(by Dave Hucker, from The Beat, Vol. 26, No. 2, 2007)

Following their fruitful exploration into the much-underrated music of Panama, producers Miles Cleret and Hugo Mendez of the Soundway label have now ventured south of the Darien gap into Colombia. Colombia is an excellent selection concentrating on that universally bountiful period of 1960 to 1976, dipping into the important and varied musical history of Colombia through its leading label Discos Fuentes.

Fuentes has been in existence since the 1930s and has been involved in every twist and turn in that nation's music. Cumbia, porro, gaita, fandango, vallenata and now salsa, as well as every other musical trend that has occurred from lambada to reggae espanol, champeta and Latin pop rock. Like many of the great labels in history, one of the things that gave Fuentes its distinctive sound was that they always had "house bands" that created the label's own regional sound. In the '70s Julio E. Estrada AKA Fruko was the house arranger and Fruko y sus Tesos was the house band. He is a man deeply ingrained into the history of the last 50 years of Colombian music. 

He started off as cable carrier, gofer and general dogsbody to Tono Fuentes at the Source Disc Studio in Medellin. But he wanted to be a musician, went to Venzuela and played with the legendary Billos Caracas boys. He came back to Colombia and in 1970 formed Fruko y sus Tesos. His piano, wild organ and cowbell helped encapsulate the modern version of that very distinctly choppy Colombian sound. In his various guises he provides five of the 20 tracks on this cd. Under his own name are "Salsa Na Ma," a pounding keyboard that leads a four-minute rhythmical punchbag, "Improvisando" is the Yardbirds' "For Your Love" while "A La Memoria Del Muerto" trips into a full power swing, a template for many of the later songs from Fruko and his other alter ego, the Latin Brothers, who were a vehicle for the hot vocalists of the moment like Piper Pimienta, John Jairo and a young Joe Arroyo. The Latin Brothers offer us "Patrona de los Reclusos" which has the classic structure that identified their unique style: Piano, sharp horns and that clattering cakewalk rhythm. "Las Calenas Son Como las Flores," their tribute to the salsa capital of the world, Cali, is as important to Colombians as Grupo Niche's "Cali Pachanguero" or "Buenaventura y Caney."

Among the classy selections on this compilation are Lito Barrientos y su Orquesta who provide us with the classic cumbia "Cumbia En Do Menor." Michi Sarmiento y sus Bravos gives us a sort of eastern tinge with "Hong Kong" and "Mirame San Miguel," a kind of speed salsa. La Sonora Cienaguera was a great 1960s gaita/ cumbia band with a wild cornet/trumpet lead and crude wooden flute/pennywhistle sound riding a madcap gallop of a rhythm. Everything they did was wonderful and "La Piojosa" is probably the best thing they did, as well as the most popular. What look at Colombian music would be complete without a couple of off-the-wall Wganda Kenya tracks? I have yet to find anything from this experimental studio band that is uninteresting.

Their contributions here are "Tifit Hayed," a sort of boogaloo/James Bond riff with nutty piano and that damn cowbell which keeps my tinnitus happy by echoing around. The vocals hover in space unconnected to any solid rhythmical structure. "Elyoyo" is one of those pan-Caribbean highlife sort of things with its tick-tick drums, very sweet guitar and gentle vocals, but is also important because of the mix and the early date. Pedro Laza, one of the godfathers of early Colombian music, provides his classic "Fandango en Percusion," total madness served up with a sharp pepper high-hat cymbal with chili clarinet and horn section. As for his "La Picua," well, what more can you say? It's tracks like this that make ska fans go gaga over this music.

Orquesta Nunez's "La Samaria" is another gaita with a full horn section con trumpet, clarinet and wild bone a go-go. Los Corraleros de Majagual are another of the great Colombian accordion supergroups featuring stars like Eliseo Herrera, Lisandro Mesa, Calixto Ochoa, Gabriel Romero and of course Fruko who played timbales with them. "El Mondongo" is 10 minutes of madcap descarga that does tip into some accordion.

One of the things about Colombian music is that when it's mad, it is, very. Lucho Bermudez with "Gaita de las Flores" is big-band gaita. They probably heard Cuban bigband master Beny More and said "Oh we like that and can do as good" and they proved it. El Sexteto Miramar gives us "Cumbiamba," a guitar-led tribute to the cumbia and the porro which includes some slinky vibraphone. Climaco Sarmiento y su

Orquesta's "La Pata y el Pato" is a cumbia with great female vocals. Another of the great sub house bands that bridged Afro-Colombian music to the early days of reggae espanol was Afrosound. Their "Pacifico" is up to the usual standards, a real weird track with sparkly guitar and animal sounds. Colombia is a great selection of a half-century of releases gushing from the fountain of the Fuente.

Ricardo Lemvo's fifth album Isabela‚ (Mopiato Music) is without a doubt his best cd so far, with strong songs and exemplary musicianship from everybody involved. Recorded over two continents, the production, split between Bopol Mansiamina and Jesus A. Perez, is very crisp and tight. The usual Ricardo multilingual tendencies apply: Spanish, Portuguese, Lingala, Kikongo, Swahili and Turkish all find a voice, with generally two languages per song, which you have to admit is an achievement these days. Coupled with a wide range of rhythms and styles it has got a real resonance.

Isabela starts with a boogaloo and ends with a Turkish tango. A veritable multitude of guests contribute to this quality release. Papa Noel on guitar, vocalists Wuta Mayi, Nyboma and Cape Verdean songstress Maria de Barros. Instrumentalists include bassist Miguel Yamba—whom I've not come across in a long time—and Alfredo de la Fe on violin. Every track is saying something in different ways. "Malambo" has Papa Noel's guitar slipping and sliding into the son style.

The classic Makina Loca Afro-Latin style comes with "O Casamento" where Bopol holds forth on guitar. "Lollobrigida" is a superb rerun of a '60s Congo biggie. "Habari Yako" has Bopol with shimmering guitar and Swahili vocals from Ricardo. Certainly one of the best tracks on the album is "Serenata Angolana" whose gentle groove contains a duet with the beautiful vocals of Maria de Barros." Mentirosa" is a charanga with Alfredo sawing away, very nice indeed; even the rap bit does not detract too much.

The title track is another swinging smoothie with viscous piano from Jesus "El Nino," while "Prima Donna" is a soukous thumper and "Papa Na Bana" has a great lead guitar from longstanding bandmember "Huit Kilos" Nseka. "Elbette" is where Janan Guzey gives a fabbo vocal to the aforementioned Turkish tango. As a track it goes on a major journey. Isabela is a big release, the whole style, concept and detail of what Lemvo has been doing these last 11 years dovetails beautifully together in a very accomplished way. [www.makina loca.com ]

I do have a soft spot for Lura. Her vocal chords reach out and strangle me so all I can say is oooh oooh. Her latest release M'bem di Fora (Times Square/4Q) is musically all there. Her wonderful wide vocal range that encompasses both quiet and loud at the same time, rides over the complex slinky rhythms. Lura is up there with the best in European mixups that have occurred where the worlds have collided—in this case late 20th century Lisbon. More varied and confident than Di Korpu ku Alma, both Lula and the musicians are spreading out. There are very jazzy tracks like "Galanton," the uptempo West African grooves of "M'bem Di Fora and "Fitiço Di Funana," which sounds it could have come from Angola and would have had Manu Lima on it in another time. M'bem di Fora is a fantastic release—things are getting better for Lura and her very talented band.

The Fania label is one of the most important labels in the history of Latin music. The formation of salsa and some its greatest recordings of all time can be found in the catalogue of Fania and its many brother and sister labels. However its checkered history since it peaked in about 1978 meant that when the new medium of cds came along, all that happened was that lps were just transferred to cd and provided the cut-down front covers and zilch information.

The label has gone through various owners in the last 20 years, and recently was bought by Emusica who are reinventing the entire catalogue and investing in the process of completely remastering from the original studio tapes. Is the sound better? Well yes, at least you can hear the bass now. Not that they were badly recorded in the first place, with engineers like the great Irv Greenbaum and Jon Fausty, who was brought in to go back to the source and re-present the music.

With the reissues, I have been catching up on some things that had slipped under the radar. Like Brujeria, the 1971 solo debut of young piano player Mark(olino) Dimond. A muscular, almost Cuban, jazzy piano leads great vocals from Angel Canales, also making his first appearance. This supremely tough music gets the band of Fania stalwarts to add mucho jazz sabor into the mix. Brujeria is essential if you like your music hard, sophisticated and jazzy.

The Fania catalogue is also being exploited with new compilations. One from this side of the pond is Afro Cuban Kaleidoscope (Fania)‚ compiled by top English conga player and dj Snowboy, a man who knows what he is talking about when it comes to Latin jazz. Afro Cuban Kaleidoscope is a well-chosen romp through a heap of the best floorfillers and killer cuts from luminaries such as Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Cabrerita, Johnny Colon, Pete Rodriquez, Joe Cuba, Ricardo Ray and Bobby Cruz, Sabu Martinez, Candido, Bobby Valentin, Louie Ramirez and the Tico-Alegre All Stars.

The Rough Guide to Salsa Dura NYC (World Music Network) is an excellent compilation from Pablo Yglesias that has all the right artists and tracks from the streets of New York. Wayne Gorbea, Jimmy Delgado and George Delgado, Los Sonoros del Barrio, Jimmy Bosch and Ricky Gonzalez all contribute to this good sampler of the style.

A track from Dominican Republic bass player Ray Martinez could easily feature on a future Salsa Dura NYC. Alto Nivel (Tropical Note) is his latest release and it is primo, hard-driving, beautifully executed quality salsa music with a personal vision, a mix of original and classic cuts and top-notch playing from his group Sabor Criollo. Alto Nivel is one of those releases done so well and making quality music sound so easy. It features quite a few dance-heavy movers as well. Highly recommended.

I am always happy when one of those weird entomological word roots crops up. I was listening to young DR bachata singer El Chaval, which means "the kid" in Caribbean Spanish. So how does a common usage Spanish word connect up with its origin as chavi, the Romani word for child? In England a chav is a description and a term of insult and putdown of the young feral underclass who seem to communicate in truncated text speak. Identifying points are real fake designer gear. The females wear large gold hoop earrings, blonde (or streaked) ponytails tied up high. The mainly teenage-male-driven cars have excess plastic body panels being shaken apart by an overloaded sound system. But how does it all link up? hmmm, well in chav-speak it would be "s'allwords, innit." But back to Sr. Chaval, Ya Me Canse (Mas Music) is pure bachata–though to me all this stuff still sounds somewhat like DR mutant son–but his is well done; the title track is the biggest tune.

Desert blues rebels Tinariwen wafted fragrantly through London promoting their new album Aman Iman: Water Is Life (World Village). It was a sold-out concert at the Barbican Centre ecstatically received by the usual Tina tribes and some new fans coming from the other world of Robert Plant, connected by Justin Adams, who is Plant's guitarist and who produced this fourth album from Tinariwen. World domination is but a step away from the humble Tinas. That drifting groove will be commonplace in lots of places soon, given global warming. Are they the Touareg Grateful Dead?

Dissenters say there is not a lot of variety, pace or progression of the songs—they start out one place and end more or less the same place at some point later on. You might make the analogy that their music is like the wind blowing the grains of sand up against a pebble and the resulting dune takes a while to form. Or waffle on about some nomad trance business. Support act featured Justin Adams with Gambian one-string fiddle griot Juldeh Camara and English percussion master Salah Dawson Miller. Dawson looked like a wizard with a pointy beard and sparkly hat. As a premier English percussionist he goes back a long time. I bumped into him all the time in the '80s playing with various Latin, Brazilian and African bands in London. The dynamics of this trio made the Tinas actually look dull.

The lead singer of Radio Tarifa, Benjamin Escoriza, has taken time out to record a solo album, Alevanta! (Riverboat). He has returned to his flamenco roots to create a powerful and moving release that stretches the boundaries with a bit of Moroccan and even a track called "Rap de Marrakech" which is very off the wall and thankfully bears very little resemblance to anything that is usually associated with that word. Alevanta! is very interesting and quite experimental. But we should not expect anything less from a musician the caliber of Benjamin Escoriza.  


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