was recorded in Morocco in 1988 or '89. Nothing could more aptly set the tone for the extraordinary El Buya, a savory sandwich of techno-on-rai.
The strong trance tradition in both Arabic and techno musics is one reason they fuse into such a compelling blend; plaintive, hypnotic mideastern wails, the subordination of melody to rhythm -- it works beautifully with the sampler as well as the oud. Or the electric guitar playing the oud's part.
And after all, it was only a matter of time before someone explored how chant can be enhanced by tape loops.
Aisha Kandisha's Jarring Effects is a group of seven musicians who started playing Moroccan pop and then gravitated toward black boxes filled with electronics, using them like a Jamaican dubmeister or the dj of a (truly spectacular) rave. Take the Christian choral that starts El Mouka (track 3), for example: no sooner has your ear grasped it when it spins apart into wild-man stuttering before being swallowed by intricate, hypnotic rhythms in distinctive, mideastern timbres, backed by synthesized ululations, while underneath, a guitar has started without your noticing, and the melody builds, and now you can feel it building, leading you forward, onward into...
Minutes later, you awake, blinking from the brightness.
Laroussa (track 7), another hot groove, you can also hear on Planet Soup (1995, one of those interesting compilations Ellipsis Arts is cranking out these days). Hear the exuberant chords, the sampled crowd noise, the gleefully distorted amp and know thou, these guys are having fun!
Bill Laswell was quite taken with AKJE and produced an album with them called Shabeesation (1993, Ryko). It's tamer and nowhere near as much fun. El Buya is harder to find, but worth it. One place to check is Stern's Worldwide.
Who'da thunk cellos could sound so pissed? These four cellists from Finland cover Metallica. On Inquisition Symphony, they make it sound cerebral, intricate. Maybe it was all along, and I just couldn't tell -- who knows?
Four cellos together have a rich, thick sound, one that allows a variety of effects, and Apocalyptica explore them:
sometimes laying it on with a trowel, a texture beloved of the Nirvana generation who came of age with crystal-clear digital sound --
sometimes using one or two as drones, as in Celtic music --
-- and sometimes (she sighs happily) singing those sweet solos usually reserved for virtuoso violin.
Nothing Else Matters, for example (track 4), is 4:45 of pure bliss. A softly plucking cello sets a wistful mood; then another joins in, used as a voice to couch a bittersweet plaint in the sweetest of melodies. The piece builds with the entry of the other cellos until it reaches an almost unendurable pitch before plunging to a final fading statement of longing and loveliness -- just one wistful plucking cello, one sad sweet voice.
This remarkable disc has many moods yet a deep coherence. These guys are good. I look forward to their next album.
Compilations don't get much better than this. Just about solid hits from start to finish, Nordic Roots ( NorthSide, 1998) would be worth the price even if it were the usual. But lucky us, NorthSide wants to get us hooked on their artists, so, hey, kid, the first one's cheap.
Featuring Vasen, Hedningarna, Den Fule, Troka, and a whole bunch of other interesting artists playing spirited and delightful music. Kaiser & Lindley called it the sweet sunny north, and I see their point: Scandinavia sounds like such a happy place these days!
Runaway Mind Train
Brian Locklin and John French
Once upon a time in the sixties, in return for freezing my buns off outside some nameless Manhattan movie theater at 2:00 AM, I was privileged to watch an "underground movie" (as they were then quaintly called) -- a group of good-looking hedonists and horses camped in a desert in Spain with a pile of cowboy gear and even more LSD. It was excruciatingly boring, and I'd forgotten all about it until I heard "Spaghetti West," track 5 of Runaway Mind Train, an amazing, idiosyncratic album from Austin, Texas. (What is it with that town, is it something in the beer?) Technorhythm resolves into hoofbeats, and here comes our hero, riding a mean bass. I love it!
Brian Locklin and John French certainly hear things their own way. I think their musical center is rock-n-roll -- that clock ticking throughout "Toy Piano" (track 3), isn't that the drummer? And "Guardian Angel" (track 7) is a regular ol' guitar piece. But from the center, wherever it is, they wander all over the soundscape.
An album this quirky is frequently uneven, and this one unfortunately suffers from several tracks having been recorded with tin cans and string. (John Eargle, can you help these guys out?)
It's still terrific. What makes it work is the complete conviction with which these guys lay it out. "Laguna Gate" (track 9), for example, is "an unedited environmental improvisation performed on squeaky gate hinges in a park inhabited [by] peaocks." I ordinarily have little patience for this sort of thing, but they keep me with them for nine minutes. The guy playing the gate is so musical. And he believes.
Don't let "Laguna Gate" scare you off, though -- there's a lot of pure fun here. Damn if "The Midway" (track 14) doesn't start off sounding like a Beatles tune, before Dali takes over. And if the Residents were to inhabit the Beach Boys like pod people, you might get something like "Spooky Hot Rod" (track 1).
Then again, you might not.
Otto Lechner, Austrian jazz accordionist, is a complicated guy, and not afraid to challenge his audience. This album, though uneven, is a rich feast -- both sweet and cerebral, dark and difficult one moment, a cartoon soundtrack the next. One of the artists on Accordion Tribe, Lechner's playing is accomplished and passionate, and he sometimes acompanies himself with a voice "equipped with both didjeridu and jew's harp" (as Guy Klucevsek put it in the Tribe liner notes).
"Bosnia Suite I" (track 9), a shimmering wonder of densely textured rhythms, makes one accordion sound like the soundtrack to a Koyaanisqatsi-like film. But Lechner can hypnotize you with just a single voice, as he proves right at the start of "Otto's Seven" (track 11) when one high pipe grabs you by the ears and holds you breathless through the intricate interwoven melody that follows.
Hidden amid all this complexity is some surprisingly accessible music: "Bosnia Suite II" (track 10), based on a folk song, is sweet and lyrical; "Crying Rhinoceros" (track 7) is a five-minute romp as whimsical as its name.
My favorite, however, is "Brother Ray" (track 12): Austrian minimalist accordion gets down with the blues. The music keeps trying to settle into a nice, smooth blues riff, but Lechner keeps tucking these amazing chord changes into holes that you'd never have realized were there. Such off-center fun!
The feast ends with a delightful treat: a cover of Duke Ellington's "Caravan" that is truly superb.
Di Naye Kapelye
Di Naye Kapelye is another joyful phenomenon that could only happen right now, at this particular moment in history -- and I don't mean just the cheap air travel and portable fine recording equipment, but also now that American Jews are returning to eastern Europe, to families they've never met.
The war's finally over for real, and ain't it grand?
Di Naye Kapele (The New Band) starts with Bob Cohen, klezmer singer, violinist, and mandolin player extraordinaire, moving to Budapest, where he ends up in a band with a Moldavian flute player -- Robert Kerenyi; a Hungarian clarinet player -- Janos Barta; a Roma (Gypsy) singer and multi-instrumentalist -- Geza Penzes; an accordionist from Portland, Oregon (City of Roses) -- Christina Crowder; and a cantor and clarinet player, my friend Jack Falk (also from Portland, down the street from the accordionist, though in one of those marvelous traveler's coincidences, they met for the first time in Budapest).
These songs, many relearned from old recordings (circa 1910-30), come from a music that almost died. Now quite lively, thank you, klezmer rocks, as "Shloimke's Russian Dance" (track 5) will convince you; or the lively steppin' of "Bet Zikh iber un Geyt a Tentsl" (track 8), with Bob Cohen's extraordinary mandolin.
This album has many moods -- such as the poignant beauty of "Naftule's Doina" (track 6). For a tantalizing sample, try track 11, a medley: "Yismekhu / In Ades / Aron's Chosid Tants."
Okay, I admit I'm on an accordion kick -- have to follow up on every one of those great musicians on Accordion Tribe. Nimal is Bratko Bibic, accordion; Momo Rossel, guitar, hurdy gurdy, and keyboard; and Pippin Barnett, percussion. The multinationalism is mirrored in the song titles, which mix English, French, German, and what I take to be Serbian, with a fine impartiality.
From the first note of "Opa!" (track 1), your attention is riveted: the rhythms are ever-changing, the melodies go and go and never return, you're swept downstream in musical whitewater.
"Pain sec" ("Dry bread," track 4) could be music for a parade -- a beautiful, impromptu, lump-in-the-throat-poignant parade. "Last call for summer 90" (track 5) has a hook worthy of a hit rock tune, and features hiccups for percussion. "Grand carree" ("Big square," track 6) is an eight-minute high-speed luge run downhill in the dark, followed by the uncomplicated prettiness of a snow globe in "Ein warmer Schnee-Kuss" (track 7). Then "Au nord" ("Up north," track 8) comes along with a melody as beautiful and haunting as a prayer -- albeit somewhat noisier.
dis tanz is quite a ride.
You could melt rock with the combined power and warmth of these four voices: Lucilla Galeazzi of Italy, Equidad Bares of Spain, Yiota Vei of Greece, and Hayet Ayad, the daughter of a Turkish immigrant family living in Strasbourg.
Though each voice is marvelous and muscular, each is different: Galeazzi's dark, sensual; Vei's like strong coffee; Bares's bright and mezzo; Ayad's with the tremulous nasality of a muezzin.
Puzzlingly, two other talented singers, Aicha Redouane and Karoline Zaidline, go undocumented and unphotographed; the liner notes use the page count for Philippe Eidel, the musician who put the project together and who plays accordion, guitar, piano, bouzouki, and other instruments.
It's a shame that the luscious vocal combinatorics aren't more thoroughly explored -- why does he insist on pairing each woman with herself? Never mind -- when all four voices manage to get together, the explosion is tremendous. "Amaria" (track 2) is exciting, a joyful triumph."Triste ey lou ceu" (track 3) must be one of the world's great sung questions -- forceful, sinewy phrasing, careful vinegar dissonances (is that Vei?) -- whatever it means, it sinks deep. Then, what glory when all six sing the haunting a capella lullaby that introduces "Secret" (track 13).
Tarifa is the city in Spain from which ferries to Morocco leave. Radio Tarifa is this group's delicious conceit; if there were such a station, it couldn't possibly sound this good.
The group has two albums: their first, self-titled and the second Temporal. Both are great. On the first, my favorite is "Oye China" (track 2). A slow, seductive guitar eases you into the song, then Benjamin Escorioza's dry, sandy voice complains of the misery to which his love condemns him, belied by the lush accordion phrases and cheerful beat.
True to their title conceit, songs fade into each other with the scratches and bleeps one gets tuning a balky old radio. Especially delicious is the old woman intoning a Hail Mary before fading into the hypnotic percussion of "El baile de la Bola" (track 6).
Radio Tarifa is another group that mixes North African instruments such as the darbuka and ney with traditional flamenco or gypsy instruments such as guitar and accordion, as well as modern ones such as bass or saxophone. They use their wide-ranging instrumentation with creativity and daring; at times they sound almost Celtic, such as at the end of "Cancion Sefardi" (track 3 of Temporal). Hammond organ might not seem like the obvious instrument to introduce this Sephardic Jewish lament of old age and death, but from the first note it weaves the spell.
A bonus of Temporal is the richly colored album cover, which calls the sun out on a cloudy day.
How can these people who live right here in rainy Portland make such sun-drenched music? Al-Andalus, another hometown treasure, plays the music of the Spanish Islamic Empire (8th to 15th centuries), of which Andalusia was the heart. Tarik and Julia Banzi also compose music inspired by this rich amalgam of Arab, European, Sephardic Jewish, and Gypsy musical traditions.
Illumination also features Ranjani Krishnan, an Indian woman with a voice like a bright silk banner; she sings on three heart-stoppingly beautiful tracks: a prayer in Sanskrit, a lament in Tamil, and a love song in Ladino (the language of Sephardic Jews, having the same relationship to Spanish as Yiddish has to German). "A la una yo naci" (track 9) is the perfect example, first offering us that silken voice, then Julia Banzi's lush flamenco guitar, then a gentle, heartfelt violin.
Tarik Banzi plays a wide variety of instruments, enabling him to draw on an assortment of timbres, and his compositions reveal an interesting musical mind. "The Nineteen" (track 10) succeeds wildly in inducing ecstatic trance using 19/4 (a classical Arab rhythm, we're told) and water-based percussion, not something everyone would try. He's clearly well-versed in the the historic traditions of many complex, unusual rhythms; on "Taktokah" (track 6), he combines 9/8 (taktokah, music of Andalusian origin still heard in Moroccan pueblos) with antique timbres and modern chord changes, to startling effect.
Illumination ends with a thunderstorm, so I guess it isn't all sunshine. But it sure is rich bliss.
Can't find it? Send them e-mail.
Songhai is old news, one of the first intimations that music in a shrinking world was changing. Ketama, one of Spain's premier practitioners of "new flamenco," was playing London concert dates in 1987 when they went to a party and met Toumani Diabate, Mali's foremost kora player and a musician long interested in exploring the confluence of various musics. Later they teamed up with Danny Thompson, a bass player who's performed with such rockers as Elvis Costello, as well as additional guest artists, to cut the album Songhai, which came out in 1988.
The combination is compelling. Ketama features Gypsy Kings-style close harmonies and flamenco guitar (as well as killer percussion!), but has a jazzier sensibility that works well with the sweet African vocals, for example on "Mani Mani Kuru" (track 2), and the shimmering clarity of Diabate's virtuoso kora.
Songhai 2, which came out in 1994, features less of Danny Thompson, unfortunately, but expands the line-up with numerous guest artists.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
On the last recording Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan made before his recent death, the great Pakistani qawwali master, a world heritage singer, met hip-hop and techno. (The lamentably incomplete liner notes credit only Bally Sagoo and nebulous others.)
Part of the delight of the world music phenomenon in (Y2K)-1 is its multidirectionality. Hip-hop, drumming, trance and techno now fascinate musicians in far-flung locales, and a generation of foreign-born hip-hop stars is now forming (notably MC Solaar of France, who's found a whole new way to show the beauty of French).
Peace melds traditional Pakistani and Indian sounds with drum machines, DJ scratching -- the full studio treatment. It's a trifle too sweet for my tastes -- I prefer the relative restraint Michael Brook showed in Night Song, his 1995 Real World collaboration with NFAK. But it sure is danceable.
The more hard-edged tracks work better for me, such as "Oh My Heart" (track 6), in which an electic guitar and something that might be a sitar echo the same plaintive motif over the industrial beat. The stand-out hit is "I'm Sorry" (track 10), whose intro achieves some of the inspired shameless loopiness of Vijaya Anand in dance, raja, dance (1992, Luaka Bop, my nomination for World's Most Underappreciated Disc).
The opening chords of "This Time Will Never Come Again" (track 5) might as well be straight out of a Disney cartoon, and the beat that follows has been finely honed for its trance-inducing properties by neurological research in rave labs 'round the globe. In such synthetic surroundings, it's hard to appreciate that Voice for the miraculous alloy of genetics, skill, and artistry that it is.
The Bulgarian Voices (Angelite), Huun-Huur-Tu, and the Moscow Art Trio
In 1996, the Bulgarian women's choir, Angelite, teamed up with Huun-Huur-Tu for the stunning, unforgettable Fly, Fly My Sadness (Shanachie). The Moscow Art Trio now joins them all for Mountain Tale, adding a rich new dimension with piano, french horn, clarinet, and more.
The album starts with the spontaneous combustion of two different folk songs combined in rehearsal. "Two soloists of the choir had proposed a song.... Suddenly Sergey Starostin began to accompany it with a completely different song. It was amazing how organically it happened," say the unusually informative liner notes.
Mountain Tale is uneven -- you can't just have Angelite sing a Bulgarian folk tune while jazz piano noodles in the background, as they try in "Sad Harvest" (track 5); it works about as well as basil ice cream. And, as is so often the case, the blending is too timid, songs such as "Grand Finale," (track 8 out of 10) arranged to showcase each group's talents in sequence. Hey, we don't need convincing.
But the excitement of "New Skomorohi" (track 4) more than makes up for it, or "Mountain Fairy-Tale" (track 6), a vivid soundscape: calling the cows home up in the mountains of Valdres, Norway. Mikhail Alperin plays cowbells, Tanja Douparinova and Kera Damianova cry an amazing Norwegian cow-call, and the Tuvan throat-singers answer out of the twilit fog as the cows -- plus one crow, perched on the bough of a towering evergreen nearby. The stunning mix of Bulgarian, Tuvan, and classical European vocal styles that follows is what it's all about, as far as I'm concerned.
From the first note of of Kielo, Kimmo Pohjonen shows himself to be a master of the slow, inexorable build, the hypnotic climax. "Anastaja" (track 1) starts with 22 seconds of thump and clack and whisssh that build a complex polyrhythm before the accordion starts, pushes out one sustained note crescendoing almost too slowly to notice. Altogether, it's over half a minute before he's begrudged us some melody -- a nervy way to start an album, especially your first.
Kimmo Pohjonen is evidently not interested in making things easy for his listeners, and why should he? He's brilliant. And moody, with a vocal style part Otto Lechner growl, part Tom Waitsish rumble, part Wimme-like joik. He gets a lot of sounds out of that accordion, too: thumps, clacks, drones, pitchless wheezing -- and once in a while, some lovely notes.
Moods change, of course; altogether, darkness predominates; it's not until "Kova" (track 6) that he deigns to be cheerful. Lest we mistake him for just another player of pretty tunes? Heaven forbid. When he finally plays a pretty tune, though, it's very pretty; the title track (8), for example, is exquisite, lovely, full of joy.
Another gifted Finnish accordionist. What's in the air over there?
Laika and the Cosmonauts
Laika and the Cosmonauts have quite a discography by now, and I personally vouch that Instruments of Terror (1993), The Amazing Colossal Band (1995), and Zero Gravity (1996) are terrific, high-energy fun. With Absurdistan, the feel-good Finnish foursome takes it to a whole new level.
Bernard Herrmann meets the Beach Boys, and a good time is had by all. "Look! No Head!" (track 3) wanders through the land of spaghetti westerns, ventures forth to heavy metal, spends a while as a James Bond soundtrack; "Boris the Conductor" (track 5) is driving, urgent, slick; "Syncophant" (track 9) might have been lifted from a Fellini movie score. There's no end of mischief in the electric guitar.
Peppermint Tea House
Shoukichi Kina is an Okinawan guitarist who's well known among musicians; he's played with Ry Cooder, David Lindley, and others. Ry Cooder plays on this superb album which combines the electric guitar with the shamisen and makes surfer guitar or cowboy music feel Japanese; for example, "The Cart-Puller" ("Basha-gua Suncha", track 7), a giddyapping rock song.
Kina is a superb guitarist; more than that, he's a songwriter of great power. He wrote the amusing gem, "Haisai Ojisan" ("Hey, Man", track 10) when he was still in high school. My favorite, though, is "Flowers for Your Heart" (track 9, "Subete No Hito No Kokoro Ni Hanna O"), Kina's international all-time best hit. You don't have to understand Okinawan to listen to this hauntingly beautiful ballad, featuring Kina's crystal-clear guitar and a voice of power and longing, and understand that it asks those old, hopeless questions we all come to, sooner or later.
The music conveys the message clearly to human ears around the globe. Lindley took it with him on his trip to Madagascar with Henry Kaiser, and you can hear the wonderful result in A World Out of Time, Vol. 1, track 10, in which the song (under the name "Hana") is sung with passion and deep understaanding by a Malagasy, Claudia Ramasimanana, unfortunately no longer with the group Tarika Sammy. Detty Kurnia also covered it marvelously on her album Dari Sunda ("From Sunda" Indonesia) in a version (track 10 again) featuring a spine-tingling violin.
Kina writes universal music. But he's definitely got his own energetic take on things. I only wish there was more.
dance, raja, dance
India's is the only film industry on earth that Hollywood hasn't killed. Every year, it cranks out hundreds of movies whose soundtracks do double-duty as both film scores and pop hits. An actor or actress "performs" a song, actually sung by a professional singer, dramatizing the character's hopes, fears, or dreams. The whole package -- music, lyrics, instrumentation -- is put together by a "musical director."
Vijaya Anand is the musical director who wrote and assembled the songs on dance, raja, dance. He neither sings nor plays an instrument, but, as the unusually informative liner notes make clear, his creativity is unquestionable, and amply on display.
The guy listens to everything. Rock -- well, of course. Local musics? Obviously. Also Latin, disco, techno, jazz, metal, bluegrass.... He mixes them all with that exuberant disregard for musical convention that is the hallmark of popular, rather than "high," cultures -- but that's not all. The Spike Jones of the subcontinent, Anand uses techniques reminiscent of Carl Stalling's cartoon music to remind us that something's happening onscreen. His utterly shameless maneuvers -- a cuckoo clock, the singing chipmunks, a snippet of "La Cucaracha" -- evoke the spirit of the Bonzo Dog Band.
"Prema Rudaayade" (track 4) is the song with 10 or 15 seconds of "La Cucaracha " embedded in its heart. The rest of its five minutes is eminently worth it, too, if you need somewhere to start.
The notion underlying this light-hearted, loopy music is profound: harmonies, timbres (including the infinite timbres of the synthesizer), modes, rhythms, vocal styles -- any element can be used in the service of any other. Anything can be blended. Anything goes.
soundtrack by Transcendental, Agricantus, others
The soundtrack for Steam is a collaboration among various Italian musicians and a Turkish director, with the Romanian "all-female 'ethno-rock' group Secret" contributing the sliced-and-diced Balkan chorus on "Tavla" (track 13). (The liner notes are not all they should be, but they're better than most.) Aldo De Scalzi and Pivio are two composers from Genoa whose group, Transcendental, seeks to blend trance music with Mediterranean instruments and traditions. Agricantus is a group from Palermo with similar aims -- in 1996 they went to Mali and recorded their album Tuareg in the desert "with nomad musicians and their instruments."
The album is a series of mostly short, dreamy segments with non-jarring transitions, so it unfortunately lends itself to not being listened to. Try not to zone out completely, at least once, because it repays attention. The percussion is to die for; the voice of Rosie Wiederkehr soars and dips like an eagle on the wind. At least stay alert for "Glizli Zaman" (track 7).
No question it's film music. The first song, "Hamam," and "Hamam, Bosphorous version" (track 11), invoke such wistful, bittersweet nostalgia that their brevity is almost merciful. It's not steam, exactly, but this album sure does seem to fill the room with warmth.
"Fusion" is a song, not an album -- a hilarious song, a dead-on send-up of Paul Simon, especially in his Graceland days, and the whole world fusion craze it helped to start. (The rest of the album isn't bad, either. Mostly funny; just a trifle off-topic.) In "Fusion" (track 2 of his 1993 Rounder album Entering Marion), John Forster nails his victim with both words and music, a one-two punch few artists could withstand.
Forster's lyrics are clever and cruel -- just a little crueler than they need to be, perhaps, as when "Simon" introduces the other musicians but gets just a little confused about one of them:
Oh yeah, that's the guy who drove me in from the airport --
I forget his name but he's a monster, too.
Forster gets away with this because you enjoy it so damn much. As well as witty words, the satire is musically apt, too -- a seamless medley of quotes from "That Was Your Mother," "The Boxer," and all points between. When he trains both sharp weapons on his quarry at once, it's devastating: witness these words, sung to "An American Tune":
This pretty tune was written by Hans Leo Hassler
I wrote some words and changed about three notes;
Now ASCAP says it's mine.
The thing is, the satire is fun at least partly because the music is so much fun. This song has had the ironic effect of causing me to yearn to hear all that old Paul Simon music once more.
For the record (as it were), here are some of the musicians that Paul Simon has helped to popularize. From his 1986 album Graceland:
- Adrian Belew
- Boyoyo Boys
- Good Rockin' Dopsie and the Twisters
- Ladysmith Black Mambazo
- Los Lobos
- Youssou N'dour
And from his 1990 album Rhythm of the Saints:
- C. J. Chenier
- Milton Nascimentio
- Nana Vasconcelos
Tuvans must live on horseback (man, I'm jealous!); on Dalai Beldiri, you can even hear gaits. The album starts at a canter, relaxes to a brisk trot, continues with a stirring morning gallop. Horse-rhythms make it sound like country music; the blended Tuvan and Western tunings, timbres, and vocal techniques make it sound like so much more.
Albert Kuvezin, the arranger, instrumentalist and guiding light behind Yat-Kha, is a passionate genius with the voice of a tiger. Aldyn-ool Sevek also displays amazing vocal prowess in a variety of Tuvan styles: his simultaneous control of fundamentals and overtones is especially impressive in "Opei Khoomei," a lullaby, (track 4, and I'm sorry to say that no fewer than three umlauts are missing from that song title -- and if this is really the sort of thing that rocks Tuvan babies to sleep, it's a wonder they haven't taken over the world by now).
The juxtapositions are thrilling: when the jew's-harp makes its appearance four minutes into "Khemchim" (track 2), it sounds almost techno. "Sodom i Gomora," (track 10, a musical rendition of the traditional poetry of Old Believers), sounds more than anything like The Residents on their recent album of Bible stories Wormwood. Zhenya Tkach'v (the third member of the group) sings just like them. Eerie.
Not a few of the treats in this album are cultural. "Dyngyldai" (track 3"), for example, a gallop to meet the sunrise, is a song from the Soviet era celebrating the industrious people of Tuva, and a much-needed reminder that, at least for some, the socialist experiment began in idealism, faith -- even joy. Now it sounds like cowvboy rave.
I could go on and on enumerating treats and surprises: the electric guitar interspersed with operatic singing on "Ydyk Buura" (track 8, a Robin Hood song). Or Kuvezin's deep, corded voice and gentle acoustic guitar reminding us on "Charash Karaa" (track 7) that one of the prime functions of music is to sweep the gal off her feet. A whole universe of music is here. It's like nothing else.
Les Negresses Vertes
It's such a pleasure to watch a band mature. In 1989, when Les Negresses Vertes came out with their first album, Mlah, the former French circus band was exciting, energetic, and raw. Subsequent albums have been uneven. This double album of live performances features old standards ("Orane," "Face a la Mer") performed at length and with new assurance, as well as some less familiar material.
They've kept their rowdy, irreverent rock attitude while gaining confidence and mastery of crowd-pleasing technique: in "Mambo Show" (track 5 on disc 2, track 15 in the album listing), their fans' enthusiastic participation is delightful, demonstrating a musical adeptness few audiences in my experience could match.
Bersuit Vergarabat is six guys (and assorted others) from Argentina, and Libertinaje is a rockin' good time. You'll be up and dancing in no time as they sing in the chorus to "Yo Tomo" ("I Drink," track 1):
I drink to avoid falling in love
And fall in love to avoid drinking.
These guys cover an amazing stylistic range from good-time rock (the aforementioned as well as "Se Viene," track 4) to Kurt Weill-style melodrama ("De Onda," track 3, complete with plangent violin), to romantic ballad ("Margarita del Sur," track 5) to angry politcal rap ("Sr. Cobanza," track 6 -- "They're all drug-traffickers!") to lounge jazz, to conjunto, to -- you get the idea.
Yet despite the wide-ranging styles, they put their own inimitable stamp on every fun, exciting cut.
Buena Vista Social Club presents
Listening to Ibrahim Ferrer sing is like drowning in honey. One of the artists Ry Cooder brought to our attention on Buena Vista Social Club, his 1997 compilation of wonderful Cuban music, this stunning vocalist is showcased here with a marvelous ensemble (including, of course, Ry Cooder on electric guitar).
As might be expected from a project so meticulously implemented, the liner notes are actually informative. From them we learn, among other things, that Ibrahim Ferrer is a grandfather. This experience of life as well as decades of technique are amply on display in "Nuestra Ultima Cita" (Our Last Date, track 6), a haunting bolero. Indeed, this album is full of pleasures: the spooky notes that introduce "Silencio" (track 8), a melting duet with Omara Portuondo, are among the most shivery and evocative I've ever heard. And speaking of melting, does woman live who could resist "Aquellos Ojos Verdes" (Those Green Eyes, track 9)?
The mood is undeniably romantic, but those who prefer Cuban music as an incitement to dance will not be disappointed. The album features its share of movers and shakers, notably "Como Bueno Baile Usted" (How Well You Dance, track 10).
If you've ever liked any Cuban music, you'll love this. If not, you might love it anyway.
This one will grow on you. At first you might merely notice that Ismael Lo has a voice as sweet and pure as a choir boy. Next you might notice that, whether singing in French, Senegalese, or the occasional dollop of English, he's as expressive as a poet. Sooner or later, though, you'll also detect the inventive instrumentation -- the harmonica intro to "Dibi Dibi Rek" (track 2), for example, which gives the song an unexpected touch of Western movie.
The real treat of this album, however, is "Without Blame" (track 4), a duet that pairs Lo's honey voice with the apple vinegar of Marianne Faithful. The sixties folkie's still going strong, by the sound of it -- the words are trite, when not downright incoherent, but you won't care; they could be singing the phone book with that kind of passion, not to mention the delicious juxtaposition of two such different textures.
African musicians are justly renowned for getting you up and boogying, and despite an album that leans toward sweet ballads, Jammu Africa does not disappoint. "Sofia" (track 7) starts with a riff you could hear in any nightclub from Dakar to Paris, and a get-up-and-dance beat you'd have to be dead to resist.
For my money, though, the stand-out hit on this disc is "Samba et Leuk" (track 11). Some songs tell a story, and you don't have to understand the lyrics to get the punchline. Bounce and shake -- when you're done, the adventures of Samba and Leuk will have moved you.
Life is full of surprises, such as this unclassifiable, happy-go-lucky romp from an Austrian group known as Die Knodel (and let me take this opportunity to apologize for the missing umlaut, but that is meant to be the German word for noodle up there). The liner notes might prepare you for the immense silliness involved: each page is divided into a top and a bottom half, the top halves telling the story, in cartoon format, of a hit man who rides through the night to assassinate a plate of spaghetti. His only words: "Die, noodle!"
Musicianship, on the other hand, they take seriously. Among them, these eight men and women play an impressive variety of instruments -- bassooon, dulcimer, guitar, violoin, clarinet, trumpet, harp, flugelhorn, and others. They sound classically trained, they have a terrific sense of emsemble, and their musical inventiveness is deep and delightful.
"Once upon a time in strawberryland" (track 4), for example, an intricate weaving of different rhythms around a delicate melody, is followed immediately by "fast food in A" (track 5), a fast-paced, urban piece with a walking bass and a liberal use of dissonance that can only be described as sweet, almost naive. The piece pays homage to jazz (Copeland, to my ear), using a violin more like a fiddle in spots.
The dense texture and edgy, if not frenetic sound of "big rape" (track 9) are reminiscent of similar experiments by Curved Air in the seventies; the female vocals of "junglesong" (track 10) sound like the Roches; the sense of experimentation reminds me of Philip Glass's unforgettable album Songs from Liquid Days. On the whole, though, this music is like nothing but itself. I understand these folks have made more albums; I can't wait to hear them.
Bombay the Hard Way: Guns, Cars, and Sitars
In June I reviewed one of the seminal albums of world fusion, Luaka Bop's compilation of Indian film music by Vijaya Anand entitled dance, raja, dance. In case you haven't had enough of Indian film music's quirky pastiches, here's more.
Bombay the Hard Way unfortunately lacks David Byrne's genius and therefore, unfortunately, cannot transcend the essential superficiality of the material. But if you have a weakness for sleaze and glitz with exotic and bizarre juxtapositions, get this album and indulge yourself to the hilt.
La Cucina is a band of five guys (mixed Italian and Welsh, to judge by their names) based in Southampton, England. Chucheria is their rollicking, Latin-influenced 1994 rock album with more hooks than a tackle store.
I bet these guys are a blast at a party; "Patagonia" (track 1) starts things out with a number that would get any crowd up and dancing. Owain Clarke plays a hard-driving guitar, alternating leads with Eliseo d'Agostino, another accordionist who can squeeze out a melody smooth and sweet as whipped cream -- wistful and Fellini-esque, as in "Majnoon" (track 4), until the Russian-sounding folk singers enter, or incomparably infectious, like the hook introducing "Zio Pepe" (Uncle Pepe, track 2).
All band members are credited as vocalists, so it's hard to know who has that naive, untutored voice heard on "Zio Pepe". It's not the sort of thing you can get away with in quote serious music unquote, but in pop it can be charming, as They Might Be Giants regularly demonstrate. And their sense of humor is similar: "You, you lazy sod, why don't you ever do some work?" is not the usual rock lyric.
But the abundance of melody is all their own. My favorite song is "Sucarlo" (track 5), a hot salsa number that amply displays their wacky side -- especially those breathy girly-girl back-up singers. Or maybe it's the drama of "Witless" (track 6). (I'm not sure what got into them with "Armageddon Train," track 7, but I can forgive one small lapse in an hour of such pleasure.)
I first heard "Zio Pepe" in 1995 on the marvelously novel Ellipsis Arts compilation of contemporary accordionists, Planet Squeezebox, and I've been hunting for this album ever since. It was worth the wait.
(Available from Digelius Music, in case you can't find it elsewhere.)
The recent swing craze has made it legal to enjoy a wide variety of old music again, thank heavens, and Pink Martini, a big band guided by visionary Thomas Lauderdale, is taking full advantage of it. Sympathique, their 1996 debut (and so far, alas, only) album, includes hot Latin numbers such as "Amado Mio" as well as "Never on Sunday," Ravel's "Bolero," and "Que Sera, Sera." By the time Lauderdale's run them through the mill of his quirky, inventive orchestration, it all fits like a well-crafted puzzle. Case in point: the long note pulled like taffy from singer to trumpet at the start of "Song of the Black Lizard." Or -- why not start Ravel with bongos?
Lauderdale plays piano with technique and commitment -- "Andalucia" is breathtaking -- and the band plays with a terrific feeling of ensemble. But when China Forbes is singing it's hard to notice anything else; her throaty, passionate voice comes straight from the heart. Not that she doesn't use her head -- she knows when to belt it out, as in "Amado Mio," and when to hold back, as in the eerie, dream-like first verse of "Que Sera, Sera" with Lauderdale's minor-key piano tinkling in the background like wind chimes in a Hitchcock movie.
A linguistic aside: She sings in English, French, Greek, Japanese, and Italian. Add to that Pepe Raphael's torrid Spanish vocals on "Donde Estas, Yolanda?" and you get a really international album -- not the sort of thing the United Stated used to produce. Hooray.
Pink Martini is terrific live, and ample opportunites are coming up. They recently played the Cannes Film Festival; now they're playing Spokane (it must be a weird life). If you get the chance, go hear them. For more information, check out the Pink Martini web site.
Paul Pena and Kongar-ol Ondar
One evening in 1986, Paul Pena, a blind blues musician living in San Francisco, tuned in his shortwave to a Radio Moscow broadcast of Tuvan throat-singing and said, whoa, what's that?! He searched out a recording and somehow, from hearing the sounds alone, taught himself to throat-sing. Amazing that anyone could intuit what occurs in the vocal tracts of throat singers of Tuva (a feature article by Ted Levin and Michael Edgerton in the September, 1999 issue of Scientific American made it clear how implausible that is). Turns out the kargyraa style is entirely compatible with a whiskey-soaked, gut-bucket growl.
In 1995, Paul Pena, composer of the Steve Miller hit "Jet Airliner," won Audience Favorite and First Prize in the kargyraa division of the second International Festival of Throat-singing held in Kyzyl, capital of Tuva. The journey from Point A to Point B, and Pena's various adventures in Tuva, make a captivating story told in the movie Genghis Blues. This disc of the same name with Tuvan sygyt master Kongar-ol Ondar also holds wonders.
"What You Talkin' About?" (track 1) appears as "The Ballad of Cher Shimjer" on Disc 1 (track 2) of Planet Soup, a dynamite 3-disc miscellany of world fusion from Ellipsis Arts (1996), where it exemplifies the idea perfectly. In the next several tracks, Ondar reveals his virtuosity and Pena his Cape Verdean and southern blues roots, but the real gems are the ones that intertwine these disparate musical traditions. The moma style of Cape Verdean blues guitar slips seamlessly behind the mournful melody of the Tuvan protest song "Konggurey" (track 8). A shameless blues riff comes and goes throughout "Eki A'ttar" ("Good Horses," track 9), a song about girls, of course, while the doshpulur (Tuvan banjo) maintains a steady trot. But the most audacious experiment by far is "Sunezin Yry" ("Soul's Song, track 10), a contemporary Tuvan song completely recast as a blues song. I get shivers.
Brave Combo has been my favorite band since I heard them play an Armenian folk song called "Chem-oo-chem" on a miscellany back in 1988. Since then, they've taken me from conjunto to klezmer, but nowhere more rewarding than the psyche of Carl Finch, the band's front man and multi-instrumentalist, one of the geniuses who played accordion in David Byrne's delightful movie True Stories.
A new Brave Combo album is always an event worth celebrating, and sure enough, Polkasonic is another high-energy danceable collection. Ha! Just try to stay in that chair. Although the predominant mood is dance, dance, dance, Polkasonic is typically wide-ranging: "Only for Love" (track 5) is a waltz that will melt you. And Finch's slow-swinging arrangement of "Down in the Valley" (track 10) is quirky, unorthodox, and brilliant.
For quirky, though, the prize must go to "Purple Haze - The Jimi Hendrix Polka" (track 12), two minutes of sheer musical audacity. Sure wish Jimi could hear this.
Here's music from the impossibly beautiful and happy childhood you never had. The spell is woven from the kantele, the ancient Finnish instrument that sounds like a music box, and from the sunny soul of Timo Vaananen (sorry, all three of those a's should be graced with umlauts), Finland Festival's 1997 Young Artist of the Year. Viileri is his final thesis for his degree from the Folk Music Department of the Sibelius Academy, the liner notes improbably tell us. Yipes -- my memories of academia are not so sweet.
My ear sometimes tires of the kantele's unrelievedly crystalline timbre, but not with such intricate and densely textured music, nor with Vaananen's versatile playing, from harplike plucking to guitarlike strums. The CD includes brief liner notes and a more thorough multimedia section (for Mac and Windows) with additional information in nine languages about the music and the kantele.
Though the first nine pieces are folk music for the kantele or its relatives, "La Cuquita" shows what this artist can do for Tex-Mex polka (track 10, with Maija Karhinen on accordion). And the title piece, "Viileri" ("Wheels," track 11), is distilled sunshine.
Sure hope they let this kid graduate. ;-)<
aguas de amazonia
Uakti plays Philip Glass
Uakti is the Brazilian band (popularized by Paul Simon in his 1990 album Rhythm of the Saints) who invent many of their own instruments; they've been at the forefront of experimental music for over a decade now. In aguas de amazonas, joined by Michael Riesman on keyboards, they play music composed by Philip Glass for the ballet company Grupo Corpo of Belo Horizonte (their hometown). It would be interesting to see the dances, but this music is easy to enjoy on its own.
In the liner notes, Philip Glass compliments Marco Antonio Guimaraes's "extraordinary ear for color," and it's clear what he means. After years of listening to Uakti's various albums, I still do not know what sort of musical instruments are a trilobyte, grand pan, or egg, but their timbres work just right with this music.
Repeated phrases; slowly-changing, hypnotic percussion; sudden transitions -- it's no one but Philip Glass. But he bends to Uakti's sweetness, and the result is gentle and superb: angels preoccupied with mathematics.
All pieces except the last are named after rivers, hence the album title ("waters of the amazon"). For what it's worth, the image I get is not watery. Somehow stumbling into church in a parallel probability continuum, I am lucky enough to catch the local equivalent of the organist playing "Madeira River" (track 5).
Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate
Centuries ago, some musicians were playing the kora in Africa while others were forcibly relocated to the shores of North America, where they invented the blues. Now the two threads are rejoining -- "intertwisting" might be a better description of what happens in this exciting collaboration between kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate and lengendary bluesman Taj Mahal.
Kulanjan includes both blues songs and kora standards such as "Kaira," here performed as "Atlanta Kaira" (track 10) with a hip-shakin' blues guitar riff. The liner notes (unusually informative and thorough) make much of the spontaneous, unrehearsed event here recorded, and it does indeed sound deliciously natural. It is followed by the aptly named "Mississippi-Mali Blues," traditional blues to which the light, lithe notes of the kora add a new dimension.
The album is notably enhanced by some wonderful singing -- both Taj Mahal and Kassemady Diabate (a smooth, seductive tenor) on "Fanta Sacko" (track 5), a delightful Cajun romp in praise of Toumani Diabate's wife -- and especially the amazing Ramatou Diakite. She opens the album on "Queen Bee," and it's easy to see why. That shimmering voice will raise the hairs on the nape of your neck.
It is 1962. You are walking along, minding your own business, when a flying saucer lands in your path. An alien steps out, consults its Alien-English dictionary, and requests to be directed to the best music on the planet. Go ahead, send it to Liverpool. But don't forget to mention Havana, too. It must hear Los Zafiros.
While the so-called superpowers used their island to lock antlers, four stunning voices and one great guitar blended the doo-wop they heard on the radio with "a unique and imaginative rereading of bolero, calypso, bossa nova, and the rhythmic heritage of Cuba" (the liner notes are terrific, providing even translated lyrics).
Any one of these voices could carry a group; four of them make for nonstop chills. It is impossible to single out one track, but those who remember the old Platters hit "My Prayer" will especially enjoy "Mi Oracion" (track 15). The angelic soprano of Ignacio Elejalde would surely earn him superstar status today. (Unfortunately, three of the four singers, including Ignacio, are dead today from the malady we might call Musician's Lifestyle.)
In 1965, at the peak of their career, Los Zafiros played Paris one week after the Beatles. (What a week to be in Paris! Hope the alien was there.) Legend has it, the Beatles stayed, listened, and loved it. Well, no wonder.
Those Darn Accordions
clownhead, the new release by the San Francisco-based band Those Darn Accordions, may not be "world fusion" in the traditional sense, but it certainly is mongrel enough, crossing the midwestern, middle-American polka a la Lawrence Welk with the decidedly skewed world view of Devo or the B-52s. "They Came for Accordions" (track 1), for example, is definitely the work of someone whose mind was warped with "Planet Claire."
The group's mastered a wide range of styles -- cheerful Tex-Mex, torrid tango, rollicking polka -- all presented with a heaping side-order of irony. This album features memorable covers of two very different 70s hits: "Low Rider" (track 4), an irresistible samba, and "Uncontrollable Urge" (track 9), its raw, naive vocal accompanied this time by vicious post-punk accordion. But my favorite is the tongue-in-cheek polka "First Bratwurst of Summer," sung deadpan by the inimitable Clyde Forsman:
"Oh the winter nights are long,
and the northern winds are strong.
Gray days can be quite a bummer.
Here's what gets us through,
when there's snow on the barbecue --
dreams of the first bratwurst of summer!"
The album is an uneven pleasure -- several cuts seem pretty darned mean-spirited. I realize such humor is popular nowadays. And after all, you'd expect a band with six accordions to have an edge.
This album by a modern Sicilian cellist neatly divides in two -- "Aquilarco" numbers 1-9 (tracks 1-9, all instrumental), followed by Robert Wilson reciting three poems by Christopher Knowles to cello accompaniment. (As tone poems are not my thing, I refrain from commenting on these.)
"Aquilarco," Giovanni Sollima tells us, is a portmanteau of the "aquilone," the Italian for kite, and "arco," or bow. The soaring image is apt; the music is moody, minimalist, Glass-ey, by turns cerebral and sensual -- and in the end, uplifting.
What did music sound like before I heard "Bongo Bong"? I can't remember. One evening, an alleged friend introduced this aural addiction (track 3); thereafter, life afforded no peace until I owned my own copy. To play whenever I wanted. Say, continuously. (sigh... )
On Clandestino, Manu Chao, a Mexican musician and former leader of the group Manu Negra, mixes salsa, rock, and dub in a manner reminiscent of the Tom Tom Club's feel-good electronica. But it's much wilder: polyrhythmic, multilayered, with lush, inventive instrumentation. (Is that a squeaky door on "Mama Call," track 7?)
Spanish and French speakers will enjoy lyrics that fit the music like an apple fits its skin. This snippet from track 10, sung off-key in deliciously laid-back, loopy style, fortuitously rhymes in translation: "Welcome to Tijuana, tequila, sex, or marijuana?" Alas, it does not convey the wit.
Manu Chao has an impressive knack for deceptive simplicity. His songs are complex and densely textured, yet they sound obvious. Surely we've been hearing this all our lives? Part of the answer must be his keen ear for the rhythms and melodies of speech. One thing I can remember: before hearing this album, I thought the ultimate exploration of that theme was "John Somebody" by John Zorn. Then I heard "Por el Suelo" (track 9). Now I shiver at the contrapuntal blandishments of that relentlessly promotional deejay.
David Grisman and others
On the exquisitely recorded acoustic CD Dawg Duos, veteran bluegrass mandolinist David Grisman plays duets with a dozen other talented musicians on bass, banjo, autoharp, percussion, guitar, and accordion. The duets with Mark O'Connor (listed as violin -- someone else gets fiddle!), and Bela Fleck are the expected tours de force. But I award prizes as follows:
3. "Swingin' Sorrento" (track 9). Jim Boggio plays accordion with passion and style.
2. "New Deli Duo" (track 10). Virtuoso Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain lays down a nice groove and Grisman gets into it.
1. "Trinidadian Rag," (track  6). The duet with Bob Brozman on National guitar indulges my musical sweet tooth disgracefully.
Miss Murgatroid and Petra Haden<
My definition of joy: another brave new accordion album! Bella Neurox is music In the avant-garde spirit of Guy Klucevsek, but at once more playful and darker. Petra Haden plays violin, Miss Murgatroid accordion, and both women sing in unearthly, hypnotic harmonies that are part Philip Glass, part Zap Mama. (In addition, the liner credits Miss Murgatroid, aka Alicia Rose, with "occasional feedback.")
The music is dramatic, fast-changing, from the sweet overdubbed vocals in "Duet for Vox" (track 4) to the moody, glowering "Cat and Mouse" (track 5). It's serious, but it doesn't take itself too seriously; while a ponderous accordion moans in "Chill in the Air" (track 2), the violin creeps in to adds a whimsical snatch of "Peter and the Wolf".
An unexpected pleasure: Gabe Leavitt of 3 Leg Torso plays cello on two tracks.