Let There Be Drums

On the way to this review, I stopped in a little backwater bar in Bethlehem, Pa., called The Bavarian. While there I had my ass handed to me in a game of eight-ball by a nearly toothless ex-biker who also happened to be a chess champion. Besides the colorful clientele, the place featured two jukeboxes that each gave six plays for a buck! For my eight bits I got (among others) George Jones' "The Window up Above" "Ernest Tubb's version of "Blue Christmas, " Merle Haggard's "Daddy Frank" and James Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" (parts 1 2).

My pool playing, chess-jamming friend offered to twist one up but I had to give my regrets and set out on the three-quarter-hour ride home. Riding back (yes, I said riding — please kids, don't drink and drive), mellowed by the Tanqueray rocks and three shots of George Dickel, I kind of wished I had taken him up on his offer.

My friends and I had listened to Spirit Into Sound all the way up while we talked about the recent two-hour farewell "Homicide" episode. We agreed that the fourth chair was probably not for Bayliss because earlier Frank Pembleton had said he'd caught two bad guys that night. One being the guy who'd shot G and the other, by implication, Bayliss who had not, therefore, eaten his gun. We also talked about how expensive it must be for my brother-in-law to take his whole family skiing, what with rentals for him, his wife and the two kids and lift tickets going for 22 bucks a pop. Indeed, we talked about near every durn thing but the Spirit Into Sound album.

Usually I like to listen to music alone in the car, because I don't like hearing anything besides it (and maybe the sound of my own singing along). That, as Amarillo Slim might say, is what you call a tell. Obviously, NPR would be just another bunch of commie-pinko lefty intellectuals sitting around talking, if it weren't for this kind of music, and I'll furthermore bet it sounds damn good sitting around a wadi smoking a hookah stuffed with kif and I wouldn't think of listening to anything else while painting my yurt, but then again I am from Detroit, and I like to kick out the jams. For me, world music usually makes a great background for conversation or contemplation, but active listening can be an effort. Now, in the car, in my slightly mellowed state, the music rose up a little and rekindled the interest I felt on accidentally first hearing a bit of it. Maybe entering the dream state (through means natural or otherwise) is a necessary requirement for full enjoyment of this stuff. Without doubt, the earth-toned vocals of Rebeca Mauleon who, with Hart and Zakir Hussain make up the core of Planet Drum, are a major contributing factor. Mauleon has worked with Santana and Tito Puente, and she brings a soulful, beguiling element to this recording. In most of this type of music that I've heard, the singing, if any, blends in with the pan flutes and bird whistles and, democratic though that may be, combined with the fact that the singing's usually done in a language unfamiliar to us Western types, it can leave a listener with little to latch on to. It's Mauleon's work on songs such as "Chroma" that gives Spirit Into Sound a more immediate accessibility — complementing but not overshadowing the intricate and hypnotic percussion of Hart and Zakir. And, language barriers or no language barriers, some of the tracks on the album ("Nature Talk," "Lizard Dance" [RealAudio excerpt]) are just plain downright fun. Mickey Hart has spent the past couple of decades traveling to exotic locales much like a latter-day Alan Lomax, recording the music of the natives. A member of the board of trustees of the American Folklife Center, he's currently involved in the Herculean task of digitally preserving the sound archives of the Library of Congress. A natural way to spend act two of a career that includes a nearly 30-year stint with a band that was never shy about blending East and West. I mean, the album was called Blues for Allah, wasn't it? Created as an audio companion piece for Hart's third (and same-named) book, Spirit Into Sound is a well-crafted offering that will please fans of world music, as well as the more adventurous of Deadheads. Hell, I'm not that fond of either, and my own New World ears are still giving it three stars.