World Beat Sounds Loud ‘n’ Clear : * Third World, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Arrow & his Multinational Force bring their styles to the Coach House.
Roll over, Bob Marley, and tell ol’ Ludwig the news.
The news Tuesday night at the Coach House was that “world beat” has become such a nebulous term that it evidently can be stretched to encompass the sight and sound of a dreadlocked Jamaican playing riffs from Beethoven’s Fifth on a cello.
At least that’s how the reggae band Third World chose to cap its headlining set on a “World Beat ’91" bill that also included the South African singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Caribbean soca singer Arrow and his band, Multinational Force.
Coming from Third World, reggae a la Beethoven really wasn’t that surprising. Since emerging in the mid-'70s, the band led by keyboardist Michael (Ibo) Cooper has spent its career crossing Jamaican roots with all manner of trendy stuff from the pop mainstream. In fact, guitarist Stephen (Cat) Coore’s cello turn, with quotations from Beethoven and John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” wasn’t the only close parallel between Third World and the Electric Light Orchestra. Cooper displayed an over-fondness for running his voice through a keyboard synthesizer, with results that sounded like something out of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” or Neil Young’s “Trans.”
There was some ideological purpose behind the merger of reggae and the classics. Cooper introduced the concluding extravaganza as the “Ragamuffin Concerto for Unity,” and the insertion of cello solos and digital samples of classical choral music into a reggae show can be seen as a way of grasping to find strands of unity between cultures.
What the show lacked was a strong affirmation of the culture Third World comes from. The five-man band was more taken with hybridizing its reggae roots than establishing them. Consequently, there was a whole lot of trend-hopping going on.
“Try Jah Love” was a slick pop-R&B; version of reggae featuring the husky, Eddie Levert-like baritone of Rugs Clarke. “How Can It Be Forbidden If It’s Love” took a break for some mellow, seductive U.S.-style rapping by Cooper (he was more convincing later in the show in a display of the fast-rolling “toasting” style that is reggae’s own contribution to rap). Another song found Third World harmonizing about having a “sense of purpose,” but what the band really showed was a sense of purple--the funk-based number bore a marked resemblance to Prince’s “When Doves Cry.”
This grab-bag of gimmicks and styles made for a decent light entertainment. Its superficial pleasures included expert ensemble vocals and the simple but emphatic rhythm work of bassist Richie Daley and Willie Stewart, who came up with the show’s purest and most exciting moment in a gleefully played percussion solo.
Reggae becomes deep and eloquent when it deals with struggles to transcend, and with the joyful respites that can be found amid hardship. Third World offered nothing deeper than standard-issue sloganeering that failed to call forth a sense of struggle. One song that had the potential to do that, “96 in the Shade,” was merely lukewarm in a tossed-off treatment early in the set.
If the Unity that Third World trumpets can be achieved only through the homogenization its music purveys, maybe Unity is an overrated ideal. Anyone for Diversity?
One of the glories of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album was the way he incorporated South African music without homogenizing it into mere pop fodder. Simon realized that Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the brilliant a cappella singing group that appeared on the album, was sublime in its natural state.
Black Mambazo was no less sublime at the Coach House, except for a couple of instances when it followed a mild hybridizing instinct of its own that sought to incorporate touches of American pop performance. “Township Jive,” which concluded the 45-minute set, fell flat because it borrowed one of the least appealing inventions of Western pop: the canned backing track. That nullified the real sense of artistic unity and completeness that the group embodies when left to its own devices.
The other mistake was an attempt to get the crowd involved by bringing people out of the audience to sing on stage. Leader Joseph Shabalala evidently thought he could create some instant cross-cultural connection by teaching two sheepish subjects to sing a few of Mambazo’s Zulu language phrases. But the experiment didn’t take, and it led to a long awkward moment until it was abandoned and the show moved on.
Otherwise, the 10-man Mambazo did its own wonderful stuff. At peak moments, nine voices would fall in behind Shabalala in a surging lock-step, creating a whooshing rhythmic propulsion, an inexorable, palpable reminder of the potency of breath. Shabalala’s voice, meanwhile, darted and fluttered like a butterfly in the open spaces the backing chorus left. Or else, he would cut back against the grain, making himself heard against the chorus with guttural interjections or piercing cries.
The musical flow was mirrored in the group’s synchronized dance steps and gestures. Like the music, the movements were free and unforced, yet perfectly coordinated. Kicking his legs high like a Cossack, or taking sudden leaps consummated in light landings, Shabalala proved a startlingly kinetic performer for a middle-aged man with a stocky build. Motion and music came together forcefully on a Zulu-language song introduced as “Down in the Mines.” The performance depicted the arduous working life of South African miners, but also a sustaining fellowship propped up by humor.
In his gruffer vocal moments, Shabalala sounded like a Third-World Louis Armstrong. But there were deeper qualities that drove the comparison home. Like Armstrong, he exuded an extraordinary musical vitality and freedom, and a life-filled, benevolent spirit.
Arrow (real name, Alphonsus Cassell), hailing from the Caribbean island of Montserrat, is the chief popularizer of soca, or soul-calypso music. While he embodied the music’s punch and party-hardy buoyancy while singing, he turned out to be a surprisingly stuffy personality between numbers.
Arrow made much of having been received by the queen of England, reeled off statistics concerning the widespread influence of his best-known song, “Hot, Hot, Hot” (a U.S. hit for Buster Poindexter), and promised that he and his band would be available after the show to sign autographs “totally free” (thereby establishing at least one significant difference between soca musicians and major-league baseball players). In what may be the oddest boast of the year, Arrow announced with a straight face that his song, “O’ La Soca,” had hit No. 26 on the Japanese charts.
Arrow had good reason to feel a bit stiff. His horn-driven music, delivered by a sharp, seven-man backing band, exists to be danced to. With no dance floor amid its room full of tables and chairs, the Coach House is designed for listening (and preconcert meals), not dancing.
“We suspect that by now all your lovely dinners are digested, because we want to get into some serious business,” Arrow said with an air of polite exasperation before introducing “Hot, Hot, Hot,” the closing number of his 35-minute set. Exasperated or not, he and his band carried on like pros, turning in a well-played, well-applauded show. But this kind of music has to feed on an audience’s dance-floor energy if it’s going to serve its real purpose and deliver its full impact.
NATIONAL DEFICIT: National People’s Gang has some vacancies in its lineup, but the veteran Orange County alternative rock band isn’t in a hurry to fill them.
The most recent version of NPG split apart about two months ago after a national tour, according to Chad Jasmine, the singer who helped found the band eight years ago.
“We’re not finished. It’s not over at all,” Jasmine said. It may be a while before NPG reconstitutes itself, though. “I’m not going to force anything this time,” Jasmine said. “When the right people come along, it’ll happen.”
NPG’s latest upheaval came when musical differences prompted a late-spring split. Jasmine and drummer Anthony Arvizu remain together, having parted with bassist Deyo Glines and guitarist Michael Glines. Jasmine said the main point of friction was the brothers’ interest in taking NPG in a funk-metal direction akin to Faith No More or the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Jasmine noted that on the band’s two albums for Dr. Dream Records, “The Hard Swing” and “Orange,” “we could also do other things, become introspective and raise questions. I didn’t feel like shaping my ideas into something that would be more acceptable to the masses, and I got the idea that’s what they wanted to do.”
With National People’s Gang on the back burner, Jasmine has been working on a solo album, accompanied by Arvizu and a number of guest players. He also has been playing trio shows with Arvizu and guitarist Matt McLean.