By Juan Barquin
By Amy Nicholson
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Travis Cohen
By Juan Barquin
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Amy Nicholson
By Juan Barquin
Like the world itself, world music can be a scary place. When you don't know a djembe from a darbukah, when nothing ever sounds even remotely like "Hot Blooded," it's easy to give up and play Graceland again. As the curious titles of its pair of recent releases might hint, the Ellipsis Arts imprint brings a dose of whimsy to the task of collecting tunes from all corners of the globe. Both the Planet Soup and Planet Squeezebox three-disc sets make for great and largely successful efforts to render accessible some mighty odd tunes, though for somewhat different reasons. Soup is devoted to exploring "cross-cultural collaborations and musical hybrids," according to the booklet notes, while Squeezebox concentrates with impressive single-mindedness on, well, the squeezebox -- a.k.a. accordion, bandoneon, concertina, organetta, garmonika, et cetera. The musical itineraries of both collections involve some serious continental drifting; the sheer amount of turf covered on every disc is dizzying, and, as one might expect, it is a sometimes bumpy trip. But there is a fistful of far-flung gems in here, as well as heaps of fascinating curiosities that might expand your musical consciousness, if only for a few moments.
Be forewarned, though: You have to stay on your toes and have a lot of spare time to get into Planet Soup. The set promises "three hours of compelling global music created by over 200 musicians in over 35 countries," and that's just what you get. The colorful novella-length liner notes do an admirable job of sorting everyone out, but it's a losing battle: There is a sort of happy chaos at work among these world-music crossbreeds, all assembled here under a vaguely new-agey platform of promoting musical diversity and general planetary feel-goodism. Purists might balk at the rampant miscegenation, and sometimes things veer into bland world-fusion electro-beat territory. However, even if you don't buy into the cosmic implications, the gleeful nontraditionalism makes for some merry music.
Take, for example, the Urb Brothers' "Chicken Yellow Grand Piano Blues," a sort of acoustic cocktail blues via Estonia, or the reeling "Katariina" from Vrttin, an all-woman Finnish vocal outfit seemingly composed of a troupe of helium-voiced aliens ("Imagine the Go-Go's in Esperanto," the liner notes explain, not too helpfully). The sheer audacity of some tunes can't help but impress: On "Reel 'En Su Salsa," Galician salsa band Matto Congrio brings in Chieftains Uilleann piper Paddy Moloney to forge an unlikely Celtic salsa summit (and a catchy one at that), while "The Ballad of Cher Shimjer (What You Talkin' About?)" finds San Francisco bluesman Paul Pena dueting with Tuvan throat singer Kongar-ol Ondar over a percolating Bo Diddley beat. Some mixed-breeds have deeper ethnomusical resonances than others; lots of African/Latin American fusions of various shades are easy fits because of the multitude of shared musical traditions between the continents (Africando's "Doley Mbolo," a Senegalese salsa breakdown, is one of the best).
But the stranger pleasures here have a sort of giddy what-the-hell-were-they-thinking feel to them. Banjo man Jim Bowie tries to play a bluegrass theme in an Indian raga ("Rinpoche's Rag"), complete with tabla, just to see if he can, and Pierre Do/rge assembles something called the Polar Jungle Orchestra (a collective of musicians from Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Finland) to play the awesomely weird "Skraellingernes Fo/rste Mo/de Med Nordboerne," a scarifying Zappaesque mix of growling, chanting, orchestral exclamations and avant-jazz noise.
The catholicism of the collection results in a goodly number of clinkers, mostly cheesy world-pop hybrids such as Dod da Bahia's Falco-goes-Brazil routine on "Afroamerica Rap," or creepy ethno-fusions such as Wolfstone's Kansas-like Scottish prog rock. For people who aren't world-music wonks, this certainly isn't the best way to get acquainted with the traditional pleasures of "real" soukous or Senegalese praise singing. But if you're yearning to hear something completely different and are willing to sit through some stuff you're definitely not going to like, Soup offers a satisfying sampler.
Planet Squeezebox is packaged similarly but charged with a more arcane mission. Here we get three CDs celebrating the global domination of the accordion and its many cousins. A product of nineteenth-century industrial revolution ingenuity, the accordion was invented in Vienna in 1829, and it apparently wasted little time spreading to all inhabited continents. This set's booklet is full of fascinating accordion factoids (Hitler's Nazi Germany tried to wipe out, among other things, what it termed "the nigger jazz instrument," claiming it unfit to play classical music) and a lot of pictures of the things, all sure to please historically put-upon adherents of the cult of the squeezebox. (Recall, if you will, the Far Side cartoon that showed the Devil greeting the damned at the gates of the underworld with "Welcome to Hell. Here's your accordion.") The booklet also goes into detail about the instrument's enviable egalitarian pleasures; in its earlier incarnations, it was loved and reviled as the cheap, mass-produced noisemaker of the people. Loud, durable, and easy to play, the accordion seemed to materialize wherever there were poor folks who wanted to party. But it is an eclectic array of music A hurtling from the more familiar (for Americans anyway) polka, Tex-Mex, and zydeco genres into the more obscure Zulu squashbox, Argentine tango, Finnish polska, the funana of the Cape Verde Islands, Eastern European klezmer, and all points in between -- that proves the instrument demands and deserves respect.
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