Wednesday, November 23, 2011

“Afro-Latino Music” (Facets/ArtMattan Productions; 2 DVD’s)

The first thing that needs to be pointed out is that “Afro-Latino Music” is not an overview of the entire subject of Afro-Latino music, nor does it claim to be. It would doubtless take many, many more than 2 DVD’s to do justice to a topic that broad. What this is, however, is a set of two discs comprising two very fine films on very specific topics within the overall category of Afro-Latino (specifically Afro-South American) music, one on a Colombian phenomenon originally known as Terapia Criolla, but now more often referred to as champeta, the other on the Peruvian percussionist Chocolate Algendones.

The first film, “Sons Of Bemkos” - the title refers to an African King who was forced into slavery in Colombia; he escaped and founded the “first free town in America”, Palenque, in and near which much of the film was shot - looks at a couple aspects of African-rooted music located along the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Thus, the marimba-based music known as currulao is not covered, since that genre is centered on the Pacific coast of Colombia. In both cases, however, we are confronted with a musical tradition that is very deeply rooted in Africa, owing relatively little to the Spanish colonists of Colombia.

Interestingly, this description fits not only the traditional music of the area, but its contemporary pop form as well, about which more below. The traditional village music has a very deep African flavor. We see workers in the fields singing work songs to pass the time. A group of professional mourners known as “Happy Ambulances” help a corpse on its way by singing, dancing, and drumming over it, as part of a ritual based on the spirit religion known as lumbalu. (A warning for the squeamish - the actual corpse is on-screen for an extended period.) Small ensembles are shown consisting entirely of voices backed by percussion instruments - drums, scrapers, maracas, claves, and the giant bass thumb piano known as the marimbula. These scenes of a local music little known to the outside would alone justify multiple viewings of this film.

But the filmmakers have another surprise up their sleeve. For many years, the popular sounds of this area long included merengue, salsa, and the whole gamut of Afro-Caribbean styles. However, in a phenomenon not known (by me, at least) to have occurred elsewhere in Afro-Latino musical circles, the musicians of the nearest large city, Cartagena, began to alter their music under the influence of recordings of soukous and other African dance music imported from the Congo. Similarly, the local music known as bullerengue also began to be combined with mbaqanga music from South Africa. The musicians of the area re-Africanized their popular music to such an extent that someone hearing this music - Terapia Criolla (“Creole Therapy”) or champeta - for the first time, watching people dance to it as it booms from the speakers of a mobile sound system, might well question which continent’s music one is hearing.

The film introduces us to the Caribbean Stars, who claim to have been the first to play terapia. The band toured internationally at one time, but feels most comfortable around Palenque. We also see the beginnings of the commercial exploitation of champeta, as record companies attempt to operate as inexpensively as possible by bringing into the studios raw talent off the streets to sing about the everyday life of poor people, to the beat of Congolese rhythms.

We also see excerpts from the San Basilio Festival, a patronal festival held every June 12, a 3-day reunion of Palenqueans past and present. We see Cuban -influenced music played for a Roman Catholic church service, as well as a procession with a small version of the ubiquitous Latin American brass band. It makes for a fascinating contrast to the lumbalu and champeta scenes, and is every bit as authentic.

“Sons of Bemkos” has an English narration, with subtitles for the interviews, which are in Spanish. The running time is 52 minutes.

The second film, “Hands Of God”, focuses on a specific musician, a musical icon in his own country but little-known to Americans, percussionist Julio “Chocolate” Algendones (1937-2004; some sources say 1934). But it also serves to introduce Americans to a musical scene most of us either only recently became aware of or have yet to discover - that of Afro-Peruvian music. Those of us of a certain age have become so used to the “Andean ensembles” playing huaynos on instruments such as the quena, zampona, and charango that we’ve come to think of them as representing ALL of Peruvian music. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Jazz fans have begun to discover Afro-Peruvian rhythms such as the festejo and lando, thanks in part to singer Susana Baca. And it would appear from this film that Afro-Peruvian rhythms and jazz have a close and comfortable relationship in Peru as well, judging from Chocolate’s performances with the combo Peru Jazz and in back of the singing of a number of guest artists in this film, such as Jose “Chaqueta” Piaggio and Pepita Garcia Miro. Chocolate was skilled and sensitive to easily travel between the worlds of tradition and contemporary music.

But the Afro-rooted traditions Algendones explored were not solely Peruvian. He was a master of both the congas and bongos, both associated with Caribbean music, and claims to have picked up a knowledge of the intense rhythms of santeria while on tour in Haiti. (I confess I had to do a bit of research on this point. My impression was that the Yoruba-rooted spirit religion known as santeria (or lucumi) was found in the Spanish Caribbean, specifically Cuba and Puerto Rico. Most of the sources I checked seemed to confirm that there was no santeria in Haiti. I was beginning to wonder if Algendones was confusing Cuban santeria with Fon/Ewe-rooted Haitian voodoo. Digging deeper, however, I find there are a few online sources that would seem to confirm the contention that santeria does indeed exist in Haiti.) Algendones is considered to have been the only Afrfo-Peruvian musician to utilize santeria rhythms in his music, which he did with authenticity and artistic authority.

But Chocolate’s primary instrument was the cajon, that increasingly-familiar wooden box which percussionists sit on, pounding our rhythms on the front of the instrument. Cubans sometimes claim the cajon as their own, and indeed many Cubans have mastered the deceptively simple-looking instrument. However, most sources that I’ve come across are quick to credit Peru as the true origin point of the cajon. Certainly, a concept as elemental as banging out a rhythm on a fruit crate or shipping box could well have developed independently in two different places. But at the very least, the cajon has achieved a position of prominence in Peru far beyond its role in Cuban music. It’s a treat to watch Algendones play the cajon, as he doesn’t pound on it as so many lesser drummers do, but deftly manipulates it with his powerful fingertips.

Jose “Chocolate” Algendones was such a unique percussionist, from the cross-cultural way in which he combined various rhythms into a fully-formed and unique style, to the seemingly casual ease of his complex performance technique, that we are indeed very fortunate to have this audio-visual documentation of his playing in a wide variety of contexts. There is no narration per se, but the interviews are in Spanish, with easily readable English subtitles. Running time is 54 minutes.

Both of these films are required viewing for anyone interested in African-rooted musics in South America and should have as much appeal to just plain fans as to scholars. More info may be found at

Monday, November 21, 2011

“Bryan Beller: Wednesday Night Live” (Onion Boy Records)

For those of you don’t follow contemporary instrumental music closely (alas, that would seem to include the great majority of people under 35), and may not know who Bryan Beller is, he is one monster of an electric bass player, best-known for his work with Steve Vai. This point is driven home by the audio mix of this DVD, which allows the bass lines to burrow deep inside of you, grab hold of your viscera, and refuse to let you go.

This alone might serve as recommendation enough for some of you, but the rest of the band is worth making a fuss over as well. This is one inventive quintet, not just a super bass player with four other guys. Guitarists Griff Peters and Rick Musallam (each of whom plays lead on particular types of songs), keyboardist Mike Keneally (who also picks up a guitar), and drummer Joe Travers make up the rest of this finely-honed unit. It quickly becomes clear that these are musicians who work together a lot, and have done so for quite some time. Indeed, this is not just Bryan Beller’s band, it is also Mike Keneally’s band, and the two have been known to play together at the same place on the same night.

Stylistically, I would call this jazz-rock fusion from the rock point of view, more compositional and structural than flights-of-fancy improvisational., though there’s still quite a bit of spontaneity to it. Although the band’s sound does tend to be a bit bass-centric, the other players certainly get ample opportunity to show up their prodigious chops as well as their creativity, interacting with each other with taste and a great deal of respect. The music is erudite without being pedantic or sterile, engaging the listeners’ emotions as well as the mind. It is,m after all, entertainment, not just a lesson in technique.

With the emphasis being on musicianship rather than showmanship, the camera work is crucial to keeping the viewer’s interest up throughout. We see five musicians and their equipment crowded together on a rather small stage, but the multi-camera set-up and sensitiive direction (by Dave Foster) keep it from ever becoming claustrophobic.

In addition to the top-notch main concert, the DVD is rich in bonus footage, which must double the length of the disc. There are performances featuring other editions of Beller’s band, with slight, but significant personnel changes, a jazz-flavored tune with Beller on piano, a guest appearance by saxophonist Scheila Gonzalez, videos of performances filmed at CD release parties, and other musical clips, both video and audio-only. There are also substantial interviews with.each of the current members of the quintet to help place the music in perspective. If that’s enough, Beller has supplied “very, very extended liner notes” at
(This is an instrumental musician who loves to write words as well as music, judging by the amount oif verbiage to be found on his website, )

Well worth checking out by fusion fans, prog-rockers, and just plain music lovers.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

“Stylistics Live In Norfolk 2005” and “Chi-Lites Live In Norfolk 2005” (both from San Juan Music)

These two concert DVD’s by classic 70’s soul-ballad groups seem to have been around for a few years under different titles - in both cases, “Live At The Convocation Center”, named for the Norfolk, VA venue where these performances were both filmed. Both discs, however, are deserving of reissue.

Of the two, I personally prefer the Styllstics concert, which by no means is intended to denigrate the Chi-Lites’ disc. I happened to see this line-up of the Stylistics about 10 years ago, at Shea’s in Buffalo (on the same bill with The Main Ingredient and Blue Magic), soon after Harold Eban Brown replaced the seemingly irreplaceable Russell Thompkins, Jr. as lead singer. I swear most members of the audience probably had no idea whatsoever that Thompkins was missing, Brown sounds so much like him. One look from the front of the balcony, however, told me that either Thompkins had discovered the Fountain of Youth (Brown is over twenty years younger than Thompkins), or the group had discovered an absolutely ideal new lead voice.

The group, resplendent in red suits, was already in their 50’s by 2005, aside from the then-33-year-old Brown. But if they move a little less athletically than they might have in younger years, they sound just fine. Their smooth ballad style was never really suited to a shake-’em-up-and-down stage show anyway. It’s obvious from the intro to “You’re A Big Girl Now” that they (realistically) now think of themselves less as a current group than as finely-honed purveyors of nostalgia. Indeed, there is something about the atmosphere of this concert - perhaps it’s the audience - that is oddly reminiscent of a PBS “oldies” fundraising special. (I almost hesitate to say that, because when PBS DID bring on a rival Stylistics group, it turned out to be Russell Thompkins’ Jr.’s “New Stylistics”.) The “real” Stylistics still had the skills in 2005, no doubt, but certainly the audience wanted to hear the groups’ hits of the 1970’s performed by the original group (or at least a quartet which had an unbroken continuity dating back to their Golden Era) in the original arrangements. And that’s what they get.

In any event, the Stylistics remain a living entity, not simply a group of aging singers going through the motions. They always were a group whose identity was heavily dependent on the timbre of their falsetto lead vocals. In this department, Harold Eban Brown is virtually the equivalent of Russell Thompkins, Jr. All the songs you might wish to hear at a Stylistics’ concert - both the super-hits and the lesser successes - are here, in well-executed arrangements that are essentially smaller-scale, stripped-down, but easily recognizable versions of the original Thom Bell-produced Philly Soul backing tracks. The songs tend to segue one to the other in a sort-of medley form, yet most are done at full-length, not the “and then we did” tiny snippets some “nostalgia acts” prefer.

Brown is not the most captivating front man, but hIs voice more than makes up what he may lack in charisma. I would suggest that any Stylistics fans would find this concert every bit as satisfying as I did. There is no wasted time, no frills, no bad-joke-filled attempts at humor (okay, one modest attempt), just 57 minutes of Stylistics’ sweet-soul music. That should be good enough for anyone.

Bonus features include a 4-minute ”Behind The Scenes” featurette, showing how the concert was set up, as well as a 5-1/2-minute interview segment.

The Chi-Lites’ DVD follows the same basic format, and indeed appears to have been filmed at the same package-tour concert in Norfolk.

Once again, we are treated to straightforward renditions of the group’s hits, accompanied by a solid band. The differences between the two concerts, though, are telling. For one thing, the Chi-Lites are less dependent on a single dominant personality. They require strong lead vocals by all three up-front members and, with a few jarring exceptions, they deliver. Their stage act features more razzle-dazzle than that of the Stylistics. Whereas thje latter prefer to soothe their audience, the Chi-Lites’ attempt to rouse theirs, even in a ballad medley.

The Chi-Lites charted often between 1969 and 1984, and scraped the bottom of the charts again in 1997-98. Nevertheless, the group’s hits seem by and large to have received less continued exposure through the years than the Stylistics’ songs. I may be wrong, but I’m inclined to think that, only “Oh Girl” and “Have You Seen Her (which are saved for the end of the show) may resonate with the casual listener. But songs like “Toby” and “The Coldest Days Of My Life” definitely deserve their return to the nostalgia spotlight.

Though we only see three Chi-Lites upfront, the harmonies are enhanced by a fourth vocalist, a woman who stands in the background as if she were not an official member of the established all-male lineup. But a little research reveals she is indeed an “official member”; must be a macho image thing. Sadly, most of the original Chi-Lites’ line-up (including Eugene Record) are now deceased, but Marshall Thompson and Robert “Squirrel” Lester” (since deceased as well) appear on this disc.

The bonus features mirror those of the Stylistic disc. Indeed, the backstage set-up featurette looks very much like that on the Stylistics’ DVD, understandable when you consider they were recorded at the same place at the same time. Again,. there are interview excerpts in which the group talks about their biggest hits.

Anyone with a live for sweet 70’s soul vocal groups should have a marvelous time turning back the clock and tossing out the calendar, while watching these two fine concerts.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

“Live From Tokyo” (MVD)

Contemporary Japanese popular music, if known to most Americans at all, is associated with teen-girl-sounding J-pop, boy bands, Visual Kei arena-rock/hair-metal bands, and so on. And certainly that imaged is by no means totally inaccurate, it is simply very incomplete. “Live From Tokyo” is a fascinating documentary look at the ”underground” side of modern Japanese music, featuring clips of and interviews with a lot of people you’ve never heard of, but whose musical acquaintance is well worth making.

The point is made by a number of interviewees that young Japanese people are bombarded with information and influences - aren’t we all? - which then come together in a wide variety of unexpected ways, from J-pop on one hand to various sorts of progressive/experimental sounds. The latter, rather than J-pop, are the focus of this film. The problem is that there are so many bands in a shrinking scene that no one is being financially rewarded the way they used to be. One could make the same observation about progressive music anywhere, to be sure. But at least the Japanese musicians have apparently decided that since they’re not going to become wealthy anyway, they may as well do what they want to do, in the way they want to do it. Thus, the lack of monetary enticements has made for a scene that is very healthy from a purely artistic viewpoint, resulting in fresh, new sounds far from the pop-music norm.

We get to sample a goodly number of these artists and hear a wide array of styles, most arising out of recognizable starting points, ranging from post-punk rock to jazz-rock fusions, which then head off in highly individual directions. These bands thrive on the Internet, where they have no need to wait to be “discovered”, no need to wait for a record contract. Instead, they can quickly and inexpensively disseminate their music far and wide.Thus, while the mainstream record industry continues to recycle the same few sounds over and over again, the Japanese underground bands can dare to be daring.

There’s a lot of fascinating music heard in this DVD, much of it utilizing machine-like repetition in a techno sort of way; not surprising for a country heralded for its technical know-how. There is also a considerable reliance on visuals interacting with music as an integral part of some of the stage shows shown here. It is worth noting that there is no narrator to set up contexts for the music,or to tell us what we will be hearing. This may well the ideal way to produce a film of this sort, as the viewer may experience each new band without having ready-made expectations set up before. We thus approach this music in a tabula-rasa manner, and can judge it on its own terms.

We are also given insight into the Japanese way of presenting live music. Japanese live bands are required to pay the club-owners in advance, then sell the tickets themselves. This, of course, negatively impacts many artists, as they need to attract a sizable following on a steady basis in order to simply survive. Ticket prices tend to be high - it can cost $25-$30 to go see a band no one has ever heard of. Thus, while there is no pressure to make commercial music that will sell to the masses, it is also difficult for bands to stay together long enough to reach their full artistic potential. A couple venues are profiled in some depth. However, these cannot be considered typical, as their colorful owners seem much more open than most, and less profit-motivated.

In all, this 78-minute film is an eye-opening - and generally quite ear-satisfying - glimpse at a scene most of us know nothing about, featuring many creative musicians most of us will never get a chance to hear otherwise. As such, I recommend it highly.