(by Dave Hucker, from The Beat, Vol. 25, No. 3, 2006)
I was out detecting bats.
It was all to do with making an artistic bat house in the London Wetland Center. Well, I mean a house for bats to roost, to be designed by the winner of a national competition inspired by Jeremy Deller, a Turner prize-winning artist who is interested in bats and who also wants to create an artistic statement with this building. (Not somewhere the bats can come and do art stuff in between catching insects and sleeping upside down.) [www. bathouseproject.org ]
Bat detector in hand, I walked through the thick reeds and shrubby environment surrounding the ponds and little creeks which are part of this huge nature reserve in Barnes, southwest London, abutting the Thames. They were carved out in the 1990s from redundant filter beds and reservoirs no longer wanted by the Metropolitan Water Board's modern successor Thames Water. It is a major habitat in London for all wetland birds and other species attracted to this friendly environment. There were bats galore. I never knew that each different species of bat sent out its echolocation signals at a different frequency.
The riverine estuary environment of ponds, creeks and streams recreated at the Center has a magical quality and is what the Thames would have been like only 500 years ago. This southern bank of the Thames from Battersea to Brentford seems to have had some major religious significance in Stone/Bronze/Iron Ages/Roman and Saxon life. No other part of the Thames has such a high incidence of very valuable objects deliberately placed into the river.
So I suppose I should continue the religious tradition and place a copy of Lagos Stori Plenti (Out Here) in the Thames as it certainly is very precious. It is a look at modern Nigerian youth music filtered through a European perspective by Jay Rutledge and his label Out Here. It taps into the lyrical and musical expressions of a young generation in the chaotic life of Lagos and its European micro-clones.
You have got to laugh about life in Nigeria. Comedy is a universal commodity, a relief and a positive grounding to Earth for us all, Nigerians included. Lagos Stori Plenti kicks off with Nigerian comic Terry the Rapman's "I Am Nigerian," a humorous tale over a hip-hop-ish beat about what it means to be young and Nigerian. He asks "why do you want Calvin Klein when you can have Oko Klein?" "My shoes are dead from trekking." "We live in a country where nothing works and it drives me berserk to face another day wit an empty purse."
The London star of the modern Nigerian movement and also by default spokesperson for the new generation diaspora, JJC and the 419 Squad give us a very dense track in the shape of "Demu Gani." It features a pumping rhythm and Tanzanian Bongo Flava artist T.I.D (Top in Dar) telling his story. This track is another example of the cross fertilization that is happening within some of the African and European urban musical scenes. "Letter to the President" from Eedris Abdulkareem is a thick reggae/hip-hop-tinged groove.
It is an open to letter to the president of Nigeria asking him to do something about the corruption in the country. Bits of Indian samples drift in and out. Eedris' previous hits were "Mr. Lecturer Parts 1 and 2"— part one was about teachers giving higher grades for sexual favors from schoolgirls while in part two he blames the schoolgirls for dressing provocatively.
His biggest hit was "Jaga Jaga" (pidgin for messed up) which addresses Nigeria's myriad social problems, violence, corruption and bad education. Mr. President himself was evidently so incensed that the song was giving Nigeria a bad name he felt compelled to insult Eedris' family calling them Jaga Jaga. "Letter to the President" is Eedris's ripost to that. Tough stuff.
"Ijoya" is another JJC London production with Nigerian female rapper Weird MC. It is a sort of grime-Afrobeat (grimeobeat? Afrogrime?) that certainly has a lot of intensity in its substantive groove. The "party lyrics" can be forgiven with the classy rhythm. A track specially recorded for this album is "Odolayé" from Afrobeat legend Dede who evidently used to open shows for Fela. Now he has linked up with modern artists like Azadus, Bantu and Modenine. This track has great lyrics about life on the road and how easy it is for blind people to get driving licenses and the police "taxing" motorists. The riddim is a reggae-tinged hip-hop circa Ini Kamoze, a cracking tune with added extra texture.
Other Nigerian reggae tracks include Natty and Warfy who hail from the U.S.A.—that's the United States of Ajegunle, a ghetto/barrio/favela of Lagos. Their "Give Me A Chance" is a whacked-out Sizzla style. Other Ajegunle residents are African China with "Mr. President" which has a rootsy lick of drums.
Aforementioned USA resident Modenine and OD get together to hit the reply button with a 419 tale. Personally, if I can be bothered to reply to email scams from Mr./Mrs. XXX based in XXX, I say "No deal unless you send me your uncle's record collection. I will accept delivery of original vinyl only. No burned cds or cassettes will be accepted. I have people on the ground very near to you who will make themselves known to you. If you do not do this then both the authorities in Amsterdam/Madrid/Lagos [fill in details as applicable] will be alerted as well as the C419." The C419 are a group of highly paid mercenaries. The C is for Contra and they are paid for by 419 victims who feel miffed enough to want to get even and pour bad money after bad and subscribe to a fund for the C419 activities. They are very effective: Recently they took out a whole family of prolific 419s in Utrecht, Holland and made it look like a car accident.
"Faze Alone" is a song by award-winning young star Faze. As the sleeve notes say, "Talk to any Nigerian girl between 14 and 35 years of age, 'Faze Alone' will be in her top three list of favorite songs." D'Banji's "Tongolo" is dense rhythm downpour that goes all over the place around a Indian loop. The vocals are pretty rough, calling from over the other side of the room. A tough sound and mix that is very nice with a insistent guitar riff. D'Banjli is part of the JJC team in London now.
"Oya" is the best track off German-based Bantu and Ayuba's Fuji Satisfaction cd. It is new wave Fuji Afrobeat, raw and steaming. Dede's "Niger Delta Jam" is another modern-sounding Afrobeater, a wide-screen magnum opus as wide as the Delta. It keeps the Afro-faith as he rants about it being a battleground at the moment, about the militarizing of the Delta, the corruption—just how do you lose a tanker full of oil?
There is definitely a new populist Afrobeat movement coming from these youngsters. Lagos Stori Plenti is another precise slice of where the action is in a particular place at a particular moment in time. If you are looking in the new reggae for what is happening at the moment in Nigeria then look no further, there is some interesting music here.
Ricardo Leyva y Sur Caribe made a major impression with their previous cd Caminando, packed full of its Santiago funkiness and old-style songo groove. Their new cd Credenciales (Egrem) has been seriously bending the ears of admirers. Fans of the songo style will find this release very appealing for many reasons, first because of the way Sur Caribe gives it their modern individual musical twist with lotso flavor. Also everything is so tight, nothing overruns in the structure, arrangements and solos of the songs, but equally everything sounds so loose.
As a sign of respect for Sur Caribe the cover of the cd has signed words of encouragement about the band and given a blessing by the established stars of the Cuban musical aristocracy (sorry, that should be comradeship). Sur Caribe can now be seen as a major group that has started to come to fruition. They have all the right ingredients: oldstyle songo with new Santiago style and attitude.
The title track starts off with the valves fully open and the cd just keeps on pouring out those deep grooves. Without taking a breather we are straight into the next banger "Sin Papeles No" the sort of music that Paulito should be making but isn't. Very strong vocals over horns and a major trombone that builds and builds.
"El Patatun" explores a pan-Caribbean cumbia reggae with a twist and subtle horn arrangements. Just damn chunky as it drops the beat, while the vocals calls in with a new twist on post-modern cumbia reggae."Yo Soy Tu Varon" is a punchy full-on number with subtle harmonies perfectly delivered, riding the waves of the riddim."Don Dinero" is a real groover, piled high with shifting sands of rhythm and sawing violins that are almost like a sample. "De Mi Corazon te Quiero Fuera" has waves of trombone in one ear and coro in the other one."Lejos de Santiago" starts off gently but then the groove just keeps coming at you, on and on. It is a big tune.
Without a doubt Sur Caribe is one of the best bands on the island, making killer music and they are here and are now, what more do you want? They will be playing in London during June so I am looking forward to seeing them.
Bandleader and piano player Manolito Simonet y su Trabuco's previous release Locos Por Mi Habana was totally solid, as have been most of his last five or six albums. "Locos Por Mi Habana" has stuck around and showed its quality, with the title track climbing to the top of the ladder. The latest cd from this top-flight band, Hablando en Serio (Egrem) is well up to their usual standards of exemplary popular Cuban music.
Or to put it another way it is very difficult to get that much better and to make improvements. Manolito y su Trabaco are in the top five of current Cuban bands. All the songs have depth and progression and the arrangements are tight. Sixto Llorente "El Indio" is the more soulful of the two vocalists, with Lazaro Diaz Casanova doing the sweeter harmonies.
Just a couple of standout songs among the 11 featured: "72 Hacheros Pa' un Palo" is an Arsenio Rodriguez tune. It still has a cutting edge to it. This is how to redo a old song to do it right, proper and real funky."Hablando En Siero" is a big thumper with muscular horns. Quality is what Manolito's music is all about. Along with Sur Caribe this is some of the best music on the island, thick and truly filling with a jazzy taste.
Miami-based timba band Tiempo Libre have progressed with their latest release What You've Been Waiting For/Lo Que Esperabas (Shanachie). They are getting better all the time, the songs are getting stronger, the playing more accomplished and they sound as if they have gelled as a band. They may be youngsters on the musical block but they are acquitting themselves with honors.
Former Cubanisimo musical director Nachito Herrera has a live jazz album Live at the Dakota Two (Dakota). If you like your music jazzy then give this a whirl. NY percussionist Johnny Pequeño has a sampler of his first cd out at the moment, Pasos Gigantes (Rumba Jams). It has four tracks that shout New York to you. I look forward to getting the full version.
La Nueva Combination, Transito (Premium Latin Music) is the vision of one man, trumpeter Angel Fernandez. Half of this was recorded in Puerto Rico during 1997 and the rest in New York in 2004. For the NY sessions Angel assembled a stellar cast which includes the great sonero Tito Allen alongside highly respected vocalists like Joe King and Aris Martinez, as well as sidemen galore.
This album is quality through and through, fantastic music from the players like keyboard maestro Ricky Gonzales, percussionists Bobby Allende and Marc Quinones, Carlos Henriquez on bass and a tough horn section, well, it has to be a better-than-average horn section if the man behind it all is a trumpet player (in the same way a percussionist-led band always has more interesting percussion than a band led by a piano player). This is a significant release which displays close attention to detail with great songs featuring rhythmical depth and beautifully arranged music. Top class, music with intelligence and integrity and some floorfillers.
Robert Incelli is the musical director for the Oscar D'Leon band. He has stepped forward with a solo cd, Detalles, which is all versions of classic Oscar tunes, like one of my personal favorites "Melao de Cana." Robert's buzzing baritone sax underpins everything. This release is essential if you cannot get enough of Oscar D'Leon songs and need different versions of them. For the rest of us it is just good. Mr. Robert, please do your own thing.
NY bandleader Wayne Gorbea and Salsa Picante have ploughed his old-school furrow from time, even from before new school became old school. His latest release Prakatun Cogele El Gusto Otra Vez (Wayne Go) is exactly the same as all his previous ones, hard, kickin' NY salsa in his own unique style. Whatever you say about Wayne, whether you like him or not you have to admit he does have his own sound and sticks to it. At least you know what you are getting with him. There are the usual dancer-friendly grooves with sharp punchy rhythms and of course Wayne's very distinctive piano. I cannot find fault with this release unless you say all Wayne Gorbea sounds the same, but then it would not be Wayne Gorbea if it did not sound like him.
'Bone player Rick Davis was Wayne's musical director for many years and he has his own solo cd out now, Siempre Salsa (Emlyn). The eight tracks cover the bases from big-band Palladium styles in the tradition of Tito Puente and Machito, a couple of hardcore salsa cuts, where Wayne and the lads repay the favors to Rick and play for him. Other tracks explore Latin jazz where various members of Salsa Picante sit in with Rick's Jassimo sextet. This release is not going to set the world on fire, but it is good solid stuff. The salsa tracks are pretty good and Rick Davis deserves the props.
An interesting compilation culled from the obscure Budda label, whose star burned bright in the mid- '80s, comes in the form of Salsa del Barrio (Budda). Coordinated by famed NY bandleader Willie Villegas, it gives us rootsy tracks from the likes of Ray Martinez y Criollo. A late-period Larry Harlow, "Señor Salsa" breaks down into a percussion groove after starting off in a mosaic of musical patterns, sounds and rhythms. What might appear to be a bit slurpy soon gets going. I remember trying to play this tune when it came out but found it hard going.
Today it is more acceptable but would still be a bit much for many dancers. But they will learn, in 20 years they will say "hey, that's a really killer tune, why hadn't I appreciated it a long time ago?"
There are a couple of great Adalberto Santiago tunes like his "Cumbia Colombiana" and Willie Villegas with "Mentirosa," a classic cumbia. This was a period when there was more cross fertilization between the various Spanish-speaking countries' music.
These days things seem to have narrowed down considerably. Other fantastic cuts come from the Vitin Aviles Orquesta and Ray Martinez and Criollo while Pepe Castillo's "Druma" is a left-field exploration of a sort of salsafrobeat. Pretty crazy. Budda was certainly experimental and traditional as well, in their short life they put out real tough, often experimental, music. This release is worth a look at.
Venezuelan percussionist Luisito Quintero has a decidedly left-field experimental offering with his Percussion Maddness (Rapster). Produced by Louie Vega, it is a journey into time, backwards and forwards at the same moment. In some ways it has become a tribute album: Ray Barretto dies as a new version of his classic "Acid" appears on Luisito's release. Tito Puente popped his last Viagra and line of coke a few years ago but gets honored here with a remake of his monstrous "Four Beat Mambo" and "Percussion Madness." Whereas "Quintero's Jam" features Latin jazz pianist Hilton Ruiz, who died recently as a result of head injuries sustained in a fall in New Orleans, where he was doing a fundraiser concert for the city. Other tracks explore Afrobeat, jazz-funk and jazz-samba. Definitely a curiosity but one with real solid soul qualities, musicianship and talent. Top quality, not only just a tribute to TP, RB and now HR, but actually much, much more.
London band the Soothsayers create a dubbed out jazz-o-beat on their second cd Tangled Roots. Heart of the band are tenor sax man Idris Rahman and trumpeter Robin Hopcraft, special guests like Nigerian Blu funk vocalist Keziah Jones drop in while Roots Manuva's reggae singer Rikki Rankin redoes the Osibisa classic "Never Give Up." An interesting mixup that could only happen in London.
Two or three growth areas of music at the moment seem to be Balkan and Gypsy music and sub- Sahel. From the German Piranha label comes Boban Markovic Orkestar, the "king of Balkan brass," and a cd titled The Promise produced by Three Mustaphas Three maestro and WOMEX honcho Ben Mandelson. I have admitted to my affliction of an affection for brass bands before.
Romica Puceanu and the Gore Brothers' Sounds From A Bygone Age Vol. Two (Asphalt Tango) gets a mention if only for the fact that the cd label has vinyl grooves printed on it, a 1960s sound and doesn't it sound lovely.
Etran Finatawa is the hot new band from the Malian deserts. Their debut cd, helpfully called Introducing (World Music Network) is less rocky than Tinariwen. Etran Finatawa is very rootsy with riffs like the drifting quartz that congregates around the sparse vegetation of the rhythm. Keep an eye out for 'em. Kora king Toumani Diabate was in town recently with his Symmetric Orchestra promoting his newie Boulevard de l'Independence (World Circuit). Everybody raved about its big-band extravaganza. (Unfortunately I could not see the wide-screen experience in person.) But on the evidence of the cd I missed a treat. The title track is gentle big-band kora, an old griot song forgotten by the new generation, subtle, generous and giving. "Mali Sadio" is a sober and slow, soulful groove. If only those slack-headed r&b arrangers would listen to this they would find new grooves to help them."Salsa" is a perfect example of exactly how to have a sledgehammer beat in polyrhythms. The sabar drums crack out a powerful march beat that elegantly moves forwards and backwards in the mix. They are central to the rhythm and are always there somewhere— the beat never goes away. For you djs, if you are at one of those things with people who are rhythmically challenged and the beat needs to be a tad obvious, then this will do fine. It will also work where people appreciate the subtleties of the riddim. Also there is Toumani's fantastic kora substituting for a tres, the tama plays at being the timbales. And that amazing marching sabar—hell, that could take over the world. This band can go wherever it chooses with great ability, do not ignore this as it is a major contribution to our musical culture, an almost-perfect thing.