(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 22, Number 5, 2003)
Ricardo Lemvo's newie Ay Valeria! (Mopiato Music) is a cornucopia of delights, exactly what we have grown to expect from such an eclectic artist. The multi-talented Mr. Lemvo and his very clever compadres Makina Loca give us a potent multimusical multilingual journey. Throughout this fourth cd from Ricardo we find a multiplicity of tracks that travel through the multipolar multidiversity of African and Caribbean music, compounding Ricardo's and Makina Loca's position as a multifaceted gem. The route starts with the opening track "Amame Mama" as it takes a multitude of twists and turns from merengue to a soukous groove and into a "tropical" vein. Among the stars who drop into the multilayered pot pourri are Dominican accord-ionist Joaquin Diaz and multifarious Congolese stalwarts Balou Canta and Josky Kiambukuta, who add vocals on two Bopol Mansiamina tracks, "Sani" and "Kidia M'fuka."
Multi-instrumentalist Jesus "El Nino" Perez multitasks as always with the composing and arranging. His "Yembe" is a slow burner that multicombusts, while on "Dos Mulatas" the guitars chime and the 'bone multiwails. Ricardo's composition "Samba Luku Samba" is a successfully multiangular groove and "FikoFiko Ko" is that very rare thing in modern music-multi-humor. Ay Valeria is very satisfying music multiplying your pleasure with a multiplex of stonking tracks.
Herman Olivera is one of the hardest working soneros in the salsa biz, not only finding time to do sessions with various combos from the Spanish Harlem Orchestra and Grupo Caribe to Johnny Polanco, singing with Eddie Palmieri's current band, and having his own band with "friends" as well. Having seen Herman in the flesh several times I can testify to the fact he is a genius in the very difficult art of improvisation, the one gift that a truly great sonereo needs: the ability to cut free over the rhythm and extemporize, telling stories, creating poetry, conjuring up phrases, concepts, ideas.
Newark-born Herman began singing when he was 12. His influences range from '20s Cuban soneros Abelardo Barroso and the great Beny More, '50s star Tito Rodiguez, right through to more modern giants like Ismael Rivera, Cheo Feliciano, Chamaco Ramirez, Pete "El Conde" Rod-riguez and Hector Lavoe. Herman started his career proper when he got asked to join Manny Oquendo y Libre in 1979, then went on to sing with Ray Barretto, the Fania All Stars and Cruz Control.
His vocals on the new Eddie Palmieri release are faultless. Ritmo Caliente (Concord Picante) is pretty good, certainly as good as anything Eddie has done in his long, distinguished career. "La Voz Del Caribe" is a stormer of an instant classic that has jumped out as a mega dance-floor hit. Frankie Vazquez joins Herman on the coro on this track. The title track is another strong mover where Herman emotes away and Eddie goes off at a tangent on the piano solo. "Sujetate La Lengua" chatters away with its memorable melody, while the classic "Lo Que Traigo es Sabroso" gets a welcome re-airing. This great release is not faultless though: "Gigue (Bach Goes Bata)" falls between too many stools and you have to tick the box marked experimental. But then, hey, Eddie has always has been pushing at the edges so it's part and parcel of who he is and you have to accept that. Eddie would not be Eddie if he didn't so we can forgive him the occasional musical gaffe. Ritmo Caliente seems to have got everybody all a-quiver as Eddie proves he is one of the greats of Latin music and still kicking it.
Timba fans are getting a little anxious now that the end of the 10-15 year cycle that characterizes the emergence, development and then decline of a musical style is getting very close for this modern funky Cuban variety. Is the best over for timba? Has it peaked? The defection of young star Carlos Manuel begs the question of how is it going to be for Cuban artists moving to America? Are they going to find things a little bit difficult now that they are trying to hustle a living as small fish in a big Latin pond that these days is certainly less full and brimming with creativity, and to be quite honest, somewhat stagnant?
So many people complain that salsa ain't what it used to be: Well, of course not. Like all the great musics, the great songs have been written, and virtually all the artists left over from the classic era(s) have passed away. When Celia Cruz died I went on an orgy of listening to her. Son Con Guaguanco (Tico) is the one lp which seems to encapsulate her very best, though it was interesting rediscovering some stuff like 1979's Cieba (Vaya) with Sonora Poncena. There will never be anyone like her.
But meanwhile in the very fluid world of timba, the latest David Calzado and Charanga Haba-nera release Soy Cubano, Soy Popular (Ciocan) proves there is still flesh on them bones yet. David is hanging in there as the original leader of the new wave that appeared in the '90s. As is the musical style down Cuba way, the bands divide and mutate like bacteria, but the kernel of the pure strain continues. On this release Charanga Habanera proves they still have quality songs that move all over the place in a musically interestingly manner, held together by very tight arrangements. Like on "El Boni Esta Pasma'o" where it reggaes all around the room, or the wonderfully cheesy disco groove of "Timba Con Moña" which eventually slips in and out of reggae.
Hey, there's an idea. Take CH and record in Jamaica with some of the top producers. A digital one-riddim CH album? There are some of you who might uncharitably say all their tunes sound the same anyway. But I say no, not true, there actually are about four or five different tunes. "Marina Quiere Bailar" is a mega-big popular tune on the dance floor with its solid groove and buzzing mosquito horns. Forget the BoysIIMen-style tracks and fast- forward to "Somos los Cubanos," another dancer's favorite.
No, timba is not ready to be put in the coffin yet. But when it is, I wonder what will replace it? We still are going through a process of dilution in the timba world. Charanga Habanera's division-and-mutation young rivals Charanga Forever are mashing it up in Europe as I write. Reports have a banging group in evidence, though it seems they are also shedding members on the road, so far losing two vocalists who defected in Switzerland. Maybe it's a war of attrition; the last Timbaman standing is the winner. My bet is the oldsters will still run tings while the DLG/r&b generation scrabble.
With the scrabbling sound coming from inside the coffin of mainstream salsa, it's down to some of the usual NY suspects to deliver us from the evil of mediocrity. I have raved on about every Soneros Del Barrio release so far and their new Siguiendo la Tradicion (Rumba Jams) is just as good. They hold the flame high for the "real" salsa. Despite the death of co-originator pianist Martin Arroyo, they have continued to be the one of the faves of purists and fans of salsa dura. The other great NY sonero Frankie Vazquez provides the lyrical fireworks, while arranger and pianist Ricky Gonzalez makes all the twiddly bits sound truly fresh and fantastic. This is real music and one of the albums of the year, a thing of solid substance and flavor.
Siguiendo la Tradicion has a really strong selection of great tunes from the "classic" period of salsa. Adalberto Santiago's "Canuto" gets a rousing outing as the baritone saxes start up strongly from the opening bars. One baritone sax is enough to elevate me to a high state of bliss, two bass baritones buzzing with that low-down grunt put me in places I could not describe here.
There is nothing wrong with recycling and investing new life into old songs. As ever the only question is how well is it done. A perfect example is Willie Colon/Hector Lavoe's classic "Juana Peña." Presented here, you find what sounds like a completely new tune, and the baritones are very menacing with that V8 burble. Ismael Miranda's "Las Mujeres Son" gets a piano solo from Sonny Bravo, who has been around since the '70s and these bods play in three-quarters of the finest New York salsa bands and are among the best there is, so they know their roots. Here there are also three songs from Alonso "Tite" Curet: "Babaila" "Evilio y La Rumba," a bumping bomba-style Caribbean thing, and the banging "Noche Como Boca E Lobo."
Curet "Tite" Alonso has been one of the recent deaths in the Latin world. He wrote over 2,000 songs, including some of the greatest tunes in the history of Latin music, tunes that are woven into the fabric and part of the lexicon of salsa. He composed in salsa as well as other Puerto Rican musics like plena and bomba, and even Brazilian. So it was not only perfections of composition like Johnny Pacheco's "Essencia de Guaganco," Hector Lavoe's "Periodico de Ayer," Cheo Feliciano's "Anacaona" and "Pieso en Ti," the great Ismael Rivera's "Las Caras Lindas de Mi Gente Negra" and "Rumba Rumba Rumba," as well as countless classics from Roberto Roena, Sonora Poncena and Ray Barretto. The list is endless: I don't think there is a Latin musician who has not done one of his songs at some point. Tite started out in 1968 with a song called "La Tirana" which he had composed for but was rejected by Cuban bolero singer Roberto Ledesma. He then adapted it for La Lupe, and it was a major hit.
What makes his songs so successful is that they are pictures of life, tales told simply but deeply. Despite the success of his songs he had continued working at a post office in San Juan for 35 years. His funeral was a major affair with his body lying in state at the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture in San Juan in a gold coffin wearing his customary straw hat and multicolored shirt, while around the building groups played his songs. His music had actually not been played on the radio in Puerto Rico since 1996 because of some argument over royalties. But recognizing his importance to the culture of Puerto Rico the stations were given dispensation to play his music for a week after his death in the beginning of August.
Live albums can sometimes be very dodgy affairs; they might catch the real vibe of the occasion, but more often than not the intrusive audience noise spoils it. The recent Los Van Van En Vivo en El Malecon was a good example with a 90 percent success rating and audience noise almost eliminated. But I would put the new live cd from Radio Tarifa, Fiebre (World Circuit) at about 35 percent. The Toronto audience is very enthusiastic, but I'm not sure I want to hear so much of them. Radio Tarifa? Well, they are great as always.
Cuban songstress Danae is on her way up. Her debut cd Pido (Tumi) is a finely crafted effort steeped in a jazzy sound. It is a very sophisticated, smooth groove through what is described on the sleeve as "a new take on salsa romantica." Bollocks. Danae is a very, very good singer, the arrangements by Diego Rivas sparkle, and on tracks like "Llego Danae" this cd really kicks bottom. Keep an eye on Danae: There is something interesting happening here-she has a future.
Desi Nation (Stern's) is a superdupa selection of modern bhangra from djs Russ Jones and Cliffy, whose club nights operate under the concept of "Future World Funk." There are just loads of great tracks from the likes of Achema and Punjabi MC culled from diverse places such as West London, the West Midlands, Toronto (probably west) and all points east. This is a choice selection of some fresh and funky cuts showing the hip-hoppy/populist end of bhangra. If that floats your boat then this is a very cost-effective choice.
Just to confuse the World Music Network label whom, I'm sure, has given up on me ever finding something nice to write about in their avalanche of Rough Guide releases chronicling almost every kind of music in our globe (when they run out of music from our world to recycle constructively, I can recommend Galaxy X-173 EN W10), but their Chicago Blues collection has got me all worked up: Elmore, Otis S., Otis R., Junior, Muddy, Walter and Magic Sam. It sent me running to the shelves shouting "T Bone, sorry man, you ain't been out for while but I'm here now!"
Copyright 2003 Dave Hucker