Photo by Arnold Newman
PETER GABRIEL IS NOT ONE TO SHY AWAY FROM pondering life's mega-mysteries or coming to terms with the vast cauldron of human emotion and behavior. Birth, death, grief, fear, joy, loss, God and other unseen forces get serious play on his new, 10-years-in-the-making album, Up. The only topical song, "The Barry Williams Show," wickedly satirizes the likes of Jerry Springer and other shock-talk TV programmers; there's no "Biko" or "Don't Give Up" turning headlines and CNN feeds into rock art.
There are also no funky humdingers like "Sledgehammer" or "Steam" to perk up the popsters, though Gabriel's grooveological prowess hasn't wavered, just matured. He's an uncanny dynamicist, a master of morphing the quiet moment into the cacophonous skronk, of sculpting a meticulously programmed superstructure with a softly human caress. Up's textured songs don't leap out of the speakers on the first or second listen, but slowly transport you into the profundity zone while making you realize that this is music for grown-ups.
The 21st-century English country gentleman's all about examining the Big Picture in Up's digitized vignettes. Now a graying father with grown kids (one of whom, Melanie, sings backing vocals in his band) as well as a new wife and toddler boy, Gabriel grapples with how to remain optimistic and open-minded in the face of mayhem, confusion and the ultimate endgame. The image-rich lyrics of "Growing Up" chart life's course, as the many-voiced narrator emerges from the "fleshy purse" of a mother's womb and journeys to the point where "the breathing stops, I don't know when/in transition once again/such a struggle getting through these changes."
WHEN I CHATTED WITH GABRIEL ON THE phone in early November, he was in Mexico City for a couple of concert dates. He had just witnessed some Día de los Muertos events that had him thinking, again, about how people from his cultural upbringing deal with the big D. "We went to a little cemetery, and there were these amazing arrangements of flowers, and people put various items that the dead had loved on the graves. Then, toward 6 o'clock, when the place was about to close, these old ladies came around with armfuls of the flowers they hadn't sold, making sure that every single grave in the cemetery had some flowers on it. They put life into death and maybe death into life in a much healthier way. For our society, death, and getting old to some extent, is unmentionable, in a way that sex might have been to the Victorians."
He confronts and overcomes his fear of the unknown with grim fairy-tale symbolism amid the Sturm und Drang of "Darkness," acknowledging "the monster I was so afraid of/lies curled up on the floor." There's hope, he believes, as "Signal to Noise" reveals: "Yet there's still something in my heart/that can find a way/to make a start/to turn up the signal/wipe out the noise." When the voice of the late Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (of whom Gabriel was an early champion) splices in for the second time, the signal-to-noise ratio spikes, a fleeting clarity found in an outburst of unadulterated humanity.
Gabriel would also like to separate the signal from the noise in the realm of current events. "I think it's really important for America to open its borders at this point," he says. "Obviously, since September 11, it's gone the other way. It's so critical that enough people in England as well as in America ask, Why is it that these young men and women would be willing to lose their lives as well as take a lot of us down, to punch a hole in our way of life? Until that question gets answered, if we just think these are bad, evil people, and we must destroy them, we're not going to get anywhere. Historically, yesterday's terrorist is tomorrow's political leader. Nelson Mandela was a 'terrorist,' and he's probably the man, the politician, I most admire."
Gabriel has long tried to bridge nationalistic and tribal chasms through musical and cultural interchanges, both in his own sonic scavenger hunt and in the creation of Real World Records. "For the children to grow up having musicians from many countries, if they find people that they admire from many countries and many backgrounds, then I think it opens them up," he told me in 1989 shortly after the launch of the world-music label. "There's a responsibility for someone like myself who gets turned on and uses some of the things that turn them on and excite them to firstly acknowledge the sources, and then to help popularize these artists."
ONE WAY THAT GABRIEL HAS promoted lesser-known artists is by bringing them along on the road and performing with them. As on previous tours with Youssou N'Dour in the late 1980s and Papa Wemba in the early 1990s, Gabriel's joined by two of his favorites on the current Growing Up tour the Blind Boys of Alabama (who contribute testifying gospel harmonies on Up tracks "Sky Blue" and "More Than This") and Tanzanian neo-traditionalists Hukwe and Charles Zawose.
He praises the Zawoses for helping him get closer to those unseen mysteries that he's on about these days. "When they get their sort of mesmerizing stuff together, it's like this shimmering sound that does feel like it's a platform or runway or gateway for something spiritual to happen. That's why I love their music, his and Charles' voices."
The Zawoses collaborated with Michael Brook on this year's Assembly, an unlikely though vibrant fusion of electronic trekking, Brook's infinite guitar, mutant Latin horn charts and the Tanzanians' Wagogo folk pluck. "That was easy and fun to do, as it was not difficult to get into the music," the Swahili-speaking Zawose said through an interpreter via e-mail from Tanzania. "Of course, this can go too far, but what I particularly like about Peter and Michael is that they bring the music together but keep separate the character and identity of the two styles and cultures."
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After performing a short opening set, Hukwe says he'll be joining Gabriel and band to play an unreleased song called "Animal Nation." The vision for the new tune goes way beyond intercultural it's an interspecies thing. "One of the things I'm most excited about was playing music with apes," Gabriel says. "I did this at the Language Research Center at Georgia State University [in Atlanta]; I went down there about five times. I was jamming with these bonobos in a way that I had not thought possible.
"They obviously hadn't spent time at the keyboard, but I had asked the main female, called Panbanisha, that I was working with just to play the white notes and to play with one finger." (Panbanisha is a 17-year-old bonobo with the most advanced language comprehension of any ape there; her name means "leave together for the purpose of contrast" in Swahili, according to the center's Web site.)
"She used one finger from both hands and started really feeling out the keyboard and fitting stuff into what I was singing. It was very moving . . . it just felt like jamming with a musician in the sense that there were moments when you knew you had something magical there, and other times it went flat . . . It made me question a lot of things, but it was an inspiration."
Peter Gabriel, with opening acts Hukwe Zawose and the Blind Boys of Alabama, performs at Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim, Tuesday, December 10, and at Staples Center, Wednesday, December 11.