(by Dave Hucker, from The Beat, Vol. 24, No. 4, 2005)
An Albanian joke: A farmer is being interviewed by Albanian television about his miraculous pig which has saved his family from burning to death by alerting them to a fire. It had also pointed out a place where they had dug and found buried gold, and even saved the farmer's life by pushing a tractor off his body when it overturned on him.
"Yes, OK, I understand all that," the tv interviewer said. "But tell me, why does this miraculous pig of yours only have three legs? "If you had a pig as intelligent as this one would you eat it all at once?" came the farmer's reply.
Humor always cuts through to the real meaning of a place, people or a situation. It is one of the ways that helps sum up what things are really all about somewhere or other. An exploration of Cuban humor would have to delve deep into Cuban vernacular and slang: Cubans speak Spanish like Jamaicans speak English.
The musical institution that is Los Van Van has been getting deeper into the Cuban psyche of the last 40 years than anyone else. They have chosen Chapeando (Unicornio) as the title of their new release. Chapeando is a Cuban verb which means clearing the ground for cultivation. What exactly this means metaphorically in this context I'm not sure, whether that means post the Bearded One or music beyond Juan Formell when both legends retire or die. The sleeve notes by Juan talk about religion, about the forest and its wisdom and a wooden tool to open another path.
There seems to be another direction implied, time to move on to make a new clearing? Or am I reading too much into this? I shall leave the divining of the metaphysical runes to other observers. Van Van was once known as the Cuban Rolling Stones. It's an interesting point -- if only the English Rolling Stones were making music as radical, exciting and so damn funky, that had as much intensity, rhythmical depth, meaning and soul as the music Los Van Van makes today. Then you could say the music of the world really sat in a different place.
Chapeando is a totally solid release that drips with fantastic songs, ear-grabbing melodies, peerless vocals and of course that unbeatable Van Van groove. They have the ability to reflect in their songs themes that have meaning to people. They may not be controversial, accusatorial or cause trouble with the Bearded One. As a figurehead for Cuba they continue to use simple parables and metaphors. But they still reach out to the people of Cuba and the rest of the world with a popularity undiminished, in fact this release seems to have regained them fans who had deserted them recently and notched their popularity up a bit. So it must be a good one.
Juan Formell's bass is its usual sparse, fragmented sound and radical excursions. As always it displays the almost-miraculous ability to be seemingly occupying both the center and the outer edges of the riddim at the same time. After a few twiddly bits on the intro the title track roars into the forest like a great big logging machine. You might have of images of campesinos and machetes. Uh-uh, this is industrial-strength groove. (I shall be using the word groove a lot in the next few paragraphs).
"Corazon" is a prime example of the Los Van Van style: The singers set up the theme and a melody which after a third the way through those totally unique Van Van grooves start to lock together like brickwork, the beat drops and takes off as the coro starts to bounce off the rhythm. Then the last third is the deep movement. "Despues de Todo" has Yenisel amply displaying just how fantastic her voice is. This song starts out with what in lesser hands could have been an anodyne Latin power pop thing but she lifts it, moves it on and it transcends, progresses and accumulates soul with every roll of the rhythm. The violins saw away and it twists and turns off in different directions. And when the groove does hit the fan, grrrr.
"No Pides Mas Presta'o" is another classic Van Van song construction that has Mayito leading the vocals. When the rhythm kicks into gear you realize you do not need timbales in a group when you have Sam Formell on drums. "Por Que No Te Enamoras" was a big tune on their recent tour with the vocals bouncing between Mayito and Yensi. It has a a mega groove which just slips in underneath you and don't realize you are getting carried along at such a pace. "Te Recordaremos" is a collaboration with flamenco star Diego El Cigala which eventually drops into a Santiago Carnival groove. "Nada" is another Yenisel showcase while "Agua" is one of those classic uptempo grooves with sharp hook lines and meaningful simple lyrics. A much-awaited contender for the "Te Pone la Cabeza Mala" populist dance-floor hit choice, "Agua" has spent many happy hours echoing away round the recesses of my brain.
Whatever the real meaning of the "clearing the ground" stuff, Chapeando is deep, rhythmically rounded and a fantastic release that probably does indicate a new direction, as Sam Formell is anointed paternalist ownership and the reins of responsibility for one of the world's great bands and a Cuban icon.
Ska Cubano certainly understands humor. But for them humor is taken seriously and just as much concern is given to the music. Since they burst upon the world last year they have been getting better. The live shows I've seen recently have them starting to jell and bring together disparate Caribbean elements, including ska, calypso and Haitian meringue. Their second album Ay Caramba! (Casinosounds) has just been released. It hits the floor with "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" where "Putting on the Ritz" is transmuted and dubbed out in a Bosphorus style, while Margarita Lecuona's classic Cuban anthem "Tabu" gets skaified and is given a rousing going over.
With "Oye Compay Juan" it is 1967 and we are on the island of Cubamaica which is parked just off the coast of Colombia. It is a perfect mix up that just slips together so easily. "No me Desesperes" is a ska cumbia mixed up with a champeta-esqe reggaeton kind of thing. "Cachita," written by Puerto Rican songwriter Rafael Hernandez, is a lovely rumba ska. "Soy Campesino" is a 1950s Colombian accordion classic done in ska-son way with that low-down bass-pan Caribbeaño sound. "Mariano" is a Beny More track which allows vocalist Beny Billy (real name Juan Manuel Villy) to show off his sound-alike vocals, while the title track written by Natty Bo in a ska calypso vein is a tale of the typical feckless state of musicians.
Ay Caramba! is a cut above average: After stunning the world with their first groundbreaking cd, Ska Cubano is still growing. They are not a novelty band. While certainly not a comedy act they are very funny. Ska Cubano have a vision and they are sticking with it, playing with it and enjoying it. A genuine musical hybrid, they continue to get my tip for the upper echelons.
The Portuguese language always sounds very pretty to me. Cape Verdean singer Lura makes it sound even more beautiful. Her Di Korpu ku Alma (Lusafrica/Escondida) owes as much to the modern Lisbon musical scene with its fusions of people and styles, as on "Vasulina," where her silky smooth vocals are counterpointed by piquant African guitar. Highly recommended.
La Tira is a hard-hitting salsa band from Chicago, playing tough music. Led by vocalist and flautist "Papo" Santiago their cd La Tira (EsNation) is packed full of firing percussion-led grooves and strong songs, certainly worth investigating. Pick of the plethora of Rough Guides that tumble out is The Rough Guide to Salsa Dance, Second Edition (World Music Network), compiled by one of England's top salsa djs Lubi Jovanovic. This ranges from all over the place -- Colombia with Grupo Gale, Los Titanes, Los Nemus del Pacifico and Fruko to recent big NY tunes like Jimmy Bosch's "El Avion de la Salsa," while London-based bands Merengada and Sexteto Café get a well-deserved outing. A very good collection. Celia Cruz, chosen by journalist Sue Steward, features a selection of left-field Celia classics including her version of the Archies' "Sugar Sugar."
The Honest Jons label continues to provide us with choice releases: Two superb compilations come in the form of Lagos Chop Up and Lagos All Routes. Lagos Chop Up is an eclectic '70s selection that shines from Shina to Shina: It starts with Sir Shina Adewale and his Super Stars International and finishes with Shina Williams and his African Percussions. In between we get gems from Ikenga Super Stars of Africa with their Afrobeat classic "Soffry Soffry Catch Monkey," Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson, Oliver De Coque and his Expo 76 and the Workers Brigade Band. All the tracks are pretty rare as well as being great music -- an unbeatable combination.
Lagos All Routes is another exhilarating journey, this time from the highlife period, bringing us great tracks from Ebenzer Obey, Victor Uwaifo, Super Negro Bantous and the very obscure Joromi and their "Travellers Lodge Atomic 8." This compilation is full of heartstopping musical twists and turns, as if you are traveling in a local African bus going round a bend on a gravel road which is like driving on marbles and ball bearings, and the mini bus is sliding towards that sheer drop. The driver is looking down changing the tape and has not noticed that lorry coming towards you. Arghhhh.
Honest Jons has also licensed the latest release from that king of the jazzy funky Mali stuff, Lobi Traore. Lobi has been hailed as the Malian John Lee Hooker? Hmm, I thought that crown went to Ali Farka Toure. Personally I think Lobi is more like the Malian Carlos Santana or Jimi Hendrix. Alongside Toumani Diabate, Lobi and his group provide some of the best hallucinogenic Malian music. On The Lobi Traore Group you can discover what Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica would have sounded like if the good captain had come from Bamako instead of Lancaster, CA. This is very far-out music. But John Lee did have a sharp psychedelic edge to him. Honest Jons is pretty unique. There are labels putting out music they think will sell but HJs puts out music they like. If it sells then all the better.
A friend has been trying to convince me that Turkish reggaeton is the next big ting. I'm not convinced at all but if it does spawn some tunes worthy of note, then I'm sure they will turn up on a Future World Funk compilation. Future World Funk are djs Russ Jones and Cliffy. Their selection of cutting-edge beats of a funky kind from around the globe have made them well-known figures in that populist big-thump scene. Their latest collection is On the Run (Ether) and contains many fine examples of their selections from modern bhangra to classics like Jah Screechie's "Walk and Skank." DJ Dolores gets a look in as does TnT's Laventile Rhythm Section and merenhouse kings Fulanito. This double cd is an essential purchase if you want to have a ready-made dj set.
Maybe a track from the new Ernest Ranglin will be appearing on firing comps like FWF in the near future. With Alextown (Palm Pictures), Ernie records in South Africa with the African Jazz Pioneers, the Mahotella Queens and various young movers on the kwaito scene.
It's a pretty weird mix. A third of this release is OK, but it's kind of like one of those remix albums where the hot remixers of the moment get paid to do their stuff on an album because they are the current hot mixers -- not because they can improve the tunes. It is a bit of dog's dinner, too fragmented and just does not hang together as a single work of art should. Originally recorded in 2002, it has been substantially changed to make it sound "more modern." The first track, "Trenchtown Music," does show a healthy nuttiness as does "38 Melle St." But how much of this will endure and remain in the public domain of musical consciousness?
Well, that's another matter; myself I don't think it will be very long. The Albanian joke is lifted from The Accursed Mountains: Journeys in Albania by Robert Carver (Harper Collins), a wonderful read telling of his 1996 travels and experiences in that wreck of country and being the first foreigner to get to remote border mountain ranges in nearly 100 years.