START A NEW decade, and everybody starts wondering what the hot new musical trend of the '90s is going to be. Judging by the way previous trends have gotten started, it's probably something that's around already on the fringes of popular culture. Chances are it's something that seems entirely too weird right now.
Judging by what keeps finding its way onto this reviewer's sound system since the decade began a few weeks ago, that trend might be one of the more powerful undercurrents of the late '80s -- ethnic-flavored international pop music.
A prime example is the new album by Israeli singing star Ofra Haza, Desert Wind (Sire 25976 Warner Bros.), her second release for the American label. A beguiling mixture of the exotic and the electronic, it transcends boundaries.
Haza first caught attention in Europe and America in 1987 with a collection of ancient Yemenite Jewish folk songs, snippets from which were inserted extensively into dance hits such as "Pump Up the Volume" and "Seven Minutes of Madness."
On her 1988 debut on Sire, "Shaday," her ethnic background took second place to dance-floor considerations, which led some to dismiss her as a Middle Eastern disco queen and others to dub her the "Israeli Gloria Estefan."
"Desert Wind" brings Haza's heritage back into balance with the big electronic beat. Sung half in Hebrew, half in English, it's as foreign and enticing as her folk record, yet eminently modern and danceable, thanks to the high-tech production of Arif Marden and Thomas Dolby.
"Ya Ba Ye," the first single, balances all these factors -- a melody that echoes of minarets, a bilingual message that bridges the old world and the new, plus some highly propulsive electronic rhythm. Add to that Haza's marvelous voice, crisp, full and wonderfully agile.
All the way through, it's an album that satisfies on several levels. It can be played for fun, used as provocative background music or savored for deeper meaning (via Haza's written commentaries). This could be a breakthrough album in more ways than one.
Providing the second half of international ethnic's one-two punch on the sound system is the second American release by the Gipsy Kings, Mosaique (Elektra 60892).
The Kings created a sensation with their self-titled 1988 debut, in which they enthusiastically blended old songs from their gypsy heritage and their homeland in Southern France with robust vocals in their native Gitanne tongue and the massed power of half a dozen flamenco-style guitars.
The good news about their latest album is that it brings back everything people loved on the first album, right down to the inclusion of another Gipsified version of a familiar pop song halfway through. Last time it was "My Way." This time it's "Volare."
The bad news is, despite a Moorish number that sounds like something Ofra Haza might do and a couple introspective ballads, "Mosaique" doesn't seem particularly different from its predecessor. All things considered, this isn't much of a drawback. And for a burst of Mediterranean brightness, it can't be beaten.
A more familiar variety of ethnic international pop is South African music, which was what fueled "world beat" into prominence in the '80s. Adopting South African sounds has become a badge of sophistication among the musically adventurous.
The gimmicky British techno-pop outfit Art of Noise can certainly be included in that category. And sure enough, their latest album, Below the Waste (China/PolyGram 839-404), spotlights the guest appearance by one of South Africa's most celebrated units, Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens.
Though the Africans become another ingredient in Art of Noise's recipe for sonic trickery, they're a high-quality addition to what turns out to be a pleasantly fractured mix. Otherwise, aside from the sharp definition from track to track, there's little in the way of sonic shock effects here. Can it be that they've run out of frontiers?
At the moment, ethnic international pop isn't represented among the list of leading avant-garde rock albums compiled by the music trade magazine Radio & Records. The dominant forces there are much the same as they've been throughout the '80s -- gloomy, Gothic-flavored and British.
Most promising among them is Peter Murphy, who helped originate this style as a member of Bauhaus, one of the most influential post-punk bands. While his Bauhaus bandmates turned flashy in Love and Rockets, Murphy has stuck closer to the original concept.
His new album, Deep (Beggars Banquet/RCA 9877-1-R), is haunting and powerful. Poised to be the biggest record on college radio this winter, it should go a long way toward making him as celebrated as his old collaborators are.
As Murphy intones images alternately sensuous and sinister, he's driven by echoey drums, keening synthesizers and deep, twangy guitars. The single, "The Line Between the Devil's Teeth," is chillingly evocative. So is the shimmery "Marlene Dietrich's Favorite Poem." Unlike other arty Gothic rockers, Murphy manages to make his mordant moods uplifting.
Representing still another undercurrent in pop music these days is a 24-year-old British singer-songwriter with the borrowed name of John Wesley Harding. He debuts with an album called Here Comes the Groom (Sire 26087 Warner Bros.).
As Brits go, Harding sounds uncannily American. Not only has he adopted the name of the American outlaw celebrated by Bob Dylan, he's also steeped in American films and music. In his college days at Cambridge, he was singing the songs of John Prine, Steve Goodman, Phil Ochs, Loudon Wainwright and John Hiatt. Furthermore, he doesn't have an appreciable English accent.
For all that, the person he most resembles musically is another Englishman with an assumed name -- Elvis Costello. He has Costello's late '70s pop energy, Costello's witty wordplay and even a couple members of Costello's old band, the Attractions.
The difference is that he manages to be much more pleasant than Costello. He's not as angry and moralistic. His lyrics aren't dense or defiant. And his references are all-American -- the Everly Brothers in "Cathy's New Clown," the end of the wild West in "Spaced Cowgirl," the Kennedy assassination in "The Devil in Me." A guy this listener-friendly should go far.