(by Dave Hucker, from The Beat, Vol. 23, No. 3, 2004)
I have certainly been born out of time and out of place, many times and in many places. Instead of being born in a place called Swadlincote in South Derbyshire in 1952 I should really have been a stall holder at the Riba Dempel floating market in Willemstad, Curaçao. At the time the island was on an economic roll, the air was heavily charged with optimism and the place was producing some very very hot music.
Named after the famous floating market, Riba Dempel (Otrabanda) is a truly fantastic collection of music from Curaçao 1950-54 compiled by label owner Scott Rollins and Tim De Wolf. It is a mega-deep exploration of rare old 78s that form the golden age of the recording history of Curaçao, when shopowners Horacio Hoyer and Thomas Henriquez, profiting from the booming post-war petro-economy, bought simple recording equipment and set up studios behind their respective stores to record the local bands. Hoyer's Hoyco and Henriquez's Musika labels were not big commercial operations but little cottage industries more akin to a hobby and a desire to popularize Curaçao Papiamento music.
As the island was on a crossroad of trade and culture many Caribbean musics like merengue as well as the very popular Cuban son, a relic from when half the population went to work in Cuba in the early part of the 20th century, were deeply engrained in Curaçao tastes. You could hear the whole range of Caribbean rhythms of the period: guaracha, son montuno, bolero, merengue, danzon, as well as the local music pambiche and tumba.
Collected here are some of the finest songs by some of the best bands of the period—two bands, Conjunto Cristal and Estellas del Caribe, provide 11 of the 24 tracks on this cd. Estrellas were in fact in existence for 40 years. The music here is a complete revelation, superb vocals, sharp compositions and snappy arrangements.
Standouts for me include Conjunto Cristal's "Boca De Tribon" with its wild piano and powerful streamlined raw groove. "Zoot Suit" from the seminal Sexteto Gressmenn is a humorous tale of how zoot suits invaded the island. But there is so much great music packed into each three-minute song that it is difficult to choose one over the other and then of course the story of the music is fascinating and will be a real eyeopener for many people.
Apart from the perfectly chosen tracks there is a comprehensive booklet with the full history of the music, the musicians and main players and a fantastic selection of photos of the musicians, bands, the harbor and floating market. There are also full translations of the lyrics which is a good thing because the songs have great lyrics but the Curaçao Creole language is very baffling with at least four European languages mixed in alongside African ones. Riba Dempel is going to echo around my life a lot in the coming year and beyond. It is an essential listen because of the quality of the music and also the ability to put Curaçao into its proper position in the history of Caribbean music.
Things are in a bit of a fallow state on the modern Cuban front at the moment. The best release recently has been Si la Vida le Dice Baila (Envidia) from pianist/vocalist Tirso Duarte which is an exceptionally good effort that oozes soul. Although he redoes some of the hits that he did with Charanga Habanera like "El Charanguero Mayor" and "El Riqui Ricon," he invests them with a new life. Great tunes can stand any number of reinterpretations, but which one will stand out as the great version? In most cases it is the original, but only
time will tell how it works with Tirso. All of the tracks are full of good strong grooves that take time to evolve and progress on the journey, but they all swing and his piano playing is quite fantastic as his tight, neat, jazzy licks go off at a tangent and tickle the ears. The arrangements take more twists and turns than a mountain road full of hairpin bends. This album is certainly worth investigating and I'm sure it will settle as one of the better releases of modern Cuban music.
I always keep an eye on what Cuban bandleader Pachito Alonso y sus Kini Kini are doing. Whenever I see a new release by them I always buy it knowing it will be pretty tough stuff. The newie, Llamame Cuando Tu Quieras (Bis) keeps up the standard that Pachito has maintained for a good many years. The son of '50s bandleader Pacho, he is not considered front line, his music is not groundbreaking, but he is always up there in the higher echelons, always solid and you can depend on him to pull out some cracking tunes and do interesting things. He is almost old fashioned but will always do a few modernish tracks that are generally quite firing, though personally I can do without the all the boleros on this release.
Santiago stalwarts Son 14 have a new album, Fuego En La Maya (Tumi). It is yet another wonderfully crafted and firing selection of modern son in the tradition of the great Cuban musical ancestors like Ignacio Pinero, Arsenio Rodriquez, Miquel Matamoros and Beny Moré. Formed in 1978 by vocalist and leader Eduardo "Tiburon" Morales, this band really kicks hard. Tiburon's voice is seeped in soul and rum, and the songs have sparkling arrangements and range in style from traditional son and some nice boleros to modern salsa and even cumbia.
I understand that reggaeton is very popular these days in eastern Cuba and is in some ways the latest expression of the son troubadour tradition. One of the top stars and one of the bestknown names of the reggaeton style is Puerto Rico's Tego Calderon. This snappily dressed youngster is very popular with his hip-hop dancehall style, and his eloquent lyrics are all very "street." But what is interesting is that he has come from left field without the support of the "suits" in the music business. He has succeeded despite and because he so far has stayed true to his roots.
Praise has been heaped on him claiming he is mixing other Caribbean and Afro-Caribbean music in his songs. Well, yes and no. While it may be true on his current release El Enemy de Los Guasibiri (BMG) there is a track, "Elegante de Boutique" where there is an approximation of a merengue-style accordion. But beyond that any influences I can ascertain are a bit flaccid.
I shall keep my ears open to see what happens with Tego but the riddims are too hip-hop for my taste, unlike the music from French salsamuffin star Sergent Garcia which, based on classic reggae and Cuban music, is more amenable to my elderly ears. I caught Garcia recently as he toured England promoting his fourth album and first official English release La Semilla Escondida (Shakti/Virgin). Like Manu Chao, the good Sergent is very popular with large swathes of European youth. His records sell in huge numbers throughout mainland Europe, indeed, he already has a large English brigade. At his London appearance there was a good showing of fans who knew all the songs. His energetic and entertaining show with its oodles of good energy, humor, intelligence and dancing is most certainly uniquely European, his French post-punk musical philosophy, a mix of reggae and everything else, could not have emerged from anywhere else in the world.
La Semilla Escondida was recorded in Jamaica with Tyrone Downie and the Fire House House Crew and the Egrem Studios in Santiago, Cuba with a collection of top musicians put together by piano player Alexander Ferrer Del Valle. The stripped-down live band features the vocal line of Sergent, or rather Bruno as he was known by Madame et Monsieur Garcia, his French and Spanish parents. Alongside him are vocalists Tanya Stephens and Kemmuel Foster AKA Rahorne and gruff-voiced rapper Bionik, behind them is a percussionist/drummer and a dj who supply the various parts of the riddims. A lot of djs on stage with a group seem only to push a button to set a pre-recorded rhythm going, then twiddle around adding sound effects and scratchings over the top. But here the dj had a stack of 7" vinyls of the rhythm and was cutting and mixing between two copies of the same track then also adding the stop/starts, scratching and sound effects. Very impressive.
There is not a duff or filler track on La Semilla Escondida. Each one is a fertile, potent and finely crafted effort. All the tracks almost mix in together. Things open up with a short dubbed-up mamboish track with "Que Me Pongan Donde Hay," then a trombone hails the arrival of "Long Time" which rips open proceedings with the Fire House Crew in full attendance. Sergent and Bionik trade lyrical comments in French and Spanish. This is just one of the big tunes on this cd already packed full of great tunes.
"Revolucion" is another very popular uptempo conscious stepper with a catchy singalong melody line. The Cuban-recorded tracks are an interesting mixture varying from roots drumming to modern funky workouts. For example, "El Asalto" is a classic Cuban structure which drifts through a touch of timba and allows Garcia to construct a searing story of street life, while "El Regreso" is a slow guajira where the riddim pulses and dips and spins and progresses into a proper Cuban rap tune when Sergent gets loose. Very nice trombones grace this song, live it went into a different dimension as the break dropped and a true soneromuffin exposition poured out. "Herencia Africana" starts off with a sort of Count Ossie sound which then slips into a rumba son, very nice indeed. One of the best tracks for me is "Yo Se Que Te Gusta," a pounding homage to the changui rhythm that he claims has links with reggae and ragga. In the lyrics he comments that the changui is a rhythm without frontiers for black and white and mestizo and that can make the dead raise up. The album is topped by "Viva La Felicidad," another catchy number with floating flute, saxophone and trombone that get dubbed up for the outro.
Every track on La Semillia Escondida is dripping with wonderful arrangements, and dub is a constant feature. An Augustus Pablo sound crops up on a track called "Poetas," and the reggae-ish tracks move between ska, rockers, ragga and dancehall, and sometimes all of those during the duration of a tune and when it is Spanish over the rhythms it gives them a new meaning and life. Some of the tracks even have a zouk flavor.
This is certainly the most rounded release yet from Sergent Garcia. The music is without exception totally interesting and the lyrics are witty, articulate and intelligent. The only thing I have got to complain about with this cd was it is "copy controlled" and will not play in my car. So it was an outright challenge to me to bypass this fascist music biz rubbish. It did not take me long so there's one in the eye for the multinational monopolists.
Wayne Gorbea's Live From New York (Wayne Go) is a scorching outing from one of my favorite NY salsa dura bands recorded at a place called the West Gate Lounge in Nyack, NY. Wayne and the band power through a selection of their own hit compositions and classics like "Oye Como Va." Live releases are not to everybody's taste—the tracks can expand to strain people's attention spans. But for people who are not residents of the five boroughs and nearby locales a cd like this is the nearest they are going to get to regularily catching such a hot band live. Top cuts for me are "La Lengua" and "Estamos Chao" as the tight band swings and pumps up its muscles for a serious dance. This is on Wayne's own label so buying this cd will directly help support him and the band and as a live recording it is very well done, with hardly any audience intrusion. Live From New York is a very welcome addition to the long list of great releases that Wayne has produced over the years.
An outstanding roots salsa release comes from timbalero and percussionist Don Perignon and Orquesta Puertorriqueña, 20th Aniversario (Envidia). Related to PR musical godfather Cortijo, Don runs a tight rhythm ship that has a buzzing bass saxophone underlying the tracks. On this release a whole load of top vocalists have been drafted in, Andy Montanez, Luisito Carrion, Pedro Brull, Josue Rosado, Pupi Cantor and young star Victor Manuelle, who on "De Boca Hacia Fuera" shows that he is wasting his time doing all the formulaic pop salsa for which he is best known. In a few years when hopefully he has grown out of being a puppet for the current "hot" producers he will come into his own and be regarded as the great vocalist and a true sonero that he is. 20th Aniversario is a good, honest release of classic Puerto Rican music well done and with mucho sabor.
The Puerto Rican musical institution spanning over 30 years that is the Lucca family and their band Sonora Ponceña have produced a new release, their first in six years. Back to the Road (Pianissimo) is another left-field effort from them. There is no way Sonora Ponceña would ever be considered mainstream. They have always been out there on the cutting edge of jazz-infused music. We should be grateful for them keeping the faith and the truth in the face of dumbed-down rubbish that surfaces all too often.
I admit I was out of my tree when I first heard Mojarra Electica, Calle 19 (Calle 19). It is a slice of total nuttyness from Colombia and its fuzzy guitar and jazzed-out madness made perfect sense to me. It's as if Sun Ra had gone to Colombia 50 years ago and got a gig playing with Peregoyo or Pedro Laza, had gone native, and now had been dragged out of retirement to collaborate with a collection of Colombian Jazz Caribeno Electronasistas. This wild and completely insane release is seriously whacked out. It is so far out there it should be rollerblading on Saturn's rings—I have not heard such a radical piece of music in ages. Quite a few of the tracks, like "Paticua," a freakedout Afrobeat mover, would fit in perfectly in a champeta sound system set. This is a very unusual and attention-grabbing recording that is quite unique and unlike anything else you are likely to hear this week. I'm sure some of the tracks will appear on compilations in the future with titles like The Craziest Jams or Insaneia or That's What I Call Mad Jazz Vol. 27. It really is that wild.I am saddened to report that Ivan Carceres, whom I raved about with his recent release The Roots of Acid Salsa, died in Puerto Rico in a car accident during March. He was a interesting and intelligent musician and the world will be a lesser place without him. Ivan—RIP.