Desert Trance

Tinariwen (photo by Eric Mullet, 2004)

These are the sort of flowers that bloom in the Sahara Desert: thumb pianos, distorted amps, muddy blues, and traditional chants.

At first, it may seem surprising that nomadic songs from the Sahara Desert region would have such an impact on the global music scene. In the past two years, however, three separate groups from the African continent have raised curious ears: the bluesy pop-inflected tracks of Amadou and Mariam, a blind couple from Mali whose latest record, Dimanche a Bamako (Nonesuch), was produced by the ever-popular Manu Chao; Konono N°1, a likembe (thumb piano) outfit from the Congo/Angola region that uses old car parts and distorted amplifiers to provoke a fuzzy and hypnotic response from their metal finger players; and the Tuareg outfit Tinariwen, among others, delivering a refreshingly muddy blues fused with regional folk songs.

Tinariwen's success is due in large part to the Festival in the Desert, a multi-day escapade on the outskirts of Mali conceived and produced by French nomads in their own right, Lo'Jo. Comparative (in mentality though not style) to outfits like the Grateful Dead and Phish, the itinerant band led by founder Denis Péan helped launch a revival of an old Tuareg tradition: communal music sharing in the southern desert. Droughts in the '70s and violent Tamashek wars in the '90s ended these fests until a local association named EFES, along with Lo'Jo, revitalized efforts in 2001. By their third year the list of performers proved astounding, representing various nomads from across the globe. Homegrown heroes like Ali Farka Toure, Oumou Sangare, Afel Bocoum, and Tartit, alongside guitarist Justin Adams, Native American rockers Blackfire, and former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant all partook in this memorable concert. Released on CD and DVD on World Village, that 2003 edition brought an international consciousness to the scolding sands of Mali.

Also on Festival in the Desert was Tinariwen, a band that formed in 1982 while living in Colonel Ghadaffi's rebel camps. Its name means "empty places", a fitting title since it was being used not for liberation but its leader's personal gain. From the hollowness of war emerged tishourmaren, a style using brilliant, lucid traditional chants and songs fostered by inspiration from Bob Marley and the other Bob, Dylan. They would not record anything substantial until 2000, when Adams and Lo'Jo holed up with them in a small radio station. This meeting produced The Radio Tisdas Sessions, also released by World Village. That record, alongside its 2004 follow-up Amassakoul, received a huge press push due to the success of the festival.

Like most scenes in the global music community, these bands did not emerge from nowhere. Much as the members of Buena Vista Social Club were lifelong veterans that never traveled beyond Cuba before Ry Cooder stepped inside, these artists have long histories. Amadou and Mariam began playing together in the Eclipse Orchestra in 1977, after Amadou's stint with Salif Keita in Les Ambassadeurs. Konono N°1's memoirs date back to the same era, using their unique amplification not out of trend but necessity: they needed to be heard above the loud din of market shoppers and could not afford cutting-edge technology. The pop-driven radio mentality is not as prominent for many of these artists, who find first a connection with the music as a sacred art form more than means for financial success. That latter concept, they recognize, emerges as their devotion to the first strengthens.

Konono N°1

Tinariwen's roots are nearly as deep as its southern compatriots. Because of its success, the Tuareg circuit has expanded to include outfits with more recent releases. Etran Finatawa is a group whose members include both Tuareg and Wodaabe tribes, two communities with different languages and belief systems. Their name, "stars of tradition", is meant to invoke solidarity between the desert peoples. They formed in early 2004; while much newer, they've made equal impact with their excellent debut on World Music Network's Introducing label. Their usage of guitars is not as prominent as Tinariwen's, instead focusing on the mesmeric qualities of percussion and call-and-response chanting. Two singles especially highlight this: "Maleele", a healing song featuring an excellent flute part, and "Heeme", a gorgeous, melodic number praising local camel races. The production by Chris Birkett in southern France breathes life into each of the ten tracks. Much like producer Vincent Kenis has done for the Congo likembe and rumba scenes, Birkett has rendered Etran's music palpable.

The most recent release from the Tuareg crews arrives from Tartit, a nine-piece outfit from northern Mali. Their distortion arises from the tehardent, a three- or four-string lute serving as the basis of this trance-inducing music. Produced by Kenis on his mobile studio, Abacabok was put out on Belgium's Crammed Discs (also home to the two Congotronics releases). Tartit are veterans on this scene as well, dating back to the Tamashek camps in the early '90s. Featuring five men and four women, their albums are the most diverse of the Tuareg bands, jumping from a bluesy guitar on "Ansari" to a very tribal, numbing number with "Tabey Tarate". Handclaps are prominent, and the working of deep bass lines adds to the droning effect.

At their root, these examples all perpetuate trance. The songs of each of these bands are both ritual and folk. They tell stories of their regions while, often simultaneously, explain cultural theologies. Much like the Pakistani qawwali and Moroccan gnawa, the hypnotic elements are what focus the listeners, as well as players, into a communal space. While each CD is less than an hour long, these songs can last hours in performance. Cutting them down to fit popular format offers a poignant slice, but is not the cake. Like most world folk music, the experience deepens by being in a live setting where the barrier between player and audience is dissolved. Eventually the form, be it a distorted thumb piano, bass lute, percussion, or vocal melody, taps into the formless. At that point the instrument used to arrive is less important than sharing the space with the community. And as awareness of these amazing songs travels globally, that population increases and retracts. The world grows smaller in size and greater in participation. The obscure is not so mysterious anymore.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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