(by Dave Hucker, from The Beat, Vol. 25, No. 1, 2006)
Back in 1970 when I was an innocent 18-year-old, Charlie Gillett had published his definitive work on the history of American r&b and soul, The Sound of the City (Sphere). He had starting writing it in 1966 as the subject of a master's degree at Columbia University and he certainly produced a bonafide masterpiece. Sound of the City was the bible, helping us to understand how the history of post- World War II American black music and its industry fitted together. This book laid out the roots and routes like never before.
Back in London, with his enthusiasm, encyclopedic knowledge and record collection, Charlie became a radio dj playing soul, r&b and blues. His shows drew many new listeners and over the years he moved from niche programming to wider popularity, but never enough for a prime-time show! Like many of us during the '70s and '80s Charlie began taking an interest in a wider range of music from all over the globe. However, Charlie went further than most people. Some of us just took from the parts of the world that interested us but Charlie, the consummate polymath, absorbed and was interested in everything.
And through his weekly shows for the BBC World Service he opened things up to a lot of people who might not normally have had access to this variety of music. A listener in Kinshasa, for example, might discover the existence of Argentine star Chango Spasiuk or hear Russian bands. He currently operates from London BBC local radio station GLR -- the shows are archived at www.bbc.co.uk/radio .
Six years ago he started doing compilations of the best of the year's music that had come his way. His latest offering, Sound of the World (Wrasse), covers in its two cds the high points of 2005 with 33 artists from 28 countries. It is a well-informed selection of the outstanding music from all around the world that has floated to the top. Represented here are Charlie's eclectic choices -- Volga from Russia, a dip into Kenyan rap, a pick from New Zealand. Popular favorites such as Mali's Amadou and Miriam rub shoulders with Croatians Darko Rundek and Brazilian Seu Jorge as Charlie intelligently passes through many countries of the various continents. Sound of the World is an object lesson in exactly how to do a compilation.
My road trip around Cuba in December was a great adventure. There's nothing like getting out into the countryside to get to know a country. It really gets you into the groove of a place. Asking directions when you get lost, talking to people at the ponchera shop as you get your tire punctures fixed, you get to see the real side of Cuba. When passing through a place I try and absorb all the sounds around me. In Cuba the soundtrack was not only the country radio stations but the ambient noise of the towns and markets, the grunt of the lorries and their plumes of black exhaust smoke, the buzzing two-stroke MZ motorcycles, the clip-clop of horse-drawn sedans with a fringe on top. It's all musical to me.
The thing about being constantly on the road, way out in El Campo, is that you don't have the opportunity to buy much music. And surprisingly, recorded music in a music-rich culture like Cuba is sometimes quite hard to come by. Although in my view you are not there just for the music but also but for what the country is all about, I would have liked to have gotten more music than I actually did. Frequently I found the shops were just full of the same music available in London. In fact, because quite a lot of the labels that put out Cuban music are European-owned, we frequently get the new stuff before it is actually widely available in Cuba.
For those of you (non-U.S. citizens) interested in seeing Cuba beyond Havana and the dreaded all-inclusive resorts, it can be hard work but it's well worth it. You do need certain skills like the ability to be able to read the road surface -- to avoid getting caught out with potholes. Also you need a sense of humor.
Tips for your Cuba journey: A large-scale detailed map. The best is the 1:300,000 Guia de Carreteras which does have virtually every road on it. It is an essential tool in a country where road signs are a rare luxury. And the most useful item? A universal sink plug. And finally some of my favorite moments on the road were seeing the variety of livestock that could be tied to the back of a bicycle. The largest number of animals on one bike was three struggling goats. The most frequent sightings were pigs and they did not look too happy about it.
Trinidad is a beautiful funky town that deserves its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site with its pristine colonial architecture and its laid-back style. Local bands play at night in the Plaza Mayor and in countless little bars. Leaving the cane fields and ox carts and heading up to the high savannah to Camaguey, you discover a tough little town laid out like a medieval Spanish city -- twisting all over the place. It's got a large hustler population and fierce police -- I got a $10 fine for driving my car down a supposedly car-free street. "Somos touristas" I said as pleaded ignorance. "Es el mismo para todo. Diez pesos." The copper made me park in front of a bar thronged with hustlers who thought this exchange was the funniest thing they had seen all day.
The Sierra Maestra mountains are quite stunningly beautiful as well as holding their historical importance as Fidel and the rebels' hq and the site of various decisive early battles against the Batista regime in 1958. You need to keep your eyes peeled for the livestock on the road there.
Then dipping down to Santiago de Cuba which, like ports the world over, has a rough edge and is a serious party town, a major source and conduit for music. I particularly liked the local Santiago reggae sound that blasted everywhere at full volume at all times of the day and night. More reggae than ton, it has depth and g o o d - n a t u r e d groove. Reggaeton A Lo Cubano (Topaz/Ahi-Nama) has some examples of the Santiago sound, from Control Cubano, El Medico and Candyman y el Familia.
The selections are not at all bad but I heard better on the streets. I would describe the best of the style as whacked-out Cuban Sizzla. In the more urban areas you frequently heard Haila Mompe with her old Bamboleo, Azucar Negra and solo tunes, but I did not hear a single thing off her last release. Diferente (Bis) is produced by David Calzado and fairly "popular" oriented. Either Calzado is playing a long game, looking at possible pan-popular Caribbean musical trends in the near future, or it's a load of pop tosh. Personally I would say it's almost threesixteenths of a smidgen between the two at the tosh end.
Paulo FG is another artist whose earlier music is the only stuff you hear leaking from speakers into the street. Time and time again you heard his old music and it still sounded just as densely good and mega funky. Live he possibly is the same old mega-groove maestro, but unfortunately his newie Ilusion (Bis) is flaccid, soft and the worst kind of one-dimensional pap -- sorry -- pop. It has a high preponderance of guitar solos and boleros like the overdone "Dos Gardenias." Paulo has said there will be two cds this year. Ilusion will be his bolero release and then there will be a tougher danceoriented one called Un Poquito de Te. I'll just hold my breath and keep counsel on that one for the moment if you don't mind. Ilusion is a further step in the wrong direction -- remember I was not all complimentary about his previous release Te Deseo Suerte -- so Ilusion? fergettit, hiza hazbin.
I was looking forward to Saturday night in Havana hoping I might catch Pupy y su Son Son. but all I could find to go and see was Issac Delgado. His last release Prohibido (Universal) had gained attention with what was quite a Puerto Rican sound. I have not been a big fan of his recently so I had passed on it. However, I must say live he was entertaining and the band was tight and enjoyable as they ran through a selection of his many hits. I wouldn't call it earthshattering or mind-bending but it was quality stuff, and the audience was just as interesting -- dressed up in their finest, including the stunningly beautiful jinoteras.
Adalberto Alvarez always makes good solid honest music. His newie Mi Linda Habanera (Bis) is one of the high points of my purchases with its chunky riddims and great songs -- especially the revival of the classic composition "Controlate." A big tune is "Y Que Tu Quieres Que te Den?" which takes an 11-minute drumheavy twisty route through a banging Shango/ Chango rhythm. Ignore the rappy vocal intro and this hits hard where it matters. You certainly need to wipe the sweat from your brow at the end of this one.
The well-respected Yumuri y sus Hermanos falls into the same category as Adalberto Alvarez, someone to be always relied upon to provide fully rounded intelligent music. Salsa y Candela (Bis) is packed full of well-crafted songs with good structures, melodies and enticing grooves such as "Coge La Botella," a lovely pan-Caribbean effort. Just give me this any day over any of the overhyped next-best-thing split from the last-big-thingpretty- boy bands.
I tried to go through as many places with musical connections as possible. I made it to the musical town of Manzanillo, on the way to the Sierra Maestra mountains. "Tunas" is a classic charanga track and a nice little agricultural town as well. I couldn't make the detour to go to Moron so I never did get to say "Me Voy Pa Moron."
Charanga del Norte are not from Cuba but are an excellent band from Leeds in northern England. Coincidently "Me Voy Pa' Moron" starts off a selection of their music on The Best of Charanga del Norte (Charanga del Norte). The track is culled from their fourth album Don't Panic, which features some of the various musical heavyweight residents of these isles, like Cuban songwriter and vocalist Osvaldo Chacon and the ubiquitous Colombian timbalero Roberto Pla as well as Del Norte's very talented gringos.
Charanga Del Norte is led by flautist Sue Miller and violin player Rod Taylor. They also write their own quality original material which displays a deep and clear understanding of the music and gives a perfect rendition of this distinctive and historically important Cuban style. The creative juices are certainly flowing freely here. Take "Que Suene la Charanga," a tune taken from their second album !Ay Mama!, where two violins howl like the wind before the riddim drops and things kick off.
Senegambian drummer and vocalist Lamin Jassey (also a resident of Leeds) does an excellent song written by Rod Taylor called "Mundo Tarabida" which hails back to the old Lassisi African- Latin style of things. It's a very interesting tune with a lovely bass. The Best of Charanga Del Norte is topped out by another Osvaldo Chacon vocal on a Sue Miller composition called "Cubana Drop." This compilation, or sampler as they were known in more innocent days, is a great introduction to the highly regarded Charanga del Norte. They are making some fine music that stands up shoulder-to-shoulder proudly with the best charanga musicians still around today, like Orquesta Aragon, with whom Sue actually recorded. However, Charanga del Norte is now taking the music one step beyond -- top-notch music from one of England's leading Latin combos and the only 100 percent genuine charanga and pachanga band in the land.
There is also another cd from them, Sapo Guapo -- Live at the Trowbridge Festival (Charanga del Norte) which presents their 2005 live show. For this tour they were augmented by three members from the Parisian band Charanga Keto. For those of you who have not had Charanga del Norte down your way it is an excellent introduction to them. [www.charangadelnorte.co.uk ]
3D's Ritmo de Vida (Gotham Music) is a really outstanding left-field hard-hitter. 3D is percussionist Michael Tate and guitarist Chris Amelar. They have got together with loads of Latin bods the likes of sonero Herman Olivera, pianist and SHO main man Oscar Hernandez and percussionist Chino Nuñez, and created something that is more than the sum of its parts.
The melodies are crafted by Michael and Chris while lyricist Lino Iglesias writes the stories. The tales he writes for Herman tell of pain and ecstasy. "Mi Amor Tu Volveras" is a tale of unrequited love with a stunning arrangement that builds and builds and breaks the pain barrier, while "Ritmo de Vida" is the ecstasy of the riddim of life. It is a pan-Caribbean tour de force given a good kicking by Tate on kit drums to get things going on something here called a socarengue, a Caribbean smorgasbord that blows around the islands.
This track features fantastic trumpet from Ray Vega alongside trombone from horn arranger and 'bone man Jaime Ramos. An excursion into Afro-Western territory with "Country Cubano" is a very unusual trip with another great trumpet solo from Ray, while the jazzy "Otra Vez" is a widescreen percussion-led adventure. Michael Tate's drumming is the glue that holds things together so Chris can get on with the guitar bits and keyboard man Lenny Underwood the other bit. The guests give it an extra texture. Good one, guys. Newish salsa -- well, Sabor de Rumba (Brayan) -- could go down in history. It's a release from veteran PR songwriter Johnny Ortiz and it could be considered as the best of this year or one of the worst. Top track is "Coplas del Coqui" with its tres and swing, although the production sound and the vocals from Gilberto Velez, copying the rough sound of classic salsa, are very harsh on the ears. Other tracks delve into the abyss of English salsa songs, like the more-MOR-than-MOR "Latin New Yorker." And as for "Music From the Heart," that's gonna be a biggie on one of those compilations that challenges you not to cringe, howl or weep at 100 of the Worst Songs Ever Recorded.
Hailing from Poland, the Motion Trio with Play- Station (Asphalt Tango) is acoustic accordions definitely a-go-go. This release should contain a parental warning sticker saying "May contain cds with music." Exploring the nether regions of accordion music, they could be considered some kind of mutant Middle European, zydeco, Cajun, vallenata, forro, Mediterranean basin, North African accordion music. This is such a refreshingly crazy sound from musicians who may take their music seriously but have a sense of humor. With that mix can you imagine the collaborators in the future? For example a track called "You Dance" is a major chuckle. If only those po-faced house tunes were this much fun. To top it Motion Trio actually do a techno remix of it! And as for "Yellow Trabant," the accordions manage to conjure up the sound of a the classic Trabby, with its single cylinder two-stroke engine with only four moving parts.
The Poles have taken over the building trades here in England, undercutting and doing a better job than English builders (not difficult). So here's some music to put on when you are getting your plumbing done to keep the plumber happy -- because a happy worker always does a better job.