New World Music: Summer of 2018

Appalatin, Vida

If you want more ammunition to defend multiculturalism, a few tracks from Appalatin ought to do the trick. Think immigrants from Ecuador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, and a chance meeting in Louisville with a few native Kentuckians schooled in Appalachian bluegrass. Let the fun begin. On the ten-track release Vida, Quechua, Spanish, and English collide with various musical styles to create a unique synthesis. You'll hear some of the usual string band instruments—guitar, bass, mandolin—but also flutes, charango, trumpet, saxophone, bongos, congas, and triangle. What kind of music is it? It depends on the moment. "Primavera" is a flute-driven blend of pop, rock, and Latin acoustic. A folk rock song in English, "Flow Like a River," is a bit like Poco if it had dual flautists. By contrast, the instrumental "Pituco" is a folk/jazz mélange in which you'll hear panpipes standing tall amidst brass and other instruments normally viewed as more forceful. The other song in English, "Sweet Song of the Soul," could have been plucked from the Stax archives, except smooth Fernando Moya handles the lead vocals instead of gritty Wilson Pickett. Try the title track to catch Appalatin in a pastoral mood as gentle as a summer breeze. This is fusion music at its best; swing, pronounced beats, sweet melodies, balanced harmonies, and strong lead vocals offer a lot to like. As a footnote, if you're skeptical that the world needs another version of "Guantanamera," reserve judgment until you hear Appalatin's version. ★★★★

Various Artists, Small Island, Big Song

Among Australian Aborigines, songlines are akin to maps, except they do with words what print would do on a map; that is, the songs guide them through the outback. (They also connect them to sacred Dreamtime rituals.) Filmmaker Tim Cole and Taiwanese publicist BaoBao Chen pondered the question of whether such songlines cross water; after all, anthropologists have long noted cultural diffusion among the peoples of Oceania. They took three years, visited 16 islands, and then came up with an even cooler idea. Small Island, Big Song contains contemporary compositions, but they are shot through with both tradition and pan-Oceanic blends. There is, for instance, "Naka War War To'o," from Solomon Islander Charles Maimarosia, with wooden flutes driving the melody and hollow drums pounding out the rhythms for an assortment of other instruments. The effect is soulful and sounds like someone decided to merge Pan pipes and East African guitar to create club dance grooves. On the other end of the spectrum we find "Pemung Jae" from Sarawak's Alena Murang whose spare vocals and lute produce a song that's somewhere between blues and bluegrass. Do you even know where the Torres Strait Islands are located? You might want to Google them, because Mau Power and Sandro lay down some trance-like beats in which big bass thumps and woodpecker-like percussion set the pace for hip hop that's like a warm-up for a haka. Perhaps the best-known artists are Madagascar's Tarika and Ben Hakalitz of Australia's Yothu Yindi, but the joy of discovery is high on this album. You'll hear indigenous flutes and lutes, jaw harps, kora, and other such things mix with more familiar instruments. You will also travel from Taiwan to Easter Island with stops in-between. The poignant exclamation mark is that many of these traditions are threatened—not by cultural diffusion, but by climate change. Watch these clips also fro some truly gorgeous filmmaking.

Various Artists, SXSW Sounds from Hungary

There is a hook-shaped sweep of mountain ranges in eastern and southern Europe where the Carpathian Mountains sweep into the Balkans is home to some of the most amazing music on the planet. Hungary sits in the northwestern part of the hook. Its music is not yet as appreciated as that of Romania or Greece, but it's every bit as exciting. The South by Southwest Music (SXSW) Festival recently showcased Hungarian music and you can hear what you've been missing on a Rock Paper Scissors sampler. I was quite taken by a performer called Boggie. She's billed as a pop singer, but her music is more robust than that. She sings in French, English, and Hungarian and in each she does so with verve. Check out "Le Demon," which has the force of a nightingale on steroids. Her English "Run to the River" has the feel of a mysterious Tori Amos song, while "Quitte-moi" is French, but with a faintly Latin jazz beat as filtered through an African chorus. Belau mixes visuals with electronica explorations. Try "Somebody Told Me So" and "You and I," both of which feature the pop-ready vocals of Krisztián Buzás and she powers through the beats and programming of Péter Kedves. If you want something harder, try what the Bohemian Betyars call–and I can't improve on this–"speed punk freak folk with Hungarian folk Romani stylings." "Trouble is My Brother" is reminiscent of Gogol Bordello, while "Sinful Needs" is like a string band on a very strange pharmaceutical trip.  You can also hear tracks from the soulful Qualitions and the blues/rock/folk Rockjam. ★★★★

Diali Cissokho and Kaira Ba, Routes

 This is diasporic music from Senegal. Koru master Diali Cissokho now lives in North Carolina and his band, Kaira Ba, consists mostly of native Tar Heels. Their latest album surprises in many ways. There is, first of all, the integration of environmental and found sounds. "Alla L'a Ke," for example, opens with insect sounds upon which kora notes drip like falling rain. Then we hear some crystalline electric guitar and percussion that ease us into Cissokho's lead vocals and the backing chorus. It's nearly 7 minutes of groove and weave. "Night in M'Bour"—M'Bour is Cissokho's hometown—uses wind and insect sounds to prelude strong percussion and wooden flute. These give way to street noise and then an impromptu performance. "Ma Cherie" is also a kora/drum combo that slides into a swaying rhythm. Cissokho then commands a call-and-response vocal that includes a female singer answering his Manding vocals in English. "Salsa Xalel" is as the title suggests: a Latin feel overlaid with West African music. And there's "Story Song," with growly vocals, rumbling bass, and a soulful arrangement that even includes some rolling organ. You'll hear lots of stuff on this one: rock, soul, R & B, funk, and Senegalese. Label it pan-African. ★★★★

Nsimbi, Nsimbi

Nsimbi is a Los Angeles-based musical partnership between American singer Miriam Tamar and Uganda's Herbert Kinobe, with soukous guitar help from the Congo-born Jaja Bashengezi. All three are talented multi-instrumentalists—18 instruments among them—but my take is that should have taken more chances. I enjoyed this album more in pieces than as a whole. I was intrigued by the instrumental melodies and the power of Ms. Tamar's vocals, but there's not much poetry to the lyrics. For instance, I liked the high-stepping beats of "Flower of the Heart," but wouldn't you say comparing love to a flower is a tad clichéd? "Mujje" is a very much a dance club piece, but why is Kinobe posing as an LA-style DJ/rapper? We don't expect dance songs to be political, but somehow a love-overcomes-all message seems trite if you known anything at all about recent history in Congo or Uganda. There is lots to like on the album, including Kinobe's balafon on "Koona," Bashengezi's syncopated and contrasting guitar rhythms throughout, and the cool instrumental effect on "Moonglow" where the sounds bounce left to right akin to the effect of first decent pair of headphones you ever bought. I really liked "Gonna Be Alright," which sounds like '40s swing music grafted to light jazz and filtered through early rock 'n roll. Overall, though, I longed for more East African music and less LA rap and processing. ★★½


Markley's Ohio Explains American Despair

OHIO (August 2018)
Stephen Markley
Simon and Schuster, 496 pages.

One of my college students recently said to me, “I hear people use the phrase ‘since 9/11’ a lot, but I don’t really know what that means.” If that shocks you, consider that she was two when the towers fell; the only reality she has ever known is the post-9/11 world. I must tell her to read Stephen Markley’s new novel, Ohio. And so should the rest of you—especially if you’re still trying to figure out why Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election.

The question of when America began to lose its innocence rages from the halls of academia to backroom bar booths. Was it the JFK assassination, Vietnam, urban race riots, Watergate, the energy crisis, or something else? However it began, 9/11 was the tipping point in which the assumption of American invincibility toppled from its pedestal to be replaced by bleak narratives of decline, division, and deficiency—the City on the Hill transformed into Babylon on the cusp of the fall. Consider, for example, that no one challenged the very premise of Trump's “Make American Great Again” slogan. Remember when Jimmy Carter was excoriated for suggesting that the American Dream was in jeopardy?

Excuse the digression, but you need to consider these bigger questions to appreciate the chilling power of Stephen Markley’s Ohio. It opens with a funeral: that of Rick Brinklan, who was killed in Iraq. As some townspeople spout the usual fallen hero nostrums, his best friend from high school, Bill Ashcraft, prefers to blister his brain with drugs and booze rather than take part in the charade; he sees Rick’s death as senseless. Markley takes us inside the generation that came of age of age with 9/11—high schoolers in an already-depressed town faced with individual searches for identity and meaning. Rick became a knee-jerk patriot; Bill became an anarchist jerk. Yet they both hated the same things; both railed against their impotency within a chaotic and faith-challenged universe.

Markley takes us back and forth between 2003 and 2011, the latter date one in which four high school acquaintances pass through their hometown of New Canaan, Ohio: the cynical Ashcraft; soft-spoken Dan Eaton, who lost an eye in Afghanistan; Stacey Moore, a doctoral student; and Tina Ross, a beautiful woman with deep hurts and secrets. There is no such town as New Canaan, but Markley situates it in Northeast Ohio; that is, near rusted out cities such as Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown. It’s also where you’ll find Kent State University. Cue Neil Young and a lot of unpleasant history. Markley’s New Canaan is akin to Richard Russo’s Mohawk on steroids. Or maybe I should say crystal meth. The very existence of towns such as these—of which there are myriad examples—calls into question the nation’s future. New Canaan is a place where factory workers have given way to Walmart greeters and convenience store clerks, the fate of the high school football team is a diversionary passion, and vultures circle to prey on the desperate: real estate speculators, home equity loan sharks, drug peddlers, military recruiters, right-wing hate groups, evangelists….

Markley divides his book into four sections: “Bill Ashcraft and the Great American Thing,” “Stacey Moore and a Theory of Ecology, Literature, and Love Across Deep Time,” “Dan Eaton and the Murder That Never Was,” and “Tina Ross and the Cool at the Edge of the Woods.” Each section unspools personal narratives, but also spotlights changes in New Canaan since 9/11. Ashcraft is the one who wanted to get away, but only partially did so; he has seen much of the world, is deeply alienated, and now lives underground, though he carries with him New Canaan’s narcotic haze, alcoholic stupefaction, and hopelessness. Moore, an out lesbian and literature scholar, is the one closest to escaping New Canaan, though she has never forgiven the hypocrisy of New Canaan Christians—the ones who quote Jesus in one moment and pop pills and sleep around the next. Dan Eaton is the quiet vet still pining for the girlfriend he gave up to serve three military tours. Call him a semi-tragic figure—a guy who wants to be decent and kind but isn’t sure what those words mean anymore. Ross is darker—outwardly beautiful, but her body scarred from self-inflicted cuts. She is also the key to unmasking New Canaan’s monsters.     

Markley is masterful at character development—not just their actions, but also their internal thoughts, dreams, and nightmares. This makes the book work, as his is a large cast—not just the four central figures, but also pivotal dramatis personae such as the vivacious, wild, and sometimes vulgar Lisa Han; Eaton’s ex-girlfriend Hailey, whose life is as compromised as his; Cole, Tina’s salt-of-the-earth but dull-as-dishwater husband; and Kaylyn, the slutty but outwardly goody-two shoes Christian girl who is nothing but trouble. There is also Ben Harrington, the sensitive musician who dies young; and a bunch of ex-football players, a few of whom have turned dangerous.

That’s a lot and it’s to Markley’s credit that he makes his characters live—even the ones who are dead. He also embeds a mystery within what is essentially a tragedy. Ohio is a tough book and a slow read, but it’s also one of the most honest works on post-9/11 America I have yet to encounter. You feel despair, desperation, and flickering hope on every page. If this sounds depressing, it is at times, but if you want to understand the mindset of those who turn to opioids, bigotry, misanthropy, and charlatans, Ohio is the ticket. Some early reviewers have given up on Ohio and more’s the pity; Markley makes it clear that self-anesthetizing doesn’t work, a list that includes head-in-the-sand ignorance.
Rob Weir


The Idiot Good, But Not Pulitizer Material

The Idiot (2017)
By Elif Batuman
Penguin, 423 pages.

The Idiot was the finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and I can see why. So why did I give it just three of five stars? This is the kind of novel people who care about serious literature want to love. How readers outside the academic world will receive it an open question. My take is that the book is impressively written, clever, and sometimes blindingly funny, but also self-indulgent and overly showy.

Parts of the novel are semi-autobiographical. Ms. Batuman is indeed a child of Turkish immigrants, attended Harvard, has a facility with languages, and is highly intelligent. The idiot it about how she began to know herself, a discovery that included the realization that she was destined to become a writer. She obtained a PhD in comparative literature from Stanford and has been able to follow her vocation.

Batuman's debut novel—she has also has penned a memoir and has toiled as a journalist—follows Selin, her thinly veiled alter ego, through her first year at Harvard, her first crush, and her transition from prolonged adolescence to adulthood. I wonder what people at Harvard will make of this book. By one reading, Harvard is indeed a holdout against dumbed-down curricula; from another it's a bastion of cluelessness when it comes to functioning in the everyday world. Selin's first year is spent studying linguistics and engaging in deep contemplation over topics such as Noam Chomsky's belief in transformational generative grammar versus the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of language relativity. That's pretty heady stuff for anyone, let alone a first-year. Selin also studies Russian, Hungarian, and several other languages; she is multilingual, not bilingual. Her days are spent studying well into the next morning, trying to find time to spend with her new friend Svetlana, and pining over an older Hungarian student, Ivan. She's besotted with Ivan, which is odd given that much of her contract with him is through email, a new thing in 1995, when this book is set. Those conversations often wrestle with whether there is any meaning at all in language, and if it's possible to exist beyond words. Does this make Selin a towering intellect, or the book's namesake idiot?

One thing is certain; she's socially gauche. She knows next to nothing about being a young person, about campus culture, or affairs of the heart. Nor is she very good at practical things such as what to do in a bar, how to choose food, or how to tutor young people. Selin's journey, both physically and psychologically, takes her from New Jersey to Massachusetts, then to Paris, Hungary, and Turkey. She is often so far outside her element that her travails imbue this novel with humor bordering on absurdity. Much of the time Selin drifts through situations as it she's a character in an opéra bouffe. The reader wonders what she actually sees in Ivan, who frequently comes across as a self-centered jerk hiding behind a wall of half-baked ideas posing as profundity. Is Ivan really deep intellectually, or just in the barnyard sense?

Many of us recall early college years and can relate to Selin's feelings of uncertainty and struggles with self-esteem. I think, though, that Selin would have been a stronger character if cast as a first-generation Turkish immigrant, not one born in United States. It stretches credulity to imagine how anyone so interested in other languages and cultures could've gotten to Harvard having learned so little about of American society. Batuman's attempt to write around Selin's awkwardness through passing references to a broken home and a doting-but-domineering mother are not quite convincing.

I admired Bautman's honesty in casting her alter ego as neither heroine nor victim. Selin's attempts to tutor or teach are painful to read. I related to this, as I have personally witnessed former colleagues who needed to find other work, because they simply lacked the disposition to instruct others. On the other hand, the writer who must write has become a tired convention in modern literature. It's also self-serving. One feels as if Batuman is seeking affirmation for her life path, though no one disputed that in the first place. As a literary device, this contrivance means that some of the book's drama and revelations induce more shrugs than huzzahs.

There's also a matter of tone. If the goal is to show readers how new thoughts can blow a first-year student's mind, Batuman hits the target. Yet the tone is such that Batuman also appears to toot her own horn in ways that seek to convince us that she has a superior mind. Maybe she does, but is this necessary to advance the plot? As a title, The Idiot is ironic; Selin is both at sea, but she has more than adequate tools to make it to shore. Through her heavier emphasis on her intellectual confusion rather than coming to grips with growing up, Batuman will thrill academicians more than casual readers. As one who straddles the worlds of higher education and community life, I must give The Idiot a mixed review. It's not at all clear to me that Selin/Batuman has yet mastered life beyond the ivied walls of Harvard's Widener Library.

Rob Weir