Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Vintage Voudou World of Alex Figueira and a review of the new CONJUNTO PAPA UPA 45 (MWS-006, 2013) “Vintage Voudou / Camuri Chico”


At a gig a while ago, a disk-jockey partner of mine, DJ Andujar, put on this crazy tune that made everybody dance. It fit right in with our “Rumba Psicodélica” mix – between the cumbia amazónica, Discos Fuentes Colombian madness, the afrobeat and afrofunk, Haitian compa, and Nuyorican boogaloo, it just flowed, like a seamless blend.

And yet, it was somehow tantalizingly different. It was not a cumbia, though it had some of those rolling drums that make you think of Colombian costeño music, and it also had that Andean flavor you hear in Perú; but there was something essentially ‘diferente’ about this.

I turned around and said, “What the hell was that?” He was like – “Yeah – remember this guy I told you about, Alex Figueira, who does that Vintage Voudou thing in Amsterdam and puts out 45s on the label Music With Soul?”

I then flashed on the cool retro logo of red on yellow and remembered the dope 45 Joel Stones from Tropicalia In Furs had given me a while back of his band Fumaça Preta’s “A Bruxa”, this raw, distorted Portuguese-language punk-psych jam that turned out, on further listening, to be a brilliantly jagged cover of the Sonics’ “The Witch”. The band’s title means Black Smoke, and the 45 sure was some inky black LSD-soaked Brazilian garage sludge! After that, there was a second 45, “Vou-me Libertar”, which I did not have but subsequently heard on Andujar’s WMUA radio show called “Clandestino”. This time the sound was a lot more funky and groove oriented and featured a wicked drum break and some crazy organ. Note to self: get a copy of that one too from Joel! As it turns out though, I never did get around to chasing him down for one…

Joel Stone(s) of Tropicália In Furs, in 3D

Jump-cut back to the gig with Andujar: I came over to the turntable, turning my head around and around trying to read the label. Something that looked like Conjunto Papa Upa…¿Pero que es esto-o-o-o? “Papa Upa” like in the Arsenio Rodríguez song?

“This is from the same label?”

“Yeah, man!”

All I could think was ¡coño!, someone on the other side of the pond has the same kind of taste as us, but also a lot of musical talent and chutzpah, and they actually went and put out a 45 of this kind of music, something Andujar and I have wanted to do for a while, but still have not quite managed to pull off yet! I said, “This is a new recording, right?” Andujar nodded yes, and said that the other side, “Vintage Voodoo” (an anthem of sorts), was just as good and raw. “¡Caramba! Let’s play the other side tonight too”, I yelled.

So now it’s a few months later, it’s a new year, and in the cold, clear early morning minutes before heading off to work I am going to try and encapsulate for you this indescribable little chunk of tropical goodness on wax that is the only recorded output of the mythical Conjunto Papa Upa to date.

A slice of juicy mango nestled on a fresh banana leaf, sprinkled with chili pepper. Drops of cooling rain mixing with salty seawater on an island girl’s parched tongue. A haunting, melancholy melody floats over an enticing rhythm, like some dusty platter from a forgotten jukebox playing in a deserted station at the end of the Old Patagonia Express. Evocations of the jungles of Equatorial Africa, the snowcapped mountains of South America, the empty grass-carpeted pampas where you see the tiny figure of a lonely gaucho once in a blue moon across the horizon, and the sun, surf and psych of 60s California, all made surreal by their juxtaposition. A special analog space in the raw, carved out of the digital age, where the Caribbean meets the Andes, a pan-Latin cocktail that makes you drunk with the possibility of hindsight. If only they had made something this cool 45 years ago! This is the Papa Upa sound.

The tune Andujar put to the needle first was “Camuri Chico” – named for an urban beach in Caracas where the “ethnic proletarian chaos” of people drinking guarapita, drumming their tambores, and swimming and sunning themselves in all their cacophonous brown multitudes makes for “everything besides a calm day” (according to the label’s press release). The track sports a tasty mix of folkloric drums, echo-drenched electric guitar, chugging acoustic rhythm guitar (the spunky Venezuelan cuatro), and a boisterous vintage Farfisa organ. It’s as if a Quentin Tarrantino movie score blended with Afro-Venezuelan pop/folk music of the 70s (i.e. the gaita-salsa of Guaco or Un Solo Pueblo and the afrobeat/funk of Grupo Bota), colliding with Dick Dale and Ennio Morricone in some alternate vintage voodoo universe.

The other side, “Vintage Voudou”, reads like some sort of ceremonial dance pop from the jungles of the Amazon by way of a hidden polyglot Caribbean pirate island just off the coast of Central America. At the same time the jam puts me in mind of the hybrid carimbó music from the northern Brazilian state of Pará and its port city of Belém, Cidade das Mangueiras (city of mango trees), metropolitan river gateway to the jungle.

Picture a picotero DJ putting the red and yellow labeled 45 on the mildew-encrusted turntable attached to the painted soundsystem situated in the little open air riverside bar. First, emanating from the booming bass bins you hear the sound of hands beating on a skin drumhead, a summons that has called worshipers from time immemorial. Then in comes the pleasingly clacky-clacky, jangle-jangle, sheke-sheke sound of small percussion, which makes the crowd start to shuffle their feet in the red dust, and sway sensuous hips from side to side, sweating out the cerveza fría, aguardiente, and cachaça they’ve been constantly drinking all night. ¡Upa, papá! ¡Guepaje, ándale, pues!

Then a percussion breakdown announces the echoey, beckoning guitar melody, which cascades out from under the thatched palm roof like a jungle waterfall, its warm spirals enveloping the crowd and leading them on. Now the ritual musical magic starts to work in earnest, the people are hooked, bumping, rubbing, grinding. The dark breeze brings the scent of the river water mixed with decaying vegetation, mingling the perfume of flowers with the perspiration of the dancers, sweet and sour, sewage and cinnamon.

As the music pulses out of the huge, distorted, crackling speakers, taking over the body, you realize you’ll never make it back to your hotel tonight. It’s a raw, gritty, insistent sound of the empire talking back to the colonizer. The people are victorious. It’s not the carimbó, sirimbó, lari lari or lambada from Belém, but it’s familiar enough that you let it slip under your perspiring skin, flow into your thirsty ears until it takes you over, one organ at a time.

You hear hints of Congolese rumba, bouncy calypso, pop-and-lock cumbia, cadence, beguine, and afrobeat as played by ‘70s South American outfits like Los Kings, Abelardo Carbonó, Afrosound or Wganda Kenya. But it’s not so much a funk sound – there’s no wah-wah or clavinet effects here – more the dry, echo-laden feel of an earlier era. All the while the chorus chants the song title in a trance-inducing, heavily accented cadence.

When the 45 suddenly ends, you’re left high and dry; it’s like a chance sexual encounter with a stranger from the bar on the beach after the place closes down – a quick, pleasurable experience that leaves you wanting more. ¡Más Vintage Voudou, por favor! I decide to contact this band and find out what makes it tick.

My search, which was aided by DJ Andujar, led me to Alex Figueira, an amiable wild-haired Renaissance man who runs the store (and DJ night) Vintage Voudou, Barracão recording studio, and the vinyl record label Music With Soul that released the Papa Upa single. When I opened the discussion up, I started by mentioning that I knew he was of Venezuelan descent (with Portuguese/Brazilian roots too), and telling him that I shared a love of the popular music of his ancestral homeland, in all of its rainbow diversity (it goes without sying that we also both love Brazilian, Cape Verdean, São Toméan, and Angolan music too, but that didn’t enter into the discussion at this early date). He mentioned that in Amsterdam, where he located from Lisbon in 2006, it’s been tough going trying to sell vintage Venezuelan records because they are “not exactly popular in the digging community”. Most of the records he had by Bota, Guaco, Los Dementes, Los Kenya, Sexteto Juventud, Nelson y sus Estrellas, Los 4 Monedas, Los Kings, Los Guaraguao, Ali Primero, and Federico y su Combo Latino were “rotting away on the shelves” and he had to sell them for ridiculous prices because people in Amsterdam just didn’t know Venezuelan music from the 60s and 70s. It’s a shame, we both agreed, because it’s some of the best and most interesting Latin music of the era. It’s just different enough to be a breath of fresh air for your newbie tropical music fan or neophyte salsa vinyl collector, if only they’d give it a chance.

The Vintage Voudou Shop, Amsterdam

On his web site, Alex speaks of his love for all sorts funky music from Africa and the Americas, and how he was simultaneously inspired by his native Venezuela’s progressive tropical music of the past and yet frustrated by the lack of truly visionary material from that era. As he sees it, the record labels of the time failed to nurture and promote the progressive fusion of indigenous Venezuelan music with foreign influences in any effective way. I would agree, with the exception of some labels like Korta or Velvet and groups like Guaco, Nelson y sus Estrellas, and Grupo Bota; the kind of music he was looking for just didn’t exist back then, unfortunately. So Alex decided to take out his 58 Tascam tape machine, call some friends over to his Barracão Studio, and create his own recordings in answer to that historical deficit. The Daptone aesthetic also entered heavily into the equation. For more info on why he started his label and what his general vision of music is, check out this interview here:

As we got deeper into it, Alex told me, technically speaking, Papa Upa “started a bit like an accident” when he bought some Afro-Venezuelan drums the last time he was in Venezuela and, with all the mega-annoying “customs shipping drama” he had to go through to get them back to Amsterdam, he was of course eager to play them as soon as they were safely ensconced in his home studio there. He started messing about with them “a lot, especially the cumacos, which are these huge drums that give a mean bass sound” (later employed to stunning effect on “Vintage Voudou”). He recorded some of his homemade cumaco drumming sessions and sent it to his friend Stuart Carter (guitarist in Fumaça Preta), “just to show him how crazy the sound of these drums were.” After that, he played the recording for his mate Baldomero “Baldo” Verdú, a professional Venezuelan percussionist “who’s been playing those drums probably since before he even learned how to walk.” Baldo immediately informed Alex that he was playing them incorrectly! 

Baldo playing cumaco

"castigando" (punishing) the cumaco

"culo e puya"

cumacos Alex purchased in Venezuela

cumacos Alex purchased in Venezuela

The very important percussion section in MWS Studio

As is often the case with inventors who think outside the box, this run-in with the traditionalist mindset was not a moment of censorship or failure for him, but rather a catalyst that set Alex’s fevered mind to running on overdrive. ¡Caramba!, there is potential here, he must have thought to himself. As he put it to me in his own words:

That led me to think that I had something good!! Why? Because that’s exactly why I started a label, ‘cause I wanted to challenge all preconceived ideas of how music “should” sound like. Being a Venezuelan myself, I just couldn’t resist challenging the music I grew up with and runs in my DNA. So I developed all the other parts on the go, using other music styles I love to enrich the mixture.

That said, he made sure to invite Baldo to join him on the Papa Upa recording sessions because, as a master in Afro-Venezuelan drumming rooted in the traditions of his ancestors, Baldo brings us “back 400+ years to when the first African slaves were transported to Venezuela” — that is, until Alex’s melodic, delay-drenched electric guitar “pushes our senses back to the same West African coast those slaves departed from, this time in the 20th Century.” That’s Alex interacting with Baldo in a succinct description, African Diaspora coming full circle in a nutshell!

What’s interesting is that Alex told me he insisted on coming at this project from what he calls an “Afro-Venezuelan point of view” — the reason being that this way he can challenge and mutate a genre from the “insider’s” perspective. In his opinion, the advantage to doing this for his project was that Afro-Venezuelan music is a type of folkloric expression that in its commercial form is both unknown outside of Venezuela and in need of some changing and updating, at least as far as the version of it that was mixed with pop music in the 60s, 70s and 80s in his home country. He went on to say:

I am crazy about African guitar music, especially… from [the] Congo, Angola and São Tomé, and I’m also crazy about Psych and Surf, [so] that’s what I was trying to incorporate with the 6 strings [of my guitar]. It only seemed natural to me to mix all this stuff I loved  [with Afro-Venezuelan music]. I could have made a Psychedelic Cumbia out of it but that would have been too easy, obvious and definitely not challenging. 

In our chat, he went on to explain that the band is only himself and Baldo. They played all the instruments themselves and Alex did the studio engineering and production work. Though the rough and ready quality of the two tracks may not seem like it, Alex admits he spent months redoing a lot of the parts and he waited four months for Verdú to get back to Amsterdam from a trip to Venezuela so he could record the cuatro parts (as mentioned before, this is not the Puerto Rican cuatro that is a sort of mandolin/lute akin to the Cuban tres guitar; rather it is closer to the Hawaiian ukulele, producing the sort of Andean rhythmic strumming you hear on “Camuri Chico”). In his charmingly self-depreciatory way, Alex told me in a bemused tone: “the organ solo was a first take!!! I still can’t understand how I managed to nail that down ‘cause I am for sure the shittiest organ player on Earth.” 

Alex on trap drums in the MWS Barracão Studio

When I asked him if he planned in the future to try his hand at doing some psychedelic salsa à la Bio Ritmo or La Mecánica Popular, Alex allowed that “salsa is in my genes” and that he planned to finish a whole psychedelic and salsa-influenced record some day, adding ruefully, “I’m afraid it’s gonna take a long time because I’m doing it all on my own” just like the Papa Upa sessions. Say it ain’t so amigo, no me digas, Alex!

But I have faith. If his Conjunto Papa Upa and other past MWS projects are any evidence, I think he’s going to keep up the good work, and he’s sure gonna lay some heavy sounds on the world when that album gets done! For now, please do yourself a favor and go to his site and buy the Papa Upa 45 as soon as you can. Quantities are limited. It will help encourage him, and fund his future projects! You can hear it here:

And purchase it here:

While you’re there, check out his other releases too. Welcome Alex Figueira and his Papa Upa to another chapter in the ever-evolving alternative universe of contemporary progressive pan-Latin DIY music!

Also, my friend Eilon Paz did a great entry on Alex and "The Record Fair, Amsterdam Style" for his Dust & Grooves blog. Check it out here (great pics of Alex transporting records by bicycle  - soon he will need his own barge if things keep building for him!):

Below is a gallery of images from Alex’s Vintage Voudou/Music With Soul world (all courtesy Alex Figueira, © 2014).

Alex, "El Maraquero"

A happy find during digging sessions in Surinam

Keeping hydrated while diggin' is essential!

E-e-e-ewww! Black MOLD!!

45 digging "show and tell"

Vinyl tailgate party, Surinam

Vinyl market, Surinam

Changing baby diapers, changing records.

DIY Graphics!

Dutch Vinyl Transport

Joel Stones in the MWS Barracão Studio!

Production line for Fumaça Preta Special Edition


Looking for vinyl, not sex, in Amsterdam's Red Light District

Alex making puppets for Vintage Voudou Party

Alex, "El Engeniero Maravilloso"

Barracão Studio (where Music With Soul releases are recorded)

The logo that first caught my eye...

Vintage Voudou Party Shrine to "Mr. Hard Hands"

Alex in the Command Center at VV HQ

45 digging at VV Shop

VV T-shirt & Memorabilia

A Vintage Voudou Party

Open for records, NO SEX


© 2014 Pablo E. Yglesias