Boheme de Cristal
Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Wednesday, March 27 2002, 08:31 AM
Lo 'Jo is the sort of performance group thrown up and supported by culture budgets in western Europe, which create and maintain local arts at a level and manner unimaginable in the United States. The culture budgets of some European cities would put the entire NEH budget in America to shame. Under the terms of a strict capitalist regimen for the arts, artists must be able either to generate a commercial income, accept the hobbling of corporate and foundation grants, or else live in obscurity on limited incomes. Lo 'Jo is a welcome example of the non-conforming musical life that can exist where local and national government budgets support a circuit of artists and performers.
Having established itself twenty years ago in the French provincial town of Angers, Lo 'Jo lives and works as a collective, and has seen an estimated 300-plus musicians and artists pass through it. In 1987 Lo 'Jo (a name to conjure with, since there is no meaning) joined forces with the Jo Bithume Company, a street theatre ensemble, and toured Europe for the next four years developing their inimitable potpourri style. For awhile Lo 'Jo had its own theater group, and they have worked as a film collective as well. Most of the group's members live in a large communal house in Angers, sharing their income equally. Some have musical training, but most do not: autodidacticism is a large part of their group culture. Lo 'Jo has performed extensively over the years in major venues in North America, Australia, Africa and Asia, but lives for street festivals. All reports say that they are even better in live WOMAD performances than on an album, but for me this must remain secondary report for present. There are few groups like this one that do street festivals together with dates at Lincoln Center and Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Despite their heavy touring schedule, Lo 'Jo can be hard a hard act to catch. In its nomadism and collectivism, Lo 'Jo has found cultural allies in Africa. Last month, besides appearances in New York, the group was the lead act of the second Festival in the Desert, in the Sahara desert about 1200 kilometers east of Bamako, Mali's capital. This festival is held in coordination with the Takubelt, the ancient annual gathering of the Toureg people. French fans could travel to the festival, round trip for eight days (including two days in all-terrain vehicles getting to the concert site), for about $800 all inclusive. Some tracks for Boheme de Cristal were recorded in Mali, and Lo 'Jo has been involved with African music for many years.
This album has the same musical virtues as Lo 'Jo's last album, 1997's Mojo Radio (re-issued last year by World Village), but a more coherent structure. The superb opening song, "Brule la Meche" ("Burn the Wick"), represents Lo 'Jo swinging at their best. Dennis Pean, a group founder and its lead singer, delivers lyrics that linger between surreal and mystic, calling on a global geography. Nadia and Yamina Nid El Mourid -- from a Moroccan Berber family that settled in Angers -- are Lo 'Jo's ethereal back-up singers whose voices make them sound like Ofra Haza's separated sisters. Instrumentation constantly changes though the album, but usually features a European harmonium or accordion weaving melodic lines together with African instruments like the darbouka, djembe n'goni and kora. Nico Gallard, on drums and keyboards, and Nico Kham Meslien, the bassist, are also Angers natives. Group co-founder Richard Bourreau's violin -- one of the best I have heard since Joe Venuti disappeared from the world -- either takes a wild lead on songs like "Brule la Meche" or fades back to bind together these instrumental combinations. British producer-performer Justin Adams, who has a solo career, joins in some of the songs on this album.
Lo 'Jo's reliance on experience over training seems to lead them into distinctive invention. The group truly works as an ensemble, clearly comfortable with each other's instrumental phrasings. Lo 'Jo's sound is an enticing melange, a sinuous aural poetry with smooth instrumentation. At its best, there is an inimitable quality that simultaneously suggests dance and dream visions. Fusion music too often suffers from with saccharine shtick, like snake music pumped through synthesizers, or produces little more than neo-colonial experimental failures for public display. Lo 'Jo remains mercifully distant from either direction. Their new label,World Village, calls Lo 'Jo's work "neo French-African chansons" and that is an apt description.
Linguistic interweaving between Tuareg and French runs through songs like "Baji Larabat" and "Jah Kas", and "Bambritcho" is done in Krayol. Single-language songs are hard to find on a Lo 'Jo album. Pean, however, is capable of turning out a small gem like "Mon Amour" in the chanson tradition, accompanying himself on the piano. Throughout Lo 'Jo's recent work there is a strong sense of linguistic flexibility and interplay, the comfort of discovered cultural compatibilities.
Although Lo 'Jo has had an enthusiastic reception in Europe for years, they have remained relatively unknown in the United States. Until World Village re-issued Boheme de Cristaland Mojo Radio, these albums were available only as imports for knowledgeable fans. European cultural work, mirroring its political unification process, seems in many ways to be advancing while US culture is in retreat, producing an endless series of new war films. In the most recent edition of Bad Subjects, Slavoj Zizek repeats his call for a radical Eurocentrism that employs the continent's cultural advantages while de-stabilizing and renewing Europe as a subject. Lo 'Jo is an example of just what might be gained by looking towards Europe as a hybridizing and democratic culture, churning and reworking the leftovers of imperialism.
Boheme de Cristal is available from World Music Village