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Tag: salsa music

A Rare, Edgy 1961 Calypso Treat Rescued From Obscurity

Smithsonian Folkways, which is more or less the US national record label, may be best known for championing artists across Americana roots music. But they also have a history of recording artists from around the world. With the boom in vinyl records, they’ve been reissuing a number of releases from their vast back catalog, some of which have been unavailable for decades.

One of them is a haphazard 1960 field recording of Tuareg women running through their repertoire of ancient desert songs. Another is Calypso Travels, a 1961 studio album by Lord Invader, one of the last recordings the Trinidadian legend ever made. His voice is a little ragged, but his deadpan sense of humor and often withering political sensibility are undiminished. Considering how, just like hip-hop, calypso has always reflected its era’s events, this is a real period piece.

There’s always been lots of cross-pollination going on down in the islands, which comes across immediately in the album’s opening track: Me One Alone has a striking Afro-Cuban feel, with call-and-response from the frontman and his band, slightly out-of-tune salsa-tinged piano, spare bass and conga and honking sax. He’s here to claim his title as king of calypso and once he gets the Americans involved (a seemingly very cynical way of looking at things), he’ll rule the island

Lieutenant Joe’s hit As Long As It Born in My House is bizarrely hilarious, a lilting litany of shotgun marriages and dubious patrimony. Likwise, the cheery Beautiful Belgic masks a cynical undercurrent of Cold War imperialist politics: remember, Trinidad only gained independence in 1962.

My Experience on the Rapper Band (i.e. Reeperbahn) is a funnier precursor to the Kinks’ Lola. Lord Invader shows off some surprisingly un-fractured German in Auf Wiedersehen and then examines the ongoing American Civil Rights struggle with the ironclad logic of Crisis in Arkansas. Finally, he drops the sarcasm: “I think you are afraid of the negroes’ intelligence.”

Lord Invader holds out hope for Fidel Castro with a sparse, biting cha-cha shout-out to him, then  gives props to calypso contemporaries Mighty Sparrow and others in Carnival, a celebration of revelry at home and throughout the global Trini diaspora.

The drums rumble, the piano cuts loose more, and it seems like the bandleader is basically freestyling throughout Te We and Beeway, a couple of party joints. Lord Invader’s cynicism hits redline in Cat O’Nine Tails: if corporal punishment is legal in the colonies, then why not use it in the UK too? He follows that matter-of-factly with the anti-violence anthem Steel Band War and wraps up the record with Women Trying to Rule, a wry battle-of-the-sexes tale which extends to the British imperialist classes. Lots of good jokes but plenty of history here too.

 

 

 

Revisiting a Hot Night in Queens with Supermambo

The sun was a blowtorch defying the Manhattan skyline, blasting from between buildings as it slowly sank the night that Supermambo most recently played Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City.

Bandleader Felipe Fournier is a vibraphonist. Leaping around, his mallets a blur as his volleys of notes rang out and then receded, was the heat going to be too much? He’s from Costa Rica: maybe he built up a tolerance down there, because he didn’t seem the least bit affected. If anything, the summer sun that evening in August of 2018 fanned the flames of what turned out to be a show that was as interesting as it was adrenalizing He’s bringing the band and their high-voltage blend of classic salsa and jazz back to the park on July 20 at 7 PM. There are two ways to get there: take the 7 to Vernon-Jackson and follow 48th Ave. straight to the river, or the G to 21st/Van Alst, take 45th Ave. as far toward the water as you can and then make a left.

Supermambo started out as a Tito Puente cover band: Fournier took his inspiration from the fact that Puente got his start playing vibes before he switched to timbales. Since then they’ve been playing originals as well as imaginative arrangements of classic jazz tunes. The most stunning number of the night was a real unexpected one, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, reinvented as a long, serpentine jam that seemed to leave the original 5/4 beat behind for the sake of the dancers about midway through. Both Fournier and trombonist Rey David Alejandre had fun working variations on that famous riff, finally bringing the song full circle and ending surprisingly somberly. It’s impossible to remember who was in the band that night: a listing from around that time at Terraza 7, one of the group’s main bases, includes Camilo Molina on congas, Joel Mateo on drums and Dan Martínez on bass.

The Puente material wasn’t all big hits, which was interesting, maybe due to the fact that he didn’t get famous until after he’d left the vibraphone behind. The bass bobbed and weaved, the trombone loomed in and punctuated the songs’ expansive tangents as Fournier rippled up a storm over a river of turbulently undulating beats. May the park be a little cooler or at least breezier this month than it was that night.

A Rare Broadway Show with Authentic New York Flavor

From the opening salsa rhythm to the long mashup at the end, the original Broadway cast recording of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights – streaming at Spotify – simmers with authenticity. Anyone who’s taken the train to 181st Street and then gone up in the elevator day after day will confirm that this was a rare musical which accurately captured an immigrant New York milieu. Miranda knows his turf and didn’t sugarcoat anything for out-of-town audiences. If the upcoming film is as sharply detailed as this, it’s going to be a box office smash – if there is still such a thing as a box office by that time, anyway.

On one level, it’s a familiar story: brash aspiring rapper Benny knows that chasing clear-voiced, angst-ridden college student Nina Rosario, “the one that made it out,” is a longshot, but he does it anyway. It’s funny, it’s smutty in places, and it’s as gritty as the neighborhood. People work long hours amid crushing poverty but dream big. Anti-immigrant bigotry looms in the background. The ice man frets that Mister Softee is putting him out of business. The bodega guys resolve to stick around and defend the store on a particularly hot, violent and eventually lethal Fourth of July evening. Local kids feel displacement as yuppies move in. Generational tensions bubble over, and yet there’s irrepressible joie de vivre despite otherwise pretty dire circumstances.

This is a long album, 23 tracks worth of salsa, hip-hop, reggaeton, soul, Dominican and Cuban folk music and bouncy piano pop, sometimes all in the same number, in both English and Spanish. The band excel particularly in the brassiest salsa interludes. There are unexpected plot twists and a strong supporting cast who get as much if not more time in the spotlight as the central characters. No spoilers: dig in and enjoy.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band Bring Cuba to New Orleans, and Vice Versa

Listening to a gargantuan five-album set of New Orleans music (see yesterday’s piece here) makes a person hungry for more. So today’s album is the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s latest release, the soundtrack to the documentary film A Tuba to Cuba, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a throwback to the days of Machito and the first wave of Afro-Cuban music making its way to these shores, tracing bassist Ben Jaffe’s trip with the band to Cuba for some deep roots immersion. If you like your salsa on the organic side, this is for you.

Being on the gulf, New Orleans played an enormous role in helping spread American jazz, blues, soul, country and gospel sounds to Mexico and points further south. And that pollintation worked both ways. So it only makes sense that the revered, multi-generational band – who’ve always played a lot more than just New Orleans jazz – would look to Cuba for inspiration.

With its smoky sax, echoey Rhodes piano and slinky salsa percussion section, the album’s first track, Timba, comes across as a mashup of the Meters, Morphine and slinky Afro-Cuban traditions. The second cut, simply titled Descarga (which makes sense since it’s a hypnotic one-chord jam) has spiky cuatro and energetic call-and-response vocals from the group’s Cuban collaborators in lieu of the band’s legendary brass. They bring all that back in I Am, a jubilant soprano sax-driven cha-cha, then take it down again with the balmy, vamping sax-and-Rhodes ballad Corazon.

With Keep Your Head Up, they take a cheery mambo and make a second-line march out of it. Then they invoke the ancient Yoruba spirits with stirring vocal harmonies in a shout-out to the god of good times, Ellegua. The album’s best track is Kreyol, part biting minor-key cha-cha, part New Orleans shuffle, with more than a hint of dub reggae. Another standout is Paloma, a brief, rustic bolero for just cuatro and vocals.

The band return to summery sax-and-Rhodes ambience in Solitude, picking up the pace with the careening, shuffling Manicero, a slightly out-of-tune tres adding to the haphazard energy. They wind up the record with Malecon, a starry mambo.

Although the group tour from time to time, they typically hang close to their home base. So it was a rare treat to be able to catch them live, early one afternoon in downtown Brooklyn in the summer of 2017. Even at that early hour, they were even more adrenalizing than they are on this record, with a fiery, solo-centric mix of marches, funk, expansively brassy jazz and brooding soul themes.

Edwin Bonilla Throws a Timeless Salsa Party at Lincoln Center

Edwin Bonilla may be best known as Gloria Estefan‘s first-call percussionist, but he’s also a bandleader in his own right. Last night at Lincoln Center, he and his vintage-style salsa dura combo – Bonilla on timbales, plus bass, electric piano, congas, vocals and guiro, cowbell and a blazing three-piece brass section – aired out material from his brand new album Back to Basics. “This is the perfect time for us latin percussionists because of all the crossovers that are happening,” Bonilla was quoted on the video screen above the stage as the show got underway. Understatement of the century.

The point of what Bonilla does – and the reason he’s so highly sought after as a sideman, for projects ranging from classical, to latin jazz, to Cuban danzon, to the Rough Guide to Street Party anthology – is that he’s oldschool. Salsa romantica pushed brass-fueled hard salsa back to the underground for awhile, but Bonilla never sold out. “I’m from Jersey, but I always feel welcome here,” he joked.

The songs’ themes are classic: “Check out this groove,” Nuyorican pride, dancing, partying and having other kinds of crazy fun over catchy minor-key vamps. By the time the band got to the second number – this was after what seemed about twenty minutes of the first one- the horns start to cut loose, Bonilla hit the first of many big tumbling turnarounds, and the guys singing coros took the volume up a few notches. Then they took it down with a slinky guaguanco beat, a long piano solo with a wry Nature Boy quote midway through, and a masterfully cresecendoing timbale solo where Bonilla finally machinegunned his way up to a hailstorm peak. And that was just the first set. Everybody danced.

The next free concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is on Nov 21 at 7:30 PM with the guy who’s arguably the most legendary of all living soca singers, the Mighty Sparrow. Get there early if you’re going because it’s going to sell out fast. Along with the music, we’re promised that Sparrow is going to do a Q&A about his sixty-year career as well.

Midsummer Night Swing Beats the Heat and the Odds and Keeps the Dance Going

The sky was somber and grey, and the humidity was heavy over Lincoln Center Saturday night. But the Midsummer Night Swing crew were ready. Anticipating the storm that had already delayed the Mets game further east, they started the show a little early. And then something unexpected happened: the wind blew the clouds out of the sky. Underneath, Los Hacheros took advantage of the reprieve and treated a park packed with salsa dancers to an epic show.

Their latest album Bambaluye – recently chronicled here – is practically punk salsa, since bandleader Jacob Plasse plays both his guitar and his tres through a distortion effect. Onstage, an expanded version of the five-piece crew were, if anything, more psychedelic, like a more electrified Bio Ritmo, or one of Harvey Averne’s early 70s South Bronx bands. Another even more expanded element was the songs. It was exactly what the dancers wanted: twenty minutes at a clip without a break so everybody could get down before the skies broke.

They opened with Pintate, a four-chord salsa anthem, Itai Kriss’ slinky flute handing off to Eddie Venegas’ fierce violin solo, the bass rising ominously as the chorus kicked in. They took it out quietly and counterintuitiely. Dispensed quickly with the coy faux-baroque intro to the most recent album’s title track, they got down to business, joyous and exuberant, frontman/conguero Papote Jimenez stoking the fire with his gruff, impassioned vocals. The longest song of the night featured a swirling, frantically flurrying solo from Venegas as the band hit their first peak; the final torrential crescendo was the night’s most chaotic. They flipped the script after that with a serpentine bolero lowlit by looming trombone.

In the background, the gaping windows of several grim, blacked-out apartment windows on the northwest corner of the housing project across Columbus Avenue were a reality check above all this revelry. Let’s hope everyone survived the fire and was able to find shelter somewhere; it’s hard to imagine anyone there being able to find similarly affordable housing in Manhattan anymore.

Midsummer Night Swing continues tonight, July 3 with the Sisterhood of Swing Seven, the allstar all-female band put together to pay tribute to the pioneering women of the 1930s who paved the way for this era’s explosion of talented women instrumentalists. Showtime is 7:30 PM; it’s free to get into Damrosch Park out behind Lincoln Center, $18 in advance for the dancefloor.

Los Hacheros Turn up the Heat with Their Edgy Electric Salsa

It’s too easy to call Los Hacheros a punk salsa band, but that’s part of the picture. They’re a high-voltage, oldschool Afro-Cuban charanga…with a snarling edge sharpened by bandleader Jacob Plasse’s electric tres and guitar. All that extra burn and buzz is like adding a couple of ripe habaneros to the sauce. It’s a sound that on one hand is totally retro, on the other completely new. Some might hear this music and think of Santana, but Los Hacheros’ grooves are infinitely slinkier. They’re playing the Midsummer Night Swing series on June 29 at 7:30 PM at Damrosch Park out back of Lincoln Center. It’s free to get into the park, $18 in advance for the dancefloor and if that’s your thing, you should get there early because this is going to be a hot one.

The title track to their latest album Bambaluye begins with a tongue-in-cheek, perfectly sedate, actually very pretty orchestral intro, but it’s there to fake you out. Then they get the party started with an expansively tumbling dancefloor vamp, Eddie Venegas’ violin and Itai Kriss’ flute punctuating the tune over trombone and percussion. Pintate is a mashup of salsa dura and Spanish Romany flavors: again, it’s the electric tres that makes all the difference.

Esta Noche Corazon is a lush, retro 50s bolero with classy violin and completely psychedelic tres solos – but this time around, it’s frontman/conguero Papote Jimenez’s impassioned vocals that bring the energy to redline. Justicia is a pouncing, grim account of police brutality, while Querida Madre has an unexpectedly careening, insistent edge fueled by violin and trombone.

Bomba de Loisa has a rustic Puerto Rican groove and a couple of bracingly Stravinskian breaks.The group open Timbalaye with an ominous Yoruba vocal riff and shuffle along, up to a Santana-esque guitar solo.. Las Nieves de Brooklyn, a playtully baroque-tinged interlude, sets up the sprawling, closing jam, Descarga Para Abe, which has a more oldschool feel than any of the other tracks.

Now where can you hear all this crazy fun? Other than onstage, there’s no online playlist other than a private one at Soundcloud – lots of individual videos at youtube, but nothing linked, no Bandcamp, and no Spotify either. So you’ll have to click on each of the individual titles above to hear the songs.

Epic, Spine-Tingling Spanish Dances and a Queens Show by Fiery Violinist Maureen Choi

Violinst Maureen Choi found her muse when she immersed herself in Spanish music. She likes epics and big, explosive crescendos: her music is not for the timid or people with ADD. Her new kick-ass album Theia is streaming at her music page – and it’s one of the most unselfconsciously adrenalizing records of the year. Her slashing, often Romany and Arabic-tinged compositions rise and fall and leap all over the place, and the fun her band has with them is contagious. She’s playing Terraza 7 on June 29 at 9 PM; cover is $15.

Choi flurries and flares over drummer Michael Olivera’s suspenseful flickers throughout the dramatic intro to the album’s first cut, Dear Paco (Cepa Andaluza); then bassist Mario Carrillo joins the party, pianist Daniel Garcia Diego firing off fiery, Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics.

Phoenix Borealis is a diptych of sorts, hushed luminosity bookending a ferocious flamenco dance with a big explosion of drums and some of the most savagely bowed bass in recent memory. Choi follows the same trajectory in Dance of the Fallen, painting plaintively resonatn lines over Garcia Diego’s elegant chromatic ripples and graceful chordal work.

Canto Salamanchino is a cheery number that shifts in and out of waltz time, between major and minor, with a deliciously pointillistic, chromatic piano solo midway through and an unexpected detour into Chinese pastoralia afterward. Silverio O. Garcia has a hushed, elegaic quality, violin and piano echoing each other’s plaintive riffs. Steady pitchblende menace gives way to acerbic Andalucian flair and a series of crashing crescendos in Sinner’s Prayer

Love Is the Answer is a somewhat muted, almost wrenchingly bittersweet ballad: imagine Chano Dominguez taking a crack at Schubert. Choi kicks off Bok Choi Pajarillo with a big solo that shifts cleverly between Romany intensity and the baroque; from there, it’s a flamenco rollercoaster.

The album closes with its two most towering epics. Septenber the First, the album’s most haunting number, has a persistently uneasy late-summer haziness, part Palestinian-flavored dirge and anguished string-jazz lament. Choi closes the record with Danza Ritual Del Fuego: from an allusive intro that could be Dave Brubeck, through a long Afro-Cuban-inflected interlude, it’s more simmer than fullscale inferno, with a coy false ending. Count this as one of the best albums of 2019 in any style of music.

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra Bring a Wild Salsa Party to Curry Hill

Remember when you couldn’t walk down the avenue anywhere in the five boroughs without hearing salsa blasting from every other car and delivery van? Back in the day, it was such a welcoming sound to come home to, especially after being outside the country. Reggaeton and cumbia may have eclipsed salsa as Latino New York’s default party music, but it isn’t just oldtimers who’re keeping it alive. The Spanish Harlem Orchestra don’t play as many gigs as they used to, so if classic 70s salsa dura is your thing, their three-night stand at the Jazz Standard this Feb 21-24 is for you. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is a hefty $35, but remember the club doesn’t have minimums. On the other hand, nobody’s going to blame you if you can’t resist the barbecue: keep in mind they share a kitchen with Blue Smoke upstairs.

The band’s latest album, Anniversary is streaming at youtube. It’s a mix of originals and imaginatively reinvented standards. The opening track, Esa Nena sets the stage with a 70s Fania Records blueprint: blazing brass, playful polyrhythms, energetic call-and-response and a pulsingly catchy, vamping Afro-Cuban groove.

Yo Te Prometo is a bristling bolero in bright salsa disguise. Underneath the brassy gusts and insistent drive of Dime Tu, there’s a hypnotic thicket of woodblock and bongos, the timbales coming further toward the front alongside a honking Mitch Frohman baritone sax solo. The song’s message of solidarity carries special resonance in these xenophobic times.

Goza Al Ritmo has a shadowy solo from pianist Oscar Hernández. A tantalizingly brief, punchy trumpet solo and a go-for-broke outro cap off the mighty dance anthem Echa Pa’Lante. Guaracha y Bembe is a distinctly New York update on 50s Cuban big band majesty: singer Marco Bermudez calls this the soundtrack for a crazy night, and he isn’t kidding.

Y Deja and La Media Vuelta are more romantic, looking back to the 80s and then a couple of decades further, respectively. Cancion Para Ti is the poppiest, most 80s-flavored track here, Jeremy Bosch’s flute fluttering in and out. Como Te Quise has some unexpected baroque moments from the brass – Reynado Jorge and Doug Beavers on trombones, Hector Colon and Maneco Ruiz on trumpets.

Tres Palabras – another spiced-up bolero – has a deliciously lush, nocturnal atmosphere: it comes across as a more lavishly orchestrated counterpart to Bio Ritmo. Likewise, Somos Uno has a pouncing intensity along with a bubbling, triumphant trumpet cameo from Randy Brecker, The album’s final track is Soy El Tambor, a mighty, tumbling coda to over an hour’s worth of music. 

First and foremost, this is a party in a box. Lyrically, the songs celebrate pretty women, getting out on the floor and rhythmic sabrosura, with more serious references to the music’s cultural and historical value. At this point in history, salsa is a legacy genre like Chicago blues, roots reggae and bluegrass; there aren’t as many people taking it to new places anymore and this is one group who still are.

Globalfest 2019: Esoterica Rules, Again

Special thanks to Globalfest staffer Neha Gandhi, whose quick thinking, quiet diplomacy and efforts beyond the call of duty (and complicity in trying to create a teachable moment) made it possible for this review to appear

The premise of Globalfest in its early days was to connect talent buyers with booking agents representing acts from around the world. Youtube may have rendered that innovation obsolete, but every January, both crowds get together in New York to party on the company dime….and see some great music. The public comes out too. “I didn’t expect to see you here!” draws a response of “I didn’t expect to see you either!” Friends from the swing jazz or country blues scene discover a possibly secret, shared love for middle eastern music, and so forth. In 2019, more than ever, esoterica rules.

Sets are staggered in different areas of the venue throughout the night so that everybody can get a little taste of everything. As usual, last night’s show had more flavors than Dosa Hut (in case you haven’t already been seduced by the New York area’s most ambitious purveyors of sublimely delicious, crunchy Indian wraps, you are in for a treat).

Over the last couple of years, the artists on the bill have often represented a forceful backlash against anti-immigrant stridency, and last night was no exception. Both the whirlwind Palestinian rap-rock-reggae crew 47SOUL and magical Mexican chanteuse Magos Herrera – backed by string quartet Brooklyn Rider and drummer Mathias Kunzli – articulated fierce responses against wall-building.

But that issue was just a small part of each act’s many-faceted performance. 47SOUL spoke not only for the rights of Palestinians and Syrian refugees but for full-scale global unity against encroaching tyranny, through a blend of Arabic hip-hop, surreal dub reggae and keening, synthy habibi dancefloor pop. Likewise, Herrera drew on practically a century of pan-latin balladry, protest songs, classical and indie classical music, over a backdrop that was as propulsive as it was lustrous. It’s rare to see a string quartet play with as much sheer vigor as violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicholas.

It would have been fun to have been able to catch more of the spectacularly dynamic Debashish Bhattacharya, who alternated between rapidfire raga intensity on veena, and some unexpectedly balmy, twinkling slide guitar work in a Hawaiian slack-key interlude, joined by his similarly masterful daughter Anandi on vocals along with a first-rate tabla player.

Likewise, it was tantalizing to watch from behind the drums, relying on the monitor mix, throughout most of the night’s best-attended set, by theatrical Ukrainian band Dakh Daughters. The theatrical all-female group came across as a Slavic gothic mashup of the Dresden Dolls and Rasputina. In matching white facepaint and forest-spirit dresses, they paired ominous cellos against creepy piano chromatics and spritely flute over slow, ominous beats, switching off instruments frequently. As with so many artists whose cultures have been under attack, there’s no doubt plenty of grim subtext in their phantasmagorical narratives.

Since headliner the Mighty Sparrow had cancelled, the night’s largest ensemble were oldschool Cuban salsa band Orquesta Akokán, shifting through sparsely pummeling charanga-style passages, slinky mambos at various tempos, a lickety-split tonguetwister number and a machinegunning timbale solo that might have been the most adrenalizing moment of the entire night.

Playing solo a floor above, guitarist/banjo player Amythyst Kiah held the crowd rapt with her powerful, looming contralto vocals, her tersely slashing chops on both instruments and unselfconsciously deep insights into the melting pot of Appalachian folk music. Blending brooding, judiciously fingerpicked originals with a similarly moody choice of covers, she went as far back as 18th century Scotland – via 19th century African America – and as far forward as Dolly Parton, with equally intense results.

The evening ended with an apt choice of headliner, Combo Chimbita, who kept the remaining crowd of dancers on their feet throughout a swirling tornado of psychedelic, dub-inspired tropicalia, merengue and cumbia. Frontwoman Carolina Oliveros, a force of nature with her shamanic, hurricane-force roar and wail, circled the stage as if in a trance. Behind her, guitarist Niño Lento, bassist/keyboardist Prince of Queens and drummer Dilemastronauta built smoky ambience that rose to frenetic electric torrents and then subsided, a mighty series of waves to ride out into an increasingly chilly night.