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A Lagoon and Two Rivers

DON'T DRINK THE WATER. THAT'S WHAT THEY TELL travelers everywhere. Also, don't immerse yourself in it. Or eat anything that's been washed in it. The water, see, wants revenge.

For now, though, you can still look at it. And listen to it.

***

Listen to: Water music

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Not drinking the water (and, nose in vintage tequila, not missing it), I'm sitting with my wife and kid in a dim Cancún tourist restaurant. The walls are "bamboo." The ceiling is "thatched." Several "sensual" life-size glass nude sculptures glow electrical pastel. At the next table, flambés light the faces of lurking sybarites.

A young man plays guitar in a corner. At first I don't notice him, which is good. Then I do, which is better. He plays lightly, plucking out the kinds of classical- and folk-informed melodies that flow naturally from a guitar if you let it follow its design. But he has his own tricks. He scratches on the wound strings for a percussive effect, executes perfectly timed flutter-picking, ends a passage with a thrilling dissonance. There's an unexpected change in every song.

A waiter explains that the guitarist, Javier Rojas, is also a composer, which is why we're not suffering "Cielito Lindo" again. Between sets, Rojas -- uncontrollable hair, shy smile -- edges over with CDs. I buy his first one, Bruma, and he endorses it.

Weeks later, listening to it back in L.A., I hear more and more depth in Rojas' music. Its rhythms are like water slapping against the side of a boat. A song for his grandmother is pure family love -- no caricature, no twist, as straight as everyone's afraid to be. The complex composition Rojas played for my family, "Monserrate de Bogotá," pleads with a heart-wrenching despair. "Rumba Flamenca" moves from gentle passion to the edge of anger. A tune named after Cancún's main hotel drag rings with forced three-day-two-night gaiety, and ends with an artfully ambiguous chord. I slowly realize that this background ghost is good enough to stand with any established name.

Rojas looks about young enough to have been born in the early '70s, when Cancún was being transformed from a quiet fishing town to an MTV frat-boy pissoir. The CD shows pictures of him by the sea; its title means "fog." His family probably lived a typical village existence before the miles of big hotels jammed the seaward side of Nichupte Lagoon.

Today, everybody in Cancún works the tourist trade. I hope the local restaurants aren't getting their seafood from the lagoon, where pollution has reached toxic levels. Nichupte's state-protected crocodiles snub live fish in favor of the scraps tossed by waterside diners, or nibble trysting snorkelers. Javier Rojas, who might have been a fisherman or a regionally known wedding minstrel, plays original music for people who will never see him again. Once in a while, they listen.

HAMZA EL DIN HAS ALSO BEEN FORCED TO ADAPT. In 1964, while he was in the USA acquainting us with the Nubian music of northern Sudan, his native village of Toshka was submerged under the backup from the newly constructed Aswan High Dam on the Nile (which also rendered the last of the region's crocodiles extinct). Since then he has recorded periodically, and performed with the Grateful Dead and the Kronos Quartet, among others; lacking a home to which he might return, he has moved a lot, and currently resides near another large body of water, San Francisco Bay.

Having learned that agricultural and industrial developers would "rebuild" the lost Toshka as a modern city, Hamza responded with his latest CD, A Wish. And his slant may not be exactly what you would expect.

Most of the music reflects the solo-based mode of oud playing and singing that Hamza El Din developed as a soapbox to warn his townsmen of the impending flood; in Toshka, only communal chants, handclaps and drums were indigenous. The oud is a stringed instrument, and while Hamza's scales and flatted tones are different from Rojas' melodic structures, there are also similarities: the liquid rhythms, the patterns played against an open string, the sudden rapid flourishes. The spontaneous spin of Hamza's all-instrumental tracks has a special universality -- you can see what attracted Jerry Garcia. The Nubian is also a versatile singer: Hear his horny schoolboy crush ("She is desired by all the world, not by me alone," the translation goes) on "Griffin 2," or his cooing nuptial balladry on "Anesigu."

When you get to the final "The Wish," though, something very unusual presents itself. In addition to his own oud, tar (frame drum) and voice, Hamza has integrated two friends from the West -- pianist W.A. Mathieu and Kronos cellist Joan Jeanrenaud -- along with the lyrics of an Eastern friend, Mohi El Din Sherif, who wrote them years ago, not long before he died. The result is like nothing you've ever heard, simultaneously sad and whimsical, with a simple ensemble sound that seems beamed in from some unlooked-for electronic future. The verses do not mourn the loss of an ancient culture, but insist, "We will be prosperous and peaceful in this new-built country." And check this from Hamza's notes: "For me, if truth be told, it doesn't matter that the new settlements will not be solely Nubian, because the old land, the land of my ancestors, is being reborn."

Reborn: not the people, the town or the culture, but the land -- Shell stations, McDonald's and all. Coming from one who has spent his life shepherding evanescent tradition, this humble acceptance -- or visionary transcendence, or pure optimism -- is nearly incredible. To say the least, it makes you think.

ETHNOLOGIST XAVIER BELLENGER'S wonderful three-CD set, Ganga: The Music of the Ganges, does not dwell on the subject river's defilement. Juxtaposing local musics and environmental sounds, it omits the slosh of mostly untreated sewage (a billion liters daily); the limitless splash of oily sludge, organochlorine pesticides and leather-treating chemicals; and the gentle crunch emitted by the flesh-eating turtles that have been released into the stream to gnaw the numerous half-burned corpses of Hindu devotees.

Despite the sacred river's filth, the people (and a dwindling crocodile population) drink its water, immerse themselves in it, and live. Not in good health, maybe, but they live. And make music. Ganga is an audio journey from the Himalayas to the Gulf of Bengal, during which we hear chants, drums, bells and songs, sounds of rowing and of laundry slapping the water, all steeped in thousands of years of human ritual. And in between, nature echoes with rain, ripples, cascades, and the varied languages of frogs, birds and crickets.

It's a rich experience, with only one element absent: the toxicity. In my own home, I completed the picture with the help of my five-disc CD changer, a mechanical intelligence that has always shown great acuity in "randomly" selecting compatible sequences of material. In addition to the three Ganga discs, I loaded two of my favorite industrial techno records, both from 1995, the year after Ganga won the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Leonardo da Vinci grant for India (the set hasn't been widely available till now). I picked Cubanate's Antimatter for its caustic stomp and titles such as "Body Burn" and "Kill or Cure"; Download's Furnace not only contains extreme concentrations of artificial noise pollution, but also sports a cover that superimposes belching smokestacks over a pristine mountain lake.

I hit random play, and the results exceeded expectations. Download's synthesized thunder erupted immediately on the heels of Ganga's monsoon thunder. Indian percussion was followed seamlessly by similar Cubanate beats. Maidens chanting in preparation for an orgy with Lord Krishna were succeeded by a bitter Download chant. And significantly, the CD player singled out Download's "Mother Sonne," whose drowned lyrics read in part, "My womb aches for you my dead river child, or is it that you are dying?"

My Sony seems to feel that the destinies of nature, man and robot are intertwined: As hurricane and dysentery attack man, man/machine poison river, and machine supplants man, the planet evolves into something new, synthetic and maybe durable -- certainly different from what we know.

I'm not sure I go along with that; I still tend to resist the machine and team up with the river. My electrodevice, I think, favors its own.

JAVIER ROJAS | Bruma (no label)

HAMZA EL DIN | A Wish (Sounds True)

VARIOUS ARTISTS, ANIMALS AND FORCES OF NATURE Ganga: The Music of the Ganges (Virgin Classics)


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