(by Dave Hucker, from The Beat, Vol. 23, No. 2, 2004)
I remember my first earthquake.
It is said that some people can feel the electromagnetic disturbance preceding an earthquake, but generally the rest of nature is much more tuned into seismic activity than we humans. We can only get hints by reading the nature around us.
I certainly was aware that something was up— the indications were that things were not normal. The birds seemed a little wound up and hopped around very noisily, unhappy. The Mackies were making unusual screeches, the cats were prowling around tails up and sniffing the air—agitation turned up to the maximum. And there seemed an ominous silence in the insect life.
The earth shook, the wildlife went crazy, the volume went off the dial and I hit the track to high ground. The waves on the beach seemed very high—I'd heard about tsunamis.
In 1991 the magma poured out of a crack in the earth 'round the Richmond, VA, area as the kernel of the classic salsa band Bio Ritmo was formed. Led by Jorge Negron, they emerged as a percussion ensemble set up for the opening of Ring of Fire, a documentary about volcanoes. Along the road since that time, with four cds, many members later and impeded by a disappointing deal with a major label that prompted a break-up, they have continued as a talented combo. They kept going in the belief they had something strong to offer with their "street salsa" or, to put it another way—hardcore '70s style. Their new release Bio Ritmo (Locutor) shows they were right to keep to the roots. It is a fine effort with some great hardhitting and quite experimental music. As soon as I picked up the cd I got good vibes off it—I could tell it was going to be good. Putting it on, I could hear my feelings were right as the opening track, "El Monte," flowed with its piquant horns and mountainous groove. Timbalero and foundermember Giustino Riccio is quoted as saying "We're lactose intolerant, we are very adverse to cheesy salsa—it's all watered down."
I fully endorse that statement: What we want is the roots and nothing but the roots. This ninepiece not only falls into my fave bag of a percussion- led group but they are actively retro in a forward-looking way: For example, the newest member of the band, French keyboard player Marlysse Simmons, plays a mean antique Fender Rhodes. The words to the songs actually mean something and the stories expand in a playful manner. Singer Rei Alvarez, who writes the majority of the songs, is also a artist who did the cover of the cd; he describes his songs as painting pictures with words.
They are so retro as to have a bomba with "El Cambio." I do not know why people do not do more bomba these days. It is such a wonderful rhythm with its solid syncopation. The intro sizzles with zinging keyboard effects and a lovely melody augments the shootit- out sonero story as fabulous keyboards effect all over the place. "Atrevete," a co-composition from Marlysse, features a wandering keyboard solo as the rhythm mutates into a samba. "Hermano" is a cracking tune with worthy lyrics and a melody that bites. Riccio hits the timbales with a vengeance on "Para Los Romperos," showing if it's not broke don't fix it while going way out on a limb with an experimental earth-shaking experience.
Bio Ritmo have proved it is still possible to be true to the roots while expanding the parameters of their music in an intelligent, thoughtful and entertaining way. We want more groups like Bio Ritmo to flourish so I recommend you buy their cd. Or go and see them play if they are in your neck of the woods.
The latest series of Rough Guides have some goodies in there. I like the Rough Guide to the Music of Morocco (World Music Network) which is compiled by Arabic musical expert Andy Morgan. It covers most of the bases in Moroccan music with tracks from the High Atlas to the Gnawa of Essouira via the hustle and bustle of Marrakech. The Rough Guide tribute to Bollywood playback star Lata Mangeshkar shows to non-believers what a fantastic vocalist she was. The selection here spans the years from 1949 to 1994 which many people would consider the golden period of the Bollywood musical. The modern films are now a bit too risqué and MTV-ized for the old generation. Lata would record six or eight playbacks a day for the Bollywood music factory and was credited (incorrectly) with being the world's most-recorded artist: That honor actually belongs to her sister Asha Bhosle. Lata's soaring vocals have graced haunting romantic songs and all-action dancing numbers from some of the greatest Hindi films of all time. Absolutely wonderful stuff.
DJ Mike Chadwick has created a Mambo compilation for the Rough Guides which takes in the history of this classic style from its birth in the 1940s with Cuban bandleaders Mario Bauza, Perez Prado and Machito right through to recent examples like Bobby Matos and John Santos' "I Don't Speak Spanish... (But I Understand Everything When I'm Dancing)" which has become a modern dance-floor classic. The best track off Eddie Palmieri's last release, Ritmo Caliente, was "La Vos Del Caribe," which gets a welcome outing here. All in all quite an interesting compilation.
As far as The Rough Guides' trip into African Rap: I really am not sure about this style of music. When it first emerged with acts like Positive Black Soul and MC Solaar I was enthusiastic. But last year I was sitting in a traffic jam in Dar es Salaam waiting to get on the ferry and listening to the radio which was playing old skool American rap—Doug E Fresh, some dancehall and Tanzanian rap and r&b and I was thinking, whatever happened to the regional differences in music? Have they gone the same way as clothes? Now baggy shorts and a baseball cap seem to be the global dress sense. On the ferry, I looked out and saw a fishing boat that had "Bad Boy Posse" painted on the side. OK, you might say that Dar has always been on a fault line of people and cultural interchange. But I do regret this blurring of the differences between us.
This compilation moves and grooves through quite a few of the high points of the African rap genre so far. Positive Black Soul contribute their classic "Boul Fale." Manu Dibango also got in on the act a few years ago with his duet with MC Mell'O' on "Senga Abele." South Africa's Prophets of da City give us their "Township Dwella," while Tanzania offers us a choice of acts in the shape of X Plastaz and the Hard Blasters. The American and Jamaican influences in this music are now quite dated. Maybe the new style of whacked-out U.S. rappers like Black Eyed Peas or OutKast will bring some new sound to the next generation of African rappers.
Ethiopia obviously sits on a crack in the earth as evidenced by the volume of magnificent recorded music that erupted out of the Horn of Africa in a rush of a few short years. Ethiopia/Eritrea/ Tigray music fanatic Francis Falceto has compiled The Rough Guide to the Music of Ethiopia, culled from his Ethiopiques series. All the great classic names are here, Alemyehu Eshete,Tlahoun Gèssèssè, Mahmoud Ahmed through to modern stars like Aster Aweke. This is a handy selection if you do not want to invest in the now-17 cds that make up Falceto's series of the best and deepest of Ethiopian/Eritrean/Tigray.
And speaking of Ethiopiques, volume 16 and 17 (Buda Musique) have been released recently. Volume 16 is a look at Asnaqètch Wèrqu, The Lady with the Krar. The krar is the Ethiopian lyre and Asnaqètch began her career as an actress and dancer in 1952. But she is best known and revered as an azmari singer, someone who engages in "poetical jousting" and wordplay. The songs on this cd come from two lps she made in 1974 and '76 and are beautiful in extremis. Blessed with incredible good looks as well as a superb voice, the tales she tells will bring tears to the eyes of even the most hardened cynic as she floats the soul above the plucked lyre. The Lady With the Krar is yet another totally essential masterpiece that will blow your mind.
My mind was blown a long time ago by one of the great Addis singers, Tlahoun Gèssèssè. Volume 17 is a selection of his songs with various bands that he graced with his powerful vocals, the Army Band, the Exhibition Band, the All Star Band and the Imperial Body Guard Band. The mutant r&b of tracks such as "Seqo Menor" and "Lantchi Biye" turn upside down any expectations you might have had about Ethiopian music. It really is almost as if it is Africa's musical missing link. There is another volume of Tlahoun in the pipeline which pulls together all his vinyl recordings with the Imperial Body Guard Band. According to Falceto's usual exhaustive sleeve notes, Tlahoun is still living and singing in Addis.
Puerto Rican Masters: The History of Salsa (AJ) is an interesting double cd recorded live at the Tito Puente Amphitheater in San Juan. It features a whole raft of great vocalists, the likes of Cano Estremera, Pedro Brull, Papo Sanchez, the wickedly underrated Wichy Camacho and Luisito Carrion, backed by a 15-piece all-star band led by Luis "Perico" Ortiz on trumpet and along with stars like pianist Eric Figueroa, whose repetitive percussive playing is way off the dial, and Rafi Torres' wailing 'bone style.x The band and stars whip through a selection of some of the great tunes from the last 50-odd years, featuring medleys of songs by Roberto Roena and Hector Lavoe, '50s genius Tito Rodriguez, and the '70s' Roland La Serie, as well as a tribute to composer "Tite" Curet Alonso. Luisito Carrion does a storming version of "Me Diste De Tu Agua," a tune he first did with the Bobby Valentine band in 1985. There really is some tough music here.
The persecution of Cuban artists this year by U.S. Immigration denying visas to, among others, vocalists Ibrahim Ferrer, Barbarito Torres and pianist Guillermo Rubalcaba to attend the Grammys is yet another outrage and one more nail in the coffin of U.S. hypocrisy against Cuba. It's funny how Cuba seems to have been central to many of the political fissure points in the U.S. It's always been a pivotal place, a running sore from the days of the Spanish War through to Lucky Luciano, the Mafia, prohibition, the Cuban missile crisis and the Bay of Pigs right through to the assassination of the Kennedys. U.S presidents and their crazy dogmatists may come and go messing up the world during their tenure, but Fidel is still there, a peaceful thorn in their flesh.
Cypriot poet and vraggamuffin Haji Mike has assembled an album called Poets 4 Peace 2: A Pair of Olive Leaves (Olive Tree Music). It also features West Coast dj and remixer Stephan Franz, and Nicosian-born poet Zeki Ali in a selection of tunes that explore the need for peace and unification in Cyprus. Check out what Mr. Mike has to say, because as always his lyrics are deep and meaningful. [www.olivetreemusic.com ]I'm very saddened by the news that Colombian master percussionist Batata died recently. There were 10,000 people at his funeral and the drumming went on for nine days. You might have thought the earthquakes and rumbling were the start of a volcanic eruption. But no, it was ritual drumming for the death of genius.