(by Dave Hucker, from The Beat, Vol. 24, No. 2, 2005)
Rivers are essential to music—they carry and spread it like their sediments. The waters of the rivers Ogun and Oueme that empty into the Bight of Benin have certainly carried their fair share of music. And quite of lot of it some way or other would have been from T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou, now heard on an absolutely mindbending compilation of prime cuts of their '70s output, a decade when they were at their very best.
The Kings of Benin Urban Groove 1972- 80 (Soundway) is a total blast from track one to 13, jam-packed with wild funked-out staccato Afro-polyadelic rhythms where acid keyboards are laced together with corrosive guitar and freejazz sax flying over huge freaked-out bass lines all powered along and knitted together by completely out-there monstrous drums, which zoom it along on a totally different aural plane.
Originally formed in 1969 and continuing in name today, at their peak T.P. was a big band with an estuary-wide 16 members. Poly- Rythmo's output during their existence was pretty large—50 lps and 100 45s suggests Soundway label-owner, compiler and dj Miles Cleret, who has chosen a faultless selection of the gems of their unique Benin style.
First track "Aihe Ni Kpe We" sums it all up with its pounding rhythm led from the front by a truly amazing drummer, Yehousi Leopold, one of those busy bashers who sounds like he has six arms. It has inventive use of electric keyboards, psychedelic guitar from Bernard Zoundegnon AKA Papillion and those pared-down funky bass lines from Gustavo Bentho as the red-hot horns trade licks. "Les Djos" is totally wild and all over the place as it surfs the riptide of a screaming soul/ Stax mover.
One of the things that made T.P. stand out was what the band gained from the close proximity of the modern EMI studios in Lagos with all the latest gizmos. "Hwe Towe Hun" sizzles with crisp drums and very modern keyboards for the period. "Gendamou Na Wili We Gnannin" is a sultry Latin mover that spins and swings in melodic whirlpools. It has a great bass line and incredible guitar from Papillion which sends out waves of modulation that propel the song into a total different direction, climbing magisterially through dense, deep forest-canopy sound. "Mi Si Ba To" is a powerful Afrobeatish mover that never relents, while "Ne Te Faches Pas" is one of my favorites. In its 10 minutes of psycho-funk nuttiness it floods with a feral groove.
Again Papillion's guitar playing is extraordinary with sharp cutting edges while the organ pushes the envelope of rhythmical sanity: It is almost too much for the average person to take. (In my early dj days when I did not fully understand the power of music and how it can affect people, I almost caused a riot when I played this track at a jazz night. Half of the people were dancing and the other half were squaring up to fight them.)
The cd (and small run of vinyl) tops out with the version of their first recording, a song called "Angelina" which swims with an Afrobeat style, lovely melody and superb guitar.
Along with the Bembeya retrospective of last year this is a major review of another great, rediscovered West African orchestra. Poly-Rythmo has been neglected too long, and now is the time to savor in full the many facets and delights of these kings of Benin. I'm glad we are getting to the good stuff now, so much of the treasure trove of '70s/ 80s West African music has been well and truly plundered, picked over and stripped clean. (Though I would suggest that Cameroon is due a review.) [www.soundwayrecords.com ]
Johnny Pacheco is one of the few NY salsa giants from the '60s still with us. Tito Puente and Celia Cruz have gone to that big jam in the sky, Johnny's old sparring partner and vocalist Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez has left us as well. Only a few survivors like Ray Barretto and Johnny are left. The Dominican-born maestro has a new release just out, Entre Amigos (Bronco).
As one of the founders of the Fania label Johnny has always been there at the forefront of Cuban music playing his wooden flute, writing, arranging, dancing, playing and touring the world, especially Africa, when during the '60s he was a superstar and exerted a great musical influence. His duets with Celia Cruz are some of the best music she ever made. For Entre Amigos Johnny has called up a load of his old pals like bass player Bobby Valentin, bongocero Roberto Roena, Sonora Poncena leader and pianist Papo Lucca and even trumpeter Arturo Sandoval as well as some new ones as like piano player/arranger Ricky Gonzalez. Guests include singers Gilberto Santa Rosa, Cheo Feliciano and veteran merengue star Johnny Ventura.
This release is not bad, although people who expect it to be like something he did in his prime will be disappointed. In many ways it is an old man's music, which quite endears it to me, not exactly being a spring chicken myself. There is some good music here: It is not going to shock the world or create massive waves, but for the most part Entre Amigos is solid old-fashioned music with three or four tracks that stand out.
One of those is "Coco Seco" which opens up proceedings with a storming vocal from Ray Viera, who really is one soulful singer. A tribute to Celia Cruz in "Celia . . .Reina Soberana" is a good classic groove that features the great sonero Ismael Miranda who still has a voice left, Jose Alberto who has just about half a voice left, and Tito Rojas who lost his many moons ago. Tito's contribution is embarrassing, strained and out of tune—he seems incapable of carrying a melody. Even after the many years spent destroying his vocal chords he is not gruff enough. What would the gruffest of the gruff, Cuban singer Monguito, say? Well, he probably would suggest indulgence in the wrong sort of stimulants was to blame—rum and marijuana were always the proper organic way to pickle your vocal chords. Introducing pure chemicals into your throat does all kind of nasty things to it—just ask Gregory Isaacs.
Papo Lucca chooses a Candio Fabre song "La Bicicleta" to show what a good arranger he is as well as a totally unique pianist. On "Busca Tu Puesto" everyone seems to step up to the microphone on this guajira including sonero Herman Olivera. "La Mujer Di Mi Vecino" is a good groove in an old style which subtly slips in and out of a trad merengue and shows Mr. Pacheco's Dominican roots. Hector Casanova does the vocal honors here with distinction. Merengue is further explored with "La Cirugia" where Johnny Ventura goes wild on the vocals.
This kind of old school merengue is decidedly unpopular these days, but this is a very nice mover—not five star, but probably four and 13/16. "Que Mareo" and "El Bacaliboro" show again what a fantastic sonero Ray Viera is as he explores trad Cuban styles. Johnny was always the champion of the roots Cuban—Entre Amigos is a slip into another world. If it had not been JP this cd probably would not have been made. As it is this release seems to have taken three or four years to find a label to put it out so we should be thankful to Bronco for releasing it out and honoring a real gentleman of the old school.
1972-82 was good decade whatever kind of music you like. Son Cubano NYC: Cuban Roots New York Spices 1972-82 (Honest Jons) is a fullfat compilation that captures the Hudson/East River musical hybridization that occurred around NY as filtered through the Roberto Torres stable. He is one of the most important characters in the history of Cuban New York and indeed African music: It was Torres who recorded Labah Sosseh and strongly influenced the African salsa movement with the purity of the music he produced.
The whole Roberto Torres story is worthy of a book on its own. So many comps are thin and shallow— this is wide and deep featuring great swaths of great music culled from Torres' various labels SAR, Tobaga and Guajiro. Featuring music from greats such as Rey Roig y su Sensacion he provides a killer cut "Son Sabroson" and the great Charlie Rodriguez's "Cuchillo Para la Pina Cuba" alongside the experimental descarga trumpet of ex-Arsenio Rodriguez sideman Chocolate with "Chocolate en C7" and "Trumpet en Montuno."
Also Henry Fiol with his well-known hits "Tiene Sabor" and "Oriente": What more can you say about Henry—not much—poet-artist-painter-allround ahead-of-his-time roots genius. Lita Branda, the sister of Melochita, gives us "Yo Perdi el Corazon." The origin of this track is taken from the album La Tigress de la Salsa which has a painting of her in a gold cat suit with two tigers. Grrrrr and what a voice. The music is sleek and powerful with Peruvian cumbia tinges.
Roberto Torres offers his classic "Camina Y Ven Pa' La Loma." He was a great sonero for seminal charanga band Orquesta Broadway. Los Jimaguas makes a tough sound with "Los Dos Hermanos" and the masterful Fernando Lavoy gives us "Cojelo Suave," a mellow, smooth glide. On Angleo's "Celosa" ruff groove, it sounds like someone is pushing the faders dubwise as the balance moves around. Honest Jons makes good use of the paintings of artist Jose Exposito, who did many of the original lp covers like the Lita Branda. This compilation shows where some of the action was in that decade for lovers of the NY hard stuff. [www.honestjons.com ]
Anything new from the modern dura world is eagerly awaited and jumped on as the next best thing since the last best thing, which was supposed to be the salvation of the music. The most eagerly awaited recent release comes from percussionist George Delgado, son of famed timbalero Jimmy—one of the most demonic timbales players I've ever seen. Mi Ritmo Llego (Rumba Jams) —my usual reviewer's conflict of interest warning of my prejudice for percussionist-led combos applies here—is pretty good. The title track is a powerful introduction of the music and the man.
Vocals are handled by Julio Salgado, Frankie Vazquez and the ubiquitous Herman Olivera, who keeps on popping up all over the place. For the few releases he's not on I think the cd cover should have a sticker stating "This cd does not include any Herman Olivera vocals." The track he guests on, "Lo Que Espera el Sonero," is a stormer, one of the best tracks here. "El Hijo de Obatala" is another top-class heavy percussion mover. "Todo el Mundo Escucha" is a rocking rumba, while the cd is topped out with the smooth "A Mi Me Gusta." There is plenty of meat on the bone with this release; it is swinging, tough and tight.
Traveling through the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa recently I stopped off at a little town called Mooi River to fix a puncture. Outside the local jail I spotted a poster advertising the Soul Brothers playing in two nights' time. They are one of my fave SA bands of all time and I wish I could have stayed to see them. But the decision was already made for me. After fixing the flat I still had a four-and-a-half-hour drive to my next destination, the Zulu war battlefield at Islandwana, then next day was another seven and a half hours on the road up to Swaziland and beyond to the Mozambique border.
Being way out in the countryside totally cut off from music vendors and more interested in the nature around me meant I had to wait till Johannesburg to catch up on musical purchases. I had been lax and had not been keeping up with what was in my area of interest kwaito-wise, so I was armed with a shopping list supplied to me by old friend Jumbo, now resident in SA. When I asked him what was hip at the moment, he had suggested: "New Mafikizolo is good as is new Revolution—checkin' the jazz, Zimbabwe, Congo with beats. Also new Bop—more house meets zim an ting. Thandiswa still sounding good."
This modern SA thumpy house/kwaito biz is really quite massive, and there are some interesting bits where the trad elements are integrated with the thump quite nicely. If you are the kind of person who thinks that the old styles of SA music are the only music of note from that country then look away now—none of these releases will be of interest to you.
But these top-drawer recordings show there is more to kwaito than slackness and they sum up what it is to be young and South African these days. Revolution is twins George and Joseph Mothika. Their second best-seller The Journey Continues (Universal) (the previous one was The Journey) has a very gentle but firm way of getting under your skin—they have joined with Malombo's Philip Tabane and Zimbabwean Andy Brown and together they cook up a very potent brew. "Zim Connection featuring Andy Brown" has interesting changes within the progress of the tune, while "Teko" is an offbeat floor-filler with a subtle accumulation of guitar and beats.
Bop is Oscar Mdiongo, a man of many talents, radio dj and a hip producer, with a connection to the youth. The D Project: Life Iskorokoro (Columbia) is nicely off the wall. Oscar obviously has a good ear and is creator of some great beats, quite jazzy at times. Mafikizolo is the decent, honest, hard-working man of kwaito, the husband who works all day, takes all his wages home, is teetotal and does not smoke dagga. Good solid stuff.
Thandiswa is hugely popular and shows why she is tipped for stardom as she mixes her Xhosa roots with the modern beats. She really has a fantastic voice and the rhythms are first class. For the dj there certainly are some gems for you when it's that thumpy time and the Pygmy nose-flute music will not do.
The thumpy side of the tracks is also where you find loads from Recife's favorite son DJ Dolores AKA Helder Araga, who has done very well since he wowed the world with his debut cd Contraditorio. He won the Club/Global category in the 2004 BBC World Music Awards and has now formed his own band Aparelhagem, which means equipment but is Brazilian slang for a sound system. This a major progression for Dolores: The band has a fantastic female singer in Isaar, a Northeastern samba-reggae horn section, guitar, percussion and DJ Dolores/Helder on laptop and turntables. Their debut album Aparelhagem (Ziriguiboom) is simply quite amazing where a riptide of imagination has inundated a floodplain and created a patchwork of sound loops and beats samples, you name it, it's in there. Deep and broad, Dolores is an aural visionary, creating intense riddim cutups which are delicate, dense and engaging. He understands how to construct soundscapes, how to take you on a musical journey. To me it's as if he has done an aural version of my favorite Bauhaus cut-up artist Kurt Schwitters, piecing together pictures by Goya, Turner and Bosch.
Manu Chao and Dolores share similar approaches and views to sound and both know how to shape, cut it together and structure it. Manu's weft and weave is one way of doing it. Dolores takes the more deconstructed dance-floor approach and elevates the generally one-dimensional constraints of modern dance music to a new height.On this release it's the quality of the sound that interests me in a performance art sort of way. Found sound is as valid as anything "original." But it's not all arty-fartyness. "Salvo" is a bass- heavy pounder that unfurls in a classic circular cut-up vortex style—it progresses but just keep coming back, then forward, then back.
The Orquestra Popular de Bomba do Hermeterio from Recife provides the startling horns. In a different current is "Ciranda da Madrugada" which shows the immense abilities of charismatic singer Isaar. "Prece" is intelligent drum and bass. I've never got on with d&b—its 200 mph drums and fractured bass lines never made any sense to me, but Dolores paints a different more detailed picture utilizing the style. "Azougue" is one of the top tracks: a clever insistent reggae funk. Vocals from Dolores and Isaar are totally mad, dubbed up inside your head. "Mathiha" sounds like ska while "Sanidade" is all about losing your sanity, a masterpiece of fullflow rhythm that spins you around inducing a trance-like state.
By track 11, "Rouen," your brain and body have been given a good run round the exercise yard and you can happily accept what sounds pass through your ears, like cows, that hee-haw cuica sound, mad trombone, cicadas and a bell. Yes, it all makes perfect sense now, it's all so clear. This is Art: a total masterpiece.Winnowing through the avalanche of recent Rough Guides releases: Astor Piazzolla—tango never got my interest. Zydeco? Wasn't there another RG Zydeco recently or am I just caught in an eddy that just goes round and round dub-dubbub? Given the task of selecting 20 of the best tracks to represent Dub, could you ever really come up with a definitive selection? No, but turn to an expert like Steve Barrow and you can bet you get a pretty great selection of all things Tubby. Central Asia I'll file it away till I need to know what was hip in Central Asia. These obscure Rough Guides do have a purpose.