History Lessons

Brazil, Beliz, San Antonio, Soho, Mother Africa—all journeys into paradise

Pick Hits

The Klezmatics
Wonder Wheel: Lyrics by Woody Guthrie

What a treat to have Lorin Sklamberg singing in English, with the gentleness and precision non–Yiddish speakers sense in him elaborated and specified by the dozen Guthrie lyrics Sklamberg and his cohort turn into music. He's cheery for the neighborhood pep rally, transported for the mystic prophecy, tenderly humorous for the lullaby, delicately feminine for the tale of two rings, a wedding singer when the music gets Balkan (or is that Middle Eastern?), a Marxist simp with a Scotch-Irish melody dreaming of roads paved with the "finest of plastics." One of the age's signal voices, finally available on terms an Al Green fan can understand. A

Tropicália: A Brazilian Revolution in Sound
Soul Jazz

Ideologically Brazilian though it was, the style Gil, Veloso & Associates devised in the late '60s was not a groove music. Brought forth by classical and avant-garde trainees who loved "Strawberry Fields Forever" and had a full-on right-wing dictatorship to subvert, tropicália anthologizes awkwardly, especially for non-Lusophones. So at first this lavishly annotated, ecstatically reviewed disc seems to jump around too much, in the arch art-pop manner of Os Mutantes, who get six of its 20 tracks. But relisten some and it takes on the inevitability of a song cycle— Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, for instance. The beats roll and rock even as the groove stops and starts; the melodies leap over the language barrier even though trots would be nice. Occasionally, the singers break into English, or in the case of Tom Zé's "Jimmy Renda-Se," toward English—did he say "Billie Holly hollyflex"? The verve is as audibly miraculous as that of any certified Anglo-American acid prophet, more here than on Hip-O's 1999 Tropicália Essentials (which does, however, provide trots). A MINUS

Africa Remix: Ah Freak Iya

Where usually Afrocomps look backward, this one is 21st century. And while most of the names are familiar, only five of the 16 tracks are in my collection, with all except Orchestra Baobab's improved by this cross-continental mix. Nor are the prime attractions the old reliables— Oumou's remix, Youssou's Senegal-only track. Far more striking are the radical techno-soukous by the son of a Franco guitarist, the Kinshasa rap with four names on it, Malouma's Mauritanian breakout, orthe Mariem Hassan & Leyoad wail somehow left off the Sahara comps. Things in Africa are probably no better than you think. But Afropop lives—hard, but undaunted. A MINUS

Gulag Orkestar
Ba Da Bing!

Play Boban Markovic or Kocani Orkestar and you hear contained chaos and wild drums. Play Beirut, most of it multitracked by young Zach Condon working alone, and you hear irrepressible melodicism tempered by harmonic melancholy. Rather than a watering down, this mildness is a détournement, the personal stamp of a romantic caught twixt Keats and Ossian—half prodigy, half bullshit artist. He might even bring off the Buckley-Wainwright-Yorke vocalisms if he minded his words instead of melismating croons and moans. But only twice does Condon's mumble venture into the light: "What can you do when curtain falls/What will you do when curtain falls/You're left right, left right, left right, left right, left right, left right, left right, left right" (the Balkans, fucked coming and going) and "The times we had/Oh, when the wind would blow and rain would snow/Were not all bad/We put our feet just where they had to go" (the sorrows of young Zachary). B PLUS

From Bakabush: The First Ten Years of Stonetree

Circa 1796, when the Afro-Carib Garinagu were expelled by the conquering British from St. Vincent to Roatán Island for the sin of being insufficiently Carib, there were 2,000 of them by landfall. Now there are 200,000 in Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. A world dance Garifuna-style was briefly and inconsequentially promoted as punta rock in the early '90s. This Belize label cultivates the more folkloric paranda strain. Though its guitars are Latin, paranda adds a laid-back Caribbean groove to melodies that could go back to the Arawaks and a gentleness that feels Bahamian. Aurelio Martinez is the big preservationist. Adrian Martinez has the best tune. Mr. Peters' Boom & Chime throw down two brukdown breakdowns. Leroy Young the Grandmaster wears dreads and raps. Godfather Paul Nabor contributes an anthem he wrote for his sister's funeral that they can play at mine. A MINUS

Journey Into Paradise: The Larry Levan Story

Though disco was supposedly an underground, minor-label phenomenon, Rhino's corporate muscle is what makes this two-and-a-half hour mix the most successful attempt to evoke the mythic vibe of the great DJ's Soho dance haven. Fifteen of the 22 tracks originated with WEA, including a few that provide songful relief from the cult hits of divas-in-waiting—Yaz's "Situation," Womack & Womack's "Baby I'm Scared of You," and a weirded-up Nile Rodgers remix of Sister Sledge's "Lost in Music." But mostly it showcases the ambient abandon and steady-state serial orgasm of 12-inch singles often fashioned by Levan himself, cutting extravagrant orchestration with spare percussion and breaks he could protract to infinity if the mood was on him. Not really infinity, of course—not here, and not at the Paradise Garage either. The sun always did come up. And Levan died in 1992. A MINUS

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