MUSIC OF VENEZUELA


LOS DEMENTES
MANICOMIO A LOCHO (Vampisoul VAMPI269)

Covering many fronts, Vampisoul has been reissuing the works of bandleader and pianist Ray Pérez, one of the massive talents to come out of Venezuela. Los Dementes – The Crazies – found asylum at the Velvet label for their first recording. Like the great salsa bands of New York in the 60s the frontman is a trombonist. No personnel is listed but we hear guaguancos, a guajira and a mozambique in this hot selection of ten tracks. They made seven albums all together. Pérez went to New York and on his return created Los Calvos and Los Kenya and we have recently been gifted their fine albums on El Palmas Music (with El Grupo Casabe, reviewed last [& next!] month) and Olindo Records (with Los Kenya, reviewed in July). Seems like when it rains it pours because these labels are falling over one another in a rush to get Pérez's back-catalogue back in print – and with good reason. His band is tight and fiery and reminds me of Eddie Palmieri's La Perfecta which only made two albums (for Alegre in 1962 and 3) but had a huge impact, and the beefy trombone attack is familiar from Willie Colón. By 1976 Fania was issuing Los Dementes' music but the earlier seven albums on Velvet remained obscure (a copy of this one is listed at $150 on discogs). Singer Perucho Torcat has a good voice, though not in the league of Hector Lavoie, but I rate Pérez highly as a pianist and arranger. The title cut is a straight-ahead jam, you even hear a quote from "el Manisero" as the soloists find their metre. Other poppy riffs crop up here and there, such as the chords of "Guajira con Boogaloo," a straight-ahead 1-4-5 inviting you to jump in. In "Puerto Libre" we are blasting ahead when things stall abruptly and a lyrical trombone solo appears, quite magically. Throughout, terse but clever piano riffs grace the proceedings as quite often the keyboard leads everyone to a bridge and then a descarga. From this album you can see what the fuss is about: Pérez is a top notch bandleader and the whole group turns on a dime, delivering crisp solos with controlled yet explosive percussion challenging the vocalists for dominance.


RAY PEREZ Y EL GRUPO CASABE (El Palmas Music)

From nowhere we have witnessed the emergence of Venezuelan bandleader Ray Perez. El Palmas continues to uncover his catalogue with this September 2022 release of a compilation of his 1970s work as a leading salsero. This is stately, confidently assured Latin music of the highest order. Perez has arranged vocals and horn charts in counterpoint, with a montuno piano to hold it all together. We now know, from recent releases, he was the force behind Los Dementes and Los Kenya and then had a brief round with two albums from Los Calvos, a reimagining of the earlier bands. This anthology was assembled by El Dragón Criollo & DJ El Palmas who were behind a fine series of Venezuelan reissues called Color de Tropico, also on the El Palmas label. Perez is a bandleader and pianist in the Palmieri mode, and of course when he went to New York in the late 60s he would have heard Eddie Palmieri's La Perfecta at their height. It's amazing that has stayed unknown as there are so many classic tracks on here; one presumes they had no international distribution. If he had stayed in NYC he would have ended up as a prominent musical figure. Casabe was his last major band, active from 1974-5. The fact he led so many successful outfits is due to label-hopping: he had to change band names for contractual reasons, so El Casabe was created when he moved to CBS. He brought along the drum kit, which was an unusual combination with traditional percussion in salsa, but now he relented and added saxes alongside the trumpets and trombones of his previous bands. And the new vocalist is the brother of El Negro Calaven from Los Calvos, Rodrigo Perdomo. But the main attraction is still his driving piano and the way the group waits, sitting back on the percussion, to pounce before slinging a load of molten brass into the mix. The album starts in medias res with a full-on driving groove, bouncing the different parts of the band, massed horns against vocal chorus, piano against guiro and tumba. The arrangements are superb: and it's not just salsa (a mix of mambo, cha cha, rumba, guaguanco, etc) because there are elements of rock (notably in the bass lines), boogaloo and son, in fact everything from a smoldering danzón ("La Reina") to surf music! Some tracks, like "Maria Antonia" are dynamite, waiting while the piano sits back on a I-IV vamp and hums along until the whole thing erupts volcanically. And it doesn't let up, but breaks into "Galeron con Maype" which might as well be called "Hell for Leather" as it tears off in a gallop. "El Bonche se formo" is another slow burner which just keeps smoldering teasingly for 4 minutes. "Adiós Bogota" send us off steaming. This is a great band and a great sequence of their best tracks, sadly the remaster was done from thrashed discs and so the sound quality leaves much to be desired. Ah well, twas ever thus!


LOS CALVOS
ESTOS SON LOS CALVOS (El Palmas Music)

The opening track of this reissue is a boogaloo called "El Kenya," which was the name given to his subsequent band, by pianist and arranger Ray Perez. As I said in reviewing the second album by Los Calvos last month, Perez went to New York where he came under the spell of Fania's stars such as Eddie Palmieri. He returned to Venezuela where he formed Los Calvos, or the Baldies. We now have all three of his best albums coming out at the same time and more promised later this summer (so you don't have to spent $255 on discogs for a copy). This first album shows the weirdly constructed bald-wigged singer on the cover. There are a dozen two- to three-minute cuts on this album, all of them high energy salsa with the distinctive strong vocals of Carlos Yanez a.k.a. El Negrito Calaven (which i think means the little black baldie). The aim of the band was to allow space for soloists to stretch out and in addition to the regular guaguanco and pachanga of then-current salsa bands they even had a taste for surf rock, apparently, and the Twist. The drummer Frank "El Pavo" Hernandez said it was "like wearing a dinner suit with flip flops." The piano and vocals are the most notably improvising, the latter, Negrito scatting over Perez's montuno vamps. Los Calvos recorded two albums but did not perform live (relying on friends in the studio to cheer them on). However the next band, Los Kenya, was an attempt to create a pop group that could perform and they generated hits like "Bailemos Kenya (The Kenya twist)" with a view to performing. I assume there were contractual problems leading to all these convoluted arrangements. After a powerful propulsive set, they end with a ballad, "Te vieron con otro (They saw you with another)," which would do credit to Beny More. Everyone has a fine part: the piano, the swelling trumpets, even the bongocero makes a strong statement.


LOS KENYA
SIEMPRE AFRO LATINO (Olindo Records)

Los Kenya, like Wganda Kenya from neighboring Colombia, were inspired by African roots in their choice of name, but can be classed as a straightforward salsa band. "Soy el Negro Calaven," says the singer, introducing himself in the first song. Like their earlier manifestation, Los Calvos, it's top drawer stuff and the band must have torn up the dancefloor in its day, which was in 1968. The track "Record en TV" starts out like a boogaloo with a sustained vamp behind Carlin Rodriguez' vocals. I am trying to think of what it recalls: Hector Lavoe, I think. There's a piano break with bongos and the drummer Alfredo Naranjo playing an off-kilter shuffle, the the twin trumpeters return but it fades before it gets to a descarga where, one imagines, it would boil over. The trumpeters are Luis Arias and Luis Lewis (I wonder if they called him Louie Louie). It's an odd line-up with no sax or trombone, reminding me of African conjuntos of the same era, though in Africa they had many guitars instead of piano. But Venezuela is best known for harp music, or was until the excellent Color de Tropico series came out from El Palmas music. "Omelembe" has no writing credit; it was covered as "Chefo mae mae" by Kaba Mane who had a hit with it in Guinea-Bissau in 1986, but there was probably an earlier source. The last cut, "Descargan los timbales," begins with the two trumpets playing a trumpet voluntary straight out of the Baroque repertoire — quite a surprise — before they cut loose over some fiery percussion. At 5 minutes, it's the longest cut, but I would be glad to hear them stretch out for longer.

COLOR DE TROPICO VOL 3 (Elpalmasmusic.com)

We often hear about lost treasures uncovered by crate-diggers, but few of us get the chance to go digging for Venezuelan music of the 60s and 70s, so the notion of discovery is moot: it's all new to us outsiders. Here traditional Joropo music (a slow fandango-like dance) hits funk, rock and salsa head on. The digger in question is DJ El Palmas, based in Barcelona, abetted by El Dragón Criollo. So I imagine the Barcelona sound systems are as wild and active as those in say Mexico City, though I have not really experienced the nightlife in those cities, being more of a foodie and sightseer when I travel, though I always try to catch local live music. The tunes here are familiar. I have never heard Principe y su Sexteto before but his fabulous rootsy "San de Manique" is definitely a tune I know from a Cuban original. But before we get too comfy we are thrown a curve: The Pets' "El Entierro de un Hombre rico que Murio de Hambre (Burial of a rich man who died of hunger)," takes us straight to a carnivalesque Tommy James riff with a return of the Bach-like riffing we heard on the opener "Aquella Noche" by Un Dos Tres y Fuera. This time instead of a Bach fugue, the keyboard player lurches into "Dead March from Saul" before veering back to "Mony Mony," a decided Ray Manzarek or Rick Wakeman touch. Then psychedelic guitar knots up the outtro. "Shake it Baby" by Los Pájaros is bad boogaloo but we are too far into it to stop. "Toma Cinco," as the name implies, is a cover of Brubeck's "Take Five." Junior Squad give us a peppy cover of another forgettable pop ditty from the 60s, somewhere between Herman's Hermits and the Mamas & the Papas. It's hurting my brain to try to recall it. (Ah, it's The Turtles' "She'd Rather Be With Me.") We return to a more harmonious Latin groove for Johnny Sedes' lively "Guararé," a tune made famous by Los Van Van. And we go out with another unmemorable original (by Charles Aznavour) covered with extra twangy guitars and echo on vocals: "Tus 16 años" by Geminis 5. It's a weird set but might be fun at a party. For different reasons the tracks by The Pets and Principe are real gems and were worth finding.

LOS CALVOS
...Y QUE CALVOS! (Elpalmasmusic)

Venezuela at the end of the 1960s was a hot-house of salsa and one of the top bands was Los Calvos (the Baldies), led by pianist Ray Perez. He waxed 7 LPs with Los Dementes (the Crazies) in 1967-8, then moved to New York, where he gigged with Kako's band briefly. On his return to Venezuela he formed Los Kenya, with two trumpets and a drummer, along with congas and bongos, which was unusual to say the least in the time of big bands. It was here he met vocalist "Calaven" who was to feature in his later group. Los Calvos were born out of Los Kenya, and each formation had a distinct sound. Over a powerhouse base of Afro-Caribbean rhythms laid down by drummer Frank "El Pavo" Hernández comes the gritty voice of Carlos Yanez "El Negrito Calaven." There's a big band power to the wind section to blow more steaming vapors over the dancers. The drums are an unusual touch, since most salsa bands featured congas and timbales and the pounding trap drums really create a powerful statement of rhythmic determination. These tracks are all in fact quite intense, and the vocalists get into the improvisation by scatting along when things heat up. "El moño de María (Maria's monkey)" was the hit off this, their second and sadly, final album. Lead singer "Calaven" also featured on a single from their first album, "Mi salsa llegó" from 1967, and El Palmas Music has reissued that single also, as a nice bonus item. Los Kenya are better known but not necessarily better; the rhythmic intensity of Los Calvos matches any salsa band of the era, from Eddie Palmieri to Ricardo Ray. From Perez's chops on the keyboards and arrangements I would say he is a close disciple of Eddie Palmieri and it's great to hear, for the first time, an absolute classic of salsa venezolano.

BETSAYDA MACHADO & PARRANDA EL CLAVO
LOE LOA (Sabroso)

Despite being restricted to rural villages in the bush in Venezuela, the Afro sound of Parranda has become known outside the jungle. Detour records celebrated the Parranda sounds of Garifuna music from Belize, Honduras and Guatemala, in 1993. From those sessions Aurelio Martinez emerged to some celebrity. Now we get to some seriously rootical sounds from this Afro-Venezuelan party. Subtitled (in tiny type) "Rural recordings under the mango tree," the album was produced by DJ Afro of Los Amigos Invisibles with Latin grammy winner Dario Penaloza. For this album they dispensed with other instruments (such as guitars) and concentrated on drumming and vocals. The musicians are descended from runaway slaves who set up communities called cumbes, in the bush, out of sight, and there they survived for generations, preserving their African traditions. The songs (in Spanish) are lovely, with strong lead vocals, chorus and shouts and powerful percussion, mainly hand drums with shakers. The group played weddings and funerals as well as other village social events at home for 30 years with no interest in recording or touring, they were simply keeping their music alive. But a video of them prompted an invitation to tour North America and that trip included Lincoln Center in New York. There are a "mere 8 players" of drums here, says Machado, compared to 100 or so that might show up to play for a Christmas celebration at home. "We are lucky to have the lano trees," she adds, "that make the best drums in our town." Now I have to trace whether "Louie Louie" comes from this tradition of the Loé Loá.


MR PAUER
SOUNDTRACK

A Venezuelan living and working as a DJ in Miami, Mr Pauer has absorbed influences from all over the New World to create a poppish electronica with a Latin tinge. As I remarked last month there seems to be a Kraftwerk revival going on among young DJs. While those creepily respectable Germans were influential in their day it seems unnecessary to revive their particular sound, though it does liven the drum 'n' bass monotony of a lot of contemporary DJ efforts. Mr Pauer seems much poppier than the folks he hangs with, like King Chango or Los Amigos Invisibles. The 7 3-minute ditties on this disc seem incomplete, like raw material waiting for a remix. "Que si que non" stands out, and comes closest to reminding me of Sidestepper, but it does seem like just the foundation for an as-yet unwritten song. When Kraftwerk sang, "We are showroom dummies," they were suggesting, ironically, that robots could be programmed to compose music. What they didn't realize was that soul-less machine made music put together from scraps and samples would come to be accepted as normal in the 21st century.


JULITO FERNANDEZ
PA'L BAILADOR (Salsaneo Records CD0824)

I have been lamenting that there's no good new Latin music coming out, or I seem to be missing it. Then I discovered this tasty gem from 2009 which IJ had borrowed and in a pang of guilt decided to return. It's classic salsa with big horn choruses (and it's not until halfway through that reggaeton beats intrude -- and only for a second.) Julito is the bassist on this set recorded in Caracas, Venezuela. Singers are Druber Salazar (who leads his own Yambo Band) and Glen Vasquez. In addition there are three other guest vocalists, a rapper, and three guys on backing vocals or coro. The showcase style of rotating singers works well. I don't recognise any names on here, which doesn't say much, as I am not up on the Caracas music scene, but one of the pianists is Julito's brother Fidel Antillano. Other band members have nicknames you only earn with years of expertise, like "Patatin," "Kiko," & "Caballo" on timbales (one at a time, most likely). However "Albondiga" on coro is doubtless more a dietary critique. Julito cites as his influences Soledad Bravo and Los Adolescentes; he has also accompanied many artists, including Tito Rojas, Cheo Feliciano, Oscar D'Leon, & El Canario. Many of the songs were written by Angel Flores, but the title cut by Julito himself really tears it up. Mandolin and cuatro appear on one track, "Cristal," but otherwise the outstanding solos are from trombonist David Gonzalez, Jr, saxophonist Oswaldo Lezema, and Jesus "Menudo" Moreno who plays piano on the title cut (which is played twice).