(by Dave Hucker, from The Beat, Vol. 23, No. 4, 2004)
So much to write about and so little time to do it. Possibly I could save time and space by leaving out every third word. Bah! too much of a puzzle! It's time to open the throttle and drop into that bend.
Twisted from T'n'T comes a couple of great four-track 12"s from Honest Jon's. The Drummers of Lavatee is a clattering percussion workout that could almost be described as T&T batucada. I can tell this is going to be a muchin- demand release by djs who will cut and paste it into many different mixes and grooves. It is hypnotic, exciting and one of those pieces of music that if you do not know it came from T&T you might think it was Nigerian or Ghanaian or from another carnival like Salvador. The other 12" is another four-tracker, one-riddim style, Massive Gosine with "Chrloo" and Third Base's "Unity." "Chrloo" powers along in a chutney mood while Third Base talks about race and unity between people. Maximus Dan urges us to "Be Humble" while Dougla's "Rhythm" is a dub. Interesting stuff.
Another 12" features remixes by English DJ Baby G of tracks from another of Honest Jons releases, the album by ex-Specials and Funboy Three singer Terry Hall and Bangladeshi/Iranian musician Mushtaq. I did not review this album when it came out last year as it did not float my boat at all. But the remixes work well, integrating the Arabic tinge to the thumpy jump-up proceedings. You cannot fault Honest Jons: They are a record shop and a label that cares about quality and puts out such a wide range of superlative music, whether it is original new releases or detailed compilations like their highly acclaimed calypso selection London Is the Place For Me. Another newie from them is a killer compilation of southern soul chanteuse Bettye Swan. The well-rounded tones of her voice and the kicking rhythm section are a perfect example of real soul. [www.honestjons.com ]
Another Honest Jons revival has brought out of retirement Keith Hudson's 1974 Flesh of My Skin, Blood of My Blood. Though not to everyone's taste, I've always been a fan of Hudson, especially during his '70s London period. He was rebel, some on the receiving end of his ire might have called him a troublemaker. But he was radical and did what he wanted and created some fascinating music, with its multilayered density.
About the best new recent salsa release for the fan of the hard stuff comes from percussionist Edwin Bonilla, Pa' La Calle (SAR). As I have said many times before, and I'm sure that I will drone on about it in the future, bands led by percussion players just get me that little bit more excited. Pa' La Calle is tough, hard and pure, chock full of great, strong songs with superb vocals from a range of top-notch vocalists. The band is firing in extremis, the arrangements are tight and sharp in a nice trad style with grooves ranging from classic salsa to a really banging rumba. This is certainly a stormer of a release, probably a contender for my top 10 of the year.
Cuban picks of the moment are Manolito Simonet y su Trabaco with his newie Locos Por Mi Habana (Egrem). The title track is the biggie off this release. The jazzy big-band sound that Manolito leads with his piano is always very wide, full and very pleasing to the ears. The progressions the songs go through always lead to satisfying conclusions and the tunes are all strong in an old-fashioned way. No histrionics, no gimmicks, just solid, quality music throughout. The standout for me is "Ella No Esta en Na" with its floating violins and subtle jazzy but storming groove.
Sur Caribe from Santiago has an interesting and intriguing cd, Caminando (Egrem). "Aprendi Caminando" gets things going at full pace with its pounding, punching rhythm, described in the track lists info as a merenson, while a conga-son, "La Pelota de la Suerte," is a definite pan-Caribbean swinger. When you listen to Sur Caribe you can tell they are fans of songo, the rhythm created by Los Van Van; in fact, they are joined on "!Oh! La Barberia" by ex-LVV vocalist Pedrito Calvo. It is a monster track with spiky horns, wild vocals and a very ugly groove. The music moves through touches of reggae, even into cumbia territory with two tracks. "Tu Caramelo Soy Yo" is one that sounds like it has been lifted from one of Colombian terapia/champeta stars Grupo Kerube's songs and mixed with a hit from fellow Colombian allgirl group Azucar Caliente. And it works very well.
A radical direction to make a modern jam session descarga-style release has been taken by a group of young turks and established musicians led by timbalero Maikel Blanco and featuring top players like trumpet player Frank Padron and wooden flute maestro Joaquin Oliveros. Habana Express is the name of the project and the result is their Do Prado a Manrique (Envida). The songs are spread out and are allowed to evolve and breathe with a jazz-jam quality as the real creative splurge happens that marks this release out from other Cuban jazz releases. For example "Maikel y Juanita" is a son which features some Cuban rapping before going off into the stratosphere with trumpets and trombone dueling it out. Frank shows what a great trumpeter he is on a version of "Yesterday" which will not have Lenin and McCarthy turning in their graves. Do Prado a Manrique is a very unusual cd and stands out with its breadth of vision of modern Cuban jazz and absolutely superb musicianship.
Asere is a modern son band made up of young Habaneros now resident in England. Asere has been working hard, honing their skills up and down this land by working everywhere but the kitchen sink. Their cd Destinos (Astar) shows the hard work has paid off, all those hours spent in the back of vans and playing at venues where the changing rooms are the outside toilet next to the pigeon coop at some club in the middle of nowhere. Asere puts on a entertaining show, the songs are sharp and varied as they explore a range of rhythms and the album even features guests like jazz drummer Billy Cobham on a rendition of "Habanera."
Ska Cubano (Casino Sounds) is exactly that, a wonderful journey into musical interaction led by Natty Bo of London ska band Top Cats. He went to Santiago and kick-started a ska culture there. Now there are ska bands playing to a growing following, doing ska-ified versions of classic Cuban tunes. Ska Cubano is made of up of the cream of the Santiago musicians who along with Natty came together to form a ska supergroup, er, shouldn't that be skapergroup? What has emerged from this collection is a real madcap mixup that actually works and also importantly makes perfect sense, given the musical and cultural cross-fertilization that has gone on between these island neighbors over the years, especially with so many famous ska musicians having part-Cuban parentage.
First track is the venerable "Babalu," Beny More's "Barbartini del Ritmo" gets maxed out to great effect, while "Loca Rumba," an original number by Oscar Calle, is a fantastic track with crazy piano and a mad honking sax. Ska Cubano is one of the oddball highlights of the year, good vibes pour out of every pore in its delightful skin. Beguiling, audacious and more fun than the Fun Police would like to be legally allowed. There must be something in the water ska-wise at the moment or it's time for a ska revival revival. I went to see a ska musical recently, Big Life at the Theater Royal Stratford in East London, the story of immigrants off the SS Windrush and their early life in London all done through ska songs.
The Afrobeat vein has not been totally mined out yet. Afro Baby (Soundway) is a collection of '70s Afrobeats featuring such Afrobeatistas as the Sahara All Stars, highlife star Bola Johnson, who provides us with a guitar-led stormer "Lagos Sisi," and tracks from Orlando Julius, the Don Issac Ezikah Combination, even a young guy called Fela Kuti. The title track by Stephen Osita Amaechi and his Afro-Rhythm-Skies takes highlife into the new Afrobeat sound. This compilation is better than some Afrobeat compilations that have appeared in the last few years. The tracks are interesting and are genuinely obscure and not because they are part of a dj's set. The soul and funk mix in with the highlife and everyone has a good time. [www.soundwayrecords.com ]
When there are no more Afrobeat tracks to rediscover will the funkateers go down the fuji road? If they do go that that way then there will be great music for them to enjoy. I think we are shaping up for a fuji revival soon. About time, fuji music has been neglected for too long.
Some recent Rough Guide compilations that have attracted my attention include a reasonable dip into the fertile ground of Kenyan music old and new. I can do without the modern rap stuff but the selections from likes of Shirati Jazz, Zuhura Swaleh and Mombasa Party are joyful musical safaris while the fiddle and percussion storm from Kenge Kenge Orutu Systems really can heal the sick and make the blind see. The Bahia: Brazil collection is a rip-roaring selection: Carlinhos Brown is well represented with two Timbalada tracks and a cooperation with Raichao. Safe selections like Daniela Mercury and Margareth Menezes rub shoulders with the radical stuff like Ile Aiye and a track from the great singer Marcia Short. Also included are cracking tunes from Edson Gomes and Tony Mola and Bragada.
Amparo Sanchez is a Spanish singer blessed with a fantastic voice. She excels in blues and jazz, and used to have a blues group in Granada. With encouragement from Manu Chao she expanded her influences and horizons with Cuban and Mexican music and began exploring more Mediterranean- basin styles. Her latest band is called Amparanoia and is typical of the new wave of Spanish mix-up music as practiced by Ojos de Brujo and Manu Chao. Amparanoia's Rebeldia Con Alegria (EMI) is their fifth album and it is packed full of playful tunes that start a journey in one musical place then end up somewhere else. Her voice is really fantastic with an incredible range and emotion. Big things are predicted for Amparo and Amparanoia; they cannot come soon enough. Highly recommended. I hope Manu Chao produces a new record soon: I can never get sick of Clandestino but where ever I go in the Mediterranean you still hear it coming out of passing cars or as you sit in bars.
Mauritania is on my must-list of places to visit. I'm a sucker for deserts and the Mauritanian desert is one of the most demanding and difficult to traverse. There is a great "field" recording of Mauritanian music on The Sounds of the Western Sahara: Mauritania (ARC Music). Recorded in 1978 by Indian filmmaker and ethnomusicologist Deben Bhattacharya, it is great stuff and very interesting—the spaces between the drums, harps and violin are as vast as the Sahara and griot women singers are much in evidence. The structures and meanings of the songs are explained clearly in Deben's excellent sleeve notes.
Angolan singer Bonga has a winner in his latest outing Kaxexe (Times Square). Telling good stories, his voice rasps and scratches its way through the sublime melodies of his pan- Lusophone style. A thousand or so miles eastwards from Angola are the Comoros Islands, springing up in the crack of the earth between Mozambique and Madagascar. Home of the missing fish link the Coelacanth they are also the estranged home of singer Mikidache. Paris is now his residence and Mikidache is also the title of his release on World Connection. It is a warm gentle refresher, like an evening breeze off the sea. His lilting mix of Madagascar influences and trad Comoro is perfect for that moment when it's time to sit down and relax with a rum and a spliff.
I raved about Dave Santiago and Latin Affair's eponymous release when it came out 18 months ago. Its hardcore NY sound has found it many new friends over that time. Now it has been licensed for European distribution by Dutch label Walboomers. Labels such Walboomers are doing a major service for us by not only making stuff available in Europe but keeping releases from small independent labels available long after the original pressings have run out and they have become totally impossible to find. Other recent Walboomers Latina releases are Salsa Another Day from the ever-popular Puerto Rican Power, gruffvoiced Miami merenrap exponent Malafe and young bachata star Elvis Martinez.
The English label Nascente are experts at assembling and promoting compilations. They commissioned well-respected Latin dj Lubi Jovanovic to do I Love Salsa Vols. One and Two which allows a wannabe dj to have a firing selection with no work at all or a salsa novice to be an instant expert. His Salsa Moderna Vol. Two continues the exploration of Colombian hits. But his Beginner's Guide to Cuba is uninspiring to my ears and a bit flacid.Another Nascente release is the Beginner's Guide to World Music. I do not know what this world music thing is: I understand what salsa, soca, mbalax, timba, merengue, reggae, benga, S.A. jive, mbaqanga, rumba and all this kind of stuff are. But even after listening to this excellent selection from the diaspora and beyond done by broadcaster and dj Gerry Lyseight, I'm still not any clearer on what this world music thing is.