(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 19, Number 4, 2000)
William Shakespeare told me that Tony Allen was God.
I'm not talking about the bloke AKA the famous bard of Stratford who allegedly wrote all of those well-known plays. The William Shakespeare I was talking to was propping up a bar at a Nigerian restaurant in East London.
He was one of those souls whose parents had bestowed a famous given name in the hope good luck and association would rub off a bit on their offspring. But obviously with not much effect in his case. This William had also been barred. One time I had been forced to deny him access to one of my clubs when his behavior went way, way past the limits of my very liberal ideas about what can and should happen in clubs. He had been off the pipe for a long while; these days his only buzz came from a bottle. "We were like brothers together," he said, describing his friendship with erstwhile Africa 70 drummer and Fela's right-hand man, Tony Allen. "He was the man."
Indeed. Tony Allen was the man who arranged the music on all the early Fela recordings, and he also made a series of little-known solo albums using the Africa 70 personnel during this period. Starting in 1975 with Jealousy, 1976's Progress, 1978's No Accommodation For Lagos and culminating in 1979 with No Discrimination, which could be considered his first true solo album as it was recorded after Tony had left Fela and Africa 70. These very rare and truly wonderful blasts of stripped-down radical Afrobeat have just been lovingly reissued by the London-based Afro Strut label. They feature the original covers and additional copious sleeve notes containing an interview with Tony.
There are two cds and four vinyls covering all four releases (being the vinyl glutton I am I will talk about the records, but the two cds contain everything that is on the vinyl), starting with his startling debut "Jealousy," a highlife-tinged subtlety featuring Shina Abiodun on lead vocals, with its gentle but sharply honed groove. Even Fela's piano is almost jazzily whimsical. On the flipside, "Hustler" is a stripped-down, fast blast of low-down raunchy muscle car: Tony's drums rip open the proceedings, redlining the rhythm from the get-go, duelling with the talking drum and piano into the first turn when Fela's foot-to-the-floor sax screams by. Tony whups him on the home stretch though, with a beating drum solo that is firing on all cylinders.
"Progress" is a moody little mover with an attitude, funky and radical, with the chorus intoning "progress" over shaker and guitar until the bass drops. After the solos whip up enough excitement to wake the dead, rousing vocals from "Candido-man" Candido Obajimi, step forward to tell a story Tony says he wrote "about my life. A hard worker is looking for progress. And at that time I have done enough of hard jobs you know. It's progress I'm after. I was singing about everybody in my situation, the tough life."
"Afro Disco Beat" which graces the B side with its frenzy of drum beats, is one of those stone classic floor-filling percussion loony tunes, as the sleeve notes put it "a devastating percussion encounter." I've never known this to fail to incite total and utter madness in otherwise sane, calm and reserved people. 1978's "No Accommodation For Lagos" is an overtly political rant and rage against homelessness with stirringly soulful vocals from Candido Obajimi again, while "African Message" looks positively at what the African continent means and can achieve. The drum patterns are expressively complex and give the groove a right old bump.
Tony left Africa 70 in Berlin in 1978 so his first solo recording was 1979's "No Discrimination," in many ways the most radical musically of the albums here. It shows Tony breaking from the confines of pure Afrobeat and freeing himself up to experiment. And boy does he experiment. The title track opens up with vocal scatting over the drums before a tenor guitar plops out, almost playing a bass line (when was the last time you heard a tenor guitar?), then a jazzy guitar dips and picks in, inspiring his long-time friend and collaborator Candido to launch into a George Benson free-forming scat style.
When things get going it is just so damn funky, it even features oodles of squelchy synth straight outa that other George -- "Mr. Clinton, that is. The lyrics, plea for racial harmony: "No discrimination, togetherness, white and black... Right on" would not sound out of place on the soundtrack to a '70s social-consciousness blaxploitation film, as the thoughtful lead character sporting a nice Afro haircut unifies the warring factions, the black Jets and the white Caps, so everyone can live together in peace. (Well, the film might have had that storyline if that well-known leftie film director John Sayles had been making blaxploitation movies at the time.) Other tunes here include a paean to "Road Safety" commenting on the dangerous nature of Nigerian roads, while "Love Is A Natural Thing" in the aforementioned film could accompany a steamy sex scene.
Back at the bar, William spotted an old acquaintance across the room. They had never been the best of friends, but Nigerians got to stick together. Unfortunately William had severely annoyed him once over some stupid reason he couldn,t even remember now. Could he get a drink out for him for old time's sake? William wasn't sure. To blag or not to blag, that was the question. The thought of the hard, sharp, bittery taste of a Nigerian Guinness quickly made his mind up. "Hey man, how you doing?"
Wayne Gorbea and Salsa Picante's Saboreando (Shanachie) is a superb follow-up to their last album which caused a sensation wowing both critics and dancers. So with great eagerness and anticipation, the aficionados, including me, awaited the latest release from the king of the Bronx salsa dura. We were not disappointed. Saboreando does not necessarily hit you with the same immediate outpouring of hard-hitting, in-your-face, smell-of-the-street intensity that made Cogele El Gusto so distinctive. Saboreando is much more sophisticated and subtle, and a lot of thought and effort has gone into its production and execution, exemplified by the arrangements of musical director and trombone player Rick Davis and Ramon Rosado which continually surprise you with their twists, turns and depth. This is a fantastically well-rounded release which carries the flag for tough salsa music and waves it high and proudly.
Proceedings get off to a ripping start with "El Yo Yo" which charges head first into Tito Puente's "Ran Kan Kan." (RIP Tito. Hope you are happy in that timbale heaven in the sky. We will miss you.) This version builds intensity upon intensity, with the famous "Ran Kan Kan" staccato horn riff chopped up and served raw. A jazzed-out piano solo from Wayne passes through. A gentler groove follows up with "Nelida." After your ears have been singed by the pyrotechnics of the first track, you quickly realize just how good a vocalist Frank Otero is, as he bends the keys on the song. "Son Picante" is another slow-ish montuno-type mover, with an exquisite piano from Wayne while the two trombones wail forth. Rick Davis, arrangement of "Coco," by Cuban oldsters Orquesta Ritmo Oriental, has a clattering clavé leading a jumpy rhythm with Rick's raw trombone stabbing away. "Calle Loca" is another one of Rick's instrumentals, in the tradition of "Strut" from the last album. And just like "Strut," this clever mid-paced groove is proving to be one of the dancers' faves.
The great Cuban sonero "Chocolate" Armenteros gets his "Guajira Inspiration" given a through working-over by another one of Rick's arrangement here. Opening up the track the trombones harmonize and set up the dirty low-down bluesy mood, then the full horn section blasts out and the piano drops in. Exquisite. The rhythm chugs along as the solos from the bones and trumpet trade huge great big waves of liquid soul and expressiveness.
Eddie Palmieri's "Estamos Chao" is the big banging number. Clocking in at 9:51 of steaming rhythm, it features a rampant bongo solo from Juan Rodriquez. This release is mixed so beautifully, with the percussion well up-front and rich layers of sound, everything fits together like a well-crafted and engineered music machine. With Wayne and Salsa Picante's famous "live band in the studio" approach to recording, what you get in the studio is the same as if you went out dancing at one of their club dates. Saboreando is the first major Latin album of the year and of this millennium, and is yet another masterpiece to add to the many masterpieces, near-masterpieces and damn great music that Wayne Gorbea has made as a fiercely independent artist with a vision and a mission.
The other major Latin release so far this year also comes from Shanachie in the shape of Los Jovenes del Barrio and their ¡Es Diferente!. They show a highly creative musical maturity with this fourth album, and have fulfilled the early promise that was evident in their previous efforts. The modern charanga they create is chock-full of intricate swing, recorded by one of the greatest Latin engineers ever, John Fausty. He creates a soundscape where the violins saw away, sometimes red-hot and rocking, other times blanketing you with a velveteen smoothness. The percussion slaps out, while the two female singers, Jillian with her r&b tinged tones and the raw spirit of Maggie Ramos, duke it out with male vocalist Marco Bermudez. Leader and musical director Johnny Almendra conjures up a beguiling and textured sound with his radical arrangements and their many subtle changes of direction and rhythm.
A whole range of rhythms get an airing here from guaracha son, to what is labeled "cha cha blues." That particular track, called "Blue You" is obviously the follow-up and reworking of "Telephone," the massive club hit off their last album, and has Jillian gracing this slow-but-powerful mover with a scorching gospel vocal, while an organ swirls around in the mix, the bass pulses in and out and the violins wail disconnectedly. The radical nature of Los Jovenes' music is typified by the title track, which is described as a salsa vallenata. The curious mixing of salsa and the Colombian country blues style introduces an interesting bump in the rhythm, and also suggests a different melody line. This is a major tune on the floor: Again the vocal lineup which gives them their unique sound pours out the soul by the bucketful.
In a musical world populated by anodyne salsa clones, Los Jovenes del Barrio stand out as one of the most important bands in the New York scene. They are pushing at the parameters, breaking the barriers, purposefully going down a road nobody else has the talent or imagination to travel. With their mix of tradition and modern, classic and contemporary, superbly hand-fashioned with verve and intelligence into some of the best Latin music North America has to offer. Along with Wayne Gorbea and a few other select groups, Los Jovenes del Barrio are at the top of the New York salsa hierarchy. Es Diferente is a stupendous release. I see I have been quoted on the sleeve for Es Diferente. Well, this is such a major release that I'm sure the label will have a plethora of quotes from which to choose to bang on the back of the next one.
Out of the calypso/soca/whatcheveryerwanna call it, output this year
have been some outstanding grooves, but also there were a lot of copycat
tunes and repeats by artists of their last year's hits. But a few genuine
classics shone through. Shadow got his belated just desserts with
his tune "What's Wrong (With Me)," from Am I Sweet or What?
(Crossroads). This has his sharp nd humorous mind questioning why he had
been neglected recently by Carnival judges but not by the people. But a
couple of my favorites have come from rapso outfit 3 Canal. Their
The Fire Next Time (Rituals Music) offers a storming ditty
called "I Believe" which with witty wordplay discusses believing
in the need to believe in something you believe in. In addition, their ever-popular
Jouvert celebration anthem, the storming "Mud Madness," can be
found on Jouvay 2000 (Rituals Music).
Copyright 2000 Dave Hucker