Exotic Songs, Wry Jokes From 3 Mustaphas 3

MUSIC: INTERVIEW

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THEY claim to come from a village called Szegerely, between the Balkans and the Caucasus, but it isn't in my atlas. They say they were smuggled across the border in refrigerators, finally ending up in London. They call themselves 3Mustaphas3 - a group of brothers all named Mustapha. But actually they're a bunch of wild Brits who play an exotic brand of ``world-music'' on instruments as varied as the bagpipe, the bouzouki, and the Hawaiian guitar.

The group has just completed a US tour coinciding with the release of their third album here, ``Heart of Uncle,'' on the Ryodisc label. It follows ``Mustaphas Play Stereo'' (recorded in a swimming pool, because they liked the acoustics), and ``Shopping,'' which spawned the group's first US tour.

But the 3Mustaphas3 are more than mere shtick. They have learned not only to play a variety of international styles but to play them well. Stylistically, the music ranges from gypsy rhythms to Latin merengues and distinctly Middle Eastern sounds - all enhanced by the vocals of Lavra Mustapha, who sings in French, Spanish, Hindi, Swahili, Greek, and Macedonian.

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I spoke with Hijaz Mustapha, who plays mostly stringed instruments, by phone from London before the tour began. When I asked where the group had learned its hybrid brand of music, Hijaz answered in a British accent tinged with something unidentifiable:

``Ooh, difficult question. We learned the oral tradition of music - when you hear some music and you learn to play it, and if you like it it's very nice. That's about it. We learned from family, and family record players, family tradition, things like that.''

When I tried to pin down where the group really comes from, our conversation went like this:

Hijaz: ``As to the geography of the thing, that's another story.''

Me: ``I've heard that it's a myth.''

Hijaz: ``Yes, they do say that. There's no smoke without fire.''

Me: ``So where do you come from?''

Hijaz: ``We come from somewhere extremely smokey.''

But when it comes to talking about the success of their music, Hijaz opens up:

``I think it's because we put something of ourselves in each thing. You see, we don't just imitate. Imitation is the first stage, when you learn to understand the technicalities of the music. But after a certain point, ... you just play it the way you feel it, because that's how people in the different countries do it - they play it as they feel it.''

Their wry brand of humor comes out more in live performances than on record (though their translation of the Hindu movie song ``Awara Hoon,'' from their new album, was amusing: ``I am a rogue. See the film.'').

In their appearance here at the Lone Star Roadhouse, the 3Mustaphas3 passed out red fezzes to their fans, who managed to find places to dance among the closely spaced tables.

The audience for 3Mustaphas3 encompasses people from all over the globe, and their attempt at melding global styles has been well received. The consensus seemed to be that there's no other band quite like this one.

``We're playing many shows where we have Greek people, Romanians, Turkish people, people from East Africa...,'' says Hijaz. ``They like it, and they like the way we treat it. They're happy that we are even making an attempt at doing it.

``We understand your great folklore singer Frank Sinatra, who says I do it my way,'' he adds.

``I take that to heart. He says, `Regrets I had a few, like when I ate the bathroom curtains.' ... I can't remember what he said ..., but I do it my way. ... When he eats his curtains he eats them his way, and when we eat our curtains we eat them our way.''

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