various artists,
Dancing with the Dead:
The Music of Global Death Rites

(Ellipsis Arts, 1998)

Here's one to play when the in-laws come to visit. Despite the rather grim title, this CD/book combination is filled with gentle graveyard humor and some intriguing music.

The package is killer (if I may be allowed the term): a 64-page, CD-sized book with the disc in a sleeve at the back. There's an general essay by Greg Palmer contrasting various ways of dealing with death around the world; another more formal article, "What the Big Guys Say," that tells how the major world religions look at death; and a shorter piece on "Death and Food."

Then the program notes begin, spiced with fascinating sidebars, as well as amusing, touching and grisly little tales. My favorite was the practice in Madagascar of taking family members from their tombs every few years and rewrapping their bodies. In this case, everybody wanted to touch Grandmother for good luck, and some folks even danced with her. I just hope Madagascar has a very dry climate.

But the proof of a CD is its music, and there's quite a mixture here, some fascinating, some rather dull. Oddly enough, the stuff I wanted to get through quickly was the material at the start of the CD set in the United States: an African-American funeral eulogy and a 1951 recording of the Eureka Jazz Band coming back from a New Orleans funeral. Though I love jazz, the New Orleans variety has always struck me as better for partying than for serious listening. (And why do those damned clarinets up on top always sound a quarter-tone flat?)

We happily leave the USA for some Chinese Buddhist music, a ritual sound that conveys the sense of vocal keening punctuated by a heavy percussive throbbing that is both mournful and majestic. A true vocal follows with a Sufi lament, in which the sense of loss is both profound and deeply felt. It would have been nice to have translations for all of the vocals, but such is not the case.

Next is a Cuban tune, filled with rhythm and some tight-harmony vocals backing up the lead singer. This track, as do so many others, fades out, a practice that should have been left in the editing room. These songs, in their true environments, don't fade out -- they end. The following track from Papua, New Guinea, has 22 panpipes, which makes for an eerie and unearthly sound, especially when blended with the strange vocals. Charles Duvelle, who recorded this, says that the panpipe has spiritual powers, and one can almost believe it after hearing this.

We enter the realm of more traditional sounding music, with Janet Leuchter chanting a Judaic prayer. Her voice is heavenly. Then from the sublime to the realm of mariachi with the Mexican Day of the Dead, a popular song that the dead loved while on earth, rhythmic and gay. Another joyous tune is the one from Madagascar, in which drums, pipes and voices blend in a sound as celebratory as that of a New Orleans jazz band -- a great song for dancing with dead Grandma!

Thai Buddhism follows, uptempo, percussive, and similar to gamelan music. As long as the booklet is, I wish room had been made to tell more about the instrumentation. There are glorious sounds here, but I'm not sure what's making them. The identity of the tone-producers on the next track, however, is a no-brainer -- it's from the pre-Christian orthodoxy of Georgia (Asian Georgia, not mint julep Georgia), and is purely vocal. It sounds like a Russian liturgical chorale, but the harmonies take some unexpected and alarming twists away from the western tradition. You've got to hear this one, and even then you may not believe it.

A Hindu devotional song follows, one of Gandhi's favorites, played at his funeral. If you've heard traditional Indian music, this will hold no aural surprises. A song from Ghana is next, done purely with drums, filled with interesting counter-rhythms.

The next selection is from the Brazilian faith of Candomble, a blend of related tribes with its roots in Africa, and the music sounds more African than South American, using a call and response with only percussion and voices. Percussion is also heard in the form of rattles in the Hualapai Bird Song of northern Arizona, a traditional-sounding Native American chant.

By far the most interesting song was the next one from Bali, played by a group of 22 gamelan players. The sound is extraordinary, tonally percussive, like very resonant vibraphones. It is a quite pleasant music, striking a balance between the sorrow of death and the celebration of life. There are moments when the music slows and stops completely, as if asking the listener to meditate for a moment, then starts again, with its insistent ringing.

The last track is "Music for the End of Mourning," from the Central African Republic. It is performed by a singer and two sanza players, an instrument similar to the mrimba and kalimba. Rhythmic and highly joyous, it provides an up way to end the CD, and Charles Duvelle writes in the program notes that the reason that death is not catastrophic in Africa is because of the belief that the dead live on, since the living still speak to them and interact with them: "They are not dead -- they have just changed their shape." It is a reassuring thought on which to end this never boring musical expedition through the many lands of the dead.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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