Chasing Waterfalls

Especially for the first half of the disc, which Feld front-loads like any canny producer, I'm quite taken with this stuff. Compared, say, to the Ugandan guitar songs on the John Storm Roberts-compiled Kampala Sound, the tunes have a sour, mournful undertow, and the male-female leads, synchronized by Kaluli standards, are raggedy around the edges. While not unmitigated virtues, these are marks of character. Like the themes and metaphors I can barely absorb, such idiosyncrasies help make the music Kaluli rather than "world." But Feld is right—in the end, they're not Kaluli enough, and they aren't where I made my connection. My Kaluli breakthrough occurred while I was dutifully checking out Disc II, "Sounds and Songs of Everyday Life."

Bosavi's predecessor was a 10,000-selling 1991 CD Feld coproduced with Mickey Hart, Voices of the Rainforest, which situated Kaluli vocal and instrumental music in an aural collage of birds and insects, rainfall and running water, tree cutting and brush clearing. It was soon followed by two musical soundscape CDs from Central Africa: Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Rainforest, which Feld's teacher Colin Turnbull originally put out in 1957 and 1958, and Martin Cradick's Baka Pygmy Heart of the Forest, which lacks Turnbull's subtlety but does include three water drum tracks and the eternal "Nursery Rhyme." Both embodied the central point that forest people live so much by their ears that for them musical sounds occupy the same realm as natural ones, but the records nonetheless continued to foreground music per se—notably the Pygmies' sequentially hocketed singing, lift-up-over sounding if anything is. For me, Voices of the Rainforestburies the music too deep; I actually prefer Feld's musicless Rainforest Soundwalks(EarthEar, 888-356-4918, earthear.com). But Disc II of Bosavigets the balance just right.

Starting with a whoop and a whap and incorporating much yelling, singing, and crashing of timber, "A men's work group clears a new garden" is as spirited and surprising as any field holler I've ever heard. But that's just the setup, because then it's star time. Her name is Ulahi, one of Feld's chief advisers and compeers, and though she garnered Voices of the Rainforestmost of its airplay—the Billie Holiday of Melanesia, Feld calls her—I think she's far more striking here. Accompanied by the irregular thud of sago preparation, progressively more labored breathing, a squalling baby, and ambient birds and insects, her helayosong for her dead grandmother is as beautiful as any new music I've heard all year. In part this must be because its theory of beauty is so local, so bound up in place. Her helayo, based on a male ritual form that by the late-'70s recording date survived only in women's learned and self-composed work songs, pursues the specifically Kaluli goal of making listeners sentimental about the departed by carefully ordering a list of the sites she or he shared with them. But though this method certainly helps root and shape Ulahi's song, those sites mean nothing to me.

Ulahi, the Billie Holiday of Melanesia
photo: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
Ulahi, the Billie Holiday of Melanesia

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Listen to Robert Christgau's "Dean's List" Tuesdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m., on Village Voice Radio.

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Instead, I'm responding to microtonal variations and developments worked on minimal melody, to a softly burred timbre imbued with thought, to the quietly miraculous liquidity of self-contained vocal production betraying no sense of performance, although performance is highly valued in other Kaluli music. I'm responding to what I can only call pure music. It's humbling enough to feel at whatever distance that these 1200 "primitives" could have produced such an elaborate aesthetic. It's doubly humbling to recognize that among the 1200 there's at least one who's achieved what we in the West so arrogantly call genius.


Robert Christgau can be heard on Voice Radio'sThe Dean's List at villagevoice.com, Tuesdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m.

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