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.
Truth be told, despite its technical innovations (it can play lead, melody, and rhythm at the same time; it's portable; it can't go out of tune) and general adaptability to every musical culture out there, the accordion remains a silly instrument. And while you'll find herein some sporadic efforts to display the squeezebox's more sensitive side (some Debussy is included, as is Gil Goldstein's solo reading of the jazz standard "Detour Ahead"), Planet Squeezebox basically gives you a three-hour accordion party. Producer Michal Shapiro estimates conservatively that 90 percent of the collection is dance music of some kind, and the general foot-stomping air gives shape to things as the tracks leap across the globe.
There's also a welcome sense of geographic logic, with entries moving organically from region to region much as the instrument itself did. Shapiro is rarely content to just offer a few traditional tunes and press on, though. He tosses a few curves along the way. Instead of the straight Bavarian Lndlermusik that every German beer-hall band plays, we get the amazing offering from Attwenger, an unusual accordion/drum duo that plays a sort of rampaging oompah-core. And when the time comes to polka, as it inevitably must, there is but one traditional Slovenian-style track (and it isn't even from Frankie Yankovic, the closest thing there is to a polka superstar). In its wake there are a couple of impressively goofy joke polkas (jolkas?) from Brave Combo and eccentric virtuoso Guy Klucevsek, whose "The Grass, It Is Blue (Ain't Nothin' But a Polka)" somehow quotes Gershwin and minimalist composer Terry Riley's "In C" in the same breath.
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Squeezebox doesn't pretend to be definitive. Indeed, it seems to shy away from the few giants the instrument has produced, whether by design or by inability to procure publishing rights. (Luckily we are talking about the accordion here, so it's not like Hendrix got left out.) Still, it's hard to figure a comprehensive accordion sampler that avoids both the late Louisiana zydeco king Clifton Chenier and the very much alive Tex-Mex superstar Flaco Jimenez. The sole zydeco representative turns out to be the distinctly minor Zydeco Force, a likable enough bar band but not one likely to be mistaken for masters such as Boozoo Chavis or Rockin' Dopsie any time soon. Cajun music fares better, with Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys making the cut, along with a good sample of French-Canadian Quebecois tunes.
The set seems far more interested in steering away from the familiar and unearthing enterprising Third Worlders who've made the accordion their own, and it is here that the collection really shines. The South African township jive that Paul Simon plundered so effectively gets a good workout here, along with variations from the Ivory Coast (Le Zagazougou's sweetly funky "Varietoscope") and Nigeria (Juju pioneer I.K. Dairo's "Ore Arakunrin"). The Latin American coverage, conjunto excepted, is good as well, with a generous assortment of steamy Colombian vallenato and Brazilian forr cents dance music.
But like its Planet Soup companion, the whole of Planet Squeezebox is greater than the sum of its odd parts, despite the glaring omissions and periodic duds. And after a good three hours of accordions from Dublin to Madagascar, the global village does indeed seem like a smaller, wackier place. There is also a vaguely inspiring subtext to the whole accordion saga: What is curious about hearing the accordion in 52 different languages is the sheer indomitability of both the instrument and the people who play it. This strange honking thing was embraced most artfully by people who had next to nothing, from Irish farmers to South African coal miners, and Planet Squeezebox is a tribute less to a goofy-sounding instrument than to the overpowering human need to somehow have a good time.