(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 17, Number 5, 1998)
Occasionally in this column I have subjected you to various dribblings on some of my pet theories, such as how the first and last track are frequently the best songs on a record, or the worse the sleeve the better the music. Another one of my regular faves is how I believe that what are called musical decades are not actually defined by the chronological progression of the years. Whereas in most of the periods which are popularly defined as the epitome of '50s, '60s, '70s or '80s music, the discernible turning point in a musical movement is actually almost always somewhere in the middle of the decade.
One of my favorite periods of West African music was the end of the '70s going into the early '80s, which, if you accept my thesis about musical decades, puts this moment in time as a pinnacle in a golden era of music. New styles had come along from the various offshoots of Franco s bands, with a stripped down and rumba-ed-up guitar-led sound, spare and pure. By the mid '80s all this changed and the Syllart synthesizer polish and banging uptempo soukous had taken over.
It is a real pleasure to rediscover a classic from 1981 with a reissue by vocalist Winan Mignon, Feeling (Ngoyarto), recorded in Brussels with Zaiko Langa Langa. Winan has a sweet voice, the songs have memorable melodies, the guitars chime, the rhythms are subtle and gently build in intensity. There are short and long versions of the four tunes. Top class all round.
An old face and vocalist from the mid-'50s to the '60s Cuban musical scene, Rolo Martinez, had also passed me by. He started off as a backing vocalist for Conjunto de Chappotin. Brought out from obscurity by salsero Andy Montanez, Rolo has a unmissable cracking new release on the Ahi Nama label. Para Bailar Mi Son is his first recording since 82 and it is a remarkable effort. The music is provided by Bamboleo, who impart power and quality into the grooves. Classic tunes like "Cienfuegos" and Manolo De Valle s superb "Como Se Goza en la Habana" pour out at you. Rip-roaring beats motivate the dancers, absolutely murdering em on my dance floors. Para Bailar Mi Son is an instant classic.
Bamboleo really knows how to rock: They show the real funk, unlike a release called The Soul of Cuba (Bembe), which says on the cover "trancelike, electric journey into the roots of Cuban popular rhythms." The words "funky bass and drums" crop up ominously in the PR blurb. Drums, drums, drums. Yes sir, it s the damn drums sir, they are driving me crazy. It perturbs me that I am hearing programmed drum machine beats here with classic Cuban son.
Hey--get outta here. It might just be possible to mix up drum machines with this music, but this is not the one to succeed in this seemingly impossible task. Whatever the musical pedigree of the various participants, Adriano Rodriguez (singer) and Edesio Alejandro (film score/composer), this just sounds utterly cheesy with the "tish bang, tish bang" of a tacky early 80s drum machine intruding on the rhythms. To me it conjures up images of two-man cabaret shows in three-quarters-empty restaurants. I next expected to hear the horns being played on the keyboard. But I suppose the usually reliable BembÇ label will use some of the dark art of compressing a quote to put on an advert, poster or sleeve, to extricate something from my words. I can imagine it, possibly; "Drums...Classic Cuban Son...Rhythm and... Pedigree" --Dave Hucker, The Beat Magazine.
There is a quote from Ian Anderson of Folk Roots emblazoned across the back of the Orchestre National de Barbes En Concert (Tinder) release which proclaims "It could be the best live album I ve ever heard." Or maybe it could not be; he might have changed his mind the next day. You don t know. Or "it could be the best live album I ve ever heard from a group whose name starts with an O," or "the best live album ever recorded in Paris." Or it could be "The best live album I ve ever heard since Supertramp Live in Ohio, 1974 bootleg."
But with all full and due respect to Orchestre National de Barbäs, this is not the greatest live recording in the history of music. It is very, very good, but that honor really does have to go elsewhere. Off the top of my head, personally I would happily vote for the Stax/Volt Revue Vol. 1, Live in London. (Finsbury Park, Astoria, March 17, 1967). Or James Brown's Revolution of the Mind. Or the recording of Franco s 1978 European tour. Or Bob Marley live at the Lyceum or any of the Allegre/Tico Allstars descarga albums. However this recording does accurately capture the full range of ONB s milieu.
It is easy to be captivated with the Barbes area s vibrant third world ambience. You really are transported instantly within its boundaries to a hustling melange of all parts of Africa, particularly north. The live shows put on in Barbäs by ONB are legendary. Tight, funky and flowing, it is a relentless working out of the groove. Hot and sweaty, it spirals through rai, reggae, jazz, funk and all points between on the musical map of the world. This release holds for perpetuity exactly such a show.
Managed to catch Los Van Van, live--that s twice now in four months, from a car park in Havana to the depths of darkest Brixton. They put on their usual incredible show which crackled with excitement. They always seem to be on the peaks of creativity. The musical authority they show when they stretch out the beats on the songs is quite exceptional. Take for example "Que pasa con ella" off Te Pone la Cabeza Mala. On the recorded version it breaks into a chanty vocal bit half the way through. But live they go off into a deep funky groove at this point, a deep African funkyness. It has got me thinking this deep bump is something the Congo boys could learn from. Now is the time to get Los Van Van to link up with some modern rumba. It s time for a new collision of Cuba and the Congo. The Senegalese have dominated the fusion so far. LVV have always been on cutting edge, with operatic sweeps of sound and vision. This idea came to me because as part of my rehabilitation with African music I have been digging into the shelves to listen to old music and stuff I ve not listened to for years. This has resulted in a reawakening of my love for Franco and the old groups like Bantous.
Dan Den's Salsa en Atare: Now this stupendous release is widely available via the Tinder label, I have no qualms about shamelessly plugging this incredible recording yet again. Ex-Orquesta Reve arranger and piano player Juan Carlos Alphonso is constantly experimenting and pushing at the frontiers. A fine collection taken from three of his previous releases can be found on Viejo Lazaro, Y Otra Exitos (Qbadisc).
The Tumi label has a great release from Peruvian-born salsero Manuel Ramirez. Al Maestro Lavoe is a tribute album to legendary vocalist Hector Lavoe. The title track swings in that classic hard-edged Fania way, while "Volvera," storms out of the starting gate with a rampant bass line before racing away with the groove. The Tonga label brings us Mis Mejores Exitos, a collection of some of the best-known tunes from the other well-known Peruvian singer, Melcochita. Dance-floor hits like "Bombele," "Rumbera Major" and "Pegaso" hit hard. This is really tough South American salsa.
Another of the great singers and bandleaders from the two decades the Fania label ruled the roost is Roberto Roena. Last year he put a out a fabulous live double cd, En Vivo, Desde Bellas Artes, on the ever-reliable MP label. This is really great classic hard New York salsa. All his hits are here like a great version of "Tu Loco, Loco Y Yo Tranquilo." Listen to this and you are catapulted back in time to the classic hard-edged Fania sound of the 70s-80s, which is also found on Roberto Clemente, Un Tributo Musical (Rykolatin), a tribute to Puerto Rican baseball icon Roberto Clemente who died in 1972 when his plane crashed on take off on a flight to deliver aid to Nicaragua.
A founding father of the Fania style, piano player Larry Harlow is much in evidence on this release. He plays superbly here in this production by his son. The first track gets up and running at maximum pace with fantastic piano and wailing horn sections. For those of us bewildered by baseball, finding it as incomprehensible as cricket: You do not have to worry much about the sport bit. The music is just fine.
Stern's has a nice little number from top Senegalese female singer Fatou Guewel. Fatou is raucous street mbalax. Great voice. Look out for a Senegalese salsa compilation soon from Stern's, featuring Pap Fall and Super Cayor.
Just who did let the dog out? This year s biggest carnival tune has to be good value with its barking hookline. Anslem Douglas "Dogie" (J&W), known universally as "Who let the dog out?" has turned out to be one of the best and also most popular soca tunes this year. The other main contender is "How It Go Look" (Mc D Knife), Ronnie McIntosh s humorous and barbed comments about appearances, which bounds along riding the riffs of a storming groove and ends up in a garage female vocal wail-out. Iwer George s "Bottom in de Road" (J&W) chutney is very popular. I have to admit that Shadow s offering this year, "Eternal Energy" (Crossroad) is pretty far out. I always expect him to be uncompromising, but this one is really out there, at the complete opposite end of most musical trends in the soca biz.
The award for the most conscious lyric must go to DeFosto's "Educated Donkey" (Crosby's). Though I do find it weird for me to be sitting here writing this in July for your consumption and edification in October, Carnival season here is only getting underway. My local one, Notting Hill, is not till the end of August. Trini Carnival has been over for five months and by the time you read this the Trini artists will be recording the next year' s music.
A interestingly succulent little mover comes from London-based group Merengado. They have put out their own two-track cd titled Un Mensaje de London. The musicians in the band are comprised of all the usual suspects from the top level of the London Latin muso world: percussionists Dave Pattman and Hamish Orr, bone player Rob Killips, bassist Stan Rivera, Alex Wilson on keyboards, sax player and leader of the band, Nina Jaffa. The first track is a thoroughly authentic merengue workout, while the second track is the killer which is heating up my late-night dance floor. It is a salsa version of "No Woman No Cry." It works very well indeed: By the time you have got over the shock of hearing the salsa beats, you begin to wonder if it wasn t a salsa song in the first place.
Putumayo's twin-continent collision Afro-Latin is a bit uneven but it does contain Tam Tam 2000 s classic "Me Vuelvo Guajiro." This Cape Verde band s 80s hit has always been a big tune with me. Old classics never die, they still sound strong.
I made a trip to Zambia recently. Because I was in such remote areas, there was no electricity, so there were no tape shops. I did not find any music, though I would direct your attention to Ben Mandelson s excellent 1989 Zambiance compilation on Globestyle. And John Storm Roberts African Acoustic Vol. 1: Guitar Songs from Tanzania, Zambia and Zaire (Original Music). But if you like going out walking and being eyeball to eyeball with lion and leopard, canoeing down crocodile-infested rivers, if you enjoy the sound and smell of remote rural Africa and its multifarious wildlife, if you are prepared to occasionally rise to the challenge of dukeing it out with malevolent tsetse flies and prophylactic-resistant malarial mosquitos, then Zambia and the South and North Luamba parks are the places to be. Check out what it s like there on www.zamnet.com.
You can read the full story of my adventures by clicking here.
Copyright 1998 Dave Hucker