Bengt Berger: Bitter Funeral Beer (ECM 1179)

Bengt Berger
Bitter Funeral Beer

Bengt Berger ko-gyil (Lo Birifor funeral xylophone)
Don Cherry pocket trumpet
Jörgen Adolfsson violin, sopranino, soprano and alto saxophones
Tord Bengtsson violin, electric guitar
Anita Livstrand voice, bells, axatse (rattle)
Recorded January 1981 at Decibel Studios, Stockholm
Engineer: Thomas Gabrielsson
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Bengt Berger

Swedish percussionist Bengt Berger’s deep interest in Ghanaian folk music and Don Cherry’s wayfaring trumpet inform every moment of this stunning record, one of a handful in ECM’s back catalogue to be digitally unearthed, not unlike the site on the cover. In contrast to many likeminded projects since, which seek to augment the “indigenous” with the “ingenious,” in the dregs of Berger’s we encounter something all too rare in the world music market: unforced sincerity. Take, for instance, the song that forms the Kundalini spine of the title track. The eclectic listener will recognize it as the sampled hook in “Hypnoculture” by Tears for Fears frontman Roland Orzabal. While in the latter it adds a touch of the “exotic” where really it isn’t needed (to Orzabal’s credit, the song is, like all on the solo album on which it appears, a sketch of ideas and not meant to be taken as a definitive statement on anything), here it thrives in an utterly organic assemblage. The addition of thumb piano and rooted drumming heighten the sense of immediacy that pervades the album, and not even the reeds of Jörgen Adolfsson feel out of place. The ululations of vocalist Anita Livstrand hit the psyche like the paroxysms of Mary Margaret O’Hara in Morrissey’s “November Spawned a Monster.” The acutely percussive “Blekete” is a walkabout into a land that is as corporeal as it is immaterial. Cherry is the brightest ember in the hearth that is “Chetu,” which continues the trance. The Fela Kuti-like drive of “Tongsi” beckons us with open arms before leaving us in the care of “Darafo.” This funereal dance begins with more pronounced instrumentalism, presenting us not with a mystery to be untangled, but rather a clear set of variables to be re-tangled into the mystery from which they came. The infectious soloing tightens into a record scratch of ecstasy, leaving only the ever-present beat to navigate the inevitable fade.

As with the work of CODONA, Bitter Funeral Beer epitomizes ECM’s pioneering approach to the world music idiom. Integration is the keyword here, collectivity its modus operandi. Each voice is well-fermented, so that one always gets the feeling of listening to a field recording and not a piece of studio trickery. This is music that accepts us as we are and allows us the opposite of escapism: a pure awareness of the cavernous self that defines the open channels of our communities.

One of ECM’s absolute finest and a window into the label’s evolution toward a sound-world without borders. As bitter as this beer is, one sip is all you’ll need to convince yourself that the cup must be drained.


Alternate cover?