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THE POP LIFE; AFRICA'S SACRED MUSIC

Jon Pareles
The New York Times. (July 31, 1985): Arts and Entertainment:
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1985 The New York Times Company
http://www.nytimes.com

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THE public will have a rare chance to hear sacred African rhythms and chants, Friday at
the Museum of Modern Art. At 8 P.M., the free Summergarden concert series will
present a benbe, the public part of a santeria ritual. Santeria - the religion of orishas, or
nature deities, that came to the new world with West African slaves - is thriving here,
although many New Yorkers may not know it. And the rhythms of santeria, at least those
of the less potent orishas, are deeply imbedded in Latin popular music.

''There are certain rhythms you wouldn't apply outside the ceremony,'' said the
percussionist-singer Milton Cardona, who will lead three drummers and a 15-member
chorus. Mr. Cardona was born in Puerto Rico and initiated when he was 13 years old;
he has played percussion with virtually every leading Latin musician - among them
Eddie Palmieri, Hector Lavoe, Ruben Blades, Celia Cruz and Willie Colon - and with
others including Laurie Anderson, Kip Hanrahan, Taj Mahal and Grace Jones. ''I've
made commercial recordings with rhythms pertaining to Shango, who is a musician and
a partyer,'' Mr. Cardona said. ''Those are rhythms that you can jam on. But there are
certain deities that you don't want to mess with.''

Santeria was suppressed during the era of slavery, but it carried on in secret, often
camouflaged by Christianity. When believers could not worship their deities by name,
they worshipped Christian saints who shared certain attributes of the orishas.

Now, ceremonial rhythms, chants, songs and dances of santeria are performed
regularly in the city's Latin and Caribbean communities, at private gatherings that
celebrate initiations and praise the orishas - among them Shango (god of thunder and
lightning and of drumming) and Elegba, the messenger, prankster and guardian of
doorways and crossroads. Most of the music is played on hourglass-shaped bata drums
- literally a family of drums, since the large iya, which leads the ensemble, is considered
the mother drum. (The names of the drums and deities come from West Africa, and are
remarkably consistent around the Caribbean and on both sides of the Atlantic.) ''Just
because a guy has a bata in his lap does not make him a bata drummer,'' Mr. Cardona
said. ''There are very few fundamental bata drummers; if you're going to play a drum
that has had ceremonies said over it, you have to go through a ritual. Many people want
to learn bata, but many people are scared to teach it. If you walk through Central Park,
you can see people playing drums and rhythms that could be very heavy, and they don't
know it.''
On Friday, Mr. Cardona will lead a shortened ceremony - a full-length benbe lasts most
of an afternoon -and the music will be played on unconsecrated drums, since bata
drums that have had full ceremonies cannot be played after sunset. The concert will
open and close with invocations to Elegba, and will include songs and dances for
Babaluaye, a seer and healer who was worshipped as St. Jude; Obatala, the creator;
Yemaya, the goddess of the seas; Oshun, Yemaya's younger sister and the goddess of
rivers, and Shango. There is no improvisation; the rhythms, dances and Dahomeyan
and Yoruba lyrics proceed according to ancient rules.

''My personal view is that the gods are based on Nature, and we are playing to Nature,''
Mr. Cardona said. ''If our beliefs are positive, then how can we say this is closed to
people who aren't involved? This is the same music you would hear at a benbe, so
people can see what's going on.'' The Guitarist Bill Frisell Heads Band on 2d Album
Every few years, a guitarist appears who manages to wring something new out of the
most-played instrument in the world. American guitar-watchers now have a chance to
discover Bill Frisell. He has been a vital member of groups led by the drummer Paul
Motian and the saxophonist Tim Berne, and his own album ''Rambler'' is his first United
States release as a bandleader; it is his second album for the West German label ECM.

Mr. Frisell's touch is downright eerie. As manipulated through guitar synthesizer, other
electronics and Mr. Frisell's fingers, notes and chords seem to unfurl from the rhythm
section like tendrils, or coil above a tune like smoke, or just float free. He doesn't just
bend notes; he stretches them, melts them, lets them ooze or makes them peal. He will
doubtless be compared to Pat Metheny, with whom he shares a hint of country-and-
western twang, but where Mr. Metheny is a traditionally linear player, Mr. Frisell toys
with notes that are blobs and curves and streaks.

''Rambler'' uses an unconventional lineup - trumpet, tuba, electric bass and drums with
Mr. Frisell's guitar. Often, the brass instruments act as straight men to Mr. Frisell's
sidelong excursions; they carry the melodies while his guitar parts materialize and
evaporate. Mr. Frisell's compositions are by turns easygoing (''Rambler,'' ''When We
Go''), swinging (''Resistor''), melancholy (''Strange Meeting'') and intriguingly amorphous
(''Tone,'' ''Wizard of Odds''); he pits his guitar against a march in ''Music I Heard.'' The
full range of Mr. Frisell's guitar style is available on the imported, mostly solo album ''In
Line'' and on his duet album with Tim Berne, ''Theoretically,'' (Empire Records, 136
Lawrence Street, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11201). Both are highly recommended. The Singer
Chris Isaak In an Eight-Night Stand Chris Isaak isn't afraid to start small. When the
California singer released his first album, ''Silvertone,'' he started the kind of tour most
rock musicians can't be bothered with any more. He played for two weeks at
Nightbreak, a club in San Francisco, did a stint at the Anticlub in Los Angeles, and he
has come to New York for eight nights - tonight through Saturday and next Wednesday
through Saturday - at Danceteria, 19 West 21st Street. As jazz listeners know, a long
club engagement feels different from a one-night stand; there is a sense of casual
continuity and the chance to experiment.
''Rock bands all want to act like they already made it,'' Mr. Isaak said when he arrived in
New York. ''The minute they get together in a garage they want to rent a limo. I didn't
want to do one gig here, wait six weeks and do another gig, and try to make each one
an event. We don't have to pretend - we're starting out, and at this point it's better for us
to play a lot.''

Mr. Isaak strikes an Elvis Presley pose on the cover of ''Silvertone,'' but his songs draw
on a more generalized rock past, with understated rockabilly rhythms and minor-key
harmonies.

''I don't see Elvis as all that related to what I do, other than the hairstyle,'' Mr. Isaak said.
''The problem with some pop artists is that they're stealing from too small a group. I've
heard, oh, Roy Orbison, and Ann-Margaret, and Mexican music -which I love - and
1960's Italian soundtracks. Whatever I get my hands on, I'll steal from. It's difficult being
compared to Elvis, though -it's like having a beard and being compared to Jesus Christ.''

Mr. Isaak doesn't expect to follow his Danceteria shows with a return engagement at
Shea Stadium. ''One thing about doing all these shows, though,'' he says. ''People can't
ever give me the excuse that they didn't have a chance to catch me.''

CAPTION(S):

photo of Milton Cardona (Lona Foote)

By Jon Pareles

Source Citation (MLA 7th Edition)

Pareles, Jon. "THE POP LIFE; AFRICA'S SACRED MUSIC." New York Times 31 July
1985. Academic OneFile. Web. 28 July 2016.

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