Tabla Beat Science: Live in San Francisco at Stern Grove

Matt Cibula

Tabla Beat Science

Live in San Francisco at Stern Grove

Label: Palm Pictures
US Release Date: 2002-07-09
UK Release Date: Available as import

This is a recording of a concert that took place on 12 August 2001, in front of approximately 12,000 people in San Francisco's Stern Grove Park. I wasn't there, but my friend was -- he said it was shitty and boring and ill-mixed. All I have to go on is this 100-minute album, which is probably the third-greatest live album I have ever heard in my entire life.

And the first two are the two James Brown Live at the Apollo albums, the one from 1962 and the one from 1967. So I ain't just whistlin' Dixie, here.

I love live albums. That's not a very fashionable thing to say -- critics are supposed to decry live recordings, along the lines of "If you're not actually there, there's nothing to them, unless it's by James Brown or Bob Dylan or Miles Davis, in which case it was cool." But for me, live records don't have to be perfect to be great, and don't have to be well-recorded to rock; one of the best live recordings I've ever heard was the worst-sounding, a piece of sludgy genius on a ROIR cassette catching Television at their pile-driving best. And let's just be honest: a live album ain't a live album unless it's a double album.

So maybe I'm predisposed to liking this record on that basis, and maybe I'm on its case because of the concept: get together American multi-culti rhythm section studs Bill Laswell on bass and Karsh Kale on drums together with Indian master percussionist Zakir Hussain, throw in some of the greatest older world-beat musicians in the world with a couple up-and-coming stars, rehearse for a couple of days, and then go blow the hell up with all their styles coming together perfectly. These three did this with the Tala Matrix disc of 2000, roping in collaboraters from Trilok Gurtu to Talvin Singh, but would it work live?

I can go either way on Laswell -- he makes about a bazillion records a year, and sometimes quality control is an issue -- but as a big Karsh fan (his debut Realize was one of 2001's best albums), and as someone who digs a lot of Indian and Pakistani dance/fusion stuff, it was almost as if someone went out and made an album just for me personally.

If that's the case, then apparently I have no problem with starting a live album with a 16-minute instrumental duet between a tabla player and a sarangi player. This is not your usual raga-muffin stylee, however, but a true meditative duet, an improvised wail on the sarangi (sounds like a synthesized sitar, but not even plugged in) backed, and sometimes led, by Hussain's amazing tabla pounding. The rhythm of "Taarul" speeds up and slows down at seemingly random interviews, making this sound just like an avant-garde drum'n'bass performance with a guest spot by Adrian Belew on guitar . . . except what it really is is a spontaneous jam between two guys who really know their shit. Hundreds of years in the making, this-but it's vital.

And it turns even more vital when the real live drums and bass kick in at the 16:18 mark and everything turns into a bustingly brisk version of "Secret Channel" off the Tala Matrix album, now titled "Sacred Channel". The ensemble, now expanded to four members, stomps and kicks its way through this track like Frankenstein's Monster at the high school hop-Laswell's bass sounds bigger than Tony Levin's stick booms on Peter Gabriel's Plays Live, Kale's drum work shows snatches of everything from jazz fills to electronic-derived madness, and Khan and Hussain do some solo and ensemble work that just simply cannot be believed. It's sick, it's that good.

The next track is "Nafekeñ", a piece written and sung by Ethiopian vocalist (deep breath now) Ejigayehu Shibabaw, also known as Gigi. Palm Pictures released her debut last year (heavy assistance from Karsh Kale on that one), but it didn't really suggest that she'd be so amazing live. This piece is a duet with Khan; her pure clear voice is clear and pure, and works well against his rough devotional wail. At first you might find it strange how similar Ethiopian and Indian vocal styles can be, but there really shouldn't be any mystery -- these two cultures have been trading and borrowing traditions from each other for close to 3,000 years. (I've been watching the Discovery Channel.) The band cooks up a low-key stew behind them and lets them go, momentum building slowly all the while, for a glorious 7:42.

Gigi and Khan duet twice on this album's second disc. The first is "Satellite", a song that first saw the light of day on Kale's album Realize but is now beefed up with some fiery stuff by Hussain and the fire that only a live band can bring. The second, the epic "Mengedegna," is a jaw-dropping performance. Two minutes of tabla and sarangi are followed by 12 and a half minutes of international jam, with Laswell scorching the bottom of the earth on bass, SF turntablist DJ Disk (a founding member of Invisibl Skratch Picklz) cutting at just the right time and not too much, and some sweeping swooping synth lines from Fabian Alsultany. Khan really goes off here several times, jumping his intensity up into qawwali-style ululation, and stakes a strong claim as The Best Unknown Singer in the World. Not a lot of harmonic shifts, but at this point you've been listening for 75 minutes and you just don't care.

I'd say the highlight of the album is probably "Tala Matrix", DJ Disk's feature. This is quite simply the most impressive live scratching display I've ever heard. It's not "turntablism", per se, but just plain simple master-class level scratchin'. But that is precisely what makes it so special; not only does Disk manage to construct an entire piece out of one harsh sound manipulated many different ways, but the whole thing turns into a double-barrelled Concerto for Manipulated Record and Curry-Flavored Funk Band. Disk's interplay with the other musicians is startling, especially in the light of Laswell's claims that there were no overdubs on this record. Seriously? Well, I guess I believe him -- but everyone sounds so good, so tight, so perfect here that it's hard to realize that they're not even a regular band, and that this was kind of a one-off performance.

Who else is in the house? Why, Midival Punditz are, of course. These two guys are Bombay-based DJs, and they have one track per disc here. "Trajic", off Disc Two, is probably the winner, as it incorporates more ideas and more of the rest of the band than Disc One's "Ap Ke Baras", but both are truly mighty and serve as a hell of a coming-out party for this electronic outfit. I don't know how anyone can hear the slow burn of "Trajic", punctuated as it is by car-crash synth lines and angry cowbell tabla and some spy-movie scratching and something that appears to be a tympani, without wanting to anoint these two as New Techno Outfit to Watch 2002. Their first album is supposed to be out on Six Degrees Records later this year, and I've already called dibs.

There are also two selections here where Laswell and his reggae obsession takes over. "Magnetic Dub" closes out Disc One in fine style, nearly 16 minutes of deep-end dirge that busts out every minute or so into free-form freak-out, with some of Khan's most Hendrix-like sarangi work butting heads with the rhythm section, who can't seem to decide if they're Sly and Robbie or Squarepusher. There's also what passes for a drum solo, Hussain giving us the fastest tabla exhibition I've ever heard. (Can't be a double-live album without a drum solo, dude.)

But it is "Devotional Dub", the last song of the concert, that makes this album my #2 live thing ever. It's an old-fashioned new-fangled jam session, slow and intense, with everyone getting their chance to contribute to this new version of the Tala Matrix track. You hear everyone throwing ideas around like engineers at a brainstorming session, taking the song apart and building it back up, and going out in a blaze of glory. Jesus, it's just majestic and pretty and cool -- it's also the most rock and roll thing I've heard this year. Could this concert, this band, be saving the idea of the true rock band? Listen and find out, man. Don't get left behind.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Melkbelly splices insanely supercharged punk energy with noise-band drums and super catchy pop melodies. It's a bewildering, intoxicating sound which has caught the attention of underground Chicago audiences. We ask singer Miranda Winters how it works.

"I've always, I guess, struggled to decide what kind of music I wanted to play, something sort of abrasive and loud or something sort of pop and folky. I would bounce back and forth between the two," says Miranda Winters, the dynamic singer who careens between pretty girl pop croons and banshee wails in the course of, really, almost any song in the Melkbelly catalog. "When we first started Melkbelly, the goal was to figure out how to make them work together, but I don't know that we actually knew that it would work when we started."

Keep reading... Show less

Often screwball comedies feature sharp contrasts between social classes, with not-so-subtle commentaries on the idle rich, and that's here in triplicate.

The Philadelphia Story is one of those legendary Hollywood films and not just because it stars Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart—three iconic actors from Hollywood's Golden Age. Partly that's because the stories behind its making are as fascinating as the film itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Is Greta Van Fleet the second coming of Led Zeppelin?

My first exposure to Greta Van Fleet was through the last 30 seconds of "Highway Tune". I've listened to Led Zeppelin since the early 1990s, but I couldn't place the song. My initial thought was that it's a lost track I missed off the recently expanded remasters. When the song finished and the DJ said it was Greta Van Fleet, I wondered who they are. They are three brothers and a friend from Frankenmuth, Michigan. Joshua Kiszka supplies lead vocals, Jacob Kiszka provides lead guitar, Samuel Kiszka plays bass and keyboard, and Daniel Wagner pounds the drums. The first two are 21 and the other two are 18.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.