(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 18, Number 4, 1999)
I have not been forced, twisted, coerced, tortured, blackmailed, bought off, been offered or threatened with sexual activities to say this:
I freely admit that soca is very good again this year.
I believe it, and so it seems do a lot of different fans and pundits. We all agree soca seems to be getting stronger, as well as more musically diverse. Accommodating new fusions and sounds in this year's Carnival, apart from the usual T&T releases, talented musicians and groups from the other islands are coming strongly into the arena.
There are just so many big good quality tunes this year. Road March winner "The River" by Blue Ventures is deservedly massive everywhere. Its full-on march beat and memorable vocals from newcomer Sannell Dempster makes it essential and one "for the ladies."
Barbados' Square One has their usual massive uptempo pan-Caribbean hit; this year's is called "25 Years." The rest of their release, In Full Bloom (Square One), is real zingalanging stuff--even a double reworking (r&b and hip-hop) of the disco classic "That's the Way I Like It" is very appealing.
One of my personal favorites this year comes from Atlantik's Making Waves (JW). "Together as One" is a floor-filling, rousing anthem to Caribbean solidarity, which starts out with the statement "The Caribbean is a nation--respect that: One Caribbean, one nation." The riddim drops--bang--for a solid pounding groove, up-front percussion gives it a pulsing and flowing insistence. The mixture plus the conscious lyrics make this tune a one-stop classic.
The bouyon sound from Dominica is getting immensely popular these days. I remember when this style, which owes more to zouk and compas than calypso, was called cadence and the stars of the scene were artists like Exile One and their lead singer, Gordon Henderson, with their cadence-lypso.
Reminded of Exile One I dug into the shelves to reacquaint myself. First to hand was Beaucoup D'Gaz A Bo or, as it is titled in English, "Lotsa Music Onboard" which came out in 1975 on the fledgling Debs label. In the style of the mid '70s the cover shot of the guys features lots of afros and 30" flares. The music is smooth, too. Its old-style, gentle compas-inspired groove with luscious alto sax just flows along. There is a reggae tune and two other songs in English, so the musical variety is there, including one curiosity titled "Instant Funk," which in its jazzy funkyness is just damn funky in a James Brown/Fela way. Pleasant memories came flooding back: This was a really great period for Windward Islands music.
A fine Dominican release, Mizik A Nou (WCMF) subtitled "World Creole Music Festival Commemorative CD Vol. 2," is worth investigating. Bassist Eddie Angol is the main man in this lineup which features great vocals from Elisha Benoit. One of the standouts is "Ba Mwen Bouyon," a swinging mid-temp groover. The big Dominican hit this year comes from Ken Marlon Charles AKA KMC. From his Mad Vibes lp (IP/JW Music), "Fire" is a thoroughly modern jump-up with lots of nice little twists. The rest of album is real ruff tough stuff as well. I particularly like a tune called "Push Back."
The bouyon sound certainly gives a fillip to the pleasure zone neglected recently by what is quite frankly a rather tired zouk sound these days. Charging in from St. Maarten comes bouyon exponents the Explosion Band whose Dirty Flex (Spice Island) cd provides one of the big tunes this year. "Hornin,"which reached number two in the Trini charts and has become a massive hit on small-island dance floors here. The lyrics with their "After all I've done for you--why you hornin' me?" line sticks in the memory incessantly and strikes a chord with the people.
An example of just how big this tune is: The other day I was walking past the reggae shop in Portobello Road. As it is run by Jamaicans all you usually hear blasting out of the speakers is Jamaican music, but that day "Hornin" echoed through the market. I thought, well, if they are playing it then it must be large.
A tune that could be mega outside the soca area where it is already one of the big hits is "Aye Aye Aye" by Mr. Vargas, which you can find on a compilation called Soca Compilation 2000: Raw Talent (Raw Talent). Mr. Vargas presents us with a completely madcap chemical dollop of 100 mph radical Trini drum and bass. This very exciting bang-out is not for the faint-hearted or the purist. This wild winner is a full frontal assault that if dropped at the right time is a mind-blowing floor-filler.
Another biggie for me comes from Massive Soca Vol. 2 (Hot Vinyl) where songstress Rhona Spencer comes up with a swinging ditty called "Ginger," a song with a fiercely chugging beat and great percussion that swiftly gains admirers. She tells the story of waking up "a melody in my head lighting up a fire" and requests Wet me down with water/Super mountain lava." She comments "Soca music enjoying time/Reggae, rockers, zouk an dub/This music take over now." Also on this compilation is a cracker from Bounty Runner called "Don Study It."
This year's killer tune goes under several names: Roy Cape's "Dust Dem" is also known as "The Bees" or "Stampede." You can find this on Soca Midas (JW), featuring vocals from Kurt Allen, this enjoyable romp starts off with the premise that a swarm of bees invades Trinidad, and stings people bad. Another one of those full-speed crash outs, buzzing along with all kind of twists and turns in the story and sound before it all comes to a rousing conclusion and total wipe-out. Best heard blasting from a wall of loudspeakers.
As should be the offering from Machel Montano and Xtatic: Any Minute Now (VP) is crammed to the gills with new ideas and innovative sounds. Beenie Man makes an appearance on a tune called "Outer Space" and seems quite comfortable with it. All very impressive. Krosfyah contributes their "Bad Behaviour" to the pantheon of this year's hits. Taken from Hot Zone (Kalinago/VP), it is another raucous jump-up.
The ever-left-field David Rudder comes up with a tribute to Fela Kuti on International Chantuelle (JW), while the title track has a gentle a cappella arrangement with a multilayered chorus. A definite little weirdo, but it is proving to be big as a late-night choice. So all in all, another bumper year for soca. As Xtatic says on "Any Minute Now," It's the last carnival before the Millennium," and everybody has decided to see the old century out in rip-roaring fashion.
The new recording from Salif Keita, Papa (Metro Blue), is not, er, very interesting. Recorded in Mali, Paris and New York, the main culprit in this mess-up seems to be Living Colour's Vernon Reid, who has overlaid a really inane rock drum beat over much of the proceedings here. I thought we had progressed from the idea that to make a music popular in middle Amerika you had to "internationalize" it. Or maybe I'm looking at it the wrong way--possibly Mr. Reid wants to rockize African music (God forbid). But whichever way you look at it, this album just does not work. I have absolutely nothing against Living Colour and their radical rock/funk style. In fact I quite like their punkishness. But this release is a mushy mistake.
I do not often get it wrong with a record. It is a rare occasion for me to miss the point of what an album is about and completely pass by the meaning of it. But I have to admit I did exactly that with the last release from Son 14, Cubania (Tumi/Tinder) the other year. I do not know why I just blanked out on it, but I did, and I gave it an unfavorable review. Listening to it at some point later, also after I had also seen them live in Cuba, I realized I had got it completely wrong: It was actually very good.
So I was extra careful to listen to La Maquina Musical (Tumi), the new album from Son 14, to make sure I did not repeat my embarrassing mistake. I need not have worried--this newie is a real banger. The quality groove jumps straight out at you, massaging you with a deep velvet modern son beat. This release marks their 20th anniversary. Vocalist "Tiburon" sounds as gruff as ever. The band swings with much smoothness, tightness and gusto. Good tunes, good grooves. A solid release from this favorite Santiago combo. Highly recommended.
Also worth grabbing hold of is the latest offering from Jose "El Canario" Alberto. Herido (Rykolatin) is well up to the standards we have come to expect from one of the huge stars of modern popular Latin music and one of great vocalists. He got his nickname for his sweet, pure voice that sang like a canary. His voice has certainly matured over the years and has now got a smoky, ragged, more soulful feel to it. Top-quality songs are enhanced by crisp arrangements from various members of the band, including Isidro Infante who guests on piano, so you get a lot of variety in the sound.
Another vocalist you can generally rely on is Tito Rojas. This Puerto Rican oldster always comes up with at least a couple of super-dupa tracks per release. From his latest Alegrias Y Penas (MP), hard, tuff music spills out. Give me this stuff any day to the anodyne crap you get from all the pretty boys and formula salsa merchants.
I would not dare call DLG pretty boys and formula merchants, first, because they would probably come round and beat me up, second, because it is not true. Even though their newie Gotcha (Sony) has loads of slushy radiopap, dripping over great chunks of obvious disco cladding, it's also got two absolute stormers which further cement DLG's hugely popular position as cutting edge members of the New York pop-Latin mixup style. First up is a magnificent version of one the first hits and great classics of the boogaloo, Johnny Colon's "Boogaloo Blues." In the original song half-way through the chorus starts intoning the mantra, "LSD got a hold on me." DLG twist this into "DLG's got a hook on me." Joe Cuba's "El Pito" is also introduced and plaited in the structure which is transmuted though the various breaks including reggae drops. Full marks again to producer Sergio George.
The other spot-on choice from Gotcha is a reworking of Johnny Pacheco's "Acuyuye," a classic charanga from the mid-'60s which has already been the basis for a couple of club tracks. But this new version is fine, a real pop beat-out which works, in the same way as "Julianna," off DLG's last release, worked, slipping easily between the reggae drops and the charanga groove. But then I suppose everything fits with the charanga groove.
The latest releases in the Buda label's Éthiopiques series, volumes six and seven, are out now. Essential as always, these cds concentrate on two classic lps by the greatest Ethiopian singer, Mahmoud Ahmed. The story of his life is a real fairytale, from street-urchin shoeshine boy to the biggest star of Ethiopian music and playing weekend lock-ins in hotels during the Marxist Derg rule. He got his break when working as odd-job man at a club: The vocalists with the band didn't turn up and Mahmoud stepped in.
Volume six is basically his first lp Almaz, recorded in 1973, with two earlier tracks from 1971 included. Rootsy plaintive songs, his superb voice rolling over the melancholic minimalist instrumentation. Deep soulful moving vocals spill out at you. Do not miss these releases under any circumstances. Volume seven is his 1975 recording Ere Mela Mela, which was not released in the West till 1985. A raw moving masterpiece of the golden age of Ethiopian music, it is a gut-wrenching emotional soundscape of extreme brilliance, both in Mahmoud's singing and the spaced-out funkiness of the band.
And this just in, the Ahi-Nama label has culled from their catalog a compilation culled titled Con Sabor a Son, which hits all the right notes and places with the right people.
Copyright 1999 Dave Hucker