Rhythm roundup (September/October 2006)

New albums celebrate Jamaican mento and the Dominican Republic’s bachata and merengue, plus the latest from Honest Jon and Mystic Revelation


Dip and Fall Back: Dr Kinsey to Haile Selassie: Classic Jamaican Mento

Various artists (Trojan)

The British label Trojan, long known to reggae cognoscenti, has been putting out a steady stream of classic reggae re-releases this past couple of years. Apart from an astute marketing ploy at a time when downloading seriously threatens CD sales, Trojan has documented a seminal period of Jamaican, Caribbean, diasporic, and world music.

Now, to add to its archival material on ska and early reggae, Trojan have rescued Jamaica’s indigenous mento music for international audiences. If you haven’t stumbled across it yet (it’s regular entertainment at most of the north coast resorts and tourist venues), you’ll recognise mento as the prototype of both ska and rocksteady. Before the R&B craze swept the island in the late 1950s and early 60s, before reggae was a dense smokescreen rising above Trenchtown, there was mento. Today it’s virtually unknown outside the island, but this double CD set is a delightful introduction to yet another rich vein of Caribbean popular music.

Its precise origins, like those of most Creole forms, are obscure, although there’s the viable theory that mento was adapted from Afro-Cuban rumba. The use of the “rumba box” (an oversized marimba which the player sits on) as the bass would support this, as it’s the same instrument known in Cuba as the marimbula. Other mento instruments include the banjo, guitar, bamboo sax, and flute, with hand drums carrying some of the same African rhythms that characterise ska and early reggae.

While Jamaicans will recognise the debt mento owes to their folk music, Trinis will immediately recognise the calypso influence (mento has even been misnamed calypso). The opening track, “Dr Kinsey”, is sung to the melody of Invader’s “Rum and Coca-Cola”, while the melody of “Matilda” (“She take me money and run Venezuela”) features on three other tracks, including the infectious “Dip and Fall Back” by the extraordinarily named Mapletoft Poule Orchestra. There’s even a couple of songs by the transplanted Trini calypsonian Lord Laro, who had a big hit with his “Mento Rockers” in the 1970s and is still a regular fixture on the north coast circuit.

These 34 cuts will amuse and delight in equal degrees. Risqué humour is a staple, from “Dr Kinsey” (“It seems Dr Kinsey write a big report / All about my favourite indoor sport”) to Chin’s Calypso Quintet’s “Night Food” (“This food don’t need no knife and fork / The food is right here in the bed / Come here mek me scratch yuh head”). Stand-out tracks include Count Owen’s “Hooliganism”, with its snaky electric guitar, and Lord Tickler’s version of “Limbo”, with its distinctive wooden percussion.

Simon Lee


London Is the Place for Me, Vol. 4

Various artists (Honest Jon’s Records)

This is the fourth volume of Honest Jon’s series on the black music of London during the seminal post-war period, when the Mother Country’s cultural landscape was changed forever by the arrival of immigrants from all over the old Empire, and — for our purposes — especially from the Caribbean and West Africa.

The album gets under way with Ginger Folorunso Johnson’s cheekily titled “Egyptian Bint Al Cha Cha”. Son of a Muslim priest from Nigeria, Ginger learned basic drum techniques in Lagos before relocating to London in 1943. Here he swiftly established himself as a Latin American percussionist (hence the “Cha Cha”), played with Trini-born bandleader Edmundo Ros, and later formed his own Afro-Cuban Band.

Among the Caribbean contributions are four tracks from the Grandmaster of Calypso, the incomparable Lord Kitchener, whose eponymous composition, sung as he disembarked from the SS Windrush in 1948, gave the series its title. Kitch is in sterling form, right up to the musical minute with his humorous and seamless fusion on “Rock N Roll Calypso”. He also dips back in time with a couple of stickfighting and steelband-clash tracks, and Trini roots get more exposure with Young Tiger’s “African Dream”, based on a Shango chant.

Dorothy Masuka, born in the former Rhodesia, brings a welcome female voice to the series, while the combined efforts of African and Caribbean musicians on the African Messengers “Piccadilly Highlife” is a blast of cultural co-operation. Nuff respect to Honest Jon’s for another classic.

SL


Rough Guide to Merengue

Various artists (World Music)

Rough Guide to Bachata

Various artists (World Music)

Creole music is an excellent working model of the transition, or co-option, of low (and generally black or African) culture into high art. Cuba’s son, Trinidad’s calypso, and Curaçao’s tambu were all initially stigmatised and even banned on occasion, along with the African drum. The Dominican Republic’s bachata (which can be translated as “trash”) has only really emerged from its rural obscurity since the 1980s. Prior to this, it was confined to the bordellos, the bateys, or rural gatherings like cockfights.

If you’ve ever wandered down by the port of any Caribbean territory, it’s likely you’ll have heard the choking, highly emotive vocals delivered with nasal intensity, riding over Afro rhythms and the picked staccato or tumbling soukous-influenced guitar lines of this truly romantic musica del amargue (“music of bitterness”), sometimes referred to as the Dominican blues, which voices both the pangs of poetic love and social commentary. The latest Rough Guide CD provides a bittersweet introduction to the genre which rivals the popularity of the national merengue in the DR. There are classic tracks from Anthony Santos (“Por Mi Timidez” recounts the tale of a tongue-tied lover who loses his girl because his bashfulness holds him back from whispering the necessary palabritas, or sweet nothings); Teodoro Reyes’s fast-paced “Dos Mujeres”, with the characteristic nasal vocal style, and the tear-jerking “Amor di Mi Vida” by Raulin Rodriguez, a.k.a. “el cacique del amargue”.

Yoan Soriano, born in a rural batey, the old plantation barracks, uses the palo rhythms introduced by Haitian cane cutters in his outstanding “Ya Encontre La Mujer”, and there is the rarity of a female voice on Monchy and Alexandra’s “Perdidos”. If you’re blue, or fancy a sensuous sway with your significant other or a sleepy child, try bachata.

Merengue, which also emerged from obscurity (via the Cuban upa habanera dance), is all action in contrast to the reflection of bachata. Elevated to the status of the DR’s national music by the notorious dictator Trujillo, merengue has long since shaken off its political associations to become one of the sexiest dances, favoured over salsa, as it’s simpler to master the basic two-step — although Dominican experts take hip swivelling to anatomically defying regions.

The Rough Guide CD shows how popular merengue has become throughout the Hispanic Caribbean and its diaspora, and also how, like all Creole music, it’s merged with other regional and even transnational styles. Chichi Peralta’s “La Ciguapa” (based on the legend of the wild woman of the mountains) mixes reggaeton rap in with the merengue along with soca arrangements and brass. Milly Quezada gives us a husky version of mainstream style over fast-paced punchy horns on “Caro”, and there are other traditional examples from Cana Brava and Los Toros, and the leading merengue vocalist Hector Acosta.

Some of the best tracks come from outside the DR. Los Tupamoros and Los Ochos de Colombia provide cumbia inflections, while La Makina and Victor Roque deliver the Puerto Rican version, which, transplanted to New York, speeded up to the turbo tempo we now associate with merengue. The standout track is entirely modern: Eddy Herrera’s “Dolido”, a traditional merengue revitalised with reggaeton and the mixing of a merengue vocal track with rap from Panamanian Danny Boy. Me gusto!

SL


 

Inward I

Mystic Revelation of Rastafari (Leroy Music, distributed by Harmonia Mundi)

If you can persevere through the rather ponderous opening track, “Moral Majesty”, this album will take you to the heart of some of the deepest African rhythms of Jamaica. It was the 1969 collaboration between Count Ossie’s African Drummers (Ossie was the man who first put pure African rhythm into reggae on “O Carolina”) and Cedric Brooks, one of the Caribbean’s most gifted horn players, which resulted in the formation of the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. Now, more than thirty years later, the collaboration has been revived in a truly mystic mix.

Beyond the predictable Rasta lyrics and chants are layers of Nyabinghi beats, and Brooks’s contemplative ethereal horn (often reminiscent of the late, great Vincy trumpeter “Shake” Keane) meshing with the sax of Jamaican jazzer Dean Frazer and the trombone of Nambo Robinson. On purely instrumental tracks like “Inna Barrel”, “Rasta Reggae”, and “Rasta Dub” this brass section gives us a meditative take, in contrast to the punch and panache of much Caribbean brass.

The vocals, although Zion-oriented and anti-Babylon, recall the long-established Jamaican tradition of sankey or hymn-singing, drawing on the same indigenous roots of Revival that were the trademark of Toots Hibbert’s early style. This is deep grounation music, a meditation beyond the suffering of Babylon.

SL