(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 22, Number 3, 2002)
When the history of the great groove machines of the last 53 years is written, the top echelon of the greatest groovers of all time will certainly include such luminaries as James Brown, Fela Kuti, the Fania Allstars and Franco. History should also place Cuba's Los Van Van right up there with them.
Los Van Van is without doubt one of the most powerful groove machines in the annals of great groove machines. Live, they build up great big tsunami waves of groov-ation that wash over you, rolling, ebbing and flowing while the intensity changes, builds and forms a new beat as the tunes progress. Despite having lost some key members like co-founder and pianist Cesar Pedroso and singer Pedrito Calvo, the institution that is LVV continually proves it still has groove to spare - it pours out of every pore in their collective bodies.
A new live album, En el Malecon de la Habana: Concierto en Vivo (Pimienta) recorded in Havana, just pours groove. Big tune is "Tim-Pop con Birdland," one of the big songs that kicks like Jackie Chan and is based on a Weather Report tune. "Tim-Pop con Birdland" is one of those funked-out modernistic tour de forces that is very popular on the dance floors where such music gets an eager audience from dancers who like to move to hardcore Cuban styles like casino and rueda. Pushed along by the percussive vocals of Mario "Mayito" Rivera, "Tim Pop" gains speed rapidly after the intro, moving through a bewildering variety of twists and turns, taking in jazz, hip-hop and timba.
There are plenty of other mega-great grooves on this release. "Quien No Ha Dicho Una Mentira" is a staple of the LVV live set and one of their great classic tunes. Here it goes on a mega journey as it bounces the lead vocal from Roberto Rodriguez against the chorus. Halfway through the beat gets torqued down tighter and the groove ratcheted up as it drops a gear and powers away.
With "Soy Todo (Ay Dios Amparame!)" the only protection you need is from the insistent piano, firing horns and great vocals. Swinging into "Mi Mimi," a showcase for female vocalist Yenisel Valdes, we discover her superb voice and its incredible range, including a feral growl that is quite fantastic, sparring with the chorus and violins.
That snorting, rip-roaring tune "Te Pone la Cabeza Mala" gets a real bomb version here; new life gets breathed into this popular song as it charges along, though as - err humph - a professional I got sick of the original version of this about two years ago after being sent crazy out of my head by overexposure to it. But this version has so much depth and layers, more texture and added brio with scorching vocals, it sounds good to me again.
"Que Cosas Tiene La Vida" kicks in with a bumpy style and sharp backline vocals, more wonderful lead this time from Abdel Rasalps. "Temba, Tumba y Timba" is another fave with great vocals and a nagging beat that you cannot get out of your head as the vocals shine again. The album is topped out by "En Sol Natural" which segues into English from the end of "Tim-Pop Con Birdland," the point where the chorus keeps chanting "Yes" to the beat. Perfect for those djs who like to mix and extend tunes.
I accidently got caught up in one of the antiwar protests in London: I watched as a group of schoolchildren bunking off from school were sitting down in the road, and the police were there in force. Taking a detour, I was drawn to a doorway where I could hear the muffled sound of a interesting beat trying to emanate though the body mass of the large gentlemen who was blocking the doorway.
He looked at me. "Sir, if you are attracted to those completely way-out jazzed in pure distilled pan-Caribbean mix-up journeys of a radical nature then step this way." I nodded and entered down some dark stairs into what seemed to be a record shop/bar. Outside in the street it had been quite nippy; inside it was Caribbean hot, just like walking into treacle. Air con? this was the reverse - forced hot wet air. Once my eyes had got used to the gloom I could see a few tables spread around; one contained what looked like a group of very hip Japanese tourists. The long thin room looked well worn and the carpet had holes repaired with duct tape. A ceiling fan leisurely and ineffectually spun, stirring the air in a desultory fashion. The walls had once been painted vibrant Caribbean blues, reds and yellows, but now it was all grimed and washed out. A mural of a beach scene was painted on one wall. On other surfaces there were posters featuring scantily dressed young ladies advertising various obscure beers from around the world. I ambled to the back where a bar/dj box/sales counter stood, a bamboo frame supporting a thatched roof. A chest freezer stood by a stack of beer cases and a pair of turntables and a mixer stood on some upturned beer crates on the counter.
The character standing behind the counter had a quiff and guayabera shirt. From a large stack of old-style sound-system speakers circa 1969 was coming what I was sure was the unmistakable sound of a hardcore New Orleans gumbo mix-up steeped in a Caribbean roots musical journey that sounded like it had been deconstructed and then reconstructed. He nodded at me. I asked for a Kubuli beer, a nice full-flavored brew from Dominica. The guy with the quiff nodded and disappeared through door and after a few minutes came out with a dusty bottle and shrugged "Not very cold."
I asked what was playing and he passed me the lp cover. I knew them: It was master percussionist Bill Summers and trumpeter Irvin Mayfield who go by the name of Los Hombres Calientes and this, their newie, was titled Vol. 4: Vodou Dance (Basin Street). Their previous releases have shown the duo to be on the forefront of experimental musical endeavours. This energetic and entertaining hop to various musical hotspots such as Cuba, Haiti, Trinidad, Jamaica, Brazil and hometown New Orleans is in the company of many great musicians, including legends of New Orleans such as Cyril Neville and oldster Sugar Boy Crawford, who does a version of his hit "Jocimo."
As you progress through the 27 tracks on this release you find snatches of vocals and music from all kind of deep niches and recesses of the history of Afro-Caribbean music, from steel-pan orchestras and religious roots drummers up in the rainforest in Trinidad to voodoo drumming, singing and cornet bands in Haiti. While in the area, they drop into Cuba for some drumming with Cha Cha Estaban Vega plus a group of women dancers and drummers called Obini Abericula. Not pausing to get their passports stamped the indomitable duo head for Jamaica. Then a flying visit down to Brazil results in three tracks and it's back to New Orleans for some further recordings and workouts like the jazzy "Latin Tinge," the gumbo of "Creole Groove," "Wild Tchoupitoulas" and the aforementioned "Jocimo." Like their other releases, this is left of left-field music for the mind and soul, real boho stuff, seriously out there.
Having drunk my beer and purchased the lp, I made my goodbyes. I paused at the door, the bouncer shook my hand as he scanned up and down the street, checking the action down the road as the police surrounded a large group of old-age pensioners who had set up their picnic chairs blocking the street and were opening vacuum flasks of tea and Tupperware sandwich boxes.
"Take a left and you'll be OK."
Always happy to step back to a gentler period in time, I was pleased to discover a Brazilian classic from 1971, Vinicius de Moraes, Maria Bethania and Toquinho with Days in Mar Del Plata (Circular Moves), a follow-up to their previous hit Live in Buenos Aires. It is a sublime piece of music featuring artists at the peak of their powers of creating musica nova. Recorded in Buenos Aires during a break at the combo's booking at the Argentine seaside town of Mar Del Plata in 1971, this outstanding release has been reissued for our listening pleasure, and what a pleasure it is. Bethania had replaced original singer Maria Crueza for this recording and her scorching dry vocals float over the free-flowing liquid, gentle rhythms that sparkle with the delicate filigree guitar of Toquniho. Vinicius' silken vocals glide effortlessly along, hardly making any bow wave but creating a huge wake of emotion and feeling behind him. Every track is a masterpiece and a thing of great beauty. It is pure sound, real roots and radical. They don't make music like this anymore, in fact, even 32 years ago it was a very rare event.
A knockout compilation comes in the form of Indestructible Arabian Beats: Future Sounds From the Souks (Manteca) which captures a moment of a Mediterranean and pan-European music movement. The differences in exactly what is roots have got blurred with migration - roots ain't what they used to be. These days you have to consider the immigrant areas of northern European cities as roots pools just as valid as the original source.
This collection features a whole raft of modernistic popular tunes. One of the most populist has to be Hakim's "La Muchacha Turca (Sima-rik)," a perfect example of the way music swirls around the Mediterranean basin and its northern extremities these days. This tune started out life written by Turkish premier pop diva Sezen Asku. It was then a massive hit for Tarkan, Turkey's George Michael. Here in England a version titled "Kiss Kiss" made it to number one in the charts for Holly Vance, an ex-star of an Australian soap called "Neighbours," which airs here in London in the afternoon. However this version, by Spain-based Arabic singer Hakim, is sung in Spanish with a rumba flamenco structure and it really does work very well with a catchy melody and lotso sabor.
Almost everything from the well-stocked larder of this compilation excites the palate, including a track by Celloman, the nom de plume of cellist Ivan Hussey, who has constructed a seven-minute opus of Middle Eastern strings and percussion based round Khaled's "Chebba" and it really rocks. Damn, I wish Stravinsky was still around, a crazy Russian could have so much fun with the music of today. Keeping the blues and purity of Rachid Taha's hit, "Ya Rayah," Latif El Idrissi pours out a moving tale about the hopes of first-generation immigrants that one day they will return home from the city.
Hakim, not the Hakim mentioned earlier but the artist known as "the lion of Egypt," is one of the top Egyptian shaabi singers and he contributes a stormer of a track titled "Talakik," which punches and kicks very hard, a top-class tune produced by London's Trans Global Underground.
Algerian Souad Massi has a beautiful voice and her "Nekreh El Keld" is a crystal-clear stream of emotion flowing over flinty guitar and violins. Swiss/Turkish hip-hop gets a look in with Makale's "Salla" which moves smooth as clockwork between the various elements of Turkish music, hip-hop and scratching. And from Germany, Aziza A steps forward. Known as the first Oriental female hip-hopper, her "Kim Dedi (Who Said)" jumps along with what the sleeve notes describe as a "two-step vibe."
The originators of Arabic techno, Aisha Kandisha's Jarring Effects contribute a bumping Moroccan mix-up in the shape of "Habibi Maja." This well-thought-out and well-rounded compilation finishes with two storming tracks: Amira Saqati's "Tobiga's Atlantic," described in the eloquent notes as taking "Moroccan rai, Gnawa, Berber and Egyptian jeel to produce a startling digital roots melange." Yup, it's that good. Momo (Musicians of Moroccan Origin) have been pumping out their London beat for a while now. Here they contribute their big hit "Dar," a massive big-beat multilayered, multifaceted, totally successful hybrid.
One of the Cuban musicians who has taken up residence in London is vocalist Osvaldo Chacón. He is one of the more interesting Cubans in the capital, having begun his musical career with some of Cuba's top bands like Paulito FG, Manolin-El Medico de La Salsa and Bamboleo, on whose first album he sang. Moving to London in '97, his first release Salsa Afro Cubana got a warm welcome and glowing reviews. His latest offering, Salsa Timba (ARC), is a much better all-round effort. As a singer Osvaldo is top notch and much in demand to sing with Latin stars the likes of Herman Olivera and Eddie Palmieri, Ruben Blades, Celia Cruz and Adalberto Santiago when they drop into town. His band works hard playing around England and further afield in Europe.
Salsa Timba is interesting because apart from the straight-ahead timba you get touches of fusions such as timba soca and timba reggae. This release is a real good musical mix-up that features strong songs with tight arrangements played by top-quality musicians and is very nicely recorded. Standout out grooves include "Ando Buscando," a swinging modern son with superb vocals, and "Conmigo O Con El" which strongly timbas all over the land. "Caracter Deportivo," billed as one of the timba/soca thangs, is a pumping, rhythm-rich mixture with great vocals, while "Heriero" described as a timba/Afro, really does move.
Those hot-headed iconoclasts who have found refuge in San Francisco's Cubop label have dug in the crates and produced a collection of unreleased tracks alongside some select greatest fave raves from the label's last few years. Viva Cubop 3 is very good indeed - not only is there the unreleased stuff, you will also find a raft of massive classics like John Santos/Bobby Matos' "I Don't Speak Spanish," Ray Armando's "Mallet Hands," Jack Constanzo's "Bemba Colora," and English percussionist Snowboy with his "42nd and Broadway." Thanks, you guys at Cubop, keep up the good work, we need out-and-out nutters like you even more than ever in these dread days.
Copyright 2003 Dave Hucker