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Akira Satake: Cooler Heads Prevail

Banjo is a much worldlier instrument than stereotypes would give it credit for: to begin with, its roots are in Africa, not Appalachia. BŽla Fleck has done a lot to broaden the music world’s banjo-consciousness. He met with particular success on his fine collaboration with V.M. Bhatt on Waterlily Acoustics, drawing on commonalities of East and West aesthetics. The album works better than some of Fleck’s own, more plugged-in records with his group, the Flecktones. A Flecktones-ish quality inevitably pervades Japanese banjoist Akira Satake’s album Cooler Heads Prevail (Alula 1003; 51:08), which is actively engaged in a culture-mashing, genre-expanding mission.

At times, Satake uses the timbre and quick envelope of the banjo to emulate indigenous Japanese instruments like the koto, as on “Basho,” which also slips into a soft-core reggae pulse. “A Taste of Loomi” veers towards middle-east tonalities and odd metrical grooves and “All Else Pales” is a simple tune exoticized by the presence of world-attuned players Steve Gorn on bamboo flute and Glen Velez on assorted percussion implements. The diversity sometimes veers off into absurdity, as on “Mr. Fulla Bullets,” as David Phelps’ mean-toned electric guitar bullies its way into the mix, just before a snippet of David Gildin’s kora riffing. Suddenly, the listener may sense cultural vertigo: what area code are we in, anyway? The album alternates between confusion and pleasant disorientation.

Originally Published