(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 18, Number 2, 1999)
The long-awaited new release from Dominican Republic star Juan Luis Guerra has finally hit the streets, answering the question frequently asked by his fans as they cold-turkeyed from a lack of any new music by this genuine star of the Latin music scene: "When is the new Juan Luis Guerra out?"
There are many big stars in the Latin firmament, and then there is Juan Luis Guerra. His unique, finely crafted bachata sound has become a benchmark of quality and also popularity, proving that those two qualities are not necessarily at opposite ends of the musical spectrum. His last three releases have been huge, not only throughout the Americas but also in Europe (except England where the record company deems him not worthy of a local release). But as we live here in free market Euroland, a federal state where national frontiers are largely irrelevant, the imports from France and Spain will flood in to quell the thirst for this stunning (as always) new release.
Ni Es lo Mismo Ni es Igual (Karen) has been worth the wait. It opens up with an uptempo stomper, "Mi PC," which, with its humorous lyrics about gigabytes and kisses, is destined to be one of the big dance-floor tunes throughout the European continent this summer.
One of the many inspired ideas that Juan Luis developed over his last two releases, Areito and Fogarate! was his mixing of African soukous in along with the bachata, most notably his duets with the great Diblo Dibala. This release's African mix-up is called "Vale la Pena" and it is one of the best tracks on this album that is already packed to the gills with superb songs. "Vale la Pena" has one of those melody lines that you just cannot get out of your head--it just keeps coming rattling back and back and back. A pounding bass line pushes things along, the horns charge forward, as Juan's vocals duel it out with the chorus line. It bumps out with an incredible groove as special guest trumpeter Arturo Sandoval wails away on flugelhorn.
Guerra's trademark beautiful melody lines get an airing on the slow "La Hormiguita." "Quisiera" is a salsa-ish mover that is proving to be one of the big dance-floor hits off this release. And the hits just keep on a-coming, one after another from "El Niagara en Bicicleta" which jumps along to the madcap beats of "El Primo." All in all, yet another masterpiece of modern music >from Juan Luis Guerra and his bunch of stalwarts, Grupo 4.40. This is well up to the standards of his recent stuff and despite continuing rumours of his ill health, Juan Luis has obviously lost none of the creative juices that have made him possibly the biggest star in the Latin world.
Fellow griot singer Nainy Diabate has her superb Nafa released as well. She broke through to the big time when she was 16, singing an audition for the Rail Band de Bamako. She has a wonderful voice that swoops and stabs over the (generally) roots rhythms, some of which are produced by Boncana Maiga. Other styles such as the very popular Malian Mande-zouk oeuvre raises its head with programmed drums and cheesy keyboards. When this was released on cassette in West Africa it was a huge hit.
Nafa is a modern release, and Nainy is a modern woman. Just like her sister from Guinée, Oumou Diabate, who has a very modern thing out on Stern's as well called Wambara. This release is described as being part of the griot groove. I would say it grooves quite a lot; it works for about three-quarters of the time. Big tune on the floor for me is "Ça Suffit Comme Ça," which moves along nicely--even the French rap and obligatory sax solo are quite acceptable.
Femi Kuti has stepped forward to accept the mantle of king of Afro-beat that he inherited from his father. His new release, Shoki Shoki (Barclay), is a fine effort by young Femi, certainly his best recording yet. The band is much tighter and also in tune, and while his voice does not exude the greatest presence in the world, he does the best with what he's got, sounding like his father Fela most of the time. The music is very put together and quite varied in style; a jazziness permeates throughout. Another thing that has improved is his sax playing, which is much more mature now. The lyrics, written by Femi as well, are quite reasonable.
This was an important release for him. He'd always suffered in his great father's shadow, and he had not been helped by making some pretty dodgy records on the way. But Shoki Shoki proves he has the ability and the right to stand there on his own. I have always been interested in the routes that a music might take in its development: How did all the different constituent parts that make up the history of a musical style come together?
I am a firm believer in the concept that all the great musics of the 20th century are the result of cultural fusions and/or collisions. I had been chatting to an Eritrean taxi driver here about their music and how and why there had been the explosion of music there, and how come a country sitting out there on the Red Sea was obviously so hip to the latest American black music of the late 60s and early 70s. "Oh," he said, "that was because of the American radio station in Asmara, everybody listened to it."
There is a passing reference to this American Forces Station in the sleeve notes to Ethiopiques 5: Tigrigna Music (Buda), saying how influential it was in inspiring the first wave of Eritrean groups in the 70s. This release concentrates on the Tigray scene 1970-75, including the very last recordings made by the Amha label in 1975 by drummer and singer Tekle Tesfa-Ezghi, before the Ethiopians shut everything down. There are mesmeric performances here from singer and krar (six-chorded lyre) player Tsehaytu Beraki. She has a very emotive voice and the songs are beautiful. Other offerings are from famed singer Tebereh "Doris Day" Tesfa-Hunegn, which includes a song called "Welladka Hazile," which has one of the most off-the-wall bass lines I have heard in many a year. Totally essential listening, this release is a definite must-have.
I am glad to see the American Forces Broadcasting system being so useful in the dissemination of that one universal leveler, music. Pleased to see it being a part of the accidental collisions of cultures. Happy to see it at the fault lines where things got a bit fluid. This is not the first time it has happened--it also occurred in South Africa and Ghana during World War II. What I worry about is how has horrible hip-hop influenced the next generation of music around the world?
The plena is making a comeback. This pan-Caribbean Puerto Rican style has often been described as the musical equivalent of newspapers with its storytelling and tradition of oral commentary. Its jumpy percussive rhythms are a result of a Bahamas musical import fusing with the Puerto Rican musical traditions.
There is a fine modern plena release by Plena Libre called Plena Libre (Ryko Latin). They are the leaders of the modern plena style that is re-emerging and getting the recognition it deserves after being considered a "agricultural/folkloric" music that had got submerged by the previously more popular salsa and merengue styles. Plena Libre grooves along with great songs and a three-trombone horn section gives it that wonderful old-time sound. It is very refreshing to hear a bump in the rhythms, rather than the precise syncopation of salsa. Given the quality of the music being produced now, I do not think we will have to wait long to see a big Caribbean hit coming from this area.
San Francisco's excellent CuBop label has a release called Pirates and Troubadours by trombonist Papo Vazquez. Recorded live at The Point community arts center in the Bronx, this is satisfying, really classy Latin jazz. Papo has played with everyone from Jerry Gonzales Fort Apache band to Ruben Blades via Dizzy Gillespie. His bone playing is controlled and expressive, with beautiful color and texture. A doff of the cap to the incredible playing of sax man Willie Williams as well. "Baila Plena," which is described as "plena funk," is indeed a funky mover where Willie, Papo and pianist Arturo (son of Chico) O Farrell trade scorching solos over a pounding drum pattern. Banging in extremis.
A real nice little oddball newie that is quite certainly going to go down as a classic is Gilberto Santa Rosa's Salsa Sinfonica (Sony). Recorded live with the Caracas Symphony Orchestra and chorus, plus Latin rhythm section at the Teresa Carreno Theater in Caracas, this remarkable release is eventually going to be recognized as one of those truly great records. With Gilberto's great vocals soaring over the violins, this release is a really new departure for Gilberto, always known as one of the great Puerto Rican voices who has made some good, very popular records recently. But this one takes the biscuit. The depth and feeling the violin section imparts into the songs is amazing. As for the chorus, well, they make a totally different sound than the regular Latin chorus with their classical training and add amazing textural vocal quality.
One of the standout tunes is a version of "Caballo Viejo." This tune, originally done by Venezuelan singer Simon Diaz, was a massive hit for Cuban singer Roberto Torres in the early 80s and suffered the indignity of being the basis for the Gipsy Kings "Bamboleo." Here it gets a majestic outing as the violins and chorus build up the melody. Salsa Sinfonica is a brave move for Gilberto; it is not often you can hear totally radical music that is mainly successful. Full marks to him for daring to do something different, and full marks to musical arranger Angel "Cucco" Pena.
The ever-excellent MP label has a real cracker of an eponymous release by Los Hijos de los Celebres, an homage to the greats of Puerto Rican music like Ismael Rivera, Pellin Rodriquez and Andy Martinez, sung by some of their sons. Many of the tunes are medleys of classic songs like "Don Goyo" and "Un Verano en N.Y." What I like about this release is the raw tough sound that really kicks hard. There is too much slick music around these days.
Then I come to the new Sly and Robbie release for Palm Pictures, which has been mixed, remixed and mixed again by Howie B and various other bods. Called Stripped to the Bone, I would say more than being stripped, the bones have been boiled dry. Sparse beats sometimes confuse me, and when I got this three-12" boxed set, it did not say whether it was 45 or 33 rpm. I tried both. And it still did not make any sense.
World Circuit has done it again with a super-dupa double cd reissue of a series of classic Cuban jam sessions from the late 70s. Estrellas de Areito features everybody in the island's musical family, from Ruben Gonzalez to Arturo Sandoval and Carlos Embele. Digitally remastered, they sound fine, but then the original lps still sound fine and they had wonderfully tacky covers as well.
Finally, at the time of writing I am still dismayed to see Mzwakhe still
on remand in prison in South Africa, despite the total collapse of the prosecution
case. I m sure that when he eventually, finally gets released the judge
will say the real reason for holding him in prison without trial for such
a long time was, given Jo-berg's horrendous crime rate, he was protecting
Mzwakhe from possibly being the victim of crime. It had nothing to do with
governmental corruption in high places and gentlemen of Sicilian extraction.
Absolutely nothing at all.
Copyright 1999 Dave Hucker