When the great revolutionary poet Pablo Neruda was a young man, he served Chile as consul to a series of desperately poor countries. He was amazed to find mass starvation in "the golden age of world poetry."
"While the new songs are hunted down," he wrote, "a million men sleep by the roadside, night after night. They sleep. They are born, and they die." As magnificent Latin music pours into my mailbox in this, the golden age of the Latin American debt crisis, I feel Neruda's puzzlement. Here's hoping everyone falling in love with World Beat takes some time away from his CD deck to consider the home countries of the songs. For Latin-music lovers, a subscription to Weekly News Update on the Americas (339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012) is a good place to start.
And for those of us in love with music of the African diaspora (people settled far from their ancestral homelands), the recently released La Iguana: Sones Jarochos From Veracruz, Mexico (Corason/Rounder) is a good place to start for an understanding of African-Mexican music. It's a foot-stomping, fist-pumping, tongue-rolling, rollicking compilation. The dialogue of the stringed instruments--the bright harps and requintos, the warm guitars--is a constant journey around the vocals, which are plainspoken and offhanded, though broken by outcries and oles. The liner notes remind us that the African (mostly Bantu) population in Mexico outnumbered the Spanish throughout the country's colonial period, and was especially concentrated in Veracruz, the site of these recordings.
The music from that region, originally sung in the cane fields, haciendas, sugar refineries and city squares--and later, successfully commercialized ("La Bamba" is included here)--betrays African musical patterns such as dominant percussive performance (mad flourishes of rhythm guitars) and bold call-and-response vocal parts. The chiming harp lines that brightly color these tunes also hark back to west African kora melodies. This is lively stuff of deep historical interest.
You could scarcely draw a sharper contrast in Latin music than that between the campesino musicians of Veracruz and Colombia-born Claudia Gomez. Where the campesinos' is raw, furious music made to carry far across the cane field, Gomez's is the quiet, composed, elaborated music of the singer/songwriter. On her new album, Tierra Dentro (Green Linnet/Xenophile), she writes beautifully fluid melodies sung over simple guitar lines and ornamented by an unobtrusive synthesizer, the occasional whistle (human or bird) and deft, tasteful percussion by producer John Santos.
The song forms range from samba to cumbia to what sounds like a Pygmy melody, with lyrics devoted to love, rainfall, Gomez's hometown of Medellin and singing itself. The tones are clear and clean, like a beautiful pool of blue water, and the mix is pristine. I personally prefer the crashing of the campesinos and their wild harps, but this makes for a cool comedown from their burning high.
If Tierra Dentro had a patron deity, it could be Ochun, the orisha of fresh water, sweetness, sensuality and love, who's also equated with the Catholic Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, patron saint of Cuba. John Santos has written the song "Caridad" in honor of this syncretic goddess, which is just one of the masterpieces on Hacia el Amor, the new album he has recorded with the Coro Folklorico Kindembo (Green Linnet/Xenophile). "Caridad" begins with a flourish of piano, bass (played by the legendary Cachao) and trumpet (played by another living legend, Chocolate), then breaks into the recording's usual mode: polyrhythmic percussion all over the place, drenched in song, almost always Yoruba liturgy. When orisha are not being praised, the subjects are Nelson Mandela, Cuban musical heroes or that embattled island itself ("Brown sugar cane licked/By the tongues of a bitter ocean/Besieged but never surrendered"). Half the songs are written by Santos, the other half are traditional (except the praise song for Cuba, which is by Rebeca Mauleon-Santana, an important singer in the group, and her father, Isidoro Mauleon, a fine poet). The principal drums are the bata, the sacred drum family of the Yoruba, though many other instruments come together in these pulsing songs.
The bata are to Yoruba worship what the accordion is to conjunto--signature and spirit. Conjunto is probably the best-known of all Latin-American musics--Mexican polka, si?--and of all conjunto players, Flaco Jimenez should need the least introduction. The only bad thing I can say about the man's music is that it's pimped some tawdry products.
But when I spin his new album, Buena Suerte, Senorita (BMG/Arista), I'm too busy aiming tears at my swaying beer mug as I two-step around the house to worry about Jimenez selling out. Then it's over all too soon (the recording runs less than 35 minutes), and I wish I were in Mexico and that Mexico's economy weren't in ruin.
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Los Pinkys--pink, as in the skin of most of the players, including one of the song leaders, Bradley Jaye Williams--does not quite measure up to Jimenez, though anyone but a hack cramming reviews together would spare it the comparison. On its new Rounder release, Esta Pasion, it does all the right things; if you love conjunto, the feet will shuffle, the tears will flow, the beer arm will helplessly swing along with the accordion.
The accordion is a very different animal in the hands of Astor Piazzola. Actually, he played the bandoneon, the accordion's wicked cousin. He used it to reinvent the tango, much to the dismay of those who loved (and played) the old music, who tried to kill him for his innovations (seriously). The master is gone now for good, though not at the hands of jealous and conservative folk musicians. His last concert with the New Tango Sex-tet has been released by Hemisphere with the title Luna, and I expect it to be the best recording I hear this year. Caught up in the spell of Piazzola's genius and the masterfully responsive band he built around himself, following every note with admiration and joy, I am torn between lamenting a master who died while still in full possession of his powers and being grateful that such a mature performance was documented so immaculately. Luna has become one of those rare pieces of music that spontaneously plays itself inside my head without getting on my nerves. I am being subjective in my remarks because the dazzling and bizarre dance of Piazzola in tandem with the New Tango Sex-tet beggars my capacity for analysis. Imagine every emotion--orgasm, amazement, hilarity, suicidal despair--interpreted on the keys of an accordion.
Imagine the tango played by Tom Waits' dream pit orchestra with God almighty on the squeezebox. Or just shut me up and buy this recording.