|"Not all who wander are lost." -- J.R.R. Tolkien|
Some people need a soundtrack for their trips, music to listen to while on the road. Once in 1989 I was busing across the mountainous, surprisingly empty expanses of southwestern China, when a fellow passenger passed me a tape of Thelonious Monster. I think I had only three tapes with me on that particular 36-hour ride, and TM sure sounded good. I've been making and trading tapes on the road a lot since then. Some music sounds great in one country, but comes across kind of flat or pretentious in another. Why is this? Don't ask me, but if you want some recommendations, here's some music you might enjoy.
Some of the discs listed below can be ordered online. Just click on the cover and amazon.com will take care of the rest.
For the stuff amazon.com doesn't have - ask the guy sitting next to you on the bus.
Charles Mingus claimed his 1962 album Tijuana Moods was the best recording he'd ever made. I humbly agree - this jazz smokes unfiltered. Recorded in 1957 after an allegedly wild week in TJ.
One of Mexico's top punk bands lives and records in a tumbledown house in the middle of a parking lot in Tijuana. Check out Rock Milenium by the irrepressible ¡Tijuana No!. Why isn't there a band called ¡Cabo No!?
I like the traditional sounds of early non-synth norteña music (no, it's not spelled norteño, folks, because música is feminina, end of Spanish lesson), but it's getting harder to find in Mexico outside the cantina troubadour scene. South Texas - especially San Antonio, Laredo, and Corpus Christi - is the last stronghold for the rustic romanticism of accordion, bajo sexto, and standup bass. Back in Mexico, Casas de Madera, by Monterrey's Ramón Ayala y sus Bravos del Norte is a good one in spite of a few electronic flourishes.
One of the most revered norteña bands in Mexico is the controversialLos Tigres del Norte, who compose songs about narcotraficantes and corrupt Mexican cops. Listen to Corridos Prohibidos and find out why all of the songs on this CD were banned in Mexico.
Grupera music from the Mexican state of Sinaloa - the most popular genre in the country despite its northern origins - will fit the sitch, of course, so go for one of the best: De Parranda Con La Banda, by El Recodo.
If you're choogling through San Luis Potosí or Veracruz, slip into El Huapango, by Va-El Huapango or Danzón by Arturo Sandoval.
Both song/dance forms are big in this beautiful and relatively untouristed part of Mexico. Fiery trumpeter Sandoval is actually Cuban (as isdanzón, originally), and this CD kicks.
One more disc for Mexico, another brilliant Charles Mingus work: Cumbia & Jazz Fusion.
Cumbia runs neck and neck with grupera in the contest for the most listened-to driving music in Mexico – but this isn't your typical thonk-thonk cumbia. Mingus loved Latin music and this is pure genius.
Texas so brims with music, it's hard to pick one soundtrack. Closest thing to finding it all on one CD - including blues, conjunto, country, and R&B - is the soundtrack from John Sayles' very cool film, Lone Star, featuring various Texas artists.
Of course the Texas Tornadoes carry the weight of the state's iconic name comfortably, and my favorite of theirs is Zone of Our Own, a guacamole of garage rock, conjunto, swamp blues, and country.
Another pick:I Love My Freedom, I Love My Texas, by Mingo Saldívar.
Mingo's live performances remind me of a west San Antonio butcher channeling Flaco Jimenez, Waylon Jennings, and James Brown simultaneously. As usual my hood ornament is pointed toward the Mexican border...
Texas has spawned more guitar gods than any other US state, and the most godly is the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. His best was his 1983 debut, Texas Flood. Master bluesman John Lee Hooker has called Texas Flood his favorite blues album of all time.
What the heck, pack another one for Texas: Human Remains, by sculptor, playwright, author, multi-media artist, and musician Terry Allen. I've been following this guy since the 70s; it's too bad some of his earlier stuff is out of print, but this and the newer Salivation are good.
Human Remains has more of Texas in it, though, and is helped out by the presence of Joe Ely, David Byrne, Lucinda Williams, Will Sexton, and Charlie Sexton.
Hard to find good recorded Lao music. A more than acceptable CD available through amazon.com is Bamboo Voices: Folk Music From Laos, by Khamvong Insixienmai. If you've never heard the khaen – a long, panpipe-like instrument made from natural swamp reeds (not bamboo) – down a shot of moonshine, kick off your sandals and go for it.
When I'm in Texas I get stuck into Mexican border culture and when I'm in Thailand the same thing happens with Lao Isaan culture.
The best traditional music happening in Thailand comes from the northeast - Isaan as it's called in that part of the country - and the sexy, rhythmic sounds on Mo Lam Singing Of Northeast Thailand, by various artists, is essentially Lao.
Vic Chesnutt recorded a song called "Thailand" on his Is the Actor Happy?, and it just happens to be one of his all-time great tunes, even if it has virtually nothing to do with Thailand.
Sandaya: The Spellbinding Piano Of Burma, U Yee Nwev. The only other recording of Burmese piano music I know of was a French disc featuring the semi-legendary Ko Ko. This one's better - better playing and a much better recording. The way U Yee Nwe takes those rippling, percussive melodies from traditional Burmese saing waing and applies them to the western piano is, well, like the title says, spellbinding - and weirdly beautiful. Shanachie has issued three other CDs of Burmese music, all recorded by San Francisco's Rick Heizman using a mobile DAT unit in Rangoon.
Heizman produced the tracks for Shanachie, too, with help from avant garde guitarist Henry Kaiser. My favorite was the first in the series, a 1997 CD entitled White Elephants & Golden Ducks, a good sampler of traditional Burmese instrumental and vocal music.
A 1998 follow-up, Pat Waing: The Magic Drum Circle of Burma, does a beautiful job of rendering the hard-to-reproduce pat waing drum sounds. Shanachie may release two more CDs of digitally recorded Burmese music, one devoted to the saung gauk (Burmese harp) and another to western stringed instruments played in Myanmar - slide guitar, mandolin, zither, banjo and violin. Heizman says they're waiting to see how the first four Burmese CDs sell (so buy lots of 'em folks, so we can hear the sure-to-be-amazing stringed instrument one) Amazon appears to feature only the piano and Pat Waing CDs.
... recovering from those brutal mattress-testing, burrito-tasting days on the road, I'm listening to:
Goodbye Mr. Cat, Ñico Saquito. Saquito - also known as Señor Gato (Mr. Cat) in Cuba - sings and plays his heart out on this live disc, even though he was 80 years old when he recorded it in the studios of Radio Musical Nacional in Havana in the early 1980's. Cuban music seems to be the rage right now following the success of Buena Vista Social Club. Like most Cuban big bands, they play a few Saquito numbers, but the original composer plays Cuban son in its true folk form, showing strong African roots.