Ho-hum. Classic reggae and Indian film music. Tell us something new. Decades after their big breakthroughs in the late 1960s, reggae and filmi have become marginalized by their popularity. Stuck in their respective niches, the genres haven't gained appreciable momentum from the sputtering but occasionally lively world-music bandwagon. Innovation has largely occurred elsewhere. Bhangra grabbed the energy and sprawling influences of filmi and hitched them to a club aesthetic, while reggae's DJ faction spawned dancehall, a style now as far removed from classic reggae roots as hip-hop. So when a couple of visionaries twist old-time reggae and filmi into unexpected shapes, it's as startling as if the Sphinx itself stood up and danced away from the Giza plateau.
Quite fittingly, the first voice you hear on Lee "Scratch" Perry's Jamaican E.T. is the voice of a common loon. That's not to disparage the venerable Upsetter; it's a reference to the duck-like waterfowl whose eerie call haunts its breeding ground in the northern United States and Canada. A Northern Cardinal also less pejoratively chitters along with Perry on "10 Commandments," which Scratch-logic transmogrifies into a blathering paean to, of all things, LSD.
For anyone too young to remember the pre-X-Files era, Perry was one of the most important producers in the history of reggae, twiddling the dials for Coxsone Dodd's Studio One and helping create the signature sound for the Wailers and other crucial artists. Perry was also a pioneer in the invention of dub, and in the 1970s produced a stream of brilliantly eccentric 45s from his Black Ark studio for Max Romeo, Junior Byles, the Congos, and many more.
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Unfortunately mental health problems -- or, if you will, visionary experiences denied to ordinary humans -- have robbed Perry of the continuity necessary to setting down an artistic statement as sustained and cohesive as an actual song. (Shades of Brian Wilson.) Jamaican E.T. continues that dissolution, though the album is not without a few merits. Any single track is an interstellar gas as a super-tight instrumental outfit outputs a classic reggae groove occasionally abetted by female choristers. Scratch then unleashes short phrases from Planet Perry into the hapless listener's left ear. These overlap other phrases in the right ear, while a third voice centered on the pituitary gland accelerates the chaos. If none of this quite adds up to a lyric or melody, Perry gives his method another try when the next cut rolls around. Fun, spacey, and avant-garde Jamaican E.T. surely is. But an expression of an artist in command of his gifts it definitely is not. If buying this CD helps keep one of Jamaican music's seminal figures with a full stomach and a roof above his head, however, consider the action your faith-based initiative for the year.
World music label Mondo's aptly named Mondo India throbs with originality that has as much to do with the bass- and drum-heavy production as the modern approach of filmi impresario A.R. Rahman. Compiler Gerald Seligman is so taken with Rahman that all but two tracks on the disc are his, and one of the stragglers belongs to Vishal, a composer influenced by Rahman. The late R.D. Burham, credited with introducing non-Indian musical elements to soundtracks, fills the other non-Rahman slot with 1994's "Ek Ladki Ko Dekha." Burham's lean arrangement is a far cry from the heyday of filmi, when a single three-minute opus would be packed with everything from jazz, country, and soul to European classical-music motifs. Rahman's hallmark is also homogeneity. Instead of yesteryear's exciting kitsch collages, he assembles glassy panoramas that blur Indian elements with a familiar world-music topography of effects-laden vocals, up-front electronic percussion, samples, and synthesizers. All is tastefully integrated with dreamy voices and melodies evoking romantic themes, while percussive wallops at regular intervals jab the thrill-seeking contingent of the audience awake.
Saving these songs from the new-age realm of Joi, Atman, and other plunderers of Indian treasure is faithfulness to the subcontinental material that generally rings true. Instruments may dive and surface, rhythms may be parsed, but the lead vocals maintain their integrity and therefore a sustained power of mood. "Narumugaiye" is contemporary more by attitude than instrumentation: Atmospherics and a synthesizer solo put it in the 1990s, but the entwined vocals convey the eternal spirit of pop-chart-style young love. "Gopika Poornima" pushes a similar concept into the realm of the maudlin. And "Aiyaiyo Kanavaa" is so diluted it could be from anywhere -- sporting a church-choir opening, hip-hop beats, and the kind of vacuous signifying that passes for passion in place of the more traditional delivery that makes Indian vocals unique. But even this is done with real appeal. In a crowded soundtrack field that sees something like 800 films produced each year, Rahman is really onto something, selling over 40 million cassettes in the past 3 years. That's usually a guarantee of mediocrity, but this sample culled from 35 CDs proves that Rahman is the raja.
For Bollywood the way it used to be, check out The Rough Guide to Bollywood (World Music Network), a new sampler that mainly adheres to the classic filmi style. Legendary songbirds Asha Bhonsle and Lata Mangeshkar flutter above the exhilaratingly tinny accompaniment along with other big names in the genre. For a fresh look at Lee Perry in his better days, grab the just-released two-CD set from the classic reggae label Trojan Records, Lee Perry & Friends, A Live Injection -- Anthology 1968-1979. On board are 44 of Perry's best works as producer and performer, including a few rare Bob Marley tracks.