(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 19, Number 5, 2000)
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)
Desi Arnaz was a television genius. Fifty years down the road, the antics of the Ricardos and the Mertzes may smell musty until you consider that Arnaz had mastered the sitcom formula well ahead of everyone else. He was the innovator of three-camera simultaneous shooting, still the standard method of filming sitcoms with a minimum of takes. And try naming another Latino who came as far as he did in an era of limited opportunities for minorities, including starring in his own television show-over the objections of network execs who wanted an Anglo hubbie for Ms. Ball. But best of all, Mr. Arnaz helped bring Cuban music to the masses.
Along with Trio Matamoros, Beny Moré, Perez Prado, and other heavyweights, RCA Victor/BMG includes Desi in its new Cuban Originals series, and his inclusion is justified. To argue that Arnaz mainstreamed Cuban music to the point of steamrolling it misses the point. Raymond Scott and Arthur Schwartz, who composed some of the songs on Desi Arnaz, were hardly sons of Havana.* But Desi's stated goal was "to combine the Latin rhythms of Machito with the lushness of Kostelanetz," which meant grounding his arrangements in recognizable forms while tossing in the exotica which the public gobbled up. Another strategy was flirting with novelty song elements, such as the silly voices on "Carnival in Rio" or the fake tribalism of "Babalu," the only genuinely campy piece in this collection. Nearly every song steps up and shakes the listener's hand demanding to be noticed, from the likable rogue introduced by Amanda Lane on Desi's signature song "Cuban Pete," to the orchestral quickstep of "El Cumbanchero," or the wordplay of the Latin calypso "You Can in Yucatan."
Though no blazing soloists nudge the focus away from Desi, he apparently knew mere charm had its limits. Just as he played second banana to Lucy on the tv series, as bandleader he supports arrangements in which he's so strategically used, I want more Desi rather than less. Thus, his appealing but reedy vocals get scant attention compared to the orchestration. And the arrangements can be tepid. Compare his pastoral version of "Peanut Vendor" to Pérez Prado's volcanic trumpet-breathing mambo or even his "Babalu" with Casino de la Playa's (both featured on Baile Tropical, below). Despite its occasional blandness, there's no mistaking Desi's music for anything but Cuban, and you can't argue with his success. Between 1949 and 1949, the time period covered on this disc, Arnaz recorded 43 sides for RCA Victor, broadcast radio shows twice a week, and starred in three films with his band. While I got my first taste of Cuban big band music via first-run episodes of I Love Lucy-that's how wizened I am, gentle readers-I had no idea that Arnaz found great fame prior to his television days. This anthology gives Desi his due.
[*For more about Desi Arnaz, see a helpful comment from Arturo Gómez.]
Another Cuban Original's release, Baile Tropical (RCA Victor/BMG), delivers 16 tracks of '50s-era Cuban dance music from the big names of the day. On board are Beny Moré, Pérez Prado, Orquesta Aragón, Belisario López, Conjunto Casino, and others. Even in lights of today's nostalgia Cubana revitalizing the Afro Cuban Allstars, Ibrahim Ferrer, et al, a few cuts sound hopelessly dated, like Enrique Jorrin y su Orquesta's syrupy "Chango." This isn't necessarily a bad thing, since it's always a kick noting how foreign pop, from rumbas to Hawaiian slack-key, bend and sway with American fashion. The best performances easily blast through the cobwebs, starting with Moré's chugging "Francisco Guayabal" complete with husky-voice lead singer, Conjunto Casino's "Yo Soy Guajiro" with an out-there piano soloist in the Rubén Gonzáles mold, and an explosive timbale breakout from the usually staid Orquesta Aragon on "Sabrosona." Prado's day-glo mambos are sufficiently entertaining to warrant three songs from his band, but Xiomara Alfaro tops the play-it-again sweepstakes on "Amor de Verano," which kicks into overdrive when the octave-spanning diva lets loose with yearning that curdles the soul. Need more? The same label's Nights in Havana anthology keeps the ballroom hopping with 15 additional selections from the same time period.
Trio Matamoros is truly the Cuban Big Bang, a one-band origin of the modern Latin pop music universe. Trio Matamoros (RCA Victor/BMG) collects several of the group's pieces from the '20s and '30s along with a few later songs when the ensemble outgrew the original threesome. Like most of the Cuban Originals discs, in place of liner notes the jacket card unhelpfully supplies mug shots of other releases in the series, so this isn't the place to go for scholarship. It certainly is the place for gorgeous harmonies as Miguel Matamoros, Siro Rodriguez, and Rafael Cueto update the older European bolero style by bearing down on the rhythm and adding melodic texture to the vocals.
"Alma de Roca" begins with Cueto's glowing acoustic guitar textures that most musicians these days could only match with a bevy of electronic boxes, close-knit vocals that set the pattern for Congolese-style singing decades later, and background scratchiness that tells me this remarkable performance was pulled from an old 78 rpm record. "El Que Siembre Su Maiz" lulls with gentle, mooing voices, but soon the calves sprout wings and with a fluttering call-and-response scatter feathers in the arc of the rising sun. And when the other son reached its ascent, the Trio switched to mambos with Beny Moré among the microphone talent. Songs from this period have harder percussion, honking horns, and piano key cascades, but the vast appeal remains. Sink into the earliest compositions and consider the later songs a bonus. Trio Matamoros didn't disband until 1969, and if any ensemble deserves a big boxed set, it's these amazing innovators.
Mention New York-based salsa music to anybody over 40, and the names Eddie Palmieri and Willie Colon probably leap to mind. But neither of these maestros of what is popularly regarded as an urban offshoot of Cuban big band music hails from Cuba. Both men are of Puerto Rican heritage, hence the Putumayo label's anthology Puerto Rico teeters on the cusp of revelation. Willie couldn't make it on board due to licensing snafus, nor could fellow legends Yomo Toro or El Gran Combo. But New York-born Palmieri leads off the disc with his crowd pleaser "Café," a song that locks itself so deeply in the salsa groove you couldn't extract it with a pair of vice-grips. His excursive piano solo is one of many pleasures of a release that easily passes the adhesive test. Play it just a couple of times, and songs stick in your head with the persistence of epoxy. I dare you to listen to the catchy trumpet lines on Juan Melendez's "Caramelo," including a quote from "Perfidia," before hailing the train to Nod. You'll be up all night.
If there's a minus here, it's the clip-clop donkey trot rhythm shared by most of the songs. And considering the wealth of Puerto Rican material out there, the freshness of the label's recent Republica Dominica bachata sampler is lacking. Still, the folkloric feel of the songs pays off. Atabal's "Musica Morena" sports a bouncy clarinet hook reminiscent of Cape Verdean morna, while trombonist Jimmy Bosch uncorks a monster band on "Pa' Mantener Tradición" flinging incandescent clarinet and piano solos in this low stepping guajira. But the star of this collection is indisputably the 10-string cuatro guitar. Edwin Colón, Ramito, Andre Jiménez, and others wake up the sleepy plena and bomba beats with beautiful solos. Colón's airy break in the middle of "Seis Milonguero," a melodic first cousin to Salvador Adams' "Sublime Ilusion," is a miniature masterpiece. Hotter, jump-up material wouldn't hurt next time around, nor a Puerto Rican equivalent of Cuba's Dan Den to show what a newer generation is up to.
It's no exaggeration saying Jai Uttal is the best in his genre. He's the only one in his genre. He's built his devotional music shtick from the ground up, and his contagious enthusiasm transcends any doubts I have about forbearing hymns to Shiva, Krishna, and others in the Hindu pantheon. In some of his earlier material, rococo English-language lyrics pitched promising songs down the kitsch chute. But Shiva Station (Triloka) shows Uttal mostly sticking with Hindi, Sanskrit, and Bengali, wrapping chants of praise in aggressively bright arrangements courtesy of his big band, The Pagan Love Orchestra.
Borrowing his thrown vocal technique from wandering mystics the Bauls of Bengal, marrying it to an amplified amalgam with no obvious ancestors except maybe the Mahivishnu Orchestra, and punching up the incarnation with horns, distortion guitar solos, acoustic Indian instruments like the gub gubbi, and big thumping bass, Uttal concocts a kind of Yogi klezmer. Emotional intensity is everything, and in the manner of the furious freyleks launched by the Klezmatics, the soul bares itself in endless crescendos as cuts like "Sita Ram" mountain-goat from one peak after another. "Hari Guna Gao" starts with an alap a la classical Indian music, proposes a harmonium over a snappy drumkit and a subcontinent of synthesizers, then floats Jai on the foam of Krishna qawwali. Sure, the guy's no Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. He sings like a white Californian ex-rocker, but whether pushing the interdimensional envelope or laying back in a meditative croon, he wields lifetimes worth of accumulated charisma.
Countless artists from John Coltrane to Mickey Hart's Diga Rhythm Band have been building pontoon bridges between East and West for decades, but none with Uttal's playfulness. The title cut marries a hara-hara chant right off a Bay Area street corner with a convincing reggae rhythm track, and neither vocals nor backing feel grafted on. The organic wholistic chi is the beauty of this stuff, and the fact that the Pagans can start and stop on a rupee or unfurl a roaring trombone when needed nails the performances with the intensity of a freshly scrubbed gaggle of converts. Credit the power of Jai's invention that only on the closing cut "Never Turn Away," the last of three English languages songs, does spirit get in the way of flesh as message supersedes the music. Since I rarely play even my favorite discs to the end, I simply exit Shiva Station before the terminal.
Trilok Gurtu calls his latest African Fantasy (Blue Thumb Records/Verve). It's Indo-European fusion to me. Mitigating the raging raga rock is a guest vocalist roster of Angelique Kidjo, Oumou Sangare, and Zap Mama's Sabine Kabongo, who comes across as a Brasil '66 refugee on "DJ Didgeridoo," a compass-free road trip as wrongheaded as you'd guess. Don't you dare underestimate the power of blazing sitars, voice-of-Zeus basslines, and India-born Gurtu's massive percussive assault on at least three senses, though. His throb is nearly as engaging as Jai Uttal's plus a few hundred decibels louder. Compared to the tabla fury of "Rajasthan," the title cut's use of Kidjo is a detour on a slow freighter, and the usually astounding Sangare on "Big Brother" sounds in need of a hearty meal. The Indian vocalists carry the day along with the Indian-inflected Esmeralda Sciascia. Missed the mark by a continent, I'd say, but not a bad piece of work.
Mindia Devi's Quiessence (Bamboo Moon Musik) is so out of touch with the world, it's irresistible. Songs based on ragas unfurl at their own pace clocking in at 20-minutes each and counting, measured not by computer algorithms nor even the tap of a hand drum-just the slow fluidity of Devi's bansuri flute. The former Mindia Klein enlivened Ancient Future's Natural Rhythms back in 1981, and as Mindia Devi Klein released the lovely Ragini, Fluted Voice of Goddess a few years ago, but the glacial minimalism of Quiessence is as distant from these recordings as the Ort Cloud. Unless you adjust your internal clock, there's little chance of enjoying these solo pieces. Once you cut loose of the chaos of the day and let the songs to soak in, they're a welcome respite. My favorite is "Nightingales' Prayer," adapted from the raga "Asawari," on which three flutes call to one another, separating and mingling but never quite merging. At times she holds a pair of overlapping notes a few semitones apart, creating a warbling harmonic interaction that's the bamboo equivalent of Tuvan throat singing. "Moonlight Embrace" expands her flute and tamboura instrumentation to include a 46-string zither in a particularly luscious infusion of melancholy. I'm not often patient enough to let Devi's nuanced modulations corral my attention, but when I do I find myself immersed in her very human dilations of time. [P.O. Box 394, Kentfield, CA 94914 or via www.ancient.future.com/mindia]
When Värttinä are in their Finno-Urgic incantation mode, the band is, um, spellbinding. I was two-thirds through my second listening to "Kappee" on Ilmitar (Wicklow) before it even dawned on me that the ditty was a capella. Not that the four female lead singers create ersatz instrumentation per Bobby McFerrin. It's that their precision singing comes so rapid fire, you couldn't squeeze in a fiddle note between phonemes. Slow songs in the "Laisko" mold are another matter. The wafer thin individual voices don't carry a tune as much as impale it, and the accordion break blows a breeze recirculated from the Finnish folk pop band's best disc, Kokko. Scariest of all is the lead cut, "Itkin," which taken in tandem with liner note runo tale preface threatens to send Ilmitar down a concept album path to Hades paved with synthesizers and sound montages.
Fortunately, the combo of crazed singers and instrumental dervishes kindles sparks more often than not. "Ajo," with deep male hermit rumblings and snarling rejoinders from the women could have been recorded in a Medieval coven. The cut stands out, because it exposes a level of venom you won't hear elsewhere in popular music. At their best, Värttinä dredge up unadorned bits of the psyche and make these atavistic urges palatable. That's why the whirling songs seem to say so much, while the pastorals float off into the ether. "Rivutar" keeps things percolating with African percussion and wailing violins. But after the high spirited instrumental "Lieto," the disc slips back toward concept music. Between these dry crusts of final and closing cuts lies plenty of protein.
The ghost of Astor Piazolla hovers inches above the heads of the New Tango Orquesta. While there's nothing in the moody pieces gracing Part II (Imogena import) to identify the quintet as Swedish, the Swedes' love of tango is well known. And the project offers the level of instrumental virtuosity spoiled listeners take for granted in Scandinavian releases. The complex songs bristle with pent-up emotion, flirt with discord, and tie themselves in orchestrated knots as tight as J. S. Bach's noose. The material is as far from tango music's back alley origin's as Piazolla's Argentinean birthplace is from Stockholm, and it's a tribute to ensemble leader Per Störby that his compositions are squarely in the master's style. His bandoneon sighs heavily as Peter Gran's electric guitar skitters around the edges to allow him ample room to share with pianist Thomas Gustavsson's chord clusters. Meanwhile, Livet Nord's violin adds just enough sweetness to taunt the pallet. Sure, it isn't party music, though "Mission" intersperses the forced hilarity of many an awkward social encounter, and it feeds the mind if not the feet. [Odinsgatan 20A, 411 03 Göteborg, Sweden, or via www.orquesta.nu]
Hedningarna is nothing if not a moving target, clattering onto the Swedish trad music stage with three big-wattage cds before leaping to the acoustic subtleties of 1999's Karelian Visa. Founding member Anders Norudde moves further away from amplification and closer to medieval sources with his first solo disc, the modestly titled Himself (NorthSide). Wielding ancient Scandi instruments such as the quarter-tone tuned bagpipe, a 1526-variety morsharpa, the hurdy gurdy, the willow flute and a low-tuned fiddle, Norudde knocks the dust off moldering local tunes and his own compositions in the moldering mold-along with a Northern Chinese ditty here called "Blåstrattlåten" that isn't a bit out of place. Groaning strings meet dissonant harmonies in a pretty stark set of plaintive songs that make Swedish tangos seem chipper by comparison, but I love the blast of winter and the grip of isolation that these maddeningly circular songs suggest. And when Norudde goes solo, he really goes solo. Except for occasional guitar and bouzouki from Göran "Freddy" Fredriksson, himself is quite fittingly all by his lonesome.
Electric Voodooland (Loud) by Ex-Centric Sound System requires no work whatsoever on the part of the listener. Just push the "play" button, and it instantly downloads the goods. That means a trippy atmosphere, psychedelic production, infectious vocal snippets, and an endless techno bounce as longtime Israeli session bassist Yossi Fine adds Ghanaian singers and flautists to rhythm tracks plucked from clubland. "Latest" rotates Nana Dadzie's voice across a stuck-needle xylophone groove reminiscent of a bad night in Bali as female choristers reply from Saturn and the drum machine works up a sweat. "Le Le" takes what sounds like a Caribbean song game and elongates it to epic cartoon proportions bombarded by a battery of hand drums and legions of excited neutrinos. "Agbae" is dub gone nuclear with the by-now requisite disembodied vocals searching an undulating alien landscape for a landing site is spite of seismic bass turbulence. Sure, the lovely voice on "Lullaby" sacrifices its natural timbres to the all-consuming signal processor, and repetition trumps variety every time. But why struggle with discs that reveal their secrets slowly and turn new facets toward the light with every listening, when Voodooland hits you where it hurts with a fast no-brainer.
Rita Ribeiro slides through so many musical styles on Pérolas aus Povos (Putumayo), it takes a true fan of her carefree vocalizations to follow. Born and raised on the Brazilian island city São Luis, where reggae is huge, she coaxes a Latin flavor from the old Jamaican standby via a few jazz phrasings and the most relaxed horn charts this side of Al Hirt's grave. Less convincing is the nod to newer fashions. Her urban references may convince a core audience that she's living on the edge, but dancehall and hip hop constituencies will find her too middle-of-the-road to show up on radar. Putting it all into perspective is "Pensar Em Vocé," reminiscent of the worst Beatlesque tendencies of '60s tropicalismo-you can imagine Paul McCartney singing lead-and "Déjà Vu," which reprocesses the above through the Eric Carmen songbook. If you grokked Tony Bennett's disco fling a couple of decades ago, this may be the disc for you.
I haven't read Banning Eyre's new book, but the companion cd In Griot Time-String Music of Mali (Sterns Africa) urges me to do so. Eyre spent seven months studying guitar in Mali and packs the disc with little known performers and oddball performances. Sure, Oumou Sangaré, Ali Farka Touré, Habib Koite, Toumani Diabaté, and Salif Keita tag along. But Eyre front-loads Griot with obscure goodies such as a concert chunk of Lobi Traoré singing bluesy phrases through a spacey phasing device and playing demonic electric guitar into a Peter Frampton voice box. It's a triumph of sheer excess not too far removed from the flat-out passion that characterizes Malian music. Shrill vocal chord energy jousts with greatness on Yayi Kanouté's "Jeliya", even as the Super Rail Band turns out the crunchy horns and Djelimady Tounkara's sleight-of-hand guitar solo on "Silandé." Less frantic but just as flashy is Djelimady Tounkara and Adama Tounkara's acoustic guitar and ngoni lute duet called "Kouyate/Diaoura." Eyre also includes teachers' excerpts from his lesson tapes, and finally, on track 15, we hear the student jamming with members of the Rail Band. With two acoustic guitars blazing away, I can't say I can pick out Eyre. And that's certainly a tribute.
Boubacar "Kar Kar" Traore is one of those legendary African artists whose releases have been few, far between, and tough to find. He disappeared from the public eye for so long, that back in 1988 when he suddenly appeared on Radio Mali, listeners thought the performance had to be a hoax. After all, hadn't Kar Kar been dead for years? Alive and picking in his late sixties, Traore rises once again from obscurity on Maciré (Indigo), his first readily available release in decades. Like fellow Malian Ali Farka Toure, Traore's mastery of the acoustic guitar and blues-inflected vocals brings the music of the Mississippi Delta full circle, though his chiming guitar lines and smoke-tinged voice are as stubbornly smooth as Toure's oeuvre is gritty. "Le Enfants de Pierrette" is a gracefully tribute to his late wife, who died delivering her last child. On the more upbeat celebration of motherhood "Bebe Bo Nadero," rising popster Habib Koite joins in on second guitar. Spanish guitar ripples through the meditative "Courir Un Homme Qui Vous Aime," but Kar Kar can also pull off a jump-up number like the unbridled "Kar Kar Madison" which reclaims a 1960s Malian dance craze. No production gimmicks nor nods to fashion intrude on the integrity of this subtle attention-grabber, which could've been recorded yesterday, could've been recorded 20 years ago.
Rokia Traore transforms traditional Malian music on Wanita (Indigo) by combining harmonic vocal complexity approach with the hushed atmosphere of chamber music. Just when you expect her to bear down at moments of emotional intensity, her voice veers off in a whispery curlicue instead, or she'll use multi-layered singing and hooky refrains to satisfy the western breezes in her head. Instrumentation is close to the old-time arsenal of her country's griot troubadours as she adds acoustic guitar to her ensemble's balafon marimba, ngoni ga four-string guitar, djemba, electric bass, kora from guest artist Toumani Diabate, plus a jazzy electric bass. "Souba," based none too obviously on an Indian raga, shows Traore's willingness to stretch boundaries in unexpected directions, while the title track lingers on lush harmonies seldom heard in African pop. Her vocal acrobatics put her in the same league as Oumou Sangare, shaming the best American vocalists, and she's got almost as many surprise moves as Jackie Chan.
Does Tell Mambo measure up to Fatal Mambo? The new Tinder-label cd comes from Oscar & Co., which split off from Fatal Mambo, and the division shows. Apparently, the child lacks the vital rumba genes of the parent. The music is as well played as previous incarnations, but too much of the spotlight falls on bandleader and lead singer J.F. "Oscar" Hammel at the expense of the essential groove. The French ensemble originally brought unexpected frisson to its salsa concoction, and you didn't need your Berlitz phrasebook to interpret the tongue in cheek. The closest this solidly entertaining but oomph-less songbook gets to crazy is the deft reworking of the Rafael Hernandez chestnut "El Cumbachero." Otherwise, look for the surprises in small touches and resign yourself to a general softening of attitude. Close, but no Cuban cigar.
(Click here for cover art, purchase info, and RealAudio samples of the CDs reviewed in this column.)
[Copyright 2000 Bob Tarte]