Saturday, July 28, 2012

ONDATROPICA (Soundway, 2012)

Cumbia's revival has gone full circle and reached its climax.
It went a long way since its rural origins in colonial Northern Colombia, until it moved down to the city to experience its golden age in the '60s and '70s thanks in big part to Discos Fuentes. Then it vanished from the Colombian mainstream while simultaneously gaining millions of fans in such diverse places of Latin America as Mexico, Peru and Argentina, where the genre (with its new local variations and adaptations) became the preferred music of the proletariat. All this time the musical lingua franca of the Latin American working classes lacked any sort of interest or support from the snobby (predominantly eurocentric) taste-makers and critics who shunned the genre as kitsch and lowbrow disposable music for the undereducated. The English-speaking half of the world, completely ignored its existence. Then in the late '80s and '90s a new generation of Latin American rockers (and punk rockers) started to experiment with the genre, incorporating it "ironically" to their sets. This, in its turn led to a whole other generation of bedroom producers and DJs to take up the task in the new millennium creating ñu-cumbia, a whole internet-based scene coming out simultaneously from the big cities in Mexico, Argentina and the US. Halfway throughout the first decade of the current century British DJs, producers and diggers caught up with what was going on in Latin America and kicked off a whole phenomenon of unprecedented global crossover for cumbia. The genre, for the first time, reached the so-called first world dancefloors and prestigious DJs and progressively-minded boutique record labels (like UK-based Soundway) turned their ears toward Colombia as the new untapped source of exotic Latin music for export. This, of course, sparked a boom of sudden interest in Afro-Colombian musical roots amongst the Colombian youth who had been ignoring the genre for the past three decades.
And here we are now, at the peak of ñu-cumbia's renaissance, with the genre's most ambitious opus ever conceived. Recorded at the genre's historic source: the legendary Discos Fuentes studios, in Medellin, Colombia. Produced by a Colombian digger who pretty much spearheaded the ñu-cumbia emergence in his country after following its evolution throughout the continent, along with a British big name producer and taste-maker who has been instrumental in spreading the cumbia gospel throughout the Anglophone world. Together, Frente Cumbiero's Mario Galeano Toro and Will "Quantic" Holland took upon themselves the challenge and responsibility of creating what could easily end up being labeled cumbia's ultimate masterpiece. In it, many of the legends who are still alive from cumbia's golden age (Aníbal Velásquez, Fruko, Michi Sarmiento) collaborate with representatives of the new generation who had discovered cumbia through the prism of hip-hop's music recyclability. Not coincidentally, the ending result, a beautifully packaged triple LP (historically cumbia albums never received this kind of special treatment, most didn't even include liner notes and replaced the artist's photos with girls in bikinis) had to be pressed in Great Britain (the project was, in fact, funded by the British Council). Full circle indeed.
All of this is of undeniable historic significance. Well, what about the music?
Ondatropica is not a band, it's a studio experiment and as such lacks the sort of immortal compositions that only come out after years of rehearsing and playing gigs together. This is understandable, it was done within a very restricted timeline, with guests that came and went through the studio and for the most part didn't know each other. So expecting otherwise would be fatuous. At times it feels underproduced, as spontaneous studio jams, almost recorded live. That's exactly what it is. Of course, this helps highlight the amazing skills of some extremely talented musicians with up to five decades of tenure in the recording business, and the vision of the producers who called the shots on the go. There are moments of undeniable genius, and fortunately they are multiple. But there are also some tracks that could've probably benefitted from more work or post-production. I guess the premise was to reflect the studio experiment as a whole and trying to replicate the atmosphere of the moment on wax, which is certainly achieved.
Now, here's the paradox: even though both producers come from a DJ background, this is not a DJ-oriented album per se. There are no obvious big club tunes here and honestly, the packaging is so nice, that I don't know if I wanna take it out with me to my gigs. But both of them are also renowned diggers and this is in essence a digger's wet dream of an album. They basically put together the tunes that they would go crazy for if they found on an old dusty pile of records at a garage sale in Cartagena. So much so that they took the effort of recreating the sound and aesthetics of the sought-after golden era recordings. They even recorded the whole session in analog, on a four track, and made very clear that the vinyl edition did not, at any point, got digitized. It went straight from reel to reel tape to mastering to pressing. No protools, bitches. Ever.
So yeah, it has an overall old-fashioned feeling, but at the same time it aims forward. It's as if their intention was to re-write the Afro-Colombian tropical cannon from scratch, connecting the best of the progressive old-school directly to the present and the future, skipping (and ignoring) all the dark period of decline and assembly-line commercialization that happened in the middle.
Overall it was a delight listening the album from beginning to end and I figure it's one of those that will inevitably grow on me even more with successive plays. As a bonus, if all this historic significance wasn't enough, the album includes an impromptu guest appearance of my dear friend, and one of my all-time favorite artists, Ana Tijoux, and as far as I'm concerned, this is the very first time her voice was pressed on vinyl!
To all of those who thought that cumbia's revival was just a passing trend for hipsters and bloggers what can I say other than tough titties, I wish you better luck next time you try predicting music trends. Cumbia is here to stay and this is just the beginning.


Thursday, July 26, 2012


I came back from LAMC 2012 with a big pile of CDs and as you know, I'm not really very fond of this format, but what the hell, nobody gives away free vinyl. Nobody buys CDs either, they ended up becoming just promotional tools, like business cards, or flyers, to pass out at conferences. So, I have this big pile of CDs on my desk and it's a pain in the ass to go through it, but I challenged myself to listen to them all, from beginning to end, and write at least a few sentences about each and every one of them, just as a sign of appreciation for all the hard work these musicians and labels put to release this stuff (I know because as an artist and partly record label representative I was also passing out my own crappy CDs there in the hopes that at least one person would dedicates a minute or two to listen to them). So fuck it, here we go:

JBABUN-JBabun (self release, 2012): Of the whole pile of CDs this is the one I was the most excited about and looking forward to listen to. Partly because of the cool art cover design, partly because of the reference to Brazilian funk (Jorge Ben, Tim Maia, Ed Motta) I heard from the mouth of the guy who handed it to me on my first day at the conference. I love all things Brazil and most things funk and the converging point between those two is like the ultimate formula for eargasm, in my book at least. From the get-go it got my attention with a very James Brown-esque intro and it had all the right ingredients to keep my attention in place except for one thing: the trite, cliché, cheesy lyrics. I love funky beats, but sometimes it's too hard for me to get through it if the lyrics are common place or just plain lame. I feel the exact same way towards a lot of Los Amigos Invisibles stuff (although, I have to say, those guys, or at least DJ Afro, have a great sense of humor to compensate) so this reminded me a lot of the Venezuelans-in-New York combo (JBabun is, by the way a Puerto Rican with a Brazilian fetish in New York). That being said, of all the debut CDs I've got, this is definitely the one with the most potential, I really hope they keep it up, they tighten up the lyrics department a bit more while keeping the beats equally funky and there's definitely some awesome music that could come out from here. Was I a major label with lots of money to throw away, I'd sign them to a development deal, no doubt. BUY IT HERE.

LOS GAITEROS DE SAN JACINTO-Así Tocan Los Indios (Llorona Records, 2012): I was expecting a lot more cumbia at LAMC, maybe I was too naive, but of all the CDs I've got, this is the closest thing to cumbia on the pile and it's not even cumbia per se. It's mostly old school gaita, a rural, folkloric sub-genre of the cumbia family tree that leans more towards the Amerindian campesino side of the Colombian Caribbean, instead of the freed Afro slaves of the palenques. I honestly know nothing about this music style and if you're not Colombian, this might sound nothing like cumbia to you, specially if you discovered cumbia post ñu-cumbia and cumbia digital. This has absolutely nothing to do with that. But if you're interested in exploring this often forgotten side of the genre's roots, these guys are the real deal, they've been playing for decades (the band's leader used to play with cumbia's patriarch Andrés Landero) and they're still active, writing and recording new material (this is not a reissue, it's actually a new record!) and touring! Funny thing is the label, Llorona Records, is mostly dedicated to new trends, digital cumbia and DJ-friendly stuff, but they decided to put out some roots stuff too, because they genuinely believe this music deserves more exposure, in and outside Colombia, and I appreciate that and value their great effort (the design, packaging and booklet, filled with comprehensive bilingual liner notes is pretty dope too). I honestly couldn't get into most of the tracks, they sound too rural to me, but there're a couple of accordion-riden cumbias that I really dug and I'll probably be adding to my cumbia DJ set. (Not Released Yet)

BOBBY PAUNETTO-El Sonido Moderno (Fania/Mardi Grass 2010): This one came with the conference registration bag and my first reaction was, how the hell did this get in there? I mean, this is LAMC, right? It's about Latin Alternative music and if you ask me for the definition of alternative, within the Latin US market context, my answer will be something like music (regardless of genre labeling) that's not Latin American traditional, and it's current but not top-40  radio pop. How does a reissue of a Fania boogaloo/Latin jazz record from the '60s fits into this? I don't really know. And the reissue itself is a couple of years old, not a new release, which leads me to speculate that maybe Fania just wanted to get rid of some overstock of old catalog that isn't moving and called Mr. LAMC and said "hey, we're not gonna be part of your conference, we have no place in that context, nothing to sell to your audience, but here, you can have all these free CDs to give away." Whatever the implausible reasoning behind it is, I don't care, because I love Fania reissues! This one came with a beautiful package and an awesome booklet full of interesting info that reads like a Waxpoetics article. And the music is pretty cool too. Nothing to go crazy for, but more like delicate jazzy sounds to play as background living-room music. Don't think this will make it to my DJ sets, but I already added it to my home stereo rotation for music to listen to while having dinner with cool guests. BUY IT HERE

ELASTIC BOND-Frecuencia Natural (Self Release, 2010): I discovered these guys when I wrote a review about them for Remezcla, not too long ago, and I became an instant fan. I finally met two of their members in person during LAMC and they were really cool and nice people and they gave me their four-song debut EP which basically confirmed my fandom. They are new artists with a promising future and great taste for soulful sounds. A perfect balance between retro aesthetics and modern technology. They remind me a lot of early Si*Sé, and that's a good thing because Si*Sé was one of my favorite bands of the early 2000's. Since they are in Miami, I'd love to see them collaborating with, or at least getting a remix done by one of my all time favorite Latin funk bands: Spam Allstars. And if possible, pressing it on vinyl. As a side note: they desperately need a graphic design makeover, I honestly would've never picked up this CD if judging solely by the cover. BUY IT HERE

JOHN LEGUIZAMO-Ghetto Clown (Fania, 2011): Another totally random Fania back-catalog CD that showed up in my bag. I wonder if all the conference attendees got the same ones. I was originally going to bash this one, based on the vomit-inducing amateurish art and the fact that it's built around the figure of this annoying clown whose face I can't tolerate. Apparently this fool hand-picked a bunch of classic songs from the extensive Fania collection to put together a compilation that somehow reminded him of the music he grew up listening to in Harlem during the '70s. And oh surprise, the selection is not bad at all. Sure there're some super basic tracks that everybody must already have ("Quimbara," "Aguanile," "Acid") but there're some really interesting finds too that I didn't have and I certainly don't mind adding to my salsa vieja playlist. Overall it's a good introduction to Fania's music if you're new to the genre and I guess that's the whole point of it, since the comp is targeted not at music collectors but at this guy's audience at his stand-up show. Plus, it comes with a booklet and liner notes written by my friend -and ultimate authority in salsa journalism- Ernesto Lechner, so if you're interested, make sure you get the physical copy (it's cheaper than the MP3!). BUY IT HERE

HOLA HI-Primavera (Self Release, 2011): Those who've been reading my blog for a while know very well that I have extremely little tolerance for romantic pop and most probably would be expecting me to make fun of this CD. It's way too bland for my taste and it lacks everything that I personally regard as good qualities in the music that I prefer to listen and/or play (funky beats, witty lyrics, original topics, obscure samples, irony, attitude, etc). That being said, I can't be a hater on this one because there's nothing inherently bad about it, in fact if you like 80s pop en español and power ballads and stuff like that, this might be right up your alley and it's ok, I'm not even gonna make you feel bad for your guilty pleasures. I grew up on a lot of that music so I don't necessarily reject it, I'm just over it. I'm not a teenager anymore, I'm way too cynical to listen to people talking about love and whenever I listen to old cheesy pop it's only for its nostalgic value or "ironically." Anyway, there's some really good song-crafting here and her voice is delightful so if that sounds like something you might enjoy, give them a listen. BUY IT HERE

PROFETAS-Baila (Audio Lirica Ent. 2011): These guys were scheduled to perform at Central park with la Mala Rodríguez, but they either never made it on time or got their show cancelled, I don't know because nobody even had the basic common sense of coming out on stage and explain anything on the mic. Not that I was desperate to see them, but that could've been a dope performance and now I'll never know. Fortunately they did a small, impromptu, acoustic set at the hotel where the conference was held, right next to the Remezcla booth where I was hanging out and it was really nice. Profetas do some easily digestible pop reggae for the masses with elements of Afro-Colombian roots, dancehall, rap and  even some unapologetically contagious dancefloor-oriented club beats. Might be way too commercial for your ears if you're an orthodox rastafarian reggae-junkie but otherwise, it's a great effective mix, plus they have some dope production, catchy choruses, perfect flow and the lyrics aren't too bad either. And as if that wasn't enough the girl is really pretty (the boy too, I guess, but I won't say that). It could do with less auto-tune and I'd personally get rid of the English and French singing, keep it all in Spanish. It'd be perfection. BUY IT HERE

LOS AUTENTICOS DECADENTES-Hecho En México (Sony Music, 2012): Live albums seldom make any sense to me. But Los Auténticos Decadentes make an honorable exception. I've seen these guys live innumerable times. I've seen them playing for free, at the beach, in Argentina, back in 1991 and I've seen them twice in a week this month, once in California, once in New York, and their live performances never disappoints me. I've said it many times and I'll say it again, they are the best party band ever conceived when it comes to Latin music. And of course, as a huge bonus, there's the whole nostalgia factor: regardless if you like them or not, anybody that grew up in Spanish-speaking South America (and particularly in the southern extreme of the continent, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Perú) has definitely danced their asses off to some of their immortal party anthems that are mandatory at all quinceañeras, weddings, graduation parties, etc. To top it all off, they have penned some of the best original cumbias of the '90s decade ("Corazón," "El Gran Señor") and my all-time favorite peak-of-the-night party tune "El Murgero." So basically yeah, I love Decadentes and I love to see them live and now I have a live album, paired to a DVD of their 25th anniversary show in Mexico City with some A-list guests (Babasónicos, Café Tacvba, Julieta Venegas and more). Unfortunately the CD/DVD pack is not yet available for the US market, but you can always get the MP3s. BUY IT HERE

BODEGA SATELLITE-Bodega Satellite (Self Release, 2011): Dude was sitting next to me at one of the panels and then, without much introduction or anything he handed me a copy of this CD. I didn't know exactly what to expect but he did say it was rock. Now, of course, I've outgrown my rocker phase (which I only experienced tangentially and for a very short period) long time ago and I'm extremely skeptic when it comes to "rock en español" made in the US, for obvious reasons. Still, I gave this its fare chance and it didn't disappoint me. The all-instrumental opening track is super tight and made me wish the whole album was instrumental, "now he's gonna start singing and it's gonna be yikes and go downhill from there," I thought. But I was wrong, vocals are also tight. Reminded me a lot of when I was in college, in the early '90s and there was all this global fascination for Nirvana, Weezer and bands like that who were playing fast-pase loud rock with a bit of a punk-rock attitude and MTV loved it. I haven't gone back to revisit that period, I certainly don't feel any sort of nostalgia for it, but I do remember having a blast moshing at the El Otro Yo concerts back in '94 and listening to this album brought me back exactly there and then. Now I'm wondering if I should dust off my old El Otro Yo CDs I have in a box somewhere in that closet that never gets opened. BUY IT HERE

EDIFICA-De Costa A Costa (Self Release-No Date): I met a bunch of up-and-coming MCs and hip-hop enthusiast at this year's LAMC. Quite refreshing, I have to say (I remember when I attended LAMC for the first time in 2002, I think I was the only rap listener amongst the overwhelming rocker majority). Still, the level of the rap-in-Spanish scene in the US as a whole is very mediocre, they are stuck in expired paradigms that rappers in Spain and most Latin American big cities have left behind at least a decade ago. This dude, however, was hella cool, not at all pretentious and without any phony thug attitude or gold teeth, plus he denoted a good selective taste in his rap listening when we talked, dropping names of dope producers like Primo and Large Pro as his role models. This is not his official debut, just a home-made demo he put together with the instrumental tracks borrowed from his idols. He told me he also produces and DJs. I would like to see what he's able to do on his own and if he can come up with song topics that aren't genre clichés. He sounds smart and articulate enough, I think he could do something interesting if he had the budget, however, there's barely any market for well-crafted, conscious rap in Spanish here in the US so I don't really know if I wanna encourage him to waste time and money on such a pointless enterprise. Sorry, I'm still very pessimistic when it comes to rap in Spanish crossing over in this market. DOWNLOAD FREE HERE