Eye Weekly JULY 26, 1996 - by Nicholas Jennings


Michael Brook and Loop Guru mess with Eno

In the world of ambient music, Brian Eno is god, the all-knowing, all-powerful genius of the recording studio. So omnipotent is Eno that his disciples can be found on pop, new age, nouveau classical and indie charts on both sides of the Atlantic. His pioneering role in world music dates back to 1979, when he recorded ethno-ambient classics like Possible Musics with Jon Hassell and My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts with David Byrne.

Recent albums by two of Eno's followers are further proof of his ongoing influence over knob-twiddlers and string-tweakers alike. Michael Brook is a Toronto lad who has gone, via his association with Eno, from playing guitar in Martha And The Muffins to becoming one of the world's leading global producers, with albums by Youssou N'Dour, Khaled, U. Srinivas and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to his credit. Brook's latest effort with Khan, the inspired Night Song (Real World/Virgin/ EMI), finds the York University grad in a collaborative role, co-writing all but one of eight tracks with the Pakistani singer and lending his infinite guitar, keyboards and bass throughout. With its funky, trip-hop rhythms and dreamy, passionate vocals, this is ambient Nus' at its best - and the Qawwali star's most accessible album to date.

Night Song's profile was boosted by Khan's presence (with Eddie Vedder, no less) on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack. According to Brook, the timing was quite serendipitous. Our record had been delayed for a year, and everyone was feeling a bit frustrated, Brook explains from his home outside of San Francisco. Then the film came out and Night Song was finally ready. It couldn't have worked out better if we'd planned it.

Brook's approach for Night Song was to record lengthy takes of Khan's ecstatic vocals and then edit them down into songs of five and six minutes. That Eno trademark edit-based compositional technique backfired on the 1990 album, Mustt Mustt, when Brook inadvertently cut-up some of Khan's continuous singing. Recalls Brook, still a bit sheepish at the thought: I've since learned that Qawwali songs are sacred and the lyrics are everything.

When Nusrat heard it, he asked what went wrong. I explained that in our music, we have instrumental breaks. He replied that in his music, lyrics are everything and breaks only happen when someone forgets the words. Oops.

For all his newfound knowledge and respect of Qawwali traditions, Brook remains a boundary-pushing modernist. I'm all for archiving delicate cultural things and trying to preserve them, he says, but art is very much like life. If it stays still, it's dead. I strongly believe that cultures are both resilient and dynamic. And any artist from any culture has to learn and move on. (Nusrat is at Roy Thomson Hall on August 24.)

Go Loopy

A more irreverent Eno-esque approach to global sounds can be found in the work of England's Loop Guru. Variously described as ambient techno and psychedelic tribal dub, Loop Guru belong to the vanguard, with Transglobal Underground and Fundamental, of world-fusion dance music. The band's latest, Amrita, comes to Canada via True North's association with the World Domination label. And a giddy, wondrous release it is, full of droning sitars, dubwise bass, Balinese trance rhythms and vocal samples from the likes of East Indian vocal goddess Lakshmi Shankar. We steal sounds from all over the place, Loop Guru's Salman Gita cheerfully admits over the phone from London. We might find them on the radio or on a tape someone gives us. But then we manipulate them and they become ours.

Certainly, by the time Gita and partner Muud (both Englishmen with adopted exotic names) loop the sounds, add effects and play them backwards, the recordings bear little resemblance to the original material. Ah, the beauty of the sampler, Gita gushes. When we started out a decade ago, we'd line up 10 tape machines and play them like a keyboard. Then, the sampler came along and we thought, 'Wow, this is magic! We can do anything now.'

The cross-cultural process began when Gita, after a stint in the avant-garde punk outfit The Transmitters, got turned on by adventurous albums like George Harrison's Wonderwall. You start looking for the sources of those things, he explains, so for me it was George Harrison, The Burundi Drummers and things like that. Then we got involved in Balinese and Tibetan music and we realized where Stockhausen got half his ideas.

Those eclectic influences and many others are apparent on Amrita, where Gita's and Muud's favorite movies (Apocalypse Now, Yellow Submarine) are listed alongside favorite authors (P.G. Wodehouse, Paul Bowles). When it comes to recordings (Shiv Kumar Sharma's Call Of The Valley, Eno's An Ending, Can's pre-Virgin discography), you just know those are sample sources as well as influences. If we can get people to listen to the source material, then we've done that artist a favor, concludes Gita. And if it's not clear that we've used, say, a Lakshmi Shankar record, then that's cool because it means we've altered it enough to make it our own.

Eno, who once said that music is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent regeneration, would certainly approve.