(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 20, Number 3, 2001)
The grays shall inherit the earth. The old ones will rule.
Or at least they will until they are dragged off out of the arena, their last breath uttered, like the recent born-again aging bikers and "rubies," who find themselves squashed under the weight of a recently acquired heavy-duty motorcycle when it falls on them with a catastrophic effect equally distributed among the various bits of their bodies that are still their own and original. Or the orgasmic scream that comes as the mega-fast sports bike they are riding tips them into a very solid object at 115 mph, leaving the world to the others who are younger, more energetic and slightly less gray or follically challenged, or at least those who only ride slow, sensible motorcycles.
I had been digging through my old Cuban vinyls recently and came across a late '70s-early '80s lp from Los Van Van. On the cover, bandleader Juan Formell, with only a slight wisp of gray in his barnet, sits upon what must have been the hippest motorcycle ride of the time in Havana, an East German MZ, its square-shaped headlight protuberance probably an attempt at Communist aerodynamics. Los Van have frequently been described as the Cuban Rolling Stones but whereas I really rate Los Van Van, I never really cared for the Stones that much. They were nice, clean boys from good backgrounds, but their contemporaries the Pretty Things, now they were well 'ard. I'm sure Juan Formell would have had more in common with Phil May and the Pretty Things than the Strolling Bones.
I do not know what Juan's ride is these days, but Cesar Pedroso is still his piano player and right-hand musical man. Pedro has one of his infrequent solo albums, De La Timba A Pogolotti (Timba), out now on a German label. It is a very rootsy little number, well, not so much little, as a huge great big stonkin' big one. It might be argued that Cesar's releases are the "real" Los Van Van recordings.
Because of the natural cycles of music business and the need to put food on the table, as a group Los Van Van have to provide a new release every 18 months or so. They then go into the studio, do their very best and bang out another fantastic release that is hugely popular with their many fans. But the Los Van Van side dishes are sometimes the tastiest. For this solo effort Cesar "Pupy" Pedroso has pulled together musicians from LVV, Son Candela, Irakere and Habana Ensemble.
Vocalists like "Tiburon" Morales from Son 14 and Miquel Rapsal from Pachito Alonso's band step forward to guest on the tracks as well as oldster Pio Leyva who contributes vocals on one track. His smoky voice adds a roughness which contrasts nicely with the smooth, subtle arrangements that Cesar cooks up. I can find no added fat, flavor enhancers or artificial coloring of any kind in this outstanding 10-track release. Standouts that get me salivating are "Ya Tu Capana No Suena," "Habla Claro Camara," "Disculpme Senora," "Parace Mentira," "Me Falta Uno Ano," "El Bate De Alumnino," "Tu Quisera Ser La Feria" (which is my own personal fave) and "Homanje A Ma Y Pa."
Shadow is certainly a man of advanced years. Even older than me, with gray the predominante color in his beard, Shadow is having a whale of a time at the moment. At T'n'T Carnival this year, "Stranger," from his Just For You (Crossroads) cd, was the prestigious Road March Winner. This song, which is about HIV/AIDS, had been a natural hit during carnival and was the steel-band crowd-pleasing tune of choice. At Panorama it received 446 plays over the two Carnival days while Peter Lewis' "Tay Lay Lay" garnered second place with 85 plays, according to the results released by the Trinibago Unified Calypsonians Organization.
Mr. Winston "Shadow" Bailey last had recognition for his considerable talents way back in 1974 when he won both the Road March and Calypso Monarch titles. Then, "Bassman" and "Ah Come Out to Play" were the winning combination. But although this year "Stranger" and "Yuh Lookin' For Horn" were two of the biggest songs with the general public, he was piped to the honor of Calypso Monarch by Denyse Plummer with her tune "Heroes."
"Yuh Lookin' for Horn" is a potent social commentary about taking responsibility. Shadow again proved it was possible to get a serious message over in a lighthearted way. But he was not complaining, following comments that his choice of songs had lost him the Monarch crown, "I made the right decision for the Calypso Monarch finals" he was quoted as saying, "I sang two beautiful, well-constructed songs, two of the greatest and biggest hits for the season." Shadow claimed that he made the decision about what to sing for Dimanache Gras while he was in rehearsal on Sunday morning at the Savannah. "I listened to everyone and I told myself, go on a different level. Sing what the people really loved through the season: If the judges don't understand that, it's a different story."
Flying the flag for calypso, Shadow proves that you cannot teach an old gray fox new tricks. I had almost given up hope that a real old calypsonian would be popular again and also be influential on the next generations. Maybe it's the right time to give the old folks the respect we're due.
Baaba Maal, the young-ish man with the golden voice, is back with a very roots release, so rootsy you get the chirping of the crickets and the cries of children as part of the backing track. The bare bones of the vocals were recorded out there in the village of Mbunk near Toubab Dialaw in Senegal, with a mobile recording system, then played around with over here at Abbey Road and Real World studios. So sometimes you get the sound of Baaba's voice and the instruments sounding echoey and rootsy exactly like you would hear if you heard him playing in the open air with a small blues band. Other times more layered audio is evident.
Missing You - Mi Yeewnii (Palm Pictures) is another confident step by Baaba. This release steers clear of the "fusions" that have distinguished some of his previous efforts. But this not to say things do not get mixed up or there is a lack of big beats here. The music on Mi Yeewnii is very pure and simple, but you will also find a fine powdering of a waltz here, a tinge of Latin there. Fellow PP labelmates Da Lata's Chris Franz and Roberto and Janio from Sidestepper pop up, as does Cisse Damba Kanoute, who sang on Ernest Ranglin's In Search of the Lost Riddim.
The big beats are provided in a trad way by the talking drum and djembe vying with each other, as on "Leydi Ma," where a killer beat gets summoned up from the depth of the earth, or "Laarre Yoo," which builds up into a groove of supreme freaked bangingness. While "Allah Addu Jam" takes the Bo Diddley road to eternal rhythmical happiness. Missing You - Mi Yeewnii is a yet another great release from the man from Podor. I shall look forward to seeing the whole band live later this spring and see how these new songs are incorporated into the whirlwind Daande Lenol show.
In 1993 our own Chuck Foster recommended a release from Netherlands-based Congo reggae artist Elijah, but I never actually managed to find a copy to check it out. Elijah recently sent me a copy of his new cd Lumumba (Survival). If it's OK for Chuck then it must be up my street. So I put it on to see what it was all about, and Elijah's very seductive African-rhumba-reggae slipped out. First track celebrates Patrice Lumumba with a rootsical cultural message. Then it just gets better. I must admit I do prefer this Congo version of reggae than a lot of the Ivorian stuff I come across. It's a very interesting mix, sophisticated, quite radical. A top-drawer contender. If I was doing a roots reggae night I could quite easily play a number of tunes off Lumumba. [www. elijahkalswe. com]
Samba Mapangala and Orchestra Virunga have a nice retro-style new recording with Ujumbe (Earthworks/Stern's) which was recorded in Paris with Bopol Mansiamina. The chunky rhythm guitar style and soaring vocals that are Samba's trademark are much in evidence here. Nice melodies are in abundance, the good songs have a structure that actually goes from point A to point B. Great stuff. This is a cd that should not be ignored. I see that Samba's classic 1981 "Malako Disco" still crops up in dj playlists and I know from personal experience when it gets pulled out of the record box, it always whips up a frenzy on the dance floor.
Talking of dance floors, there is a recent release of one of those modern African fusion things that features stuff that is big on the crossover/beat/hip area. Afro Digital: Future Sounds From the Motherland (Ocho) has some well known and also some very interesting music. On this (double) vinyl and cd, you find the obligatory Tony Allen with "Ariya." Tony's trademark double-beat drums bounce this particular groove along. Malian singer Mamou Sidibe gives us a big thump workout with "Nimissa," where the trad elements float serenely above the bump-bump-bump of the beat.
There are three cuts recorded at Youssou's Xippi studio and released on his Jololi label: Youssou's sister-in-law Viviane N'Dour has been creating a lot of interest with her modern Senegalese r&b style. "Goor Fit" is a fiery percussion storm that showcases her great voice very well. Hip-hop group Kantiolis follows in the French/Senegalese rap style with their mean, moody "Comportement," while Babacar Faye contributes a mbalax/house sort of thing, which does actually work.
Kwaito gets a welcome look-in with Chicco's subtle "Modjadji" while Dantai's "Leaving" is described in the sleeve notes as "cutting edge" kwaito. Hmmm, my jury is still out on this track, which still sounds like rehashed American music to me. You will also find remixes of Femi Kuti's "Sorry Sorry," and one of the more bizarre combinations, a Cesaria Evora mix done by New York mixmeister Jo Clausell. "Carnaval De São Vicente" is a track which does its job very well and really makes perfect sense in the context of a moody New York house thang with jazzy sax and a relaxed fit. The other New York remix stars, Masters at Work, contribute their popular Afrobeat cut-and-paste workout "Ekabo." North Africa is not forgotten as Cheikha Rimitti gives us bumping tune called "Nakhla." Wallowing in a wash of loops and samples, Malian Issa Bagayogo lays it all down to good effect on "Lanaya." AfroDigital is a finely honed, well-filtered slice through what has been getting people excited recently on the eclecto-electro Afro tip.
Colombian sonero Yuri Buenaventura has been carving a good-sized niche for himself in Paris for many years now. His last release Herencia Africana was repackaged a couple of times to cash in on his French Top 10 hit of Jack Brel's "No Me Quitte Pas." His newie Yo Soy (Mercury) is out at the moment and getting heavy play in the clubs. It kicks off with a rousing tune called "Salsa" which features a rampant clave, and the title track is another hard bumpy salsa.
The standout crossover tune this time is "Salsa Rai," which is exactly that, featuring a duet with Algerian singer Faudel. It's a very beguiling and totally successful mix-up with a wild violin solo that pops up right out of the box. This is certainly a track that will pop up in the future on many compilations, of both salsa and rai. Whether his version of Elton John's "Your Song" will catch on and be equally as popular, well that is in the lap of the gods and fickle nature of what the people go for. But a good tune is a good tune irrespective of its origins.
I stumbled across the cd by Orquestra Tabaco Y Ron, Salsa De Verda (Dimelo), by accident, but I was very glad our paths had collided. All of the tunes on this cd are cover versions, but what covers they are and what versions they whip up! There is a killer version of Grupo Melao's "Sabor A Melao," a stompin' great reworking of Oscar's seminal "Lloraras," and a cracking version of "Juliana." And to be quite honest it will be very useful for us djs to take "Juliana" back from the DLG graveyard and lovingly restore it to give it a new lease of life for many more years of useful dancing experience. After all, Chucho Valoy's classic is a good tune, and a good tune is a good tune, forever and for always, no matter how many times it gets recycled.
Bobby Rodriquez's "Sonero Del Barrio" gets a good going-over in the style of (the late) Martin Arroyo and Frankie Vasquez's recent heavy-kicking reinterpretation. "Tu Carino Se Me Va" is one of the standouts, but what interests me is that part of the chorus of this tune is a dead ringer for bits of John Holt's reggae classic "Smiling Faces." There are also a couple of dodgy house remixes here, but we will just let that pass. I'm sure I will find a good use for them at some point in the future when I need to dig in the crates to play my retro Latin house circa 2001 selection. But I have a hunch that Salsa De Verda will be hanging around on the street corner for a while.
One of the last recordings that the aforementioned Martin Arroyo graced with his superb piano playing before his untimely death last year was Rey Reyes' Salsa, Timba Y Son (Rincon Musical). Rey Reyes is the owner of one of those gruff voices that is totally against the current vogue for saccharine sweet castratos. So as a fully paid-up fan of the rough Wilson Pickett style, I am prepared to forgive Rey in the name of soul when the keys get bent a little. But that's where and what the blues and the downbeat have always been all about. To me, the word soul has got recently got very confused with what is currently known as "sweet vocals." Salsa, Timba Y Son is pretty hard core and nicely retro. It's not going to be a Grammy award winner, nor sell squillions. But it is quality.
A really interesting number from the left side of the left field comes from Azabache and their release Azabache (Azabache). This firing mix of salsa, plenas and bombas, this is almost a personal home-made release from this Puerto Rican/New York-based band, if only because it's the only cd I've seem in ages that does not have a bar code on it. This album has been around for a while, but it has taken a little time to gravitate, quite deservedly, to the top, purely by word of mouth and its attention-grabbing attitude. But it is the songs that are in English that are gathering a lot of the attention from this action-packed album. Biggest and best among this oeuvre is "Montuno Street," a very groovy little number where we are asked to get on "All Aboard, next stop Montuno Street" whereupon the storyteller continues:
I know what he means.
Copyright 2001 Dave Hucker