(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 21, Number 4, 2002)
Oh no, not another kolo."
I felt a river of sweat in full flood down my spine. "This is crazy, I got to get out of here, I can't take another ring dance."
It had all started the previous evening. That had been a Wednesday and it had been one of those really nice late spring London days. The sky was bright blue, the air was crisp and fresh, and it felt like there was a long-overdue warmness just 'round the corner. Down on London's South Bank arts center basking in the rare sun, lying in front of the faded '50s facade of the Royal Festival Hall was a really mixed collection of people: young and old dressed from hip to conservative, and the predominant language hanging in the air was Slavian. They, like me, were there to see Serbian iconoclastic singer and composer Goran Bregovic and the Weddings and Funerals Band.
Strolling through the assembled Serbs before the concert I bumped into an old chum of mine from Yorkshire who is of Slav descent. He was down south because some relation of his was getting married. We chatted, and one thing led to another and I found myself participating in a Serbian wedding at a faux alpine-style roadhouse hotel/motel in Braintree, deep in the Essex badlands. The groom looked like an archetypal Serb thick-necked gangster in his expensive Italian suit and was walking around with a huge spliff in his mouth, which he claimed was the best Albanian weed. I had been pursued by a girl who told me she had gone to a faith healer but had caught an incurable disease-maybe she had been at the wacky baccy as well. But how was I going to get home? To sort myself out I hit the faux Bavarian coffee shop, but unlike the real ones in Bavaria it was closed. So I was denied a fix of extra dense coffee and a energizing jolt from a sugar-rich pastry.
I found my mind fleety-footing back to Wednesday and Goran-it had been his only English show. Onto the stage filed an eight-piece brass band who took up stations at the back. To the left of the stage were a trio of women vocalists from Sofia doing the polyphonic warbling bits as only those big Bulgarian women's choirs can do. At the front sat a percussionist and accordion player, while to his right Goran, a slight figure in a white suit, sat and played guitar, tambourine drum and a laptop. I had never seen any of the films Goran has done the soundtracks for, or heard his collaboration with Iggy Pop. But I quickly warmed to his style which certainly mixed traditional Serbian bits and bobs with other things like on "Gypsy Reggae," which is certainly an accurate description of the elements featured, or "Underground Tango-Ausencia." His song "Kalas-nikov," which he described as "a song about the soldiers in my country who like to walk around with guns," with its oompah beat and ironic lyrics, is obviously the massive hit, so massive he had to play it twice, sending the audience into a frenzy of arm-waving. I was very impressed with Goran's humor: He quipped about the cost of the band, "Funerals are expensive, weddings are half price." www.goranbregovic.co.yu
I had tripped across Balkan music earlier when a few years ago I saw Taraf de Haidouks. This bunch of old geezers from Clejani, a Gypsy village in Romania, totally blew me away-BVSC eat your hearts out, these cats really know how to rock. The accumulated age of this 13-piece band must clock in at more than 700 years. Their Band of Gypsies (Crammed Disc/Nonesuch) is a very good sampler of their incredible live show, recorded over three concerts in Bucharest. It captures the verve and swing of the four violins, three accordions, double bass, flute, cymbalines and guitars. Lightning riffs cascade through the rhythms, violins bounce off the accordions, the singing is soulful and moving with hauntingly beautiful melodies. Certainly if these guys come through your village I recommend you do not miss them.
Another Balkan goodie that has caught my attention is Saban Bajramovic and his cd Gypsy Legend (World Connection). From Mostar, Bosnia-Herze-govina, Saban is considered the king of Gypsy music, a true living legend. During the early Tito period he had been imprisoned, and when released in 1964, according to the sleeve notes, he put out a single and with his earnings bought a white suit, a white Mercedes and two bodyguards. His last recordings were in the '80s but since the breakup of Yugoslavia he had totally disappeared. Tracked down by Dutch-based producer Dra-gi Ses-tic to the Gypsy ghetto of Nis, this new cd, recorded in the Music Centre Pava-rotti in Mostar, is breathtakingly great music. The scars on Saban's face and his gravely voice tell of the hard life he has lived, the songs pour out emotion, especially on "Pelno Me Sam," where he sings about writing from prison and asking his mother to sell the house so he can get out of jail. So a welcome return for Saban: The feelings he imparts, and the way he emphasizes and plays with the meanings of the songs show that he is a true, true master. I was very happy to discover him.
I was in Crete looking out at the haphazard patchwork quilt of fields with their linear rows of olive groves and vines, stretching right up to the mountains. The next-door neighbors had the radio on all the time, which was playing a solid diet of classic Cretan tunes, the big hits. I do like the sound of Cretan music-those scratchy upright violins and the modulated vocals, and I especially like the ethereal flute music. But sitting there, I considered why was it that music makes perfect sense for me in its original setting and context but not for me at home. When I've got the answer I'll let you know.
However, recorded in London and sounding perfectly in context is London Is the Place For Me (Honest Jon's), the second release on a new label based around Honest Jon's record shop in Ladbroke Grove, West London. Honest Jon's has been a prime purveyor of a diverse selection of high-quality music, everything from jazz to dub via Africa, Brazil, trip hop and beyond. I have been buying music from them since the early 1970s. The label is a joint effort between the record store and one of the many musicians who live around the area, Damon Alburn of indie-pop group Blur. He contributed their first release Mali Music, which he recorded in Mali with a variety of musicians and their friends like Afel Bocoum, Toumani Diabate and Kassy Mady. London Is the Place For Me is an absolutely fantastic collection of calypsos recorded in London 1950-56, which apart from being great music are a real slice of true social history with their musings about the experiences and views of the new West Indian immigrants. Calypso luminaries such as Lord Kitchener, Young Tiger, Lord Beginner, The Lion, Mighty Terror and Timothy provide a whole heap of great tunes that give a real insight into the life of the latest newcomers to these islands in those difficult years.
The first large-scale immigration into England from the Caribbean began in 1948. The very first boat that left Jamaica on Empire Day, May 24 was the SS Windrush, and Lord Kitchener was on it. There is a famous piece of newsreel footage which features him singing "London Is the Place For Me" on the dockside at Tilbury as the line of immigrants, all dressed in their Sunday best, disembark. Recorded for the Melodisc label, these songs have a wonderful directness and immediacy. In the title song Lord Kitchener proclaims that after traveling all over the globe, London is the best city in the world (though in this country he actually ended up living in Manchester). Young Tiger tells us "I Was at (the Coronation)" where he describes waiting out all night to get a good vantage point for the parade and that despite the wind being very cold he "held my ground like a young Creole." Lord Beginner gives us a take on mixed marriages in "Mix Up Matrimony," where he states that mixed marriages are very fashionable and the new thing, also that "racial segregation is gone to hell." With a chorus that begins "Incorporate and amalgamate" the message is that "marriage is a-mixing and the races are a-mixing," all blending harmoniously together. A bit of an optimistic view, but eventually true.
Out of 20 tracks on this collection Kitch provides us with nine. His ever-sharp observation talents make "My Landlady" a great insight into the world of the immigrant rooming house and their draconian landladies. There was a photograph taken in Ladbroke Grove in the '50s which featured a sign in the front window of a rooming house which stated "No blacks, dogs or Irish." In those days the houses were all Rachman-type slums. Now those same houses go for a £1,000,000 a pop. His "Bebop Calypso" is exactly that-a jaunty and melodic paean to Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. On his celebration of independence in Ghana-"Birth of Ghana"-the guitar gives us very sweet highlife touches while the conga slaps away and a jazzy piano passes through. "Kitch in the Jungle" leads out with a percussion line then drops into a sort of paranda-very nice. On "Underground Train" he manages to turn a story about getting lost on the Underground into a tale featuring a romantic liaison. Beginner's "Victory Test Match" features a beautiful clarinet and in his "Housewives" he doffs his cap to the toughness and resourcefulness of the English housewife having to feed a whole family, including the grandparents, during post-war food rationing. He also gives us "Fed-A-Ray" which is actually sung in Yoruba. This shango song, which should be called "Fidaré," is about a god of safekeeping who protects the "de réré man"-the one who is possessed.
In "No Carnival in Britain," Mighty Terror bemoans the fact there was no carnival here--that eventually happened in the late '60s with the creation of the Notting Hill Carnival. (Mighty Terror now lives in a retirement home in the south London suburb of Croydon.) Lion sings in sort of Spanglish on his "Spanish Song" which is a memorable little jumper. London Is the Place For Me turns full circle and ends with Kitch's disillusionment about life in England with "Sweet Jamaica" where he complains about the scarcity of food and a definite lack of warmth and he wishes he was back in the Caribbean. The whole cd package (and vinyl, being as this is a record shop) is quite superb with great period photos of London and the musicians, and comprehensive sleeve notes. Full marks to Honest Jon's for this compelling release which is essential listening for anyone who likes old-style calypso. [Distributed by EMI]
If you are interested getting some insights about what it was like in London in those days, a worthwhile read is novelist Colin McInnes' City of Spades which is set in '50s Brixton, while his later Absolute Beginners is in Ladbroke Grove. Now the Grove is home to the Spanish, Portuguese and Moroccans who followed the West Indians who had followed the Irish. These days add Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Russia, the Balkans and everywhere else around the world to the mix of people who have lived here longer than the newcomers and that is the state of play in the Grove today.
In my salsa music you know I will always plump for the roots stuff, and that I am frequently rooting for the NY/Boroughs salsa dura/gorda vein of heavy-duty grooves. A real nice example of real tough Bronx hardcore salsa comes in a release by Dave Santiago and Latin Affair (Dave Santiago Records). There are two generations of Santiagos here, Sr. as executive producer and Jr. as flutist and band leader. The kicking band plays with mucho gusto and vocalists Louis Rodriquez and Pete Pagan do a very fine job. A cracking tune called "Chibola" opens up proceedings, a bit further down the line comes a scorching version of "La Botija de Abuelito." The last time I saw this classic song done was by violinist Alfredo de la Fe on his 1985 album Made in Colombia-that particular version has been a staple of my dj set for 17 years. There is not a weak cut to be found anywhere throughout this stonking release. The arrangements are mercurial, flashing about in a very satisfying way courtesy of musical director and 'bone player Rick Faulkner. The playing is exemplary and totally faultless throughout, and just to prove how radical and roots this release is there is even a poem! Dave Santiago and Latin Affair is a real hot pick, dancing happily alongside such stars of the salsa dura style like Wayne Gorbea, Jimmy Bosch and Soneros del Barrio.
A really interesting release which is claimed to be a new one, but has a 1999 date on the cover is called El Regreso de Las Estrellas del Ayer (YoYo). It is basically Alvaro Del Castillo and Tuto Jimenez, the first vocalists from seminal Colombian band Grupo Niche, who redo a shed-load of all the great hits that the band had with them as singers. A whopping 15 tracks flood over the spillway at you, all classics like "Buena-ventura y Caney" and "Mi Negra la Calentura." The musicians on this recording are all culled from various top-notch Colombian outfits like Grupo Gale, so there is no problem with the music-it is very punchy and swinging. I can see this release becoming a fave on the dance floor: To Colom-bians, the original Niche are like gods and also the Colombians do like to hear the same tunes over and over again.
Pianist Eddie Palmieri has gone back to his roots on his latest release La Perfecta II (Concord Picante). La Perfecta was the name of his group in the early '70s. Half of this cd is new versions of the great tunes that La Perfecta made famous like "El Molestoso," "Cuidate Compay," "Tu Tu Ta Ta," "Ay Que Rico" and the magnificent "Tirandote Flores." The rest of La Perfecta II is cracking Latin jazz cuts. Top-quality stuff: After 40 years in the biz Eddie can still make the hairs on your neck stand up.
Charanga Habanera are quite rightly considered one of the hottest live Cuban acts. There is a double cd out now of them performing in Miami titled Live in the USA (Ciocan Music). If you want a slice of their deep-bump stage show then look no further than this excellent release. However what you do get on this recording, as well as the extended version of the songs and wildness of their show, is exactly how good the backing vocals are. This is something not always obvious or evident in their studio recordings. Well worth checking out.
Charanga Forever are made up of members of the previous incarnation of Charanga Habanera and have a new release out simply titled Charanga Forever (Fantastica). Recorded in France during a tour there, it is not as immediate and attention- grabbing as their previous release, La Charanga Soy Yo which was just ram-packed to the gunnels with memorable tracks. But it does have its moments, especially on "Dice Formell (Somos La Charanga)."
Rhythmx: Reluque Batuque (Far Out) is quite an intriguing compilation of modern reworkings of tracks from oldster Brazilian combo Grupo Batuque. The reworkings-or you might call it a sort of re-fettling-are by various remix specialists like New York's Masters at Work and London's Roc Hunter and it is a resounding success. London-based Far Out Recordings specializes in Brazilian music, they have a solid catalogue of reissues and also are instrumental in helping create these new variants of the classic tunes that are so popular on today's left-field dance floors.
I always thought the sound of the music of the mountains was the wind, until the Rough Guides to Alpine, Himalayan and Appalachian mountain music dropped through my door. I always respect their compilations so I gave them a spin, especially as I am a total dufus and knew nothing about Alpine or Himalayan music, so possibly at least I might learn something. I soon took the Alps one off. I could find nothing to interest me: Where was the sound of cow/goat bells and the edelweiss? The Himalayas one at least would be more meditative. Well, it was. But my putting-things-out-of-context rule applied here. As I am only a few hundred feet above sea level here in Wormwood Scrubs, it means the pure oxygen rush of the rarefied air of the mountains didn't get to my polluted lungs. The Appalachians, well, very nice, but what about the old music? This compilation seems to be all modern stuff. Myself, I'm looking forward to the Rough Guide to Swampland compilation of insect-ridden riddims from around the world.
Copyright 2002 Dave Hucker