Various Artists

Panama is a bridge, a tenuous handshake between the two Americas whose strange geography undermines neither its singular identity nor its peculiar power. Panama! is also a bridge, permitting ease of movement between disparate musical styles. The lengthy subtitle is no joke -- any one song on this compilation is a compilation in itself. Niche studies are for suckers; what stands out the most about Panama! is the ways in which the featured artists absorb, blend, reconfigure and reconstitute, sucking in the styles of the surrounding continents and, in most cases, improving through appropriation. So the bossa is better than bossa and the funk is thicker and greasier than any served in Panama's neighbors to the north. The Exciters' "Exciters Theme" is dank and imposing, full of caterwauling brass, bottom secured by a creeping bass line. Los Fabulosos Festivals imagine R&B as group-sing on "El Mensaje," and Los Silvertones' "Old Buzzard" sets a whippoorwill flute darting madly over clopping percussion. But the best moment comes near the end, on Los Mozambiques' "Viva Tirado." As a guitar hums from the shadows, the vocalist sings just two lines: one from "I Think I'm Going Out of My Head," and one from the Porgy & Bess centerpiece "Summertime." Delivered in his aching tenor, you'd swear you'd never heard the songs before in your life.


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