An exciting new outfit that fans of changüí will love. Sometimes called the country music (musica campesina) of Cuba, changüí is a bustling story-telling form with call and response vocals and spare instrumentation. The lead instrument is the tres, a six-string guitar with pairs of harmonizing strings (gG cc Ee) and a sprightly almost harpsichord-like twang. This percussive sounding guitar is supported by acoustic bass and then there are three percussion instruments: bongos, maracas, and a metal guiro called a guayo. While their hands are busily occupied the performers are in full voice and have their craft honed to a fine art. I was surprised to read the band are from East L.A. because if you had told me eastern Cuba that would have made perfect sense. They have translated the form perfectly and are aware of the rich traditions of the music: the bongo becomes a solo instrument; the bass echoes the patterns of the marimbula which is like a giant thumb piano; the tresero and the vocalists improvise. Garcia, the group's leader, started out as a boxer (on the Mexican junior olympic team), until he heard Grupo Changüí Guantanamo and was hooked and took up tres. He even went back to school to get a Masters in Afro-Cuban Jazz! Changüí is the root of Cuban music just as blues is the root of American popular music. Garcia's father composed corridos, which are sung news bulletins or ballads on current events, in a tradition that goes back to the medieval troubadours in the era before print, so that fits in with the timelessness and timeliness of the songs in the changüí repertoire. Garcia went to Guantanamo to study with the group whose LP had entranced him, and learned many songs from them. He found fellow souls back in LA who were also interested in the form: between them they have played with Maraca, Poncho Sanchez, Son Mayor and other luminaries of Cuban music. They knock it out of the park with this set: lovely, revelatory, beautifully recorded and strikingly new.
EL VIAJE (Mack Avenue MAC1114)
This is a great album, when they are not singing that is. I like Latin Jazz, and Cuban pianist and composer Harold López-Nussa exemplifies all that is great about it: he has a strong aura of competence based on incredible chops from a conservatory training, a deep knowledge of the music, a great sense of rhythm and a solid backing band. Nussa recorded Villa-Lobos' Fourth Piano Concerto with the Cuban National Symphony Orchestra and you get a feeling of Brazilian samba right at the outset, complete with the wispy non-vocals on "Me voy pa' Cuba." The other schmaltz-factor must come from his years touring as pianist behind Omara Portuondo, but if you set aside "Dos Gardenias" there is plenty of muscle in that repertoire and even drippy tunes can create space for a good pianist to work out. So I did not mute the opening track and mercifully it soon frees itself into a space of some keyboard pyrotechnics and fresh-ground percussion. The band features brother Ruy Adrián López-Nussa on drum kit and percussion and Senegalese bassist Alune Wade who also sings. Ruy and Harold's dad Ruy Francisco also guests on drums, and there are drop-in appearances by other percussionists. The percussionists drive the music but are also driven by López-Nussa as he does some tricky finger slamming himself on the keys. Most of the tunes are originals, but there are two well-selected covers: a Thelonious Monk tune, "Bright Mississippi," which itself was based on the changes of "Sweet Georgia Brown," and here it becomes "Feria" -- it was already well covered by Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez (who, coincidentally, is on the same label). What sounds like accordion on the ballad "Lobo's cha," is a triola. It's a plastic toy you blow into, with a keyboard, made famous by Augustus Pablo, but deftly handled here by Dad. The other classic is a rip-roaring rendition of "Bacalao con pan" by Chucho Valdés. "El Viaje" slows the tempo again, but Wade's singing spoils the lovely flugelhorn part by Mayquel González. Just my opinion, of course, but it seems redundant to have someone vocalize a melody along with a trumpet or horn playing the same notes. When Wade sticks to his bass playing like on "D'una fábula," he is excellent. Another ballad "Oriente," had another novel keyboard -- maybe another toy, it's not identified -- but then we get into a duet with muted trumpet and piano that reminds me of one of my favorite soundtrack albums, Elevator to the Gallows. It's moody and cinematic, oh, until Wade come in singing in his wistful falsetto. The outtro is a jam on the title track, with casual chatter and messing about which reminds me of Alegre All Stars' legendary sessions. For all the wimpy moments, this album still has clout.
Richard Bona hails from Cameroon and has now released an impressive 8 solo albums. He is a bassist and has collaborated with many African and American artists, including Lokua Kanza, Pat Metheny, Bobby McFerrin, and Mario Canoge, but has put together a new outfit for this album: Mandekan Cubano. He decided to explore the connection between Cuban music and its roots in the 15th-century Mandinka culture of West Africa. This seems overly ambitious but relax and enjoy the music. "Bilongo" has a familiar refrain --"Kikiribu Mandinga"-- and this song by Guillermo Rodríguez Fiffe has been covered by everyone, including a great version by Ismael Quintana with Eddie Palmieri. Bona performed it in Vienna 2012 with the same band under the title "Engingilaye." It's worth hearing again, in fact my friend Lulu sent me this version by Conjunto Casino featuring Alfredito Valdés. This must be a touchstone for the Afro-Cuban researcher looking for the Mandinka connection. Kikongo, Yoruba and Mandingo words and phrases survive in Cuban culture and often make it into songs. This is the stand-out track on the album, which is well-produced (by Quincy Jones) and continues Bona's approach of treating each album as a story with chapters. Other fine tunes, including "Santa Clara con montuno" and "Muntula moto," sound like covers, but as with "Bilongo," Bona takes the credit.
BOLO DE ANIVERSARIO (The Artist)
Blind (or deaf?) listening, like blind tasting, can be quite a revelation. After putting this disc on, at first I thought that this was a far-reaching Brasilian album sung in Portuguese, showing influences from Colombia, Peru and other parts of Latin America, including the Antilles. Then I learned it was Angolan and some other influences, more African, came into focus. Put it down to globalization: everyone's wired to cyberspace, but also artists are touring and hearing music from other countries, not to mention the big changes in access and performing in Angola since the end of the civil war. There's a current of the morna music of Cabo Verde underlying "Cokô," one of the outstanding tracks on the new disc. However it appears that song itself is a cover of a Franco & OK Jazz original. Flores has released 14 albums since 1989, with a hiatus from 2001 to 2012. His 2013 album had a song, "Mama Lélé," with Axé drumming, which you could easily mistake for Brasilian. I suppose he has been overshadowed by Carlos Lamartine and Bonga, at least outside his homeland. He was only known to me previously by single tracks on Angola 80s and Angola 90s, from the fine anthology on Buda Musique. His genre is semba music so it does have touches of Congo, Carribean, and I guess the lilting accordion came via sailors too.
LEGEND OF FUNANA (Analog Africa AACD/or/AALP 081)
For small remote islands off the West coast of Africa at the latitude of Senegal, Cabo Verde packs a musical punch far above its fighting weight. Successive currents of great music have come from there over the years. We know of "morna," the bittersweet bluesy form, because it was promoted internationally through the success of Cesária Evora. The line-up invariably included the tiny mandolin-like cavaquinho (which is also popular in Brasil), clarinet, accordion, violin, and sometimes, piano and guitar. "Coladeira" is another indigenous rhythm, more uptempo, which incorporates elements of samba and zouk, as waves of popular music arrive in the islands and are absorbed. The main noticeable difference is the guitar part which uses a thumbed bass note, followed by a chorded strum with the other fingers in a two-part boom-ching beat. These forms were brought to us by Popular African Music on two CDs: Music from São Nicolau (pamap 603) and Conjunto Mané Pchei (pamap 604), recorded in 1980 before synthesizers and electric guitars took over. A third, more engaging form -- Funaná -- came to our attention with the Ferro Gaita album on Harmonia, as well as the Palop Africa! anthology on Earthworks in 1999. The story of this newly reissued album began in the early fifties with a young man, Victor Tavares, known as Bitori, determined to get his hands on an accordeon. And where does someone from a small island in the Atlantic go on such a quest? To another island, this one being the other Portuguese colony of São Tomé, further south. After he mastered the instrument, Bitori launched into the folk music scene playing funaná accompanied by the sound of an iron rod scraped by a kitchen knife. The raw roots music was banned by the authorities and remained underground until independence in 1975. Tavares was approached by a singer, Chandal Graciosa, who suggested if they went to the Netherlands they could record an album. And so the legendary Bitori album first appeared in Holland and immediately swept the duo to fame at home. By then Bitori was 60 years old. Now intrepid musical explorer Samy Ben Redjeb has found the original artists and their album and brought them back to us. To the ferro and gaïta (iron rod and accordeon) they added bass and drums. There's also whistling on one track. It's rocking folk music, not too dissimilar from batchata or zouk, but with a great propulsive urgency to it.
FIO DA MEMORIA (Cumbancha)
Here's a second very interesting album from Luísa Maita that verges on rock but keeps an experimental edge. It's downtempo and heavy on electronica and, while she is no Björk, it's very enjoyable. She keeps her soft voice in the range of whisper, which is a Brasilian trait, kind of pillow talk vocals. Her first album was more in the traditional samba and bossa nova vein (with dubby touches) so the fact that she decided to push out of that arena and aim for a more global sound is welcome. She sings in English on "Around you" and the closer "Jump," but the title track makes a better single. The keyboards are organ (Fender Rhodes piano) and synth, there's a solid bass underpinning and various drums: the odd part is they used echo and flanger effects on the ride cymbal. When the guitar comes in you can tell he and the bassist are thinking Gang of Four -- they are always on the verge of breaking out into some grungy power chords, but the whispered vocals rein them in. The resulting tension is very effective, especially on "Sutil." The songs mainly have one-word descriptive titles, there's even one called "Volta" (which means "come back" in Portuguese), but was the title of Björk's 2007 album with the hit "Earth Intruders." Brasilian rhythms and axé drums appear from time to time to keep the whole thing related to the Southern hemisphere.
META META 3 (jazz village 570122)
Tony Allen, the legendary drummer, called Metá Metá "the inventors of the new music scene in Brazil," after he jammed with them in 2013. Since their formation in São Paulo in 2008, Metá Metá have blended hard rock, punk, with more traditional Brasilian rhythms and avant jazz into a high-energy mix. MM3, their third album, presses their musical agenda while singing about corruption in Brazilian society. Most people however don't pay attention to the lyrics unless they are cringeworthy ballads. But while ignoring the lyrics I do notice one song is called "Angoulème" and another "Angolana," which to me suggests the ritzy world of the French autumn jazz festival on the one hand and the hardship of the forgotten south African land that was once a proud sister of Brasil on the other. The solid percussion underpinning is their main asset. But the crazy sax player is also engaging: he reminds me of James Chance of James White & the Blacks, though some say Chance never knew how to actually play the sax -- he just blew into it with all his might, but there was certainly a lot of energy in that band -- and in James Chance and Les Contortionists, his other No Wave punk band. I wasn't sure I could listen to a whole disc of this, so after a few tracks I put it on pause and sought them on YouTube to try to figure out what I was hearing. Seeing is believing, and can help your hearing, no? Their December 2013 live show is really hot and shows the high energy drummer, though the singer is occasionally off key (a problem with live performing is you often cannot hear the monitors). The album grew on me though, as the stronger tracks are at the end; and it goes out raving with the electric guitar putting up a wall of sound with his pedals on, and the sax getting moody as hell instead of going all Ornate and blow-it-out-yer-assy. Not suited for every mood, but stick with it, and I think it will click.
most recent reviews:
(click on maps at the top of the page to get to continent of choice)
Malawi Grooves and Kankobela of the Batonga are now in the Hugh Tracey section
Systema Solar's reissue is discussed in Colombia
San Lazaro moved to Salsa (which is filed in USA, though they are from Australia)
also puzzling, where to put Americans
Money Chicha, who can be found in Peru
on surer ground,
Mamadou Barry's Tankadi is filed in Guinea
& read about Vieux Kanté in Mali part 2
Konono no 1 meets Batida is filed in Congo part 3
Fanfare Ciocarlia's 20 went to Gypsy Brass
find Black Disco in Southern Africa
Joe Mensah is in Ghana
Dona Onete can be found in Brasil part 2
the Rough Guide to Ethiopian Jazz is filed in Ethiopia & Somalia
Tanbou Toujou Lou: Haiti 1960-81 is filed under Haiti
Antilles Cheries is filed under Caribbean misc
Fela Ransome Kuti & his Koola Lobitos' Highlife Jazz & Soul is filed in Nigeria part 2
Siama Matuzungidi's Rivers is filed in Congo part 3
Music of Morocco, recorded by Paul Bowles is filed under Arabia
read about Djelimady Tounkara's latest in Mali part 2
Tribu Baharu's Pa'l mas exigente bailador is in Colombia
Basel Rajoub's Queen of Turquoise is filed in Arabia
my Papa Wemba obit is filed under Congo part 3
Robi Svard is filed in Spain
Los Hacheros can be found in Salsa
Elaides Ochoa's latest is in Cuba part 4
Cortijo can be found in Salsa
Fanfare Ciocarlia are found in Gypsy Brass
Osei Korankye is filed under Ghana
Dengue Fever's The Deepest Lake can be found in "Asia"
Gambari Band's Kokuma
and Waati Sera by Adama Yalomba are filed in Mali part 2
The Rough Guide to South African Jazz can be read about in Southern Africa
Ram, Lakou Mizik and Wesli are all Haitian artists, so read about them in that section
The Rough Guide to a World of Psychedelia can be found in old world miscellany
Sidestepper's Supernatural Love is reviewed in the Colombia tab
Not sure where to file Sol Sok Sega from Mauritius, I guess Old World misc for now
Mbaraka Mwinshehe & Super Volcano's Masika 1972-4 is filed under Kenya/Tanzania part 2
Sahra Halgan Trio can be found in the Arabic tab
Siba's De Baile Solto and Daniela Mercury's Vinil Virtual are both found in Brasil part 2
Rough Guide to Bottleneck Blues is filed under Blues in the New World
Top 15 of 2015 is HERE.
My Top Ten of 2014 can be found HERE.
My Top 12 of 2013, with best reissues, etc, is online HERE.
My Top Twelve of 2012 is HERE.
My Top Ten of 2011 can be found HERE.
My Top 9 of 2010 is online HERE
Click HERE for my top 10 of 2009
Click HERE for my top 9 of 2008
Click HERE for my top 10 of 2007
Click HERE for my top 11 of 2006
MY BEST-SELLING BOOK!
"Essential reference guide to the Congo guitar king" -- SONGLINES 64 **** (four stars)
"I do not know anybody who has such immense knowledge of African music. Congratulations." -- Gerhard G (a purchaser)
BACK IN PRINT (Second edition, November 2012)
A DISCOGRAPHY OF DOCTEUR NICO
Poltroon Press, 2012, expanded to 88 pages; list price $19.95.
By Alastair Johnston
Available now. Click here for details.
all of the writing on this site is copyright © 2004-2016 by alastair m. johnston
Your comments are welcome. Or join the discussion on facebook
If you are not already a subscriber, send me an e-mail to be notified of updates. Please note none of the music discussed on the site is for sale by me. You can reach me at contact[at-sign]muzikifan[dot]com
muzikifan by alastair m. johnston is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at www.muzikifan.com.