MUSIC OF COLOMBIA, part 2

GUANCHAKA
MONTE ABAJO (Wakan Tanka)

Bomba Estereo have a new album out, but since they signed to Japanese mega-capitalists Sony two albums ago, they have started replicating themselves without much conviction, as if someone said, OK, that's good just do more of that. The songs, the chord progressions, the effects are all too familiar. I have been looking for this summer's breakout hit and it's getting kinda late in the season, but I played the lead track, "Cumbia mañanera," from Guanchaka on my podcast a while ago because I thought it had potential. It's catchy, in that robotic techno-cumbia way, but then it all becomes a bit too samey: more of the stoned carnival fairground organ against a loping backbeat as awkward giant figures on stilts sway uncertainly and dark clouds gather behind the big top. Actually my images are a bit off: the cover shows a guy embracing a limp sex doll in the beam from a flying saucer rising from a deejay deck, with voodoo dolls and hi-fi equipment in the desert. Shades of Burning Man who put the sand in the sandwiches. So it's even more menacing than it appears at first. You can stream/hear the whole thing on bandcamp (linked above) and decide. Giving music away free is great, but then it cheapens it to the point where you may think it is really not worth much anyway.

SON PALENQUE
KUTU PRIETA PA SARAGUIA (Tico Music/Palenque Records)

Some time in the not-too-distant past soukous guitar merged with the native cumbia rhythms of Colombia and found a natural home in the champeta music of Son Palenque. Since 1998 DJ Lucas Silva has been producing high quality CDs of this exciting blend of African and traditional Colombian music, from the fine Champeta Criolla compilations to four albums by this outfit known as Son Palenque. They have also recorded for Munster Records. They grew up separately in the timeless traditions of rural villages but found each other when they moved to the city. Their latest offering is an exciting mix, with vocals (sung and declaimed) and saxophone augmenting the speedy guitar and the writhing coils of percussion on the first four tracks. After that, they mostly get rootsy and show they can generate as much excitement with drums and shakers behind the vocals while the guitarist is off at the bar. The bassist steps up on track 6, "Jo no puedo más (I can't go on)."

RIO MIRA
MARIMBA DEL PACIFICO (AYA Records AYA 005 CD)

I put on this offering from the Colombia/Ecuadorian group and immediately thought I was listening to an unplugged version of Sidestepper's "Deja." The first cut "Adios Morena" shares the basic melody of Sidestepper's remix, but it's probably a universal Colombian folk tune. The Mira river flows between Colombia and Ecuador but people on both banks have a shared heritage, eat the same food, speak the same language and have much in common, including this lilting marimba music, that is so ingrained in the region that it has been protected since 2015 by UNESCO on their list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The group are eight youngsters who have taken up the instruments, along with the bombo, a bass drum, the cununo, a hand drum, and the guasa, a cylindrical shaker. They sing to patron saints and for mourning ceremonies. As we know the palenques of these coastal people were established by runaway African slaves who kept their own cultural traditions alive: they didn't respect national boundaries and had as little to do with the Spanish colonial authorities as possible. The wooden xylophones are of course indigenous to the Bantu peoples of West Africa and cyclical rhythms as well as call and response vocals can be heard in both West African and Pacific coastal music from Colombia down to Ecuador. The marimbas are made of wood in both diatonic and pentatonic scales, the hanging resonators are cane and the mallets are made from rubber, each component contributing to the unique qualities found in this music. It is a well-paced and beautifully realized album.

LISANDRO MEZA
SALSITA MAMI (Vampisoul VAMPI 177LP)

Another classic album from Discos Fuentes, reproduced in facsimile. Including the obligatory cover "bathing beauty" from the time when such girls were quite demure. Already a versatile bandleader at 21, multi-instrumentalist Lisandro Meza joined Los Corraleros de Majagual and, with an eye on Beny Moré's outfit, renamed them as his "Combo Gigante." They took up the boogaloo sound then prevalent in New York's salsa scene with raw sound and a party ambience in the studio. For their first album, issued in 1970, they performed eight covers, with cowbell & additionally a tambourine up front adding a weird loping cumbia beat to the rickety piano montuno. Timbales and brass also stride forth on a variety of tunes originally waxed by Benny Moré with Perez Prado, Celia Cruz with la Sonora Matancera, Willie Rosario and others. Short, sweet and very much to the point.

FRUKO
TESURA (Vampisoul VAMP173)

Vampisoul are making good on their promise to deliver the works of Fruko to us in their original form. Fruko (Julio Estrada Rincón) was the bass-player and leader of his own group who eventually became the biggest act on Discos Fuentes, the label that brought cumbia, merengue and porro to Colombian fans from 1934 on, and salsa, in its local form, when it peaked in the 60s and 70s. He discovered Joe Arroyo and Piper Pimienta Diaz. As a youngster he was tapped to play in Lisandro Meza's group and their tour to New York gave him exposure to the hot salsa scene there in 1968. Two years later he formed his own group and this incendiary album is their debut. I don't know if it was intended for dancing, but I sure couldn't keep up -- Fruko works out on his bass, with congas and timbales, piano and horns all feeding the fire. It's hard to believe it's their debut album, it is so assured in its delivery. The consensus is that the inherent swagger was copped from Willie Colón's posturing as a bad-ass in New York's salsa scene. In addition, the intense rhythms which drive the whole thing could be from the hard hands of maestro Ray Barretto. I am partial to Colombian salsa, mainly because of the Fruko and Latin Brothers albums I have heard, and since this is new to me it's a real treat.

FRUKO
A LA MEMORIA DEL MUERTO (Vampisoul VAMPI 174)

When Piper "Pimienta" Díaz died (murdered in front of his home in June 1998), a tribute album was issued by his label Discos Fuentes of Colombia that included a photo of him looking like a dolled-up corpse on the cover, so my cynical musical friends called it the "dead man" album. I am sure this put off potential buyers, but it rapidly became one of my favorite albums. Díaz had been the singer for two of Colombia's biggest bands: Fruko y sus Tesos and the Latin Brothers. Now the European label Vampisoul has reissued Piper's first album with Fruko from 1972. The style, known as salsa brava, has a hard sound with percussion to the fore and big blasts of brass from three trumpets and two trombones. There are many styles represented, including the traditional bomba and plena of Puerto Rico, guaguancó, oriza, and cha cha chá from Cuba, and the New York-bred Latin soul and descarga, all of which found a fertile home in Cali in the 1970s. Piper Pimienta (born Edulfamid Molina Díaz) brought an energy and intensity to the sound that matched Fruko's arrangements and the stark engineering by Fruko's uncle Mario Rincón. This was the group's second album and is mostly cover versions of guaranteed dance hits, some from the 50s, showing the continuity of Latin music in Colombia. This album is what propelled Díaz to fame alongside Joe Arroyo, another Colombia superstar who joined him in the Latin Brothers. For an hour of pure unbounded joy you won't find better than this.

COMBO LOS YOGAS
CANABRAVA (Vampisoul VAMPI 175)

After a blast of high fructose Fruko I was ready for more of the same and was not disappointed by this second reissue from Vampisoul. It's a 1968 set of descarga, where you throw it all down, with some guaguancó, charanga and even son to stir up the salsa sauce. There's prominent bass and keyboards with again, Discos Fuentes' passion for cowbell, congas and timbales high in the mix. The keyboard player, Aníbal Angel, was leader of this short-lived group from Medellín. This is another great find and the good news is Vampisoul is planning a whole series of reissues of crucial LPs from Discos Fuentes (the major, if not only, Colombian label) in replica covers on 180g vinyl. Look for Lisandro Meza, Peregoyo and others in the near future. The singer is the Barranquilla native Johnny Moré (who claimed relation to Beny) who makes himself audible over the four-to-the-floor combo. Aníbal, or "Anan," had studied in Manhattan and started a band called Los Teen-Agers before turning his focus to salsa of the New York Latin variety. They cover Larry Harlow's hit "Coco May May" (itself copped from an older Cuban number), as well as Orquesta Harlow's "Bajándote," on which they get loose, and show what a great performing act they must have been. In fact the whole album is comprised of well-chosen covers which create a kaleidoscopic image of the types of Latin music which originally influenced Johnny Pacheco, the founder of New York's Fania label. This is the fount of the sound that would take root in Colombia in the following decades and create a new branch of Latin groove: salsa Colombiana.

PALENQUE RECORDS AFROCOLOMBIA REMIX (Galletas Calientes Records GC010)

Perfect to get your juices flowing for your cardio workout; in fact you'd be hard pressed to listen to this sitting down. The Colombians have long cherished African music and it has become a mainstay of their sound systems, or picós. Like their Jamaican counterparts they are keen to get the rarest sides (blacking out the labels so rivals cannot find out what they have) and sample and loop and repeat the seben, stretching out the groove, overlaying it with drum patterns or other riffs for maximum dance floor impact. Much as I love my LPs I have moved into the CD then digital worlds, reluctantly. One bonus of the CD is the hour length so you are not constantly jumping up to turn over the album. This is only half an hour long, as it's an LP, which left me wanting more. Palenque has been a prime mover of the AfroColombia scene since the mid-1990s, having brought us Batata, Luis Towers, Mystic Orchestra and a bunch of other great stuff. Their motto is "We are the Real Motherfuckers of AfroColombian Music!" Champeta music grew out of the hybrid of African music with Colombian instruments such as marimba, and legendary Congolese musicians Diblo Dibala and Bopol Mansiamania have had residencies in Cartagena to add their licks to the tracks. To celebrate twenty years, Palenque invited "global bass" DJs from Europe and the Americas to remix tracks. It's very varied but also engaging. Soukous fans will love the lead-off track "Kumina" with Bopol and Son Palenque, remixed by the Dutchman Solo Moderna, with a lovely sax part. Son Palenque also provide the stunning "A Pila el Arroz" in the Ghetto Kumbé Afro Rework by a Colombian DJ. "Mini Kusuto" by Viviano Torres is the most trancelike track with echoey jungle sounds and even marimbas sounding spacey. There's a woman's voice whispering something that sounds to me like "Itsy bitsy spider" but I know that can't be right. A revelation I had listening to this is that there is a connection between pygmy flutes and Andean pan pipes, once the pan pipes looped on reverb come in, you hear that pygmy polyphony that is so mesmerizing. As Heraclitus said, "The hidden harmony is better than the obvious one."

ORO NEGRO
CUMBIA CURADO POR G-FLUX (cassette blog)

This is a growing trend, away from physical CDs to downloads, and now to free product. The question is, who has time to keep track of it all? because it's one thing to follow endless links to blogs with links to downloads and another to actually listen in real time to all the music that throws up. Electro cumbia has been a growing movement all century (with roots in the psychedelia of the late 1960s and the disco of the 70s) and we have seen bands from Colombia, Peru, Mexico, even the USA embracing the sound and creating a fascinating mix of accordion, pulsing bass and rackety guiro, with sonic collage from radio and overdubs from synthesizer, electronic drums and electric guitar. This is the 6th anniversary post of cassette blog, made by Gustavo Naranjo who wanted to find out where the music was headed in 2017. There's a lot to take in in these 17 tracks; previously I had only heard of one of these acts, El Hijo de La Cumbia, but all the bands on here are worth checking out. Akun Maia kicks it off with a blistering surf chicha with landing spaceships and radio voice on tannoy to give you the full cumbia-on-acid effect right at the outset. Mooglisound provide a run-down of smooth but primitive synthesizer settings: showroom dummies in ruffled shirts. The opposite effect, distorted and crude with shaky vocals permeates the next track "Lucero Espiritual" by the anonymously named El Conjunto. Gustavo calls the singing "phantasmal but sweet." I had not thought of the Kraftwerk connection before but I sense it again in the die-cut cardboard perfection of "I believe in cumbia" delivered by the pride of Tepoztlan, Asagi Seundo. It's not all great but the loping beat makes it at least consistent so there's a familiar lilt to the whole thing. "Cumbia satanica" by El Malo is one standout for me, and Hector Guerra's "Libre de Apegos (Free of addictions)" which has a reggaeton beat, another. It goes out with a "rich and cheesy" sound, according to the compiler, but overall it's good value for (0) money.

LOCOS POR JUANA
CARIBE (Rock Moon)

Locos por Juana are a Miami-based band of Colombian extraction. They feature a power trio with trombone at the heart of the group, but on stage and in the studio they recruit half a dozen guests for each track. The result is a tour de force, more exhausting than a tour de france, of Caribbean sounds in a mad mash-up. There's champeta, cumbia and hip hop from Colombia as well as a heavy dose of reggae, raggamuffin and dub from JahJahLand, plus the funk and rock quotient from the urban scene in Miami, or as I like to call it Miasmi. It's a bit too much to take at one sitting. The musicianship is top notch, and they excel at reggae, cumbia and champeta, but there are ten, count 'em, uh, twelve guest singers or toasters on 15 tracks, and it gets wearing. Individually there are some brilliant cuts (e.g. the title track) on here (as well as slackness like "Dance with me"), manageable in small doses. If you assume it's a radio show rather than a one-act concert you can probably handle the abrupt shifts from reggae to champeta ("Se te kite to") to Afrobeat ("La Policía," complete with a Fela chorus) and back to champeta ("Una foto"), thence to hippy hoppy stuff. The vibe is pure dance, so if you can ignore Collie Buddz reciting "yes we find a cure for the world tonight" or ChocquiBtown's similar exhortation, you will get on fine. As the man said, "Wave your hands in the air like you just don't care."

SYSTEMA SOLAR
(Nacional Records)

Systema Solar are one of the great electronic party bands from Colombia, sadly their new album is merely an abridged repackaging of their first two albums. They couldn't even come up with a title for it. It is good to be reminded of their hit, "Ya Veras," and their dubby ambient techno beat, equal parts house and cumbia, in trancy tracks like "Oyé," or tradi-modern ones like "Fayuguaya,"but it's definitely time for some new material from them. The new disc ends with one new track "Tumbalamurallas," but that's no reason to put your fist through a wall or drop 89 cents on amazon. If you don't have their discos, they have a great summery feel, with odd moments of darkness & gloom (like Bay Area summers in fact).

TRIBU BAHARU
PA'L MAS EXIGENTE BAILADOR (Tambora Records)

One of the greatest musical survivals or reinventions of recent decades is soukous which was the popular dance craze from the Congo in the late Mobutu era. It never died out but evolved through the passion of deejays in Colombia, and this latest album from Bogota-based Tribu Baharú features the loud and lively champeta sound with added attraction Diblo Dibala on lead guitar. He is only on one track, "Amor Champetetuo," but the spirit of soukous guitar permeates the whole thing: it's an invitation to dance from the get go. Baharú's own guitarist is Boricua, he has mastered the licks of the speedy soukous masters; as part of the update there are some deejay scratches and samples -- their MC is called Shaka, and he brings Raggamuffin style, not to mention 20 years of the "Boom Bam Alliance" to the sound. There's also the switch from French and Lingala to Spanish, with the odd shout-out in English, "Peace and Love to everyone! Right?" In the spirit of inclusiveness there's a one-drop reggae track also, "Nora." The title means something like "For the most urgent dancing," so hop to it.

SIDESTEPPER
SUPERNATURAL LOVE (RealWorld)

I was excited about this new Sidestepper album, but since it arrived I can hardly bring myself to play it. In some ways you want groups to evolve: sure they must sound like themselves, and they start off in a familiar vein, but the new direction Sidestepper has taken is away from their techno-cumbia sound and towards light bright pop which turns its back on their Afro-Colombian roots. They may find a different audience with this set, which is fluffy and has flutes where there used to be a relentless bottom-heavy beat, but it's not what I expected. In fact the PR for the disc sums it up as "Sparkling with Anglo-soul melodies and imbued with a childlike innocence." There are still good studio touches with delay effects and some layering, but the vocals are, to put it politely, wimpy and the backing is more "Kumbaya" than Cumbia. Richard Blair, the producer who has worked with Toto la Momposina, and now even sings on this album, wanted to use more hand percussion and rely less on studio effects. But, listening to it, I am seeking out the familiar synth-bass grooves while trying to screen out his lyrics which recall English folk groups of the 70s. "La Flor y la voz" is the stand-out for me, because it most sounds like the Sidestepper I know and love, with Erika Muñoz singing, chorus, hand percussion, bass synth and even a part two in dub. But then comes "Hear the rain come," and the closer "Celestial" which Blair sings lead on and I have to turn it off. So, to me, this is a half listenable and half unlistenable album. You may get better results, or just wait for the next one and see if they get their groove back.