(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 19, Number 1 2000)
Who was that?" asked Funmi, coming over to the dj box, beads of sweat clustered round her forehead from dancing to the track which had just played.
"Bamboleo," I replied. "The new one."
She raised her eyebrows and nodded approvedly, "Hmmm, damn funky."
Yes, it was indeed very damn funky. We had been discussing "Lo Mio" off Ya No Hace Falta (Ahi-Nama), Bamboleo's third album, a very hot property and a worthy successor to Ya No Me Parezco. The defection of vocalist Haila Momrié is hardly noticed. The arrangements are still wonderfully complexly simple, or should that be simply complex? This release is very cutting-edge modern timba combined with a downright deep-bump sassy groove that hits you hard and in all the right places. There are not many other new bands out there at the moment in Cuba that can be compared with Bamboleo. On the dance floor "Lo Mio," the title track and "Lo Que Quiero Es Bamboleo" are the big hitters so far. Essential.
A couple of djs, old friends and a group made up of old and new fans of Cuban music were sitting in a room where brownish cigar smoke drifted lazily in the late-afternoon London light, intermixed with blue-grey cloud from a Swazi weed. A further fragrance was coming from the seven-year-old Havana Club, which sat in the glasses and gave a welcoming warmth and emanated an alluring drink-me vapor.
The assorted characters were discussing the way that things were music-wise at the moment in Cuba and what was happening with Cuban music in the rest of el mundo. Llego Van Van (Atlantic), the new release from Los Van Van, was playing in the background. One of the djs, pony tail, craggy creased face, a bit of a reconstructed old lefty and also a veteran devotee of the soul/r&b/blues scene, spoke with that soft, dry Edinburgh accent: "Well ye-know. I'm sure, Ahmet Ertegun 'n' Jerry Wexler when they founded Atlantic them years ago te put out pure r&b, I'm sure dey would be very very happy ti see Atlantic put out rilly tuff contemporary Cuban music." He paused to think a bit. "But tell me," he said provocatively, "exactly what is Atlantic and part of Warner Bros. Yankee Corporate Records doing putting out the latest release from Los Van Van?" "I'm not sure," he continued, puffing on the cigar, "that Mr. Warner and his various brothers would really approve of one of their record companies, even the illustrious Atlantic label, of dealing with that perpetual boil on the philosophical bottom of the Yankees, dat ole devil Cuba."
"Oh that's no problem, this is capitalism," the Latin dj explained. "Money talks and bullshit walks. Some of those big American companies are worried. They see the Europeans making all of the money out of Cuban music and they reckon that they are missing out. So the big multi-corps have jumped in using the exact same route that the little indie labels pioneered, when they were forced to skate round and circumvent the trade embargo, by licensing in from a third-party source, it's easy-peasy. The only difference is, is that it's the little indies who have fought for, pushed, championed and actually done all the leg work and helped create the current high profile of modern Cuban music." He paused, "The difference is that the little indies have always done it for the love of the music, not for the profit."
"So, how's it settle?" asked the Scotsman, "It di na sound bad ta me."
"It's not bad at all, in fact I would say it is positively banging, though there does seem to be a lot of tracks, 12 in all, so I suppose you could say that the groove suffers a bit, being as you have to cut the tracks short to fit in the time."
"Yeah that's a bit of a problem," added the other dj, "especially with a band that is so groove-led as Van Van, but I gotta admit it really grooves along when it grooves along. Van Van are masters of the groove, unparalleled in their groove-athon-ness."
"What tunes are big for you?"
"Oh well, definitely the biggie on the floor is 'Quien No Ha Dicho Una Mentira,' while 'La Bomba Soy Yo' is fantastic with those swirling keyboards and great vocals. But really every track is good, isn't it?"
"Yeah, totally. Another rum?"
A brace of Cuban goodies from a couple of indies have been getting dance-floor action with me. La Caro Band's Vale La Pena (Bembe), is well worth investigating, with a stunning four-woman vocal lineup, and a cracking band. "Rap de La Caro Band" is a storming tour-de-force and "El Enganado" is a very engaging cha-cha-cha. Sellos LA have a kicking release with their Tranquilo Y Sin Lio (MP), which is a blast of hot timba. The title track is a bass-heavy workout, while "Bajo El Palo" starts off with a rappy vocal, then gets better. This release has been getting much attention from the djs who play "authentic" Cuban music in London. And we are not a bunch of sissies.
The publicity for the new Afro Cuban All Stars' release Distinto, Diferente (World Circuit), claims this album is a exploration of more modern dance music. Well, yes, Juan De Marcos has moved forward slightly, but only as far as the late '70s-early '80s. The way he is going with this trawl through the historical styles of Cuban music, he will meet himself coming back in shape of Sierra Maestra, the group he was in at this time. The band is the usual top-quality suspects, with a variety of vocalists dropping in to enliven the proceedings. They whip through a wide range of rhythms. But there is something about this release that does not engage my attention. I cannot put my finger on it. On paper it looks a winner; in the plastic it's another matter.
Los Soneros Del Barrio (Rumbero) is a superb release from two young veterans of the hard tuff New York Latin scene, pianist Martin Arroyo and sonero Frankie Vazquez. It covers classic N.Y. salsa of the late '60s to early '80s, such as the title track, and the Lebron Brothers "Salsa Y Control." The power and the passion of the tunes come at you anew, as they are reinvested with a punchy modern sound. The bass is totally rampant and powers things along. This is really hard salsa dura of the highest quality. Soneros Del Barrio is not just a collection of tried-and-tested faves thrown together-you catch your breath as it sounds totally fresh and very funky.
Another release that sounds very fresh is the new one from Jimmy Bosch, Salsa Dura (RykoLatino). As soon as you put this on, an incredibly warm sound charges out at you. It's not very often an engineer manages to get such an amount of warmth, color and feeling in a sound without losing the clarity. Mark Bingham is the man responsible here for this amazing feat. The music is top-notch as well, with Jimmy's regular band augmented by a variety of guests such as Steve Turre and Chucho Valdez. Salsa Dura is another major release from Bosch whose star is definitely in ascendance at the moment. Having caught Jimmy live in London last year and marveled at just how hard the band was, I say quality salsa like this should be supported wholeheartedly. That is an order.
"Welcome to paradise," said the young kid hustling for cents on the waterfront in Soufriere, St. Lucia. I looked up at the lush greenness of the Pitons, and at all the gentle friendly people around me and agreed with him. It is the end of September and is the St. Lucian Thanksgiving festival. There is a street party, sound systems are set up. Food is cooking, Piton beer and Bounty rum are being copiously consumed. The only problem is it is raining, very hard. So it was a bit of a washout. I unable to see the performance that day of local heros Future Lights.
They possess an exceptional lead singer in the substantial form of Selwyna Charles, a woman blessed with a fantastic velvety voice. Future Lights had risen in the '90s from the ashes of Rebirth 7, a seminal local band of the '70s, where she was also the singer. Their cd, just called Future Lights (Future Lights), shows off their hard-driving fusion of zouk, bouyon, soca and reggae very well. Social comment songs are intermixed with the jump-up tunes like "Soca Bouyon Jam" and "Juke and Go Down." They are a very entertaining band and well worth seeking out if you are down that way.
One of the biggest tunes in their live set was called "Hypocrite" AKA "I Saw What You Did Last Night," which was a big tune from Lucian Carnival this year, done originally, I think, by Bachelor. Their version rocks along with the tale of the hypocrite minister who preached abstinence from the pulpit, but got caught in flagrante in a car by the beach. I expect to hear more of this tune as its universal truth-and-rights message, coupled with a catchy melody, makes it a winner.
St. Lucian music has come on leaps and bounds recently. Road March winner Invader gives us a super discourse this year on the many ways the government has of bleeding you dry by taxation with a ditty called "La jan (Take My Money)" (Invader).
"Dance-crazy, Bottom-wiggling Africans Alarm Moral Minority," screamed the headline in the newspaper. "Hey look at this-it's hilarious, wow, this is fantastic," I said, reading the article about how Togo had become the latest country to ban mapouka, a dance that has become the craze throughout West Africa. The youth minister of Togo was quoted as saying, "We will not let our youth be depraved by this pseudo-culture." Togo had followed Kenya, Burkina Faso, Niger, Cameroon and Ivory Coast, the country that had actually launched this immoral dance upon an unsuspecting public, in attempting to curtail or ban mapouka. So what is this insanely evil, immoral music? Well, it's Ivory Coast with close harmonies, cheesy keyboards and a boom-boom-boom beat, basically and I mean basically, it's a music with very few redeeming features, except it sounds great loud in a club and there is a lot of bottom-wiggling to it by scantily dressed young women.
"You mean just like the dancehall girls?" Funmi asked.
"Exactly" I replied. "Have a listen to this." I slipped on Mapouka Maxi Dance (Africa). "The harmonies are nice, but the tunes don't really go anywhere. The drums pump along. But I suppose there is no reason why Africa cannot make stupid, inane music just like the rest of the world."
Copyright 2000 Dave Hucker