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THE REPTILE PALACE ORCHESTRA comes back On The Wings Of A Skink (Motile Music, PO 3116, Madison, WI 53704-0116), live and unadulterated. It's all wrong: a klezmer band with a Latin flair plays Arabic sounding covers of George Clinton, Richard Thompson, James Brown and Jimmy Page tunes. Yet it's so right. They make no pretense at "world" credibility, make no claims to being discoverers, innovators or new-agey one-worlders. They just play their music with skill, humor and energy, on a variety of instruments with childlike curiosity. Bravo, ye skinks and snakes!
If you have had enough of overwrought pop rock music that is way too full of its own importance you might do better to go Czeching In (Skoda, PO 1389, Wilmington, DE 19899-1389 202.547.8006) on some what's happening (and has happened) in the Czech Republic and Slovakia since the Plastic People retired. Latin rock? Sum svistu is your band, self described as your "happy little dance band." The very eastern women of Zuby nehty (Tooth and Nail) do a dark yet poppy rock with no guitars, just heavy drums, piano and flute for lead. One of my all time favorite Czech bands (and the only group I recognized here), Dunaj appear with their quirky, mean sound rife with pseudo balalaika-guitars and surly vocals. The set closes with a mediocre pop-blues rag by Duty, who are referred to in the notes as "the most popular band in the Czech Republic... we don't know why." Me either, but in all cultural explorations the good, the bad and the ugly all have to have their two minutes, and this set offers them all, from post-punk opera to strange reggae.
Stephen Kent has always taken a different approach to his music. While he has studied and understands the aboriginal traditions, he has always sought new paths. His group Lights In A Fat City went deep into the technological possibilities of this drone instrument, making cutting edge music. Landing (City Of tribes) continues his journey. Kent seeks out the unexpected possibilities in his music, and uses the instrument in new ways and for new purposes. He shamelessly mixes the ancient tube with samplers, and he and friends add a multitude of percussions and voices to the set. The results are dreamy ("Ayeo"), jazzy ("China Basin"), or primal ("Yekke") but always unexpected.
Both albums reinforce what should be the ideal of this thing called "world music." They look to the past, then shatter the illusion that tradition is static, a sacred icon to be praised but left untouched. Both Reconciliation and Stephen Kent see music as a growing, breathing entity, a life force that can expand rather than confine the soul of our human race.
Every musical boom has its attempts at definition, the definitive boxing of a genre by one or more "experts" who know what's important. We lived through the compiling of jazz anthologies, folk collections, and still suffer the late night "decade in a box" syndrome. But like so many other things about the burgeoning international world music scene, even its boxing has been unusual and sometimes even triumphant.
The Music Of Cambodia (Celestial Harmonies) offers three CDs that take three close looks at three distinct parts of the musical culture: "9 Gong Gamelan," "Royal Court Music," and to my mind the most potent of the three, "Solo Instrumental Music." I still never cease to be amazed at how every culture has independently developed a music that has a close kinship to the American folk blues. The simplicity of the instruments (all lutes of various sorts, from the one stringed kse diev that uses the players chest as a resonator to more elaborate multi-stringed, distant cousins of the oud and guitar) makes it populist. The skill of the performers makes it art. The stories they tell, like so much of the blues, are direct, potent and often cautionary, like Prach Chhuon's warning to men to "understand women. Don't be angry with them, or you are too stupid." This just touches on the music on this one CD that also displays the same depth and brilliance on fiddles, flutes and other voices.
The Music Of Vietnam (Celestial Harmonies) offers a similar expanse of musical terrain, from the highly formalized imperial court music through professional folk revival, although the grittier folk element is somewhat lacking. It is perhaps the formality of most of this music that is so striking. Even a percussion piece led by Pham Van Ty exhibits a Buddhist restraint unlike most of the world's "drum solos." (see also Voices of Vietnam)
The final nail in the box comes on three CDs titled Planet Squeezebox (Ellipsis Arts). As any of you who regularly read this column know, I am a particular fan of this instrument, and a champion of its more challenging players. Many argue that the century of the accordion has been the ruination of all local music from Tokyo to Kinshasha to the Straits Of Magellan, forcing all musical forms to conform to the rhythm and scale of its Germanic inventors (also an arguable theory). Planet Squeezebox covers the world, but unlike the uniformity of the paint, it finds its defenders playing all manner of music from classical to the most raw punk. There are some brilliant performances here, from Finland's Maria Kalaniemi and Sweden's Lars Hollmer to the Alpine punksters Attwenger. There is an abundance of familiar folk material from Ireland, the Americas and Africa, as well as a few surprises from Asia. But the choices for songs from many contemporary artists on this album seem terribly stereotyped. It's a cute approach, this "let's see what an accordion can do in the wrong place at the wrong time" theory. Many of the individual cuts are wonderful, and I can't fault the artists, most of whom have done far deeper, far-reaching work than what is heard here. The set lacks focus, and takes an important instrument and world culture and packages it neatly.
"I'm going to make a promise and I'm going to make a vow that when I got something to say, sir, I'm gonna say it now." If there's one thing we could always depend on, it was this promise from Phil Ochs. Liberals, demogoges and salesmen of all kinds regularly felt the sting of his songs, and poor people, political outcasts and lost souls could always depend on the soothing beauty of his poetry. Perhaps nothing brought both of these things to reality more readily than Phil in concert. My one and only experience with him live was at the tender age of 14 when I was taken on a New York adventure to hear someone who had in part inspired me to learn to play the guitar and sing the year before. Phil was a strange combination of warmth aloofness. His songs spoke of things I knew I had to learn to understand, and his sweet voice was such a contrast to the whining drawl of Dylan or the incessant growl of sixties rock. Here was an angry young man who believed in beauty, a thoughtful revolutionary.
In Concert captures these elements well. The album was a collection of music from performances in New York and Boston in 1965 and 1966. His pre-song banter was funny and bitter. Introducing "Ringing Of Revolution" he casts a movie in his mind: "John Wayne plays Lyndon Johnson and Lyndon Johnson plays God. I play Bobby Dylan." Here in the heart of the monster that was the Vietnam war he calls for a revolution of decency in rich poetry rather than trivial diatribe. That was Och's strong card, his clarity of ideals that left him isolated by the didatic left and the fascist right, neither of which had much time for poetry, art and decency in those days. In Concert presented 11 songs, most of which were new to his repetoire at the time but are now consider classic Ochs: "Cops Of The World," "Love me, I'm A Liberal," and the now painfully and beautifully prophetic "When I'm Gone." These songs that were timely then and strangely timeless now.
Someone described this as "a return to roots" for Sweet Honey In The Rock. Return? I don't think they ever left. This group of women have turned my head every time I have gotten a new album or seen them give another performance. And in the age of Pat Buchanan vs Louis Farhakkan, there is never enough of this powerful, inspired and inspiring music. Sacred Ground is further evidence of the healing that can happen in the face of extreme injustice. They delve into some of the most familiar and evocative black spiritual music of America, finding a message of strength in sadness, hope in destitution, and above all, through these old songs and their own original contributions, personal and cultural victory. These woman have found a path that eschews both preaching and contempt, a rare humane approach to ALL people that demands respect but never demands revenge or submission. So many songs on this album speak to these convictions, in so many different ways. Ysaye Barnwell's "Prayer" reminds us of the real message of a bible often quoted for political or economic gain. The traditional "No More Auction Block," "Balm In Gilead" and "Stay On The Battlefield" are a brilliant combination of songs to speak to both history and today. Perhaps it is best summed up in the words of Nitanju Bolade Casel. "...look inside for the answers of life and that is where they happen to be. We let external things distract us from finding our true destiny." A return to roots? No, I think, after 21 years, that Sweet Honey In The Rock are the roots.
Asian Improv Records, 1433 Grant St., Berkeley, CA 04703-1109
File Under: Further Out Tuba, piano, shamisen, erhu, fiddle, percussion and peculiar voices in the night all conspire to make Kenzo's Dream a strange, long night. Somewhere between free improv and free jazz lies this irreverent, witty and challenging little offering from four musicians with a lot on their minds when they wake up each morning.
There's a pile of fusion stuff in the house this month with eastern roots and technological branches. The chief culprit is AHLAM's latest Morrocomix Acting Salam (Barraka & Farnatshi). Aided and abetted by Bill Laswell, this album roars through a North African brand of dub, hip-hop and Arabic pop that speaks directly to a generation of youth in America and Africa that is sorely in need of a new political and social basis for their lives, one that bands like Ahlam hope to provide. This is a mad album of inputs and influences so varied it gets dizzying, a trance made of equal parts anger and hope, ancient roots and futuristic groove.
I can't hide my biases here; I am an unabashed fan of Ingrid Karklins, from her first cassette to A Darker Passion, her first Green Linnet release in 1992. Ingrid embodies what I find most important in music, a timelessness that keeps the future and the past firmly in view, while being totally absorbed in the present. She uses the folk traditions of her parent's Latvian and her own Anglo-Celtic American roots in innovative, creative ways that allow her to make new music that reflects but never mimics any of its inspirations. She is equally enthralled by the ancient strum of the kokle harp and the modern possibilities of electronic keyboard. Through all of her previous work, this search for balance has been a promise of great things.
What sets Anima Mundi apart from her other work (and the work of everyone else around her) is that while previously she made exciting explorations into music, here she has made a full blown discovery. I always wondered "What is she going to do next?" Now I wonder how she's going to get any better than this. The songwriting is darker, deeper and more mystical. The music is more fully realized, complex and personal. And then there's the band; the current incarnation of Backbone is skilled, creative and adventurous.The heart of the band is bassist Steve Bernal, who can fuse folk, funk and outright outrageousness into a single phrase, and a phenomenal young drummer, Chris Searles. Searles took the last Backbone tour to the Northeast this winter, and he amazed me. His skewed sense of timing, his intuitive ability to know where the silences are, and his open approach to unusual sounds and combinations reflects Ingrid's own attitudes and ideas. The rest of the entourage for this record includes the ghostly vocals of Malford Milligan, guitarist Craig #7 (the other member of the winter touring group), Susan Voelz on violin and a small string section.
There have been endless comparisons of Ingrid to Kate Bush
(including me), Boiled in Lead, even Laurie Anderson. Its the
diversity of these comparisons that makes it clear what an
original she is. Her dense poetic impulses, her uninhibited
fusion of folk and funk and her humorous flair all sum up an art
that deserves nothing as simple as comparative study.
- cliff furnald
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