(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 18, Number 3, 1999)


This merengue business is getting out of control. I mean, it's almost too much, beyond just being big, certainly too big for me to ignore anymore. It has become a full-fledged phenomenon, touching down in many different areas of musical activity, places that you would not necessarily link together.

But then like all Caribbean music, merengue is a fusion, in this case from Africa and Spain. In the 19th century it was a popular dance music featuring the horizontally played tambora drum, tres, guira and guitar. By the 20th century the accordion had largely replaced the guitar. In the 1950s Luis Kaloff was the king of the raw rootsy style. By the 70s Johnny Ventura was the hot bandleader with his spectacular dancing and tight brass arrangements. He was quickly followed in the late 70s by singer Chucho Valoy and another of the great founders of what is known as the modern merengue style: Wilfrido Vargas.

Wilfrido's first hit came in 1978 with his release Punto y Aparte. He went on to create not only a huge number of crossover hits during the 80s like "El Africano," that featured elements of other Caribbean music like soca and zouk. But he also set up the stable of artists based around the Karen label who would generate the action through this decade, a period when merengue fans proudly said their music was more popular than salsa, citing its lack of complexity in the dance steps as an aid to freer artistic expression in the moves, while the salsa fans complained the merengue rhythm was too monotonous, bemoaning the simplicity of the steps.

The most popular of these artists was the all-female group Las Chicas Del Can, who hit big in 1989 with the somewhat cheesy-sounding but hugely popular "Juana la Cubana." Other stars at this time were the New York Band, Jossie Esteban y la Patrulla 15, the Altamira band and the ever popular Cocoband, who are just as good today.

By the 90s merengue's star was waning. But a 12" remix of "Juana la Cubana," subtitled "Wild in the House," showed one possible way forward. At that time house music was only just starting to break big outside of Europe and also in America where it started to move out of the Chicago and New York clubs that had originally created it. Merengue and house were made for each other with their 2s and 4s on the floor beats. So a new variation began to evolve centered on the meren-rap and meren-house scene. Existing within the hotbed of "yoot" music activity in Miami, Puerto Rico and New York, artists (well, call me old-fashioned but in my mind four rappers and backing tapes does not constitute a musical group) such as Projecto Uno, Sandy and Papo MC and Los Illegales have become big stars of this whole huge movement, alongside characters like Panamanian El General, who has contributed many classics to this recent oeuvre.

I particularly like Sandy and Papo MC. Their innovative meren-rap style is always amusing and the killer cuts really do move. They were in at the beginning of the Eurohouse/meren tip with tunes off their first eponymous cd release on Parcha, full of big populist thumpers like "Mueve Mueve I Like to Move It," "Candela" and "La Hora de Bailar." If anything in this style could be called cutting edge, then Sandy and Papo MC are certainly there. There is a remix album of their stuff out, handily called Sandy and Papo MC: The Remix Album (Parcha), which I find actually quite useful for the rhythmically unsophisticated big-thump section of the musical journey I take my punters on.

I do not mind this kind of populist stuff in small doses. But it can get a bit much. The hassle I get from certain quarters to play 1000 mph techno-merengue does get a bit wearying. I have in fact rebelled against this pressure, preferring to play the slower or more-traditional tunes like things off Yo Voy Por Ti (BMG), the newie from Puerto Rican band Karis, another combo very popular with the youth, and you can hear why: This is a really tough slice of modern merengue. The four male vocalists, whose menacing presence on the cover shots belies their emotional voices, weave thick layers over the top-quality musicians in the seven-piece backing band. The band hits the groove and then just starts chopping and changing the rhythm seamlessly. Superb quality stuff. Another little goodie that gets slipped in when I m in a merengue mood is a promo single from the MP label, Tiene Cara Bonita by the 17-year-old Alessander, which bumps along nicely with honkin sax.

As I said earlier merengue is getting quite ridiculously big and seeping through into all kind of areas. From the ridiculous to the sublime is a cut off rebel c&w singer Ned Sublette's release Cowboy Rumba (Palm Pictures). What is this tune in question that has the dancers going bozo over it? Yippie ya yeh, Yippie yah yoh. It's "Ghost Riders in the Sky." That's right, the old classic gets a merengue work-over. And it works, fantastically. It has become a instant classic on my dance floor, eliciting much wonder as to what it actually is. Mutant rockabilly guitar opens up the proceedings before the merengue drops in. This is not a novelty tune, even though it has a certain novelty value. This is straight down-the-line, real genuine merengue, and tough with it as well! But it's all getting too much, meren this, meren that, meren the other.

Arggghhh, doctor help me, I ve got a meren-hernia.

The latest release from Cuban son rebels Jovenes Clasicos del Son, Fruta Bomba (Tumi), is a much more satisfying effort than their previous outing, which didn t really gel musically and support the strength the band shows in their live shows. Founded in 1994, their original sound and vision of old-but-modern Cuban music gave them the award for the new best Cuban group 1997 by the state label Egrem. This debut album for Tumi Records shows the playful nature of their subtle re-workings of traditional son to much better effect. They have a great lineup now including lead singer Nene's startling vocals. It sounds like it's all come together. The big tune on the floor is "Esa Mujer El Traguito."

One of the more interesting things I ve come across recently emanating from Colombia is a release by Luis Alberto, Salsa, Sonero y Son (Discos Fuentes), a very sophisticated mix of salsa with cumbia, recorded with members of many top Colombian bands, including Grupo Gale. Vocalist and bandleader Luis leads with a great voice and some swinging arrangements. One of the standout tracks, "Desahogo," starts off in a mid-paced groove which builds in intensity, a baritone sax drops in for a growl, then it all comes together for a rousing climax. Top-quality songs (there's even a nice pan-Caribbean reggae tune) and interesting arrangements pack out this impressive debut release.

I'm sure that in the late 40s in Matanzas, Cuba, someone commented that the young percussionist Francisco Aguabella was someone to keep an eye on. Quite rightly, by 1957 he was making an impact on the American music scene along with fellow drummers Mongo Santamaria, Patato Valdez and Candido, eliciting the comment from Dizzy Gillespie that "Francisco was the John Coltrane of the drum."

He has a new release out now, Agua De Cuba, his first for Cubop but only his fourth release since 1962 as a Latin jazz bandleader! It showcases his incredible Afro-jazz drumming; the roosty Latin jazz rushes out at you with an furious intensity, the sort of hard 70s music that became huge on the Latin jazz dance scene and collectors market. You could say they don t make this kind of record anymore--well, they do actually, and the proof is in this fantastic release. The ensemble playing is superb, especially trombone player Isaac Smith. If you like your Latin jazzy or your jazz Latiny then this one is most certainly for you. Top notch.

I am pleased to report another banging track from an English salsa band, Salsasonica, "It's Not What You Got (No Quiero Nada Contigo)" from their two-track cd titled Al Fin (Wild Indigo). are led by ex-Salsa y Ache singer Daniela Rosselson. Salsa y Ache was an almost-all-female band that was around a few years ago, and after their demise Daniela set up this band which features all the usual top-quality London Latin suspects in the musician department. I do have to keep emphasizing just how good these guys are nowadays. They can stand up proudly with the best Latinos. The big tune "It's Not What You ve Got" is a very nice late-night groove that has bilingual storyline with Daniela and female rapper Julie Dexter putting the boys straight about their bad attitude. It all works very well, the rap, or rather I should say spoken comments, drops in and out nicely, integrating together properly with the story. Things build before it drops into a bloco break then moves into a banging Cuban-style groove. It really does work on the floor, and it is definitely shaping up to be a big hit. You can get this directly from Salsasonica, 107 Camden Mews, London NW1 9AH. Tell em I sent you.

I will be looking forward to seeing what Merengada, the other U.K. band that made a tune good enough to be an international hit, will do with their next release. After the huge worldwide success of their version of "No Woman No Cry," which was such a simple, good idea and so brilliantly executed, the follow-up will be the difficult one.

And now to a release of momentous importance, a release so magnificent there should be a global public holiday to commemorate its issue. I am talking about the Fela Kuti box sets. The Barclay label in France has put together a pair of sumptuous box sets of every record Fela did in his best period from 1971 to 1980. This is a really comprehensive and beautifully produced set, with six records, all with their original sleeves in each one, a large booklet with rare photos and an essay, plus separate color prints of the highly decorated dancers/wives. The recordings have been cleaned up a bit, but they are as they were recorded.

The albums are not chronologically arranged between the two sets, so you zip backwards and forwards in the years, 7'1 to '80 via '73, 7'6, '77 and '80 in volume one, and '72, '75, '76, '77 and '80 in volume two. And another thing, I m talking real vinyl here. For those of us with vinyl fetishes and failing eyesight, unable or unwilling to read the three-point type on cd boxes, this is like manna from heaven (though it will come out on cd). Even if you have some of the original lps, these sets are essential for the very rare and previously difficult to find albums you will discover here, as well as being pleasing tactile objects in their own right.

Volume one opens up with 1971's "Open and Close." This is a classic, a permanent resident in my playing box, with its percussion break a few minutes into the track that climaxes as the horns let rip and things charge along at a ferocious pace. 1973 brings us "Gentleman," which has Fela free-forming on the sax before the rhythm drops chunkily in. Trumpeter Tunde Williams steps forward to give us an example of his warm playing in a solo before Fela joins in on sax, piano, then vocals. A pointed anti-colonial stance where he denies he is a gentleman, saying, "I no be gentleman at all-o, African hot, I like am so. I know what to wear."

One of 1976's offerings is the superb "Upside Down" featuring Fela's long-time friend Sandra Isadore on vocals; she had helped him with his first record in America. Here she provides a stirring soulful, almost gospel vocal with a radical pro-African theme. Another of the stone classic Fela cuts. The other release from that year, though recorded in 1975 is "Yellow Fever." I was anxious to have this one--it was one of the things missing from my Fela collection. Now I am a happy camper.

1977 brought us "J.D.D (Johnny Just Drop) Live at Kalakuta Republik." This is a long, rambling live recording at the Shrine nightclub. Not the best Fela ever, but a live curiosity, interesting, but for the die-hard fan only. Volume one is topped out by 1980s "I.T.T (International Thief Thief)," one of Fela's best ever, a majestic rant against foreign corporations taking all the money from Africa. And then what money that was left in the country was appropriated into personal Swiss bank accounts by the lootacracy.

Volume two, which features a couple of really rare albums, roars into being with the seminal "Shakara" from 1972. This album was my personal introduction to Fela Kuti and also to African music. It still has the power to move you--certainly "Shakara" is in the all-time top five Fela releases. Raw, rough and powerful, this groove is deep, proto-Afro-beat. Unbeatable.

"Expensive Shit" came in 1975, with a cover showing Fela and a posse of his bare-breasted female friends/dancers/wives standing behind barbed wire giving the clenched fist Black Power salute. The piano opens things up, then Tunde Williams adds his honeyed trumpet. For lovers of the trumpet Tunde is a god, equal to some of the greats of jazz trumpet like Lee Morgan. This is a massive recording, no shit. 1975 also bought us "Monkey Banana" which is a pretty rare but great one. I had never managed to lay my hands on a copy of this. Its mellow groove is very captivating, the jazziness marinates through to every fiber of the rhythm. Absolutely superb.

1976's offering is another equally rare record, "Na Poi," an lp I ve always wanted. On this one Fela sounds completely, totally spliffed out, not an easy task for him. And not only him, the band is really out there as well. The rhythm keeps breaking down into chunky guitar, drum and bass licks in all kind of a very funky manner. This really is the point where James Brown and Fela Kuti strut the same stage together. Indeed Fela comments at one point "The machine they walk a now, this one not the sex machine, this one a music machine." This has a serious and jazzily funked out groove with a lot of bump, and is very radical with its heavy percussion breaks. The weed must have been extra strong that day.

"Sorrow Tears and Blood" needs no introduction. 1977's classic call for freedom is one of Fela's best, probably in the chart at about number three. Essential for anyone. 1980's "Authority Stealing" brings us up to the final part of his best period, another swipe at government corruption and salting away of public funds for personal use, and not only in Nigeria. It is as apt today as 20 years ago. Fela was the most radical ambassador Africa ever had, musically and politically. This is a beautifully packaged, totally essential collection. So, I will see you all next year at the first celebration of the new Fela Kuti box set public holiday down at the Shrine nightclub.

Copyright 1999 Dave Hucker

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