(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 18, Number 1, 1999)


"So, an de password was Snooty Agouti!" The circle of high-rolling limers assembled around the storyteller fell about laughing. I looked over to them. The reference to Snooty Agouti made him as a St. Lucian. However we were all sitting at the bar of the Aquatic Club on the seafront in Villa, St. Vincent. And the others? Intrigued, I asked the barman who were they after they had left noisily a few Harouns beers later, he explained the storyteller was the skipper of the boat, that the day before yesterday had made the very last run of Vincy weed out of the island before the U.S. Marines descended and burned the fields. "Dey trying to destroy both our banana business an our local weed business" the barman complained. "How people gonna live?"

"Economic slavery," I said, "That's what they want, dependence culture, you depend on them, plus the weed business is so easy to hit." "Yah man, it'strue" he replied despondently.

That morning I had thought I was in a war zone, the thud, thud thud as phalanxes of Hueys filled the skies. Machine-gun-wielding Marines in full combat gear stood around as big clattering Chinooks were refueled among the regular local air traffic at the small airport.

But back to Snooty Agouti: Why the choice of the name of a trendy bar and Internet cafe in Rodney Bay, St. Lucia, should invoke such laughter, I do not know. But one thing I do know is that last year was the year Cuban music really got through to register into the general public'sconscience, whether it is at the Cuban All Stars/Ruben G./BVSC level of total media saturation, or on the quality of the releases that hit it last year from the island, or the situation where top New York producers like Isidro Infante start copping the Cuban chops seriously and dropping it in their middle-ground salsa mix. Or was it just a general and wide-ranging acceptance that something interesting was happening there? I certainly have had noticed it with what I can play on the dance floor: Three or four years ago I could not have played the range of Cuban music that I can now happily run.

We have seen a vast increase in interest in the music of the island from many different areas of musical activity, from the in-your-face deep funked-out banginess of Juan Carlos Alphonso and Dan Den, to Paulito, king of the young groove, and top-notch new(ish) groups like Bamboleo. Dan Den were supposed to play in London, but due to Mitch's hurricane things got kinda late coming out of Havana. So sadly no London gig. At their only other English show in Liverpool the next night they were incredible, putting on what was described as the most incredible live sets ever. Dan Dan were all fired up for their English debut--they wanted to shine, and they did.

Babalu Aye (Bembe) is a nice little release that features Cuban oldsters Irakere, one of the original bands of the 70s and 80s that carried the swing then and also functioned as a training ground for the new generation of musicians. Irakere in particular and Los Van Van are the grandfathers of the current groundswell of popular music from Cuba. In the case of Irakere, their deep infusion of jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms, led by Chucho Valdez, one of the great pianists of all time, spun them off around the world. They were the ambassadors of the groove, proudly showing the Cuban musical flag and showing just how swinging a dance combo they were. They inspired a whole generation of jazz and Cuban fans in that period, dazzling everyone with the complexity of the music and also for taking care of the roots details.

This new release is packed full of great tracks. The Irakere multilayered big-band rhythm machine just keeps on coming at you, constantly changing and finding little riffs on the groove, all wrapped up by the luscious and complex quality of the arrangements. The title cut, described as "bonus track," is an operatic 14-minute bata drum workout with folkloric singer Lazaro Ros.

We are in danger of forgetting Cuban music of the late 70s and the 80s with the current focus of attention on either the very old style son or the modern banging stuff. But it was a fertile and musically very powerful time and as always totally radical. Babalu Aye is a timely reminder of why that period of music was so good, and why Irakere is one of the all-time great jazz bands, one of the top musical fusion merchants, top practitioners of the roots and today are still doing the business in all categories, firin on all cylinders.

A lovely little Latin jazz mover on my dance floor recently has been a track called "Animo y Aliento" off Tolu's Rumbero's Poetry (Tonga). This all-star band created by reedman Justo Almario and percussionist Alex Acu§a is a real pan-South, Central and North American lineup. As the sleeve notes succinctly put it "in the band you ll find Colombians, Cubans, Mexican-Americans, Nicaraguans, Nuyoricans, Peruvians, Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans and a dude from Eagle Rock, California."

Justo had originally formed this Latin jazz project in the 80s but the participating members had then dispersed to do their own thangs. It has taken 15 years to get them back together, and it was worth the wait. It oozes superb Latin-jazzy excursions on a number of classic tunes like Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and Chick Corea's "Litha," while "Animo y Aliento" has the horn section stabbing at you and impassioned vocals pouring out from Tiki Pasillas.

Also big on the floor for that late-night wine n grine is a funky-dunky version of that old war horse "Besame Mucho." The piano takes us in on the bolero, as vocalist Luis Enriquez squeezes the passion and holds it there. Then the bass drops through the shimmering intro and away we go. Justo's soprano sax plaintively wails along and counterbalances Luis' very emotive vocals, while the rhythm builds in a very chunky fashion. And the melody of this great song, well, you just cannot beat a tune like this: It always brings tears to the eyes. A classic is a classic--it does not matter how many corny versions of this song have been inflicted upon personkind. There is always space to do it again.

A big thank you to Busi Mhlongo, who has restored my faith in modern South African music. Her Urbanzulu release (Melt 2000) is a razor-sharp blast of trad-mod music. This is her second record, her first for Melt 2000. She is the owner of an amazing voice that can cut through the air as it rides on the pumping bass. Especially on the opening track "Yehlisanumoya Ma Afrika," where producer Will Mowat lets it rip as the dubbed-up vocals ethereally charge around in the upper atmosphere above the stomping rhythm. Huge on the dance floor as well, this hard-edged bump of urban Zulu is a real go-getter in the making-new-friends-quickly stakes.

The lyrics are hard-hitting and uncompromising. The musicians round the core of the group, bassist Themba and guitarist Spector are tight, tight, tight. They just chop out the radical music that during the recording had moved from being obviously trad Zulu maskanda, to something much wider and in doing so they created some totally compelling organic music. For example, "Ukuthula" starts out with 12-string guitar and concertina before the staccato groove drops, Busi leads the vocals that build and build in intensity till you get to a gospel wailout. The rhythm powers along leading the way all the time. Busi'sincredible voice, sharp, sassy looks and Rainbow Nation ideology mark her as someone to keep an eye on, starting with this stunning release.

Two issues ago I mentioned a release called African Salsa on Earthworks, which features selections from the most recent big bangers of the Senegalese Latin music scene. This compilation is out now and features the top stars of the style: Pape Fall and African Salsa, Super Cayor de Dakar, Mapenda Seck and Alioune Kasse provide the goodies. This is hot music, some of which, like the Baron Lopez remix of Africando's "Yaye Boy," has been notoriously difficult to find.

This new generation of Senegal/salsa groups is creating a powerful and potent mix, one that is undoubtedly modern, but is still part of the tradition of mixing Cuban with Senegalese music that has gone on there since the late 50s.

Super Cayor are undoubtedly the radical edge of the style, they have even dispensed with the timbales, replacing it with a customized Senegalese drum kit. With them the mbalax is still heavy in the rhythm and the resulting mix is very strong and kicking. These are all tunes that have proved themselves on the dance floor from Dakar to Paris and London. So there is no second-class rubbish resting here. This compilation is the state of play so far in this latest Afro-Cuban fusion. It covers the ground with Alioune Kasse and Pape Fall's 93 seminal hit "Tjouraye Gongo" right up to Pape Fall's December 1997's monster hit "Doumou Ndeye." An essential purchase; and, oh yes, I did the sleevenotes.

Copyright 1999 Dave Hucker

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