Wednesday, September 28, 2011

CHRIS READ-Ritmos Colombianos/Disco Cumbia (Breakin Bread, 2011)

Sometimes it seems to me like the whole ñu-cumbia thing has been winding down lately, especially considering that a label like ZZK records hadn't release a thing since 2010 (OK, Chancha's vinyl came out in 2011 but it was digitally released in late 2010).
But while the output in Latin American digital cumbia and the interest in it by hipster blogs may have decreased this year, there was a notorious increase in releases (many of them fortunately in vinyl and particularly in 7'' format) sampling cumbia by DJ's and record labels from New York and Europe that were not particularly interested in Latin music just a couple of years ago.
It's a very interesting phenomenon and I'm happily welcoming it. DJ and producers from the break-beats/hip-hop camps, like the british Chris Read here, getting introduced late to cumbia and remixing it from their funky sensibility, making it b-boy friendly.
Some may argue that he basically just sampled the same traditional cumbia song on both sides of the single and that said song, "La Cumbia Cienaguera," is like the basic of the basics of the genre, the very first cumbia that pops up when you search for cumbia and that it has been already sampled and remixed  hundreds of times before. But, while all that is true, I don't think that takes any value away from these two magnificent mixes, which I'll be spinning, for sure, in my sets starting tomorrow.
Other more politicized critics will read this phenomenon as another sign of global Anglo cultural imperialism, and complain about how these white Anglosaxon artists are profiting of this Latin American music style while the many talented DJ's and producers who pioneered the genre in Latin America rarely get this exposure and treatment. And sure, that might be true to a certain extent, but also, as I pointed out many times on this blog, ñu-cumbia would've never picked up in Latin America and become a successful global scene if it wasn't for the work done by gringos visiting or living down there (Señor Coconut, Richard Blair, Up Bustle & Out, El G, Quantic, Oro11) which encouraged local artist to follow suit.
And to be honest, I could never honestly support that line of thinking because, even though I'm from Latin America, I'm almost as foreign to the cumbia culture as the next British guy, because I grew up listening almost exclusively to American hip-hop and England's acid house and while cumbia was crossing over and becoming commercially successful back in my hometown I was way to obsessed with The KLF to pay any genuine attention to it. So I could never take that stand and complain about these gringos getting in the band-wagon of ñu-cumbia, especially not when they do it so much better than us, proof of it is this amazing couple of tracks in this must-have single. So, keep them comming!

Get it here.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Digging Cumbia Argentina-Vinyl Rips

From an international perspective, Argentine cumbia didn't become interesting until the late '90s/early '00s with the emergence of the ghetto-fabulous cumbia villera and almost simultaneously ñu-cumbia, or cumbia digital. But cumbia was a very well established genre of commercial dance music in Argentina since the '60s and had to suffer many mutations to adapt to the local market, starting from the pure Colombian original style, until attaining its own local character. 
As an average white middle-class big city boy in Eurocentric Buenos Aires, I grew up systematically turning my back on cumbia, dismissing it as "music for maids and bus-drivers." But as much as my generation would like to deny it, cumbia was there, it was very present in our backyards, subconsciously influencing us. Going back to the vinyl records of that era I find myself confronted with mixed feelings, a sort of nostalgia for an era I could never be nostalgic about because I was decisively not part of it. Still, many of these songs unleash instant flashbacks to precise moments of my childhood because we used to sing them, mostly as a joke, even when we didn't know that type of music was called cumbia, sometimes because they crossed over to the mainstream as soccer hooligan chants, as mentioned on this related post
I put together this selection of Argentine pressings of cumbia--not exclusively recorded by Argentinean artists or artist living in Argentina. It's an unfinished work, needs a lot more work, but a first step into trying to figure out, through vinyl digging, some of the history of Argentine cumbia and how it developed to eventually give birth to cumbia villera and ñu-cumbia. I only ripped some tracks from each album, the ones I found either more interesting or more representative. Enjoy and share! 

CUARTETO IMPERIAL - Lamento Negro/El Zurdo José (CBS, date unkwon): The 45 RPM single with the big hole was not a particularly popular format in Argentina, the way it was in other cumbia-friendly countries (Colombia, Mexico, Peru) during the '70s and '80s. Instead, you find this 7'' records with little hole that play in 33RPM. Here we have a good example of the songs that helped popularize cumbia in Argentina during the '70s, thanks to Cuarteto Imperial, who were actually Colombians living in Buenos Aires, and playing cumbia still in a very traditionally Colombian style. Cumbia was still very rural in its topics and aesthetics and very afro in its rhythms, those qualities would eventually move aside to make room for the characteristic Argentine cumbia style developed in the following two decades.

LOS WAWANCO - Volumen #8 (Odeon Pops, date unknown): Along with Cuarteto Imperial, Los Wawanco are considered the main pioneers  in bringing Cumbia to Argentina and making it a popular dance music during the '60s and '70s. What differentiate these guys from the other pioneers was that the group had members from all over Latin America (Costa Rica, Peru, Colombia, Chile, Argentina), so their musical influences were a lot more diverse than the traditional Colombian cumbia, even though that was the main genre they played during their beginnings. Here we have them in a 4 song, 33RPM EP, doing covers of Colombian standards ("El Pescador") and a Dominican merengue (however, it's labeled Colombian merengue on the cover art).

LOS DE COLOMBIA - Ritmo y más ritmo (Philips, date unknown): Just look at that groovy cover! And the music is not that bad either, well, at least some of it. Of course, the Los De Colombia are five ugly dudes, who probably aren't even Colombian, and those girls are just some random hot models, but wow, I feel like framing this one. Their repertoire consist on mostly Colombian style cumbias, but there're a few odd numbers, a bolero, a translated cover of Sonny Rollins, a lot of tango/milonga style singing and even a canaval murga (pretty bad one though). I only ripped a few of the strongest cumbia tracks, the instrumentals have some pretty good loops.

LOS LUCEROS COLOMBIANOS CON RITMO - Fiesta en Bogotá (Armar, 1974): This is just me speculating, but I think there was a time when claiming to be Colombian gave you more credibility if you were trying to play cumbia in Argentina. That's why there're so many groups with names like this. I don't know who they are, maybe they were Colombians who followed the steps of Cuarteto Imperial and relocated in Argentina, maybe they are Argentineans pretending to be Colombians and playing mostly Colombian style cumbias. There's however a candombe (Afro-Uruguayan rhythm) listed in their repertoire and a song where they say "here in Argentina" in the chorus (even when the album title is Party in Bogotá). So I have my doubts.

MARIO Y SUS DIAMANTES - Lo último de (Sicamericana, date unknown): An oddity here. Instrumental organ-lead tropidelia by a Venezuelan artist, pressed in Argentina. It swings between extremes, from really horrible most of the time to really amazing in a few moments. There're some covers of Colombian classic cumbias, like Calixto Ochoa's "La Comadre" and Eliseo Herrera's "La Manzana" (which I've already posted in a previous batch of vinyl rips, in a vocal version by Dominica y Su Conjunto--this version here, however, has a scratch so it pops and skips a few times, but it still has an great break and if you really want to, you can easily edit the pops out). There're also some boring ass boleros and bossa nova covers that I didn't bother to rip and honestly, most of the album sounds like carrousel music but then you have an original number like "Las Puertas" and it's super dope.

LOS COSTEÑOS - A Gozar la Cumbia (Billboard, 1977): Once again, I don't know if these guys are really costeños from Colombia, or they are just Argentineans pretending, but if it's the second case, they pull it off really well. This album includes all the colombian cumbia songs that I knew as a kid, before the Argentine cumbia pop crossover of 1989--although I didn't know the genre was called cumbia yet. To me they were just funny popular songs that people in the country's inner provinces danced to back then, and I discovered them through my cousin, who used to sing them without really understanding the meaning of the lyrics that talked about places like Santa Marta and Barranquilla, towns in the northern coast of Colombia that we didn't even know existed. It also includes a cover of "La Pollera Amarilla" (an answer record of sorts to the über-famous "La Pollera Colorá"?) that was later popularized in Argentina during the early '90s cumbia explosion when covered by Gladys La Bomba Tucumana (it was her version that made it to the soccer stadiums and it was sung along with distorted lyrics by hooligans for most part of the '90s). All these sound very Colombian in style, but then you have "Merceditas," a traditional Argentine folklore song, so I don't know...

WAWANCO - Unicamente (EMI, 1977): Here we have an early example of cumbia diverting away from its Colombian roots to acquire a more Argentine character. Incorporating elements from local milonga, "lunfardo" (vernacular Argentine  slang) and references to current Argentine pop culture (mentions of national sport heroes Guillermo Vilas  and Carlos Monzón), helped Los Wawanco become the biggest tropical music  powerhouse in Argentina during the '70s and their influence can still be seen decades later. This album includes the original "Cumbia Bohemia" that would later be successfully covered in the '90s by the biggest female cumbia singer of that decade, Gilda. There're some tracks where they still go back to the Colombian roots, paseo, gaita and vallenato, but for the most part the album is marked by a clear intention of argentinizing cumbia.

LOS DIABLOS DE LA CUMBIA - Creadores de la cumbia metálica (Sicamericana, 1985): Another oddity that has the word fail written all over it. Way before cumbia villera achieved street-cred by importing the aesthetics of hip-hop mixed in with soccer hooliganism, these bunch of wankers were trying -unsuccessfully- to merge cumbia with the then-prevailing hard-rock/metal aesthetics with similar intentions. Cumbia wasn't rural, wasn't Afro and wasn't Colombian anymore, by now it was a local pop music genre that was gradually becoming more and more urban, so palm trees were replaced by graffitied walls. Still, these guys were mostly a joke and had no rock credibility so nobody ever took them seriously, particularly because their cumbia had almost no "metal" at all (as they claim in the title) and also because they made cheesy covers of cheesy TV show songs. It wasn't until the mid-'90s with Los Auténticos Decadentes, Bersuit and Agrupación Mamanis that cumbia an rock finally found a commercially successful meeting point.

CLAN TROPICAL - Todo al 3 (Magenta, 1991): Generic cumbia compilation from Magenta, the label that pretty much monopolized commercial cumbia in Argentina during the '90s. Four bands, two of which are horrible (Luz de Luna and Los Duendes de Santa Fé) and two that barely pass for historical interest only (Grupo Angora, Los Diamantes), all have in common one thing, the same manager: a Peruvian guy named "El Cholo" who put together the comp. Sometime along the '80s there was in Argentina of a considerable switch from the classic Colombian style of cumbia to the cheesier side of Peruvian chicha (minus the psychedelic part) brought over by an wave of working-class Peruvian immigrants. Chicha pioneers Los Mirlos had such a success in Argentina during the early '90s that they established a permanent local branch of their band for the Argentine market. Traditional Colombian cumbia instruments as gaitas and accordion are nowhere to be found here, replaced by electric guitar and keyboards and lyrics are corny to the max.

LOS CARTAGENEROS - El Sonido De Los Carta (Magenta, 1990): "Ni De Piedra Ni Madera" by Los Cartageneros was one of the biggest hits in Argentine cumbia of the late '80s/early '90s and one of the first of many cumbia hits that crossed over to the mainstream media and dancefloors. It's also quite significant for me because it's the first cumbia which lyrics I memorized after seeing them perform it at a TV show (although I'm pretty sure that was at least a couple of years before 1990). Even though in their name they claim to be from Cartagena (Colombia) I don't think any of the members of this Argentine band are any more Colombian than the Mexican group Supergrupo Colombia.

Friday, September 16, 2011

ERIC BOBO & LATIN BITMAN-Welcome To The Ritmo Machine (Nacional Records, 2011)

I've been anxiously awaiting this release for months and now that Ana Tijoux's second album on Nacional has been pushed back to early 2012 (it was originally announced for November, 2011) I have a feeling this is gonna be one of the strongest contenders for best album of the year in The Hard Data awards.
I'm a confessed fan of both Latin Bitman and Eric Bobo and I've been following their careers closely for a while now. Back in 2002 I discovered Bitman through the innovative Robar Es Natural signed by the then-duo Bitman & Roban which we nominated for best album of the year in my La Banda Elástica days, way before anybody else in the US ever talked about him (or anybody else in the progressive Chilean hip-hop scene).
Eric Bobo, the son of the legendary Latin soul pioneer Willie Bobo, has been touring with hip-hop artists as a live percussionist since forever, from the Beastie Boys during their Ill Communication days to Cypress Hill. It was with the later that I had a chance to meet him back in 1996 when I was giving my first, timid, baby-steps into music journalism. He was, in fact, the first international English-speaking artist I've ever interviewed.
So, as you can imagine, I have a lot of love for these two. Both had been in the Nacional Records roster for a while but neither received the level of exposure they deserved compared to other artists of the same label (with four releases on Nacional Records, Bitman has still to come and tour the US for the first time), but with this ambitious collaboration album, that will be reverted. I hope.
I mean, after we saw labelmate Ana Tijoux breaking all the language/market barriers and getting unprecedented levels of attention from the Anglo (and specialized hip-hop) media, there's absolutely no reason why this album would fail to achieve the same. Specially considering the top-notch guests MC's dropping rhyming knowledge (amongst whom we have, of course, Ana Tijoux, albeit in an odd pairing with Psycho Realm's Sick Jacken).
I had humongous expectations for this project and so far it hasn't disappointed me (I received an advance copy yesterday, I've only listened to it twice, and I haven't had a chance to test it on my DJ sets yet). The combination of Bitman's proficiency in crafting funky break beats and his professed love to the Brazilian cool along with Bobo's restless percussion is sublime and I'd even argue that most of the times, the guest vocalists are just an unnecessary added value. Of course everybody loves Jurassic 5's Chali 2Na, and Cypress Hill's Sen Dog is a likable character as well, but Control Machete's Pato? Having access to the most avant-guard MC's of the Spanish Language in their vicinity, why did you see the need to go so old school?
Anyway, as already stated, this is not an album held together by guest stars and it stands very well on its own with just the talent of both Eric Bobo and Bitman, so that doesn't matter. Now seriously, if there was one Nacional Records release that would benefit of vinyl pressing this is it, right here, look no further. It has all the potential in the world to cross-over to the beat-digging, vinyl-loving, true-school hip-hop fans and become a collector's item. Nacional slept on many others that would've been successful on vinyl (Bomba Estéreo, Ana Tijoux), I really hope they don't sleep on this one or I'll be tempted to break into their offices, Pinochet style, and take over operations in a record label coup d'état.

Watch out for this release dropping in November, 2011.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

TRES CORONAS-La Música Es Mi Arma (Parcero, 2011)

I remember the first time I heard about Rocca. It was back in the second half of the '90s, maybe 1997, and I was selling my hip-hop fanzine at the park in Buenos Aires, next to my buddy who sold bootlegged American rap CDs off a blanket on the floor and we were kinda like the tiny epicenter of the whole still miniscule emerging scene. A who-is-who of the scene movers and doers used to gather around us and discuss the present and future of rap in Spanish. Then this one day a renown b-boy and respected freestyler showed up with a portable CD player and he was all hyped up over his recent discovery. He had a bootlegged copy of Rocca's solo debut Entre Deux Mondes and it was as if  he had a prophetic vision of the future. "This is it, man! This is how to rap in Spanish correctly."
For ages local MC's had been struggling with adapting our native language to the rap flow and most of the results up to that point were laughable. They either had a very old-school cheesy flow, or they came out as Chicano wannabe's imitating Cypress Hill's wacky accent, but nobody had found yet a way to flow naturally, with our own characteristic pronunciation. Rocca's album had only one song in Spanish, the rest was in French, but that was enough to unleash a revolution in the way we rapped.
The fact that he came from France and he was very respected in the French rap scene was instrumental too. Had he released that same song in Colombia, we would've probably skipped it. But as authentic Argentinians we were unapologetically Eurocentric and we really looked up toward French hip-hop as the epitome of class, sophistication and just pure dopeness. I mean, yeah, of course New York's hip-hop was tremendously influential, but claiming you knew French rap, and dropping the stage-names of the rappers in IAM or NTM when you enumerated your favorite MC's gave you instant cred in the game. People here in the US, when I tell them about this, have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that us, rap fans in Argentina who didn't understand a word of French, used to fetishize French rap so much. But for kids who didn't understand English either and grew up listening to Public Enemy and NWA, French rap was just rap that sounded amazingly good to our ears, something somehow more elegant and refined than the American average.
I'd even go as far as stating that it was the fact that she was French and rapped in French what gave Ana Tijoux, back in those same days, her initial instant buzz and set her apart of the herd to later become the indisputable dopest female MC of the subcontinent.  
Anyway, going back to my story, Rocca blew all our minds with his rap in Spanish back then, because he had a French rap flow which adapted a lot better to our language than the Anglo flow. My friend's prophecy however didn't realize, because less than a year later it was the Spain's rap golden-agers (7 Notas 7 Colores, CPV, Violadores del Verso, etc) who ended up changing the way we rapped once and for ever.
Still, Rocca was remembered by many as a pioneer of rap en español's new school. From doing a first album that had only one song in Spanish he went to a second one where he had only one song in French and since then Spanish became his main rapping language.
Then he moved to New York City and formed Tres Coronas. At that point I still had hopes for rap in Spanish entering the impermeable US market and if somebody could do it and do it right, that was Rocca with his new NY-based group. Or so I thought.  
I wasn't the only one though. Toy Selectah-directed Machete Records, the urban Latino branch of Univeral Records, signed them for a massive release that was expected to blow up and kick-start a whole movement.
However, that never happened for two main reasons: first, one of the three members of what was originally a trio left the group somewhere between the recording of their debut album and its release. Now even the group's name didn't make sense. Second, and more importantly, the album came out in 2006, amid the boom of reggaetón. Reggaetón devoured the Latin mainstream and took away any chance Spanish rap had to ever cross over in the US. Now people thought reggaetón was the Latin response to American hip-hop, and real Spanish hip-hop fans and artists were collectively driven into madness by the well-spread wrong assumption.
Unwilling to let them go unnoticed after spending so much money in them, the label even fabricated some feature appearances and collaborations with reggaetoneros, but it was too late, the damage was done. The same commercial Latin radios that back then played reggaetón 24/7 wouldn't even consider playing actual hip-hop.
Jump a few years to present day and we find Rocca and PNO, the two remaining members of Tres Coronas, relocated in their ancestral land, Colombia. La Musica Es Mi Arma is their latest release and fortunately finds the rappers more interested in exploring the old traditions of Afro-Colombian music than trying to compete for mainstream exposure with Calle 13. That battle, we know now, will never  be won. But still, they have their loyal supporters and orthodox rap heads who respect Rocca as one of the biggest names in Spanish rap world-wide.  And I'm one of them. It didn't blow my mind in the way Rocca did fourteen years ago when I first heard him at that park on the headphones of my friend's CD player, but I still give him props for his career and for digging into the cumbia roots.

Buy it on Itunes.

Monday, September 12, 2011

LATIN BEAT (Putumayo, 2011)

We tend to dismiss Putumayo's compilations as music-for-white-people-who-don't-really-buy-music-regularly-but-want-to-be-down-with-some-"ethnic"-stuff-to-feel-more-connected-to-their-idea-of-something-that's-"real"-so-they-buy-these-impulsively-at-the-whole-foods-market-and-play-it-as-background-during-their-dinner-parties-to-pretend-they-are-also-world-travelers-like-their-guests.
And while all of the above is inevitably true, I happen to be defender of these compilations because I found them valuable, useful and also quite accomplished in their own sense.
I haven't done so in a few years, but I used to DJ a lot at restaurants/lounge bars, where people don't ever dance and the DJ booth is just an added value to make the venue look hip and an excuse to charge more for the drinks. I remember one of my very first days DJing at one of these places, I asked one of the other resident DJs what he recommended to play and he said "I play all Putumayo music." As in: attitude-free feel-good music with foreign elements but a familiar Westernized song structure that makes it easy to digest by the neofite gringo listener. I had a handful of Putumayo's comps and I instantly added them to my playlist and became staples of my lounge DJ sets. People love them, and by people here I mean restaurant managers and ceviche-eating white people (who are inherently more sophisticated than burrito-eating white people, right?).
The thing is, regardless of how much of a music snob I could ever pretend to be, I have to give credit to Putumayo compilations for continuously introducing me to new, interesting, artists that I didn't even know existed. It's kind of embarrassing to say you "discovered" this or that band from a CD that people pick up with their chai latte at the local coffee shop, but I have no problem admitting it openly. That's the accomplished part I was referring to earlier: these guys do a remarkable job scrutinizing infinite piles of music to find the perfect combo for a complete-while-concise compilation. I don't think I could do it better. I don't think I'd ever be able to select an introduction to a genre in just eleven tracks, I need twenty five, at least.
This new Latin Beat comp is presented, in the press release, as something innovative within the label's succulent catalog, but in all honestly, it's just one more Putumayo compilation of classic Putumayo music, and most of the tracks could be easily interchangeable with the ones on other similar comps like Latin Groove, Latin Dance Party, Latin Radio, Latin Banquet (I'm pulling up these names from the top of my head, so excuse me if I'm bullshitting, but you get the point).
There's an obvious predominance of Colombian music, following the current global fetish and there's a handful of Cuban songs. There're also some from unexpected corners of the planet (some guys in New Zealand doing something that sounds straight-outta that Herb Alpert's Whipped Cream remixes comp) and there's unfortunately, nothing from Brazil. Oh, and there's a ñu-cumbia by Texas' Charanga Cakewalk, the only artists in the whole disc that I was familiar with before. All the rest, I've never heard about, and that's, once again, where the value of this CD is to be found.
This was a double release with an African Beat comp that I also recommend but I won't be reviewing on this blog because it's not Latin But Cool. Both are available digitally too, in case you are embarrassed of purchasing CDs at a store where people wear sandals and base their diet on quinoa.

Buy it here.