(by Dave Hucker, from The Beat, Vol. 27, No. 4, 2008)
Anyone suffering a drought where you are, please get in touch and maybe next year we can organize some climate exchange.
Sunday, Aug. 24, the first day of the Notting Hill Carnival, dawned gray, cold and drizzly. I got on the bicycle for the usual 11 a.m. cruise around the area, checking what’s going on, what’s changed that particular year and saying hello to my friends on other sound systems before things got busy. I always drop by the elaborate theatrical extravaganza that is Gaz’s Rockin Blues on Talbot Road. Previous efforts have included exotic islands with crashed planes and strange Mad Max vehicles. This year the theme was “current” times around the world, so lots of big clocks and strange cityscapes/cultural mashups. Stretching along three-quarters of the length of the block, it also features a stage for Gaz Mayall to play with his group the Trojans.
Gaz is a local legend with a worldwide reputation. The son of bluesman John Mayall, in 1980 he started what became London’s longest-running one-night club - Gaz’s Rocking Blues at Gossips, deejaying a punchy mix of ska, bluebeat, r&b and Studio One. At the junction of Dean and Meard Streets, Gossips was a club on a corner with serious history. Meard Street is a historically important remnant of almost-pristine swank Georgian Soho architecture. Gossips was down in the basement. As a space it had developed from a social club for chess-playing art students from St. Martins.
At one point it was a jazz club with pianist Caleb Kaye (I mentioned him in my review of London Is the Place For Me a while ago). It became the Mandrake and later turned into Billy’s where in 1978 Steve Strange and Rusty Egan started the first New Romantics night and opened up a Pandora’s box as they set the mold of how to do DIY clubs. I deejayed at Gossips for a while during 1980-81, opening up for soul dj Steve Walsh. I remember that when you came out of the dj box - well, coffin would be a better description - and then went up some steps and down a corridor you came to a door which let you into the brothel next door, still operating at that time!
The other famous venue on this corner was the high-society Gargoyle Club which opened 1925 and occupied the top two floors of the building. To get there you took a really old-fashioned lift with concertina doors that only held four people. The club had red flocked wallpaper and mirrored ceilings and walls allegedly painted by Matisse. By the ’50s it was a drinking club infamous in boho Soho. In the ’80s it was the venue for many groundbreaking nights such as the Language Lab, the first five MC and five turntable set up - a la Sugar Hill Gang - to happen in London. There was also a goth night - the Bat Cave - and the original Comedy Store. It has now disappeared as has Gossips though that basement now continues the history of change and is called the Soho Lounge.
At Carnival Gaz’s brother Jason was deejaying the early shift on the sound system. He is a hardcore cumbia man, so his set is pure old classics like “Cumbia Cienaguerra” alongside leftfield greats like Texan busker Bongo Joe. Jason plays vinyl. He also hipped Joe Strummer to cumbia. The weather got better. All those goats sacrificed to the gods of the weather and also to appease the hungry hoards wanting to fill up on curry goat obviously made a difference. It dried up, warmed up and the sun even broke through. On our own more modest affair - playing out of the back of a panel truck - the Latin Sound System in Portobello Road did a roaring business with the dancers. Monday is the busiest day and we had a very large crowd, I am happy to say we were playing a pretty hardcore mix of music. We also caught a lot of passing trade intrigued by the swirling and bumping down.
Thinking about it afterwards I could see it was very Cuban: Both modern and classic styles kept the dancers on their feet. What is noticeable is that black Londoners, both young and older, brought up on reggae/TnT soul and funk recognize and welcome the pan-Caribbean bump in Cuban music.
As I’ve mentioned before the main man in the frame as a leader of the Cuban pan-Caribbean sound is David Calzado. I caught him and his band Charanga Habanera at a Cuban event in a park in South London. Basically the current lineup of Charanga Habanera is a Cuban boy band with four young pretty-boy vocalists/dancers. On one level this is pure pop music, but is also music with strength, vision and featuring a number of major rhythmical surges, all coming together from various genres of the Caribbean.
Recently I was watching a video of La Caro - a family band from Havana with vocalist sisters. What they were doing with this particular song was a Cuban T’n’T soca thing. It was described musically as a mezcla and was a very good example of the current pan-Caribbean Cuban mixup developing these days. A big hit coming from Cuba is going happen at some point soon, I can feel it in my waters.
In an idle moment I cast my eyes over the event at Southwark Park, the sun glinting through the trees, the drifting smoke of barbecue stalls and if you squinted a bit it could have almost been happening in a park in Havana, just.
Colombia is one of the triumvirate of powerhouses in Caribbean Latin music. A most interesting and stimulating excursion into some of the more underrated music of Colombia comes with Pacifico Colombiano (Otrabanda). Culled from 1988 to ’07 releases, this excellent collection digs deeply and chooses some of the best music from this profound musical zone featuring deep Africa. This release pulls together swathes of very interesting Afro-Chacoan grooves from this (always) neglected area of Colombian Pacific music. Cali is now known as the musical port that swings strongly to the salsa beat, but Buenaventura was the original musically mythological entry port for music. Evidently when ships docked, the cry “the vinyl is in from New York” would echo around the city.
In the last 10 years the old-style roots have started to come back into fashion as the significance of Afro-Chacoan music such as the chimeria is appreciated again. The extensive sleeve notes on Pacifico Colombiano give you loads of information about the artists and songs, including lyric translations.
Kicking off proceedings is “Linda Portena,” a fantastic dense rhythm from a big band featuring one of the best-known voices in the Pacific style, Marcos Micolta y su Sabrosura. Originally a singer for Peregoyo, he has become a big star in his own right. This is a major tune. “Homenaje A Petronio” by Grupo Saboreo is another fullon rootsy effort from traditionalistas. It is a beautiful, grooved, very thick sound. The marimba is an important instrument in the Pacific coast music. Grupo Socavon is a marimba ensemble and they are quite amazing. On this track the marimbas lay up the rhythm for the fantastic female voices to run over the top, paying respect to marimba player Justino Garcia. It just comes out at you with a total melodic purity and sounds so damn modern as well. The very current style of things is covered by Choc Quib Town on “Somos Pacificos.” The dreaded rap/hip-hop is done pretty well with an individual sound and stance. It is an eloquent talk about what it means to be Pacifico.
I reported on Peregoyo’s release El Rey Del Currulao some time ago and gave it the big thumbs up. “La Iguana” is the top track of this album and rightly featured here. Its chunky rhythm has great viscosity. Pacho Peña y su Chirimia’s “Las Brisas del Choco” has almost a calypso sound. In the tale the gentle winds blow the smell of dancing. La Revuelta’s “La Oya” is a radical mover which starts off with jazzy clarinet that leads a snappy drums and marimba. Then the startling vocals come out at you.
La Contundencia’s “La Quitamarido” is another tough thick riddim. “Adios Guapi” is Grupo Naidy that sells pretty crazy percussion and very mad vocals. They are described in the notes as “born in 1998 in the restless mind of Maky Lopez, percussionist.” Yup, very pure, very wild and pretty hardcore. Alfonso the Wizard or rather Alfonso Cordoba Mosquera is an 82-year-old living legend in Afro-Chocoan culture. He is a multi-talented giant whose compositions have been recorded by groups like Grupo Niche and Orquesta Guayacan. This song is a total outpouring of soul and shimmering orchestration. Alfonso has a voice that shows his extensive understanding and knowledge of life.
This comp is topped out by another Markitos track which is very punchy and gets intense with wailing clarinet and big brass dueling over that wonderfully fragmented choppy riddim, with loco vocals. This latest journey by the Otrabanda label into a seriously underexposed roots music is welcomed with open hands, ears and feet. Pacifico Colombiano is an exemplary look into a fascinating mixing of people, cultures and music.
You don’t hear much about Guantanamo - well, musically that is. The Cuban town itself is a funky place where the son and changui are still alive and well. I have been strongly recommended to go to the annual changui festival there as it is old-fashioned wild. So yup, it’s certainly on the list.Young-fashioned Guantanameros Madera Limpia are mixing different modern beats with the trad musical structures. Their second album La Corona (Out Here) is a very creative example of how you can toughly reinterpret and add more within the traditions and the classic musical forms of the southeastern region.
Standouts include “Perro Que Ladra” which has case-hardened vocals and charanga violin. Creatively it mixes it up and moves things along. “La Lenta” works very well and is a hard track that has bass and tuba dueling with vocal melodies that blend the music up. “Boca Floja” is a percussionled extravaganza which could almost be Brazilian. “Tu Papa” starts off kind of reggae but goes sort of son; then flips back and forward a few times. Madera Limpia has many musical ideas which are backed up with top-notch musicians. Given that ability and confidence they just spill out in many directions. But their reinterpreting of the old style is definitely a new mini-style. For example “No Ni No” has a West African guitar. Or should I say son sound? In my mind they are certainly ready to be included in some kind of cross-cultural project.
“Danza Mulata” is a mega-mover that grooves all over the place, while “Salsa” is a funky current songo soundalike that gets into that emblematic LVV groove. “Mente” is an Afrobeat jazzysounding floor-filler with nutty vocals that I am sure will become a classic. DJs - please dub it up. I am a fan of the Southeastern sound. Madera Limpia shows us they can write, construct and perform good songs. On an island where currently every thing about life is being reinvented, Madera Limpia reflect what is happening at the moment and they have a blank sheet - though deeply watermarked with the traditions to start from. Very deep, creative and certainly part of the developing pan-Caribbean sound I keep banging on about. La Corona is a good modern addition to the oeuvre. Manu Chao will get on very well with Madera Limpia.
Willy Torres is the well-respected sonero who is one of the lead voices for the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. Lo Que Traigo Yo: Willy’s NYC Salsa Project (Latin Street Music) is his first solo effort and it is pretty good. Willy pulls in a quality bunch of friends and acquaintances to produce a very classy and punchy release. It is quite a small group of musicians augmented by guests including vocalist Herman Olivera, but it gives an impression of largeness. Co-produced by dj Henry Knowles, this is another of those NY dance-heavy releases that just oozes sabor. It is elevated from the usual “star gets his pals together” scenario by the sheer quality and adventurous nature of the music and the way it is handled. Willy’s voice has a rough edge to it. I bet in a decade it probably will have gained a real depth and timbre. Lo Que Traigo Yo is a impressive solo debut with a load of top tunes.
Among the cognoscenti of the old-style salsa Bio Ritmo are well respected. They fit quite comfortably in the ethos of the retro bag. However their area of operation is more late ’80s synthesizer keyboard and syn-drums. Bio Ritmo explores a different angle and that is what we like about them. They plough their own creative furrow. Their latest release Bionico (Locutor) is nice and thick with loads of great songs with a tight, faultless orchestration, a muscular groove from musicians who are very locked together. There are great vocals from Rei Alvarez and the group has a unique, distinctive gutsy sound. This kicking cd has no thin moments, padding or unoriginal music. I gave their last release a positive review, and Bionico shows how they are developing as a band and getting stronger.
The latest investigation into 1970s Nigerian musical history comes with Sir Victor Uwaifo - Guitar Boy Superstar 1970-76 (Soundway). Compiled by Miles Cleret, it is a tribute to Benin City’s finest cultural polymath. In the ’70s Uwaifo created a unique style of music that was a mix of traditional Edo styles fused with rock and soul. From being the biggest star in the firmament in the ’70s, Uwaifo still continues his artistic bent and is also a poet and university lecturer in the famous Benin bronze sculptures. This excellent compilation is long overdue and features the usual comprehensive sleeve notes and interviews with the man himself.
I was quite taken by Tibetan Chants for World Peace from the Gyuto Monks Tantric Choir. (White Swan). Recorded for the first time the choir has totally mesmerizing over-layered voices which I suppose you could call Tantric dub. The ebb and flow of the chants provide a most uplifting soulful experience. The percussion has an almost-industrial sound to it, the sort of metallic quality you sometimes hear in modern art soundtracks. But here it is actually totally the opposite meaning. I was quite shocked by how moving the chants are. They certainly put me into a different place.
If these Tibetan monks can help us out of the really awful world situation we are in at moment, then good on them. We need all the help we can get, and personally I may be a cesspit of ignominy but I’ll take help from any corner.