Monday, July 23, 2007

Dawn of Punta Rock

The Dawn of Punta Rock
   In the late 1970s, in the little town of Dengriga, Belize, Pen Cayetano hatched his new creation. He named it Punta Rock. Pen explained later that the music was initially played solely at celebrations and holidays. In fact, it was originally intended to only be played annually, on November 19th, for Beluria, or Ninth Night, a Garifuna holiday celebrating their ancestors’ landing in Belize nearly three hundred years ago. But the new music caught on very quickly with the locals and in a short time, Cayetano formed the Turtle Shell Band, the first Punta Rock band ever. And the first official turtle shell player in that band was a young man by the name of Mohobub Flores.  
   Mohobub was born into a musical family: his mother and sisters are performing vocalists. He started his career as a percussionist at an early age, “banging on the pots and pans and practically anything in sight,” according to his patient mother. He had been living in Guatemala for a short stint but returned to his hometown specifically to play in the Turtle Shell Band. Then, in the mid 1980s, the group made a big leap, going electric. A decade later, Mohobub ventured into a solo career, veering toward a style of music that displayed more Latin and Garifuna influence. According to Flores, he wanted to play music that was, “more laid-back than mainstream Punta”. So he assembled a band and for the next five years, he wrote new music and toured, refining his group. Ultimately, he was invited into the Stonetree recording studio and given the opportunity to show off his accomplishments.
   The resulting CD is simply titled, “Mohobub”, released as a part of the Belizean Punta Rockers Series. Every song on the disc is very danceable, opening with “Ital Food”, an overt celebration of life. “Ital food, I like it, I like it, I love it!” Flores sings with a conviction that can only come from the heart. Even “message” songs on the CD, such as “Your Lova” and “We Will Return” have a contagious sound that begs for a dance floor. The music itself has a strong, up-tempo bass and percussion backbone, provided by Tyron Hernandez and “Laruni” Flores, respectively. Dale Davis on tenor sax, and Jimmy Lee on keyboards provide the bulk of solos, with Roberto Palacio filling in the gaps on electric guitar.
   All the songs, save two, are written by Mohobub on this forty-five minute CD. In the studio, they also use snatches of a variety of traditional Garifuna songs, which are sung in group refrain on a few of the songs. Again, the slick production of Ivan Duran and Stonetree Records shines through. The sound is always clean and bright, with a distinct separation of each of the instruments and vocal parts.
   Akin to a festival atmosphere, the songs build to a crescendo about three-quarters of the way through the disc, and hold that energy. The final song, “V.A.T.” is an excellent closer, leaving the listener hoping for an encore. Let’s hope it is in the works.
   Mohobub and all Stonetree CDs are available at Jaime Peligro book store in Playa Tamarindo, where they will gladly sample the music for its customers. All comments concerning this article are welcome.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Ray Tico - Solo Para Recordar

Ray Tico

   Born Ramon Jacinto Herrera in Limon, Costa Rica in 1928, he received his first guitar at the age of seven years. Later, he worked as a fisherman in Colombia, where he also launched his career as a professional musician. But it was after he moved to Cuba in 1953 that he was dubbed Ray Tico, a stage nickname that has stayed with him throughout the decades. And it was in Cuba in 1956 that he penned the bolero “Eso Es Imposible,” easily the most popular of the fifty-plus songs he has written. With this newfound notoriety, Ray relocated to the United States, performing often at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City as well as spending considerable time in Hollywood. In 1969, Ray Tico returned to Costa Rica, the hometown boy back from conquering America. He was forty-one years old.

  Ray Tico has spent the following thirty-eight years of his life writing songs and performing them virtually everywhere and anywhere (including presidential inaugurations here), and basically doing all the things that have gained him a word-of-mouth legacy. In true form, Costa Rica’s premier music label, Papaya Music, has stepped up to the plate. One of their broad-reaching goals has been to preserve the country’s musical heritage, as they have recently done with the Walter Ferguson and Limon Legends CDs. The next logical move has been to capture the Ray Tico legacy on CD. The disc has been appropriately titled “Solo Para Recorder”. It begins and ends poignantly with live songs, the first being “Delirio”, complete with an enthusiastic audience. The CD then moves into the studio for Ray Tico classics, such as “Bienvenido” and a studio version of “Eso Es Imposible”.  This song is a turning point on the CD. Whereas the first few songs are delivered in straight-ahead folkloric style, Ray seems to loosen up with his signature song. “Romance en Habana” follows and Sr. Tico lets it all cut loose as he accompanies himself on percussion, using his feet and even his fingers on the box of the guitar while he is also finger-picking the strings. Don’t ask me how he does that. Other highlights on the CD include “Cristo, Rio y Yo”, “Besame Amor” and the title track, “Solo Para Recordar”. 

   The final song, also a live recording, is actually a cuplet, starting out with the standard “Besame Mucho” and progressing into the disc’s second version of “Eso Es Imposible,” Ray’s signature song. The advance copy of the disc that I received from Papaya contains no liner notes, but I’m pretty sure that’s Manuel Obregon’s piano accompaniment on the song. It’s a nice duet and, unfortunately, the only one on the CD. It would have been nice to hear a few more songs with that arrangement.  With over an hour of music on the disc, the listener definitely gets his money’s worth, and Ray is given a lot of room to display his amazing guitar work. While this disc may not be for everyone, it is nice to see Papaya Music give the nod to Ray Tico and the concept of preserving Costa Rican folklore. The Ray Tico and all Papaya CDs are available at Jaime Peligro in Tamarindo, where they will gladly sample the music for the customers.All comments concerning this article are welcome.

Perrozompopo Breaks the Silence

Perrozompopo Breaks the Silence

   Perrozompopo is a Nicaraguan term for a gecko with a black tail, white stomach, and a red, triangular head, known for its scrappy character. In local nica folklore, the lizard was unwittingly transplanted from Cuba during the Sandino Resistance in the 1930s. Perrozompopo is also the name of a new Nicaraguan rock band with a unique and yes, scrappy sound. The quartet is comprised of Jacko on bass guitar, Juan on drums and percussion, Gabriel on electric guitar and Ramon Mejia on Spanish guitar. Ramon is also the singer and songwriter of the group. Their new CD, “Romper el Silencio” (Break the Silence) does not sound anything like an inaugural project.

   The twelve songs, recorded in the capitol city of Managua, carry a grassroots political message. A booklet inside the package even contains an introduction, dedicating the disc to the children of the streets in Managua as well as all exploited children and women in Nicaragua. The manifest continues with a wish for liberty, change and new opportunities for the country through peaceful means.

   The first song on the disc, “Quiere a Tu Pais” (Love Your Country) is an appropriate for these sentiments. In the lyrics, Ramon notes that life is rough, but that if Nicaraguans stay together, a positive change will come for everyone. The next song, “Perrozompopo,” is the band’s namesake. The song comments on the strength and stamina of the gecko, their astute drive to survive, and that nicas could learn a lesson in survival from them. The CD’s title song, “Romper el Silencio” (Break the Silence) reminds the audience that silence is also a form of participation.

   It is refreshing to hear a new, positive voice, so full of sincerity and hopefulness, coming from Nicaragua. Perrozompopo draws on many musical influences, including traditional Nicaraguan folk, to create a style they have dubbed, “Nica-urbana”, which is theirs alone. There are some great crossovers and segues from a traditional acoustic sound into an electric arrangement, complimenting the lyrical changes in the songs. The transitions in tempo and the placement of pauses all work together to produce a tight-knit finished product, a fine collage of sounds and styles.

   The production by Enrique Mavilla on this fifty-two minute disc is sterling. And the recording and mastering by Carlos Estella is, well, masterful. The tiny Nicaraguan label Delicias Discograficas has released a professional, impeccably polished package. The CD has been picked up and distributed in Costa Rica by the revered Papaya Music label in an attempt to give Perrozompopo more exposure. Romper el Silencio proves that they certainly deserve the chance. The CD is available at the Jaime Peligro book store in Playa Tamarindo, where they will sample the music for their customers. All comments concerning this article are welcome.

Uptown for Perrozompopo

Uptown for Perrozompopo

   A lot of rock & roll bands have one good album in them. The problem crops up when they continue to release more. A legion of examples comes to mind but for once, I’ll keep my sarcastic, observational humor to myself. The Nicaraguan band Perrozompopo came out of the chute last year with their inaugural CD, “Romper el Silencio”. Papaya Music was impressed enough with the project that they took the Managua band under wing and distributed their disc throughout Costa Rica, to very positive reviews, including my own. The band is basically the brainchild of singer/songwriter/guitarist Ramon Mejia.
   For his sophomore effort, “Quiero Que Sepas”, Ramon has nearly reconstructed the entire band, keeping only his brother, Augusto, on bass guitar. The project is divided into two distinct groupings: one recorded by a Nicaraguan band in Managua and the second recorded in Costa Rica, where the entire result was mastered. Manuel Obregon, Papaya’s CEO, called on some of his friends and big guns for the Costa Rica cuts, including Carlos Delgado on guitar and Marta Fonseca, adding background vocals. From the popular band Malpais, violinist Ivan Rodriguez and percussionist Carlos Vargas make notable contributions and the entire Editus band appears on the last cut of the CD.
   The final result is commendable. Majia has retained enough of the sound of the original band to make the new disc identifiable, while adding enough new pathways for his current project to keep it from sounding repetitive. The thirteen-song, fifty minute set starts off with the title track, a ballad warning about the dangers of border crossing. The second song, “Mujeres del Centro del Rio,” concentrates on the plight of women in society in Nicaragua. In fact, the somewhat over-dedicated disc goes out at one point to his mother, at another to his daughter, Taina, with yet another dedication to “all those women who have failed themselves, having been accomplices to so many men who, through politics and religion, have tried to push women to the margins of society”. Aside from the wordiness, the intentions seem to ring true to form the thematic structure of the CD. Other highlights include “Las Hijas del Sol”, (with additional vocals by Marta Fonseca), and “Muchacha de Arenas”, written this year in San Juan del Sur. It’s also a nice touch closing the project with three-time Grammy winners Editus backing Mejia on “Cuando Tardas y Demoras”. The entire production, in fact, is a lot more tempered and polished than the first album, probably owing to the Papaya connection. 

   There is a certain irony or dichotomy that arises here. Perrozompopo has built its reputation as a scrappy, street-wise band that has assumed the role of being the voice of the common people in Nicaragua. That’s a hard image to maintain while being wined, dined and recorded in San Jose’, Costa Rica. But this is not a new problem in the history of rock & roll, ala the rich hippie, the popular punk, and the well-fed, successful grunge star. In the case of Perrozompopo, it appears to be working, as they seem to be able to transcend this split personality. Toward the end of recording “Quiero Que Sepas”, the band took it to the streets, performing live on several occasions in San Jose, always to responsive crowds and positive reviews. The same thing happened upon returning to Managua and showcasing the material live at cafes and night spots there. One can only hope that by walking this thin line, the band does not open a chasm between themselves and their fans.
   Both Perrozompopo CDs are available at Jaime Peligro in Playa Tamarindo, where they will gladly sample the music for their customers.All commetns concerning this article are welcome.

Ska Cubano

Ska Cubano

   Everybody wants to make a good first impression. So, when Jacob Edgar left his position as vice-president in charge of A&R at Putumayo Records to found his own label, the old adage must certainly have been on his mind. The initial offering from fledgling Cumbancha Records is “Ay Caramba!” from Ska Cubano and it definitely has blown the doors open for the new label, with its foot-tapping, dare-you-not-to-start-dancing music. An eleven piece band, Ska Cubano is the brainchild of Peter Scott, whose love for classical Jamaican ska and Cuban mambo and cumbia led him to assemble these musicians and reunite these long lost musical relatives. He enlisted Natty Bo, a U.K. ska veteran and fan of all things retro to oversee the production of the disc. Together they traveled to Santiago, Cuba, where they discovered Benny Billy strumming and singing in an old bar there. They both knew immediately that they had found their frontman for the band. And I concur: hey, anyone who appears in public with one lens missing in his sunglasses is alright by me. They flanked him with legendary seventy-four year old trumpeter Eddy “Tan Tan” Thornton, ska saxist Megumi Mesaku and bassist Ray Crespo.

   The CD’s first song, “Soy Campesino” sets the tempo for the entire disc, with its playfulness and danceability. To be sure, there is not a single tearjerker or torch song on the album. The whole mood is fifty-two minutes of fun, at times more than a little tongue-in-cheek, without ever being condescending. The title song, “Ay Caramba” is a good example, extolling and celebrating the scandalous irresponsibility in the lives of musicians everywhere. The band also covers a few gems, including “Jezebal” and “Tabu” and possibly the first ska arrangement ever of the risqué mento song “Big Bamboo”, which has nothing to do whatsoever with bamboo.

Ska Cubano in action

   Before the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Trinidadian calypso was popular all over the island, and early ska bands regularly infused Cuban beats into their songs. By the 60s, these two tangential styles separated into different musical directions, as Cuban music develop0ed into salsa, while ska led to the worldwide phenomenon called reggae. It’s nice to see these two closely related musical brothers discover a new commonality. As Edgar Jacob said, “Ska Cubano is a perfect example of a group that needs to be heard by a wider audience. I’m certain that people of any age and background will find this upbeat music irresistible” This infectious CD is available at Jaime Peligro book store in Playa Tamarindo, where they will sample the music for their customers.All commetns concerning this article are welcome.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Mekatelyu - The Little Band that Could

The Little Band That Could

      In 2001, Mekatelyu made their debut in their Caribbean hometown of Limon. They joined the ranks of literally hundreds of Costa Rican reggae bands. Six years later, on the eve of the release of Sensi, their third CD, Mekatelyu stands out as probably the most popular, and certainly the most recognizable reggae group in the country. The group has matured as a band in the studio, as is evident in the lush production, with layers of tightly orchestrated keyboards, vocal harmonies and horn section. A fan can hear the progression of this maturity with each new release. Sensi also has a lot more songs sung in Spanish than its predecessors, in an apparent attempt to reach back to the band’s collective heritage, and as lead singer/songwriter Johnnyman seems to be reaching out to more Latin Americans.
Johnnyman testifying
      But the band has retained their trademark musical riffs throughout this maturation, still sounding fresh and upbeat, with that unmistakable voice of Johnnyman. It is nice to see a contemporary band retain its originality, its identity and all its band members as it rises in popularity, a true curio in the modern music scene.

      The CD itself feels like a training ground in the School of Tempo Changes, as the band playfully skips from one beat to another during a number of their songs. Standouts among the eleven songs include Subele (Join Us) and Clamando Justica (Pray for Justice), with its catchy bass run and horn riffs. Johnnyman’s ramblings appear frequently throughout the disc. It’s all fun and danceable, yet very serious. Even the title song straddles this fence. Johnnyman told me that the song was a call for people to use sensibility in dealing with each other and the planet. But it is all tongue in cheek as well, because the song is also about the effects of sensimillon, or high grade pot.
      Curiously, the band is called Johnnyman & Mekatelyu on the new disc. The artwork on the jacket is nice, using the colors of the Jamaican flag to water paint over two photos of Johnny and one of the rest of the band. But the separation there seems a bit odd. And tickets for a recent Mekatelyu festival were available at Burger King. One can only hope that these are coincidences and not indicative of a new trend for the band.
      In Tamarindo, Mekatelyu CDs are available exclusively at Jaime Peligro, Tamarindo’s oldest book store. All commetns concerning this article are gladly welcome.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Gospel Music in Costa Rica

Gospel Music in Costa Rica

   Religious hymns and spiritual music have played a role in Costa Rican culture for more than two centuries. Traditionally, however, the practice of organized groups celebrating and singing these songs has been confined to within their respective church walls, primarily in Limon and San Jose. Enter music historian Manuel Obregon, who is also the president and founder of Papaya Music, Costa Rica’s premier music label. Obregon felt this musical legacy deserved to be shared with the general public. So he enlisted more than thirty participants from a variety of denominations to perform live for two nights for an audience at National Theater in San Jose, which is truly how gospel music should be heard: alive rather than canned, studio work. Appropriately, a recording of this event, “Wade in the Water” has recently been released.
   The disc opens with the Reverend Phil Jones singing the title track. He also sings the lead vocals for “We Shall Overcome” and the closing song, “Amazing Grace”. Other standouts on the song list include Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” and the traditional Gospel tune, “Fly Away”. Two Kirk Franklin original songs and a Caribbean Gospel medley help round out the song selections. A variety of vocal ensembles grace the performances on this CD, including a backing chorus of ten voices. In addition, Obregon spotlights Masterkey, a six-man singing group from Limon who formed their sextet in 1998, singing a combination of traditional and original spiritual songs in a bilingual style they call “Tico Gospel”. Their counterpart, T4, is comprised of the four Tucker sisters, singing a style of music that has Afro-American Gospel style enmeshed with a Jamaican/Caribbean influence. Harline Tucker claims that their style of music can be played “only on the black keys of the piano”.
   The music leaves a lot of room for instrumental solos, which are handled by Obregon on piano and organ, while fellow Malpais band member Fidel Gamboa plays flute and saxophone, with the guitar work performed by veteran session man Carlos Delgado. The house band for this project is comprised of self-admitted “non-believers”, who expressed delight in being able to participate in the event. The music tends to transcend traditional gospel, adding elements of soul, rhythm & blues and even jazz to the mix.
  The packaging has the unmistakable Papaya Music attention to detail. Obregon, a bit of a music perfectionist, also did all the arranging, producing and art direction. The disc comes with a booklet with its liner notes and lyrics in both Spanish and English. The eco-friendly jacket is a double fold-out that opens to reveal a clever photographic collage. In short, Manuel Obregon and Papaya Music have done it again, presenting a comprehensive package that preserves Costa Rican heritage by putting it on the map while adding a current spin to it that keeps it modern at the same time. 
   “Wade in the Water” and all Papaya Music CDs are available in Playa Tamarindo, Quepos and Tilaran at Jaime Peligro, where they will gladly sample the music for the customer. All comments concerning this article are welcome.