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Various Artists"The Big Bang: In the Beginning...

Various Artists

“The Big Bang: In the Beginning Was the Drum”

Ellipsis Arts

* Times Line(tm): 808-8463. To hear an excerpt from “The Big Bang,” call TimesLine and press * 5510

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To anyone weaned on the excesses of arena rock, a three-CD set of drum music might seem a somewhat frightening proposition, an unpleasant flashback of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” proportions.

On that count, there’s no reason to fear “The Big Bang: In the Beginning Was the Drum.” OK, so there’s Carl Palmer’s drum solo from the Emerson, Lake and Palmer epic “Karn Evil 9,” but it’s only a token representative of the grandiose streak in ‘70s rock. The real focus is percussion in its more supple manifestations, with examples ranging from the Zimbabwean mbira or thumb piano, as played by the wonderful Stella Chiweshe, to the gongs and cymbals of the Taiwanese Ming-Chun Puppet Troupe. “The Big Bang” is the latest entry from Roslyn, N.Y.-based Ellipsis Arts, a small label that has built its niche by carefully crafting some of the best world-music compilations available. Last year’s “Africa . . . Never Stand Still” was a masterful survey of current African pop, thoughtful both in song selection and in documentation.

It’s a tough act to follow, and “The Big Bang” falls short on a few counts. Still, there’s more fascinating music packed into these three discs than anyone has a right to ask for. And while it might seem that more than three hours of “drum” music might get relentlessly repetitive, the pacing and the variety on this collection make it thoroughly enjoyable as casual listening.

It is on closer listen, however, that “The Big Bang” can be downright revelatory.

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Familiar names are represented--Nigeria’s Olatunji, drum guru Mickey Hart--but the real joy in a collection such as this is discovering music that might never have reached your ears otherwise.

Such tracks are too numerous to list here, but examples include a slice of Panamanian street music called tamborito , a stunning workout from India’s Karnataka College of Percussion, a tune by a Pakistani jew’s harp player named Misri Khan and an intoxicating percussive stew from Fatala, a Paris-based group of Guinean musicians.

Scattered throughout the collection are fusion efforts by Western musicians, inspired by some of the more traditional strains represented here. Some of the playing is technically impeccable, and there are interesting ideas at work--electronic sampling and looping of natural sounds or Pygmy chants, for example. Most of the cross-cultural efforts, however, sound somewhat sterile and cerebral when juxtaposed with the wealth of rootsier material on the album.

“The Big Bang” does beg a question: Is rhythm--in all its myriad permutations, in all the roles it plays in music and culture--enough to hold a thematic collection? Drums have taken on a certain spiritual cachet in the West in recent years, and the compilers of “The Big Bang” (in a full-color booklet that accompanies the collection) advance numerous arguments about the universality of rhythm that are, alas, uncompelling.

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In the end, all the communal platitudes obscure the real strength of the music here: variety. In a world of increasing, market-driven homogenity, “The Big Bang” offers an untidy, pulsing, gyrating tribute to difference. Now that’s something to celebrate.


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