(by Dave Hucker, "Hey, Mr. Music" column, The Beat magazine, Volume 22, Number 6, 2003)


I like Bangaroo's 1996 Ethno-Funky-Del-O-Jelly-Beat release, not only because its whacked, jazzed-out danceable psycho-funk is so totally way out there and humorous, but because it features Papo Pepin on congas.

Pepin is one of the great percussionist of the last 50 years. From the '60s he has recorded with everyone from Mario Bauza right through to Wayne Gorbea and pop salsa stars like La India and Victor Manuelle, Panamanian reggae star El General and the late, great arranger, facilitator and vibes player Louie Ramirez. In fact it would be easier to say who Papo has not pounded the skins with than to go through the 80-plus recordings he has actually done. One of his regular jobs is providing the percussion for the Africando rhythm-track sessions. And every Sunday at Birdland in New York he plays with the Chico O'Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Big Band.

People in the know speak about him in the same terms as the pioneers of Afro-Cuban percussion: Candido, Mongo Santamaria, Armando Peraza, Patato Valdez and Francisco Aguabella. Papo is among them: He is the first port of call when you want the best conguero for your session, single-handedly he can make any band swing. He comes from a percussionist family: His father Tony became the first bongocero to play with Tito Puente. There is a whole chapter on him in Vernon Boggs' seminal book about salsa, Salsiology. But he has never made a solo album until now. Al Natural (Faisan) is a fantastic release, absolutely packed full of tight, crisp, real, pure roots music, so pure it resembles an lp clocking in at a mere 46 minutes. No track is over four and a half minutes, which makes the songs so sharp, no second-rate fillers pad out the playing time of the cd. No excessive solos or egos rear their ugly heads among the top-notch musicians involved here. The percussion, as you would expect, is way up front. The cowbell clatters, the bongos slap while the timbales and conga stitch everything together. There is even a baritone sax buzzing away. Coro is provided by Aris Martinez and one Carlos El Grande.

Al Natural opens up with a rhythmically interesting version of "Cuembe" while "El Guardi Con el Tolete," a rumba, starts with a percussion storm and insistent bass, then the horns rip in and life compresses with eye-watering speed. "Tu Estas Fatal" has a funky bass running with the piano and percussion until it all kicks off into a memorable tune and groove. A timbale roll starts off a medley of Louie Ramirez tracks. "Soy Del Caribe" is another standout, then "Ifa" kicks out with attitude. Proceedings are finished off with the title track, a showcase for Papo's solo conga. Papo is a consummate musician able to move freely between different musics investing quality into wherever he goes fabbo in extremis.

Releases like Al Natural do not come along very often. You have the big stars like Spanish Harlem Orchestra, Wayne Gorbea, Willie Villegas, Soneros Del Barrio and the many lesser-known working bands who are all on the ball musically in the NY scene. And then you have Papo Pepin. Evidently this cd is selling like pan caliente.

In the press release for Javier Rubinel's Sahara (Riverboat) it is stated that he is one of Spain's best-kept secrets. Well, he certainly had passed me by, but it seems I have been missing some great music. This compilation is made up of tracks culled from his two releases in 1977 and 2001. From Cadiz, Javier is described as a poet-composer rather than a flamenco/singer-song-writer. He is a man with a wicked glint in his eye as he tells his often-fantastical tales, usually concerning women. There is a great range of music and emotion in his songs. The songs are supplemented by some nice horns and other instruments: For example on "Isla Mujeres," a violin accompanies his passionate vocals while "La Reina de Africa" is a very bluesy funky-dunky thing. "Toito Cai La Traigo Andao" is a great song with a tuba that breaks all over the place. "Vino y Besos" moves at a great pace and has very nice guitar from Javier. "Perla de la Medina" is very Moorish with Javier's vocals floating above the great groove, and "Boca de Rosa" is another very jazzy effort. Sahara is not a run-of-the-mill flamenco release; it is quite outstanding with Javier's stunning vocals and guitar playing. I'm glad to be enriched by this release. I suggest you do not miss out on him any longer.

Orquesta Broadway has always been popular in Africa. Their Cuban charanga style was frequently the template for more African salsa than you could shake a stick at. Which is why Orquesta Broadway leader, musical director and flautist Eddie Zervigon was always going to be a member of the posse at the Africando rhythm sessions. A new Orquesta Broadway cd, 40th Anniversary (Flauta), celebrates the 40 years of music in New York this influential group has racked up. It is also a real flameburner of a release, a silky smooth journey led by Eddie's flute and the violins (including guest Alfredo De La Fe). Over the last 40 years Orquesta Broadway have honorably kept with the classic charanga style, even modernizing it during the experimental '70s, like their Paraiso release. But this cd is a real cracker: If you like your charangas, then this is an essential purchase.

Led by West Coast piano player Bill Wolfer, Mamborama has a new release just out, Entre La Habana y El Yuma (Yo Mambo). They expertly explore the world of jazzy Cuban timba-esque sort of mambo style. It is a very potent and satisfying release. Their first cd, Night of the Living Mambo, was released in Holland by the Walboomers label, which will be doing the same with the newie, while Cuba Chevere distributes it in America and the rest of Europe. Very complicated, but that's the way things work in the music and distribution biz when you are producing your own music.

Entre La Habana y El Yuma features a whole host of Cuban guests from piano players Manolito Simonet and Cesar "Pupy" Pedroso, drummer Geraldo Piloto and vocalist Sixto "El Indio" Llorente. The musicianship is superb all the way through, the songs swing, the arrangements are tight. If you are turned on by this style of cooperative creativity, like your music deep and multilayered then you cannot go wrong by investigating this band and their new release. Also by buying this cd you are not lining the pockets of some faceless multinational member of the Military Industrial Complex, but paying back the hard work and risk taken by the musicians and producer Bill Wolfer.

Following Robert Leaver's comments in the last issue about the history and provenance of Pancho Quinto's Rumba Sin Fronteras (Riverboat/World Music Network) I went back to it again and had another listen, but I still did not get many bangs for my euros from it. This cd is more interesting for its history and meaning than the actual grooves in there. Pancho is one of the great percussionists of Cuban music, but I found this one a bit wishy-washy.


Way back in the mists of time, well, actually the 1980s, there were two very left-of-center Puerto Rican groups that eventually joined together when the time was right to unite. Truco, led by Hector Valentin, had been champions of those neglected Puerto Rican musical forms, the bomba and plena, which were some the original African rhythmic styles on the island before the emergence of the new hybrid of salsa.

Zaperoko was formed in 1983 by trombone player Edwin Feliciano who, after undergoing one of those revelatory moments when he discovered Los Van Van with their new modern thread of Afro-Caribbean rhythm, the songo, with its fusion of rhythmical traditions, set about creating a Puerto Rican equivalent, something that had not been done since the late '50s-early '60s days of the godfather of PR music, Rafael Cortijo, but now given a new twist.

The latest release from Truco and Zaperoko, Musical Universal (Libertad), is a perfect example of their off-the-wall vision. Totally radical and very modern, it moves through the range of African rhythms like guaguanco, plena and bomba, to salsa dura and charanga, although nothing here is perfectly restored historically, but distilled through a jazzy modern experience. Top-notch all round, deep, smart and gut-stirring.

Los Van Van's songo was pioneered by bass player Juan Formel who had cut his teeth with the Changüi band, formed in 1956 by Elio Reve and his Orchestra Reve. When Elio passed away six years ago his son Elio Jr. took over the reins of the band. The second release from him, Changüi Homenaje - 45 Años (Tumi) is just out. There are some really banging grooves going on here, reinterpreting the old ways in a hard-hitting and very punchy way. Now that Los Van Van has moved out of their old style into a more modern development of it for the next generation of Los Van Van fans, the mantle for keeping the roots vibrant and alive has passed to Elio Reve y Su Charangon. Changui Homenaje - 45 Años is one of the more interesting Cuban releases recently.

I've now got some of the tracks that that Cuban youngsters Charanga Forever were selling on the side during their recent European tour. The title of the cd is La Cuqui Quiere Fiesta and a couple of the songs are pretty good - "La Medicina" and "Sueno Equivivacado" are probably the best. I look forward to getting the "official" release when it comes out.

Based in Los Angeles is Orquesta La Palabra, led by piano player La Palabra, a gentleman of Cuban extraction. They were best known for their salsa hit version of Lionel Richie's "Lady," which they actually did twice but it was a hit for them both times. Their latest cd Breakthrough (Tornillo) takes a slightly different route for the attempted crossover hit, with a song called "I'm Going to Shenzhen" which is a beaty cha cha cha in the Mellowman Ace style of West Coast rapping but features a vocal in Mandarin, from co-producer Kelly Stacy. There is also a version with the male vocals sung in Spanish. But the big hit is a cut called "El Temblar" which is a strong mover. Hmmm, a real curiosity release.

In the beaty rap/reggae world Orishas are still kings, Don Dinero is most definitely there. And as far as this Puerto Rican thing called reggaeton is concerned, Tego Calderon, described as the Puerto Rican 50 Cent, is the best there is. A weird little thing coming from the left field is Edesio Alejandro and his release Cubatronix (Egrem,) a strange Cuban drumming thing with a vocalist called Adriano Rodriguez who seems to be a bit of a mystery. There is some interesting stuff in this cd, not buckets full, but a few tracks work well.

On the sleeve to Essential Latin Flavas (Outcaste/Stimulus) it says "100% Hot New Latin Music." Then what is the first track? Only Charanga '76 with their version of "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" - "No Nos Pararan." Well, I suppose it is new to most of the population who had not been born 27 years ago. But the rest of the tracks are more recent hits. The aforementioned Don Dinero gives us "Don Dinero," his best track off his Que Bola cd while the Sergent Garcia track "Rompe La Condena" is quite rare as it was only ever on a film soundtrack. 3 Canal's "Oye Como Va" gets an outing while the Quantic Soul Orchestra's "Babarabatiri" does the Beny More original madcap justice. There is about 40-50 percent good tracks here, but "100% Hot New Latin Music"? I don't think so.

Havana-born Tommy McCook has always been one of my greats. In about 1967 it was the Skatalites' "Guns of Navarone" that properly introduced me to music outside of my known black musical world of the time, which was blues and soul. That one song got me hooked on Jamaica, Jamaica eventually led me to the other Caribbean islands and then onto Africa and then back to the Caribbean.

There is another one of Steve Barrow's exquisite compilations just out featuring Tommy McCook. Blazing Horns (Blood and Fire) is squeezed full of rare goodies, the first nine tracks coming from the Blazing Horns lp on Grove, one of my local labels, which put out some great music in its short-lived time. Blazing Horns is sparse jazziness from Tommy over classic riddims, Sly Dunbar at his best clack-clack, Robbie at his most fluid, Ansell just out there! Apart from a rare 12" recorded for Bunny Lee, the other half of the compilation is an unreleased Glen Brown production where Tommy free-forms over more great dubbed-out cuts. Fabulous stuff, yet another masterpiece from Blood and Fire.

Copyright 2003 Dave Hucker

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