Yes, “Deutschland” is Germany. No, none of that country’s Black Forest could be mistaken for “tropical.” This double-LP compilation of releases from 1982 to 1990 – thoughtfully curated by Jan Schulte, resident DJ at Salon des Amateurs in Düsseldorf – features German-made music that evokes sunnier climes and foreign cultures. Eurocentric ideas of “tropicality” have historically encompassed two ill-founded ideas: the lush green vegetation redolent of earthly paradise; and the supposedly tribal peoples and primitive cultures that call those places home. On each of the 13 tracks that comprise Tropical Drums of Deutschland those two ideas are mixed together in varying proportions, presenting a number of complementary perspectives on the rough conceptual approach that the album’s title and cover both playfully suggest – musicians from a single country in a region of the world that is itself in another way foreign, playing music that approximates what they imagine it sounds like to be tropical.
Although Schulte’s comp is readily available in digital formats, the vinyl version underscores the fact that this is more than a playlist assembled from similar selections. Each one of the LP’s four sides works as a suite unto itself, presenting slightly different takes on the album’s overall concept. The first of those four suites appropriately begins with “Klang Fängt An” (roughly, “sound starts”), a dreamy, atmospheric track from Om Buschman, whose 1988 album Total provides three selections for Tropical Drums.
All four of the tracks in this first set include similar elements, like the natural sounds of birds, insects, frogs and water. Drum circles appear and re-appear: one is joined by marimba; for another it’s kalimba; bowl gongs and chimes for a third. Talking drums abound, in one track replaced by the debatably tropical sounds of the tabla. And the flute solo in Argile’s “Tagtraum Eines Elefanten” (“Daydream of an Elephant”) is more pastoral or sylvan than strictly tropical, but like much of the rest of the tracks in this section, it signals musical tropes commonly connected to the natural world.
That tabla breakdown actually winds up the last track in this first suite: Rüdiger Oppermann’s Harp Attack with “Troubadix in Afrika.” (Is that a reference to the enduringly popular French comic Astérix le Gaulois, also a favorite in Germany?) Oppermann’s inexplicable Celtic harp keeps pace with the tabla and also bridges the gap to Side B, which begins with the second of two selections from the group Argile, “Kleine Rosa Wolke” (“Small Pink Cloud”). It’s a dreamily meditative selection, and another one with a flute solo. But instead of harp it opts for hammered dulcimer, which is not just instrumentally but tonally reminiscent of new age luminary Laraaji. The rest of this side rounds out a mixed bag of music, including “Sounouh” and “Prima Kalimba,” the former, a broad stab at traditional African vocal music and the latter, a laidback polyrhythmic trap-set workout accompanied by electric piano with nary a kalimba in earshot.
Once again, the last track on Side B segues nicely to what comes next on Side C, which is almost exclusively focused on relaxed polyrhythmic drumming sessions. Each track in this mini-collection mixes its grooves with another element: radio noise and static on Trimopen’s “Wagagroove”; Casio tones befitting “Axel F” on Ralf Nowy’s “Akili Mali” and so on. The album’s final side is filled out with a pair of more dance-friendly remixes by the album’s curator, who releases his own music under the name Wolf Müller.
Notably, and curiously, “Boat Song, Pt. 2” is an album standout. It comes from the only non-German performers on the album – New York jazz drummers Bob Moses and Billy Martin (later of Medeski, Martin & Wood). The duo released their album Drumming Birds on the German label ITM in 1987. “Boat Song” mixes a bevy of drums and percussion with low, guttural chanting that sounds like it could be looped from a field recording. In an album full of cultural approximation and interpretation, this is one of the few tracks that comes off sounding… well, authentic.
Still, it’s worth wondering if that sense of authenticity is specific to this listener, born from another strain of cultural bias. Trying to express what is or isn’t “German” (or “American”) is reductive in much the same way as trying to express what is or isn’t “tropical.” But any concept of German-ness refers to a single country, whereas notions of tropicality encompass a much larger geographic region that includes several disparate areas of the globe as well as the countless individual national and ethnic cultures represented therein. Tropical Drums of Deutschland presents notions of one (factually non-existent) culture filtered through the members of another that is very different and very specific.
In any case, “culture” is a thing enacted or performed, and all performances skew toward opinion rather than fact. What does it really mean to say that one is more “authentic” or more “convincing” than another? It can be interesting to think about. But, in this case at least, it’s also risky. The risk is that accusations of cultural appropriation or insensitivity might detract from simply enjoying an album that is fun and altogether not very serious. It’s not the Jungle Cruise at Disneyworld, but it also can’t pass for the real thing. All in all, it’s an album intended for vibing out, not meant to ruffle any feathers – tropical or otherwise.