Agony Shorthand

Monday, November 22, 2004

This eye-opening and ear-popping series of rare ethnic 78s from the pre-WWII era has been cranking along for about a half-dozen years now, created with loving care by Pat Conte, a ethnomusicologist Harry Smith/Alan Lomax for our times. He once had a show on WFMU devoted to playing his immense collection of old 78s from around the world, sadly now off the air. Each of the original five volumes, released on Yazoo, contains a globetrotting overview of various regions' heavy hitters -- from snake-charming Bulgarian gypsies to hot-tempered, maraca-wielding Bolivians to folk music from the Arctic plains of Northern Sweden. Being a world music dilettante yet an unabashed fan of scratchy, distant-sounding 78rpm records, it's been a great introduction for me to the musical cultures of various lands. And admittedly, not something that gets cranked up that often. I've got to really work to get my head in a space where I can enjoy a babbling foreign tongue and instrumentation created by hand in a village ruled by a tribal elder, rather than on an assembly line. Sometimes I'll get 3-4 songs in and throw in the towel, but when it's really clicking for me, there are two global regions that have really stood out for me: the Bulgarians, also well-captured on a great Yazoo collection called "Songs of the Crooked Dance", and just about anything from North Africa (Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya etc.). Thus seeing this one in a CD bin the other day made purchase of it a no-brainer.

Conte has dug deeply into the region and come up with an ethereal, haunting collection of nearly impenetrable folk music. It sounds like it could have just as easily been from 200 years ago, rather than 75. What little I know about the region's music is summed up in three letters: Rai. Rai is a Moroccan musical form that's really caught on in recent years in Europe, and has been combined with modern dance music to create a club favorite all over the planet. These recordings are clearly the roots of this form, and at times they even have this stark, sparse, otherworldly connection to American delta blues. At other times some of the recordings sound like war chants or calls to prayer, even the one from Timbuktu (the place really exists!). I'm not going to get too wrapped around the axle about how mystical and goddess-like this stuff is; I mean, World Music dorks can be quite annoying. (Santa Cruz, California, where I now own a home, may possibly be the world music dork capital of the USA). Still, you hear wonderful tracks like MLLE. DALILA TALIANA's "E' Rebbi Lech Hakka", with its sweet vocals curling and twisting around the most unique and ancient instrumentation imaginable, and you're easily reeled in. You're instantly transported to the desert tents and mile-long hookahs of "The Sheltering Sky"; this CD could be the soundtrack for that fine (North African-set) novel. Conte has also released "Secret Museum" CDs encompassing the music of East Africa (hmm) and Central Asia (hmmmmm); anyone got the good word on those??