Upbeat (May/June 2001)

New music from the Caribbean

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CALYPSO/SOCA

Hot Caribbean Hits

Various Artists (Victory World, VR 129)

This first release from world music label Victory World is a collaboration with the Trinidadian label Rituals, and the artists featured are largely out of Rituals’s extensive stable. Rituals’s compilation-producing experience is on full display here: the album features some of the really stellar Trinidad Carnival hits of the past few years, including Anslem Douglas’s now legendary Who Let The Dogs Out, General Grant’s Sticks and Stones, SuperBlue’s Pump Up, 3 Canal’s Blue and Las’ Carnival, with Sharlene’s popular cover of Joe Le Taxi and a few lesser (or perhaps lesser-known) tracks like Shaft’s Carnival Redemption and Roy Cape All Stars’s Goodwood thrown in for good measure. Young singer Vybe also contributes a talismanic version of one of the biggest soca hits of all time, Arrow’s Hot Hot Hot.

We Inside

Soulful Harmony (JJ Music Production, JJCD002)

Using rhythms and hooks on loan from the likes of Xtatik, KMC, Bunji Garlin, H2O Phlo and a range of reggae and hip-hop performers (all borrowers themselves), four-member Soulful Harmony have put together a grab-bag of a debut CD. There’s a bit of everything here, a stylistic waywardness typical of young artists feeling out new turf and eager to cram their life’s work onto a single album. Stand-out cuts include Soca Vibe¸ an adaptation of hip-hop group Blackstreet’s No Diggidy, and H2O Phlo-style ballad Just Peace. Interestingly, and contrary to their name, the guys don’t do a whole lot of harmonising.

Caribbean Voyage: Trinidad (Carnival Roots)

(Rounder, 1161-1725-2)

The backdrop for these field record-

ings by American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax is Trinidad in the year of its independence, 1962. A collection of musical vignettes — ranging from kalendas to castillans, maypole songs and Hosay drumming, and on-the-spot interviews conducted by Lomax and Trinidadian historian J. D. Elder — the collection also incorporates a speech by a Midnight Robber. While it may be even more engrossing to ethnomusicologists and others interested in the origins of Trinidadian music, this recording will open the ears of any who listen to the staggering diversity of cultural elements, languages and rhythms that have gone into creating the modern music of Trinidad and Tobago. The voices and insights of the interviewees — old stickmen, mas’ men and women, musicians, drummers and singers — are a delight to listen to as well.

The Awesome 4

Relator, Conqueror, Valentino, Nap Hepburn

Featuring three first-rate songs by Relator (including the original recordings of Trini Woman and Gavaskar, with its awesome rhymes on the names of various Indian cricketers), and Valentino’s rare original issue of the immortal Life Is a Stage, this hard-to-find, home-issued collection of vintage calypso from four of the best kaisonians in Trinidad is well worth looking for. Fans of the classic calypso style will be enchanted by these tuneful, brilliantly written songs, which provide a welcome balance to the repetitive musical hooks and unimaginative lyrics of the latest jump-up Carnival hits. There’s only one problem: no label information on the CD! No record company, no issue number, no date. Possibly the only way to acquire this marvelous CD is to catch Relator after a gig and buy a copy directly from him. Or inquire at your favorite Caribbean record store (Rhyner’s, Crosby’s, JW, Straker’s) and hope for the best. (Michael Goodwin)

WORLD/RAPSO

Dreadlocks

Mungal (Virgin France, 72438 505612 3)

Once Trinidadian sitarist Mungal Patasar crossed the Atlantic, it was inevitable he’d land in the acid jazz/drum ‘n’ bass/trance/ambient camp where many non-Western instrumentalists end up carving out a niche. On this release for Virgin France, Mungal (which for the purposes of this album, means not simply Patasar but also his son Prashant, an ace on the small drums known as tablas — listen for their 50-second “conversation” on Vani) provides fair cross-cultural fodder for the continent’s ravers. Of the album’s 13 tracks, the best are by Patasar himself, the standout being Awake, a swinging acid jazz/jungle number produced by Nitin Sawhney. Dreadlocks, initially released as a single, has a quaint reggae beat, thankfully given greater dimension by Sly and Robbie on their remix, which adds a more pronounced bassline and foregrounds the steelpans a bit more. Another worthy cut is One Day, with Martiniquan Chris Combette on guitar and rapso trio 3 Canal on vocals. Here, the sitar and tablas are well integrated, and 3 Canal’s Hindi scatting gives the piece a nice Indo-Caribbean vibe. On the shockingly flat Fallin’ 4 Another, featuring former Soul II Soul vocalist Caron Wheeler, the Indian instruments seem incidental — in some ways it’s the album’s greatest disappointment, especially to those familiar with Wheeler’s exceptional 1990 album, UK Blak.

Atavival

Ataklan (Taj Records, TAJ0002CD)

Ataklan’s 1999 release Atamorphosis is a hard act to follow. Atavival doesn’t come within spitting distance of its predecessor, a sprawling 20-track opus filled with surprising, exploratory rhythms, and laced with wit and a quirkiness reminiscent of calypsonian Shadow and Brazilian singer Tom Zé. Ataklan’s fierce independence and rapso-hipster sensibility are still intact, however, and Atavival is in some ways a much tighter wound album, perhaps too much so. The strong lyric-making for which Ataklan has become known is often not backed up musically. Of the 11 tracks, opening number I Am Me, on which the young artist asserts his right to dig his own furrow, uses an old-time kaiso melody and works fairly well. So do the two versions of techno-soca love song Guava Season, the somewhat out-of-character Latin number Rhumba, rock-and-roll ghetto girl-validation Pamela, and Bim Bim, a collaboration with André Tanker. But Red House begins with incredible promise and some potent guitar-work by Orange Sky front man Nigel Rojas, then falls short, as do Plastic Bag, Election and Time Tuh Run. For me, Ataklan’s impish croon comes together most successfully with the music on Blessed Sheep, a tribute to Ras Shorty I.

Vwayaz

Michaël Benjamin (MYC Productions)

This début release by singer/guitarist Michaël Benjamin, son of Haitian musician Lionel Benjamin, is a mix of contemporary popular sounds, including reggae/lovers’ rock, zouk, and R&B, sung in both Créole and English. The arrangements aren’t the most sophisticated, the lyrics (especially on the English-language numbers) are a little over-earnest, and Benjamin’s voice has some way to go. This is very much a young man’s album, which nevertheless contains some quite pleasant material, like Nwèl Tristès and Nwèl 2000.

REGGAE

Jack Ruby Presents The Black Foundation

(Heartbeat, 11661-7622-2)

The Black Foundation in Dub

(Heartbeat, 11661-7623-2)

These two CDs form an interesting pair. The second is the instrumental dub companion to the first, an outstanding collection of Jack Ruby-produced roots reggae tracks by the likes of Burning Spear and Justin Hinds and the Dominoes, pulled from the vaults of the Fox and Wolf labels. A sound-system pioneer known for his partiality to strong lyrics, Ruby was instrumental in developing the brand of roots reggae that displaced sweet, soulful rocksteady and became the soundtrack of Jamaica’s militant ’70s. The selections on this album are rhythmic, pared-down vehicles for the now-familiar themes of black power, Rastafarianism and political engagement — themes to which practitioners of the post-dancehall era have now returned.

JAZZ/PAN JAZZ

Make it Real

Eddie Bullen (12542)

The Caribbean vibe on this offering by Grenada-born (now Canada-based) keyboardist Eddie Bullen doesn’t emerge until midway through the album. Tracks 1-6 are more in the jazz-funk or jazz fusion genre as represented by groups like Pieces of Dream, with mid-tempo selections like (416) — homage, no doubt, to Toronto’s area code — and slow-sexy numbers like the title track. But on Pan-A-Rama Night, Branches, Grandance, and Bazody, Bullen lets his Caribbean roots show. Pan-A-Rama Night captures the heady excitement of the Trinidadian steelpan competition, in spite of a slightly Latinised arrangement and the fact that no pan is listed among the featured instruments (though there’s the hint of a synth pan in the background). Branches is of course the Lord Kitchener composition most popularly rendered in pan jazz by Raf Robertson. The release features Barbadian Nicholas Brancker on bass guitar on (416) and Street Fest.

LATIN

Se Tem Que Ser Será

Toque de Prima (Velas, VLS 1009-2)

Using the traditional battery of samba instruments and approaches, this co-operative of samba school and studio musicians aims to preserve the authenticity of this most potent symbol of Brazilian culture. The result is a lively ensemble sound incorporating traditional instruments like agogô, cuica and cavaquinho, as well as guitar, accordion, syncopated hand-clapping and, of course, against-the-grain vocal phrasing. Guest appearances by renowned sambista Zeca Pagodinho and popular singer/songwriters Joyce and Ivan Lins.

Escándalo

Armando Garzón (Corason, 666 111 147-2)

On his third release, sweet-voiced countertenor and renowned balladeer Armando Garzón travels through his native Cuba and beyond in search of a wider Latin American romantic repertoire. With 14 lovely numbers by composers ranging from Puerto Rican Rafael Hernández to Mexican bolero specialists Rubén Fuentes and Alvaro Carillo, backed by a string-based musical ensemble that fuses both the Cuban tres (triple-stringed guitar) and the Mexican requinto guitar styles. This is romantic music, languorous and melancholy, the way only Latins know how to make it.

João voz e violão

João Gilberto (Verve, 314 546 713-2)

João Gilberto’s murmuring, conversational baritone and his intimate, bare-bones approach to the acoustic guitar are two of the defining elements of bossa nova, the style that revolutionised the raucous, percussion-driven Brazilian musical scene in the late 1950s. On this Caetano Veloso-produced release, Gilberto’s first in almost a decade, the Brazilian master interprets 10 pieces by compatriots Veloso, Tom Jobim, Gilberto Gil, Cuban maestro Ernesto Lecuona and others, including his trademark numbers Desafinado or Off-key, (released in 1958 as an ironic reply to critics who claimed bossa nova was “music for off-key singers”) and Chega de Saudade. Forty-plus years later, Gilberto’s sound is surprisingly fresh (at times, notably on Jobim’s Você Vai Ver, his voice approximates the sweetness and phrasing of Veloso’s), perhaps proving that bossa nova’s staple themes of wistful yearning and lost love never die. This album has one great flaw, however: with only 30:15 minutes worth of music, it leaves fans salivating for more.

Reviews by Georgia Popplewell unless otherwise indicated