Merry Woman Keeping Calypso Alive
Manuel Monestel is a man of many occupations: singer, songwriter, notable music historian and above all, a Calypsonian. Besides recording and touring with his band Cantoamerica and sitting in with other musicians, Manuel also has a successful solo career. His newest solo offering is a ten song CD titled “Merry Woman”. While his first solo album, “One Pant Man” was strictly Manuel and his guitar, singing his own songs and those of his mentors, such as Walter Ferguson, the new album features his experimental band Frutos de Acki that he put together a few years ago with students from the University of Costa Rica. Manuel still tips his cap to Ferguson, with a new version of “Going to Bocas”. What makes this rendition unique is the lead banjo by Monestel in it. This entire new album feels like it is exploring new directions to take Calypso music (which is really the godfather of reggae). For example, the use of sitar by Fabrizio Barquero on the song “Especias” is certainly new turf. Manuel told me that in addition to releasing his new songs, one of the goals of the album is to experiment with stringed instruments like the aforementioned sitar, as well as an ancient Caribbean instrument called the Marimbula, played by Marco Naranjo, which is used on some of the tracks in place of the conventional bass guitar, both handled adroitly by Jose Daniel Martinez. This Afro-Caribbean instrument is basically a resonator box with attached tongues or keys at one end that are plucked. I also hear the banjo being showcased on the album, which really makes sense to me. Calypso developed during the shipping trade years in the Caribbean, with its northernmost port being New Orleans, where Stephen Foster and his music flourished. It is still not unusual to hear a Calypso singer break into “You Are My Sunshine” and it seems Manuel has brought that tie full circle by implementing the banjo in a number of songs on this new album. The female lead vocals by Marcela Membreno on “Madrugada” as well as her accompanying vocals on the other songs also gives a fresh, new sound to this disc.
The title Song, “Merry Woman” encapsulates a lot of what Calypso is about: rhythm, humor and dancing. Monestel produced and arranged the album and his song sequences are masterful. Opening the album with “Still Turning Around”, a finger-snapping salutation with banjo accompaniment, is the perfect hook to draw the listener in. Likewise, finishing the set with “Early Morning Rain” and “Habitante Eterno de la Tierra” is a fitting close to this wonderful collage of songs sung alternately in Spanish and English, in impeccable recognition to Calypso’s bilingual heritage. Other highlights on the album set include “The First Time I Saw Limon”, another song that features the banjo, and “Especias”, that reminds us of the widespread origins of Latin American culture and the mixtures involved in it.
The overall result of Merry Woman is a new sound for Calypso, one somehow seeped in past traditions while stepping into new terrain. All comments about this article are gladly welcome.