(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 22, Number 4, 2002)
Was it really 10 years ago that Africando was launched upon an unsuspecting world? Who would have believed that in that time they would become a household name in large parts of the globe? And that the entity that is Africando with its guru, arranger/all-round genius Boncana Maiga at the helm, would have brought together so many singers and musical elements from the Diaspora, pushed at the boundaries of Afro-Caribbean music, sold zillions of cds and inspired similar projects such as Haitiando. Had I been blessed with the benefit of foresight I could have suggested that by their sixth release they would have achieved the lofty heights they have actually reached these days. But I'm not endowed with such a talent.
Africando's latest release Martina (Stern's) is upon us, and it is of course a fine, fine effort, keeping up the standards, constantly confounding us and continually grabbing our interest. Martina is dedicated to the women of Africa and in its 11 tracks takes us musically all over the place. Keeping to the proven concept of recording with session musicians in New York and voicing in Europe and Africa, Martina has some megagrooves that will be agitating dancefloors everywhere. As a listening cd it will also take up permanent residence in many people's lives.
"Lindas Africanas," a firing charanga, opens up the proceedings. The vocals, led by Gnonnas Pedro, bounce the ensemble backwards and forwards, the violins saw away sampling little snippets of classic tunes, then it's back to the piano and into a bass-and-drum break. Following that is one of the standouts on this release, "Temedi," where Sekouba Bambino's vocal subtly weaves a trail through Sub Sahel salsa. This tune will certainly be one of the big dance floor hits off Martina round the world.
Ismael Lô makes his debut for Africando with the exquisite string-drenched re-run delicacy "Lote Lô," perfectly showcasing his unique vocal style. Amadou Balake provides us with another monumental moment with "Abibou," which also gets the Puerto Rico treatment when vocalist Joe King does a Spanish version. One of the top tunes on Martina comes from Nyboma and Kester Emeneya dueting on "Reference," a silky smooth rumba with sleek guitars, firing horns and a rampant cowbell. One of the new additions to the vocal department is Senegal's Adama Seka, who contributes a cracking tune with "Dioumte." Martina continues the tradition of yet another good release from Africando and as an added treat novelist Mark Hudson provides us with the sleeve notes.
A while ago I got all salivary over Champeta Criolla Vol. 2. One of the tracks on this album that had got me dribbling was "Ataole," a prime slice of Colombian Afrobeat by Batata y Su Rumba Palenquera. This number now surfaces with the first solo release by its creator Batata on his Radio Bakongo (Network). The rest of the cd is extremely deep as well. Batata is the nickname of Paulino Salgado, master drummer from San Basilio de Palenque, a village of Cimarron runaway slaves in the Montes de Maria and still a place proud of its Africanness. Seventy-four-year-old Batata was Toto Mom-posina's main drummer for 20 years, coming from a musical family in Palenque: his father was a healer as well as drummer, his mother was the singer La Lu Valdez.
This first solo release from Batata is a well-stocked cornucopia of delights. It is rough, tough and steeped in rum, a very pure rum which marinates the proceedings with a powerful kick. This is really way-out-there stuff, a perfect example of the other side of the Africando coin distilled through a different boiler. Triple distilled in fact. On Radio Bakongo you will find veteran Congo guitar luminaries Dally Kimoko and Rigo Star joining with Colombian vocalists Luis Towers and Viviano Torres to create some stunning cross-continent tropical grooves of a very potent nature.
Like Africando, it was recorded here and there, Bogotá to Paris in this case, so it is a thoroughly modern traditional sort of mix up. There are five tracks described as son Palenque but personally I would prefer to call them mutant son. If you like your Cuban son rough and pure then you will find Batata right up your calle. Cuban engineers working at the local sugar refinery had brought the son to the attention of Batata's uncle who formed a band called Sexteto Habanero de Palenque.
The tracks are described as examples of Colombian Afrobeat, cumbia soukous, porro champeta, soukous tropical and porro highlife, so we are in a pretty serious fusion situation and the grizzled tones of Batata's voice and his roots drumming runs strongly on top of it all.
Running through the tracks, "Arriba Voy, Abajo Vengo" is one of the son palenques and jumps along with a joyous trumpet. "El Cascabel," the cumbia soukous, has a visceral trombone and Batata breaks sweat to pound the skins. "La Vida Es Muy Bonita" is a gentle son with a melodic accordion and muted trumpet. "Fuego" is a son with attitude, starting slowly as the accordion tickles you, then it all kicks in and struts its stuff as a mutant son when the accordion goes wild. A porro champeta in the shape of "Clave y Martillo" features a clarinet and drum duel plus Dally Kimoko and vocalist 3615 Code Niawu who look after the African end of things. And what a journey it is as it goes rhythmically in a circle. "La Maya" is one of the most mutant of the mutant sons here, a real stormer of a track.
The accordion duels with a clarinet in "Las Cruces de Palenque," while "La Reina de los Jardines," a soukous tropical, starts out slow-slow then rips into a megagroove with the accordion dancing along and veering towards zouk. This radical and extreme release features long-time Colombian Caribbean fusion vocalist Luis Towers and his chum Viviano Torres from the seminal Colombian band Grupo Kerube.
"Pobre Mi Corazon" has mambo horns blasting four square as its son mutates in a different direction. This great release is topped out by "Macaco Mata El Toro," 6.22 of totally madcap tune claiming its ancestorship as a porro highlife. Featuring Rigo Star, 3615 Code Niawu and Luis Towers and Viviano Torres on wild vocals, the insistent horns and a pounding fluid rhythm pump it out with great force all over the place.
Batata's sister Graciela is also a drummer. She is quoted on the sleeve notes proclaiming "I love drinking rum! Drinking, playing and singing - that's what my mother taught me." She also has her own band that plays almost exclusively at funerals, the aptly named Las Alegras Ambulancias. She can come and play the pechiche, the drums of death, at my funeral, anytime.
I had not really picked up on much from the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao) recently, but was happily pointed in the right direction by a collection from Curaçao's Oswin Chin Behila and his Bendishon Disfrasa (Otrabanda). Culled from three releases he made in the '90s, the singer-songwriter is noted for tunes about social and personal matters sung in Papiamento, the language of the islands, where the vocabulary moves between Portugese and Spanish, Dutch, French, English and West African. His song "Pelegaria" is considered Curaçao's unofficial national anthem. Born in 1938, he formed his first band Los Tiarucos in 1963 and Oswin just oozes mutant son from his songs. Thanks to migrant workers there had been a very strong son element in Curaçao. A drought in the 1920s forced half of Curaçao's male workforce to leave the island and seek work in Cuba. The title track "Bendishon Disfrasa" is a real nice groove and tune with experience-tinged vocals from Oswin. If you need a new fix of roots from a different quarter then certainly check out Oswin. I've been neglecting the ABC islands for too long, I need to get back in the groove.
If I suggested to you that a certain release was worth buying just because the cover alone was one of the most wonderful things you had ever seen in many a year, you could say, oh no, old Hucker's been at the wacky baccy. Well yes, that's true, but the lp cover of a compilation from Alpha School protégé Cedric Im Brooks and the Light of Saba (Honest Jon's) is a total masterpiece of copasetic in all departments, just like the music contained within this mind-adjusting double lp (and single cd). Exposed to Ethiopian music and listening to Coltrane and Pharaoh, Cedric wanted to take Rasta music into that Sun Ra spot which he certainly did and also visited many other very warm places as well. On this compilation we freely range far and wide, visiting Horace Silver and his jazz classic "Song For My Father" through to some extreme mutant rockers, and also delve into the Philly funk of Charles Wright and African in the form of highlife.
The interview with Cedric on the sleeve is worth the cost of the album alone. As he comments "[In '75] there was a folklore group that came from Cuba to Jamaica and we went on an exchange visit. We did a couple of stuff that were influenced by our Cuban experience. It was a very rewarding experience. I was aware before that there was a connection between our music and Cuban music. Before the Castro regime we used to have a flow of bands and rhumba dancers coming into Jamaica. And there were a lot of Jamaicans in Cuba" [Frequently migrant workers]. So I would say we are talking righteous, deep-roots-reggae, Sun Ra, Pharaoh, Traned-out, Ethiopian, Cuban mutant.
Yes, certainly every musical element contained here is totally genius level. The sleeve that I love so much has the Light of Saba Lion graphics printed on a cardboard envelope with flap that tucks in the back. Inside that is a substantial cardboard sleeve with cloth edges down the sides holding it together.The sleeve notes are printed by lithography, but where it says Honest Jon's Records, it has been printed by letterpress which makes a tactile impression on the cardboard that just begs caressing. Which makes me very happy as I listen to the music caressing my mind and the soul.
I've always had a soft spot for keyboard player Jackie Mitto. His funky style was always on the cutting edge. A compilation from Blood and Fire, Champion in the Arena 1976-1977, has a whole raft of his chunky grooves like "Drum Song," "Darker Shade of Black," "In Cold Blood" and "Hot Milk." Essential.
Whenever fans of hardcore New York salsa get together the conversation will always turn around to the question "What's new and good?" Unfortunately only a few beacons of truth and purity stand towering above the sludge of production-line salsa. Artists like Wayne Gorbea and Willie Villegas are among the few to provide us with an extra-strength hit of "real" salsa with added soul. Willie Villegas and his band Entre Amigos, a hard-working band on the New York circuit, have a new release out now, Dancer's Paradise (Entre Amigos). Percussionist Willie has a hard-kicking band that specializes in the classic New York sound of the '60s,'70s and '80s. They are also left of left field, quite radical in their attitude and outlook so things get quite jazzled at times. Dancer's Paradise starts off with a storming version of Beny More's "Que Bueno Baila Usted," here called "Castellano." The classic song "Moliendo Café" gets a rousing rendition as the two-trombone horn section rips along before the solos, including a bass solo, start, and Willie gives the timbales a good going over. In fact, as you might expect from a band led by a drummer, the percussion is superb. Especially on the Joe Cuba (another great drummer) composition "Ariña-ñara," where the sparks really fly. Among the guests on this banging release are tres player Yomo Toro and percussionist Giovanni Hildalgo. Bored with the average? Willie Villegas y Entre Amigos have the solution.
Colombian songwriter and vocalist Charlie D'Cali has an interesting cd out: Picosito Yemyeré (Morrowland). All the songs are very strong and handled by a variety of vocalists including Gloria Cardona whose "Donde Esta Mi Negro" is a standout with its memorable Caribbean groove and her feral vocals. The California-based Morrowland label has some other interesting releases: Orchestra Las Palabras's On Fire, which provided a hit second time around for them with a version of "Lady," which become a massive hit on dance floors the world over, and the last Johnny Polanco release Pa'l Bailador.
The German label Cuba Chevere has a jazz release by the wonderful Giraldo Piloto, leader of one of the more interesting bands coming out of Cuba: Klimax. This release is off his beaten track a bit in so much as he normally does not do pure jazz but this is very nice.
Holding up the torch for good old-school-style New York salsa is Grupo Caribe, whose Un Congo Me Dio La Letra I raved over recently. The Dutch label Walboomers now has this crunchingly wonderful release out in Europe. Another goodie on that label is from young salsa/cumbia/reggae/hip-hop band Locos Por Juana whose eponymous album spawned one of the most popular big Latin thumpers of last year. "Que Lo Que" is a guitar-led tour de force which you could not get away from anywhere in Europe last summer. [www.walboomers.com] Former Los Van Van pianist Cesar "Pupy" Pedroso has a real storming release in his Que Cosas Tiene La Vida (Egrem). Basically he has redone a whole raft of the great tunes that were mega hits for Los Van Van. His talented band of youngsters pour out some real deep songo. Pupy shows he has lost none of the abilty to create killer music.
There's been a growing pile of Rough Guides to deal with, but I'm going to have to pass on American Roots, Pakistan, France, Canada, Scotland and Turkey. Even Salsa de Puerto Rico did not grab my attention. Only Steve Barrow's fantastic Ska compilation and dj Mike Chadwick's Latin Jazz have floated my boat. The Latin Jazz Guide (World Music Network) is a very entertaining and intelligent look at Latin jazz from the English perspective as it rips through Jimmy Bosch, Tito Puente, Snowboy, the late Mongo Santamaria, Eddie Palmieri and Poncho Sanchez.
Copyright 2003 Dave Hucker