The term "cultural imperialism" is often used, justly, when Western musicians appropriate aspects of third world music for their own, watering it down to listener-friendly levels and giving scant acknowledgement to its original creators. Whereas this sort of approach has been the unfortunate rule, from Paul Simon to David Byrne, every once in a while a glorious exception emerges. Such an exception is Swedish percussionist Bengt Berger's Bitter Funeral Beer band.
Berger, who devoted lengthy periods of study to West African music, particularly that of Ghana, assembled a large contingent of fellow Swedes, trained them in various aspects of West African traditions and, most importantly, chose Ghanaian folk themes with utterly beautiful and irresistible melodic lines from which to improvise. Add the illustrious trumpeter (and like-minded world traveler) Don Cherry to the mix, and you have the makings of a stellar album. In fact, it's the bittersweet, off-center lines of Cherry's trumpet work that go a long way toward keeping the pieces pointed and sharp. The members of Berger's band all double on African percussion very effectively, with the leader concentrating on an African xylophone called the ko-gyil, which appears to utilize gourd resonators containing spider webs, producing an enticingly fuzzy rattle beneath the metallic, hammered tones.
At its best, as on pieces like "Chetu" and "Tongsi," the combination of stunningly gorgeous repeating themes and inspired improvising make one wish the music would never stop. This recording, though little known, is one of the very finest items ever released by ECM. While wonderful in and of itself, it might also serve as a fine introduction to West African music, albeit via a circuitous route through Stockholm.
- Brian Olewnick (All Music Guide)