‘The Light for the Heart’

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The first Arabic music I heard was in its native habitat, while riding on gaudily painted buses through Turkey, Morocco and Syria in the 1960s. Before the drivers thrashed their busted-out transmissions into second gear, they were popping in cassettes of Lebanon-born Fairouz or Egypt’s Oum Khalsoum, the sirens who serenaded the entire Arab world.

The propulsive beat went with the bad roads, wild driving and free-form mix of human and animal passengers. Even the chickens, tied together at the feet, seemed to sway in time. The singing was rich and highly emotive, but what really captured me was the hypnotic pulse of the oud, the Arabic lute. With its short neck and deep body, the ten-to-twelve-string, plucked oud looks like a sawed-off, overweight guitar, but its beginnings–it might have originally been Sumerian, Egyptian, Persian or even Jewish–are shrouded in mystery.

It was certainly Arabs who popularized the oud and placed it front and center in a musical tradition that was, until recently, best appreciated in America as the soundtrack to belly dancing. But its potential for crossover appeal was soon apparent in the West. Like rock, Middle Eastern music–in infinite variations ranging from exuberant Algerian rai (a rough-hewn, boisterous and often-topical street music) and Egyptian shabbi (meaning “people,” an irreverent, rhythmic folk music with working- class origins) to meditative qawwali (the devotional Sufi music of India and Pakistan, exemplified by the late singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan)–had a good beat and you could dance to it. In Arabic, the word tarab means state of ecstasy or enchantment, and it’s what the best musicians try to capture. Small wonder, then, that LP copies of Port Said: Exotic Rhythms of the Middle East Captured in High Fidelity, Music on the Desert Road and The Seventh Veil brightened the otherwise drab scenery in many a 1950s suburban rec room.

A decade later, John Berberian, an accomplished Armenian oud player from New York, helped penetrate the consciousness of the Woodstock generation with Middle Eastern Rock, a 1969 fusion album that included studio pro Joe Beck on amplified yamaha acoustic guitar and fuzz. But Berberian was thirty years ahead of his time.

Peter Gabriel’s World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) tours, launched in 1982, also helped make Arabic music “cool” in the West, particularly by presenting young artists like the London-based Transglobal Underground, which mixes dance beats, tape loops and samples into a world music stew. Also helping the crossover and performing on WOMAD was the onetime Top of the Pops performer Natacha Atlas, a self-described “human Gaza strip” of a singer and belly dancer who is half English, half Sephardic Jew and was raised in a Moroccan community in Brussels.

It is, arguably, sad that Arabic music has to be adulterated with pop influences to be palatable to Western audiences, but the artists themselves–many of whom live in France or the United States–are enthusiastic participants. Khaled, the Algerian rai singer who is among the most popular Arabic performers in the United States, rocks it up with production help from British progressive rocker Steve Hillage. Cheb Mami, another rai star, goes into the studio with producer Nile Rodgers to record “Le Rai C’est Chic.”

Aside from Peter Gabriel, the rocker with the biggest influence in promoting Arabic music has been Sting, who was introduced to rai by his manager, Miles Copeland. In 2000, Sting recorded the song “Desert Rose” as a duet with Cheb Mami, and toured with him. The song, which even made it into a Jaguar commercial, was a huge hit, and the collaborations continued. That’s Sting singing backup on “Le Rai C’est Chic,” and the rocker’s endorsement is stickered on many a current Arabic music album.


Just a few months ago, there was considerable optimism that Arabic music would “cross over” in a big way, like Latin pop, country, cajun or any number of other styles. As producer and kanun player Ara Topouzian points out, movie soundtracks–from The Crow and Dead Man Walking to Gladiator–use the duduk, an Armenian wooden flute, for a taste of the exotic, and pop stars from Gloria Estefan to the Colombian singer Shakira give Joe Zeytoonian a call when they want some oud on their records.

But then September 11 happened.

Dawn Elder, vice president of Miles Copeland’s label, Ark 21/Mondo Melodia, was in Egypt, on her way to the airport with eighteen musicians “about to embark on an almost sold-out ten-city US tour with Khaled and Hakim, who’s known as the Sheik of Egyptian shabbi,” she says. “It was stunning, surreal. Obviously, the tour had to be canceled.” Simon Shaheen, who lives in Brooklyn and is one of the world’s foremost oud players, troubled over going on with a September 22 performance at the Chicago World Music Festival. In his case, the show went on, to standing ovations; but Shaheen, born in Galilee and educated in Jerusalem, says many of the musicians he has worked with regularly have had trouble getting visas since September. “This horrible event has nothing to do with Arabic music or musicians,” he says. The Taliban, of course, banned all music, even though Shaheen points out that the Koran calls music “the light for the heart.”

Shaheen, who was nominated for no less than eleven first-ballot Grammies for his album Blue Flame, went on Politically Incorrect to, as he puts it, “talk about American foreign policy. I think the United States needs to put pressure on the repressive Arab regimes it supports. These countries have to let the people breathe and express themselves.”

Many Middle Eastern musicians are Armenian or Lebanese Christians, or non-Arab Turkish Muslims, or even Greek. The problem, of course, is that Americans have trouble telling Arabs from Sikhs, so they’re unlikely to appreciate fine political distinctions of the type Shaheen makes. Arabic music can sound like an ecstatic expression of deep humanism or it can be perceived as the soundtrack to terrorism. Fears of the latter led to cancellation of many bookings at the club level. Live Arab music almost disappeared from New York. (Sadly enough, the club scene in Dearborn and Detroit, home to the largest Arab population outside the Middle East, died out long before September.) According to deejay Addis Pace, some New York clubs that had featured Arabic dance music simply stopped spinning it after the World Trade Center attacks.

Moroccan oud player Brahim Fribgane now lives in Arizona, but as of September he was part of Boston’s tight-knit Arab music community. A regular with Hassan Hakmoun’s ensemble who has toured with Peter Gabriel and recorded with Morphine, Fribgane was numbed by the attacks. “For the first few days, I couldn’t play at all,” he says. “I had to break through this idea that I couldn’t play music because I’m an Arab. But on September 14, I had a gig in Boston with Atlas Soul, a UN-type of North African funk band with a Jewish-French sax player, a German drummer and an American bass player, and I found I could perform again.” Fribgane is a regular at Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs, and loathes the idea that Arab music could in any way be associated with hate or terrorism. He hopes that it can be seen as a healing force instead. “Music is about love and peace, right?” he says.

That view is common among Middle Eastern musicians and producers. Dawn Elder calls September 11 “a setback, a step backward” for Arabic music, particularly after there had been an August 11 cover story in Billboard (“Arabic Music Moves West”) and big spreads in the Los Angeles Times and Rhythm. “We were waylaid. But this awful time has also reinspired me to spread the word about this music,” she says. “It’s not just about having a good time or a great cultural experience. It’s truly a much-needed healing force.”

Oud player Shaheen expresses the hope that Americans will want to learn more about Middle Eastern culture “because of this event that happened.” Shaheen is himself an educator, lecturing regularly about the music at colleges and workshops. He is also the founder of the Arab American Arts Institute, which organizes an annual Arabic Music Retreat at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Kay Campbell, banker by day and oud player by night, helps administer the retreat, which brings together amateur and professional musicians from around the world. Campbell says she could sense “a door opening” before September 11, that “people from all over were getting into the groove of Arab music. The attacks were, obviously, devastating to the progress we were making. There is seething and justifiable anger. But this is also an opportunity to educate people about this culture that has fabulous music, great food, wonderful poetry and true joie de vivre.”

Reports of the death of Arabic music in America would be premature, however, despite the sense of setback. Deejay Addis Pace, who doubles as the head world-music buyer at a major New York record chain, says, “This has been a very robust year for Arab music, and we were very worried about a backlash after the attacks. But it hasn’t happened. Sales have maintained. Four of our top five world-music sellers right now have a connection to the Middle East. I guess people want to understand that part of the world.”


Fabian Alsultany, manager of the Moroccan gnawa virtuoso Hassan Hakmoun, says the the cross-pollination among world performers has opened arms wide to Arabic music. Alsultany is himself half Iraqi and half Cuban, so crossing over between cultures is natural to him. Alsultany also deejays in New York, and he says people are still asking for Natacha Atlas and such unique fusions as MoMo, an electronic band from Morocco, and Badawi, Israeli desert music with a reggae dub overlay.

The crossover music is so strong, and so popular, that it threatens to swamp the modest movement that is attempting to preserve traditional Arabic performers. The Egyptian classical composer Mohamed Abd el-Wahaab, who died in 1991, viewed the western pop influences in shabbi and rai as a distressing development. “The new wave singers have damaged the music scene with their songs,” he said. “In Europe, they are not attempting to replace the ‘old with the new,’ or classical with modern, as is happening now in Egypt.”

But purity is hard to find in any musical tradition. Perhaps surprisingly, John Berberian, despite his having given birth to the first Middle Eastern fusion album, is frequently cited by traditionalists as the oud player with the truest sense of kef, or Armenian soul. Berberian, now living in Massachusetts after many years in New York and New Jersey, is still doing what he has always done, playing ethnic club dates, performing at Armenian and Greek dances, parties, weddings and anniversaries. “I’m still working,” he says. “One club where I play, the Middle East in Cambridge, suspended operation for a couple of weeks. The name above the door was not very attractive for a while. But they’re back in commission.” Most Middle Eastern musicians are hoping that they’ll have a similar experience. A pause to reflect and heal, then back to the seriously peaceful business of making music that is “the light for the heart.”

Jim Motavalli is editor of E/The Environmental Magazine, and author, most recently, of Breaking Gridlock: Moving Toward Transportation That Works, just published by the Sierra Club.

I Like Icon; But I’m getting a little weary of the adjective

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Byline: Joe Queenan

The other day, I decided to see how long I could go without reading the word “iconic.”

Four minutes. After putting on the teakettle, I opened the newspaper and almost immediately read about the “iconic” Oprah Winfrey. Then I read about an “iconic” Cuban bandleader who, like many other people routinely described as “iconic,” was someone I had never heard of. Such people belong to a class of quasi-celebrities best referred to as “niche icons,” as opposed to universally admired “global icons” like David Beckham, who was referenced thusly in an ad for the Breitling Transocean Chronograph Unitime, a watch the size of Uruguay. Finally, I came across an insert announcing a summer sale at Macy’s. It was the “American Icons” sale.

Opening my email, I eyeballed a promo from the Caramoor Music Festival announcing that the “iconic” Emerson String Quartet would soon be appearing at its grounds. An email from Colston Hall in Bristol, England, invited me to come over and see some “iconic performers” in action this fall. Seconds later, while rooting around my refrigerator for orange juice, I moved a Pepsi bottle aside. On the back label were emblazoned the words “Iconic Summer.”

There was a time in this great nation, not terribly long ago, when people who accomplished remarkable things were described as “heroic” or “fabulous” or even “Numero Uno.” Extraordinary musicians were extolled as “legends” whose concerts were “water-shed events.” Gifted writers were referred to as “pioneers” and “sages” and “trailblazers” whose works were “seminal.” Outstanding athletes were described as “titans,” or “giants” or “colossi.”


Not every remarkable person was described in exactly the same way: Words as varied as “amazing” and “superb” and “fantastic” could also be called upon to honor a spectacular chantoozie or automobile. Some people or institutions–Michael Moore, Merle Haggard, Carol Channing, and the American Museum of Natural History, among others–were even singled out as “national treasures.”

But that was before the invasion of the icons. Today, icons totally dominate the conversational landscape. If you open the newspaper you will see an ad for “iconic hotels in iconic places,” featuring “an iconic footbridge.” You will read about someone having his picture taken in “iconic Malcolm X poses.” You will read that the “iconic” rock band Fleetwood Mac will soon be playing at Madison Square Garden, itself an icon of rare iconicity.

Meanwhile, on iconic Broadway, in the very heart of iconic Times Square, iconic sixties band The Rascals took up temporary residence at the iconic Richard Rodgers Theatre. For those of a slightly more Methuselahn frame of mind, the iconic Pete Seeger will be giving a concert in some iconic coffeehouse, playing iconic Woody Guthrie songs. And yes, he will be playing that most iconic of instruments, the five-stringed banjo.

The fault for this tidal wave of knee-jerk, bootlicking, just-add-water hyperbole lies partly with advertising agencies, but mostly with the press. Journalists, born sycophants and copycats, maintain an internal checklist of top-shelf cliches they desperately attempt to shoehorn into their stories, because using industrial-strength banalities makes them feel more like Thomas L. Friedman.

They feel a professional imperative to describe the snail darter as “the poster child for endangered species.” They never get tired of telling readers that “the center cannot hold,” as if that were the only thing William Butler Yeats ever said. They can never resist paying homage to those who “think outside the box.” And at some point, they simply must insert the words “preternatural,” “quintessential,” or “Ouch!” into their otherwise antiseptic articles. Otherwise, they feel like rank amateurs.

Until they receive an official directive from the League of Flatulence’s Central Planning Committee authorizing them to stop using such extinct banalities as “style over substance” or “happy camper,” they will strangle the life out of these steaming balls of piffle. There is no horse too dead for them to beat as long as a lot of other journalists are beating it simultaneously. It is as if the entire profession has been sent out on a search-and-destroy mission, and the target is the English language itself. Write no story that does not bristle with empty phrases, hollow sentiments, shopworn bromides, and time-honored cliches. And at all costs, make sure you get the word “icon” in there somewhere.

Journalists use the word “iconic” to describe everything. They use to it to describe magazines (Sports Illustrated, Time, Spy). They use it to describe golf courses (Pebble Beach, Augusta National, St. Andrews). They use it to describe TV shows (Tonight), hosts of TV shows (Jay Leno, Johnny Carson), and characters in TV shows (Don Draper in Mad Men). Left unchecked, they will even use it to describe Betty White. They use it to describe singers, movie stars, quarterbacks, personal computers, automobiles, pieces of legislation, gardens, even sandwiches. And when they themselves are not using it, they quote somebody else using it.

“I always saw her as kind of iconic,” a woman says of her friend Kylie Minogue, the very definition of that non-iconic entertainer, the niche icon. What kind of food can one expect to be served in the new restaurant that perches high atop Freedom Tower (aka One World Trade Center) in Lower Manhattan? “Iconic fare,” says the guy who will be running the place.

According to Webster’s, the word “iconic” means “an object of uncritical devotion.” It is a word that can reasonably be used to describe people like Winston Churchill, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Charlemagne, bands like Duke Ellington’s and Led Zeppelin, and, stretched to its very limit, objects like the iPod or the Gibson Les Paul or the AK-47.


It cannot be used to describe synthetic fabrics, secondary characters in cable TV programs, piquant beverages, dated hairstyles, or Weezer. There is no such thing as an iconic ocean, an iconic dessert, or an iconic search engine. Iconic fruits do not exist on this planet. Nor do iconic cordials. There is no conceivable set of circumstances in which the words “iconic” and “Lionel Richie” can be joined. The English language has strict rules about this.

It is often said that before things get better, they must get worse. Well, things are getting worse. Set loose among the pugnaciously brainless, the word “iconic” has wandered so far from its etymological moorings that it is now being used to describe, literally, anything: gelato, toys, headgear, pajamas. Small, down-at-the-heels New York municipalities.

Yes, not long ago, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the reopening of the Paramount Theater in Peekskill, New York, Mayor Mary Foster actually said, “This is iconic Peekskill.”

Iconic Peekskill.

This stuff has got to stop.

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of One for the Books.

Back in the groove: Alberta’s jazz festivals are in full swing again, amidst resounding support from their communities

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The phoenix is rising from the ashes of two once long-standing jazz festivals in western Canada, and organizers of the new Edmonton and Calgary events vow they won’t get burnt again.

Their lineups of world-renowned musicians are a little trimmer than in the past, but still artistically powerful. Once again, Edmonton and Calgary are on Canada’s jazz festivals circuit, meaning better access to top international acts. From June 18 to July 2, such jazz luminaries as Joshua Redman, Herbie Hancock, Kenny Garrett, Dave Brubeck and Madeleine Peyroux will play stages from Victoria to Winnipeg. And after being courted for more than a decade, Sonny Rollins will at last return to Vancouver’s festival and also debut at Victoria’s.

When Edmonton’s famous Jazz City crashed in 2005, a belly blow was felt across the country by fans of the music, festival organizers, sponsors and volunteers, hosting venues and the musicians themselves. Jazz City was the longest-running international jazz festival in Canada. If Edmonton could fall, who might next?

Answer: Calgary, a year later.

Jazz Festival Calgary announced the news only six weeks before opening night: there would be no festival, due to “funding uncertainties, the timing of notification of ever-decreasing government funding, and unexpected demands from some of our creditors.”


But on both occasions in both cities, the show did go on–albeit a different version than planned–thanks to a grassroots rallying of citizens and performers.

“For 25 years, Jazz City was a significant festival on the global scene, and it came to an abrupt halt,” recalls Kent Sangster, executive director of the new Edmonton International Jazz Festival. Sangster credits the Edmonton Jazz Society (operators of the 50-year-old Yardbird Suite jazz club) as the primary reason a festival was created that year. “In six weeks we put together 60 performances of local and national talent and the Edmonton audience was very receptive to that focus,” he says. International artists Dave Holland and Sheila Jordan agreed to appear on the strength of the Yardbird Suite’s good reputation.

Sangster says that with this year’s changeover to the new Edmonton International Jazz Festival organization “we’re not trying to recreate Jazz City, which became a huge pyramid of international artists with some local acts.” This year’s festival is an inversion of that pyramid with Edmonton and Canadian talent comprising the majority of the shows. But international acts are in demand, evidenced by the early sellout of Madeleine Peyroux’s performance at the gigantic Winspear Centre. “Things look very positive,” Sangster says. “We’re building slowly, with the help of Jazz Festivals Canada. We are truly trying to retain a jazz festival here. If we keep venue sizes realistic and don’t overextend ourselves on the large shows, we’ll be very successful.”


Calgary’s revival mirrors Edmonton’s, although it had been on the brink of collapse before, in 1997. Then Jazz City’s founder and producer, Marc Vasey, took over running the Calgary festival concurrently with Edmonton’s in 1998. To some, it looked like a franchise operation. Local musicians and fans feeling disenfranchised from their own festival responded by forming C-Jazz, the Calgary Jazz Association seven years ago, to help raise the profile of Calgary talent and present a late-summer festival. It was to C-Jazz that performers turned when last June’s international event was cancelled. “The day after the announcement, I got calls from national and international groups that had been booked, asking if we could find a place for them to perform,” says C-Jazz’s Pat Maiani. With Jazz Festivals Canada’s agreement, Maiani placed most of the performers, who didn’t mind the more modest venues. Now, as producer of the new Calgary festival, Maiani says he’s almost overwhelmed by the support from the entire community: “Everybody seems to be pulling for us. We have generous new sponsors and some of the old ones have returned.”

June is ending on a high note for jazz fans in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. From the Vancouver International Jazz Festival that draws more than 500,000 patrons, to the younger Medicine Hat JazzFest that’s been growing steadily for 11 years, an impressive array of talent and styles from across North America and as far away as Denmark and Japan will wow ’em once again. Stay tuned.

Two kinds of “folk”

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In Germany, white people’s romanticized conceptions of North American Aboriginal peoples hold such power that middle-class German citizens attempt, at great expense, to emulate their customs. They attend elaborate “pow-wows,” dress up in ornate, buckskin costumes and learn Aboriginal languages.

The Canadian white man also has his (indeed, her) fantasies, but as face-to-face colonizers of Aboriginal peoples, our fantasies are a little more “multicultural,” a little more complicated: We attend folk festivals.

For many years, the Winnipeg Folk Festival (WFF) campground at Bird’s Hill Park enjoyed among its thousand smaller tents a giant teepee. Whatever its other functions, it provided an attractive place for partying white kids to smoke weed. Ah, back to the garden. If only that garden were really ours.

Cultural appropriation appears in other ungainly manifestations, like white girls wearing (east) Indian bindis–and, as my best friend Krishna is fond of stating, “the keffiyeh is certainly the new ‘short brim’ anarchist cap.” Perhaps most insulting is that these props of white “freedom” are appropriated as easily–and in the same spirit–as South Padre Island-style spring-break accoutrements like breast “pasties.”


Equally disturbing are the more official forms of window dressing, like featuring a few Aboriginal musicians, despite a near total lack of Aboriginal festival-goers. While this year’s festival did feature an Aboriginal host (one out of four), representation among musicians was worse than usual; out of 74 main acts profiled in the program, only superb Metis singer-songwriter Ted Longbottom might qualify as an “Aboriginal act.” Indeed, Aboriginal people from the Russian Republic of Tuva enjoyed equal representation to Aboriginal people from Canada: one act each.

All in all, a rather poor performance for a festival located in Winnipeg, the “Aboriginal Capital of Canada.”

For a white fella like me–born, raised and living on stolen land, a regular festival-goer for so many years–these issues involve much questioning. And indeed–embarrassingly–white navel-gazing.

Well, whaddya gonna do? From where I sit, it seems that maybe white and Aboriginal people see “folk” in different ways. On the white side, a multicultural shopping excursion, with endless opportunities to spend lots of dollars on overpriced treats. Not that Aboriginal people don’t spend their dollars on music festivals–check out any countrymusic festival and you’ll see lots of Aboriginal folks. Perhaps they attend such events cause they’re just plain fun (duh!), unlike supposedly “multicultural” events organized by white people where they are consistently made to feel like one of the event’s many cultural consumables.


Back in the nineties, I attended the North Country Fair, a small folk festival near Joussard, Alberta. Besides the white hippies who moved to Joussard back in the sixties, and besides the mostly white folks who made the four-hour drive from Edmonton or beyond, many of the attendees were members of four nearby First Nations and Indian Bands. That festival somehow seemed to have something for everyone. The music wasn’t “multicultural”–it was mostly local, whether that meant Aboriginal or otherwise. Yet, the experience was somehow appreciably more culturally diverse than that offered by Winnipeg’s festival. I’m not saying that festival didn’t have its own problems, but probably someone from the WFF should take a closer look at the North Country Fair.

Let’s end with this: Multiculturalism is a white-derived federal policy–so, maybe that’s why, perhaps paradoxically, “multicultural” events become white events by default.

The end of love and a famous voice: with his heart and his vocal chords shredded, Ian Tyson bares his soul on a brave new CD

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Ian Tyson is on the phone, and his voice sounds as ragged as a tumbleweed rattling over a dusty plain. It’s 8 a.m. in High River, Alta., and a fierce gale is whipping across Tyson’s ranch. “The wind is blowing like there’s no tomorrow,” he says. “It’s going to be a hundred clicks today. You gotta tie things down. When I first came here they had these asphalt shingles on the barns, and when a storm took them off you’d see what looked like a huge, immeasurable flock of vultures in the sky.” Tyson, the cowboy poet reaching for an early morning metaphor, knows a thing or two about wind. His classic ballad, Four Strong Winds–recorded with Ian & Sylvia and adopted by Neil Young–was voted the best Canadian song of all time by CBC Radio three years ago.

But one of the most beautiful voices ever to sing of women and horses and heartbreak is now broken. Its smooth, clear depths are drained and its timbre is cracked like a dry riverbed. The damage was done two years ago at the Havelock Jamboree, a country music festival in Ontario. “The sound was set up for Nashville rock ‘n’ roll, all heavy bass,” Tyson explains. “I stupidly tried to outmuscle the sound with my voice, which I’d gotten away with all those years. When I got offstage, I knew I’d done something strange and terrible. Then it was too late.” His voice partially recovered, but last year he caught a nasty virus on a flight from Denver and it hasn’t been the same since. “There’s a lot of scarring down there,” he says.


That, however, didn’t stop Tyson from recording a new album with what was left of his vocal cords. Last week, the singer-songwriter, who turned 75 this year, released Yellowhead to Yellowstone and Other Love Songs, his 14th album. Most of the songs are sad ballads–made even sadder by a voice that’s painfully torn and frayed. The difference in Tyson’s singing is so radical that it amounts to a whole new style: and his Edmonton-based label, Stony Plains Records, is promoting his “dramatically ‘new’ voice” as a selling point. It’s a half-talking delivery that sounds not unlike Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. “I didn’t realize I was doing it,” says Tyson, “but when I listened to the album, I heard a lot of Knopfler. And he’s a huge influence, especially on the songwriting.”

Though the bass has dropped out of Tyson’s voice, he has discovered some strange new frontiers in the upper shallows that give it a sense of fragility. “The bottom end is gone completely,” he says, “but the top end seems to be lengthening. There’s all sorts of funny avenues you can take in the upper register. I don’t know what’s going on.”

Tyson says he was reluctant to record at first. But Alberta country singer Corb Lund, a close friend, urged him to forge ahead, saying, “I like your voice better the way it is now.” Lund connected him with his Nashville producer, Harry Stinson, who has worked with everyone from George Jones to Steve Earle. Tyson laid down most of the album’s tracks in Nashville in just four days, for a fraction of what he’d spent in Toronto on his previous record, Songs From the Gravel Road, which bombed. This album is attracting a lot of curiosity and some favourable reviews.


Most of the songs are tender laments for a lost love or a vanished frontier. Some verge on the maudlin, but Tyson is not content to sit back in the saddle of country and western cliche-who else would rhyme “some damn bureaucrat” with “abrogate a cowboy hat”? The title tune, Yellowhead to Yellowstone, is sung from the viewpoint of a pack of wolves transplanted from the Canadian Rockies to Wyoming–the kind of epic narrative Gordon Lightfoot used to write. And My Cherry Coloured Rose, about Don Cherry mourning his wife, was sent to him on a homemade CD by Toronto songwriter Jay Aymar.

The breakup ballads on the new album were inspired by “a deep, serious love affair that went south,” says Tyson. “It’s been a tough couple of years.” But he’s not referring to his divorce from his second wife, which finally came through last spring. “The divorce songs were on the previous album.”

Living alone on his ranch, Tyson still works on a horse most days. And next month he’s off to Oklahoma to ride in a major cutting horse championship. He will continue to tour with the “new” voice, and inevitably there are requests for Four Strong Winds. “I don’t like doing it all the time,” he says. “I wrote that thing in 20 minutes and I was just a kid. It’s like someone else wrote it.” Now it will sound like someone else is singing it.