(by Dave Hucker, from The Beat, Vol. 23, No. 6, 2004)
Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves and Other Truck Driver Favorites is a great lp, a compilation of double-declutched heartrending truck-driver songs about life and its reverses. A product of the Starday company and distributed by Gusto Records out of Nashville, the ink of its 1978 cover still shouts a garish brightness: Even after all these years the printing still glows—it must have been the added uranium. The cover shows a young waitress in yellow uniform, white pinafore and green stiletto shoes— it must have been terrible walking all day in them—standing at a juke box. Behind her in the parking lot is guy climbing into his red "rig," a big, ugly, flat-fronted kind of thing. This album rides with a great selection of on-the-road storytelling that still cuts it today. Among the gems on this release is Bobby Sykes' 1967 hit that provides the title track. It was a classic then and it's a classic now, a talking blues of life on the road and stripped-down guitar lines shifting up and down the riffs.
White pills fuel Red Sovine's "Six Days on the Road," while Benny Martin's "Radar Blues" is a cautionary tale. Tell me about it: I have the antiflash stuff on my plates, even coated myself with the anti-helicopter thing that makes you invisible to infrared radiation.
"Pinball Machine" opens with storyteller Merle Kilgore explaining that he "gathered this story from a truck stop in Gallipolis, Ohio when this old fellow, I reckon about 70 years old, asked me to buy him a strong cup of coffee and some of that good ole apple pie." The 70-year-old goes on to explain he was a hog-hauler trucker with an addiction to pinball machines that destroyed his life and killed his wife. At the end having told his life story the oldster keels over dead. Hmmm, maybe he shouldn't have had that apple pie or was it the coffee that dun it? "Pinball Machine" certainly resides just over the mawkish county line. Gallipolis seems an important place. It crops up again in Lonnie Irving's "Gooseball Brown." It appears to be a somewhat addictive place where you can get wired on coffee, play too much pinball and take the "gooseball" to keep you awake and see you all the way up to Detroit or the Canadian border. Listening to this tale it seems speed kills, take too much of it and it really messes you up. Here in England they give Dexedrine to crackheads to attempt to wean them off their antisocial behavior.
Diesel Smoke and Dangerous Curves is a slice of the world as it was in the past. On the shelves it is filed away in the excellent-oddball-way-out stuff and it resides next to the diametrically opposed— politically, but not culturally—soundtrack to Atomic Café (Rounder). Dunno why it was that these two records have found their home nestling together—another one of life's accidents is the best explanation I can offer. Atomic Café was a whacked-out hit 1982 film on the U.S. propaganda films about the bomb. It featured a fabbo collection of "Radioactive R&R Blues Country and Gospel" tunes. Highlights include the Golden Gate Quartet's apocabiblical "Atom and Evil," while Lowell Blanchard assures us "Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb." In the secular world the eternal hipster, Mr. Vouty himself, Slim Galliard shakes the earth with his "Atomic Cocktail"— "one taste." Tracks are coupled with documentary news clips of the time.
Joining them on the shelf will be Hot Women: Women Singers From the Torrid Regions of the World (Kein & Aber), a very interesting effort compiled by illustrator/cartoonist Robert Crumb. It is a wonderfully enjoyable journey through his vast collection of 78 rpm records, which takes us from Tahiti to Tunisia stopping at all points on the way, 24 points in fact. And what a selection he offers up as he virtually circumnavigates the globe. The focused vision of a cartoonist/illustrator and a 78 collector is quite clear: He has done everything—the cover and the drawings. Crumb professes no knowledge of some of the musical styles, but hey, Burma is a musical black hole to me as well. There is some hair-curling music here—in the notes Crumb describes the process of how he bought the records and what attracts him to these songs. Sometimes the sound and reproduction is not easy on the ears, the lo-fi of the original recordings means the sound sometimes is quite harsh, as if the voices are only used to projecting a distance and are too close to the microphone and too strong.
Hot Women begins its travels in 1934 Louisiana with Cleoma Falcon's "Blues Negres." Hubby Joseph is on accordion and Cleoma on guitar as her clear powerful voice handles this bayou blues beautifully. Next we drop in on Mexico for two tracks from sometime in the mid-'30s, Lidya Mendoza y Familia with "Mexico en Una Laguna." Though actually recorded in that northern province of Mexico—Texas—it is a nice family ensemble singing—not all in tune! Tona la Negre swings with a svelte voice on "El Cacahuatero." From Cuba comes a rootsy drum and several female vocals by Grupo De La Alegria. We next land in Martinique or western Paris as I call it. As this track was recorded in Paris in 1932 you might be able to suggest it was recorded in Martinique east. But anyway Leona Gabriel provides us with a fabulous song. She has an outstanding voice, both tender and tough, and shows a commanding way with the melody.
We head down South America way next with Araci Cortes, whose Brazilian vocal chords are very bom. In his notes Crumb says she was still active in the music business until the 1970s and died in 1985. Stepping over the Andes to Chile brings us Las Cuatro Huasas, a quartet of tight singers who harmonize very beautifully accompanied by guitar. Reaching Spain, La Nina De Los Peines is considered one of the best flamenco singers of all time. Her 1927 "Sevillanas" is a real scorcher showing she deserves her crown.
Moving on into Sicily, that Mediterranean melting pot of half Africa and half Europe, we find Rosina Trubia Gioiosa and her feisty operatic offering "Lu Fistinu Di Palermo" (though actually recorded in NY). Keeping straight on into Greece Rita Abadzi duels it out with a violin and wins with her impassioned singing; then Maria Vasileiathou's smoky vocals grip your lungs, squeeze the breath out of you and make you all lightheaded. We take our first steps on African soil in Algeria with Cheikha Tetma: Her startling "Guenene Tini" is a perfect Stax song—it has exactly the same structure and could have been sung by Carla Thomas. But it was 30 years before Stax emerged in Memphis.
Aicha Relizania gives us something equally modern with "Kharaifi." If this had a electronic drum or sampled-up rhythm this would be called impassioned rap, but it's not, it's 1938 Algeria. Stepping eastwards over the border into Tunisia we discover the wonderfully named Julie Marsellaise and her microphone-breaking voice. Quite fantastic, the range bounces from pity to outright anger with an emotion that sandblasts the very core of your being.
Then it's up to the border of Europe and Asia where Ayda Sonmez's mature voice floats above the Bosphorus. Onwards it's a zig-zag southwest to what Crumb claims is an unknown sub-Saharan country from 1950 and a song by Hamsa Khalafe and Ali Atia. Taking a right turn into East Africa, Hadija Binti Abdulla, accompanied by a small orchestra and male voices, hoves into earshot. This is a call-and-response tune but with a wild ragged punk lead vocal counterpointed by a silky chorus and smooth violin.
Following the sun we head over to the Congo, where there is a field recording of finger pianos and Maboudana and Badolo who sweetly give us "Chant D'Invitation A La Dance." From its incredible vocals in the intro it is a classic Congo groove compressed into three minutes. Keeping on the road and over to Madagascar we veer north, far north to 1928 Hindustan and a soul-stirring piece from Miss Nilam Bai. Looping over and down to Burma with Yadana Myit introduces me to my first vintage Burmese tune. But we're traveling east again and make a somewhat roundabout turn to Hawaii and Tahiti where "Chant D'Amour" by Chants Populaires Tahitiens tops out this comp with some startling vocalization. Hot Women is an amazing journey in a period I don't usually travel in. Well done, Mr. Crumb.
Phew! All this traveling—I'm worn out. I don't want to be talking about flying anymore but El Avion de la Salsa (JRGR) is top of the heap new salsa-wise and also is a rare solo outing for everybody's favorite trombone player Jimmy Bosch, vocalist Rey Bayona and numerous guest artists. If this plane crashed the salsa world would be decimated by the number of its stars lost. Cuatro player Yomo Toro makes a rare appearance. Violinist Alfredo De La Fe saws away. The title track hits the sonic boom within a few seconds of takeoff followed by "Barreras Ninguna" which launches you right into a song about cancer. Jimmy is not taking the easy route with this release both on the songs with a message and the bragging tales he is talking intelligently about real things and the music is exactly the same. It is tightly crafted out of the finest hardwoods and alloyed metals by consummate artisans. Taking the battle to Dullsville is "El Embajador" with the 'bone and flute at the front sparring, parrying, nibbling away, leading the wall-of-sound horns over the battering ram of the bass.
On "Vengo A Cantar," a cha cha descarga, the wind blows up and runs riot as SHO's current soneros Willie Torres and Marco Bermudez and ex-SHO Herman Olivera step up to the microphone for this sultry mover. "Mama y Papa" is a staccato calypso-esqe plena and "Mi Cuerpo Tiemba" breaks down with a descarga bass wobble. "Que Alivio" is a free-flowing slinky charanga and one of the tracks featuring Alfredo De La Fe while "Medicina No!" and "Que Bonito Es Sonar" are two-step mambos. El Avion de la Salsa is a heavy-duty release, containing deep, heavy and profound music. It also conforms to Hucker's Law that states the worse the cover, the better the music.
Second on the list of salsa goodies is Ricky Gonzalez's Oasis (Rumba Jams). Pianist Ricky has assembled everybody but the kitchen sink, even the great Johnny Pacheco on one track. For most of the time this release works very well— even the more romantico things at least have a bit of steel in them. The hard tracks like "Ya Era Tiempo" kick real hard, "Es Mi Nueva York" has Herman Olivera drafted in to expound on its moves; this track actually has a whiff of reggaeton patched in. I still have serious reservations about this reggaeton stuff. I'm not convinced, but I don't mind when it comes out like on this cd as a pan- Caribbean groove like "La Paga." The more reggaeton is pushed at me as the "next big thing" the more I discount it. Also I will be heretical and say the Cubans do it better.x The Dutch band led by conguero Gerardo Rosales has a great release recorded live at the Melkweg in Amsterdam. Gerardo Rosales y su Trabucombo's Tribute to Fania All Stars (Walboomers) could have been a bit of a mess, one of those tired old medleys of greatest old salsa hits. But it rises way above that with verve, style, great playing, and with just a damn good tight powerhouse of groove.
Down at the bottom of the pile is the latest Charanga Habanera release. It seems only a few months ago there was a new one from them, Soy Cubano Soy Popular. Then woosh, along comes Light (Egrem) and is very lite indeed. This obviously is an attempt by David Calzado to prove he is still boss and out-boy-band the boy band that he created the mold for but then they left his band to form Charanga Forever. The harmonies are quite nice if you like that kind of thing. Though it's not as if the singers are actually with him in the band. Half went solo from CH a while ago, like Yulien, the best singer. This release is all a bit manufactured—it is manufactured very well in the Cuban tradition, but it's the rock guitar solos that kill me. Personally I consider lightness a good feature only if it increases speed. Here it slows things down into M.O.R. bolero radio-friendly slices. There are only one or two classic timba tracks evident here and looking at the state of play in modern Cuban I am resigned to the fact that the best of the current timba movement has probably come and gone.
The Senegalese do hip-hop better than anyone else in Africa. Daara J's Boomarang (Wrasse) caused a lot of people to wake up and take notice when it was released last year. It has kept hanging around on the corner giving out good vibes. It has longevity and will certainly go down as one of the classics of the music: It set the standards and still stands up with its intricately constructed and sampled rhythms, plus their wordplay is as sturdy as those old Peugeot 505s that are the standard Senegalese taxi.
I caught a performance by South London young Nigerian posse JJC and the 419 Squad and I was glad that I did. Since their solo album Atide came out, which I raved about, they have been busy playing around town building on their already high reputation. Live they create a quality and visually entertaining show, the backing tracks they use display more Nigeria than you might think. The lyrics are thoughtful and no slackness is in evidence. They have plenty of life in them and show a continuing maturity. They are well on the way to fulfilling the promise evident in Atide.
I do like rebetika so of course found myself enjoying the Rough Guide to Rebetika (World Music Network), described as the Greek blues, or shouldn't that be blues is the American rebetika? Whatever, this collection is the usual comprehensive, intelligent selection of the classics. I'm sure I will get to like their Nuevo Tango eventually.
An interesting double-disc compliation comes from the original Vragamuffin Haji Mike with Cyprus Thing Vol. One (Olive Tree Music). This honest collection is split between the modern and the modern-old. CD one is subtitled "Urban" with a selection of young artists, musicians, poets working with the hip-hop reggae r&b beaty area, artists like Napa Collection, M.B 59, Sofoz_MC and of course Mr. Haji Mike himself.CD two is a selection that starts from the traditional and does not fit into the other popular categories. To my ears these are the more interesting, more poetical, more storytelling unshackled by rhyme, like Zeki Ali's "Talking Mediterranean Blues." Starting from a baseline of virtually no homegrown music industry in Cyprus, this is a snapshot of where things are in the last five years or so with the creative talents of leftfield Cypriot music.