(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 17, Number 2, 1998)
Airtight Willie and me were hanging, slanging and chugging a beer, catching up on the 20 years since we last saw each other. He had got the moniker as an anarchist-scientist school kid, always using the adjective "airtight" when he wanted to express his satisfaction with something. Like when he had mixed up a particularly powerful home-made explosive, or when he had put a stuffed three-foot monitor lizard on a bridge parapet at night, causing pandemonium among passing traffic and sparking sightings of baby dinosaurs roaming wild in rural Derbyshire. We had drifted apart when I went to art college and he went to university. By one of those weird coincidences in life, he had seen my name on a letter I had got published in a national newspaper about some arcane point having to do with Mozart and yard singjay Buccaneer.
He had got in touch. We met up and babbled away as if it was only a few weeks, not two decades. As a lifelong Frank Zappa fan, he had been pleasantly surprised by the discovery of Cuban music while on a cheap package holiday there recently. I filled him in on the best of new Cuban music, of which there is a lot. Out there and defying the U.S. embargo are four of the most significant and brilliant new releases from a current Cuban musical scene that is most brilliantly significant and seriously banging. They are Bamboleo with Yo No Me Parezco A Nadie, David Calzado and Charanga Habanera's Tremendo Delirio, Los Van Van's Te Pone La Cabeza Mala, and Juan Carlos Alfonso y Su Dan Den's Salsa En Atare. They are all without any doubt the hardest, toughest, most sophisticated modern Cuban music to have come out recently.
The Bamboleo is a release of stupendous brilliance. Their first, Te Gusto o te Caigo Bien showed the promise inherent in this powerful new wave combo. But Yo No Me Parezco A Nadie (Ahi Nama) is much better than that. With its deep infusion of funk and jazz, Bamboleo is taking on the crown previously held by NG La Banda as leaders of the big-bass funked-up movement. Led by piano player Lazaro Valdes and fronted by the startling-looking shaven-headed vocalists Haila Momprie and Vannia Borges, Bamboleo's hot, crisp, modern look sits comfortably on the sharp cutting edge of music. Yo No Me Parezco A Nadie is a total masterpiece.
Listening to this the first time I was hit by the shakes, the spine got all tingly, forcing the head to nod, the body started to flex to the bass. I was suddenly hit by a feeling that I had gone through many times before. It was the emotional rush of finding an incredible tune or new artist. I flashed back to the first time I ever heard Robert Johnson, the first time Muddy Waters growled at me. The first time Sam and Dave wailed at me. The first time James Brown's "Cold Sweat" brought you out in a hot one. The first Art Blakey drum rolls. The first time "Catch A Fire" caught your attention, the first time you came across Fela Kuti. The first time George Clinton got Oops up inside your head. The first time Franco rumba-ed into your life. The first time you discovered El Gran Combo. It's that good.
Track number one, "Opening Estudio 10," storms almost from the word go, the groove drops with the piano rolling over the top, then the horns stab in, guest saxman T. Savioni charges out with a wail, and proceeds to jazz it up. Then the vocals step forward. The advantage of having two female vocalists are the range and texture you get. And these girls are incredible. The title track is next up, takes a while to get going, but when it does it rocks with serious intensity. There is a separate promo release dj remix of this tune done by DJ Sugar Kid which deconstructs it to good effect.
The slow romantico tracks like "Tu y Yo, Una Misma Cosa" simmer with a deep passion rarely found in the genre. Like "Mirando Al Cielo" which has so much soulful intensity it knocks anything I have heard recently from the soul and r&b world into the proverbial cocked hat. Then you come to one of the great tracks of this release, "Pelicula Vieja." A superb bumping rhythm which breaks down with dramatic shouts of "Luzes! Camera! Action!" and "Sexo! Violencia!" Then at the end it drops into a weird nutty bit that sounds like Buster Rhymes, but it works well. On the dance floor this tune is best as a late-night lock-your-loins grind 'n bumper.
The other track that is on my essential playlist is "Con un Canto en el Pecho" which tops out this album in fine style. It is 6:24 of pure undiluted pleasure. The girls vocals growl and swoop, the rhythm gradually ratchets up the pace till it is banging along, the drops are startling, the feral-sounding horns punctuate the breaks. The pumping beats pound along till it all climaxes in a rush, pure sax-led adrenaline.
Last year David Calzado and La Charanga Habanera caused outrage on the island with a show of such raucous hip-swiveling salaciousness that Fidel was not amused. Their latest release Tremendo Delirio (Universal Music) is a heady mixture indeed taking the new style Cuban music further. New moves and grooves make this a delirious romp through luscious and lascivious rhythms and beats, powered along with an awesome bass and many layered arrangements that are just incredibly complicated. Listening to this I was trying to think of a comparable example where the arrangements are as sophisticated and I had to admit the best one I could immediately come up with was Count Basie. What is tremendous about this release is the hugely modern mix. There are experiments in a whole heap of new ways of using elements of Caribbean sound. For example on "Lola, Lola" you get a pan drum sound floating in. "Lola, Lola" is one of the radio hits off this and it works well on the floor as well despite its seemingly fragmented rhythm. "Lo Siento Por Ti" starts off in slowsville, then builds in soulful intensity. On the "Boom remix" of "Un Disparo En La Mirada," which ends the cd, again the steel pan sound comes up. I was running it one Sunday and someone came over with a puzzled look and asked "Is that Brazilian?" No, but he had a point. What they are hearing is something to do with the mixing up of music in this current modern Cuban style. Over here in Europe many Latin observers immediately slapped the Charanga Habanera into their top 10 of 1997. I m sure that it s going to be big over the whole of this year (and more) as it progresses through the levels and layers of popularity and classic status that filters down to wherever its lowest possible common denominator actually is.
You generally can always rely on veteran swingers Juan Formell and Los Van Van. They represent the 70s/ 80s modern Cuban style, heavy on the violins and charanga. Their newie Te Pone la Cabeza Mala (Inspector de la Salsa/Caribe) is their best release for ages, not that their last one was at all average, or anything like that. Obviously they have been infused with a real blast of revitalizing tonic. The title track opens up the proceedings with a catchy melody and groove, the violins keep on dropping in and out, then swirling around. The beat is quite complex and the vocals joyfully put on an exuberant show.
"Ni Bombones ni Caramelos" is the next big banger coming our way. Its incessant pumping beat, rampant piano and violins is a real charanga-anga-swinger. Last of the upfront dancing tunes is "El Tren se Va." A blistering rumba-style groove, this has the horns and violins sparring, duking it out with seriously impassioned vocals and chorus. The arrangement ducks and dives all over the place, a mega piece of music making.
The last of the new releases from Cuba that is getting everybody excited is Dan Den's Salsa en Atare (Tumi). Ex-Reve pianist and composer Juan Carlos Alfonso formed Dan Den 10 years ago. After playing extensively in Mexico, their last record was made in Colombia with the musical director of Grupo Niche for the recently late Jerry Masucci s Nueva Fania label. They also played there at the prestigious salsa festival Feria de Cali. It seems to have given them a new impetus and influence. And I certainly do seem to detect a smidgen of Colombia in there.
This newie is packed to the gills with really interesting beats and sounds. Juan's piano playing is very radical, sometimes classic percussive-repetitive, other times, like on the title track, he moves it in a more jazzy direction. The vocals from lead sonero Jesusito Salas are extremely soulful. There is the menacing prowl of a three-trombone horn section that stabs and wails away. Then there is the way the rhythm sometimes just slows slightly, teasing you before dropping into the break. And the breaks are very radical, with lots of space in the riddim.
Before saying adios to Airtight I recommended he buy the Rough Guide to Cuba (World Network) cd, as it features a whole heap of old well-known tried and tested classics, like Celina Gonzalez s "Santa Barbara," and is ideal for some one wanting to catch up. There was a certain point when the general consensus of informed opinion said yes, reggae was a music that belonged to the world now. It did not belong exclusively to Jamaica. Personally I would put it somewhere between Alpha Blondy and El General. The music was open to all to hear and discuss the differences between the various global strands of the reggae style and each variation viewed and evaluated on its own terms. The English versions, the African versions, the Panamanians, the Japanese, the Brazilians. However Cyprus was not an area that immediately came to mind when it came to reggae.
It's time to look again at Cypriot raggamuffin star Haji Mike's latest offering. As a resident of this currently wintry gray and unpleasant isle he made a name for himself as a poet and recording artist. Now resident in the warmth of Cyprus he is well known as a presenter of radio and tv shows there, but sporadically he finds time in between to do a little music. His latest offering, Aphrodite's Dream (HMP), should really be considered more of a poetry album. The rhythms may be sun-dried Mediterranean Studio One olive grooves, but the words set it apart. You get humor mixed with social comment chronicling life in the fish-and-chip shop on "Chippy," while "Ledra Street" is a heartfelt cry about the street which is actually physically divided down the middle and symbolizes the injustices of the division of Cyprus. There is no slackness in any of the lyrics as we would expect from such a intelligent and highly educated chap as like wot Haji Mike is. Music score? Well, I'd give it 6 out of 10; words-wize, well, we are talking about 9 out of 10.
Salsa Mundo (Tinder) sounded like a good idea, a collection of Latin music from around the world all done by non-natural-born Latinos. Groups like Israel's Jerusalem Salsa Band, or Finland's Salsamania. (They named themselves after a 1976 lp by Orquesta Novel called Salsamania). It includes Japan's top salsa band, the great Orquesta Del Sol, heirs to the throne now that Orquesta De La Luz are no longer functioning. In the flesh--sorry, that should be, in the plastic--Salsa Mundo is certainly a very good idea. Top-quality music from all over the world spills out. It does prove the global nature of the various kinds of Latin/salsa/tropical that span the world. I am looking forward to volume two, and hopefully discovering things like Easter Island's leading cumbia band (if there is one), or even some of us limeys stuff--the English bands have got very good these days.
A real interesting curiosity on promo 12" comes from M.A.W., Kenny Dope and Little Louie Vega s New York City-based label. Dope and Vega are best known for their for their remix/fixer work: Here they are the executive producers. This release is a weird little ditty called "Parranda 98" by La Familia, a loose collection of people who get together occasionally to make records for the NY Latin/house/Puerto Rican gay scene. It is a gentle guitar-led, very country-folky type of thing with a naggingly insistent melody line that you cannot get out of your head. It breaks out with a gruff ruff-voiced vocal from a geezer called Candido, who is well known in the NY reggaespanol arena. This one is produced by co-vocalist Sabor, about whom nobody seems to know much, and Robert "Barrio" Bob, a long-time operator in the area. There are mixes galore catering to every taste, with titles like "Rascalmental Dub" and "Parradapella," but the mix with the magic touch is the "Club Vocal." The thump in this is so subtle as to be almost non-existent, and combined with the charming manner of the song it all comes together with a very interesting beat quite unlike anything I ve heard from them before.
Finally, at the time of writing, South African poet Mzwakhe was still
in prison on the trumped-up robbery charges he faces. Friday, Feb. 13 brought
scenes of pandemonium when the magistrate turned down Mzwakhe s fourth bail
application since he was apprehended in October. The magistrate fled the
court, but Mzwakhe was returned to the lockup to spend his remand with heavy
duty gangsters, rapists, murderers, serial and hard-core right-wing apartheid
killers. Incidentally, according to Stern's/Earthworks Trevor Herman, this
is the single-longest remand ever in S.A. justice, even during the time
of the hardest apartheid regimes. Why do they want to put him away so badly?
Copyright 1998 Dave Hucker