The percussive notes that begin "Busses from Heaven," the opening track on percussionist , composer, and musical auteur Kip Hanrahan's gorgeous Beautiful Scars are packed with the complexity, emotion, pathos, and raw yet seductive elegance of his sensually charged musical "films." The place might be Havana, but then it again it might be Miami, Algeria, or Bogota. A bassline, a whispering hi-hat cymbal, Latin rhythms on congas and timbales meet a violin, chanted backing vocals, sampled dialogue, and marimbas with acoustic guitars before Brandon Ross begins to sing: "Here in heaven/a bus will take you anywhere British Leyland take us away/Put your hand in mine/my tongue in your mouth again/Here from Leyland will take us today..." It seems it's Havana after all, the home of the imported busses from Great Britain's Leland company, and Fidel's government couldn't be bothered to change the destinations on their fronts. So no matter where you picked one up, or where you were going in those early heady days of the Revolution, your destination might be stated to be Leicester Square, Liverpool, Birmingham, or perhaps Cairo, Beijing, Jerusalem, Athens, or Delhi -- because Leyland exported their busses everywhere. In a nutshell, this is Hanrahan's desiring machine universe. His music comes from the hopes, dreams, rage, and ruins of cultures largely unknown to White America, makes its own detour through vast soundscapes provided by expatriates and refugees who happen to be musicians and poets, and comes out a new world order of the lost, the beautiful, and the beaten who have access to pleasures most of us wouldn't dream of, simply because of their displacement.
Hanrahan hasn't really issued a record under his own name since his brilliant and gorgeously difficult, two-volume A Thousand Nights and a Night sets in 1998 and 1999, respectively (though two records have come out under his American Clave rubric: 2002's Pinero by poet Piri Thomas, and the Ishmael Reed/ Conjure collective's Bad Mouth in 2006). Beautiful Scars was more than worth the wait. His cast, is, as usual, full of all-stars: Steve Swallow, Robby Ameen, Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, Milton Cardona, Fernando Saunders, Ron Blake, Alfredo Triff, Yosvany Terry Cabrera, Dafnis Prieto, Pedro Martinez, Bryan Carrott, and himself of course. His guest vocalists are an amazing, unlikely batch who work together in many ways: Ross, Xiomara Laugart, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Leijia Hanrahan, Lindsay Marcus. Some friends help out in various places: Billy Bang, Anthony Cox, Richie Flores, Mario Rivera, and the great guitarist Leo Nocentelli. The music is, for lack of a better word "Exotic": here, jazz meets many Latin rhythms, meets organic breakbeats and folk musics from all over the world in this heady stew of lyrics born of raw eros, politics, spirituality, and art-poetry. The entire set is wonderful, but "Busses from Heaven," the languid title cut on which we hear Ross' most gorgeous recorded vocal; the slippery, sex groove of "Carvaggio/A Quick Balance," with killer sax work by Blake, he moody tone poetry of "One Summer Afternoon (For Gil Evans)," and the moaning percussion jazz-blues that is "Salt in the Mozambique Night (Glasgow, for Jack Bruce)" are highlights. Hanrahan's records are not so much easy to listen to as they are obsessive, addictive. Once this album is heard in full, nothing can be played after it -- unless it's another record by him. Beautiful Scars is the most elegant, graceful, steamy record Hanrahan's released yet. You'll have to hunt for it, but it is worth whatever you pay for it.