Vengaboys’ “We Like To Party!” is as simple as it says: groaning foghorns, skipping keyboard lilt, house thump, totally treated female vocalist chanting slogans: “Hey now . . . Happiness is just around the corner . . . Get down and move your body.” As a track, it stands out on stations like WKTU, which has been playing it for months, because it’s vaguely ethnic: where’s that carnivalesque rhythm from, exactly?
Getting exactly answered turns out to be harder than usual: the publicist tells me, “I’m curious to see how far you’ll get. It’s like a video game, you know?” The official bio talks of two DJs, with the appropriately universal names Danski and Delmundo, teaming up with four fleshy singer-dancers on the beaches of Spain’s Ibiza. Says Kim comes from Brazil, Denice from Budapest, Robin from Caracas, and Roy from Trinidad. The “old and ugly” DJs stay out of the spotlight.
Happily, Vengaboys have been stars in Europe a while now, so Net browsing brings the secret out: the rent-a-babes are Dutch and work for Mr. Wessel van Diepen, who, far from being media shy, hosts television and radio shows in Rotterdam. Further info (is the name Spanish for gigolo? Are more risqué versions left to the imports, where “Superfly Slick” is “Superfly Slick Dick”?) awaits exposure. Anyway, Vengaboys need all the mystery they can project/protect.
One Vengaboy names his fave band as Boney M.— appropriate, even if untrue. Over 20 years ago, Germany’s Frank Farian, who’d later wreak a bigger scandal with Milli Vanilli, hid his presence behind four hired bodies too, fitting prefab rhythms and vocals with Caribbean folk tunes (“Brown Girl in the Ring”), outer-space blarney, and anything else he could think of. Boney M.’s Middle European successors have loved the ’90s: Rednex’s “Cotton-Eye Joe,” a Swede billed as Dr. Bombay, the not-at-all-Spanish Los Umbrellos.
Can rootsiness be approached as a form of plastic surgery? Schlock like this labors hard to celebrate the universality of banality. Venga’s The Party Album! (Groovilicious) plunders Dead or Alive and the cult fave “Disco Babes From Outer Space,” rewrites “We’re Going to Barbados” as “We’re Going to Ibiza,” then heads “To Brazil,” the jiggle video of which has a heavily accented announcer intoning, “You can lie on a beautiful bitch. A beach!” Needless to say, there’s an edge to the campy giddiness and fake IDs: safely anonymous fun isn’t distinguishable from the ethos of the quick score, from smiling predators like the invisible producer and his escort service and the myriad licensing labels worldwide and the meat-market clubs.
The archetype for such pocket-picking revelry is the Gypsy show, and the liner notes to the Alula label’s recent compilation The Gypsy Road point out a basic deception built into typical performances: the “pure” stuff was kept back for tribal gatherings and tourists got warmed-over hokum. I’m sure they were promised the pure stuff, though, just as we are: 14 genuinely rootsy numbers by virtuosic folk ensembles, often community-sponsored, from Latin, Eastern, and Turkish Europe, as well as the Gypsy homeland of northern India.
Ten national traditions add up to quite an array of sound: accordion- and tabla-flecked drones, milk-jug skiffle and talking violin, speed-tango flamenco guitar and dueling Romanian cartoon folk, poppy French “Gypsy wave” and a Balkan brass band playing funky march music derived from a Communist Chinese pop hit. Comic Italian tavern singing is paired with Istanbul women getting felt up at a wedding; solos taken with every instrument imaginable play games of balance as the music spins, bobs, and curtsies.
By the end, guided by caring liner notes, you hear “Gypsy music” as an identifiable matrix recombinating with as many different local contexts as Judaism or Blackness. Not bad for one CD. Great dinner music, too. But no less of a contrivance than Vengaboys’ ground-beef party jams, and almost as ultimately mystifying. How does what we’re hearing compare to what Gypsies play for themselves? And while these musicians are hardly stodgy, air-brushed out is the “impure” commercial sphere, like Peret’s rumba sprint “Voy, Voy,” a highlight of Music Club’s ¡Vaya Rumba! Ultimately, is the intent here festive, folkloric, aesthetic (crit pick: Taraf de Haïdouks), or bait so we’ll dive into the product flow and really understand? As with Vengaboys, I’m lazily content to savor the package for what it is and let the mystery be. Folk purification is a pop category, too.
As is the international jet-set novel. Salman Rushdie turns his phantasmagorics to the rock world in The Ground Beneath Her Feet (Henry Holt), relating the story of three friends from Bombay, two of whom, Vina and Ormus (here’s a guy who’d never conceal the name Wessel!), start the hippie era’s biggest rock group. It’s an alternate reality, where Lou Reed is a woman and the sonic aristocracy was as polyglot then as it’s slowly becoming now. Be thankful for Rushdie’s bullying of history, which balances his essential boomer flabbiness— his references are 95 percent fogy— with a still-contemporary agenda: “Just as England can no longer lay exclusive claim to the English language, so America is no longer the sole owner of rock ‘n’ roll.”
For Rushdie, rock is kinfolk, a fellow
invader of sacred realms. He asks, “Why defend impurity, that vice, as if it were a virtue?” And the answer is, because that’s where he grew up: “The West was in Bombay from the beginning, impure old Bombay where West, East, North and South had always been scrambled like codes, like eggs.” Mixing mythological pantheons as easily as he turns Atlantic founder Ahmet Ertegun into a blind Sikh nationalist, Rushdie glories in the confusion. The true artist, he insists, must be “polymathic, a master of anatomy, philosophy, mythography, the laws of seeing and perception; an adept of the arcana of deep sight, able to penetrate the very essences of things.”
That it? Think he could program Gypsy compilations and record transglobal disco in his spare time? Like Vengaboys and The Gypsy Road, Rushdie’s novel doesn’t get at essences so much as tuck arms under everything it can grab, using fun to cover over its underlying animus. (There’s a reason, after all, why his research has been restricted to aftershow parties with U2.) As literature, The Ground Beneath Her Feet breaks down when Rushdie tries to climax: like so many would-be rock novelists he piles on more layers of symbolism than any piddling musician could support (Vina is, roughly, Janis Joplin, Courtney Love, Patti Smith, Madonna, and Princess Diana), winding up with mushy opera. It’s an oddly monotheistic conclusion for such a proud polytheist. But seen as pulp, the book’s just fine. When it comes to the world’s music, you can swim in the soup, drink it— just forget about ever figuring out the recipe.
Vengaboys appear at the Roxy May 19.