City Paper is not for tourists
Ever since “world music” attained mainstream exposure—its popularization variously attributed to Brian Eno and David Byrne (1980’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts), Peter Gabriel (the establishment of the Real World record label, the field recordings on the 1989 soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ), and Paul Simon (Ladyship Black Mambazo’s appearance on 1986’s Graceland)—multicultural sounds have popped up in seemingly incongruous places. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page used metal drums and a gibrel (three-string bass) on last year’s collaboration, No Quarter, while Israeli singer Ofra Haza can be heard on Paula Abdul’s recent single. More and more often, the exoticism of unfamiliar instruments and vocalizations is being used to evoke new feelings from old formulas.
In keeping with this ever-increasing visibility, Planet Soup, a three-disc collection of world music hybrids and collaborations, proposes to take its contents straight into the top 40. According to liner notes by Public Radio International’s John Diliberto, many of the compilation’s songs could break into the Billboard charts were it not for their strange sounds and instrumentation. One hopes that Diliberto is being facetious, but his repeated references to the fact that particular tracks are “glossy” or “slick” suggests otherwise. Perhaps justifiably, Diliberto fears that listeners are unable to embrace music unless it employs recognizable (i.e., banal) motifs.
Planet Soup plays into this fear. Many of the collection’s tracks are what the German group Can called its exotic pieces: “ethnological forgeries.” This is not to say that Brazilian Adolfo Sampaio, leader of the group Dodô Da Bahia, isn’t really from Brazil, but that his “Africamérica Rap,” a pallid piece of house music, seems to have been chosen for its pop obviousness rather than its “native” qualities. Sampaio even admits to being opportunistic, coming across in the accompanying CD booklet as the Malcolm McLaren of the Afro-Brazilian axé style. “Africamérica Rap,” like most of the Westernized pap on Planet Soup, is world music for the territorially challenged.
“Gazpacho,” the first of the collection’s three cutely titled discs, opens with one such example—Badakhshani musician Oleg Fesov’s “Marav.” Diliberto calls the track a “slick piece of pop craftsmanship,” and he’s right. The track is as polished as any top 40 tune—and as vacuous. Cuban group Lázaro Ros and Mezcla contribute “Aketé Oba Oba,” a polyrhythmic drum-and-voice chant that employs West African bata drums. That’s as traditional as this track gets: As the liner notes state, the song is augmented by “brass-like synthesizer arrangements, a throbbing bass line and electric rock guitar leads.” If this sounds like the formula for a Mr. Mister song, so be it. Similarly radio-ready are the stylings of popular Scottish group Wolfstone, whose “Double Rise Set” is described as “pastoral” folk rock with arena rock aspirations. Early ’80s U2, anyone?
Perhaps the best-known Soup contributor, besides tango master Astor Piazzolla, is “Fourth World” music pioneer Jon Hassell, who teams up with African drum orchestra Farafina for “Air Afrique.” Hassell notes that he and producer Daniel Lanois were overwhelmed by Farafina’s fusillade of sound, one that “could never happen with electronic percussion.” Hassell’s albums have proven as much, as did Hybrid, the Lanois-produced album by Eno protégé Michael Brook that attempted to electronically reproduce African percussion. Such works have captured the miasma of polyphonics, but none of the life. On “Air Afrique,” the combination of Hassell’s Stockhausen-derived compositional style and Farafina’s barrage of souco, tama, and bara drums has a vitality that’s missing from the musician’s primarily electronic work.
On Soup, Africa demonstrates an undeniable musical hegem ony. Just as much American music can be traced to African sources, so is the majority of the disc’s compositions—from the Afro-Cuban sounds of Africando’s “Doley Mbolo” to the flamenco hiphop of Ketama, Toumani Diabate, and José Soto’s “Sute Monebo” to the dub-jazz fusion of Turkanas’ “Under One Sky”—inspired by music from that continent. In fact, many of Soup‘s strongest tracks are distinguished by innovative drum work. Hassell could benefit from collaborating with Eitetsu Hayashi, the Japanese Taiko percussionist who contributes the enigmatic “Rhinoceros Man in Distance.” Using the sabar drum, djembe, and the Senegalese talking drum, Hayashi creates free-form blasts of rhythm that resonate deep in the gut. Buried in the mix is saxophonist Akira Sakata, whose Pharoah Sanders-style screeches and wails provide a persistent counterpoint to the beat.
California guitarist Chuck Jonkey’s “Gowchara” applies Hassell’s Fourth World technique (combining electronics and traditional instruments), blending gongs, bamboo flutes, clay ocarinas (simple wind instruments), sitars, guitars, and charangos (Mexican stringed instruments reminiscent of mandolins) to create a sort of supine raga. Mynta, a Swedish/Indian group that combines the music of both cultures to disturbing effect, also creates a new type of raga. However, Soup‘s strangest Indian-inspired piece is by banjoist Jim Bowie, bassist Mike Richmond, and tablaist Badal Roy. The trio’s bluegrass raga “Rinpoche’s Rag” is as alien-sounding as it is entertaining.
Middle Easterner Pivio and Italian Aldo de Scalzi, both keyboardists with progressive rock credentials (Pivio played with Robert Wyatt and de Scalzi with the band Picchio Dal Pozzo), borrow directly from Eno, sampling the drums from his “Fractal Zoom.” Arabic vocals by Moroccan vocalist Faisal Taher are set against a droning violin backdrop for “Dies Irae,” an eclectic take on Middle Eastern prog rock. Also dabbling in prog rock is Spanish guitarist Gualberto, who does guitarists like Steve Hillage, Manuel Gottsching, and Robert Fripp proud with the balance of arena rock bombast and delicate flamenco textures on “Cante.”
Because music is related to the inducement of religious ecstasy, it’s not surprising that many of the compilation’s cuts have a ritualistic feel. The grandiose stomp of “Skraellingernes Forste Mode Med Nordboerne” by Norwegian Pierre Dorge and the Polar Jungle Orchestra conjures incense-veiled holy ceremonies. Dorge, who studied with avant-garde saxophonist John Tchichai, is rooted in jazz. Like Holland’s Willem Breuker Kollektief (a band that experiments with time signatures, arrangement, and composition in a realm that could tenuously be called jazz), Dorge seems comfortable catapulting between musical styles. Dorge’s evocative, Zappaesque guitar relates the song’s narrative over the foreboding clicks of a traditional Greenlandic drum.
The most disorienting sounds on Soup are provided by Tuvan throat singers—vocalists who sing two notes simultaneously. The disc’s two examples of throat singing are both unlikely but fascinating collaborations. The first is Genghis Blues, a duo featuring Paul Pena (the blind Cape Verdean-American blues singer best known for writing Steve Miller’s hit “Jet Airliner”) and throat singer Kongar-ol Ondar. In 1995, Pena became the only American to compete in the International Tuvan Throat Singing Festival and Symposium in Kyzyl, Tuva, where he was a second-place winner. Pena’s slide guitar opens “The Ballad of Cher Shimjer (What You Talkin’ About?).” As Ondar begins to sing in the high sygyt throat style, Pena drops the blues lyrics and lets loose with his deeper, kargyraa throat howl. Ondar’s voice continues to hum, accompanied by the Moogesque tones of his khomus jaw harp. The blues have never been more colorful. The second is Mongolian Bolot Bairyshev, who mixes his Tuvan throat singing with samples of flutes and voices, an electric jew’s-harp, and a two-string lute. For once Diliberto’s liner notes are spot on, describing Bairyshev’s “Ondogor” as a “hypnotic incantation of psychedelic shamanism.” The music is harrowing, and as frightening as any soundscape English noise ensemble Zöviet France ever sculpted.
International collaborations provide many of Soup‘s most successful tracks. Farmers Market, a Norwegian group named after American trumpeter Art Farmer, is joined by American Henry Kaiser on “Sami Joik From Masi.” Using guitar, sax, sitar, accordion, bass, and drums, the group creates guttural drones that are not unlike Tuvan throat singing. A complex time signature anchors the track’s sinuous sounds. German-born lite-jazz keyboardist Peter Kater’s music has always been stylistically suspect. However, his collaboration with Native American flautist, chanter, and rattler R. Carlos Nakai is a successful amalgamation of George Winston-style new-age piano and Tuvan singing, minus the split tones. Nakai’s chanting gives the piece its deep emotional resonance.
But Soup is no multicultural consommé. In the end, the disc celebrates sameness more often than it does diversity—as Diliberto’s clumsy liner notes indicate. A more instructive introduction to world music can be had from author Paul Bowles’ collections of Moroccan source music, the releases of Bill Laswell’s ever-expanding Axiom label, and, most recently, on the Master Musicians of Jajouka’s newly reissued Pipes of Pan at Jajouka, recorded in 1968 by then-Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones. None of these recordings will hit the top 40, but, thankfully, they aren’t trying to.