THE 3 MUSTAPHAS 3 are the Residents of non-Western popular music, right? After all, both groups (1) hide behind costumes, (2) make musical hash of orthodox song forms, and (3) seem loathe to reveal their identities. And by the way, have you ever seen both bands together in the same room?
But where the Residents fabricate ugly-beautiful theatrics for disaffected art nerds with peculiar facial hair, the Mustaphas do odd and zestful things with some of the world’s greatest party music. The down-home pop sounds of India, Albania, Tex-Mexico, Mali, Okinawa, Spain, Bulgaria, and Arabia all become grist for the blithe musical stew ladled out on Soup of the Century.
According to Mustaphic legend, the group was smuggled out of the East European fiefdom of Szegerely in refrigerators; hence their onstage shout of “Take it to the fridge!” At the heart of the Mustaphas’ sound are snaking Bulgarian melodies pitched forward on a danceable polka-style beat, with or without vocals sung in the Albanian, Turkish, or Serbo-Croatian languages. On Soup, the Mustaphas then garnish this basic salad with dub-worthy bass and drums, jazz saxophone, or a Chinese guitar solo (as on ‘Zohar No. 2’). More adventurous combinations include a country and western ode to a noodle cook, in Japanese (‘Soba Song’); a Tex-Mex conjunto groove topped with an Indian filmi vocal sung in Hindi (‘This City Is Very Exciting!’); and a Polish mazurka interrupted by thumping disco riffs (‘Ti Citron’).
Although perhaps not quite so musically ambitious as the group’s Local Music (which features “L’Orchestra Bam de Grand Mustapha International and Party”), Soup carries the least-consciously kitschy kick of any Mustaphas disc yet. Lovingly detailed underneath the old-world melodies, its quirky breaks and phrasings (not to mention the heart-plucking sentimentality of singer Lavra Tima Daviz M.’s madre) make it perfectly clear that parody’s the last thing on the band’s collective open global mind.
Rumor has it that at least one of the Mustaphas is closely associated with England’s GlobeStyle Records, the West’s savviest purveyor of (relatively) exotic music. But where the GlobeStylers usually provide detailed background information for the music they release, the Mustaphas are blissfully afloat in the context of no context. Like good old-fashioned surrealism, none of this stuff actually means anything in the greater pop waveband. And couldn’t your ears use a good vacation from that can of Spaghetti-Os?
© Richard Gehr, Spin, January 1991