(by Dave Hucker, from The Beat, Vol. 28, No. 1, 2009)
I willingly go into the whirlpools of Caribbean music. The vortexes always suck me in. It is not often you can clearly spotlight a lost, forgotten or missing link in the chain of the progression of Caribbean music. In this case Latin Caribbean music, so I am very happy with the reissue of vintage and historically important music from Tito Puente with The Complete 78s: Vols. 1, 2 and 3 (Fania/Emusica). The cds chronicle a crucial moment in musical history: In New York the mambo was king, the Palladium was mega and Cuban music a major force in Caribbean music. These 78s were made from 1949 to ’55 and recorded for the Tico label. Apart from the occasional outing on obscure revival labels, this fantastic and important music has been locked away from us.
The hundred-plus songs on these three double cds are exactly where the cutting-edge mixup was going on in that particular time, showing exactly with sharp succinctness where the action was, and how Tito was the young kid on the block with the wild percussive ideas along with a understanding of the trad and the modern.
All the elements of modern salsa music are there, the Cuban influence, the pan-Caribbean sound. Virtually every style of Cuban/Puerto Rican/NY/jazz music of the last 50 years is on display with Puente often mixing the different elements for the first time. The pure proto-riddims kick very hard, the piano is a powerful percussive instrument. The vocals from the rafts of stellar vocalists Puente employed are amazing, featuring some of the real greats; the arrangements are crisp, tight and radical. All the different Latin riddims and popular styles of the time like bolero are explored in some way. You can hear the subtleties of the band, very smooth and hard but choppy and syncopated, and those horns! But because of the 2:08 time limitation of the 78 rpm medium, the tunes are compressed, there is not a single musical moment that is wasted. Live, they must have been monumental. The reissue sound is not compressed though, and authentically scratchy. Substantial sleeve notes grace this as well. This is some of the greatest music ever, let alone Caribbean music.
A major modern Cuban masterpiece comes from Pupy y los Que Son Son with Tranquilo Que Yo Controlo (Egrem) This release from one of the most highly respected bandleaders was long overdue and much anticipated. Pupy is the master with a wide musical view and understanding of history with the best modern musicians and the tightest arrangements. This is a very well-rounded and creatively radical album from one of the musical deities of modern Cuba.
Nobody does the old songo style better than Pupy. Tranquilo Que Yo Controlo is ram-packed with the usual quality music and some surprises. For example, “Cuando los Anos Pasan” - AKA Casablanca’s “As Time Goes By” starts off pretty schmaltzy but then the muscles rip through the fabric and everything is turned on its head. Sam did not play it again like this. “Se Parece a Aquel” is a big journey that goes a Los Van Van route. “Vecina Presteme el Cuba” is an Arsenio Rodriguez song and a vehicle for diva Omara Portuondo, which for me is one of the standouts on this album. Everybody goes on about her bolero stuff, but she can still kick bottoms on the funky stuff. “Ve Bejando,” a composition by vocalist Armando “Mandy” Cantero, is a really tough song. “Nadie Puede Contra Esto” is West Africa reinterpreted via Cuba, an old-style, deeply percussive songo.
Tranquilo Que Yo Controlo is another major release from one of the top two bands in Cuba. Those double shuffle rhythms rule supreme here. For this release Pupy has added a female vocalist, Lilibert Jove, a welcome addition filling in the vocal line and giving it extra texture. However given the fluid nature of the world of musicians in Cuba and Pupy’s desire to be constantly on the move musically, means if you go see the band you will not see this lineup. Mandy and Jose “Pepito” Gomez have left, to be replaced by Norberto who sang with Maikal Blanco, Rudel who was with Azucar Negra and Michel Perez from Tumbao Habana. This spring the new band has been touring Europe to rave reviews. Longstanding vocalist Mandy Cantero has gone off on a solo career. He has one of the great modern Cuban voices, old-sounding but modern. Hay Que Luchar (Lujuria) is the title of his solo release and it is an impressive début. There is not a weak moment in any of the 10 songs here which cover a wide range of styles. The arrangements are tight, the musicianship superb, the production clear and well organized. This is a top release, one of the Cuban albums of the year. Tuff.
The other of the top two Cuban bands is of course that 40-year-old legend Los Van Van. Their latest cd is Arrasando (Planet). I caught them live in London promoting it. It was the eighth or ninth time I had seen them since the late ’80s and they still thrill me. Founder Juan Formell no longer tours with them, his son Samuel has inherited the mantle of leader and musical arranger as well as the role of drummer. I have never seen a busier kit drummer. With Sam you do not need any other percussionists, the waves of rhythm are still there. The vocal lineup is the same, with Yeni showing why she is still one of the best vocalists on the island. They ripped through a selection of greatest hits and tracks of the new album.
Arrasando is another quality release, recorded at the Egrem studios in Havana though remastered in Italy. I’ve never found anything wrong with the Egrem sound and I’m not sure it needs tinkering with. I don’t think you should expect anything radical and new from LVV. Just keeping up the high standards is enough.
Those practitioners of a very true, pure local NY salsa dura La Excelencia has its second release out. Mi Tumbao Social (Handle With Care) is a solid progression for these exponents of the hard stuff. This album is much tighter and more self-assured than their début Salsa Con Conciencia. As a band they are growing, developing their musical philosophy and abilities. it is a small group with a well-produced but simple Cinemascope sound. The songs are original compositions - none of that redoing classic tunes - which have that elusive quality of honesty and power, the bass is up front and has its own space, the horns described as W.M.D. (Weapons of Musical Destruction) and the vocals have a unique timbre which combines to create a tight pure sound that shows La Excelencia is one of the most important trad salsa bands in NY. Mi Tumbao Social is without a doubt one of the top salsa releases of last year.
Another release that deserves to be in anybody’s top 10 is 3D’s Que Siga La Rumba (Gotham Music), led by drummer Michael Tate and guitarist Chris Amelar. I raved about their previous excursion (Ritmo de Vida) with its potent pan-Caribbean mix, this latest offering has refined their original style even further. I like groups led by drummers, the percussion is always prominent. 3D has a well-rounded and creative outlook, with a distinct understanding of all kinds of Caribbean styles and rhythms. Here you will find bombas, Latin pop, a tinge of reggae, dash of soca and a bowlful of salsa. For the salsa 3D coopted some of the bigger names in New York, soneros Herman Olivera, Willie Torres and Ray Viera, pianist Ricky Gonzalez, percussionist Chino Nunez and a whole host of top-flight bods. These songs work particularly well, as an album Que Siga La Rumba is a virtually unqualified success - I do forgive them the reggae rap stuff. 3D has an original vision and the creative ability to pull it all off. Another great pan-Caribbean mix up from this talented and very interesting band. Top marks.
From Sydney comes Afro Trios (Monstero Music), led by Malian lead guitarist Moussa Diakite, conga player Samilla Sittole and Australian rhythm guitarist Len Samperi who explore seductively jazzy West African rhythms, often with a Latin feel. A good effort all round. London roots mixup soundistas Soothsayers joined up with the Africanism of Red Earth Collective for a new rip-roaring release One More Reason (Red Earth). Featuring a whole raft of Soothsayer’s regular vocalists like Johnny Clarke, Michael Prophet, Linval Thompson and Mellow Baku, this is a fine outpouring of London roots dub. Sharp and funky a state-of-the-art effort with sparky rhythms and wide thick horns as broad as the Effra River, the tributary of the Thames that ran through Brixton, now one of London’s lost rivers. Mixed as usual by Nick Manasseh. xxAnother plus point: the cd looks like a vinyl 45. Some of the maddest and baddest music you will hear this side of Madsville comes from Ethiopian bandleader Mulatu Astatke and the free-thinking future jazz musical collective the Heliocentrics with the release of Inspiration Information (Strut). This cd is the result of the Heliocentrics providing the backing for Mulatu’s first English live date for in years. [Hear it at www. rbmaradio.com .] Inspirational Information is a truly monumental piece of radical music; Sun Ra and James Brown rub shoulders with Mulatu’s haunting vibes. Recorded in a week of frenetic activity at an analog studio here in London with contributions by local Ethiopians, it is very far out and I mean very, very far out. Supremely, succulently groovy: I can hear this being played alongside all kinds of dubby music in the future. This release is going to go down as one of those collisions that make musical history. Plus Mulatu is now getting the respect and adoration he deserves.
Mr. and Mrs. Music made a trip to the Gambia River and the Senegalese Sini Saloum estuary at the beginning of the year. At a village called Palmarin in the Sini Saloum we went to a local wrestling match. The lutte, as it is called, is a very big and serious affair in the calendar for the local villages. This was the first of the knockout contests. It lasts for three nights altogether and not only is it a matter of great village pride, the eventual winner collects a large cash prize - the accumulated admission charges.
There were a lot of people already inside the walls of the square arena sitting on benches or standing. The men and boys sitting round three sides, the women, the judges, women singers and drummers all on the other side. In the middle was a large circle marked out by rice sacks filled with sand. The combatants were striding and running around warming up and psyching themselves up. They were unclothed except for cloth tightly wound round their waists like sumo wrestlers. Many of them sported different kinds of gris-gris and magic charms, one bloke had a rope he sucked, another had what looked like a wooden spoon. Another had a harness. Some had elaborate belts.
They sometimes grabbed up a handful of sand and sprayed it over themselves, which gave them a piebald look. New contestants rushed into the arena, making a lot of noise. They vigorously pushed cow horns into the sand and poured various things like sand, magic-infused water or palm wine into the horn. They then chopped the sand with the heel of their hands while muttering offerings to the gris gris. Some contestants had seconds who kept the bottles of sacred liquids or held the belts during the fights. We had been hustled to a wooden bench at the front displacing some young children - they had to sit in the sand. There were three categories of fighters: lightweight, middleweight and heavyweight.
We were opposite the singers, drummers and judges. The singers were a group of about 10 women sitting on white plastic chairs, there was a main singer who called the statement, the other women gave an echo chorus while providing a constant percussive clapping. The response vocal came from an old women who sat in her own little circle of friends who were also clapping. Over to their left were the drummers. There were about eight or 10 of them. They really got into some deep grooves when they started to lock together. The women kept up a repetitive, mesmerizing vocal loop saying “be strong, be brave, fight hard” which was almost hypnotic for the contestants. The singers were amplified through old-fashioned Tannoy horn speakers which gave the sound a wonderfully distorted quality with oodles of echo.
The section of the arena for the women and girls filled up some with very smart outfits on view. The community arena where this was happening in had one-story-high walls and a open veranda with faded paintings around the top.
Meanwhile the wrestling had started, lightweights first. There were three contests happening at once in the rice-sack-marked circle. Each had its own referee. The rules - you try to lift both feet of your opponent off the ground or tip him over. If you went outside of the circle the bout had to start again. The winner was declared by a referee holding up his arm. One loser was so disconsolate he lay down in the sand for a couple of minutes. The bout started with the contestants bending over head to head, one with hands on the ground, the opponent grabbing on the other person’s wrists so as to stop him moving his hands and tipping him over.
It’s like a pair of rhino fighting, the pushing and pulling, the attack, the sheer will, determination and strength to resist and trying to get your opponent off balance. The turnover of fights is quite quick. When the bouts went for 10 minutes or more you could see serious sweating and they would continually scoop up handfuls of sand over their shoulders and flanks. So there is a haze of sand and not a lot of movement followed by a flurry of activity. As the evening progressed the heavyweights started. The drummers were in a major groove dancing around and occasionally the women singers got up to dance in front of the drummers.
It was a real privilege to see this event, which very few tourists ever get to witness.