The Freelance Mentalists.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
  Luaka Being and Boppingness
Don Allred (longer version of prev. published Voice piece)
Is "Ponta De Lanca Africano (Umbabarauma)" really about where slaves
arrived in Brazil? Or did I just expand a mental legend over the
years, trying to explain and contain the unsettling, unsettled poise
and expanse of Jorge Ben's rolling, grinding samba soul classic?
Literally, it's about soccer, but the key line "um ponta de lan a
Africano" doesn't match the title ("Point of the African Lance",
ouch!), and the line's translation---"an African point man" (also "Um
ponta de lan a decidio", " A man whose mind is made up")—is pretty
pointed too. Word to Brazil's 60s junta, and to its polite society,
which has long tended to insist that Brazilians aren't hung up on
race. But it sounds like big Ben's got all of the above and something
else on his mind, that he's listening to, listening for. Sounds like
he's still listening.
The restless example of Ben (who could have played it safe, with
respectably salt-of-the-earth pop star status established early)
further schooled Beleza Tropical, the reputation-making debut release
on Luaka Bop, the New York City label founded by David Byrne in 1988
Beleza… arrived like a ship from post-bossa nova Brazil, mostly filled
with discreetly fabulous and accomplished descendants of the
tale-telling, refugee gamesters in Boccaccio's Decameron. The crew of
Beleza… can mostly be ID'd as members and fellow travelers of the '60s
Tropicalia movement, who had been exiled or isolated because of
cultural activities that the junta found excessively international,
frivolous and otherwise weird. They grew up, in no small measure by
sharpening their wits while whetting their appetites. Intelligent
pleasure heads can learn, don't have to burn just yet. That was
Boccaccio's word to his plague- and power- (incl. pietism) ravaged
age, and maybe Byrne's word to the somewhat similar '80s. But you
could also say that both were savvy children of their ages'
enterprising spirit. Byrne also seems related to Chaucer, a fan of
Boccaccio, when, at its best, Luaka Bop's signature sound pipe-dreams
a cannily recycled/extended Canterbury Tales, bringing the Decameron's
isolated yarn-spinners onto the magical mercantile Yellow Brick Road,
the beginning of the world as we know it.
So, with that non-absolutist, live-and-let-earn sentiment in mind,
it's perfectly imperfectly okay that Ben's massively credible "Ponta…"
point man kicks off Luaka Bop's 15-track celebratory retrospective,
Twenty First Century Twenty First Year, by landing re-fine-tuned ears
on the mega-hyped, funk-lite balcony that Shuggie Otis built. Luaka
Bop meant to demonstrate that resurrection was for Americans too, so
Otis's 1974-recorded Inspiration Information was rescued from
collectors-only obscurity, and the bargain bin, and record show
prices. Anyone could slip on the listening bar's headphones, and dig
how Otis played all the instruments in his nice niche, just so his
shaky little voice could go "Aht Uh Mi Hed," as Twenty First Century's
second track's new third life still tells the tale. He's leaning far
out into purple keyboard clouds of what should be ease, but with a bee
in his bonnet. He's listening to it, wanting something more.
By "more," Shuggie might not have in mind "Fuzzy Freaky", by
David Byrne (who has now departed LB). As placed here by compiler
Justin Carter, it must be especially harrowing for those who thought
Byrne would make Luaka Bop just successful enough to fatally
misrepresent the artists he re-issued, reducing them to warm 'n' fuzzy
li'l furriners--and/or Tee-Headsy, novelty nibbles around the edges of
edginess.(He reportedly named his label for a Sri Lankan tea, Luaka
Black Orange Pekoe; its own label was made to fold into "BOP", like
so. The quaint horror, the quaint horror!) In this proud parody of
Heads-era Byrne's fly-eyed, jittery white guy persona, the guy learns
to dance, in a truly foreign/alien way, and celebrates with a lithe,
blithe self-nibble ("It's my body, and I'll eat it too"). Simmer down
now!
The gently avid grazing sounds of the Byrne thing recall LB's
recent collection of tracks by Brazilian teen prodigy Yonlu, who made
music on his computer, with some acoustic instruments and local
environmental stuff mixed in. He posted his process for several years,
building up quite an online fanbase, before committing suicide, in a
forum. There's an undertone of sadness, eventually foregrounded, in
short but roomy, mostly-instrumental early tracks.Despite this, and
even despite the title, (added by whomever), A Society In Which No
Tear Is Shed, he seemsno more morbid than many an adolescent. Sound's
spare vs. sparse, to some extent, though he can sing like Veloso, and
the last track def. lives up to some listeners' Nick Drake
comparisons, as a tiny craft cruises the top end of twilight,
gracefully. The insular dedication here, of artist and producers,
carefully bring Yonlu's musical mobiles from where he left them, with
no gratuitous portents of presentation. Judging from this, it seems
that Yonlu always did share the overall LB aesthetic, of obsessive
work, times pleasure/relief/release/respite-seeking, with and in the
outer world of sound, as much as could be stood.
Marcio Local spends more time in that outer world, where he's
laying back on a moving fender, while delivering "Samba Sem Nenhum
Problema"("Samba With No Problem") to Twenty First
Century….Ironically, considering its truthful tag, it's arriving from
his excellent but tiresomely-titled new set, Marcio Local Says Don Day
Don Dree Don Don. But that labored label kinda signifies too, insofar
as the Local lad is listening hard to his reverie of how Ben-style
samba soul should be, this very afternoon. Listening 'til he hears his
cue, somewhere in the drum corps, Stax riffing horns, 'shroom clouds
of percussion, guitar, etc Then he yelps an acrobatic riff, from way
back behind the afternoon parade across his mirror shades, as he
darts through the traffic again. He's timing it so he won't get run
over (upstaged) by the very ongoing tradition getting a re-charge in
his own song. And indeed, Local's afterbuzz holds its own even as
Venezuelan boogie knights Los Amigos Invisibles, Cuban jazz salts
Irakere, and vintage African funk's Moussa Doumbia successively
possess the rare-groovological students' graduation procession of
self-expression. (Also new on LB: Los Amigos' Commercial scores big,
after first quarter's foreplay fumbles.)
(An unlisted, and oddly wobbly, off-brand, "Heart of Glass," by
Nouvelle Vague, drops ears off in "Valentin", Susana Baca's tensely
glistening Afro-Peruvian ballad, which is already
attracting/distracting a traveler who's arrived bearing a big stick.
Keep listening, follow the other guest via translated lyrics on the
label site, but don't turn around.)
Twenty First also flashes several mesmerizing songs about tuning
(and perhaps turning) into your car. American Steely-Police heads
Geggy Tah are eternally ecstatic about changing lanes, while merging
with the radio. (It worked! "Whover You Are" was Luaka Bop's biggest,
least-obviously-recognizable-as LB-product, mid-'90s micro-hit!) Jim
White, who was all about driving cabs 'til Luaka Bop called him back
to the grooveways of recordland, also settles deeply into "Static On
The Radio", cruising through the lilting, twanging shadow of all
doubts. He keeps murmuring, "Ah know…", and that trailing off is the
cue for his fare, guest ghost Aimee Mann, to resume
elaborating/decomposing her zombie-chant refrain.
All such slipstream profiles disappear with the rainlight, as
attention (having stepped through Tom Ze's "Defect: Curiosidade", a
speculative windshield patiently hovering over this Tropicalista
Prospero's upriver junkyard island) is face to face with the sunny,
free-style smile of Os Mutantes' Rita Lee, singing "Baby" in 1970, and
at the close of this set. When she exclaims, "We live in the biggest
city, of South America!", every tunneling music geek in the world
sees the light, just as she leads the way out of the shiny, shivery
frame that Luaka Bop can't help trying to save/re-re-issue her in.
"Look here…look what I wrote on my shirt." Yeah babe. Byrne on!
 

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