(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 20, Number 5, 2001)


That old rascal Manu Chao is at it again. He really is messin' with my head this time, but I am not complaining about it. Honestly. As I write this at the end of July, his latest release Proxima Estacion Esperanza (Virgin) seems to have somehow been inextricably glued into the Huckermobile stereo over the last three months. I keep pushing the eject button, but the machine just ignores me. I hit the radio buttons and all I get is Manu. Next station I hope? Down here in Barrio Ladbroke Grove this release seems to have also had a serious permanently viscous relationship with the home set-up as well. It has been binge-played so often, it has permeated into every molecule of the home machines and probably has reprogrammed everything for Barcelona time.

But hey hey hey, far from being unhappy, I am most certainly reveling in the experience of letting Manu's nutty aural view of the world take over my brain (well, the bits that still remain working) and get infused into my consciousness. All day, every day I hear parts of Esperanza running around in my head. As they circulate around my cranium, sometimes they manage to break out and infiltrate into other parts of my musical life. I might be listening to something totally different, but suddenly realize that Manu is in there somewhere echoing away in the background, just reminding you he was there.

I tell you it is murder trying to get to sleep. I lie there in bed, wiggling and sniggling, trying to get comfortable, but I keep asking "What about the dancing mad cow and the milk? What does it all mean?" But what I find I really enjoy on this release is that it is like spinning the dial on the radio and coming up with totally random juxtapositions of sound, words and imagery. Which I assume is what exactly he wanted to achieve. Is Proxima Estacion Esperanza a concept album, or something that radio-comedy crazies the Firesign Theater might have cooked up? The answer is actually the former. The jumble of his "found" sounds and snatches of conversations is really a flip, flop an' fly between peoples and cultures, integrated flawlessly with his cut-and-paste pan-Caribbean mix-up. Manu makes it flow seamlessly through the music of quite a few islands and many countries, borrowing a bit here, contributing something there.

What I also appreciate is the fact that all of the ideas in the music are packed into three-minute segments (or less). So listening to this you find there is a constant changing of musical vistas and riddims. The weird thing is that an Italian friend recently sent me a list of the hip listenings for the youth of southern Europe this summer, culled from an Italian populist Web site. The top three included ex-Spicey grills Emma B(unton) and Gerri Halliwell. But encouragingly enough Manu Chao was up in there, duking it out with the Europop blands. There he was powering along, singing songs about how he liked smoking weed and riding his motorbike. Singing songs about what Bob Marley said to him in a dream. Singing a song called "Merry Blues." Singing songs in French, Spanish, Portuguese, English and Arabic, and songs which feature bits of many languages. Singing songs with a lyrical anarchism that bites.

Manu Chao has an individual view about life, it's a laid-back intelligent rush passing through all stations south, east and west and north. This is a man with a vision about what it means to be European these days, and it seems we Europeans love him as well. We appreciate his chop-it-up and paste-it-down musical style. Manu has captured the imagination of large numbers of the children of the Mediterranean basin, and it is not only those youngsters with their terrible clothes sense and body piercings who dig Manu, but the Northern-based middle-aged white geezers like me. If you measure your musical life by who or what dominated your life during certain periods, then this was most certainly Manu's summer.

Puerto Rico's El Gran Combo first gained fame during the late '60s. Since that time they have maintained a position as the leading PR old-school salsa stars, known throughout the world for providing fantastic music and for always putting on a really great tight live show. They are one of those bands, just like Oscar D'Leon's, that have been playing together for so long it seems they can communicate together purely by telepathy. They know exactly what to play and when to play it. What is amazing is that the kernel and major part of the original group remains together as a working band. Alongside founder, director and piano player Rafel Ithier are bass player Wilfredo Rivera and singers Charlie A. Ponte and Jerry Rivas. All the rest of guys in the band equally share a "substantial figure and gray hair."

They have produced an album almost every 18 months, and this year's effort is their best in donkey's years. I had not really bothered much with their recent stuff over the last few years, but this effort has proved over the first half of this year to be a real solid winner on the dance floor. With Nuevo Milenio: El Mismo Sabor (Combo) El Gran Combo have found a new lease on life; they definitely seem to have flipped back to somewhere in the '80s when they were really tough. Perhaps they have seen the way the younger generation of pretty-boy salseros are diluting things down and making all the front pages and spondoolies. So El Gran Combo must have said, "It's time to go back to our roots, we can swing with the best them. So let's do what we do best." The result is an album chock-full of storming grooves, brimming with memorable melodies, sweet boleros and a real warm old-school enthusiasm.

Today in many parts of the Salsa Music Manufacturing Industry there is too much emphasis on the producer and the slickness of the session musicians to create the "canvas" for the artist to perform upon. What is frequently purveyed as sabor or soul is actually fake emotion, but what you get from this release is the real thing. Tight, crisp arrangements from a proper working band with history. Vocals that bounce back and forth between the chorus and the leads, and a seriously organic groove. One of the many greats on this release is "Se Nos Perdio El Amor" and what has cracked out to be the biggie on the floor, "Me Libere," while a requiem for Tito Puente is called "Viva Puente." When a legend like El Gran Combo makes a real stonker like this, I suggest we sit up and take note.

Jose Alberto always has been an interesting vocalist, from way back with his early stuff with Tipica 73. Always a solid seller but not a mega seller, he has suffered the slingshots and arrows of record company bankruptcies and everything else that the Latin biz can throw at him. But you can always depend on him. His newie hearkens back to the classic days of Tipica 73 with fellow member violinist Alfredo de la Fe joining him for the first time in 20 years. Differente (Viva Discos/Universal) has some really interesting stuff on it, like really good melodies that suit his voice, which over the years has acquired a smoky soul fullness. Proceedings open up with a cut called "Ya no Quiero tu Querer," which has a good pace and nice melody. But track two, "Amada Mia," has one of the best melodies on the whole album, as well as Alfredo sawing away on the violin and a killer groove. Next up, "Fatima," is an attempt by Jose to sing in French. Alfredo shines throughout. And at least Jose is trying something different with the music, in fact this release sounds quite experimental at times. Another killer cut is "Quiero Salsa," which is one of those insistent movers with a storming horn break. The musicians are all top-notch including 'bone player Jimmy Bosch and a whole raft of top-quality New York session musicians. Dominican Republic superstar vocalist Chuco Valoy pops up to duet with Jose on "El Lunar." So all in all a real solid release from Jose.

Well, I am always very happy to see the full Baaba Maal-Dande Lenol road show when it wheels into town. With the big live show that is the meat and potatoes of Maal you always get the whole full-on experience: The dancers, the greatest hits, selections from the latest album, all the theatricals that create a truly entertaining show. The result is that you always go away feeling good. But then that's the talent of Baaba. In London to promote Mi Yeewnii (Missing You) (Palm Pictures), he put on the usual rousing compelling show. However, the question for the record company always seems to have been is, how exactly do you promote an all-round genius like Baaba to actually sell music? For example the crossover stuff like "African Woman" and "Sidiki" were very popular, but that crossover stuff does not sell records. And it costs a fortune to press up and send out those 12" singles to all those dingbat djs and dilettante media pundits. Roots seems to be the answer.

The story of the Bhundu Boys and how and when they appeared on the world's consciousness is certainly a compressed version of the early history of that unfortunately ill-named, illegitimate offspring called "world music." These days thank goodness we can be a bit mature and look at music in a more open-minded and relaxed way. Do I like it, or do I not like it? What does it mean to me? How does this music fit into my life and way that I want to run my life? So, for those reading this who were only born 10 years ago, in 1986 the Bhundu Boys came from Zimbabwe to play a gig in Scotland organized by fan Gordon Muir and musician Doug Veitch. They had heard a Zimbabwean cassette by the boys and thought it would be a good idea to put them on. They played everywhere throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern and Southern Ireland. They worked hard and made a name for themselves, performing in diverse venues from working-men's clubs right through to dingy basements, to second-billing with Madonna at Wembley Stadium.

If you were a Zimbabwe music fan and thought Thomas Mapfumo or Jonah Moyo and Devera Ngwena, the Four Brothers or John Chibudara were more interesting musically, then what you thought did not matter, the fact was that the boys were here and were making a lot of noise and kicking up dust. They garnered serious big-ups from the fragrant perfumed garden of BBC Radio 1's John Peel. But the bubble burst: Their recordings made here in England were described by Radio Wunnerful dj Andy Kershaw, previously a fervent fan, as "not roots enough." By 1993 the tempus had fugited, and both public opinion and the band had had moved on. Main man Biggie Tembo had left the band, and the Grim Reaper did his dirty deeds. Biggie committed suicide, bass player David Mankaba and keyboardist Shakie Kangwena died from AIDS.

What Mr. Kershaw was talking about were the original Zimbabwe recordings. Gordon, the gallant fan who brought them over and looked after them in health and in sickness, has now put out these recordings on his own label, Sadza. The double cd is called The Shed Sessions because that was the name of the eight-track studio where they were done. Listening to it now you can hear why they got lots of people excited. Rough, raw and unsophisticated, the guitars chime and jive with other, the bass pumps and the drums trap along. "Ziva Kwawakaba," with its story of keeping true to your roots and with the sound effects of a lorry/bus passing on the road, was always one of my faves with a nice melody and groove. The Bhundu Boys' history did not extend very far on the time line, but they made their own very definite mark on it. And please buy this cd because Gordon bought them their instruments and he needs to get back something for all he contributed to what the band did and how they made the mark on this earth that they left. [Distributed by Stern's]

We have a saying here in London about the frequency of buses: "You wait half an hour and three come along together." The same is true with JA soul compilations it seems, hardly had the ink dried on my last missive mentioning the Soul Jazz Studio One Soul release, than an absolute storming killer compilation from Blood and Fire appeared out of the ether, deeper, wider and containing more rare music than the Soul Jazz release. Darker Than Blue: Soul from Jamdown 1973-1980 is also compiled by Honest Jon's Mark Ainley alongside Steve Barrow. This release is the usual top-notch Blood and Fire quality with the music which ranges freely from the Boris Gardiner Experience's Hammond-led "Ghetto Funk" to the Tamlins' exquisite cut of Randy Newman's "Baltimore" as done by Nina Simone and Welton Irie's rocking early rap to it, "Hotter Reggae Music." Another old fave and standout is Delroy Wilson's absolutely storming version of "Get Ready" (12" Mix). And do not forget the title track where Lloyd Charmers does Curtis Mayfield with Augustus Pablo in attendance. Or Tinga Stewart with Timmy Thomas' classic "Why Can't We Live Together?" a question that seems very difficult to answer even 27 years on.

Not only are there the 18 totally murderous cuts, but the booklet with the cd (and the double vinyl) contains, apart from copious informed notes by Peter Dalton, a whole heap of fabulous pictures culled from the famous Magnum picture library. Taken during that decade by Chris Steele-Perkins in Brixton and Wolverhampton and Alex Webb in Kingston (Jamaica), these photos are equally important as the music included here because they are truly great windows into the past, like the photos of the police at the Notting Hill Carnival and Trench Town in 1976, the main difference in the pictures being that the Jamaican police had rifles and bayonets drawn. And I just love the picture of the sistren at a dance in Wolverhampton in 1978.


Copyright 2001 Dave Hucker

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