(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 21, Number 2, 2002)


Suddenly there was a great roaring, the earth started to shake and undulate. The birds screamed danger, the monkeys squealed loudly and it sounded like a large gang of hooligans was running around bashing the side of the house with pickaxe handles. The last time this happened to me was during an earth---quake. But not this time; the tectonic plates over the West London fault line dividing Ladbroke Grove and Shepherds Bush were not grinding and slipping away. It was Orchestra Super Mazembe coming up the road with their bulldozer.

Super Mazembe was one of the seminal, great late-'70s-/early-'80s Central/East African bands. They have been a bit forgotten recently, but a new compilation, Giants of East Africa (Earthworks/Stern's) will certainly change that. Super Mazembe was founded in 1967 in the southern Congolese Shaba province by Mutonkole Longwa Didos and a load of his school friends. In 1969 they moved to Zambia to work in the Lusaka nightclubs, at that time awash with copper money. Here Mazembe began to establish the reputation for tough but sweet music with their flowing, swinging multi-guitar a-go-go modernistic rumba style.

In 1974 the bright lights of Nairobi called. Mazembe fitted in well in this hip city. Taking their potent, firing lineup, the rumba moves, and mixing in local Kenyan styles, they created something musically new and quite different. Here they recorded a couple of lps which form part of this fantastic anthology.

Mazembe means "earthmovers" and their Nairobi lps always had wonderful pictures of the band posing on huge bulldozers and road graders. During the early 1980s when I was but knee-high to a sprog and had a full head of brown hair, Super Mazembe was one of my favorites. Their killer version of "Shauri Yako" with its nine minutes of chunkily pyroclastic rhythm flow, rich guitar, melodic hook line and lean, crisp, stripped-to-the-bone drums, especially when they drop into that delicious double-beat break, was a regular visitor to my dj set at the Sol Y Sombra.

"Shauri Yako" is featured halfway through the track listings on this totally crucial album. But every track stands out, each song is a roller-coaster ride with razor-sharp ringing guitars, sweet vocals and slinky sax which builds in the groove.

Produced by Trevor Herman, this compilation is long overdue and what I like about it is that it reminds me of a time of enthusiasm and of innocence in music, a period before the cynicism set in, a time before you had to filter out the boring, average, production-line music. This compilation is not be missed.

In the world of New York City salsa, Los Soneros del Barrio have carved out a name for themselves with their rough, tough barrio beats. They are purveyors of real 100 percent ass-kicking roots salsa. Sonoros del Barrio is one of the leading exponents of the salsa dura style. Alongside bands like Wayne Gorbea, Willie Villegas and Jimmy Bosch, they are holding the torch high for the "real" salsa music. Los Soneros were formed a few years ago by vocalist Frankie Vasquez and star musical director and keyboard player Martin Arroyo. Martin unfortunately died last year, and his place at the piano stool has been replaced by the equally talented Ricky Gonzales. The results of this new lineup are available now: Remembranzas (Azucar Music/Rumba Jams) is just as good as their previous release which produced quite a few dance-floor hits and a good, well-rounded home-listening experience.

Remembranzas is equally overflowing with the fruits of good music. It contains a fine selection of great songs from the top end of Latin music of the last three to four decades. The superb Tite Curet Alonso, one of the best writers of the '70s, has a couple of his classics updated. The Lebron Brothers' "Amazona" gets a really groovy update, while Ismael Rivera's "La Cumbita" drips with a lovely jazzed-up arrangement where the horn section really flies.

The lineup on this cd is top notch and includes one of the greatest timbaleros ever, the phenomenal Jimmy Delgado. Any combo that features a baritone sax is already speeding along on the freeway to the center of my heart. Here Vincent Velez is the man with his foot on the pedal. His booting sax really gives the horn section mucho gravitas and a serious bottom end.

Mega-multi instrumentalist Johnny Polanco and his band Conjunto Amistad have been setting the Latin West Coast alight for many years. The band is hard-working team; if you look at a list of their bookings then you see they are often playing a couple of places every week, week in, week out. His first release, L.A. Amistad (Tonga), did very well, and the opening track off it, "La Receta," became quite an underground dance-floor hit.

And not surprisingly choice cuts spill out from his second release Pa'l Bailador (Morrowland). The selection of tunes on offer here are exemplary: You get fantastic cuts like Irakere's "Xiomara," a great tune that gets another fantastic outing, while Ismael Miranda's "Me Voy Pa' Colombia" rips along with a double trombone groove. The mixture of original songs and classics on this release are a showcase for a variety of vocalists to step forward. The great Ray De La Paz, Freddie Crespo and Herman Olivera all shine with a mature ear for a good tune, played by a firing and experienced band. This release is certainly worth checking out for the quality of the production, the kicking arrangements and the just pure and simple rootsiness of it. If only more salsa releases stood out head and shoulders above average like Pa'l Bailador.

In early December last century Gilbert Calderon, AKA Joe Cuba, was seriously ill in hospital in New York with blood poisoning. The leader and conga player of the Joe Cuba Sextet, Joe, a born New Yorker who still lives in Spanish Harlem, is known as a real joker. The band was one of the leading lights in the '60s and early '70s Latin soul style, responsible for countless albums and many classics of the genre like "Bang Bang," "Push Push," "El Pito" and "Hey Joe, Hey Joe" just to mention a few. By early February this year, he had still managed to outwit Señor Reaper. Joe was quoted as saying in the hospital, "I saw Tito standing in front of me with Charlie Palmieri and they said they needed a conguero and I said bullshit, man, you better get someone better than me cause I ain't ready to go yet"

Jimmy Sabater was Joe's regular timbales player and occasional vocalist from the old days. They first met playing stickball in the street in 1951. Jimmy has a real interesting album out at the moment. Titled Mo: Jimmy Sabater con Son Boricua (Cobo), this release has it all, dripping with true soul and sabor. What makes this recording stand out from the crowd is it is one of those unusual, quite really off-beat cds with a devil-may-care attitude about itself. The stonking tunes line up to be counted, like Ruben Blades' "El Numero Seis" and Tito Rodriguez's "De Enero A Enero." And "Desconfianza" (Been There, Done That) which builds up to a massive tsunami of riddim.

The guest musicians do their very best, like monster timbales player Nicky Marreo, who graced the sound of more great Latin groups than you can shake a stick at, from 1967 Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe to the Fania All Stars. A.J. Mantas provides the flowing vibes, Ricky Gonzales is obviously a busy man and is also the piano player here, while the musical director is top percussion man Jose Mangual Jr.

Jimmy's vocals are slightly rough and gruff round the edges (what do you expect when you have been singing for 50 years!), but he still sounds like Mr. Smooth.

"How can unreleased tracks be considered a "best of" a particular group?" asked a somewhat-cynical friend of mine about the two Bob Marley tunes that pop up on Jesus Alemany and Cubanismo's greatest-hits compilation Mucho Gusto! (HannibalRykodisc), which are described as being previously unreleased.

"Just give em time." I offered the opinion because "Get Up, Stand Up," and "Could You Be Loved" are particularly successful examples of the Cuban reggae style, particularily "Get Up, Stand Up." I can tell in my old bones that they certainly are going to be popular out on the dance floor.

Jesus Alemany used to play trumpet with old Cuban son exponents Sierra Maestra. Juan De Marcos Gonzales was the leader and main man with Sierra Maestra. The Afro Cuban Allstars, Juan De Marcos' Cuban big-band extravaganza, shares members of Cubanisimo. Now it looks like De Marcos has gone forward in time to do a modern Sierra Maestra revival. But not a straight new recording of the old style. World Music Network will have this new recording, Rumbero Soy, out soon. In the PR blurb that comes with this release it talks about the contribution of "genre-hopping guitarist Marc Ribot." Now I am not sure about this all genre-hopping stuff; I am quite happy with someone to be superb in playing the guitar in just a few styles. As far as I remember both the tres and cuatro players in Sierra Maestra were able play everything just fine.

There seems to be a screaming guitar on a couple of tracks from Ribot, which does not sit well with the son sound. Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo sit in for some nice guest vocals. All in all, well, I realize musicians gotta work and they want to get new audiences and make some money, but give me the old Sierra Maestra stuff. I'd even be quite happy with their World Circuit hit Dundunbanza, let alone the other 25 albums they have recorded over the years, which may not have been produced by someone with 11 number-one hits to their name. They may not feature genre-hoppers, but are original and unrestored, and do not need tinkering with. Maybe Juan De Marcos should have worked with Radio Tarifa on this new release.

I really liked the version of the Afro-Cuban Allstars band that I saw last year. It is a real treat to see a traditional big band in full flight. Just seeing two rows of horn players stacked up at the back is a very rare sight these days. Ex-Van Van lead singer Pedrito Calvo was the lead vocalist: I'd seen him several times before with Los Van Van, but he fit in with the Afro-Cuban Allstars as if he had always been singing with them and showed what a great vocalist he still is.

Pedrito has a solo effort out at the moment which is very worthy of your attention. Te la Tenia Escondida (Egrem) is a real nice retro release-when I say this release is retro, I mean late '70s-early '80s retro. Quite a few of the old Los Van Van hits from that period get wheeled out for this new outing, cuts that Pedrito made famous, like "La Habana No Aguanta Mas" and "Se Acabo El Querer." They also sound very good on exposure to the sunshine, especially "Se Acabo el Querer," which has a real bite to it. I like this cd: Some of the tracks might not work as well as others, but most work fine and it really does swing-in extremis. It has a slightly rough-and-ready sound, but hell, the best stuff is always like that. Te la Tenia Escondida is the perfect antidote for when you are suffering an overdose of modern big-banging timba.

I suppose we are possibly looking at nearly the end of the Los Van Van dynasty, one of the great Cuban musical institutions. Half of the main characters and protagonists have gone solo, and the remainder of Los Van Van are now embroiled in a legal argument with the Babylon, belly-of-the-beast global label that put out their last album.

Haji Mike is an old spar of mine. Poet, philosopher, Cypriot raggamuffin, donkey's years ago we used to do a session together over in Hoxton, in what was then a rough area of NE London, at a place called Charlie Wright's International Bar, run by a Nigerian called John.

Now back home in Cyprus, Haji Mike continues to peddle his subversive poetry around. Via a United Nations grant, he and fellow conspirator Mike Minas have produced a four-track cd titled Weeping Island: Vira Vira!, featuring poems talking about the divided state of Cyprus.

"A Pair of Olive Leaves" features Haji with Neshe Yashin and Netha Kerouzos in a free-flowing lyrical sweep with a slappin' bass line. "Lemon Tree" has female poet Tina Kellis with a sharp spoken tale. Then "Darkness" (Kaimak Rermix) finds Haji taking the bass road. Finally, Neshe Yashin talks her way through "Gondermesiz Mektuplar." Cyprus might just get united-at least the two sides are talking these days.

"Peace," as Mr. Haji used to say often.

Copyright 2002 Dave Hucker

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