(by Dave Hucker, from The Beat, Vol. 26, No. 3, 2007)
Driving north over the Thames at Battersea Bridge I looked out to my left and 400 yards away all I could see was a wall of gray obliterating everything. It was like one of those misty barriers you saw on the “Twilight Zone” where there was a division between in and out. Every quarter mile the weather got much worse. By the King’s Road it was very, very thick rain. By Fulham Road it was impressively solid moisture. By Gloucester Road I was driving purely by memory in the second-heaviest downpour ever recorded in England. By the time I got near home the engine was spluttering from a lack of oxygen in the water-saturated air and the roads were rivers.
In the car I had crammed the sound system for the sound stage for the Friends of Little Wormwood Scrubs FunDay happening the next day. I was deejaying and in charge of the sound and stage, slotting in between mixing the sound for local groups and performers and calls to keep dogs on a lead, and announcing when the Tree Safari was starting or the Falconer doing his flying exhibition, or lost keys, mobile phones and the raffle.
One of my biggest hits was Charanga 76’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” alongside some reggaeton, punchy Cuban beats, old African and as always vintage reggae. As I Roy says, “All over the world people are bawling for peace.” Yup, very true even more so today; at the Little Scrubs they were also bawling for the rain showers to stop after the deluge the previous day.
Playing the sort of stuff I play to a local community thing meant having to take a safe-ish line. However, I did manage to slip in a couple of tracks of a stunning new hardcore-jollies Cuban release, Estrellas de Envidia: Homenaje A Fania (Envidia), created by producer Luis Dominguez, after Jose Manuel at GB Records in NY suggested a tribute to Fania redoing songs from the label but doing it in Cuba with the current hotshots from the modern movements there. One of those rare strokes of total genius, this album features virtually everybody who is anybody at the moment. The cast list really does run deep and wide with the top-quality musicians working with most of the young vocalists from the timba movement. Barcelona-based Envidia has carved out a niche for itself with its excellent Cuban releases. It does not actually produce anything itself but encourages producers and buys in finished masters and puts them out. It also has an enviable reputation for quality good music.
Given the usual varied schedules of the many participants, this project took a while to come to gether. But it was worth it as the result is a very fulfilling repositioning of a selection of classic songs from Fania. This release takes what was originally Cuban and Puerto Rican musics which had sort of mixed together, then has infused the tunes with what 35-40 years further development in the music of Cuba has brought to the mix. It works very, very well and adds considerably to the meaning of the original songs and is a worthwhile contribution to their historical legacy. The vocal lineup is amazing: 13 voices from the top timba and what I would call the “hard” bands. A sterling effort by the musicians who have been providing some of the hardest music to the Envidia label, but then they are from the elite of Cuban bands, like Charanga Habanera, NG La Banda, Afro Cuban All Stars, Cubanismo, Issac Delgado, Los Jovenes Clasico del Son, Conjunto Chappotin, Paulo FG and Irakere.
Things get under way with a homage called (not surprisingly) “Homenaje A Los Salseros” which sets the stage for this tribute. Everybody chimes in on the vocals. You get a fast edit slice of top soneros, each getting a chorus in, swapping lines and setting the scene over the very funky rhythms. The choice of Fania tunes is predetermined by their position in the popular pantheon. Top 20 classics explored here include “Anacaona” which opens up proceedings. This Tito “Curet” Alonso composition gains from vocals from Pupy y Los Que Son Son and Charanga Forever singer Armando “Mandy” Cantero. Johnny Pacheco’s “Azuquita Mami” features Jorge Rodriquez from NG La Banda on vocals. “Quitate la Mascara” is where Tirso Duarte rips into the Ray Barretto hit, while Ruben Blades’ “Juan Pachanga” gets a bass-laden mega groove with inspired vocals from Irakere’s Jose Migual. Cheo Feliciano’s “El Raton” gets a real good going over with a bass-heavy journey featuring percussive piano, wonderful tres from Los Jovenes’ Coto and amazing vocals from Lazaro More. This version is a major reworking.
“Mi Gente” is one of Hector Lavoe’s bestknown songs. There is a lot of rubbish being spewed out about Lavoe at the moment as El Cantante, the biopic “suggested by the life of Hector Lavoe” starring Jennifer Lopez and hubby Marc Anthony does the rounds at the moment. But by the time you read this the world could well have forgotten this film and its non-investigation of one of the iconoclastic singers. Nobody seems to come out of the film with any credibility, none of the actors nor the real characters they impersonate.
“Quitate Tu” features no less than 8 of the 13 vocalists. Tito Rodriguez’s “Coro Millare” is a funky instrumental. “Rompe Saraguey” gets the treatment from Dan Den and Havana City vocalist Jesus Salas. Eddie Palmieri’s “Puerto Rico” and “Adoration” segued together swing and sting. In its time Fania involved the hippest artists and musicians of the day. This release does the same thing giving these songs a new perspective, extra strength and a sharp hard edge adding to the canon of the work. But I do have to ask the question, where are the writers making this kind of quality songs now?
The local black youngsters at the Little Scrubs FunDay who have grown up with modern dancehall and ragga liked this funky Cuban sound. They certainly liked the bass lines. Carlos Alvarez is the Cubanisimo ‘bone player guesting on the Estrellas release. Jesus Alemany, leader of Cubanisimo, has always been ahead of the game (remember his attempts to do Cuban versions of the Bob Marley catalogue which were thwarted by the Marley family?). Jesus, a trumpeter graduate of the Irakere school of musicians, always makes absolutely sublime music, beautifully crafted and totally swinging. Tough, intelligent and jazzy music is what Jesus deals with, and he deals with it so well.
It has been six long years since the last proper release from Cubanismo. So Greetings From Havana (AIM) is very welcome. It opens with a track called “Calor en Santiago.” I have experienced the beat and heat of Santiago and I thoroughly recommend it as a destination, especially with its deep Haitian influence, like the song. Every moment of this release is of great meaning. Top notch throughout, every track is tight and creative, the old mixed with the modern. Quality is infused within every bar of the 11 tracks here. There are no wasted or dead moments and it swings with a vengence. I’ve aways got plenty of time for Cubanisimo. Full marks to this Australian label for putting their money where their mouth is and releasing this superb new recording.
Wild craziness with extra-mad-added full-fatsaturated lunacy can be found in Voodoo Love Inna Champeta Land (Riverboat). This is another total champeta AfroCaribbeanamuffin mix-up, the latest effort from Parisian Lucas Silva AKA Champeta Man Original who has long championed this exciting style from the Afrocentric Caribbean coast of Colombia. For this stonking cd Lucas took Bopol Mansiamina and Cameroonian drummer Guy Bilong to Cartagena in 2003 to record with legends of the Caribbean style, Viviano Torres, Luis Towers and Justo Valdez, under the banner of Colombiafrica—The Mystic Orchestra. Recording continued in Paris and Bogotá with heavyweights like Nyboma and Bembeya Jazz founder Sekou Diabate, the great Diblo Dibala, Dally Kimoko and Rigo Star. For those of us happy with the Afro-champeta movement this is one great big love fest. There are still the sound system jingles sprinkled through out the cd. A lot of the music certainly has that Cameroonian bump to it, also a highlife sound seems to feature quite regularly. But the modern pop Ghanaian highlife bands come nowhere near this for musical quality.
“No Habla Na” opens the cd, featuring vocals from Luis Towers as Dally chimes away on guitar. “Mama Africa” has Dally, Nyboma and Congo rapper 3615 Code Niawu. It seems to veer into Moroccan Gnawa at one moment, the rhythm twists and turns and the vocals are great. “Jaloux Jaloux” is pretty pure Congo salsa but goes in a different way and moves into a square groove with wild sax. A big track.
“Mini Kusuto” with Vivano Torres on vocals and Bopol’s guitar is one of those highlife type grooves but is most certainly a Paris mix-up. “Kumina” features Justo Valdez’s rough vocals and Sekou Diabate and Bopol in another of those highlife workouts that moves northwest up to the Congo. “El Liso en Olaya” is Diblo and Alfredo Torres in a strong mover with accordion and guitar dueling away. “Tus Huellas” has Viviano Torres joined by Caien Madoka, Miguel Yamba, Ocean and 3615 Code Niawu. It is another in great West African style, almost soukous/makossa/Guy Lobe with great trombone. “Quien Manda A Quien” is graced by the presence of Rigo Star. “Zarandia Champeta,” another serious mover, has Bopol and Dally joined by Guinean Hadya Kouyate. A rare treat comes with “Sambangole/Tres Golpes Na Mas” from Las Alegras Ambulancias de Palenque. This is the band of Palenque drumming legend Batata’s sister Graciela, which normally only plays at wakes. Her vocals and his drumming are rough and barbarous, a real crazy journey that you get when you smoke strong weed and drink lots of rum. As I’ve said before she can come and play at my wake. Congratulations to Lucas for cooking up another fascinating insight into this important Afro-Caribbean mix. Voodoo Love Inna Champeta Land is a release that deserves to be appreciated to the max.
Equally hallucinogenic is a wonderful release, The Roots of Chicha (Barbès), which explores a totally forgotten area of cumbia, in this case ’60s psychedelic cumbias from Peru. This recording comes from a particular moment in time when this style of cumbia known as chicha was a working- class music which flourished in the heady days of petrochemical money in Peru, and supplied the soundtrack to life for the new urban population. Brooklyn bar and label owner Oliver Conan managed to track down musicians who had been languishing in obscurity for decades. Its 17 tracks showcase bands like Los Mirlos, who seem to have almost a surf sound. Los Hijos Del Sol provides some very way-out music. Juaneco y su Combo, who lost most of their members in a plane crash coming back from a gig, came from the Shipibo Indian tribe of the Amazon, while Los Destellos has wah-wah pedals and moogs maaan. This cd is packed full with a lot of quite mad music that nobody has really ever looked at before. The Roots of Chicha is a welcome contribution to our knowledge of South American music.
The Rough Guide to Latino Nuevo (World Music Network) is an excellent selection of modern grooves from the popular and fusion areas of Latin music. A ’60s version of Latino Nuevo would certainly have certainly featured a fair amount of cumbias. As a style its square rhythm is important in the musical history of South America from the ’50s to the ’70s. These days it is a bit of an acquired taste and really not mainstream. In fact it is difficult to find many modern protagonists. But the classics are still there and are still appreciated and ready to be re-appreciated and reworked by the remixers.
Latino Nuevo starts off with Jose Conde y Ola Fresca’s “Ride La Ola.” Wow that’s fast for new music to get on compilations. I remember when it took a while for tracks to get to the compilations market. But it’s a different world now. Other standouts include “Oh Kuri” where leading English salsa piano player Alex Wilson provides his bhangra salsa offering which works very well. The nutty boys and girls of Yerba Buena give us “La Candela.” Ozomatli has proved to be purveyors of very popular anthems over the years. “Sube La Temperatura” is one of their best. The Welfare Poets put their radical poetry to good use on “Se Acabo.” If this area of popular-ist music is your bag then this excellent compilation will fit the bill. Caught Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba live in London at Moroccan restaurant Momo’s intimate downstairs bar. Hmmm, this was very interesting, Bassekou and the full band of four ngonis and two percussionists were doing a pre-WOMAD promo gig that was fabbo in extremis, featuring a good-natured explosion of rhythm. Bassekou’s wife contributed those amazing Mali female vocals. Live it showed just how much depth there is to Bassekou’s floating blues-jazz-Africain. The album only purveys half of the major grooviness emanating from this group. Absolutely stunning stuff, Segu Blue is certainly one of the best albums of the year and touring here has been winning them many new friends. I’m really glad I did not need to wade through the waist-high liquefaction at WOMAD to catch them.
While we are in Mali, I stumbled into Wati, a totally madcap Rokia Traore show at London’s Barbican Center. It was based around the proposition that what if Mozart was a griot in 13th century Mali—a hereditary musician for Sundiata Keita who founded the Mande empire. And what if Mozart had two wives: Fanta Damba and Billie Holiday and a daughter called Bjork? This work was commissioned to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth and was first performed in Vienna.
It was certainly in the tradition of avant-garde European art. Quite surreal in places, it featured a film projection that had a weird and enigmatic conversation with a taxi driver driving round Vienna, which also contained the history of this story. Included in the musicians was a modern classical ensemble, the Smith Quartet, generally best known for their association with Steve Reich. Rokia’s stunning voice is amazing but I do get annoyed at the rockism of her band. However it is not often that you come across something as genuinely off the wall as this.
While we are resting in Mali the latest release from Habib Koite, Afriki (Cumbancha), will be welcomed with open arms by his long-suffering fans who need a new fix of beautifully crafted music.
The BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall is probably one of the best-known classical music festivals in the world, famous for the jingoistic final night when the greatest hits of English classical music get wheeled out. But the organizers have been making concerted efforts to widen the appeal of the series with the parallel Electric Proms. This year English-born Indian guitarist, pianist, producer and composer Nitin Sawhney was commissioned to create a Prom featuring Indian music alongside a classical orchestra. This piece featured vocalists including Indian singer Reena Bhardwaj, North African veteran Natasha Atlas and two London singers, Tina Grace and Lucita Jules, whose fantastic voices rose above the modern r&b/gospel style. This was a interesting night, mixing classical and other musics is a route fraught with danger. You can easily get bogged down. This intelligent use of a palette of influences did not.
Off a wall somewhere but I’m not sure exactly where is guitar virtuoso Bob Brozman. I admit I have ignored him and his collaborations before but his newie Lumière (Riverboat) is very mad, inspired and a beautifully done idea. It is a collaboration with himself playing every instrument in the wide range of musics that interest Mr. Brozman, though it is somewhat of a difficult one to carry off when you present yourself at Customs as the Bob Brozman Orchestra and they say “Well, yes sir, but where are the other 28 musicians?”