By John Moses
Greetings from Los Angeles – where I write to you in good health, albeit tortured by a strong case of cabin fever. A brief 10-word pandemic update: we’ve been on complete lockdown with no end in sight.
I’ve been working from home, eating from home, sleeping from home…just about everything happening in my life right now is from home. Some good news, however is that my sweet fiancé has managed to get herself out of the treacherous well she fell in months ago and has returned to self-quarantine alongside me. How you might ask? The short of it is, we got tired of waiting for help from the authorities so I crossed my fingers, tossed a shovel down to my future bride, and she dug her way out of the bottomless pit like some sort of beautiful Andy Dufresne.
My biggest concern with her Shawshank-like great escape (outside of dropping a shovel and beaning her on the head) was where she’d end up. They say you can dig a hole to China, but with that logic I imagine you could dig yourself to just about anywhere in the world. The Great Pyramids? Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Other wonders of the world I memorized in middle school and have now forgotten? Who knows, but lucky for me, traffic in LA has been breezy and she popped up all the way across town in Santa Monica; what’s normally a two-hour drive to the pier both ways was a swift 30-minute roundabout to finally reunite with my gal. Hooray!
Now that we’re both safe and locked in for the long haul, I’ve found myself doing some digging of my own, through my vinyl record collection. Personally, I’ve found it nearly impossible to feel eager for new music releases and have discovered some solace revisiting LPs I’ve accrued over the years. These albums make me feel alive, and a bit freer from the confines of my apartment. Despite being in full isolation mode, I can mentally travel around the world flipping through global grooves from every Earthly corner. South America? Central Europe? Western India? No matter your degree of commitment to social distancing, let’s take a trip alone together and see what sort of global auditory treats we can unearth.
For the sake of getting some sun, let’s head toward Rio de Janeiro, where we’ll dive into a wonderful collection of works by famed Brazilian vocalist Flora Purim and her husband, percussionist Airto Moreira, titled Brazilian Heatwave. This 1982 compilation borrows collaborative cuts from Moreira’s first two solo records, “Natural Feeling” and “Seeds On The Ground: The Natural Sounds of Airto,” highlighting a mix of the couple’s high flying vocal-based Bossa rhythms and freeform improvisational sessions. I first picked up “Brazilian Heatwave” toward the end of high school and was immediately blown away by the palpable chemistry between Purim and Moreira. The entirety of the record is the optimal entry to World music for jazz fans. Tracks like “Mixing” and “Terror” effortlessly blend the standard bounciness of Duke Ellington with a contemporary, Fellini-like aesthetic quirk, while songs like “Alue” and “Liamba” temper the album by incorporating elegant vocal melodies. It’s everything wrapped into one: the culmination of myriad creative cultures, while being definitively Brazilian Jazz. Not only did “Brazilian Heatwave” open my ears to an entire universe of South American artists, but it also remains in consistent rotation, and is an essential record in my collection to this day.
I was lucky enough to stumble upon Francis Bebey’s cyclical compositions last year and cannot speak more highly of Psychedic Sanza, a beautifully assembled retrospective of his work from 1980-1982 by French imprint Born Bad Records. Francis Bebey was a Cameroonian musician who found his way to the Parisian art scene after a stint working as a broadcaster in Ghana. While much of his work was guitar based, Bebey’s music is perhaps best recognized for his integration of electronics and synthesizers alongside traditional African instrumentation. I personally am drawn by his rootsy, deep-sounding vocal work, which parallels that of one of my favorite current artists, Helado Negro (whom I’ve mentioned in this segment before). Many of the songs on this record run long, between 4-6 minutes, and hold a meditative quality in their percussive and vocal repetitions. Try “Forest Nativity” or “Sanza Nocturne” and you’ll see what I mean; each piece blends tasteful peculiarity with a diverse palette of elaborate, compelling syncopations that seem removed from both time and place. Audio aside, while I’ve never been one to harp on the vinyl vs digital music debate, I do think this is a special album to have a physical copy of. The kaleidoscopic cover art and inserts burst with color and have a tactile quality to them, which in my experience is the sign of a record that’s been constructed with love and care. What more can a music fan ask for?
Our final stop on this global journey from self-isolation brings us to Mumbai, India, the home of Bollywood and the contextual backdrop for Bappi Lahiri’s stylistically dynamic soundtrack to the 1981 Hindi Spy-Thriller Wardat. Think James Bond with killer bugs and HUGE musical numbers; the story revolves around a terrorist organization harnessing nature to do their bidding. Of course, only one man can stop them: Gunmaster G-9 – alias Gopinath. Admittedly, I’m still trying to teach myself more about Bollywood music and film, although I’ve found myself smitten with the bright, dated aural and visual qualities of the movies and records from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. There’s a certain kitsch that we can’t quite replicate today – the same feeling you might get flipping through channels and finding there’s a Dirty Harry marathon on TV. Do you feel lucky? Well, do you? Turn on this soundtrack and the answer to detective Callahan’s old question will be a resounding yes. Musically, this record is all over the place. Some songs, like the album’s opener “Din Ho Ya Raat,” feel traditionally grounded, and incorporate jumpy string sections and rich call and response vocals, perhaps how you’d imagine a Bollywood tune to sound. On the other end of the spectrum, other tracks find closer kinship to a pulsing Giorgio Moroder production. Tracks like “Jalim Dunya Humpe” and “Dekha Hai Maine Tumhe” land somewhere between a Johnny Pate-style Blaxploitation theme and an arpeggio-heavy ‘80s dancefloor burner. Two parts driving tabla lines and striding bass guitar phrases, one part bubbling synthesizers and commanding kicks. Whether or not you need the film in your life is up to you, but if you’re feeling open minded in the era of social distancing, “Wardat’s” soundtrack could be just what you’re looking for to cut loose and pass the time.
At this point, it’s time I leave you to your own devices. Governor Newsom would be not too pleased to find that we’ve spent even this much time together. While on your own, why not try out a few other older titles from around the globe: Johnny Harris’ cinematic 1969 album Movements, Japanese band Mariah’s futuristic 1983 record Utakata No Hibi, or ‘70s poolside martini Jazz from Polish vocal group The Novi Singers. Whenever they let us out, I’ll catch you on the airwaves bright and early. Until then…
Listen to the music HERE
John Moses is a former Charlotter and a musical host of The Lab, a radio show on KCRW in Los Angeles (an NPR affiliate). Send him an email.