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Strange Cargo 

Brazzaville on Danger Island

Wednesday, May 31 2000
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David Brown’s 2002 dance card is already filled up. The Brazzaville leader and Beck sax man will be busy doing what he‘s done for several years -- touring the world. But he won’t be “on the road,” per se, because there‘ll be no rubber to burn. What Brown’s planning is the slowest-moving world tour ever: heading east from New York City on an old steamer filled with a rotating band of musicians and artists that‘ll play port cities around the globe. The boat would serve not only as a floating venue but also as a rehearsal space and lodging.

Speaking from Japan, where he’s touring with Beck, Brown says he‘s in the process of writing a business plan for the (ad)venture and has met with prospective investors. “Most people that I’ve spoken to about it are really into the idea,” he says. “The venues are boring. Sheds are ugly. Wouldn‘t you rather drive down to San Pedro and get on some beautiful, weird old ship and see some of your favorite bands play? It’s better for the artist, because as soon as you‘re done playing, essentially you’re home. You just walk up to wherever your room is on the ship, steam off to the next gig.”

Brown‘s unusual world-view extends to his music. His band, started in early 1998, is named after the capital of the former French Congo, which is not among the hottest tourist destinations on the planet. Its debut album, Brazzaville 2002 (Engine Group), is a dark and moody travelogue of places real and imagined. The seven-piece outfit, which includes guitarist Smokey Hormel and fellow Beck brassman David Ralicke, creates a musty noir Tropicalia with mysterious rhythms and shadings, like a humid back-alley cafe in some faraway land where the ceiling fan moves too slowly, perspiration drips down the walls, and one false move can be your last.

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The places and people in Brazzaville’s music are all familiar to the vagabond Brown, be it Bangkok, Shanghai, Dakar or Rio. “My grandmother was a poet, and she sparked a curiosity in me about people and their stories,” says Brown, a Koreatown native. “Whenever I go anywhere, I‘m a lot more interested in the people than I am in the buildings. Usually, if you just hang out in a cafe or a restaurant every day, you’ll end up meeting somebody, and they‘ll introduce you to somebody else. People’s lives are great stories, no matter where you go.”

Sometimes these characters find their way into Brown‘s dreams, such as the Queen of the South Seas, a mythical goddess who lives south of Java. In “Shioda” she is a source of hope, while on “Shams” her scorn provokes a sailor’s suicide. “It was probably the most moving dream I‘ve ever had,” he says. “She a manifested herself as a Brazilian prostitute. The most intense part of the dream was when she spoke -- her voice completely overwhelmed me. It was a voice that I recognized from God knows when, and it had comforted me for lifetimes, but I had forgotten that it existed.

”I had never heard of this goddess when I had the dream. It wasn’t until later that I put the two together. When I was in Indonesia, I heard people talking about this goddess, and they take her really seriously. There were hotel fires where the only room that was spared was the room that was dedicated to her. There‘s all kinds of intense mythology surrounding her, and I just knew when I heard of her that that was the being in my dream.“

The album’s South American vibe (Brown sings in both English and Portuguese) can be traced to an obsession with Tropicalia godfather Jorge Ben. ”I think he‘s brilliant,“ Brown says. ”His songs are pretty simple, but are just loaded with that thing at the core of all great art.“ In fact, it was Brown who introduced Beck to the music with a Ben tape after a trip to Brazil. Thus were begotten Beck’s ”Tropicalia“ and ”Deadweight.“

Although Brown promises the next Brazzaville record will include more localized character studies -- including a song about a North Hollywood hooker who once cavorted with European bohos -- he prefers to keep his eyes peeled to the distance.

”One of the things that attract me to those areas is the humanity that‘s allowed to exist there,“ he says. ”You go to the Far East and you see a lot of things that are covered up in the West, things that aren’t always pleasant, but they‘re just a part of the human condition. You might see a dead body next to the road. There are all kinds of smells in the air, the smell of smoke, the smell of crops burning. It makes me feel alive and human.“

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