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3 Mustaphas 3 Goes 'Forward in All Directions' : Pop music: Everything the mysterious London group plays relates to the wild and wacky sounds of Balkan wedding bands.

January 23, 1991|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you're going to the Palomino on Friday, leave your Stetson at home and grab your fez. The country-music haven is hosting an evening of countries music. Few acts play music from as many cultures as 3 Mustaphas 3--and they often play several at the same time.

Among the selections on the London-based group's latest album, which bears the melting-pot title "Soup of the Century," is one in which Hindi lyrics are set against spicy Tex-Mex norteno music, and another that is a Japanese-American ode to the soba noodle.

For 3 Mustaphas 3--which also plays Thursday at the Belly Up in Solano Beach on its first visit to the western United States--the country-music club is just another stop on a continuing musical adventure.

"It's always good for Mustaphas to encourage local music," said Hijaz Mustapha, speaking on a pay phone near Columbus, Ohio, with the deadpan tone that has earned the group the reputation as the Marx Brothers of world music. "I've heard some music of country and Western--both types. It could go far, I suppose. Some of it is very simple and has direct emotional appeal which I think could be popular."

The line was actually only half in jest. Using the motto "forward in all directions!," the Mustaphas have followed the philosophy that all music is local music somewhere. To that end, it has employed dozens of traditional and modern instruments--and perhaps as many languages--to create its own hybrids and variations of a cornucopia of mostly ethnic musics.

Whatever styles the group may play, its roots--musically speaking--are in the Balkans, and everything more or less relates to the wild and wacky sounds of Balkan wedding bands.

As for the group's real roots, the story is kept hazy. "Mustaphas answer all questions with all answers, sometimes answers that don't match the questions," Mustapha said of inquiries about origins and identities.

It probably goes without saying that the name Hijaz Mustapha is a pseudonym--as are the names of the five other members, all of whom use the last name Mustapha. The group claims to be a family from the town of Szegerely ("It's in Europe" is all Hijaz would say). There, the official story goes, it was the house band at the local nitery the Crazy Loquat before being smuggled to the West in a refrigerator.

Among the few concrete facts that Hijaz would provide were that some Mustaphas live in London, others in Berlin, and that the group debuted in a London pub in 1982. Hijaz, who admits to being 37, seems to be English, though when his accent was noted, he quipped without pause, "Thank you. I'm really working on it. English is an important language. It gave us advertising and phone directories."

The Mustaphas' myth and mirth have been advanced alongside the musical stew through several EPs and three albums on the exploration-minded British label Globestyle (the two latest albums were released in the United States by Ryko).

"It's all part of the same thing--what they call in Europe the Mustapha gestalt," Hijaz said. "You can't have the serious without the humor. To Mustapha, the pleasure is contrast."

At times, though, the fables and foibles have threatened to obscure the legitimate musical accomplishment, especially in press coverage that often deals more with uncovering the true identities than with the music. "It's a journalistic quest," he said. "It's what they learn in college: Think there's always one target at the end of the story. But some stories don't have an ending."

And, he said, it's the same for the group's musical quests: "We don't like to leave stones unturned. We are generally interested in different kinds of music. When you put one thing next to another you get a third thing. It's kind of a Frankenstein effect in a charming way. . . . We are the tip of the sound-berg. When people think we are the end of the story of different music, we're the beginning, really."

Meanwhile, the Mustaphas are preparing for their West Coast debut.

" 'Howdy pardner,' " Hijaz said tentatively. "We'll work on that. We like to be spontaneous, so we'll plan to include that spontaneously in our show."

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