We all know what a Robert Crumb cartoon looks like — but what does one sound like? You might say that it’s pretty much as you’d imagine, from the louche funk of Fritz The Cat to the “spicy” revelations of his early world music comp, Hot Women. The Paris-via-Polynesia balm of Dominique Cravic, however, doesn’t quite tally with the trio of ghoulish-looking natives Crumb has assembled here, who incidentally look as if they’ve imbibed a lifetime’s worth of ritualistic hallucinogens in one sitting. But maybe that’s because Crumb, for the most part, doesn’t actually play on this record, one which carries on the floating, Francophone polyglotism of World Musette with seemingly about as much effort as it takes to flick the ash off a Gauloise.
Flaco Jimenez and Raùl Barboza are about the biggest names here, but the rolling ranks of Les Primitifs du Futur are more about collective joie de vivre than individual flash. They’re loose enough to subsume a North African darbouka player (Khireddine Medjoubi), a Brazilian percussionist (Silvano Michelino), and an Italian with a footballer’s name and a voice rinsed in flaming brandy, alongside a Gallic contingent armed with xylophone, musical saw, clarinet, bugle, cuatro, jew’s harp, and accordion to spare. If it seems that more or less every contemporary world music release takes a potentially spurious cosmopolitanism as a kind of self-evident stamp of authenticity, especially when it involves digital technology, then be assured that Cravic and co. are strictly acoustic, and they’ve been doing this kind of thing for years — decades in fact, as far back as the beginnings of world music as a marketable concept.
As Cravic confesses to Derek Beres elsewhere in this magazine, his approach to world music is “surrealistic”, the more — and the more unlikely — array of ingredients the better. We’re not talking the surrealism of Crumb-era San Francisco, or even Dadaist Paris, but more a tootling whimsy that shares its amusement with the likes of Lonely Drifter Karen, not to mention an obvious fondness for the art of Emir Kusturica (the thundering Gypsy-isms of “Syldave ou Bordure?” even come as a kind of question and answer session). The tinkering, Tom and Jerry xylophone of opener “La Valse Hindoue”, for one, tends to the whimsical even as the rest of the arrangements err on the wistful, palm-slapped by Michelino’s tablas, but not quite a sonic equivalent to the burning-eyed Indian holy man Crumb depicts on the sleeve. And as “Dalinette” suggests, it’s a whimsy amplified against the reliably surrealistic standby of a musical saw, willing even the most conventional production to the kind of wobbling freakery which Fay Lovsky luxuriates in. She saws the “spooky scat” of “Ménage à Trois” into a frenzy, and is no slouch on the theremin either, sending out the composite ballad “Sur Le ToiT/Ramona” in a tailspin of gratuitous, dog-pitched whistling. Lovsky even braves a bit of anthropomorphic neighing, clip-clopping to the finish line on Sanseverino chanson “La Grand Truanderie”.
Yet Cravic’s displacement of French folk tradition into Orientalism, Gaugin-esque exotica, and Balkan fervour is often as disarmingly beautiful as it is humorous and surreal. Witness the Hawaiian reverie of “Nous Sommes Seul(e)s”, ironically the only track to feaure Crumb himself (on mandolin). And as the raucous “Mingus Viseur” and moving “La Dernière Rumba de Django” serve to remind, Cravic and his merry band are as much about jazz as anything else — or rather, they acknowledge that jazz, folk, and world music are often the same thing. While the former finds Jean-Philippe Viret manhandling his double bass through syncopated handclaps (with Bertrand Doussain doing the Rahsaan Roland Kirk), the latter plays as poignantly as a tribute to Stéphane Grappelli as it does a showcase for Cravic’s debt to Django Reinhardt.
Likwise, while the chief Primatif loves to mould a chanson into his own aesthetic, he’s capable of writing music every bit as affective as the vintage regionalism he’s steeped in. His self-penned closer, “Les Anges de San Antonio”, ingeniously ties together the odds, the ends, and the in-between which make his music tick: the saw-wobbling weirdness, the earthy, Chicken Skin Music-era Ry Cooderisms (with Jimenez and Robert Santiago wheezing in gorgeous tandem), and all the Gallic melancholy his band can handle. There’s not much of the tribal about it any of it, it has to be said, except for perhaps a sense of a shared experience, one that’d you’d be doing yourself a serious disservice to miss out on.