But if you're very lucky, the CD you've picked might just possibly contain an "oh" moment that burns away the fog. You might suddenly connect with a passage that lays bare its essence and does so with such brilliance that you experience a satisfying shock of recognition, and an unfamiliar style of music is a mystery no more.
In a rare fit of whimsy my ornithologist friend Egghead bought Rise Up! Shteyt Oyf! (Rounder) by the Klezmatics simply because he thought the band's name was amusing. Egghead's previous experience with klezmer was confined to episodes of the Nineties TV series Northern Exposure, which used Yiddish songs in the soundtrack. The opening cut, "Klezmorimlekh Mayne Libinke," perplexed him, though. The dirgelike pace and cimbalon accompaniment to this deathly invocation to klezmorim musicians were too traditionalist (!) for his tastes. Things improved when the cut segued into "Kats Un Moyz," a pumped-up freewheeling instrumental with swirling reeds and horns blowing in unison. Still the jazzy solos on this song failed to hit home until guest pianist Steve Sandberg punched into the track with a discursive keyboard meander in the mold of the Cuban big-band CDs that Egghead likes to percolate in the background of his home while writing a book on the nesting habits of the rose-breasted grosbeak. Sandberg plays fast and loose with klezmer motifs at first. Then he toys with Latin cadences, only to end with the trill of a genuine montuno riff that made the normally undemonstrative Egghead shout a resounding "Yes!" to the empty walls of his apartment.
Egghead's "oh" moment informed him that the Klezmatics were a band that would throw anything into their Yiddish music mix to expand the boundaries of their New York-based take on Jewish culture, and would do so with maximum humor. This insight gave him the key to the rest of the disc. When a children's chorus broke in on "Tepel," instead of sighing at the apparent lapse into kitsch, Egghead snorted with glee at the band's bravado. Sure enough, by the end of the song the chorus had transmogrified from a faux Hasidic boys' choir into ecstatic overlapping vocal lines capped by lead Klez singer Lorin Sklamberg's extended high notes.
I had an "oh" moment of my own after initially struggling with Bembeya Jazz's comeback album Bembeya (World Village). I had expected a tuneful blend of West African and Latin styles similar to what was on Orchestra Baobab's 2002 reunion disc, Specialist in All Styles. Both bands reached their peak in the late Seventies when the influence of Cuban pop was widespread in Africa. But Guinea's Bembeya Jazz forgoes the sparkling lead guitar and silky vocals of Senegal's Orchestra Baobab in favor of a sharper, gruffer style borrowed from the traditional Manding jeli (singer-historians). I didn't get it until a full four minutes into the last cut on the disc, "Soli Au Wassoulou." Kit drummer Condé Mory Mangala and percussionist Papa Kouyaté should have tipped me off with a fiery break that owes nothing to Western-style showboating and everything to tribal intensity. Shouted vocals by Youssouf Bah in aerobics-instructor mode and shots of blaring horns were further evidence that my search for sweetness was misguided. Finally when the lead instruments dropped away, stranding me inside a thicket of four electric guitars pounding out tightly meshed polyrhythms with all the delicacy of jackhammers, I understood that Bembeya Jazz was all about ratcheting up the beat.
"Oh," I mused. "I think I've got it." The reason I had missed the point before was that I had been distracted by the band's cleverness in basing the guitar arrangements on the instrumentation of a Manding acoustic ensemble. One guitar takes the balafon (marimba) melodic figures, two other guitars mimic dueling kora (harps), while the fourth sits in for the ngoni (lute). I caught on to that quickly. But I wasn't prepared for the sudden surge of all four guitars chipping sparks off a monolithic groove from slightly different angles and, with the aid of drums and electric bass, cranking out a beat as intense as any I had ever heard. It was a tiny insight, but big enough to pull me right into the music.