(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 21, Number 6, 2002)


As you probably would have guessed I am not really a huge fan of hip-hop. Although in my defense - excuse me, do I really need a defense? - I would say that I am very happy with the various French-based combos like Orishas, Elyeo and native French/Senegalese poet MC Solaar who operate in this style.

I had high hopes for The Cuban Hip-Hop All-Stars Vol. One (Papaya), which was described on the grapevine as a selection of 13 of the best hip-hop artists in Cuba. However, when I dropped it into the cd machine I was very disappointed - it did not sound very interesting at all. I was expecting some kind of really creative, bangingly inspired timba-hip-hop fusion, a sort of Charanga Habanera/Charanga Forever experience hip-hopped out to the max. But no, it was atypically hip-hop slow and too much of a dirge for my tender and elderly ears. So I put it aside and continued diggin' whatever it was that I was diggin'.

Eventually I went back to it, listened to it some more and still agreed with my initial assessment. I thought about what was wrong and started messing with the speed of the tracks. I have Pioneer CDJ500s which for me are still the best dj cd machines you can buy, and they have a really clever feature which allows you to make the music faster or slower without altering the pitch. So it does not sound speedymickeymouse or s s s s l l o o o o w. I started speeding up the tracks and, zaparoonie, it made all the difference in the world. To me it sounded like now they actually had some swing, and the tracks started to click into some kind of dancehall/rap groove.

The concept behind this release itself is worthy of note: It was recorded over one week by Cuban hip-hop producer Pablo Herrera, who had the vision of presenting a showcase for the breadth and depth of the Cuban hip-hop movement. Generally the groups were formed in the mid-to-late '90s and are mainly Havana based. The live bass on some of the tracks is played by Jorge Reyes, formerly with Cuban musical institution Irakere and one of the great bass players. The samples are finely wrought into the rhythms and there are a few tracks that did not need any tweaking at all - a good example of this is "Kirino Con Su Tres" from Instinto, the first all-female rap band on the island, which incidentally also is the best track on this compilation. So if you want to catch up with a slice of what has been happening hip-hop-wise in Cuba recently then The Cuban Hip Hop All-Stars is worth investigating. If you want the Huckero remix, then sorry, you got to do it yourself. The average speedups were about 7 to 10 on the 10 plus and minus setting.

Unity was the name of a Northeast London reggae sound system that was very popular in the mid-to-late '80s. They had developed out of the famous '70s Fatman sound. Unity's main man was Ribs AKA Robert Fearon and he had been a selector for Fatman. Ribs was a man born to run a sound - he always wanted to do it and eventually suffered two hernias from humping innumerable speaker boxes around. At the tail end of the '70s I occasionally used to catch Fatman and selector Ribs at the Four Aces, the seminal club in Dalston. But by the late '80s when Unity were at their best, I'm afraid my sound-system days were virtually over, so I rarely got the chance to catch their legendary vibes. East London was another world and the breadth of London away. For me as a West London whiteboy it had all got a bit too territorial - I discovered I was not really happy going to places out of my manor for a reggae session. Also my other musical interests were taking me elsewhere most of the time. For the sounds it had always been territorial - Unity never really played Brixton. They might play in nearby Lewisham/New Cross but never in SW9 - that was Saxon/Coxsone turf.

A compilation called Watch How the People Dancing (Honest Jon's) is a selection of the tunes that Unity made for the sound and their eponymous label during the early English digital period. Unity had developed into a heavy-duty sound. They had forged a long-term relationship with producers Jammy and Striker Lee giving them exclusive plates. It obviously was a two-way street with Jammy and Striker getting direct feedback on what was happening on the dance floor and creating tunes that became hugely popular and very influential, not only in England but all around the world.

"Sleng Teng" was the breakthrough. It showed how you could construct a riddim on a cheap keyboard. In those days Unity used such "unplugged" methods of recording as actually playing the electric drums live - they had no facility for looping. You can still hear the drum guide plips in the Casio keyboard that they used for many of the tracks; in fact sometimes they even accentuated the plip to make it part of the track. One of the big tunes for Unity and their label was Selah Collins' "Pick A Sound." It still sounds good today with its electronic edge but it sits halfway with the form and sound of classic reggae chops still in there.

On this release you get the original dj cut and the dub. "Pick A Sound" is followed by Mickey Murka's righteous "We Try," one of the tracks where the rhythm-guide plip is clearly audible. As far as the djs who graduated through Unity it is best expressed in Rib's own words from the informative sleeve notes:

The more djs you have on your sound and the better they are is more popular your sound is. Jack Reuben, Yabby You, Charjan, Roy Ranking, Demon Rocker, Raymond Napthali, Flinty Badman, Speccy Navigator, the Riddler, there was a few more. At that time whosoever a dj in Jamaica, Admiral Bailey, Chakademus, Peter Metro, Lieutenant Stitchie, they all had to pass through come to the dance where we were. Sugar Minott he was living in the area when he created his Black Roots label. Speccy Navigator brought Selah Collins in, Ruddy Ranks knew Mickey Murka, Kenny Knots was going out with one of Ruddy's family, Peter Bouncer and Jack Wilson lived in the area, Jack Reuben brought in Demon and Demon brought his brother Flinty.

Demon Rockers and Flinty Badman went on to fame as the Ragga Twins with the Shut Up and Dance label doing early proto-jungle tracks.

The hits keep a-flowing, Kenny Knots' "Watch How the People Dancing" is a perceptive singjay observation of life out there on the floor for the selector. Richie Davis says he's not going to wear any "Lean Boot" no more, Kangol is the new style, while Peter Bouncer gets ready for the "Dancehall Tonight." Mikey Murka boasts about how to "Control the Dancehall." But the star track on this album for me is "Chuck It" from Jack Wilson and Demon Rockers, a wild rebellious vocal excursion with good piano that is righteous and also has a revolutionary zeal. Mikey Murka lets us "Ride the Rhythm." I always liked this cut - it has a New Orleans flavor in the vocal, stretching the notes sort of like Lee Dorsey.

The demise of Unity came when the music moved on, with the emergence of a full-blown digital dancehall style and the Nasty Love dj style. Ever the sound-system purist, Ribs had only ever used one turntable; the new style was mixing and mixing and more mixing. So he hung up his cables and retired but the legacy of the sound is there on this double vinyl and cd. Another succinct moment in time and space captured by Honest Jon's for posterity or the end of the world, whichever is sooner.

London-based French Algerian singer Kad Achouri has been creating waves with his debut album, Liberté (Stern's). It is a very creative outpouring from a new talent, a very satisfying effort in many ways. It comes together with layers of many different musics, with this release actually recorded in Athens by Marc Eagleton. Kad is working within the parameters of what I would call a Mediterranean basin sound infused with a deep jazziness. Kad himself adds piano flute, keyboards and percussion to the efforts of the Greek jazzperts like double-bass player Costas Constan-dinou, who gives this recording a grounding of deep gravitas. The luscious backing vocals by Julia Sarr and Anne Papiri were arranged by Lokua Kanza. The tunes wander through a pan-Southern European sound. It's sort of like driving through different countries - you get bits of a different feel but a common musical experience spanning reggae, funk, Latin and hip-hop. The songs all have catchy melody lines and the music gently drifts here and there. Keep your eyes on this character: Kad Achouri is creating a personal, unique, unified vision with a wide breadth of musical ideas.

I do not know how it happened - sometimes Jah works in mysterious ways, but it has only taken me two years to catch up with Equilibrio (Latinworld), the last release from legendary Venezuelan band Guaco. They have been one of the most consistently interesting groups in Venezuela and have held this honor since their inception way back in the dawn of the age of Aquarius.

Guaco has always reveled in the sandbox of experimentation; most certainly they are way out there on the radical wing. Under the leadership of lead singer and arranger, one "watered-down Gustavo" Aguado, they have explored heavy guitars and music from various sources. In this release I can hear where all of those threads have come together, a bit of funk here, a guitar solo there, to create a totally mesmerizing mixture of the best of the Caribbean and South America and beyond.

Things open up with "Mami's Boogaloo," a real schmoove mover which is actually a bachata-type boogaloo groove worthy of bachata king Juan Luis Guerra. Next up is "Señor Weiss," where a funky bass line gives a solid foundation for the catchy vocals to bounce off. Then "Como Camina" is a jazzed out funkyly fragmented cha cha cha.

"Bailidora" almost has a Gilberto Gil feel to it and "Solo Con Sus Recuerdos" has a tight groove and like many tracks on this release has many twists in the arrangement. Sonora Pon-ceña's classic "Fuego En el 23" is a total stormer with its breaks and heavy drums and what even sounds like a didjeridu. Didn't I say they were radical? Guaco should be megastars of the Latin music biz­even the salsa romantica tunes like "I Want to See Me in Your Eyes" have a fresh and jumping arrangement, which shows up just how vacuous the assembly-line arrangements are for the insipid pretty boys and girls who unfortunately have a monopoly in the salsa romantica area. The cover is designed by famous Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz Diaz.

Once again the Far Out label has a solid release with Momond Paradise another of their remixed roots Brazilian efforts. The bare bones were recorded in Rio with top-notch musicians like Ivan Marenhao from Azymuth, then Roc Hunter and label boss Jo Davis worked their magic in London giving them a bit of oomph, but never losing sight of the roots. These tracks are very popular on the dance floor - you can sling them on and keep the punters happy when you are into an intelligent big-beat thump-out phase.

The Rough Guide to the Indian Ocean, an entertaining cruise 'round various Indian Ocean islands, caught my attention. This compilation, by fRoots editor Ian Anderson, visits Madagascar, the Comoros Islands, La Reunion, Mauritius, Zanzibar, the Sey-chelles and Rodrigues, with some well-known and some lesser-known artists. From the steep green volcanic flanks of La Reunion comes artist Rene Lacaille, the reggae-influenced Baster and the dubbed-out hipness of Tam-Tam des Cools. Mauritius provides us with sega star Denis Azor and the late cultural seggae hero Kaya. From Rodrigues, Kaskavel brings us a very rootsy percussion and vocal thang, and Tarika, Jean Noel, Lego and Feo-Gasy take us around the highlands and lowlands of Madagascar. Mayotte, one of the Comoros Islands, is indeed a magical place and I am very fond of the music as presented here by M'Toro Chamou, while from nearby Grande Comore, Belle Lumiere gives us a version of Zanzibar taarab called twarab. The Seychelles String Band uses their bows and accordions imaginatively - do I get a taste of Cajun here? From Zanzibar taarab masters the Culture Music Club saw away and walk the ancient alleyways.

Talking of Zanzibar, English novelist Giles Foden's latest book titled Zanzibar (Faber and Faber) is about the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. It is a very entertaining read. He was in Zanzibar at the time of the bombings and wrote it before September last year.

I would have been kicking myself had I missed Gilberto Gil's new release Kaya N'gan Daya (WEA). After visiting my local music purveyor to purchase aforesaid masterpiece, I sat slack-jawed as the roots and nothing but the roots poured out. What a brilliant concept: Gilberto recording Bob's songs in the Tuff Gong studio with his band, Sly and Robbie and the I Three. It is quite scary at times listening to this because of the quality of Gil's voice - it is just so well worn, and has all the scuffs of life scoured into it. Highlights for me include "Three Little Birds," "Rebel Music (Three O' Clock Roadblock)" and "Kaya." Wow, I'm just gobsmacked.

The grand old man of Mozambiquan marrabenta Dilon Djindji has a new album out, Dilon (Riverboat) on which he goes back to the roots with a very simple acoustic style. You are going to hear more of this swinging release: It certainly has a monopoly of emotion with the mouth organ, guitar and sax. My advice is do not pass by, stop and investigate.

I had not played any Dennis Brown for donkeys, it was only when Promised Land 1977-79, one of Blood and Fire's famous compilations of the great Mr. Brown floated in front of my eyes that I engaged in an orgy of DEB, catching up with a lost feeling and meeting an old friend again. Thank you, Mr Barrow, you flipped me back to a great period of music for me.

Sitting in front of the café Ben Mustapha, Place Moulay Hassan in Essaouira, Morocco, people-watching the world go by in this incredible fishing port and surfer's paradise, I listened as a non-stop diet of Fela Kuti was blasting out from the cafe's sound system. Next day it was the Buena Vista Social Club and salsa, next day the Afro Celt Sound System and Moroccan copies of Carlos Santana and the Doors. I wish I had discovered Essaouira 30 years ago; my life might have taken a different route. Stephen Davis' words of warning in his column about the bootlegs of Gnawa music are quite accurate - you are better spending your dirhams on art. The Gnawan painters are a truly fantastical movement, and bootlegging Gnawan paintings is not done yet.

My two cats say that they want to be "in" rock music. The female says she wants to be called Feline Dion, and after I had explained to the male that there already was a band called the Super Furry Animals, he is now set on calling his group the Furry Underground. I do not know what else to suggest; also the question is, should I let them take this route? I shall have to ask my friend Bob Tarte for advice, as he knows everything about animals.

Copyright 2002 Dave Hucker

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