Next month — May 22, to be exact — will mark the fifth anniversary of the passing of world-famous oud player Hamza El Din. Born in southern Egypt, he studied in engineering in Cairo before tdevoting himself completely to preserving Nubian musical traditions. He played all over the world, recorded with everyone from the Kronos Quartet to the Grateful Dead, and eventually settled here in Oakland, California. I hope El Din’s many local admirers and collaborators are planning a musical tribute to conmemorate his passing. In the meantime, here’s a track from his 1964 debut of Vanguard Records, “Hoi to Irkil Fagiu”, performed with Ahmed Abdul Malik on the string bass.
Apologies go out to my fellow pelangueros for not posting. I offer these two tracks from a young Cuco Valoy and his brother Martín: in the 1950s they were the legendary Los Ahijados. Here’s “La lechuza” and “Al subir las escaleras”.
La Lechuza by Los Ahijados
Al Subir Las Escaleras by Los Ahijados
El Aromito, Callao, 2010
The music of Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast may or may not be on your radar. After a ten-year civil war that shredded communities and families, and a merciless hurricane in 1988, the coast and the Creole, Miskito, Rama, Sumu, Mayagna, and Spanish-speaking Mestizo inhabitants have seen their share of hardships. Like the ancient caoba trees in the battered plaza of Bluefields, traditions and cultural roots have endured. One of the most enduring of these traditions is the May Pole celebration, a unique hybrid of May month celebrations instilled by the British (who controlled the Atlantic Coast from 1700s- to the early 1900s) the African roots of the Creole people, and the cultural cross-pollenization created by weekly visits by boats ferrying timber, rubber, gold, and bananas to New Orleans, Galveston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.
During the Somoza dictatorship (1930s-1979) members of this older musical generation, in bands such as Barbaros del Ritmo, shuttled around the country performing at nightclubs belonging to the dictator and his extended family. The Somoza family owned mostly everything important, so they were hard to avoid. In 1979, the Sandinistas ousted the Somoza family and began creating a new future for the country, which quickly spiraled into a bloody civil war. During this time, two groups Mancotal (fronted by the Mejia Godoy brothers, the bards of the Sandinista Revolution), and Soul Vibrations (an Atlantic Coast group) were Nicaragua’s musical ambassadors to the world. Snapshots of 80s era Bluefields music can be seen in musician/filmmaker Greg Landau’s documentary “Rock Down Central America.”
At the same time, the effects of the war destabilized the Atlantic Coast and forced many musicians to flee the violence to other countries, such as El Salvador, and Honduras. MC/singer Kali Boom, a child during the war, recounts stories of leading his brothers and sisters to safety in Limon, Costa Rica 50 miles down the coast through swamps and military ambushes, ON FOOT!
The Sandinistas were voted out in the early 1990s, and the Atlantic Coast suffered through 20 years of neoliberal reforms and neglect which made times even harder. During this time, more and more Bluefieleños left the coast, seeking work in Managua, or “shipping out” on First World cruise ships who were eager to snap up English-speaking workers from desperate circumstances. In the words of Dexter “Dex” Joseph, a singer for the Bluefields reggae band Caribbean Blue, working on ship “was like slavery.” Through all this strife, musical traditions survived maintained by neighborhood elders, barrio marching bands, and in the band programs schools such as the Moravian School.
Five years ago, two Americans, multimedia artists Edwin Reed-Sanchez and Zander Scott made their way down to Bluefields and linked up with older musical legends such as Mango Ghost and Sabu the Cat Man to stage a series of concerts, build a functional recording studio, and create the Bluefields School of Music, an institution that will allow local youth to study with the surviving legends of Atlantic Coast. [more info/donations here]
The videos below represent both the traditional May Pole style, as well as newer fusions with electronic pan-Caribbean dance styles like soca, dancehall, and reggaeton favored by younger coast artists like Kali Boom, Kila B, Papa Bantam, Mad Angels, and Lion, and American expat producer Evan Rhodes who is creating a fresh new club sound together with this music.
¡Ya tú sabes!
Mango Ghost and the May Pole Legends: Putchie, Claudio Hodgson Weil and Rene Cassells
“Song for Mango Ghost” by Osvaldo Jerez (Los Gregory’s)
Sabu the Cat Man LIVE! at Bluefields Jail
Another guest Pelanguero gets in the mix: this time it’s novelist Adam Mansbach, aka Kodiak Brinks, author of The End of the Jews, winner of the California Book Award, and the bestselling Angry Black White Boy, one of the funniest, smartest, and most devastating satires about hip-hop and race in America you’ll ever read. In 2011, he will publish a children’s book called Go the Fuck to Sleep, (dedicated, I assume, to my goddaughter V) and a graphic novel, Nature of the Beast. He is the New Voices Professor of Fiction at Rutgers University, and his record game has been described as “bananas.” Take it away, Brinks:
You can always tell, at a record store, who’s a hip-hopper: a DJ, a producer, even a collector – if the record store has a listening station, anyway. Not by the stack of records he’s listening to: hip-hop is built on the notion of intellectual democracy through collage, so the wax he’s auditioning will have been pulled from every section of the store. You can tell by the way he moves the tone-arm, the way he “flips through” the record.
He’s “looking for drums.” By which he means drum breaks: those stripped-down rhythmic lacunaes in the music that b-boys at park jams in the Bronx saved their best moves for and DJs learned to extend, for the b-boys’ pleasure, by rocking double copies.
First, the hip-hopper will listen to the opening bars of the song. This is where many breaks are located. If the song rewards him, his brow will furrow and his head will begin to bob. He may even pass the headphones to a friend and say “yo, check this shit out,” giddy with the excitement of a new discovery.
If there is an intro break, the hip-hopper will listen until other instruments come in, then drop the needle two-thirds of the way into the song, hoping the break comes back, longer and more robust, during the bridge. If the song is a ballad, or garbage, the needle will come back up before the first bar is over: on to the next jam. If the tune is promising but nebulous – a spacey jazz joint, say, one that seems like it might resolve into a groove somewhere down the line – he’ll drop the needle every sixteenth of an inch. Watching all this, you might wonder how the hell anybody can decide whether to buy a record by listening to ten one-second portions of it.
I always stress to my graduate students, in that crucible we call a fiction workshop, the importance of meeting a story on its own terms. I tell them that to be good readers, and helpful classmates, they’ve got to seek to understand what the writer is trying to do, and figure out how to help her get there.
And as I stand at the listening station, flipping through rock and blues and salsa records, it often occurs to me that perhaps I’m doing the opposite. I’m judging the music – or at least, it’s suitability to join my rarefied collection – based on criteria that may have nothing to do with the artist’s intentions. Certainly, some of hip-hop’s most celebrated breaks, if you play them in context, seem incidental, if not anomalous, to the songs in which they’re housed:
This question of “terms” is never more striking to me that when I’m checking out Latin records. I guess because it seems so wrong, somehow, to judge them based on a hip-hop-centric conception of funkiness. “Boogaloo” (itself an Americanization of “bugalú”) is the style that a) is most likely to give me what I’m looking for, and b) was widely seen, when these records were coming out in the late sixties and early seventies, as a sellout move, a compromise; the Ray Barretto records hip-hoppers hunt for are not the ones salsa fans seek out. So… I’m actively pursuing the tourist crap? That can’t be good, right?
Meanwhile, everything on Fania from 1973 is great, and all of it is funky – just not in a 4/4, b-boys-hit-the-floor kind of way. And, of course, I’ve ended up buying plenty of those records, and I consider myself a salsa fan now, and I’m learning to appreciate the music on its own terms. The same way chasing down hip-hop samples granted me entrée to jazz, blues, and rock, only to make me a fan in ways that transcended the breakbeat mission.
And yet, every time I throw a Latin record on that listening station turntable, I’m hoping for the kind of drum break that would have made Afrika Bambaataa wet his pants. Which is why this 1974 Perez Prado LP is one of the dopest albums I’ve come across in months. I don’t know what was on his mind when he made it – was this a nod to commercial concerns, an attempt at fusion or crossover? Or was he just one of the funkiest motherfuckers in the world, a musical pioneer who didn’t mind laying down his crown as “El Rey del Mambo” in favor of pioneering the Latin-rock fusion known as “Patricia,” then moving on to what Now’s liner notes describe as “an equation combining rhythm and pleasure to arrive at free expression” and term “Escandolo”? (A name that might also describe the style’s reception among Prado’s longtime fans).
It’s hard to pick one track here; “Tommy,” “El Campesino,” “Que Es Lo Que Pasa,” “Escandolo #1,” “Smack,” “Cangrejo,” and, yes, even “Tequila” are straight bangers.
Sadly, and perhaps revealingly, only “Tequila” is available on Youtube:
– Adam Mansbach