Their albums still wear well, though the fezzes have not. As the Mustapha home base at GlobeStyle Records began establishing bona fide world-music makers such as Ofra Haza and Kanda Bonga Man, the band stepped gracefully back from the footlights once their audience grew sophisticated enough to swallow foreign genres whole. Occasionally a couple of Mustaphas turned up accompanying and producing other international artists. But in the past few years, vocalist and bassist Sabah Habas Mustapha has eked out a low-key corner for himself that, with his third CD, bears tropical fruit.
So La Li bypasses his former band's familiar watering holes in favor of a collaboration with Indonesian musicians per his self-described masterpiece/mess of 1998, Jalan Kopo. This time around, rather than flexing local styles to fit whimsical Western songs, Mustapha dives deep into a sensual Sudanese pop called jugala, much of the time all but disappearing except for his melodic bass lines. He sings lead on opening cut Di Nagara Deungeun, backed by guest Mustapha Hijaz on Nigerian-flavor lap steel guitar. Thereafter he cedes the mike to Tati Ani Mogiono's waifish pipes and a slice of traditional senggak-style rap from Asep Moung, whose songbirding on suling flute is the signature of jugala, a twenty-year-old pop invention of Indonesian producer Gugum Gumbira.
Jugala transforms the qualities that make most Indonesian music hard on Western ears, such as its layered heterophony in place of harmony, where multiple instruments all solo at once to different rhythm cycles in the manner of a gamelan ensemble. But the Jugala All Stars' gentle, rippling strata of feminine voice, wooden flute, kecapi harp, violin, and hand drums creates an easy-to-love, clove-scented cloud, and the addition of a trap drummer and Mustapha's funkenesian bass carves out a navigable groove for foot-tapping. The obvious party song is Geulis, which effectively takes the last chaotic seconds of I Am the Walrus, appends a croaking lead vocal, muttering elf voices, a saw-tooth violin, and a refrain of so la li for a four-minute cut so nice, Mustapha included it twice -- reprising it as a karaoke version at the end of the disc. The repetition isn't a problem, since Geulis clearly is a jam based on the title cut. Its off-kilter bite surprises, and surprise has always characterized the Mustaphas' charm.