Rhythm roundup (July/August 2006)

New albums from the Caribbean


Long Live Calypso

Lord Superior (Kaisoul)

Michael Horne, co-director and -producer of the well received documentary Calypso Dreams, passed me a copy of Long Live Calypso by Lord Superior this past Carnival season. “Don’t review it unless you like it,” he said, with a nervous laugh. I suppose it’s natural to feel a certain anxiety about one’s creative works, but Long Live Calypso — which Horne co-produced with Lord Superior (Andrew Marcano) himself — is one of the most immediately likeable albums I’ve listened to in a long time.

Calypso fans will know Superior, who’s a veteran of the calypso scene in the Caribbean and beyond, as the singer and composer of classics like “San Fernando Carnival” and also for his legendary battle with the Trinidad and Tobago government over a broadcast license (which he finally won). He’s the consummate troubadour, with a pleasingly smooth tenor voice and a way with the acoustic guitar. Long Live Calypso comprises eleven Superior compositions, all of which fall into the aphoristic vein, gentle admonitions with a light sprinkling of smut mixed with homespun philosophy — Catholic priests, Superior sings, should abandon celibacy, and more women should assume positions of leadership, and he has some fun as well at the expense of Hollywood stars (“One Doris Day James Stewart went for a stroll . . .”).

The success of this release has a great deal to do with the confidence the producers have in the material, their refusal to tamper with a classic calypso sound which, in this instance, succeeds in sounding refreshingly contemporary. Superior’s fine voice and spry acoustic guitar stylings are complemented by a sharp backup band. My only grouse is the absence of detailed liner notes: I’d love to know what years these lovely songs were composed, and a bit about the context in which they were written would benefit new listeners — as would some biographical information on Lord Superior.

Georgia Popplewell

Kaiso Blue

Jeremy Ledbetter and CaneFire (Canefire)

“Calypso and the blues are alike in the way that they can tell any story, express any emotion, simply and honestly,” writes Canadian keyboardist and steel pannist Jeremy Ledbetter in the liner notes for Kaiso, his latest calypso-jazz outing with the band CaneFire. Kaiso Blue attempts to marry the two forms, without ignoring the gamut of sounds and vibes from the rest of the Caribbean region. “Iyanu”, for instance, features some choice batá drum rhythms from Cuba, and Ledbetter is in full-blown Latin jazz mode on the quite gorgeous “The Pepper Drinker”. “From the Ashes” is a languid and lovely conversation between steel pan and piano. Pan jazz virtuoso Andy Narell makes a guest appearance on “St James”.

GP

Love Generation

Maximus Dan (Bushfire Records)

One of my strongest memories of the celebrations following the Trinidad and Tobago football team’s qualification for the 2006 World Cup on November 16, 2005, is of a group of young men and women in office wear huddled around a microphone singing the chorus of “Fighter”, Maximus Dan’s rousing anthem in praise of the Soca Warriors. Few would argue that there’s a better song among the dozen or so tributes composed by Trinidad and Tobago artists, and video game creators Electronic Arts concurred when they chose to include it on the soundtrack to the “FIFA World Cup 2006” game (at the time of writing, however, it’s yet to be recognised as the team’s official song).

“Fighter” is one of seventeen tracks on the handsomely packaged double CD Love Generation, one of the most adventurous and fresh-sounding outings by a Trinidad and Tobago soca artist in recent times. Love Generation dares to open, for instance, with “Good Times”, which starts ostensibly as soca but evolves quickly into a Dixieland and doo-wop number with Maximus’s preacherly charisma very much in evidence. The genre-bending doesn’t end there. Ragga soca is by definition a hybrid, but Maximus pushes the envelope with extra helpings of creolised hip-hop and go-go stylings on messages of love and unity infused with Rastafarian consciousness.

Love Generation also showcases the nuances of Maximus’s unique and powerful vocal skills (“nuance” not being a word often used in relation to ragga soca vocalising): when he takes things down a notch, he shows that his is a voice of genuine quality. Standout tracks include “Victory”, which steals part of its melody from Bizet’s “Farandole” (though the liner notes credit smooth jazz artist Bob James’s non-public domain version of the song), “Love Generation”, and “Real Commander”.

GP

The Caribbean; Reggae Playground; and Caribbean Playground

Various artists (Putumayo)

Putumayo’s latest Caribbean compilation is a catholic attempt at representing the musical diversity of a region known for its callaloo-rich mix of cultures. Covering all the linguistic sub-regions, it captures the dynamic creolising process at work through intra-territorial influences. There’s the straight-ahead road march soca of Miiltant’s “Hot and Groovy” and Jab Jab’s “Rev It Up”, which has all the ingredients of a Caribbean Carnival anthem, with the added bonus of some sweet soukous-style guitar (another example of the continuous cycle of African music returning to the Caribbean via Congolese rumba). There are a couple of classics: Stanley Beckford’s romping “Sam Fi Man” (which gives Jamaican mento deserved exposure, and clearly identifies the roots of reggae with its offbeat guitar and marimbula bass) is complemented by Ska Cubano’s 21st-century fusion of ska and Afro-Cuban invocation of the Orishas.

In traditional mode are tracks from Martinique’s Kali (with a swinging banjo-led biguine number dripping with nostalgia) and the slow-paced chouval bwa of compatriot Marce Toumpak. Another Kweyol singer, Haitian Mika, adds his zouk-love-influenced compas and caressing voice to the mix.

The most exciting tracks voice multiple styles: Cuban Waldo Mendoza’s “Pasa una Tiempo Viejo”, delivered with all the intensity of Dominican bachata over a Bajan soca-style arrangement, and Aruban Claudius Phillips’s “Nami Chens Pa Mi Biba”, with its Papiamento lyrics and Pan-Caribbean and Latin flavours. Although the vibrant roots fusion of Afro-Colombian champeta is missing, this compilation will have you jumping up “til de mawnin”.

• Putumayo have also now extended their portfolio to kids, with their excellent “Playground” series. I suspect there are many big kids out there who will end up dancing with their own smaller versions to these soundtracks. Reggae Playground is testament to the trans-national branches of one of the Caribbean’s best-known genres. Some of the best cuts on this album come from as far afield as Java (the heavily Wailers-influenced “Pat Gulipat” by Tony Q Rastafara), Reunion in the Indian Ocean (Jessica’s “Ying Yang”, an infectious indigenous sega and reggae fusion, with Creole lyrics), Morocco, and Hawaii.

Closer to reggae’s Caribbean roots are Miami-based Cubano Johnny Dread’s “Rootsman Dread”, Brazilian Kal dos Santos’s breathy bossa-tinged “As Meninas dos Meus Olhos”, and Trinidadian Asheba’s lilting “Reggae Lullaby”. Older kids, raised on classic roots reggae, will appreciate the dominant mode, which is given full skanking recognition with such gems as Toots Hibbert’s “Country Roads”, Rita Marley’s “Harambe”, and Judy Mowatt’s “Let’s Dance”.

• The companion album Caribbean Playground gets sailing with legendary American blues guitarist Taj Mahal (purists: Taj has Kittitian roots) and his “Great Big Boat”, which takes us all on a voyage down the coast of Mexico, through the Panama Canal, and “into the Caribbean”. Taj’s growling, histrionic delivery will go down well with anyone who has a funny bone in their body. Humour bubbles up again with French TV star Karl Zero’s delightful “Coconut Woman”, which, besides celebrating this iconic fruit and giving a lesson in nutrition (“coconut have a lotta iron, make you strong like a lion”), features the Wailers as backing band to Zero’s French-inflected lyrics. Kids will love singing along with Haitian Marlene Dorcena and her story of the man who lost his Panama hat; meeting Spiderman Anancy, courtesy Trinidadian Asheba; dancing reggae or zouk; and practising their Creole, Spanish, and French before departing with Atlantik’s “All Aboard”.

Simon Lee

Mulatos Remix

Omar Sosa (Ota Records)

In the time of remix — the studio-based techno-take on drum, rhythm, and bass which is required listening on the global clubbing circuit — it takes something or someone special to create a unique sound from the techno blur, the repetitive and frequently insipid beats which mostly seem to be trance rituals for automatons.

Enter Omar Sosa, Afro-Cuban jazz pianist and santero, whose mastery of both the Afro-rythmic base of his island’s music and cutting-edge jazz has been selling out concert halls and jazz festivals around the world this past couple of years. His Mulatos album, which featured Tunisian laud virtuoso Dhafer Youssef and compatriot Paquito D’Rivera on sax, was nominated for a Latin Jazz Grammy last year, and now Ota Records has released the most organic-sounding remix I’ve had the pleasure of hearing.

With the help of Paris-based drummer-producer Doctor L, DJ Spinna from Brooklyn, drum and bass pioneer Marque Gilmore, and several other digital wizards, Sosa shows off his supreme ability in any genre. This is ultra-modern music — dance jazz, if you want to label it — but with live roots grounding the electronics and, most importantly, music to dance to.

SL

Reggaeton Night Various artists (Lusafrica)
Tocame Cubanito 20.02 (Lusafrica)
Papi No Te Quiero Las Primeras (Lusafrica)

If you’re wondering what the reggaeton phenomenon is all about, you could start with this compilation, although it’s worth pointing out this is the Cuban rather than the dominant New York-based Puerto Rican version. Still largely an underground subculture, which is nonetheless simultaneously today’s best-selling Latino dance music, reggaeton is both the new sound of the Latino diaspora and another quintessentially Creole form, fusing dancehall and island rhythms with hip-hop and drum-’n-bass sensibility.

Although a couple of tracks (notably a soulless take on “Hotel California”) are just not up to the superlative standards we’ve come to expect from Cuban music, the album is worth getting just for the introduction to Cubanito 20.02 and the princesses of bubblegum reggaeton, Las Primeras.

• Like the Cuban hip-hop trio the Orishas, Cubanito 20.02 has a quality all too often lacking in the soundtracks of mass culture: real musical ability. So while the thudding format of stateside reggaeton is sometimes discernible, this latest Havana trio of Haniel Gonzalez Martinez, Javier Duran Webb, and José Angel Sastre Perez (Flipper, White, and El Doctor to those on the postmod dancefloor) craft much more into the mix.

Non-Caribbean ears will hear the rap, while regional listeners will pick up dancehall along with home-brewed rumba and son, the sinuous soukous-influenced guitar of Dominican bachata, and even the odd burst of brassy soca. Could this be reggaeton for discriminating listeners? If that sounds off-key, don’t worry, just think of it as hot dance music.

• Sheila Cruz, Yumi M, and Emi B — Las Primeras — have named themselves with all the modesty that goes with youth, looks, and attitude. But then “the Firsts” are also reggaeton chart-toppers who have made the all-important transition to MTV. This may be lightweight pop, but unlike the Spice Girls these Cubanas can sing, and the arrangements diverge pleasantly from the heavier reggaeton norm. There are strings and merengue-style accordion over the slower loping rhythm. This is eminently danceable Romance reggaeton, or even Lovers’ reggaeton, and besides the chartbusting title track “Papi No Te Quiero” there are a few other potential hits: “Bailando en la Disco”, “Una Noche Mas” and “Fiebre De Amor”, any of which might leave you feeling a little hot.

SL