Saturday, November 12, 2011
Once More Into the Sleepy Lagoon: Miriam Burton- African Lament (1961)
This record is a minor legend in the Exotica pantheon, one that's managed to stay extremely rare even within the seemingly limitless bounty of the blogosphere and all the other assorted outlands of the internet. I've searched for it a long time, having heard at one point a few engaging selections. Alas, my inquiries and hunting trips failed without exception- so it recently occurred to me to inquire at The Sleepy Lagoon. Witch doctor that he is, it wasn't long before he miraculously produced a copy. It's up on his blog now.
Miriam Burton (former cast member of Porgy and Bess, friend to Harry Belafonte, and a veteran of the jazz world), here plies her impressive soprano in the service of vocal exotica along the lines of Yma Sumac, Bas Sheva, Leda Annest, and other wordless sorceresses. The ostensible concept of the record (and likely the weakest element) is to describe in emotional sound-paintings the African experience. Indeed, there is a track called "Apartheid," so you can tell they're serious. I'm not sure this goal is achieved any more than Bas Sheva's The Passions manages to describe any emotional state other than "moaning in a room"- though I must point out that this is a far better album than The Passions, and Miss Burton a far better and infinitely more bearable singer than Miss Sheva.
So perhaps the conceptual hook is a bit weak, but it wouldn't be the first time an Exotica record endeavored to describe something quite real in an artificial language. This disconnect, after all, is one of the more intriguing aspects of the Cult of Exotica.
But the music! The music is solid. Excellent "Afro-exotic" production, heavy on marimba and percussion (and light on authenticity), deeply evocative and cinematic, with (mostly) awesome, moving, soulful vocal performances from Miriam Burton. The opening track, the almost eight-minute "Rites of Passage" in three parts, is easily the high point for me. A sprawling, unforced suite (highly reminiscent of Perez Prado's Voodoo Suite, especially in terms of percussion), it luxuriates in its aesthetic long enough that the listener can sink wholly into it, and it's abstract enough to function very well as a sound-painting or mood piece. The next track is pretty grating, but enjoyable if you bring some humor to the experience. It's the kind of hyper-upbeat "la la la" nonsense that's always a low point on Yma's records, and very reminiscent of The Passions at its worst. The rest of the album flows by with the same panoramic easiness of "Rites of Passage", with another standout being the excellent "Kalahari Bushman" and the mournful "Apartheid".
With Vocal Exotica records, there's often a fatigue that sets in if you spin the whole record at one go. In some ways, it's best to drop this stuff into a playlist that you intend to shuffle. I love this kind of singing, but I love it most in quick glimpses and stolen snatches. Either way you go with this one though, you'll be glad, because it's excellent and extremely unique. Enjoy, and thank the Lagoonmaster.
AFRICAN LAMENT (320)