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

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