Saturday, December 29, 2007

Willie Bobo - Lost and Found

Willie Bobo
Lost and Found
(Concord Picante)

Every once and a while the impossible seems to come true. All the better when the impossible appears suddenly in the form of “lost” tapes by a deceased musical hero! Eric Bobo, multitalented percussionist son of Willie Bobo, discovered a stack of master reel tapes in his mother’s closet one day ten years ago, and has been on a quest to have these recordings see the light of day ever since. Overcoming his mother’s reluctance to let him “mess with” his dad’s things, Eric (with the help of Mario Caldato Jr.) lovingly transferred these recordings to digital over a period of years. Now Concord Picante, bless them, have released Lost and Found, allowing us to enjoy the fruits of labor of father and son. Eric states that his “first listening was very emotional for [him] because [he] was listening to [his] father in a whole different way” and I assure you that Willie Bobo fans will feel emotional too upon discovering these lost works. Thankfully Eric and Mario knew a good thing when they heard it, and didn’t mess with the masters, so there are no overdubs or updating attempts, just pure sublime music that “bridges the gap’ between genres. The tunes were recorded between the years 1970 to 1976, and they have a fresh, stripped down, unadorned sound. Flavors of funk, jazz, and Latin blend effortlessly, showing Bobo in his purest form where he was in full control of his musical direction. Stand out tracks are “Ci Ci,” which features some really great percussive vocalizing, and “Pretty Lady,” which starts off as a slinky California style funk jam but gets steadily more Latinized until it climaxes with hot blasts of brass, a classic Spanish coro, and Bobo’s tasty timbale solo. “A Koko” and “Fairy Tales For Two” form bookends for an imaginary soundtrack to a Lowriders’ convention in Heaven. The versions of “Broasted Or Fried” and “Dindi” are superior to any Bobo ever put to wax, the latter swingin’ hard enough for dance floor djs and hip-hop beat-heads to get off on, the former languidly romantic yet somehow genuine in it’s late night majesty, giving Sinatra or Bennett a run for the money. A nice touch is the panel in the CD booklet with all the family photos. My only quibble is the lack of personnel credits for the backing musicians. Overall, a great addition to the Bobo cannon!

©2006 Pablo Yglesias

Friday, December 28, 2007

¡Viva La Musica! at Exit Art, NYC

Views of The Exhibit "¡Viva La Música!"

The Invitation to "¡Viva La Música!" (front)

The Invitation to "¡Viva La Música!" (back)

Exhibit - Entrance

Exhibit - 60s Wall

Exhibit - 70s Wall

Exhibit - Brazil Wall

Exhibit - Latin Rock & 80s Wall

40s & 50s Wall - Detail

60s Wall - Detail

¡Viva La Musica! 70s Wall - Alternate View

View of Show from Archive Room

¡Viva La Musica! Wall of Albums 1

¡Viva La Musica! Wall of Albums 2

Latin Jazz Wall

The Opening - The People

DJ Andujar (a collector who helped contribute covers to the show)

Angelo Velázquez and Family Looking at Covers

Orquesta Dee Jay Reunion

The second Orchestra Dee Jay album - get the reissue from Latin Soul Records (shout out to Andres Padua)!!!

Radio Personality & DJ/Artist Dred-Scott Keyes with Pablo

"Cocinando" collage by Dred-Scott Keyes

Pablo with the Co-Directors and Founders of Exit Art, Jeanette Ingberman and Papo Colo

DJ Jorge 'The Pink Panther' Irragorri (¡Que viva Colombia!)

DJ Fedito Schmalz (poet) & DJ Knoxito Robinson (writer)

Charlie Rosario, Papo Colo, Angelo Velázquez

Pablo & Angelo Velázquez

Pablo & Charlie Rosario

Pablo & Ernest 'Chico' Alvarez

George 'Dee Jay' De Jesús & Emilio 'Tata' Barreto

Angelo Velázquez, Manny Vega, José 'Jack' Claussell, Pablo & Yogui Rosario

Charlie Rosario Points to One of His Ground-Breaking Covers

Charlie Rosario with Two of His Original Cover Artworks

DJ Fredito Schmalz

DJ Knoxito Robinson

Here is a little information on a show I put together at Exit Art, a wonderful non-profit exhibition space in New York. I wanted to show the actual Latin album covers that I put in my book, but expand on that and fill a whole gallery space with it. The opening was great fun - many friends came, as did fans of Latin music and dance, and several musicians and designers. Chico Alvarez was there - he designed many covers and is a singer, musician, and radio DJ; Yogui Rosario, who designed covers for Fania, Salsoul, and other labels, and Angelo Velázquez who did one of my favorites, the second cover to Brooklyn Sounds, "Libre." In addition, José 'Jack' Claussell, the timbalero for Eddie Palmieri (and brother to internationally respected DJ Joe Claussell) was there - he is a collector of art and owns several original pieces that were used for covers over the years. Manny Vega, an incredible visual artist and a very deep individual, was there - he's done several great covers over the years for the Shanachie and Ryko Latino labels. There was even a reunion of sorts when various members of Orquesta Dee Jay (Jerry Hernandez - trombonist, Emilio 'Tata' Barreto - conguero, and George 'Dee Jay' De Jesús himself - leader, bassist) showed up, as well as Charlie Rosario, the graphic designer who did their second album jacket design - "Forget It" on the Lew Gas label, way back in the early 70s. Orquesta Dee Jay is a cult 'salsa dura' band that I had no idea was so popular among collectors - I just knew the guys in their later lives. I also asked several of my collector friends - Fred 'Fredito' Schmalz, Knox 'Knoxito' Robinson, Brendan 'Andujar' Rule, and The Pink Panther (Jorge Irragori) - to DJ so people could dance or have a chance to hear some of the music represented on the walls. There was another exhibit on at the time in the larger part of the gallery that was great too. Here are some pictures of the opening and the show. I also went back to the gallery mid-way through the show and we did a dance party with some of the same DJs and that was a lot of fun! In the end, the exhibit ended up being on the Latin Grammy program that year, shown briefly during the bit where Milly Quezada was talking about New York being a major center for salsa. That was a nice surprise!

¡Viva La Música!
The Music Graphics of Latino Identity

¡Viva la Música! explores the evolution of Latin music album cover art over the last 50 years, paying critical attention to issues of identity and aesthetics, with an emphasis on historical context and the unsung artists who helped present Latin music to the world.¡Viva la Música! is an unprecedented exhibition that demands the viewer's full attention. Many album covers have fascinating stories behind their creation. Taking inspiration from Pablo Yglesias’ recent book Cocinando, 50 Years of Latin Album Cover Art, this exhibition aims to tell these stories through the display of over 300 albums. Some well-loved examples of Latin LP jacket design will be sure to inspire feelings of nostalgia, but others will speak to universal concerns as well. In addition to 78 rpm, 10”, 12” and CD covers, the show will present original artwork used as album cover art but never before exhibited. Works by Chico Alvarez, Ely Besalel, Warren Flagler, Ron Levine, Lee Marshall, Charlie Rosario, Yogui Rosario, Izzy Sanabria, Manny Vega, Jorge Vargas, Walter Velez, and others will be seen for the first time. ¡Viva la Música! proposes that the album cover is not only an invitation to dance but is also fine art worthy of serious consideration. The exhibition’s premise is that the record jacket is not just an ephemeral mass-produced object to be relegated to the trash heap of a bygone era, but rather a unique 12 by 12 inch window onto a culture's soul.

My interview with Izzy Sanabria (featured at Exit Art in the library of additional materials):

Interviewer: "So what are your earliest memories of being interested in art & deign?”:

My earliest memory is of my mother telling me that ever since I was a child I would copy the lettering on products like cereal boxes or soap or whatever the hell might be on the kitchen table. And my personal rememberance is comic books. And copying art from comic books. So I was always very visual that way. And then my choice in career came. I taught myself how to read music, and I performed on stage in elementary school. When I was in seventh grade, in junior high school, they put me in a special music class. When I looked at my schedule, there was no art. So I went to the grade advisor, and in the seventh grade is when I made my decision in life, in a sense, because they said you are either in the special music class or the special art class. So rather than have no art, I went to the special art class. So I took the special art class for three years with my neighborhood childhood friend, Walter Velez.

It was in the South Bronx. We did a lot of different projects. We made puppets and all kinds of stuff. And again, my performance was always there because I performed in a puppet show, and Walter and I teamed up then, and at that time, Mad comics had come out, and one of the characters was called The Lone Stranger. And so I made a puppet named Pronto, and Walter was the Lone Stranger, and so we put on a show, and we made sets, and all that kind of crap. And from there, I went to the High School of Art and Design. My other influence then was The Wild One, which came out in ’51 with Marlon Brando. So when I went into high school, Walter and I both dressed that way as well, and we got into a lot of trouble because of it. When I went into school, we took our entrance tests, because you had to pass these tests and all that. I came out reading second year, 2.1 college level. And they thought I’d cheated. I found out a year later that a teacher that really took to me who said “do you remember taking that English test again alone in a classroom?” I said, “yeah” and she goes “that’s because they thought you had cheated.” ‘Cause my reading comprehension was very high, because I was really into reading. We grew up in a shitty neighborhood, you know, in a fucked-up school system, but books and the library saved my ass. I was looking at all the art books and how to draw books, and all that other kind of stuff. I never liked modern art. It wasn’t until many years later that I got into the Impressionists. I never liked Cubism and abstract and everything else. But Surrealism, yes, because it was subjective, it had realism, and of all the surrealists, my favorite was Salvador Dali, because Magritte, who I liked also, his surrealism was a little more crude. Salvador Dali was very photographic, and plus, he’s Spanish, and in those days, I looked to anybody with a Spanish surname. It was very important to me. And Salvador Dali was very flamboyant, and so that’s the other side of Izzy that I combine with the performer, in my flamboyance and which is what I brought on stage as well, as an emcee and as a comedian,and the early radio commercials that I did and all that, I was completely innovative when I got into the business in all these aspects. So being on stage, and doing art work, those are conflicting expressive art forms. Because usually artists and writers are loners who create all by themselves. But I always also wanted instant gratification and art is something that you do alone, and then, later on, somebody will like it or not like it. But when you’re on stage, people will either accept you, or you’re booed.

Interviewer: "So where were your influences coming from at that time?”:

In comic books, all the artists from EC comics. Wallace Wood, Jack Davis. Also illustrators for Tales from the Crypt, and Weird Science and Mad. And then there was the comic book ban, which crushed the comic book industry.
Interviewer: “And, I suppose you were probably looking for Latin superheroes, and they weren’t there.”
Right. So, to me it was Gilbert Roland, Ricardo Montalban, Jose Ferrer, Fernando Lamas, Anthony Quinn, when I found out he was Latino, so those were the people I looked up to.

Interviewer: “Did you grow up in a musical household?”

Not really, but my mother used to sing. I wasn’t one of those people who grew up with Cuban music all the time. With me, what I heard was the Trio Los Panchos, that kind of thing, the jibaro music, which I completely ignored, like so many of my contemporaries, that we turned away from our parents’ music, and yet we gravitated to the Cuban sound. But that came through the development of your sexuality. Because I went from country music, I used to love cowboys, Roy Rogers versus Gene Autry. I was listening to the music of Hank Williams, you know, yodeling. Today, I still yodel. (yodels) I used to love that shit!

Interviewer: “Wow - really?”

So, from that, I went into rock and roll, which was “Baby, let me bang your box!” oops! Did you hear that?! Oh, my god? The lyrics that they were sneaking through, you know, and then, as I got into high school, The Platters, and all that stuff, doo wop. I never liked Elvis Presley, like, there were some people that really gravitated to him, but I was just jealous of him, because all the girls liked him. So it wasn’t until years later that I have a collection of Elvis Presley records.

Interviewer: “But how did you get into the whole Latin music scene?”

So, it wasn’t until I was about sixteen or seventeen that some of the older guys that were ahead of me, and their girlfriends who taught us how to dance, because, you know, now you’re interested in girls, then I was taken to a Latin club by one of the older guys. I was under-age, still, and Tito Puente was the one that sucked me into Latin music, because Tito Puente, who I consider to be the father of Latin music, Machito planted the roots, but Tito Puente took that Cuban sound, and completely modernized it. So, that’s how I got into Latin music. And then just to skip down the road a bit, by the time I’d gotten out of high school, I was already emcee-ing at this club, Triton’s, and by then Johnny Pacheco was the hottest thing in town, he had just gotten off on his own band with Orquestra Dubonet, with Charlie Palmieri’s Orquestra Dubonet, they were together, and Pacheco was the flute player, and he was the hottest thing in town. And then I used to hang around with Pacheco, and through the Triton’s connection, I did my first album cover, which was for Pacheco. I got into the latin music, I was an emcee/waiter/bartender at the Triton, and I used to bring on the acts, and then from there, I had gotten out of high school, I had gone to a school of visual art, then I won a scholarship, and at that point, that was when I did the album cover for Pacheco, which is probably ’59 or ’60. It just so happens that Pacheco went to the same junior high school as I did. He was the guy at the top of the pyramid at the tumbling club. And what happened was that the first time I went to the Palladium, he was playing with a group, and I went up to him, and said, “hey, vaya, what’s happening?” and from there, we built a friendship at the Triton’s. It was at the Triton’s where I met all those great cats, Arsenio Rodriguez, Alegre Allstars, Eddie Palmieri. I used to travel around with Pacheco, I even auditioned to be Elliot Romero’s replacement, but I was terrible, I couldn’t hack it. Those were the days of the charanga, and I was a paid professional charanga dancer in the clubs, and the Jewish mountains [Catskills].

Interviewer: “So how did it start with the first LP cover you did?”

I went up to Johnny, and said, “I have a great concept for your album cover.” And he said, “sorry, man, it’s already been ordered” and normally, like today, you’d just walk away, but I said “well, give me the guy’s name, anyway,” and he gave me Al Santiago’s name, and Al Santiago’s parents had a record shop called “Alegre Records” on Westchester and Prospect Avenue in the Bronx. So, the minute he saw it, he said, “That’s it!” That album cover was a woodcut of Pacheco, and it captures him perfectly, in all his skinny, energetic essence, and to this day, he wears that drawing made in gold, around his neck. It became a symbol of him. And because the woodcut, with all the little imperfections in it, gave the whole thing an electrical movement, which is the way he moved on stage, you had to see him, how he used to play that flute, his gyrations, and everything else. In terms of technique, this was not really a woodcut. This was a technique that I learned in high school, which was that you take white tempera paint, and you paint negative space, stroke by stroke, and then after it was dry, you take black India ink, which is a permanent ink, and then you paint over the whole surface with it, so wherever the white tempera paint wasn’t, then the black India ink would adhere to this illustration board. And then once that was dry, you take the whole board, and put it under the water faucet, and the water would wash away the white tempera paint, and what was left was the black impression.

Interviewer: “What came next?”

After the Pacheco, that’s when I started doing the classic comic book style Alegre Allstars covers. Within those album covers, there’s one that was also another first, in terms of the whole record industry, latin or otherwise. It was the first comic strip, a continuous comic strip, that was because we were doing Volume III, and I said to Al to skip a volume, and he said, “why?” and I said, “because people are already going to the record shop, looking for these Alegre albums, and when they get there, they find out, wait a minute, I don’t have this album, what’s going on?” so Al kind of dismissed me, but Al was very open; he was the most progressive guy until Jerry Masucci, but he was even wilder and crazier than Masucci could ever be. And the next day, he called up and said, “I like the idea!” and so then he came up with the concept that the whole reason that we did this was because Kako had lost the tapes, so then from that idea, then I came up with a comic strip where we show, because Kako was always falling asleep anyway, and Kako was always being goofed on by the other Alegre Allstars because of that, and their recordings in general were always very humorous, and he’s a great timbalero by the way, so the concept there was that he was on the subway, and he fell asleep, and this villain came along and stole the tapes. Well, this leaked out to the media, and before you know it, they were asking us to post a reward for this, it was in the newspapers and all this, that these famous Alegre Allstars tapes had been lost, and it was all bullshit. I was very much into marketing concepts. By the time the ’60’s rolled around, I had already been working in studios and advertising agencies, and I had been in the army, so that I came with all this energy and all this American mentality, and so I was bumping heads with all these people that did not see my vision because this was an industry of very ignorant people. So Jerry Masucci was accepting of a lot of the stuff I came up with, and so that is the reason I started promoting the music with the name “Salsa” and it was all because of my concept of being able to sell something. Not only the graphics, but the concept behind it. When I worked in the anglo advertising studios, they couldn’t figure out what my ethnic background was. “Israel, are you jewish? Sanabria, are you Italian?” and I’d answer, “Puerto Rican!”

Interviewer: “Tell us a bit about why you got into this whole presentation of Latin culture through design and the magazines and stuff?”

One of the reasons that I came into the business was that I believed that I could make a splash. Which is what I did, and it was because what I had seen was so bad. These album covers were put together by printers who were supplied with very often a bad photograph, and they would put the lettering down with their eyes closed. I mean, no real designers or artists, the money wasn’t there, this was not important. None of this had any importance to anyone, it was just some small market. And it’s the same thing with the posters. The posters that were advertising dancers. They were put together by the same people who made boxing posters. This was a letter press, and those big letters were actually wooden letters, put together one at a time, and they would insert blocks with pictures and this awful lettering. And it was all hand set. I revolutionized Latin album cover art because I started designing them by hand, and reproducing them in photo offset lithography.
I was always bumping heads, Masucci wanted complete control most of the time, but sometimes, I was able to turn things around, and be completely accepted. Typical was a Willie Colon album which is a classic today, “Wanted by the FBI”(La Gran Fuga/The Big Break), there’s a lot of interesting aspects about that particular album. Number one, the name of the album was La Gran Fuga, you know, The Great Escape, they handed me a photograph, which was the guys in color, that was pretty washed out. It was the guys in prison outfits, escaping over the fence of a prison in Puerto Rico. So, what I did was that I used that photograph, I turned it into a black and white, and I turned it into a vilox, 80-line screen, to make it look like a newspaper, and I in fact made a replica of the New York Daily News on the back. In the ‘60’s I had seen these posters of Bobby Seals, and other Black Panthers who were wanted by the FBI. The hippies were selling copies of the posters. So, from that idea, I came up with this album cover for Willie Colon for “Wanted by the FBI.” The irony is, the mug shot photos are the cheapest photographs ever taken for an album cover. I took Willie downstairs, I had an office on 52nd and Broadway, went to the corner where there was one of these arcades. Four photos for a quarter. So I took four of them facing front, and four profile shots, because I wanted that bad quality.

The prison numbers under his mug shot are his previous LP catalogue numbers. The fingerprints were taken from a post office Wanted poster. I pasted them into position, and this friend of mine who I grew up with, Vinny Alonso, he and I wrote the copy…”wanted for exciting riots with his trombone…” and FBI part had something to do with the “Freaks Bureau of Investigation” so then, what made that album cover so controversial, was that the FBI stopped the album because there was also a poster on the inside of the album, which was pasted around the city, and in Puerto Rico, advertising the album, which asked people to turn Willie Colon in to the FBI. So Willie Colon’s grandmother was hysterical, they were telling her “oh, they want your grandson…” so the FBI became aware of it, and what we found out was that it’s against the law to put anything on the market that will in any way give the impression that the FBI is behind this. You can’t do this kind of parody, you see. Whereas that posters these hippies were putting out, were exact replicas, and were just helping the FBI’s propaganda. So what they had them do was they had them turn the album covers around for display in the stores, so that you were looking at the back, and all subsequent printings could only say “Wanted” without the FBI part. So the albums that have the “Wanted by the FBI” are the collectors’ items. That was only the first five thousand.

Interviewer: “Thanks Izzy for shedding some light on this little discussed aspect of our culture.”

Walter Velez & Izzy Sanabria

Mr. Salsa

Some designs by Izzy Sanabria & Walter Velez

CHICO ALVAREZ, Cultural Warrior

By Enrique Peraza
© 2000 Mafimba Productions

Ernesto Álvarez Peraza was born in Brooklyn, New York on March 4, 1947, and as a youngster was drawn to music. In 1950 his parents returned to Cuba, where he was raised in the Luyano district of Havana. At the age of 10, he was sent to live with his paternal grandmother in the picturesque seaport of Antilla, in Oriente province. It was there that he first heard the music that would someday fulfil his dreams.

During the period from 1957 through 1959, Chico would spend his summer vacations in New York City, where he first came under the influence of rock and roll. He returned to Cuba in September of 1959 and began his initial venture into the realm of popular music. Along with a group of young musicians from Antilla, he sought to breathe new life into the music which he had heard while living in New York. The group consisted mainly of a vocal group with some rhythm accompaniment, specializing in ‘cubanized’ renditions of popular American tunes, such as “Only You", "Blue Suede Shoes” and “Rock Around The Clock”. By 1961 Chico had fallen totally in love with the Cuban bolero, via the recordings of such artists as Vicentico Valdés y Lucho Gatica, even as he continued to lean more toward the pop sound that was coming out of "el Norte". At this time in his life he was the stereotypical Cuban teenager who wanted more than anything else to be a rock and roll singer. He dreamed of someday being on American Bandstand.

During the summer of 1961 he once again spent some time in New York, where he first encountered the cross-fertilization of Cuban music with the pop sound of rock and roll, with its underlying clave, as well as the phenomenal success of the mambo, the pachanga and of course the cha-cha-chá. It was during this visit that he experienced a newly-awakened interest in Cuban music, via the 78 rpm recordings of his parents and by way of Spanish language radio. By September he was back in Cuba, but not for very long. His parents made the final move to New York in late 1962. From that point on, his life would revolve around popular American culture, and it was in that most difficult of places, New York, that he would develop as an artist.

New York at this time was still full of great Cuban music, and he soon discovered the innovative vocal stylings of Miguelito Valdes, Carlos Embale, Roberto Faz, Beny Moré, Tito Gomez and the ever popular Vicentico Valdés, with whom he nurtured a personal friendship. His first instrument was the conga drum, which he picked up while still in High School, emulating the sounds which he heard on records by Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente and Joe Cuba. He was like a diamond in the rough, and listening to these masters helped him to polish that diamond. At the tail end of the Sixties he began to perform with as many groups as he possibly could, in order to gain the experience he needed. He often sat in on the conga drum with the likes of Errol Garner, Ted Reed and Babs Gonzalez.

During the early part of the Seventies Chico played with various small groups, mostly in small clubs and bars, totally unsatisfied, as deep down inside he longed to play with larger ensembles, such as those led by Machito, Puente and Rodriguez. These three were the last of the big bands whose popularity was waning at the time. Midway through the decade, as a new era in Cuban music was being ushered in he once again contemplated singing, and it was through a quirk of fate that he finally made the switch. It happened in the following manner. While opening up for vocalist Tito Rodriguez's band at a ballroom in Newark, Chico's vocalist failed to show up and he wound up singing lead and playing the conga drum, a task which he found overwhelming. Noticing his potential, Tito approached him at the end of the set and suggested that he pursue a career as a vocalist. Although he felt honoured that such a renowned artist would take notice of him, he continued to play the congas, which he loved. Although they remained in the back of his mind, Tito's advice went unheeded for a couple of more years, until around 1974.

As fate would have it, there occurred a second boom with the "charanga" style bands, and another quirk of fate led Chico to a club called La Mancha, which was located on 14th Street, near Union Square. He had just come out of a German restaurant known as Luchow’s, where he had been playing a private party with some jazz musicians. As he passed La Mancha, he noticed a lot of "Latin" looking people going upstairs, so he asked someone what this place was. They told him it was a Latin music dance club. Seeking work for his Latin jazz sextet, he decided to go upstairs and check out the ambience. Boldly, he approached the bandleader and asked to sit in on congas. The leader said no, but asked Chico if he could sing, to which he replied "Yes". That is how he wound up sitting in on coro with an up and coming charanga band, Tipica New York, led by violinist Miguel Pérez. On the bandstand that night was the legendary bassist Israel Lopez (Cachao), who later on spoke to Chico and matter-of-factly echoed Tito Rodriguez's words, even suggesting to him that he had the chops to be a lead singer. This time he heeded the elder's advice, and decided right then and there that this was what he wanted to do. At the end of the night he asked Pérez for the job, and much to his surprise, he got it. With this band he was initially a "corista", but he quickly picked up the art of playing the guiro, an instrument that he had never paid much attention to, but which was essential to the charanga sound. He learned to play it from one of the masters of that instrument, Osvaldo "Chihuahua" Martinez. Today Chico Álvarez is considered one of New York's best guiro players. He is also an excellent maraca player, a task that is very much underestimated these days. For years he listened to the artful playing of Felipe Neli Cabrera, from the Sexteto Habanero, considered the man who put the instrument on the musical map.

Subsequently Álvarez would outgrow the charanga format, and his voice would be heard with the bands of Lou Pérez, Roberto Torres, Jose Fajardo, Hector Rivera, Charanga America, Chico Mendoza's Ocho, Chihuahua Martinez, Charlie Rodriguez, Fernando Mulens, Las Hermanas Cano, Baby Gonzalez, Julio Gutierrez, Facundo Rivero, Monguito El Unico, Orquesta Habana Brass and Gonzalo Fernandez, among others. During this period he also composed many original numbers, which have been recorded by artists from Mexico to Sweden.

With a thoroughly tested musical apprenticeship, Chico launched his own ten piece group in 1976, Mayómbe. He also worked for a brief time with publisher and artist Izzy Sanabria, designing the popular magazine Latin New York. Disillusioned by the music scene, he dissolved his band in 1978, leaving behind only one recording, on vinyl, which was titled “Con El Ritmo Del Tambó”. With this recording, he presented a colorful album of Afro-Cuban music, revolving around the theme of the drum, with skilful and sophisticated arrangements, exciting and romantic moods, which transported the listener to a faraway and forbidden land, just ninety miles from Key West. Featured on this album is his own composition “Piñeiro”, which he also arranged. It is a fitting tribute to one of the masters of the Cuban son, Ignacio Piñeiro.

After his initial recording, Chico continued recording for various labels, putting out the classic “Montuneando” in 1981, on the SAR label. This album has been re-issued on CD under the title “Los Soneros De Cuba y Nueva York”. It is probably his most typically Cuban album. Also worthy of mention is an album he did in 1981 with the Bronx-based band Nosotros, aptly titled "Los Bárbaros Del Ritmo", as well as his various recordings with Cuban pianist Papo Loco.

His latest endeavour is the formidable Orquesta Palomonte, an all-star big band that features five saxes, four trumpets, two trombones, three singers and a full Afro-Cuban percussion section. The repertoire is varied, and showcases classic arrangements by Richard Egués, Niño Rivera, Louie Ramirez, Manolo Albo, Bebo Valdés, Jose Urfe, Rene Hernández, Michael Phillip Mossman, Chico Mendoza, Paquito Pastor, Alfredo Valdés Jr. and Rafael Solano, to name just a few.

His presentations are not limited exclusively to big band dance music, and feature many colorful and diverse types of aggregations, such as a rumba group, a son sextet and a Latin jazz quintet. Álvarez began fronting son groups in the 1970s, but the bridge between that rootsy music of his youth in Cuba and the urbanized music he embraced in New York is still where Alvarez as a bandleader walks. He has released seven albums, both as a solo artist and with various bands, including the Bronx-based group Nosotros and the Afro-Caribe Band, which he broke up in 2001. He has since formed Chico Álvarez and the Palomonte Cuban Big Band, which recently appeared at Lincoln Center's MIDSUMMER NIGHT SWING on Friday June 17, 2005, Josie Robertson Plaza. This concert-dance came on the heels of the successful NOCHES CUBANAS, the two night concert-revue that was presented by the World Music Institute at the Skirball Center at NYU last April. On that night, Chico delighted dancers and listeners alike with his powerful voice and his formidable 18 piece orchestra, breathing new life into the classic arrangements of those arrangers whom I have mentioned previously.

In July of 2004 Chico Alvarez and his merry band of rhythm makers delighted everyone at The International Nuits D'Afrique Festival in Montreal. As a vocalist he has recently been featured on albums by Joe Quijano, Andrea Brachfeld, Pucho and The Latin Soul Brothers, Sliced Bread, Los Soneros, Rafael Cruz (Grammy winner), Antonia Bennet, Conjunto Homenaje a Arsenio (Finland), David Oquendo, and Ron Warwell's Jazz Project. He has performed recently with Charanga Soleil and is featured with Junior Rivera's Cuarteto Son at the favorite Greenwich Village restaurant "Cuba", as both vocalist and percussionist. He is also the official conga player and Latin vocalist for the Ken Gross Orchestra.

Both as vocalist and bandleader he has performed in Europe, West Africa, South America and the Caribbean, and locally he has graced the stages at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, NJPAC, Skirball Center, Symphony Space, The Apollo Theatre, Aaron Davis Hall, Leeman Center, Hostos Performing Arts Center, Madison Sq. Garden, The Count Basie Theatre, John Harms Center, The Queens African Museum, Queens Theatre In the Park, Flushing Town Hall, The Museum of Natural History, Tishman Auditorium, and at legendary Jazz clubs such as Birdland and The Village Gate, as well as aboard the aircraft carrier Intrepid. Chico is presently associated with the renowned pianist and arranger Edy Martinez, alumnus of the bands of Mongo Santamaria, Ray Barretto and Gato Barbieri, with whom he often performs as a special guest.

Much to his credit, this multi-faceted musician, vocalist and bandleader was once one of the most sought-after graphic artists in New York City, designing over five thousand album covers during the ten year period between 1969 and 1979. He gave up a lucrative career in that field in order to pursue a career in music, and has never regretted it.

At present Chico Alvarez is the producer, host and moderator of the weekly music program “The New World Gallery”, heard weekly over listener-supported WBAI, since 1989. He was also heard for a number of years on WADO 1280 AM, Sunday evenings from 11 pm to 5 am Sundays. “Latino Con Jazz” was a radical departure for WADO, a traditionally ethnic radio station. Although the program aired in Spanish, the type of music that Chico featured attracted a wide cross-section of New Yorkers and urbanites. He conducted his shows in much the same manner that he conducted his band, in that each performance was a unique learning experience, rather than just mere entertainment. He considers himself a bi-cultural and bi-lingual person, who loves all types of music and who doesn’t believe in mixing politics with art. Prior to his programs most Latin Jazz shows were done in English. To this day he continues to promote the bi-lingual format while stressing the importance of using correct Spanish on the air.

In 2002 Chico Álvarez was nominated by the Latin Jazz USA Awards Committee to receive the Chico O’Farrill Lifetime Achievement Award, in recognition for his outstanding contribution to the musical art form known as Latin Jazz. Along with musician Ray Santos and journalist Max Salazar, Chico joined the ranks of such luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Paquito D’Rivera, Gato Barbieri, Tito Puente, Marco Rizo, Mario Bauzá, Mongo Santamaria, Stanley Turrentine, Astor Piazzola, Ray Barretto, Astrud Gilberto, Nestor Torres, Rene Touzet, China Valles, Eddie Palmieri and of course Chico O’Farrill, in whose name the award is now given.

Recently, Chico was also awarded a Special Recognition Award from the International Latin Music Hall of Fame at Hostos Center for the Arts and Culture, at a concert-ceremony on April 4, 2001. He is featured on Rafel Cruz' Grammy award winning Latin jazz album "Bebop Timba", as vocalist and percussionist.

He was also awarded the First Place Award for Excellence in Radio Arts and Entertainment from the New York Association of Black Journalists (NYABJ). He received his award at the annual Scholarship and Awards Dinner on December 2, 1999 at the Sheraton Hotel in New York City. NYABJ bestowed him the award specifically for his special two hour radio documentary “Jazz Meets Latin / Dizzy Gillespie & Chano Pozo”.

This was the second time that Chico received recognition for his weekly program “The New World Gallery”, which has been airing for sixteen years on member-supported WBAI in New York City. Chico, who helped pioneer the concept of a multi-mixed-genre on radio, received the Silver Reel Local Entertainment Award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB) during their 50th annual conference, held in San Francisco. The documentary “Jazz Meets Latin / Dizzy Gillespie & Chano Pozo” was originally broadcast on WBAI in December of 1998.
In addition, he received a special letter of recognition from the government of Peru for his show entitled “The Soul of Black Peru”, which aired in 1998.

“Jazz Meets Latin” was part of a series that Chico developed, which explored the rich and prodigious musical exchange that took place between Afro-American and Latin-American musicians throughout this century not only in New York, but in other urban centers of this country as well. The series examined the synthesis of two musical traditions that shared common origins; American jazz, developed by Afro-Americans at the turn of the twentieth century in the port city of New Orleans and the son, developed by Cubans in the port city of Havana during approximately the same period. It is a long and complicated story, and the end result has been the marriage of these two forms. In practically all of his presentations, Chico manages to convey this very important aspect of the music to his audience, publicly acknowledging the masters and their contributions. He never forgets where the roots are, and he lets his public know it. In this manner, he can also be considered an educator, although he doesn’t like to use the term. The award winning “Jazz Meets Latin” special focused primarily upon the music composed and performed by the legendary jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and the master Cuban percussionist, singer and dancer Luciano Pozo Gonzalez, known as “Chano Pozo”. Chico's contention is that their collaboration was as key moment in the evolution of jazz and their brief relationship changed forever the musical landscape and the popular culture of North America. He vehemently emphasizes this, especially to those who would rather re-write history.

Chico has also produced various other programs of special interest that are noteworthy, such as “Montuno Meets The Blues”, “The Guitar: A Legacy Of Two Worlds” and “Color It Mambo”. All three programs focus on the transculturation process as it was experienced in New York City and other major urban centers throughout the country. Apart from the great music, Chico also concerns himself with putting forth much valuable information about the recordings themselves, both from historical as well as sociological perspectives. When asked how he would like to be remembered, he replied “As a communicator and a cultural warrior!”

Album Artwork By Chico Alvarez

Latin Album Designers - Clockwise from top left: Walter Velez, Izzy Sanabria, Rogerio Duarte, Izzy Sanabbria, Chico Alvarez, Helio Oiticica, Steve Quintana, Charlie Rosario & Yogui Rosario, Yogui Rosario, Jorge Vargas, Ron Levine, Eli Besalel, Charlie Rosario

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Africa Full Circle – a look at African Salsa through the prism of Orchestra Baobab

The Venerable Baobab tree

Baobab Reunion Foto by The Great Jonas Karlsson (as seen in Vanity Fair mag)

Orchestra Baobab

Orchestra Baobab Back in the Day

Orch. Baobab - The Latest - Made In Dakar

Orch. Baobab - Specialists In All Styles

Orch. Baobab - Pirate's Choice (some great older tracks)

Orch. Baobab "Bamba" - Excellent Classic Album (nice cover too)

Orch. Baobab - Recent Compilation of Classic Tracks (with some great AFRO-FUNK!)

Orch. Baobab - The Dakar Sound - "N'Wolof" wild collection of psych-latin-african

The African Record Collector

Malik Sidibe's best known photo of West African Club Dancers (circa 60s-70s)

The Great West African Salsero, Laba Sosseh - Coming to NYC!

Laba Sosseh - singing his heart out!

Laba Sosseh - Super Star (old school)

Laba Sosseh - Salsa Africana

Laba Sosseh on SAR Records

Monguito El Unico on Sacodis Records after his trip to Africa

Monguito El Unico - De Todo Un Poco (cover by Izzy Sanabria)

Monguito on Sacodis - "Something Different" (I believe Chico Alvarez was on this)

Monguito's First Solo Record on Fania

Beautiful Portrait of Monguito El Unico

Putumayo's Excellent Compilation (done with the great DJ-Producer, Mr. Al Angeloro)

Early CD of African Salsa (with the fabulous extended remix of Africando's "Yay Boy" - a must for any salsa DJ!)

Africando - The African Salsa Powerhouse!!!

Early Afrcan Salsa (dispite goofy and racist cover imagery, it's a great record! - Thanx Knox Robinson!)

Nice CD of African Salseros in Habana, Cuba!

This CD has one of the best cross sections of African Rumba and Salsa on it (discussed in blog)

Cubabfrica - sublime collaboration by two giants of sabor - Manu Dibango and Cuarteto Patria

Ricardo Lemvo's latest album - Ricardo is an African Salsa Pioneer and 'all around genius' with a GREAT band, La Makina Loka - Caliente! Don't miss them in concert, and buy all their CDs!

Ricardo lemvo - simply one of the best!

The Great Ricardo Lemvo - words cannot describe this man's talent and super friendly personality!!!!

Señor Pape Fall, fabulous African Salsa Singer

The Great Kekele - don't miss out on their beautiful music...

Las Maravillas de Mali - ultra rare LP - they studied in Havana for many years! Sorry it's sooo small!

Another LP by them - I found it in Brooklyn at this African record shop. Beautiful.

Nicolas Menheim's Super Sabrador Band - another tasty African Salsa/Cuban music hybrid - great cover (gracias Bruce Pollin)!

The Star Band - with both Laba Sosseh and Youssou N'dour - no wonder it was a Star Band!

A 'Shameless Plug' for my CD, The Rough Guide to Salsa, with 2 African Salsa Cuts (buy it now and start dancing)!

Putumayo's "Afro-Latino," a good collection of African & Latin Salsa

Africando - Volume 2

Africando's "Mandali" - one of their best and a really brilliant cover!

The Cuban album "Kinavana" by the Wonderful Kékélé - hot stuff, so buy it!

Rumba Rock - beautiful early 50s Congolese Rumba

Another great Kékélé album with a funky cover...

Tabu Ley In Action!

Essential Rochereau collection - required !

Wow - Rumba On The River - a nice collection in a fab package - a must!

Ah, the sweet M'Bilia Bel - beautiful lady, incredible voice, sublime in concert - and she's on "Kinavana" too!

Orchestra Baobab is a shining example of the positive outcome of negative historical circumstances. The many diverse fruits of a new culture have grown – both in the so-called New World and back in the Motherland – out of the malignant carnivorous flowers of the slave trade, Middle Passage, and wholesale colonial appropriation and exploitation of Africa. The cross-pollination of Africa, Europe, and Indigenous America yields an incredible cornucopia of artistic and religious expression that travels both ways, and it is a testament to the strength and inner light of the human spirit that so much positive energy and healing strategies are the result of such an evil garden of suffering and destruction. The members of the pan-African tribe of Baobab are like the band’s namesake tree: sacred and organic, slow growing and enduring, revealing vital complexities beneath a seemingly placid surface. Like the tree, the band is a graceful temple of bundled sinew, solidly muscular but able to bend in the winds of history. The Baobab is imposing in its longevity, relying on a system of deep roots and natural wisdom to throw off seeming dormancy or death and the vicissitudes of the barren harsh environment that surrounds it.

The Orchestra’s recent award winning album “Specialist In All Styles” is proof that, like the ancient budding baobab tree in the monsoon rains, they are reborn and have brought forth fruit in their due season. Unless you burn away all the Baobab’s roots, you cannot kill the tree. It is said that in the old days the hereditary bardic musicians called griots were buried in the hollowed out centers of the sacred baobab trunk, no doubt infusing the tree with the spirit of music.

First formed in Dakar, Senegal, at the Baobab Club in 1970, out of the ashes of the rival Stars Band from the Miami Club, Orchestra Baobab disbanded in the early1980s and did not record together again until 2001. In a recent performance at Northampton’s Pearl Street Nightclub, the band ably demonstrated that both the ancient spirit of the West African griot was alive and well in the heart of the tree, but also that many other African and European derived elements were active in their eclectic but coherent mix. The full spectrum of African Diaspora musical expression was there on stage, from rock to jazz, with the more naturally similar Cuban song forms of the son montuno and cha-cha-cha dominating, though less obvious Caribbean strains like zouk, merengue, and reggae were in abundance as well. With the affable and talented lead vocalist Rudy Gomis shouting “Thank You” between melismatic nasal strains of Islamic influenced singing, and incredible lead guitarist Barthelemy Attisso sounding like Wes Montgomery channeling both Afro-Cuban tres player Arsenio Rodriguez and Sudanese oud player Hamza el Din, all carried along by the bubbling cross-cultural currents of percussionists Balla Sidibe and Mountaga Koite, the audience was treated to the strains of African music come full circle.

The show ended with saxophonist Issa Sisokho blowing a saucy accapella bop coda, sounding like a jazz player of the 50s, with his tall thin frame topped by a jaunty fedora that brought to mind Dexter Gordon. A listen to their first recordings from 1970 reveals initially surprising nuances, from crazy acid fuzz guitar ala Jimi Hendrix, to dubbed out echoes reminding one of Lee “Scratch” Perry or King Tubby, as well as funky James Brown-isms galloping alongside the arabesque call of the muezzin and the griot twang of the kora. Though the concert had a more up-to-date sound than their freakier 70s recordings, most of the members in effect that night at Pearl Street had played on those early sessions, and it was a thrill to see the whole band together on our soil performing their superb songs for an evening of pure pleasure, taking us home and soothing us. In the space of an hour and a half, we were treated to the history of Black music in a free-flowing stream, a stream that watered the tree’s roots.

In the afterglow of the concert I began thinking back on all the African salsa I had gotten into recently like the utterly fabulous Africando, and before that, the sounds of “World Beat” that Peter Gabriel’s W.O.M.A.D. concerts and albums had introduced me to, and before that, back to my dad’s dusty old LPs of Olatunji, Osibisa, Santana, Fela, and King Sunny Ade. Remembering all that dope afro-goodness made me want to dance the Congolese rumba and write a bit about Africa’s journey full circle.

CDs like “From Dakar to Cuba – Swinging to the Rumba” helped take me on that journey. The Baobab track on there is a killer: “Mana Dem” it’s called (We Are In Vogue) from ‘75 – it’s hard core, very driving – heavy bass, sinuous fuzzy wah-ed out guitar, mesmerizing choruses, the whole thing percolating along like an African train through the steamy jungle. There’s an emphasis on the guitar in all these recordings that, combined with the repetition and lo-fi sound, makes for a feel that is sometimes almost D.I.Y. punk. But the interlocking poly-rhythms of Baobab are at once more sexy and slower – the closest rock equivalent would be the Velvet Underground, with the droning double rhythm guitar attack of Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed always propelled by the rock-steady clocking drum beats of Mo Tucker. Small wonder that Reed hated the cymbals and forbade Tucker to use them; for Mo, it was no big deal jetisoning rock's tinny time keepers; she had learned to bash the tom toms from those same beautiful Olatunji records that turned on Carlos Santana and my dad back in the day.

But let's return to Africa, especially the Congo, where titans like O.K. Jazz, African Jazz, Tabu Ley Rochereau, African Fiesta, Bembeya Jazz, Franco, Rock A Mambo, Les Bantous de la Captiale, Manu Dibango, Messeur Nico, Papa Noël, Pepe Kalle, Tino Baroza, all made sweet sweaty sounds in the 50s and 60s before the revolution called 'l'indépendance,' but none-the-less, fomenting a revolutionary attitude in their synthesis and rediscovery of their lost cousins across the Atlantic. Such deeply swinging music was made on that river (or influenced by it), that sinuous snaking waterway that Conrad had called the Heart of Darkness in the previous century. It continued to be the sound track for Indpendence, though in later years many left the scene or were forced to leave by regimes that followed the first years of idealism and nation building in the post colonial era. That shining Congolese rumba burst forth from the heart of negritude, not the Whiteman’s darkness, but from a soulful blackness that was beginning to awaken and reach for self-determination across the globe from South Africa to the South Bronx in the 50s and 60s and on into the 70s. According to many, the two principal 'schools' of congolese rumba were OK Jazz and African Jazz. My absolute favorite from the 60s is Bantous de capital - be sure to listen to their faulous music, especially "Kumbele Kumbele" - though another tune, "Paquita" by African Fiesta, has laid claim to my heart for it's soothing and trance-inducing tones. Be sure to check out the book "Trois Kilos de Café" (1989) by François Bensignor and the CD "Rumba On The River" for all this good early stuff from the period leading up to and during the first years of 'l'indépendance.'

Returning to the previously mentioned “From Dakar to Cuba – Swinging to the Rumba,” I found that while the collection really captures a lot of the magic of that time covered in "Rumba On The River," it casts a wider net by venturing on into the 70s and beyond as well, and more importantly, the CD travels to other countries influenced by what was happening in the twin cities on the Congo. So, in addition to the requisite Congolese jams, the collection also sports the seminal Senegalese mega-group Star Band de Dakar’s version of the 50s son-pregon “Caramelos,” made famous by Celia Cruz and Sonora Matancera, but this time it gets the sax and guitar treatment of the Congo, and manages to swing mightily. I even love the phonetically pronounced Spanish; half the lyrics to Cuban and Puerto-Rican music are of African origin anyway! The fact that some of this proto-African salsa came from Mali and Senegal, many miles from Kinshasa or Brazzaville, speaks not only for the universal allure of Afro-Cuban music in the Motherland, but also to the fact that many Africans were feeling a burgeoning pan-African consciousness at the time. When you look at the incredible photos of Senegalese music lovers in the 70s taken by the genius photographer Malick Sidibé, you see how the West African disco dancers and record collectors back in the day loved Orquesta Aragon, Johnny Pacheco, Fajardo, Orquesta Broadway, and Monguito “El Unico” – you might say that the charanga (a Cuban flute and violin orchestra) was en vogue in Senegal and Mali. Along side the obvious African records and James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Sly Stone LPs, you also see the Fania, Tico, and Alegre albums that were also popular at the time in New York, San Juan, and Cali, Colombia. For more info on Sidibé, there are several books, and don’t forget to check out Susan Vogel’s bio pic, “Malick Sidibé - Portrait of the Artist as A Portraitist.”

On a side note, one of those Sidibé photos was used on the excellent Orchestra Baobab “Pirate’s Choice” CD that came out a few years back, and I had used some of Sidibe’s earlier on my home-made African Funk compilations in the mid-90s after I acquired his exciting book, “Malick Sidibé” by Andre Magnin, Alexis Schwarzenbach, and Sidibe, at an exhibit in NYC. Seems my ideas always came just before someone with a label or money decided to do the same thing!

Meditating on Senegal, I thought of vocalist Nicolas Menheim. Nicolas became a member of the above-mentioned Star Band de Dakar, with famed afro-salsero Pap Seck’s encouragement, and he stayed on with them from 1979 through 1981. In the early to mid ‘80s he was a member of Super Etoile de Dakar with Youssou N’ Dour. Then, in 1991, he joined Pap Seck and Medoune Diallo to form the famed Africando, with whom he recorded four CDs. Now that was a baaad band! One that any salsa DJ could play next to the hottest tracks by El Gran Combo, commercial acts like Marc Anthony, or any classic Fania artist. When Africando got big, Menheim started his own band, Super Sabador, in 1999. Since then he’s put out two albums that are available as one CD from Stern’s, “Commandante Ché Guevara: Out Of Africa - Afro-Cuban Music From Senegal.” As my man Bruce Polin of Descarga says, “the warm, deep grooves and soulful vocals make this one a pure pleasure. On a couple of tracks you’ll hear the vocals of Maguette Dione (known by some as the Celia Cruz of Senegal). Super Sabador is Dakar’s only salsa band that includes a female vocalist.” The cover shows a dude on a motor bike in what looks to be La Habana, but hey, it could be in Dakar as well where motor bikes are ubiquitous and Che is not un-known. A Senegalese in Cuba reminded me of Las Maravillas De Mali (Les Merveilles du Mali), a cool trail-blazing orchestra from the 70s formed by musicians who had gone to Cuba to study in the mid-60s and had stayed for 8 years. They were trying to get it right early on, and when they came back to their homeland, with all that learning, the impact was huge. Between the evidence of their records and the photos previously discussed, I figure the charanga and son were popular in not only Senegal but also Mali. I picked up a great LP of theirs at the African Record Centre shop in Brooklyn a few years ago, and aside from that I only have hear one other cut on a cool CD from Ned Sublette’s sadly defunct Qbadisc label back in the 90s.

From Senegal and Mali I started thinking on my friend African salsero extraordinaire Ricardo Lemvo. He has said that he grew up in the Congo listening to records of Arsenio Rodriguez, Orquesa Aragón, and Trio Matamoros, enjoying jazz by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, New York salsa by Johnny Pacheco and Ray Barretto, and the soul and funk of Otis Redding and James Brown. Like Baobab, Africando, and so many others, Lemvo also brings his own native traditions to his sound, completing the experience with a full circumference of musical references, bringing the electric guitar and African languages to the forefront in many of his tunes. He also relies on the multi-talented Jesús “El Niño” Pérez for his Cuban juice - but Ricardo is so talented, he could hold the show just on the power of his voice and the great songs he does. His latest album, Isabella, is a very ambitious and satisfying effort - well worth buying. Though many people might not realize that modern Afro Pop has at its base a firm foundation of Latin and other Black Diasporic music, ground-breaking African musicians like Ricardo, as well as Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Youssou N’Dour, Labba Sosseh, Anjelique Kidjo, and Manu Dibango, have been the first to admit it to any one with ears to hear. Mulatu Astatke, the Ethio-jazz pioneer, loved Tito Puente’s music and played in a Latin band in NYC before single-handedly jump-starting the contemporary Ethiopian music scene in the 70s; Ginger Johnson, the Nigerian percussionist based in London in the 50s, cut tunes like “Egyptian Bint Al Cha Cha” with a decidedly Latin flavor; and Fela’s early aggregation, Coola Lobitos, bore a pseudo-Spanish name (‘Cool’ Little Wolves). As Lemvo says, “When Cuban music traveled back to Africa it was instantly recognized and embraced.” Conversely, African artists like Ricardo himself, as well as Olatunji, Fela, Franco, Papa Wemba, and Miriam Makeba, are all well known to many Latinos – in fact it was Latinos who really made Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” such a big hit in New York in the early 70s, which led to his appearing with the Fania All-Stars at the new Roberto Clemente Stadium in San Juan, P.R., where he jammed on the same hit tune (which first appeared on the 1974 Fania LP “Latin-Soul-Rock”). The trip back to Africa for New York Latinos occurred when the Fania All Stars were invited to appear at the notorious “Rumble In the Jungle” concert in Zaire (1974), where they were received like heroes (much to their surprise and delight) by 80,000 fans. Ray Barretto, a member of the same Fania All Stars, had in fact already played and recorded with quite a few African musicians earlier, cementing an early collaborative atmosphere in the studios of New York. It is all of these historical connections that led me to include several African salsa tunes on my recent compilation “The Rough Guide To Salsa” for the World Music Network label out of London. I put it this way in my notes (this is the original pre-edit version):

If the fruit of the meeting and mixing of various Latinos of many different countries in the Big Mango (NYC) has African seeds at its core, then the best way to pay tribute to the ancestors from the motherland is by dancing to acts like Ricardo Lemvo’s Makina Loca and Kékélé, bands that ably prove African Salsa is still very much alive and thriving, not just at the roots but bearing fruit all over the tree. These groups are also positioned at the very heart of this compilation. Whenever I insert an African tune in my club sets, the change in language and sonic texture serves to lighten things up by distancing the whole heavy Latin vibe. Dancers seem to respond to the less intelligible lyrics and different instrumentation with ever more syncopated movement, and the entranced expressions on their faces make me think their souls have indeed gone back over the ocean to Guinea like in the old slave belief. Lemvo's multi-lingual blend of Cuban/Puerto Rican style salsa, merengue, and pan-African genres (soukous, Congolese rumba, kizomba) is what makes him an interesting and fresh flavor in the mix, and that’s why I always make sure to include one of his tunes every Latin Night. Born in Congo-Kinshasa of Angolan ancestry, Lemvo formed his Los Angeles-based band Makina Loca in 1990, and I had the good fortune to experience the euphoria and pleasant surprise his fresh take on Latin music inspired in NYC when he debuted there soon after. He has toured extensively in Europe, Australia, and Latin America, spreading his special message of peace and tolerance, and has performed in some of the most prestigious venues in North America. In film, Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loca appeared in the 1998 movie Dance With Me starring Vanessa Williams and Chayanne. Always pushing the boundaries, Ricardo is up to his highest standards on his latest offering Isabela which is diverse enough to include even a Turkish tango negro. However it is the more straight forward “Papa Na Bana” (‘Big Daddy’), which tells of a macho man who is tamed by a tough woman, that works best here because it bridges the (albeit small) gap between Africa and Cuba so well.

In addition to the above mentioned Ricardo Lemvo, I also included a fabulous cut off the recent Kékélé album "Kinavana," and this is what I wrote (also pre-edit):

Aiding us on that trip, Kékélé takes the bailadores deep into the Congo with their re-interpretation of the classic Cuban son “Jaleo,” made famous by Guillermo Portables in the last century. Kékélé is a Lingala word for a strong vine that climbs trees in the tropical forests of the Congo River basin. These fibrous vines are still used to build bridges across the raging waters, and the members of this All-Star troupe (among them Manu Dibango, Papa Noel, Mbilia Bell, ‘System’ Bialu, Wuta Mayi, and Syran Mbenza) are surely thinking of their storied musical careers as cords twined together to make a path that is durable and yet natural. With Kékélé they have woven a structure that spans the divisions of time, genere, and place - and allows them to come home full circle, covering the Cuban songs that were the source and inspiration of Congolese Rumba in the 1940s and 50s. Papa on guitar adds the authentic rumba sabor, and Manu goes back to the kind of music he played in his youth. Insistent bell and haunting sax had one dancer come up to me after with goose bumps on his arms, exclaiming: “What was that! It took me out of myself into a spiritual trance!” Now that’s what it’s all about! We dance together, we worship together.

So this so-called “African Salsa” is nothing new; just read Gary Stewart’s fascinating and encyclopedic book “Rumba On The River” for a detailed scoop on how old Cuban 78s made their way up the Congo River and into the hearts and minds of the people of Brazzaville and Kinshasa. Stewart starts with a great quotation from the venerable Manu Dibango that sums it all up: “African Music was and remains a music of encounters; in this lies its attractive power.” Check out the sublime 1998 CD “Cubafrica” on the French label Melodie/Celluloid for a peek into what Manu Dibango and Stuart are referring to here; it is a wonderful exercise in uniting these two musical cousins – a magical collaboration between Dibango and Cuarteto Patria (led by the talented guajiro Eliades Ochoa of Buena Vista fame). Also of great interest in researching CDs of Congolese rumba is the website: congo3.html - check it out!!!

The people of Africa make music that is inclusive and open, a music that recognizes its offspring and welcomes them back to the fold. And, just as the Cuban songs caught on like wildfire in the 40s and 50s in the heart of Africa, so too did African musicians catch on to salsa in the 1970s in the heart of Latin music, New York City. As John Child has pointed out, one need look no further than the catalog of Sacodis and SAR records to see the tradition of African musicians traveling to the Big Mango to record with Latinos. In 1980, the Ivory Coast based Sacodis label issued four fabulous albums of African salsa, showcasing the African singer-songwriters Laba Sosseh and Doh Alberto performing with top-notch New York Latin session musicians (like Mario Rivera on sax) under the direction of the Afro-Cuban sonero Monguito “El Unico” Quian. Laba Sosseh was an early pioneer of this hybridization of African vocals and NYC salsa, though Malian artists Boncana Maïga and Amadou Balaké were also visitors to the studios and stages of New York around the same time. Some of the salsa Africana albums on Sacodis also have tunes that are clearly more African and less Latino, like “Leyi” on the album “Monguito El Unico and Laba Sosseh In U.S.A.” The song treats us to an unprecedentedly unique hybrid of Afro-Cuban and straight African elements, finding Monguito dueting with the charismatic Sosseh. In 1981 and ’82, the Cuban Roberto Torres, one of SAR’s founders and no mean sonero in his own right, produced a couple of albums with Sosseh as well, and some of the fruits of these labors can be enjoyed today in reissues, thankfully. One song from those sessions, “Diamoule Mawo,” was later interpreted as “Yamulemao” by the genius Afro-Colombian Joe Arroyo to great success on his killer 1987 album Pa’Lante. Incidentally, Sacodis also recorded the incredible Afro-Cuban singer Linda Leida, who sang with as much spark and power as Celia Cruz or La Lupe, but never gained the same fame, being tragically murdered in NYC two years after her salsa Africana record came out.

What is exciting about these early endeavors is the cross-pollination and collaboration between Latinos/as and Africans, laying some of the groundwork for the explosion of modern African sounds starting in the 60s and 70s like mblalax, soucous, juju, and afrobeat. If you listen for instance to Sosseh’s SAR records, the Latin musicians are not only playing Cuban-derived grooves; Laba is also leading the Nuyorican and Cuban musicians into the uncharted (but probably strangely familiar) territory of soucous, high life, and Congolese rumba. But again, this is not a phenomenon of the 1980s in New York, it goes back to the very first 78s of not only Cuban music but of Calypso, Ragtime, Jazz, Blues, and Minstrel “race” records that were first brought to the ports of West Africa by sailors in the ‘teens and 20s. The roots of this tree are tangled indeed. I recently picked up a fascinating German produced disk that features the above-mentioned Laba Sosseh (and Pepe Fall, leader of the African Salsa band), this time recorded in the venerable EGREM studios in Centro Habana, 2001. The album is called ”Los Afro-Salseros de Senegal En La Habana” and I especially like the languid funky son montunos “Nampalal da Som” and “Africa,” not to mention the perennial chestnut (or should I say peanut), “El Manisero.” There are also some very interesting tracks that display more of a fusion of African sounds with salsa, melding hints of mbalax, Congolese rumba, and reggae into a heady mix (check out “Teungeuth”). As one member of the all-star band assembled for the date, trumpeter Ali Penda, recalled about his short trip to make the record, “These guys here play our music. Cuban music is what our forefathers brought here.”

Which brings us back to the Baobab tree. As a young singer, Youssou N’Dour had greatly admired Orchestra Baobab back in the day (note that he sang with Laba Sosseh in the Star Band); recently, he jumped at the chance to work on their reunion CD “Specialist In All Styles” with producer Nick Gold of Buena Vista Social Club fame. “They had such a clean sound, and they were pan-African. We’re ready for this to come back. We’ve put up barriers in our music,” N’Dour has said, referring to the dominance of the Wolof sound in Senegalese pop, “and we have to bring the barriers down. All the young kids, they understand now just how important the 70s were for their music, so they’re ready to listen.” If you listen very carefully to the Baobab album, you can hear delicious echoes of those old scratchy 78s and 33s in the background as well as a summing up of more recent West African musical history in the grooves. The band that helped close the circle and usher in a new era for African music has helped turn on a new generation to its holistic approach and its veneration of both classic Cuban music and the forefathers of the river rumba from Kinshasa and Brazzaville.

News flash: Baobab has a new CD out – I am very excited to see – and I plan to get myself a copy soon as I can. For now, here is what their UK label, World Circuit, has to say about it:
Five years on from the GRAMMY nominated 'Specialist in All Styles', Orchestra Baobab return with 'Made in Dakar', an album that celebrates their roots in one of the world's most explosive musical cities - which updates their classic mellow sound with a new edge and a new energy for new times. Beautifully recorded in Dakar's Xippi studios, 'Made in Dakar' builds on Baobab's renewed activity on their home turf, where they've undertaken their first Dakar club residency in nearly 20 years with hugely successful Saturday night sessions at the Just 4 U club. Combining the gritty lo-fi feel of their early recordings with dynamic new arrangements, this is an album that could only have been Made in Dakar.

That’s the buzz on the new album, but back when I met the guys in Baobab a few years ago, recording the next CD was not mentioned as a project – indeed, they were on tour away from their original home of Dakar so I don’t know if the album was even yet in the works.

I was not sure, when I went to the Baobab concert, that bringing my book "Cocinando: 50 Years of Latin Album Cover Art" as a gift would go over that well – kind of pushy I thought, and a long shot that they would be into it. My lack of confidence was washed away when I pulled it out of a bag and presented it to the band. They started flipping through the pages, pointing and excitedly talking about what salsa and Latin Jazz records they had in their own collections, who was the best sonero from Puerto Rico, how Monguito “El Unico” was instrumental in bringing Laba Sosseh to New York, on and on. Phew – they love this music I thought, of course! – how could I have doubted, I heaved a sigh of relief! I ended by saying that my doing an African album art book next was a must – to much hearty laughter and high fives all around. Ideas spread like wildfire when the time is right – from African salsa to a book on African LP cover art – certainly some of Baobab’s covers would have to be included, especially the ones from their recent years with World Circuit! That would be a nice completion to the circle of related events leading up to that magical night at Pearl Street.

After the show, Rudy Gomis (lead vocalist with the Orchestra) commented to me, when I mentioned that my favorite song on the new album was their rollicking version of the old Cuban son standard “El Son Te Llama” (“the son is calling you”), that singing those verses was like coming home for him, that the words were indeed calling him, because it was both a song to the ancestors and an anthem for the future. ¡Que viva la salsa Africana – full circle. Congo to Cuba, Dakar to New York!

©2007 Pablo E. Yglesias

A Very Incomplete African Salsa Discography

Africando – Africando Live: 2-CD Set (2001, Nextmusic 8907)
Africando – Baloba! (1998, Stern's Africa 1082)
Africando – Gombo Salsa (1996, Stern's Africa 1071)
Africando – Ketukuba (2006, Sterns 1103)
Africando – Les Meilleurs Clips - Includes: Martina & Betece DVD (2004, Syllart SYL 002)
Africando – Mandali: Africando All Stars (2000, Stern's Africa 1092)
Africando – Martina (2003, Sterns 1096)
Africando, Vol. 1 — Trovador (1993, Stern's Africa 1045)
Africando, Vol. 2 — Tierra Tradicional (1994, Stern's Africa 1054)
Bembeya Jazz National – African Classics (Sheer Sound)
Cuarteto Patria & Manu Dibango – Cubafrica (1998, Melodie/Celluloid)
African Salsa (Pape Fall &) – Artisanat (2002, Stern’s Africa)
Kékélé – Kinavana (2006, Stern’s 1101)
Angélique Kidjo – Oyaya (2004, Columbia)
Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loka – Mambo Yo Yo (1998, Putumayo)
Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loka – São Salvador (2000, Putumayo)
Los Afro Salseros de Senegal en La Habana (2002, Pam 407)
Maravillas de Mali – Les Merveilles du Mali (1970, Disco Stock/African Record Centre)
Monguito, From Africa To Cuba - Lassissi Presente Monguito El Unico (Sacodisc LS21; re-Issued 2005)
Monguito, Salsa Africana - Monguito El Unico & Laba Sosseh In U.S.A (Sacodisc LS26; released 1980; re-issued 2005)
Nicolas Menheim & Le Super Sabador - Commandante Ché Guevara: Out Of Africa - Afro-Cuban Music From Senegal (2002, Pam)
Mulatu – Afro Latin Soul (1966, Worthy; reissued on vinyl)
Eliades Ochoa – Cubafrica: Cuarteto Patria & Manu Dibango
(1998, Melodie 79593)
Orchestra Baobab – Made In Dakar (2007, World Circuit)
Orchestra Baobab – Specialist In All Styles (2002, World Circuit/Nonesuch)
Orchestra Baobab – Pirate’s Choice (2002, Nonesuch)
Orchestra Baobab – On Vera Ça (1997, World Circuit/Ledoux-Melodie)
Orchestra Baobab – N’Wolof (1998, Dakar Sound)
Orchestra Baobab – Night at Club Baobab; Senegalese dance music of the 70s (Oriki)
Orchestra Baobab – African Classics (Sheer Sound)
Orchestra Baobab – Bamba (1993, Stern’s Africa)
Gnonnas Pedro - La Compilation (1991, Ledoux France)
Papa Noël – Café Noir (2007, Tumi 141)
Tabu Ley Rochereau – Voice of Lightness – Congo Classics (Sterns)
Pape Seck & Starband Number One – No. 1 de No 1. (1996, Dakar Sound)
Laba Sosseh, Laba Sosseh (SAR/Guajiro 1029)
Carlos “Patato” Valdés – Ritmo y Candela II: African Crossroads (Round World, 1998)
Various Artists – African Pearls Vol.1; Congo/Rumba On The River (Syllart)
Various Artists – African Salsa (1998, Earthworks/ Stern’s Africa)
Various Artists – Afro-Latino (1998, Putumayo)
Various Artists – Congo To Cuba (2002, Putumayo)
Various Artists – Creole Love Calls (2001, Isma’a/RFO Musique)
Various Artists – From Dakar to Cuba – Swinging The Rumba (2006, Sheer Sound)
Various Artists – Roots of Rumba Rock – Congo Classics 1953-55 (Cram World
Various Artists – Salsa Africa: Afro-Cuban Salsa Music (2000, Candela)
Various Artists – Salsa Around The World (2003, Putumayo)