(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 16, Number 3, 1997)
The other day I found myself in a bar discussing lovers rock. It was a very nice bar, dark, cool, quiet. There was little light to disturb the decor which was Plymouth (Tobago), West London version. Cool: It was late afternoon, and there were only a few old guys in trilby hats sitting in the comer drinking Dragon Stout and talking about football, their gentle singsong Trini accents barely diluted by 30 years as bona fide Londoners. Quiet: Classics of the English lovers rock sound such as 15, 16 & 17, Louisa Marks and Janet Kay were playing softly on the sound system.
I can see the day when the few places like this left are shipped off, lock, stock, barrel-impregnated nicotine and various spilled fluids, to Japan. I can easily imagine going there in 15 years and coming across a perfectly preserved example of a mid-to-late '90s rum shop from the Harrow Road, W10, and saying, "My God, I've not been in place like this since 1997. Now I know where they all went."
I was there to meet a person from Grand Rapids, Michigan. We had linked up via some mutual friends. He required a copy of calypsonian Shadow's seminal album Mystic Moods. I had a duplicate, and was only too happy to swap him vinyl for some good stories. He was a private detective in GR, MI, had a show on AM radio giving private detective hints over the air and a phone-in problem show providing answers to questions like "How do I avoid deep surveillance?" and a feature as "The Psychic Detective, He Knows." As we sat at the bar he regaled me with entertaining stories about who was who and what was what in the Grand Rapids environs, like which Christian fundamentalist publisher also had a very profitable magazine featuring people having sex with goats.
I looked at my friend: Behind him in a comer was a very dusty, cheap plaster black Madonna which caught my eye. She was sitting on a whip made from a braided bull pistil which I had never noticed before. The concept of Christian pornography I found curious, having looked at so many paintings in churches and cathedrals the world over featuring extreme cruelty and violence such as crucifixions, stonings, beheadings and so on. I wondered, if the common garden variety of a religion used such violent images, what would the pornography be like?
Is it sex with the devil, goats and all that? I refocused and moved my eyes and mind back to the real world and we talked further, discovering a common high regard for the beginnings of the English lovers rock style. As we listened to these tracks coming out of the speakers we agreed they still sounded fresh today. Lovers rock was important in its own time and we agreed that basically only four or so songs set the parameters of the style, created the mold, tunes like Kay's "Silly Games" and Marks' "Caught You in A Lie."
The conversation flipped to which five tunes are going to be considered the founding forces of the new Cuban music. We both agreed Cuban music is on a roll at the moment, the force and power of it shocking most seasoned observers, whether it is on the commercial end or the roots. But at this moment in time, which tracks will define the movement? Well, it's a bit carly to say but one contender could be a track off the Paunto y Su Band's release, Paulito (Nueva Fania). It has been a major pleasant surprise to me that at my Saturday night session the reaction to "Estamos en Escena" is incredible. Its bumpy, chunky rhythm that drops into a reggae break has proved to be a big banger at my hardcore salsa nights. But it has also caught the attention of the non-specialist crowd. It's interesting that what is roots Cuban, albeit, commercial roots, is the one of the things to really hit the crowds.
A newie from Cuban-born, N.Y.-based artist Guianko, A Sangre Fria (RMM), is chock full of very smooth arrangements, bumpy riddims and great vocals. The title track is the hit on the floor. As for some of the other new Cuban recordings popping up at the moment, well, it veers between the very good and the very indifferent, which I think is fine. it indicates a fairly healthy and relatively normal state of musical affairs.
First up, in the indifferent category, comes Son 14. Their Cubania release on the Tumi label is pretty dull. Son 14 was big in the '70s, but this release with its lackluster sound, ideas and lack of energy will not catapult them back into popularity. Especially at the moment when there is an explosion of all kinds of quality Cuban music, so any older-type music has to be very good to stand up against the best of the new trad stuff. Any old music will just not do now. Groups that may have been radical and fresh some years ago are now sounding less than average. The audience and the music have moved on: The listeners and dancers can tell what's good and what's not good.
Much better and in the very good category is A Toda Cuba le Gusta by the Afro-Cuban All Stars (World Circuit-U.K.), put together by Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, leader of Sierra Maestro, as a backing band for a lineup of a virtual who's who of the great Cuban solleros of the '50s, such as octogenarian Pio Leyva and septuagenarians Raul Planas, Manuel Licea and lbrahim Ferrer. The All Stars are made up of some of the greatest Cuban musicians, including the horn section of the Tropicana Orchestra, who are so smooth and tight it is a joy to hear them. A Todo Cuba le Gusta is an example of how to properly interpret well known tunes and instill new life and creativity into their well-worn bones. The recording quality is superb, a fine web of sound is spun, the balance between the vocals and musicians is perfect. Egrem's studios in Havana have come a long way recently in getting a good sound.
Real drum and bass comes in the form of the opening track of Ritmo Y Candela 2 (Round World Music). "El Lenguaje del Son"'s percussion-led groove, featuring veteran conga player Patato, builds in intensity then drops for a wild timbales break which just goes on and on and on. Another newie from Cuba that is getting 'em all excited is Manolito y su Trabuco's Contra Todos los Pronosticos (Euro Tropical). Biggies on the floor are "Caballo Grande Ande 0 No Ande," and a wild version of"Baila Que Baila."
Away from the Cuban side of things a character called Billy Demarco has a fine salsa release with Ocurrio Asi (Latin Discovery). The cover for this cracking release describes it as "Latin pop." Myself I would say it was beautifully arranged, swinging songs with really good melody lines, great vocals, and an alarmingly large number of killer tracks. Being used to only finding one or two good tracks on a release it comes as a bit of a shock to find four out of the eight here are major movers. Tito Rojas has a crisp release called Humildemente (MP). Always good value, Tito hits the floor with a real scorcher called "Estoy de Tu Parte" that has wild violin and a incessant swing and bump.
From veteran bass player Bobby Valentin comes a really good new release: Symbol of Prestige (Bronco) is notable for a number of things, apart from the tight rhythms and arrangements you'd expect. The vocals are very unusual, featuring a smoky-voiced lead from Marima. She pours out the rough-edged emotion while the other vocalists, Ivan Rivera and Johnny Vasquez, provide sweet harmonies. This turnaround makes for very upfront vocals with a different sound from many other of the all-male vocal groups at the moment. Marima's vocals sometimes rip off into the garagey wail popular in Latin female vocalists at the moment. Biggest tune on the floor is "Amor de Fax."
From Venezuela come a couple of real crackers. Imagen Latina by Alberto Naranjo and El Trabuco (Leon) has a double dose of fine female lead in the shape of Canelita and Trina Medina. "Se Baila Asi "and "Hace Rato" are the fast up-tempo jump-up floorfillers, while more subtle grooves come in the form of bumpy rhythms. In their 19th release in 20 years, Guaco, from the musically funky city of Maracaibo, offer Archipelago (Caiman). A very sophisticated mix-up, the folkloric origins of Guaco are not lost in their headstrong charge of modernism. Example: Frank Zappa is a folk hero for them. It is a very heady and seductive sound. Names like Juan Luis Guerra also get tossed around in comparison here, and it is not inaccurate. Despite the occasional spit of rock guitar, this is a smooth but gutsy sound, not at all glossy. "Los Borinquenas" is the biggie straight salsa on the floor.
Give thanks to the gods who look after merengue-rap. Those nutty merengue boys Projecto Uno have a new release out. Thank goodness, New Era (Hola) finally allows us djs to leave their anthem "El Tiburon" at home. We had all got sick of playing this at least a year ago, but public pressure forced us to keep dragging the old war horse out. Now we have two tracks to replace it with. "Candela" is a reworking and mixture of a couple of current mega popular tunes: Sandy and Papo MC's "Candela" and "La Hora de Bailar." It has got the pounding modern merengue beats that give this sort of popular music a good name, whereas the other stormer, "Latinos," starts off in a percussion mood, then the montuna piano drops in and things start to cook. A big thumper par excellence.
Down in Miami, El Dandy has been skillfully blending what sounds like his Cuban roots with new variations and beats from the Miami scene. The outcome is a number of superb tracks off his Ritmo Carisma y Sabor (ED/Padanor). All come from within the modern Miami and Latin rap style. Dandy fuses the different elements, trad and modern, with consummate ease. I always take notice when there is no imposing of an alien beat or concept on a song. With El Dandy the rap bits fit together very well most of the time. Standouts are "Como Cambia la Gente," which starts with traffic and police sirens before dropping into a jazzy intro which bursts into a straight montuno rhythm with flowing vocal and a great groove. Top class.
"Baila" jumps straight in with an extremely bumpy, undulating rhythm that chops along. On "Chico Down" (UPTown mix), a boogaloo piano starts off a moody track about mixing salsa with rap, "A little bit of this, a little bit of that," as the words go. It is a succulent, well arranged journey that ranges over all kind of little juicy bits of music. Full marks to Mr. El Dandy. I observe this release is hitting the punters hard at my clubs, kicking it over the full musical range of the various nights' musical policy. If an album hits all sort of bases like this, then it has got something going for it.
When asked to recommend good quality mid-priced compilations I know I am safe to recommend the Planete series. They are always packed full of essential tunes from the various musical styles they cover. It is good to see you good ol' folks in U.S. now have the full range of the series available, and it is very a comprehensive series as we have discovered over the years here in Europe. Planete Salsa 2 has an essential groovy obscurity that was a big hit in Europe in clubs and on the radio. Willie DeVille's version of "Hey Joe" redone as a slow charanga is wonderful. Other goodies include Acoustik Zouk's "Yo Nunca Mas," a crisp zouk-salsa, which has been a long-time permanent resident in my playing-out box. [firstname.lastname@example.org]
The new Khaled release Sahra (Barclay) is a right rag-bag of different producers and studios. A truly international effort, it ranges from Paris recordings under Phillipe Eidel and Eric Benzi, Don Was in Los Angeles and Mickey Chung down there in Ocho Rios. When I say rag-bag, that is actually meant as a compliment, because what you get from this diverse range of producers and arrangers is a wide spread of sounds and rhythms. The big hit in Europe has been "Aicha," a poem by a well-known French poet which is presented as a straight down-the-line pop tune, whereas "Walou Walou," with its chunky rhythm is looking like the new "Didi." A powerful melange of guitar, flute and bursts of talking drum, it is proving to be the dance-floor fave off this release for me. The reggae-ish things are pretty good as well "Mektoubi"chugs along in a pleasing demeanor, while "Ouelli El Darek" might be described as "Augustus Pablo meets Oran at the grass roots of rai." This is another very worthwhile and good album from Khaled. He may have strayed from his roots as he has become an international star, but what he does is still interesting. The record company is obviously working hard to widen his appeal as well.
A stunning zouk compilation comes in the form of Generation Media Tropical (Flarenasch). This rip-roaring blast through the best of recent rootsical-ish zouk hits starts off in firing fashion with "Fruit de la Passion" by Frankie Vincent. Cheeky chappie Frankie has made the double entendre style his own, though in fairness to him, in all his songs (and all his songs talk about it in some form), the talk about sex is strictly single entendre. The killer tracks keep popping out and hitting you full in the pelvic region. Monique Seka serenely wines you with "Okaman." Dede Saint-Prix and Tanya SaintVal get your blood pumping with "Balansey Lala," ready for Edith Lefel to drape her sensual voice all over you on "Bona' Saint Doux."
While you are stretching time and savoring every nanosecond of this earth-moving experience, the rhythm builds and keeps on going round and round, in and out with varying speeds and intensities, but always the rhythmical thrusting and pulsing gets stronger. By the time you get to Petit Makambo's "Casser la Baraque" you think you might need a rest. No such luck, hombre. This segued charge through well-known African hits starts off with Sam Fan Thomas' "Afric Typic Collection" and goes uphill from there, stopping off in Zaikosville to catch your breath as you rise to giddy heights of ecstasy. Pushed over the edge and gasping for breath, you are glad for the gentle moves of Eric Virgal's "Coupable." Reinvigorated, you bump through some reggae things before letting the rhythms run up again and coming to a climatic rush with the likes of Koffi Olomide. Oh! that was wonderful. Let's play it again.
Jazz was America's first and purest black musical contribution to the world. The Caribbean Jazz Project's Island Stories (HeadsUp) is one of those albums I happily stumbled into by accident. As a dj, I buy a quite a lot music blind, without listening to it first. This time it turned up trumps. It is such a sophisticated sound. I particularly like Andy Narell's steel pan playing, while vet sax man Paquito D'Rivera never sounded better. "Tjaded Motion," a fitting tribute to vibe player Cal Tjader, floats sensually past your ears. "Zigzag" jumps along with spirit, verve and a great groove, as does "Grass Roots." If you like your jazz mixed with all the other Caribbean musics, then this is perfect for you.
Dean Fraser's Big Up (Island Jazz Jamaica) works most of the time. Taking the same formula as Ernest Ranglin's Below the Bassline, this also redoes reggae classics, so you get things like "Shine Eye Gal" and "Queen of the Minstrel" and so on. A noteable part of the sound is Wayne Batchelor's vibrant acoustic double bass, and on the left side of the stereo spectrum is the drums of Sly Dunbar and on the right hand side ldris Muhammad, so you get some weird deep drum beats! Quite radical and interesting, while not as immediately appealing as Below the Bassline, Big Up is a real curiosity and those two drums, wow.
One of those strange musical coincidences that I like so much has cropped up on a new release, Sonandolo, from Cameroonian makossa master Guy Lobe (Melodie). I picked it up on another recent head charge through the Paris record shops. Sitting at home listening to it, the title track had a familiar melody line, but where did it come from? First couple of plays it rattled around in my head and started to annoy me. Then boom, the penny dropped. It takes the melody line of "Why Don't You Do Right," an old r&b song done by Chicago blues singer Lil Green in 1947 and again in the '60s by Peggy Lee. The story line is a disparaging view of the male's inability to do anything right. Now why this specific song is being recycled by Guy Lobe at this particular moment in time is one of those things you can only wonder about, though as always a great melody is a great melody. It is quite logical, I suppose, when you listen to this deeply jazzy album. For example "O La ou Ye" is, dare I say it,jazz funk? Yes, I think that would be a fitting description. There are subtle interplays in the rhythm, great backing vocals from the chorus, and Guy has always been a musician who elevated himself above the average. This time he has excelled himself.
I feel sorry for my postman. He has to carry all the cds and records that get sent to me chasing a review. This burden he has to shoulder probably causes him a bad back and hernia problems. Obviously not all the music I get sent is good, so in that case my postal delivery agent might be described as also to be suffering from repetitive bad music strain. But a long time ago I decided to try and only write positively about the music I cover. I thought it was a pointless waste of precious time and words slagging things off, being negative, unless it was really necessary. Especially when there was so much positive music to support and talk about, why divert into the dank backwater of negativism?
However, I have broken my vow and chosen at random two candidates that have slipped off the top of the even-cannot-give-away pile. First off is South African gospel singer Sister.Blaze. A cd called Vukani (ARC Music-U.K.) contains some of the most uninspiring gospel I have ever heard. God is not going to get any converts with this music: muddy, murky, mushy yukkyness with absolutely no passion or feeling. Non-existent songs with non-existent melody lines dribble over some of the most inane programmed drum beats ever to come out of a cheap keyboard. So to Sister Blaze I say, remember the devil always got the best tunes. Other releases on this label include Exotic Voices and Rhythms of Black Africa, Vols. I and 2. Oh dear.
And then there's Daboa, From the Gekko, a product of the London-based Triple Earth label. I have only one question: Why? Did it seem a good idea at the time? It starts off promisingly enough in what is claimed as a Venezuelan work song. It goes downhill after the first 30 seconds, eventually ending up at the bottom of the ponderous swampy valleys of droning music, the kind of stuff done much better in the soundtrack to Michael Mann movies. At least in films you have a pretty picture to look at to mitigate the drone. Lingering in the damp they seemed to have caught a bad case of frog disease. "Glad to Be Green" sounded to me suspiciously like something to do with Kermitsville, so I consulted well-known animal and amphibian expert Bob Tarte: Was this the "Frog Song" from Sesame Street? I have managed to make my peace with Mr. Tarte after my outburst the other issue. Now we are on socially cordial terms. He kindly took time off from his busy schedule writing and editing Max Powerboat Monthly, Cereal Farmer Weekly and the annual guide to Road Signs of the World, little numbers that Bob does between Beat assignations to pay his vet's bills. "Yes," he said, "it probably is."