Latin American music has enjoyed more exposure than it has been used to recently. The Salsa craze (line dancing for snobs the cynics say) and Buena Vista Social Club, (you’ve seen the film, now buy the CD’s and read the book) have all raised its profile - which can only be a good thing. (We’ll leave that Ricky Martin stone safely unturned). Populism aside, I've been getting into some hits of the hard stuff, rather than hits of the chart variety.
So let me explain, by way of a detail, what this great series of compilations is all about: Harlem River Drive (formed by Eddie Palmieri, of whom we’ll hear more later) were constructed from a black r’n’b band and a Latin band. At shows one group would play, then the other, before both performed together for the closing set. And this is the entire concept of these CD’s in precis. No plundering of Cuban archives, this is what happened when Latin Americans moved into North America and formed groups there. ‘Nu Yorica’ sets the tone, ‘Nu Yorica 2’ explores the theme right up to the formation of the Salsoul label (and by extension the beginnings of modern dance music) and ‘Nu Yorica Roots!’ traces the origins.
Basically it’s about how the various strains of rumba, son and all the other myriad forms of Latin integrated with their new neighbours, jazz and r’n’b. (Interestingly enough, all traditions rooted in slavery of one form or another). And the logical extension of all this seems to have been, well, Santana, quite frankly. That blend of funk, rock, Spanish keys and wild conga playing is present in the shape of the aforementioned Harlem River Drive, (who released cuts through Blue Note) Ray Barretto and Joe Bataan. The former two presenting a post summer of love sensibility not a million miles from Sly and The Family Stone. ‘Harlem River Drive Theme’ and Barretto’s ‘Together’ preach racial harmony over driving grooves. Explaining it the way I did to my friends when they eventually told me to cut the music critic crap: “It rocks like a fault-line shithouse.”
But it’s not all rare funk or single cuts on offer. Eddie Palmieri’s ‘Una Dia Bonita’ begins with a piano like a spitting fire, which sounds less like it’s being played than it’s been pushed down the studio stairs. The intro is a mix of John Cage’s avante garde-ism and McCoy Tyner’s energy abstractions, the modal madness then dissipates over the 14-plus minutes. Percussion is added, followed by horn stabs. Section by section the thing builds. It’s as though the original song has been deconstructed in layers, debased by jamming it down to its strange underwear before being reassembled, most experimental take first, then the next most accessible, then the next - until the song appears, blooming suddenly like a flower, albeit a rare orchid. It’s a backwards take on the improvisational process and, by extension, the folk process, (as the most trad sounds come last). It is also the work of a true genius composer. When established, the horns sound like radio-era Ellington coming at us via Benny More. They’re so melodic and hook-filled that they could almost be from an advertising jingle, but there’s a perverse angular shape there to stop you from being able to file them in a square box. The mix of the arcane and the populist is attractive, passionate vocals rub shoulders with cold, calculating art. Palmieri’s still playing today and his 1999 Glastonbury festival set was less experimental, but showed that the old boy’s still got plenty of life in him yet.
Now where would any Latin comp be without ‘Oye Como Va?’ Surely the genre’s Louie Louie, presented in its Richard Berry incarnation, as the Tito Puente version here is the original. Another Puente cut, ‘Tito on Timbales’ is a percussion showcase which does its damndest to find that one last undiscovered time signature. Polyrhythmic, but by no means polyunsaturated: This is a FAT groove.
There’s way too much material here for me to cover properly in the confines of one record review, but take it from me, if you want to begin exploring Latin American music there’s no better place to start from than here, as some of the tracks will seem familiar, but the road signs all point straight down to Cuba!