(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 18, Number 5/6, 1999)
It's a tough life as a one-person or small indie label, or as a band putting out self-produced releases. There's the eternal problem of financing the project in the first place, getting the studio, assembling all of the musicians and everybody else involved. You also get the setbacks like when the hot engineer who promised to do the sessions suddenly disappears to Bali for six months, "to rest his ears," or the lead singer quits to join another band. And then, after all the trials and tribulations of recording, mixing and mastering, you get the arguments and fights with the sleeve designer.
"But we want to be able to read the printed words," the band insists.
"Why? This is art," the digital-only Uber-geek replies.
These designer kids have never had to set slugs of lead type in a form for letterpress, never really got their fingers dirty actually cutting and pasting with glue and a scalpel blade, never had to lay down a flat color wash. And then when the disc actually finally hits the streets and shops, there is the problem of distribution, not to mention the cost of publicity and the expense of mailing copies to dingbats like me who might ignore it and never write about or give any coverage to the release after all this ball-breaking effort.
So, I am pleased to report of a number of solid releases from various parts of the globe that have been the product of just such a personal, independent vision; what is almost a hand-made process.
First, hands up, all those of you who loved Wayne Gorbea's Cogele El Gusto release that Shanachie (bless their cotton socks) rescued from the obscurity of being sold out of its initial pressing on Wayne's own Wayne Go label. Well, there is another release in that vein that comes from the hard, tough Bronx street salsa scene. Led by timbales player Willie Villegas, Willie Villegas y Entre Amigos have even titled their release Salsa En La Calle (Entre Amigos). Classic salsa spills out, like the opener "Inventamos," which is a banging descarga loosely based on Cachao's "Descarga Cachao," and "Chanchullo," a loose-limbed montuno that swings in a very muscular manner as it segues that venerable classic "Bilongo" into Hector Lavoe's "Sonero." The horn section really let rip on this smoker. You get a whole range of tunes on this release, like the old Colombian song "Mentirosa," here taken with its cumbia roots and dosed with strong salsa seasoning. You get a couple of plenas and a merengue to fill up the musical cup to the brim.
Dedicated by Willie and the band to "our salsa legends," this is a really hard and funky release and all efforts should be directed at scoring a copy of it. New York Latin lovers and readers will already know Villegas from his cable tv show of the same name, as well as those who see them regularly in the hot New York clubs the band plays every week. And also those visiting New York's 1998 CariCulture festival when he shared the bill with Trini's radical soca sons, Machel Montano and Xtatik. [www.descarga.com ]
An interesting little number comes from Boston and Caracas from a group called Team Malin. Aparecieron (Team Malin), the result of two years' sufferation. The recordings progressed in makeshift studios using ADAT (the preferred professional digital "home" recording system which uses VHS tapes), in band members' apartments, then taking the tapes to Caracas for mixing, then back to Boston for final mastering. But it was worth it. They have a very individual sound: Heavy jazzy sounds are funkily mixed in with the salsa. One of the standout tracks that I discovered as I extensively road-tested this release from Istanbul to London is "Runidera," a version of which was also done by Rolo Martinez. There is a pan-Caribbean jump with a track called "El Reloj." All in all a very worthy effort from Team Malin. We should salute and support them. You can contact them and listen to the tracks at www.teammalin.com.
From England comes The Azucar Sessions from the Casa Latina Allstars (CLA), based in the northern town of Leeds and the resident band of the famed club, Casa Latina, which has for a long time been the torchbearer for Latin music in Leeds and the Northwest. This combo has produced their own four-track release of tight swinging, quality music. Eddie Palmieri's war-horse "Azucar" opens up proceedings and allows Cuban violinist Omar Puente to dazzle us with his virtuosity on the electric violin con wah-wah for a rocky jazzy freak-out solo, while "El Coco" chugs along in a sort of timba style, with spirited soloing from 'bone player Simon Pugsley. "
El Suavito" is a sweet Cuban cha cha cha, which is very popular with the dancers as Omar wails away on more trad charanga violin style. This cd finishes up with another dancer's fave, "Tu Medida." Full marks to the Allstars musicians, especially vocalist Susana Montero. This release also again shows the high caliber of the groups and musicians, both indigenous and imported, who play all the different kinds of Latin music in England. Contact them and order up copies of the cd at the Casa Latina Web site, www.anemos.com.casalatina. Also, check out the site and see the depth and breadth of the action up in the Northeast.
Meanwhile, if you were to take a route south from Leeds and when you get down as far as West Africa and Mauritania, then you turn right, eventually you will reach Central America, then if you keep going in a sort of northwesterly direction, eventually you find Hawaii. This is sort of half the route that Nicaraguan-born percussion player Rolando Sanchez took when he ended up in Hawaii and formed his group Salsa Hawaii. A cd of theirs called Hawaii Latino (MGC) traveled all the way back to me. And a very credible release it is too. Joining Rolando are a variety of locals who do a bang-up job, especially the horn section of Larry Cook, Pat Conley and George Demesillo alongside keyboard player Takashi Koshi as they rip smoothly through a mixture of rhythms using original compositions and covers.
If only everything in life was as dependable as a Sonora Poncena album. Virtually every 18 months in the past 30 years they have pumped out an album that is always a quiet masterpiece of quality, always fresh-sounding, swingingly tight, deeply jazzy, grooving Puerto Rican salsa. Releases that have been recognized by the cognoscenti as being really authentic stuff, and always sold to the fans. Their latest, On Target (Jerry Masucci Music) is absolutely no exception to the rule. As an album you can actually sit down and listen to it as a musical journey, with tracks like the slinky instrumental "Tannenbaun a La Lucca" right through to the big dance-floor numbers.
The first track, "No Vale La Pena," opens up the album, forcefully moving along and showcases the vast vocal and horn sections Poncena has, as well as the trademark jazzy piano of leader Papo Lucca. "Congo Carabali" is a seven-minute rumba tour-de-force that syncopates in a very heavy manner, dropping all kind of deep beats in the search for the source of the Congo.
Exiting this great release is "Celoso," a tune with a memorable melody line and soulful vocals by Danny Davila, and is another biggie on the floor. It is true there is not a weak track on this album; each one has something to say with richly textured uncompromising riddims. Sonora Poncena has always been a family band: They were formed originally in the '50s by Papo's father Enrique Quique Lucca, and named after their home city of Ponce. They were famous for their four-trumpet horn section combined with four singers, a tradition happily continued by son Papo who took over the reins of the band in the mid-'70s, though father Lucca is always credited as leader and son Papo as musical director.
This album is all very family. The late Jerry Masucci was family as well. He was the founder of Fania Records where Sonora Poncena had many fruitful recording years on his Inca imprint. The mix on this release is by Irv Greenbaum who is deeply family, as one of the greatest Latin engineers. He has worked with the band (and every other great salsa artist) since the '60s. One of the things that makes Sonora Poncena special is the artwork for their albums which feature mythical warrior figures in a comic-book style. This is another tradition that continues to this day. On Target also has one on the cover.
From Colombia that old musical reprobate Fruko has a new album out, Esto Si Es Salsa de Verdad (Fuentes). He has surprised everyone by putting out a pretty good release. Likewise Cali's Grupo Niche have a solid newie with their Senales de Humo (Sony). Big tune on the floor here is "Que Ironia."
I once deejayed at the Casa Latina in Leeds one night when famed New York jazz/latin/funk legend and maestro Pucho and his Latin Soul Brothers played there. So I can personally vouch for his chunky funkyiness on the timbales. You can now sample a new recording from him on San Francisco's adventurous CuBop label, titled Caliente Con Soul. This release can be added to the considerable number of great records that Pucho has made since his boogaloo days. His typically New York rubbing-shoulders-together, fusion mix-up jazzy Latin style was rediscovered by the jazz dance scene here in the '80s and became a staple in every good dj's record box. There is one wild-eyed funked-up midpacer called "Ella's Groove" where flute, soprano and trombone vie for the chance to sound soulfully menacing. Now Pucho should get the recognition he deserves in America with this release. CuBop also has a live album from Bobby Matos and his Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble. Live at MOCA is an on-form recording from the group, featuring great tunes like Horace Silver's "African Queen." Top-quality stuff.
The whole of London, not to mention the whole world, seems to have gone Afrobeat crazy recently. Here a regular Afrobeat night called The Shrine, named after Fela's nightclub, has been packing them in at the Fridge in Brixton. As well as running a classic Afrobeat selection on the turntables, the club saw Fela's original drummer and right-hand man, the great Tony Allen, play a blinding set recently.
A compilation called Afrobeat--The Sound of '90s Nigeria (Aladdin) covers some highlights of the last decade from Nigeria, London and America. This interesting album opens up with "Se-Rere" from Baba Ani and Egypt '80. A long-time member of the Fela posse and leader of the band, his baritone sax can be heard soloing on tracks like "ITT" and "Original Sufferhead." Fela produced this groove which features a rampant horn section.
Next up Orlando Julius and The Nigerian All-Stars give us "From Selma to Soweto." American-based Orlando, it seems, is a seminal figure in Afrobeat; it starts with him. We drop back into London for percussionist and dj Snowboy's massive jazz-Afrobeat workout "Jazzakuti." And a funky top 40 dance hit called "Timba" from Ekobeat, a combo who fuse Afrobeat into Afrohouse. But very nicely done.
Weird MC is an English-born Nigerian female hip-hop/rap artist. Here she gives us her huge hit "African Woman," which is pretty faithful to the Afrobeat tradition, while still sounding modernish. Very impressive. As is the Nigerian female soap star and singer Mandy who hits us with a scorcher called "African Love." This is an essential compilation for lovers of Afrobeat in all its forms, old and new. Catch it if you can.
Also totally essential is RetroAfric's compilation of old classic Franco and OK Jazz, Originalité, with 20 tracks from the beginning of the first great period of the greatest Zairean/Congo orchestra ever. Starting in 1956 with "On Entre OK, On Sort KO," this first recording for the band became OK Jazz's theme tune. The Latin flavor is particularly strong in tunes like "Fiesta" and "Lina." Every track is a classic, some I've never heard before, and it is nice to hear the music cleaned up and without crackles from lo-fi 45 pressings. This is the real roots of Zairean music; you cannot get much deeper than this: the rhythms sublime, the guitars clean and pure, the vocals sweet and emotional. Originalité is a major collection of some of the best music ever, let alone some of the greatest Congolese music ever. If you are not touched by the beauty of the music in this essential release then certainly you have probably been shuffled off this mortal coil without you noticing it. [Stern's]
A white-label pre of the new release from Cheikh Lo came stepping jauntily through my letterbox. Titled Bambay Gueej (World Circuit), it is out at the end of September. I eagerly slipped it on, after his impressive debut Né La Thiass I was very interested to see what the charismatic Senegalese singer and big-bucks company would do next. Thunderous tama talking drum greeted me on the start to the first track, a version of the classic montuno "Vamonos P'al Monte" comes up and shakes your body. Cheikh's wails lead the way into a mid-paced groove, then guitar clips the rhythm as the bass fluidifies along. Then courtesy of Richard Egües, founder member of Cuban charanga giants Charanga Aragon, the exquisite flute drops in. Very, very nice. This track is one of the dance-floor hits off this album.
The other big banger is the title tune "Bambay Gueej," which roars up to you with a deep percussion groove overlaid with huge great big globs of sound from the funkiest horn section organized and led by former James Brown horn man Pee Wee Ellis. Another guest is Aswad's Biggie Morrison on a very evocatively swirling Hammond organ. This track builds in intensity before it segues out into Fela's "Shakara"/"African Woman" and then back again to source. Fantastic stuff. A major crossover hit. But this album recorded in Youssou's Studio Xippi and in Havana also features plenty of roots as well as the dance stuff, like the sublime reggaeish "N'Dawsile."Malian superstar Oumou Sangare makes an imposing appearance on the slow "Bobo Dioulasso." With Bigga's Booker T organ and Pee Wee's Famous Flames horn section bouncing with the vocals it sounds kinda Malian Stax.
Finally, one of my fave old reggae tunes of all time has reappeared on
Children of Jah: The Chantells and Friends 1977-79 (Blood
and Fire). It is "Jah Jah New Garden" by Lopez Walker, which always
excited me with its impassioned vocal and dubbed-out Sly Dunbar snare and
wood block, in a crystal sharp echoed-out clave stylee. Another fantastic
killer compilation from Steve Barrow.
Copyright 1999 Dave Hucker