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By Elijah Wald
Two weeks ago, when a judge in Mexico City dismissed charges against five men accused of murdering an American businessman and reportedly compared them to Robin Hood, it must have seemed to most Anglophone Americans like complete insanity. To someone familiar with the Latin pop world, it sounds as if she had been listening to too many corridos.
Ballads, the musical news bulletins which celebrated Robin Hood, Pretty Boy Floyd and thousands more, died out in Anglophone culture with the rise of literacy and the media. Their Mexican equivalent, however, is still going strong. On a bus in Guerrero, a singer will climb aboard and sing a corrido telling the rhymed tale of a massacre of peasants and laying the blame at the feet of the governor. In a Chiapas street market, a cassette by Los Zapatistas del Norte celebrates the triumphs of the guerilla leader Subcomandante Marcos. And, in the United States, Los Tigres del Norte and Los Tucanes de Tijuana are on top of the Latin charts with "narcocorridos,'' ballads of the drug smugglers who have fallen heir to a tradition that once celebrated revolutionary heroes like Villa and Zapata.
The continued success of corridos is a surprising anomaly in the modern world. As other Latin styles turn to synthesizers and carribean rhythms, the corrido groups springing up in Northern Mexico and the Southwestern U.S. continue to sing waltz-time stories backed by accordion, bass, drums and bajo sexto, a low-pitched 12-string guitar. Even folklorists are surprised. While the music had a golden age in the early part of this century, documented on two box sets from Arhoolie records, "Corridos and Tragedias de la Frontera'' and "The Mexican Revolution,'' by the 1960s most experts thought its time was passing.
That changed when Los Tigres, "The Tigers of the North,'' vaulted to the top of the charts in 1971 with "Contrabando y Traicion'' ("Contraband and Betrayal''). The ballad of a couple who smuggle marijuana from Mexico to L.A. in their car tires, after which the man tries to break up and the woman shoots him, was made into a popular film, and started a new wave of corrido groups, with the Tigres firmly ensconced as kings of the style. In the intervening years, they have made some thirty albums, and 18 more songs have spawned movies in which they make brief appearances.
Recently, though, the Tigres have found their crown in jeopardy. Los Tucanes (The Toucans), a ten-year-old group, have rocketed to the top of the charts with songs like "La Pinata,'' a hit from their new "Tucanes de Plata'' album (EMI Latin), which tells of a party with a cocaine-filled pinata. In this and other songs, the Tucanes depart from tradition by celebrating not just the valor of the working-class smugglers, but the power and flashy lifestyle of the big drug lords, and the drugs themselves. As Enrique Franco Aguilar, a San Jose songwriter who gave the Tigres some of their most influential hits, puts it, " 'Contrabando y Traicion' is Walt Disney compared to the songs of Los Tucanes.''
The result has been an outcry on both sides of the border. Citizens' groups have been formed, and the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sinaloa have banned narcocorridos from the radio. Comparisons have been made to gangsta rap, though Anglophone reporters often seem puzzled by the fact that the Tucanes' accordion-driven waltzes and polkas are more perky than forbidding. (The Tucanes have further confused critics by pairing the release of each corrido disc with a companion disc, such as 1997's "Tucanes de Oro,'' featuring love songs and boleros in the popular "Tejano'' style of Grupo Limite and the late Selena.)
What critics often ignore is that the narcocorridos, as a tradition, are only tangentially about drugs. Like our ballads of Jesse James and Billy the Kid, the theme is less a celebration of crime than a dislike of authority and big money. "The people who buy these records are very poor, and are struggling under a system which is devised to keep them marginalized,'' says James Nicolopulos, a professor at the University of Texas who studies contemporary corrido. "These people who beat the system, who break out of that, are looked upon as culture heroes. And there's also the element of conflict with Anglo-Saxon civilization, which is a long-running theme in Mexican culture. Because the United States is so intrusive into Mexico in terms of the drug policy, if you beat the system you're also beating the cultural antagonist.''
In this, the narcocorridos hark back to the Mexican War of the 1840s, to folk tales of border outlaws, and most obviously to corridos of the "tequileros'' who smuggled liquor into the U.S. during prohibition. While providing entertainment and an emotional release, they also reflect a viewpoint of which few Anglo-Americans are aware: To rural Mexicans, the "war on drugs'' is most visible as a flood of armed troops into agricultural districts, borders and coastal areas, which have in no way halted the flow of drugs -- indeed the police and soldiers are widely perceived as completely in the pocket of the drug lords -- but have been a source of harrassment, extortion and violence.
Corrido singers point out that the smugglers in their ballads tend to end badly, either dead or in prison, and many narcocorridos include at least a token admonishment against drug use. Indeed, the Tigres' Grammy-nominated double CD, "Jefe de Jefes'' ("Boss of Bosses'') (Fonovisa) includes a couple of direct anti-drug songs. Nonetheless, while drugs are becoming an ever-greater problem in urban areas, there is still a perception among many Mexicans that the trade is, for them, a largely economic matter and the buyers and users are in the U.S.
On "Jefe de Jefes,'' the Tigres make this point directly. Two songs, "Por Debajo del Agua'' (colloquially "Under the Table'') and "El General'' ("The General'') imply that the real power behind the drug trade is north of the border, and probably includes government officials. The latter song is centered on General Rebolla Gutierez, the Mexican contact for the D.E.A. who was dismissed after accusations that he was a close associate of the drug lord Pablo Escobar. The song defends the General, suggesting that he was removed because he could not be bought off, and goes on to say, "The gringos certify other countries/ They don't want drugs to exist . . ./ But tell me, who certifies the United States?''
As with the genre in general, the Tigres' message is decidely mixed, romanticizing the traffickers and gun battles even while making more serious points. Since the Tucanes' upped the ante, the Tigres have taken on a harder edge and "Jefe de Jefes,'' which takes its title from a hit about a shadowy "Godfather'' figure, has them abandoning the gaudy cowboy garb worn by all corrido groups in favor of gangster-style leather, and doing both their cover shoot and video in the forbidding ruins of Alcatraz.
Nonetheless, despite the popularity of narcocorridos, the Tigres continue to sing about plenty of other subjects. The album's first single, "El Mojado Acaudalado'' ("The Wealthy Wetback'') is sung in the character of an illegal immigrant who has made good money in the U.S., but is joyfully returning to spend it in his "beloved land.'' In a more overtly political vein, "El Sucesor'' ("The Succesor'') is a barely veiled attack on the ruling PRI party, with a departing figure (presumeably ex-president Salinas) handing over "the keys to the store,'' and warning his successor that they have a nice little business and he should just keep things moving smoothly as they have for 100 years if he does not want to end up like Colosio, the candidate assassinated during the last presidential election.
Salinas, who came to symbolize the corruption in Mexican politics, has been a fertile subject for corridos, including the Tigres' satiric "El Circo'' ("The Circus''). Such songs are, in the opinion of most older corrido fans, what gives the genre its continued importance. "What the corrido is supposed to do is be a voice of the people,'' Nicolopulos says. "It should be a counter-discourse to the discourse of power.''
While the narcocorridos attract more press attention, these songs remain the meat of the genre, though many are only performed by local groups and issued on poorly-distributed cassettes. Any event, from a local crime to the success of baseball star Fernando Valenzuela is instantly set in verse and sung in bars and cafes. Several recent corridos tell of attacks by the "Chupacabras'' ("Goatsucker'') a beast said to be rampaging through Mexico and Puerto Rico. In California, there has been a whole cycle celebrating Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union, and "Los Illegales,'' a recent song by Franco for the Fresno group Los Pumas de Jalisco, mocks the xenophobia of Proposition 187, with Governor Pete Wilson blaming immigrants for everything from forest fires to earthquakes.
Franco strongly condemns the new narcocorridos, though he credits them with having revived interest in the genre. His own most popular songs have been socially conscious numbers that provided the Tigres with some of their biggest hits of the 1980s. "Tres Veces Mojado'' ("Three Times a Wetback'') told of a poor Salvadoran who had to illegally cross three borders to reach the U.S. "Jaula de Oro'' ("Cage of Gold'') was the lament of a Mexican immigrant who found economic success but lost his culture and his country.
Most recently, Franco has written and produced an album for La Tradicon Del Norte (The Northern Tradition), a quartet of twenty-something brothers from outside Tijuana. Released by BMG, "Corridos Para los Buenos, los Malos, y los Feos'' ("Ballads for the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly'') is Franco's answer to the narcocorrido trend. "We think the drug traffic is a crime and should be attacked,'' he says. "So we are trying to do something different.''
La Tradicion are superlative musicians, with tricky accordion lines and a rootsy sound that makes the Tigres and Tucanes sound formulaic by comparison. Many of the songs Franco has written for them are light, action-filled numbers like the hit, "Gallo de Pelea'' ("Fighting Cock''), a machismo-filled boast ("Cocks and women, the two things are pretty much equal,'' the chorus says. "The cocks give me money, the women take it away.'')
"These songs are an escape for the public,'' Franco says, speaking in Spanish. "It is the only way for the people to be silly, to create their lies [myths]. We talk about the gringos who hit us, about the bad government, about the police. But it is all fiction, right?''
Maybe yes, maybe no. Many of Franco's songs seem like more than simple escapist fare. "El Lobo de Sinaloa'' ("The Wolf of Sinaloa''), for example, is a portrait of a young hit man selling himself to the governor of a Mexican state notorious for its feudal agrarian system and violent peasant-landowner struggles. Since a Laredo sheriff won a suit against a corrido label, all such songs are at least supposedly fictitious, and Franco says that the character of El Lobo is his invention, but adds that it represents "the type of person whom the politicians get involved with, young guys who will do anything.''
Another song makes no pretension to fiction: "Rigoberta Menchu'' is a celebration of the Guatemalan peasant organizer who won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize. Then there is "Declaracion de Guerra,'' which takes its plot from an old joke, but makes the point that when the U.S. won wars against Germany and Japan it then gave them money to rebuild, while when it won against Mexico it seized half the country (Mexicans remain intensely aware that until 1848 virtually the entire Southwestern U.S. was part of the Mexican Republic).
Franco feels that dealing with such subjects, albeit through fiction, is part of his mission as a corrido composer. "Traditionally, all the corridos were about real events,'' he says. "It was a newspaper. In one song, I say that the Mexican people learned history by reading a songbook.''
Today, despite the dominance of drug songs, he continues to have faith in the power of the genre. "Too many of these 'artists,' in quotation marks, only want money,'' he says. "But when you have a good interpreter the corridos can still have a very strong effect. Because the people believe in these artists. If the artists wanted, they could make a revolution. A great artist is more powerful than a politician.''
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Andre Fritz Dossous (Haiti, playwright 1997)
By Elijah Wald
Andre Fritz Dossous is one of Boston's most prolific and successful playwrights, actors and directors. In the last 18 years, he has produced 22 plays, all of them at least moderately profitable, and has gone on tour to New York, Washington, Miami, and Canada. If his name is still unfamiliar to most local theatergoers, that is because his plays are written not in English but in Haitian Creole.
Dossous' troup, Teyat Lakay, or "Home Theater,'' is celebrating its 18th anniversary this Sunday with a production at the Strand Theatre, the group's base since the early 1980s. (282-8000) Typically, Dossous does virtually everything on the productions, producing, writing, starring and directing. This time, though, he is presenting the work of one of his teachers, the writer and comedian Francketienne, whose "Kalibofobo'' is a dialogue between a student, representing the Haitian elite, and a teacher, representing the common people.
Dossous, known to his fans as "Papados,'' began acting and writing plays in elementary school in his native Haiti. At first, he wrote in French, the school language of the time, but some 20 years ago he switched over to Creole. "I realized, when you write in French in Haiti, you go after only one sort of public,'' he says. "But when you write in Creole you get everybody.''
That has always been important to Dossous. For him, the beauty of theater is that it can bring his ideas not only to an educated elite but to the "ordinary people.'' "You don't have to be at school at Harvard to go to theater,'' he says. "No. When I came to Boston, I realized that we needed a theater group here to educate the community, how things are going on in Haiti and how they can behave themselves in the United States. For this, you have to know how to reach people, to know what language to talk to get them to understand your work.''
Though he has been in the United States since 1973, and has worked for years as a math teacher in the Boston school system, Dossous still speaks English with an accent that he cheerfully describes as "catastrophic.'' In Creole, however, he produces an unstinting flow of complex language, filled with word-play and biting satire. His plays deal with everything from the problems of newly-arrived immigrants to drugs, AIDS, and the twists and turns of Haitian politics.
His most popular play so far is "Nan Soulye Washington,'' "In Washington [sic] Shoes.'' He describes it as a one-and-a-half-person play, with himself in the lead and another actor who is asleep. Written in 1990, it satirized the way some Haitian candidates were worshipping American leaders, but also warned that Washington's power and influence could not be ignored. "A lot of people disagreed in 1990,'' he says. "But now they see that I was not the crazy guy, and anytime I do that play I have no place to put all the people.''
Despite the seriousness of his subject matter, Dossous says that all of his plays are richly humorous. Pulling out a copy of "In Washington Shoes,'' he points out a picture of the candidate prostrating himself before an altar adorned, in place of the ancient Loas, or Gods, with caricatured busts of Clinton, Bush and Carter. Later, the candidate is on the line to Washington, speaking in English: "Please help me to stand to smell the coffee,'' he cries ecstatically. "You want to send few friends to establish and maintain order? No problem . . . . Cool man. O America is beautiful! I kiss America. . . . Don't forget to send money by air cargo.''
Dossous feels that the humor is vital to his mission. "America is good, but it is a very hard country,'' he explains. "After the people spend one week in the factory, working hard, they cannot come in a theater and you keep putting tragedy, tragedy on them. They need things to relax them. Therefore, I always combine tragedy with comedy.''
No matter how bleak the subject, Dossous says that this is never a problem. "What is comedy?'' he asks rhetorically. "When the spectator is not on the stage, the play becomes comedy. But when the spectator looks at himself on the stage, the play now is a tragedy. Therefore, it depends how you put the subject. You have to be very meticulously careful, you don't want to hurt people. But in any subject, even when you're talking about the dead, you can put comedy.''
Dossous waves away the suggestion that this may be a particularly Haitian approach. Though he speaks proudly of a playwriting tradition that reaches back to the early days of independence, he considers Haitian theater to be firmly in a Western line that reaches back to the ancient Greeks. "All theater comes from the antique era,'' he says firmly. "And in school we studied all the 17th century French writers, Moliere, Racine, Corneille, up through the 18th, 19th and 20th century.
"We follow the same path, but culturally we are different. If you write for an ethnic group, you're supposed to speak their language, to talk about them, in order to understand their thought. For example, the American joker gives a joke, maybe you laugh, and I can sit and I don't laugh. Because culturally we are different. I don't understand the joke. But me, I can tell a joke to my audience and people laugh.''
While his plays have rarely attracted non-Haitians, Dossous himself is an avid reader and theatergoer, and tries to keep abreast of contemporary American trends. "I go to watch American plays, and I learn,'' he says. "Because I don't go like a spectator who just sits and enjoys himself; when I sit in the audience, I am a student. When I see good thing, I say 'Whoo, next time I'm going to put something like that!' Even if I don't want to copy, I want to be myself, I want to be original, but that can give me an idea how I can do things better.''
As to his amazing output, which in the early years of Teyat Lakay could stretch to three or four new plays a year, Dossous says that writing comes very easily to him. "Once I know how to finish the play, the play's already written. Because if you know where you're going, you can use different ways to go, and you will still end up at your destination. Most of my plays, I don't follow a straight path, I'm going zig-zag -- over there, over there, over there -- like spiralistic, and reach my goal, and that's it.
"I think it's a routine too, because I've been doing things like that since 9, 10 years old. When I get trouble in writing the play, I know how to turn around to get there. Sometimes you put a bridge when you write, but you know the bridge is not solid, and you keep going and after three days, one month, you come back and remove the bridge and you find the right thing to put there in order to connect.''
Now, Dossous is working on a new play, "Soul Mother,'' which will be presented at the Strand in May, the Haitian holiday season. For the first time, it is written largely in English, and he likes to think that it may reach more people outside the Haitian community, but that is not why he wrote it. "The action is taking place here in the United States,'' he explains. "Things are changing, and you got to change too, so now I show how kids come home and speak English, the melting pot and how all the people interact.''
For the future, he is hoping to find a promoter who will bring his plays to Haiti, and simply to continue to keep Teyat Lakay as a vital part of the Boston scene. "Theater, I think, is the most beautiful thing, the most beautiful art,'' he says. "Because theater is you, is your soul, is your identity, is your self. When people go to see a play, they can learn more, more things. I'm just trying to do my work as a citizen, to help people to understand the meaning of life, and I think the theater is a good tool to do this work. I want all my plays to be plays that, when you come, you come to get fun; while you get fun, I teach you how to behave yourself in the community, in the society. And I really love what I'm doing.''
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Caetano Veloso (Brazil 1997)
On the telephone, Caetano Veloso sounds much as he does on record: warm and intelligent, engaging, but making no overt attempt to please. His answers are straightforward, but he has no time for foolishness. Ask him something like "How have you managed to remain at the forefront of Brazilian music for 30 years, and always kept both developing artistically and appealing to a young pop audience,'' and he simply says "I don't know,'' and waits for another question.
Veloso is often compared to Bob Dylan and John Lennon, but these comparisons are as misleading as they are helpful. Like Dylan or Lennon, he was a mythic figure of the 1960s, a voice of disaffected youth, and a self-conscious artist who was also a pop star, but Veloso's work and career is uniquely Brazilian. While he adopted instrumentation and musical approaches from his Anglophone contemporaries, he always remained steadfastly in the Brazilian tradition, and, despite imprisonment and two and a half years of political exile, he has held onto his central place in the national scene.
Veloso is still little known to American listeners, but that is changing. He is making his first, brief, American tour, bringing an acoustic quintet for two nights at Jordan Hall next Sunday and Monday, June 21-22 (536-2412). In preparation, a fine WGBH documentary, "Caetano in Bahia,'' which premiered in 1994, is being rebroadcast Saturday at 6:30pm on Channel 2 (it will also air on Wednesday, June 25, at 10:30 on 44).
The documentary captures much of the cultural and artistic mix that have informed Veloso's work. Born in a small inland village, he went in his teens to the bustling port city of Salvador, capital of the northern province of Bahia. Salvador is the center of black Brazil, a place where African traditions remain strong. It is also the home of Joao Gilberto, the bossa nova singer and guitarist who is Veloso's greatest musical hero.
Veloso grew up singing samba and bossa nova, and writing songs and poetry. In 1965, he followed his sister, the singer Maria Bethania, to Rio de Janeiro and, with a group of transplanted Bahians that included Gal Costa and, especially, Gilberto Gil, led a movement called "tropicalismo,'' which largely laid the cornerstone of modern Brazilian popular music. Asked what, exactly, makes up tropicalismo, Veloso responds with typical ambiguity: "It is very difficult, because nothing exactly does it. Everything could do it, but never exactly.''
Asked to expand on that, he explains that "tropicalismo'' was simply a name that the press and public gave to what he and Gil were doing. "This movement had to do with a pop view of things, in the sense of pop art, but attached to music. It had to do with the neo-rock 'n' roll that the British presented then, which made American rubbish sound like precious things. Rock 'n' roll in the '50s was considered rubbish, and the English, in the '60s, were so inventive that they brought some sort of respectability to the tradition.
"Tropicalismo in Brazil was somehow parallel to this. What we did was we included neo-rock 'n' roll from England in our interests, but not only that, also Brazilian rubbish: sentimental, commercial songs and bad taste, Brazilian and non-Brazilian. Mostly Latin and South American; tangos and boleros and things from Cuba.''
Tropicalismo became the voice of the emerging Brazilian counter-culture, the avante-guarde artists, hippies and rock 'n' roll fans. While few of the songs were overtly political, the movement's outlook was clearly in opposition to the bourgeous culture and social order being imposed by Brazil's military rulers.
"Tropicalismo created a scandal,'' Veloso says. "Because it sounded commercial, but it was too pretentious poetically, but at the same time it was against protest songs because it was not like a linear, protest song. It was anarchical and violent in the lyrics and it could use electric guitars and quote the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix, and at the same time part of an Argentinian tango and an old sentimental Brazilian song. It put together styles that were strangers to each other to create a comment on the cultural panorama and try to turn the Brazilian soul inside out.''
Veloso traces the philosophy of tropicalismo to a Brazilian surrealist of the 1920s, Oswaldo de Andrade, who wrote a "Cannibalist Manifesto,'' based on the idea of eating and regurgitating world culture. Referring to an early missionary, Bishop Sardinha (by wonderful coincidence, the Portuguese for "sardine''), who was eaten by Amazonian natives, Andrade said "Brazil started the day the Indians ate Bishop Sardine.''
Veloso fell in love with this idea of Brazilian culture as a digested mass of influences from America, Europe and Africa, and also with the blend of serious artistic intent and anarchic humor that Andrade's work exemplified. "There is a poem by a modernist Brazilian poet,'' he says. "It's very short. The title is 'Amor,' and the poem is 'Humor.' It's just that. So amor/humor, love/humor. That was the approach that we had to those sentimental, naive, commercial songs.''
Veloso stresses the true affection he and Gil had for earlier Brazilian styles; while they admired the Beatles and Rolling Stones, they remained very much "two sons of bossa nova.'' Indeed, revolutionary as it sounded to Brazilian ears, to a North American listener most of Veloso's music seems to fit within the gently melodic Brazilean mainstream.
Veloso laughs at this observation, but agrees: "It's sweet and hazy, the sound of the Portuguese in Brazil, and the melodic tradition also sounds caressing. So when we are saying horrible things, if you don't understand us, you don't think horrible things are being said. In the '60s, we did some aggressive sounds, but we were never really able to sing aggressively. Even the rock 'n' roll groups. And I'll tell you I'm proud, because French singers, Italian, Spanish, who 'modernize' their music by trying to sing like white English who imitate black Americans sound horrible to me. I hate that, and I'm very proud that Brazilians never do it.''
This should not give anyone the idea that Veloso is simply a sweet bossa nova singer. His music has been consistently daring, both lyrically and melodically. He has sung alone with his acoustic guitar, and with rock bands, street percussion groups, and full orchestras. He recorded in English during his years in exile, and his current live repertoire, displayed on the album "Fina Estampa en Vivo,'' concentrates on Spanish-language pop songs remembered from his youth, blended with everything from Carmen Miranda to classic tropicalismo, plus a fiery new song "Haiti,'' which attacks racial and economic injustice in a style that can only be called Brazilian rap.
The original, studio version of "Fina Estampa,'' which came out in 1994, was Veloso's first Spanish-language album. Designed to reach out to the rest of Latin America, it became his best seller ever in Brazil, a fact he finds ironic. He is quick to point out, though, that he has never been a huge seller. His influence, like Dylan's, is far out of proportion to his chart success, and he suspects that the new album's popularity is due in part to the fact that the old Spanish songs are less weird and threatening than much of his original work.
In Boston, he will be playing "Fina Estampa'' as well as his own songs, backed by a second guitar, double bass, percussion, and cellist Jaques Morelenbaum, a New England Conservatory graduate. One should not be mislead, however, by the acoustic backing, older material, and an album photo which shows him in a proper suit and newly short hair. Veloso is enjoying a new persona, and a chance to sing the romantic love songs he grew up with, but, at 54, he has not settled into a safe elder statesmanhood.
"There's a hint of humor to the whole thing, although it's deeply felt,'' he says. "Because it's the traditional Spanish-American material filtered through bossa nova and tropicalismo. So you have the impressionistic harmonies and the not-macho approach to the songs that's entirely bossa nova, and you have a hint of the tropicalist humor. Not too much, because in the 'amor/humor' equation amor is stronger. It has to be stronger, and the kind of laugh that you give at yourself is a very special kind.''
This is not a new maturity, then, but simply one more stage in Veloso's continuing evolution. "Always, the impulse is to find what is regenerating and revitalizing to the creation and production of popular music in Brazil,'' he says. "And to keep on being demanding, because popular music in Brazil has always showed such strength. It has produced such a genius as Joao Gilberto and such a great composer as Antonio Carlos Jobim. And if it did so, we cannot be satisfied with less. We must be risky. We have to be courageous and even heroic because popular music in Brazil demands it. That's the impulse we had from the beginning, that led us to tropicalismo, and that keeps leading us now."
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Giancarlo Buscaglia (Puerto Rico 1997)
By Elijah Wald
CAMBRIDGE -- The room is too crowded for dancing, but the music is irresistable, so couples are managing a sort of understated salsa between the bar and the tables. The band is not a salsa band, though. It is just one guy with an acoustic guitar, and two friends filling in the rhythm on bongo and conga drums.
The guitarist is Giancarlo Buscaglia, and for more than two years he has been playing every Thursday night at the Cellar on Mass. Ave. This summer, he added a second weekly gig, Saturdays at the Green Street Grill in Central Square. There, the sound is supplemented by Roberto Cassan's accordion, and the bigger room means that the crowding is not as oppressive, at least for the time being.
The physical reaction to Buscaglia's music is a bit surprising, considering how different it is from what most would consider a contemporary Latin dance sound. "They think of the horns, the big rhythm section,'' Buscaglia says, nodding. "That sound is great, the larger groups, but there is so much other music too that's not out there. I like to play more of an older sound, like Cuba, Puerto Rico in
the '20s or '30s, which is basically the roots of salsa, without the horns. I love that. I think if I had a horn section you wouldn't hear the accordion coming out, or the cuatro.''
Buscaglia is Puerto Rican, and came to the Boston area with his parents in the early 1980s, at age 13, settling in the western suburbs. "I used to hate this music when I was in Puerto Rico,'' he says, his voice still showing a gentle accent. "My grandparents listened to it. But as I got older I realized that there's a lot of beautiful stuff there and and I really got into it, as opposed to listening to [disco-pop like] Menudo."
At first, Buscaglia turned to nueva cancion, the Latin American equivalent of the folksinger/songwriter style. "Sylvio Rodriguez, Pablo Milanes [the leaders of Cuban nueva cancion], they have a lot of influence from the older music,'' he says. "I tended to like that more than the stuff with electric guitars and synthesizers. So I headed more towards that folk direction, which I ended up doing when I came to Cambridge and started playing in the streets. But I also started doing Mexican polkas and pasodobles and waltzes with two violin players and an accordion player that I was lucky enough to meet in the street.''
The street was his school and his workplace. "It was great for me,'' he says. "I was 18 or 19, and I was making more or less a living with what I loved to do.'' The street provided an opportunity to experiment, to sit in with different musicians and learn a wide variety of music. Buscaglia was especially drawn to the continuum of acoustic pop styles that flourished throughout Latin America in the first half of the century. He studied recordings by the classic Mexican trios, with their unearthly falsetto singing, and the harder-edged, Caribbean rhythms of the Cuban Trio Matamoros.
By the end of his Harvard Square days, Buscaglia had put together a regular band, Balaton, and was exploring virtually the whole range of 20th century Latin American acoustic music. In his sets, a Cuban guaracha will be followed by a Mexican trio number, followed by an Argentine tango. There is also plenty of Puerto Rican music, based on the jibaro style of the countryside, which he plays on the cuatro, a ten-stringed member of the guitar family which he describes as the Puerto Rican national instrument.
Buscaglia is the first to insist that he is not virtuoso, either on cuatro or guitar, but he plays both in an easy, swinging style. What sets him apart, though, is neither his musicianship nor his pleasantly evocative vocals. Buscaglia's great talent is his ability to communicate his love of the music, both to the audience and to his fellow players. Over the years, he has evolved a shifting array of groups to meet the various performing opportunities that come his way. He performs solo, in a wonderful duo with the singer and guitarist Saul Martinez, and in trios, quartets, or whatever is needed for a particular event. He also plays cuatro and sings with Manuel Santos's band, which next week will begin a regular Sunday night residency at Johnny D's.
Most acoustic musicians are ambivalent at best about playing bar gigs, especially in a room like the Cellar, where people are talking, jostling and enjoying themselves rather than sitting and listening. For Buscaglia, though, the room has a special feeling. "I love to do concerts,'' he says. "And I will work at receptions and parties and stuff like that. But I really like to be able to do what comes most naturally for this music, what it has been for the most part through the years. It is music to dance, to share, to joke around, to have a good time.''
The customers clearly agree. Buscaglia says he is as surprised as anyone by the reaction his music is getting, and especially by the fact that young Latinos are coming to dance to his old-fashioned sound. "I don't know if it's nostalgia about being here [in the U.S.] or that they've been listening since they were little,'' he says. "But they really are into it. You hear the people screaming like they do in the mariachis, and dancing to polkas. It's hard to see in any club, whether it's American or Mexican, young people of 25 getting up dancing a polka.
"I am so glad to see people will dance to this. I love that, and for me it's natural. You don't have to be a huge deal, have a big band, for people to dance. You just need a couple of guitars, or whatever. Because people love music. That is why I play alone, in the duo, in the band. I have learned in the last few years that I need to explore as much as I can in the music, and find as many venues as possible. That way, I can go on, and keep playing what I love.''
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Bale Folclorico da Bahia (Brazil 1997)
As a rule, the World Music production company avoids bringing the same group into town two years running, for fear of exhausting its audience. The striking exception for this season is the Bale[get accent] Folclo[get accent]rico da Bahia, whose two shows last year at John Hancock Hall were so successful that it is back for a four-day run this Thursday through Sunday at the Emerson Majestic Theatre (876-4275).
Recalling last year's visit, it is easy to see why the Bale[get accent] is getting this sort of treatment. It is the most polished and exciting African diaspora dance company to come through Boston in recent times. Walson Botelho, the co-founder and director, is an anthropologist and dancer from Brazil's northern province of Bahia, the heartland of Afro-Brazilian culture, and he has a gift for combining ancient traditions with a sure theatrical sense that makes them come alive on stage.
This year's program includes most of the highlights of the old show, plus a new introductory section, "Oxala[get accent]'s Court,'' which has already won international awards. "It is a piece about Candomble, the Yoruba religion brought to Brazil with the slaves,'' Botelho explains, speaking with a thick Brazilian accent. "We show some of the most important rituals. We start with the offering to Exu, the god that makes the bridge between the human beings and the gods, then we show the initiation of the new adept in the religion, 'Yao[get accent]'s Initiation.' In Yoruba, Yao[get accent] means woman, but in Candomble, even if you are a man, you are considered the wife of the gods, so we use the same word for a man or a woman.''
This section ends with "Pantheon dos Orixa[get accent]s,'' a procession of the main Candomble gods, from Ogun, the god of iron and war, to Iansa[get accent], the goddess of storms and winds, and Oxala[get accent], the supreme creator of the universe. Botelho, who is himself a priest in the Candomble church, says that it was only in the last year that he felt capable of putting together a piece of this sort.
"This was something that I wished to do since I formed the company,'' he says. "But it was very difficult. Before, I felt I was not prepared to work with this kind of ritual. Because they are very sacred, and it's not possible to work with these without permission of the gods.''
Because of his personal beliefs, Botelho approached the piece quite differently from his earlier work. "It's almost in the pure state,'' he says. "Even the fabrics for the costumes are the same that we use in the original religion. I told to the dancers, 'I don't want technique in this piece. I want this piece like we can see in the rituals.' Because in the rituals, we don't have choreographers, we don't have rehearsals. Of course, if you put a thing on a stage, you have lights, sound, microphones, you have many things that are not natural, but I wanted it as natural as possible.''
As for the rest of the show, there is a traditional fishermen's dance that ends with the dancers squirming like fish in the net skirt of the sea goddess, Iemanja[get accent], the dramatic "Maculele" stick dance, and a piece based on the martial arts form capoeira. There are also three contemporary Afro-Brazilian pieces: A modernist depiction of the creation of the universe, the acrobatic showcase "Afixire,'' and the final "Samba Reggae,'' a carnival dance that ends with the dancers snaking through the audience and urging everyone to join in.
For Botelho, such outreach is at the heart of his work. His dream is to bring Bahian culture to the world, and to forge links between African Americans, both North and South, and their root traditions in West Africa. His only regret is that, for the moment, the company is touring so constantly that it is virtually impossible to develop new pieces. In the next year, they will have only a month and a half in Brazil, between tours of the U.S., Europe, Lebanon and the Caribbean.
After years of obscurity, however, Botelho is not complaining: "Three years ago we had none of this. We had many difficulties, in terms of how to survive in Brazil with minimal money, how to maintain the company. So now we are in the right moment to do this, and we cannot lose it. We are far from our families, and it is very difficult for many of us, but this is our moment, and I think it is our life.''
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It is hard to imagine anyone who would not be interested in Cubanismo's show at the Roxy this Sunday. Jazz fans can appreciate the complexity and technical brilliance of the music. Latin and world fans can admire the impeccable rhythmic interplay. As for those who just want to get down and party, bandleader Jesus Alemany is the first to point out that, at heart, that is what this music is all about.
"People are coming to dance, to enjoy the show,'' Alemany says, speaking by phone the day after the band's live debut at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. "And I think that's the most important thing for us, because the audience is a very important part of our show. We really enjoy when we see people dancing and singing the tunes with us. And there were a lot of people screaming yesterday.''
That is all the more gratifying because, until the success of Cubanismo's first album, the music Alemany plays had been largely written off as a historical relic. At 34, the Cuban trumpeter has made it his mission to revive the classic Cuban son[MAKE ITAL], the big band music of the 1930s and 1940s. Like Stateside jazz, which it paralleled and exchanged ideas with throughout its heyday, son was originally dance music, but evolved into a largely undanceable concert style, Latin jazz. Alemany has set out to take the music back to its roots.
Unlike most of the Stateside groups that have tried to revive big band swing, however, Alemany has succeeded in capturing not only the letter but the spirit of the music. Whatever Cubanismo's cultural mission, it does not sound like a museum piece. In a large part, this is due to Alemany's decision to root his band in the descarga[MAKE ITAL], or jam session, keeping written arrangements to a minimum and letting the players kick back and blow.
"The success of the first album, 'Cubanismo,' has been spontaneity,'' Alemany says. "Everybody playing at the same time. We recorded it completely live and the ambiance was very good. Everybody happy. Happy to get together, and to make this kind of traditional music which had almost disappeared. We went back to Cuba and we did it, and we are really surprised at the success of the album here in America and all over the world.''
For Alemany, who has been based in England for several years, the session that spawned Cubanismo was a sort of homecoming. He and producer Joe Boyd traveled to Havana in 1995, planning to make a one-shot son revival album with the cream of Cuban players, both those still based on the island and expatriates like the legendary pianist Alfredo Rodri[NOTE]guez. The project
succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, both artistically and in terms of the excitement it generated internationally. They followed up with a second album, "Malembe,'' and now the band's first live tour.
The 14-member touring band brings together an electrifying mix of old masters and young Turks. Rodriguez has been working internationally since the 1960s, playing with artists like Tito Puente, Mario Bauza and Dizzy Gillespie. Conga player Tata Guines is the grand master of Cuban jazz percussionists. Several other bandmembers were in the landmark group Irakere. Then there are the young players, Alemany's contemporaries, who are trying to learn from the older men while bringing their modern sensibility to bear on the classic form.
The band also has an unusual mix of expatriates and Havana-based players, a fact that has received considerable attention from the press. Alemany, however, says that politics had a neglegible effect on the project. "The communication between us is fantastic,'' he says. "100 percent positive. Because this music is like a common language; it's like the breath that we have in Cuba. On this tour I am using a couple of musicians that live in Miami, but they are like family, you know? We all grew up together in the same neighborhoods and went to the same music college, listening to the same music on the radio and in our environment.''
He is also quick to point out that, despite the crippling effect of the U.S. blockade on the Cuban economy, musicians have managed to keep up a regular interchange of ideas, buying tapes and records in third countries, and that recently the Cuban government has greatly improved the situation by allowing musicians wide leeway to tour abroad. "Our culture is very strong,'' he says. "Especially the music. You can see the influences of Cuban music in jazz, funky soul music, even in the rock 'n' roll. It's a cultural phenomenon, and nobody can deny it. You can't blockade the music.''
Where: The Roxy
When: Sunday, May 4, 8pm
Tickets: $20 in advance, $25 day of show. Phone: 876-4275
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Los Van Van
By Elijah Wald
This is the year the Cubans arrive; the last few months have seen a growing flood of Cuban stars, from jazz instrumentalists to dance bands, and there are more on the way. There is one band above all others that Cuban music fans have been waiting for, though, and it finally makes its Boston debut at the Roxy this Tuesday. That band is Los Van Van.
Juan Formell has heard his group called the world's greatest salsa band so often that he no longer even tries to protest. "People always call our music salsa, all over the world,'' he says, sounding tired. "It's a problem of distribution and a thousand other things, and by now we understand how it happened. But really, what they categorize as salsa is not what we play. Salsa has a lot of Cuban influence, but the salsa groups are more standardized, they follow more or less the same lines, the same tunes and sound. The Cuban style -- Los Van Van -- is more open, we use more polyrhythms.''
Formell originally called his music "songo,'' and now groups it among other new Cuban styles as "timba Cubana.'' Whatever one calls it, it is very hot. Cuba has been the powerhouse of Caribbean dance music for decades, and Los Van Van, the 15-piece orchestra which comes to the Roxy on Tuesday, has been the most popular dance band in Cuba since the early 1970s.
The band was formed in 1969 by Formell, an electric bass player who had been inspired by the arrival of the Beatles and their innovative rock sound. "For me, personally, their approach was very influential,'' Formell says, speaking in Spanish from a California tour stop. "I did not adapt their music directly, but at the beginning my orchestra had guitar, and the guitarist tried to get something of the rock 'n' roll sound. As we are Cuban, it didn't come out that way, but we were influenced by the guitar and by the timbres of that music.''
Formell, who will give a symposium on his work before the concert, was raised on the older Cuban music of his father, a Havana piano player in the son style of the 1940s and 1950s. He first played guitar and sang, but his father urged him to take up bass. "He told me that I should play bass, because bass players always eat. Whoever is eating -- quartets, duos, or orchestras -- the bass always goes along.''
Formell first trained with his father, then with some of Cuba's top bass players. He soon got work in show bands, theater orchestras and small combos, finally ending up -- by accident, he says -- as bassist for Orquesta Reve[ACCENT]. This group played charanga, a French-derived style from the turn of the century that featured violin and flute as the main lead instruments. Formell began playing with the form, writing new arrangements that added rhythmic and chordal complexity, then broke off in 1969 to form his own group, named Los Van Van (roughly "The Go-Gos") after a government slogan for the 1970 sugar cane harvest.
"At that time the whole form of the Cuban orchestra was changing, with the arrival of electric instruments'' he says. "The way of singing changed, the harmonies, and we changed the way of playing the violin and piano. It was more rhythmic. I had a different conception of the music. When we started, there was a lot of controversy. The people loved the freshness of our sound, but the more conservative people were opposed to us; to break with tradition is always very hard. But after a while they realized that we were crazy, that we were going to do whatever we wanted, so now they don't worry about us.''
Formell played around with rhythms, harmonies and instrumentation, constantly experimenting and adapting his sound. He brought in electric keyboards and synthesizers, but the most distinctive addition was the line of three trombones which balance the three violins and flute as the group's principle instrumental voices. "We had the violins and flutes in the upper register, the rest of the orchestra in the lower register, and so we were looking for something in the middle register'' he explains. "So we brought in the trombones, and that filled out the whole sonority of the group.''
Mixing in sounds from jazz, rock, funk, and whatever else came along, Los Van Van stayed in the forefront of Cuban music and spawned a raft of imitators around the world. Even in the Boston area, groups like Ajidewe Son and the Orquesta Pan-Americano emulate the Cuban group's violin-and-horn frontline and intricate rhythmic interplay. Formell, surprisingly, downplays Los Van Van's direct musical influence. "I think our main influence has been in the way we work,'' he says. "The part we played was of the vanguard, the innovators, of having more liberty in composition, more experimentation and openness in the sound.''
In recent years, Los Van Van has seen further changes as older members retired and were replaced by young musicians.
"The young musicians are very good,'' Formell says. "And they have had a big influence on me and on the group. Throughout the lifetime of Van Van, I have been influenced by all of my musicians, and I have always had musicians who helped very much in forming the group's development and my own concept of the music.''
As Los Van Van's latest album, "Te Pone La Cabeza Mala" (roughly "It Messes Up Your Mind,'' on the Metro Blue label), proves, the new players have added youthful energy without adulterating the basic Van Van mix. The group has backed off somewhat from the heavy electronic sound and rap-funk fusions of the 1980s, putting the trombones and violins front and center, punching out hot riffs under the singers, backed by one of the world's greatest rhythm sections. The same sound is beginning to come over the phone, and Formell announces that the sound check has begun and he has to get on stage. The tiredness that was in his voice at the beginning of the interview has disappeared, and he sounds ready to stop talking about his music and start playing.
What: Los Van Van
Where: The Roxy
When: Tuesday, symposium at 7:30 p.m., performance at 8:30
Tickets: $25 in advance, $30 day of show
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By Elijah Wald
"Retire?" Compay Segundo looks at the reporter as if he hardly understands the question. "No, no. In Cuba, when I walk past a school, a child shouts Look, Compay! and they all begin to sing: De Alto Cedro voy para Marcane/Luego a Cueto voy para. . . and the teacher is yelling, Children! Children! So I cannot retire. I am in the hands of the children."
Compay is sitting in a rooftop hotel room in New York. It is July 2, 1998, the morning after the "Buena Vista Social Club" made its unique appearance at Carnegie Hall, and he is holding court, as bandmates, reporters and music business figures wander around outside. At 90, Compay is elegant as always, in his trademark white suit and hat, cigar in hand, speaking a slow and courtly Spanish. Beside him is a young, female translator, whom he flirts with whenever an appropriate moment arises. At Carnegie, he stole the show, singing with power and grace and playing glittering solos on armonica, a modified guitar of his own invention.
So, one has to ask, how does he do it? "Easy," he says. "I started playing music very early, in my childhood. I learned well, and I learned classical music as well, because I played clarinet. I always liked to deepen my knowledge of music, learn its origin and everything. When I began, I played Brazilian music, Spanish pasodobles, French music, and I enjoyed it all."
Yes, but the real question is, how do you keep going like this at age 90? "I never overdid it," he says, with a gleam in his eye that makes one a bit dubious. "Dont overdo things. I did not eat much. Just normal. Women, just normal. Not too much, or one gets bored."
"Anda! Go on!" the translator breaks in, laughing. "Nobody believes that, not even you."
Compay nods solemnly. "If they serve you a chicken, just eat a little piece. Because if you eat the whole chicken, the next day when they serve you chicken you wont want it."
"Dont point at me," the translator says.
Compay, who appears at Berklee on Friday (Nov.5), and turns 92 on the 18th, is the oldest and most charismatic of the "Buena Vista" stars, as well as composer and second voice of the original albums opening track, "Chan Chan." Unlike many of his younger bandmates, he was not in retirement when Ry Cooder came to Cuba. He had already played in Washington, D.C., and was traveling annually to Spain, writing new songs and collaborating with flamenco artists. Which is quite something for a man who was playing professionally in the 1920s.
Compay was born Máximo Francisco Repilado Muñoz, in Cubas eastern region, the heartland of traditional music. "I was born in Santiago," he says. "On the beach of Siboney, by El Caney, where the fruits are like flowers, full of aromas and saturated with honey." (The quotation is from "Frutas del Caney," a song on Compays last solo album, "Lo Mejor de la Vida," on Nonesuch.)
He received his professional name, which means roughly "Second Buddy," in the 1940s, as half of the popular duo Los Compadres (Lorenzo Hierrezuelo sang first voice, and hence was Compay Primo). They were radio stars and recorded roughly a record per month, as well as accepting side projects, such as a song on "Lo Mejor de la Vida" which Compay wrote as a jingle for Paper Mate. He also continued to play clarinet, working for 12 years with the legendary Miguel Matamoros.
Things slowed down in the late 1950s, and he spent the next two decades as a tobacconist, returning to music only in 1989, when he was invited to the U.S., to perform at the Smithsonian. Wherever he went, he found enthusiastic fans, and soon he had put together a new quartet and was touring Europe. "My music is not common," he points out. "It is very special, and people enjoy it, they even cry when they hear me."
He also continued to develop new sounds, taking advantage of his Spanish visits to team up with flamenco players and singers, who appear as guests on his album. And, especially since "Buena Vista," he has become a sensation back home as well.
"I cannot walk in Havana," he says. "Because everybody wants me to come into their house, Come in, so my children can see you. And as soon as I leave one house they want to bring me into another, and I can never get to my own. So Ive gotten myself a little car. Now I wave hello and rrrrrrr, wave hello and rrrrrrrr, and thats it."
And what are his plans now? "What now? To live life. I am starting again at 90. I plan to get to 115, like my grandmother. And when I get to 115, I plan to ask for an extension, to live some more."
What: Compay Segundo y su Grupo
Where: Berklee Performance Center
When: Friday, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $24 and $28 Phone: 617-876-4275
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By Elijah Wald
Of all the solo albums to come out in the wake of Ry Cooders "Buena Vista Social Club," the purest and most cohesive personal statement is Eliades Ochoas "Sublime Ilusion" [cq] (Higher Octave). From Cubas eastern region, Ochoas vocal style is rawer and rootsier than that of the Havana-based pop singers who joined him in "Buena Vista", and he drives the rhythm of his Cuarteto Patria with sparkling lines played on a self-invented cross between the tres, a traditional Cuban stringed instrument, and the guitar.
At 53, Ochoa, who appears Wednesday at Cambridges House of Blues, was among the youngest singers on the Cooder session. He was also, previous to the albums astonishing international breakthrough, the most consistently successful: "With the Cuarteto Patria, I had already traveled through the United States, through America, the Caribbean and Europe," he says, speaking in Spanish from a tour stop in Madrid, Spain. "I was less well known than I am now, but I traveled the world. I was not in the situation of other artists [like Ibrahim Ferrer or Compay Segundo], who were forgotten or unknown."
Indeed, it was Ochoa who revived the career of Segundo, the most charismatic of the "Buena Vista" stars, bringing him from Havana to Santiago de Cuba in 1986, and carrying him on tours as far as Washington, D.C. For Ochoa, this was a continuation of a long career of playing with older musicians from Cubas fertile east. Santiago, capital of the eastern region, is birthplace to Ochoa, Segundo, Ferrer, and a host of other Cuban masters.
"Santiago de Cuba is the cradle of Cuban music," Ochoa says. "It is where son [literally sound, the key rhythm in modern salsa] was born, and also bolero, guaguanco[GET ACCENT ON FINAL O], the rumba -- all these things are santiaguera."
Asked why he thinks Santiago has been so musically productive, Ochoa laughs. "You would have to find scientists to answer that," he says. "And ask them whether it has anything to do with the earthquakes, because Santiago de Cuba shakes every once in a while. And the sun is hotter than in the capital [Havana]. And the rum is hotter than in the capital. And the mulatas move their bodies more than in the capital. But one would have to hunt up a scientist to discover whether the son has anything to do with all these things."
A true child of the east, Ochoa has been playing music since age six. "I was born in a musical family and have it in my blood," he says. "My father played tres, and my mother as well, my sister has her own group, and all my siblings played guitar."
Ochoa was born in the countryside, but his family moved to Santiago when he was still a child, and by age ten he was playing for tips in the citys streets and the bustling brothels of the red light district. The revolution closed down the brothels, but provided new support for traditional Cuban music, and in 1963 Ochoa was given his own radio show. His biggest break, though, came in 1978, when he was chosen to take over the Cuarteto Patria, one of the most respected groups in the region. The Cuarteto had been formed in 1939, and it benefitted from his new blood as much as he gained from its solid reputation.
Ochoas speciality has always been the classic, string-driven style of east Cuban masters like the Trio Matamoros, but he brings a special flavor to the music. "That style is born in a person," he says. "Sometimes one does not even know how he comes to create a his own special stamp, his style, but there it is."
While he is known for his traditional approach, Ochoa remains an imaginative musician, and he welcomes the chance to meet and collaborate with non-Cuban players. At House of Blues, he will be accompanied by the blues harmonica virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite (who also will play an opening set), and the two appear on each others current recordings.
"He wrote me in Cuba," Ochoa explains. "Because we were both playing at a festival in Norway, and he wanted to see if we could do something together. I listened to the discs he sent, and when we met we got together, we rehearsed a lot, and I showed him how to play some Cuban music on harmonica. I like to try this sort of thing very much, because it enriches both cultures."
Ochoa is leaving the door open for future collaborations, but in the meanwhile he is enjoying the greater exposure he has received in the wake of "Buena Vista." The House of Blues gig is among the smallest he has played this year (it is sure to sell out, so those wanting to go should definitely get advance tickets), he has a book project in the works as well as an album celebrating the Cuartetos 60th anniversary, and he barely gets a chance to visit Santiago between tours in Europe and elsewhere.
"It is a lot of traveling," he says, sounding a bit tired. "But that is the way to prepare the future. Buena Vista Social Club changed things a lot, for me and for many Cuban soneros. The concerts have multiplied, and when the concerts multiply, life changes. Now there is more money, and also I signed an exclusive contract with a multinational record company, Virgin. And for this I have to thank Ry Cooder for his idea. He put me together with various glories of Cuban music and, despite being younger than them, they realized I had the ability. And that gave me great satisfaction."
What: Eliades Ochoa, with Charlie Musselwhite
Where: House of Blues
When: Wednesday, 10 p.m.
Tickets: $22 Phone: 617-497-2229
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By Elijah Wald
When Fulanito takes the stage at Reveres Wonderland Ballroom this Saturday, they will present Boston with one of the most unlikely line-ups in contemporary pop: Five young rappers fronting a band led by a 60-year-old accordionist playing the traditional Dominican style known as merengue tipica, or perico ripiao ("ripped parrot") music.
Fulanito, one of the hottest groups on the New York Latin scene, is the brainchild of Rafael Vargas (a.k.a. Dose), the son of Dominican immigrants, whose English-language outfit, 2 in a Room, had the international hit "Wiggle It" in the early 1990s. "There were these other groups doing the merengue hip-hop thing, and we thought, Wow, we should tap into that, because we speak Spanish and we dig that kind of music," Vargas says. "So we decided to experiment.
"The other groups, like Proyecto Uno, Sandy y Papo and Ilegales, they were doing it with more of a big-band merengue. But I was like, lets try and go even farther back to the thing that started the whole thing off. And that was the accordion, what they used to play up there in the mountains. People really dig that -- when you play perico ripiao people just go bananas, but it was more of an underground thing. Its the typical folk music of the Dominican Republic, and no one [on the pop scene] was touching that stuff with a ten-foot pole."
Winston Rosa, Vargas partner in 2 in a Room, is the son of a traditional accordion player, Arsenio de la Rosa. "Hes a pretty famous guy in the Dominican Republic, so we were like, Wow, if were gonna try a Latin thing, lets try and do something with your father," Vargas recalls. "So thats when we went into the studio and we recorded Guallando."
De la Rosa takes up the story, speaking in Spanish: "It took me by surprise when they called me to play rap. But my son said, Papi, we want to do something new, we would like you to come to the studio. So they told me more or less what they wanted, and I immediately played them something and they said, That was what we were looking for. "
De la Rosa is a master of perico ripiao, a country-style music featuring two-row button accordion and percussion. The son and grandson of musicians, he began playing at age six and was a virtuoso before he was ten. At twelve, he traveled to the capitol, Santo Domingo, to play on the main radio station. "At that time, they gave a prize for the best artist who appeared," he remembers. "I won twelve times."
De la Rosa came to the U.S. in 1963. He spent much of his time working outside music, but never stopped playing, and his Estrellas Dominicanas were a popular band on the New York Dominican circuit.
While the dominant Latin music in New York (and in Boston) was Puerto Rican salsa, the 1980s saw a rise in merengue, paralleling a population shift and the changing tastes of young dancers. Meanwhile, Latino youth were getting into the hip-hop and house scene. After 2 in a room, Vargas formed the 740 Boyz. It was still an English-language group, but all the members were from Dominican families, and they had heard both horn-band merengue and perico ripiao all their lives. After several international gold records and tours of Africa and Russia, they wanted to try something closer to their roots.
"When I told my friends that we were going into Latin music, they looked at it like we were going backwards, but once they heard the track it was a different story," Vargas says. "While we were doing it, we were like, Well, this is kind of bugged out, but the thing is, whenever we work out anything, we try to make it kind of off the wall and different, make it to the best of our ability and then put it out and see what happens."
"Guallando," and the subsequent album, "El Hombre Mas Famoso de la Tierra" (Cutting Records) took the Latin house world by storm. The sound was fresh and hip, completely different from the mechanical beat of most house fusions. Now, the group has a new album, "El Padrino," and for the first time is appearing live with the band rather than just rapping over pre-recorded tracks.
De la Rosa says that the new album has given him a chance to stretch out more: "We do merengue, but with a flavor of Colombia, of Ecuador, and Peru. Making what we call a sancocho, which means that everything is tied up together. So I play a merengue, but it sounds like a cumbia, and it is also a rap."
Both de la Rosa and Vargas are enthusiastic about the direction their collaborations have taken them. "I like playing with them, because they all love me almost as if I was their father, and they respect me," de la Rosa says. "I am 60 now, but I feel as if I were 20."
As for Vargas, after touring all over the rest of the world, he is thrilled to have a band that is finally taking him to the Dominican Republic, and on into Latin America. "Now I get to go to countries where at least I understand the language," he says. "And I dig the food and all that, so its cool."
Where: Wonderland Ballroom, Revere
When: Saturday, sets around 10:30 p.m. and midnight
Tickets: $15 in advance, $25 at the door Phone: 617-325-890
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By Elijah Wald
In the 1960s, the new ideas being explored by groups like the Beatles and Rolling Stones spread throughout the world. In most places, they inspired simple imitation. In Brazil, they spawned tropicalia, a sound so completely Brazilian that the English rockers might not even have recognized it as related to their music.
"Oh yeah," says Gilberto Gil, co-founder of tropicalia. "That's been our destiny since the very beginning. When the Portuguese came [to Brazil], first thing that the Indians did was to eat a bishop. And so it became congenial for Brazilian culture: we eat things that come from outside, we process, we digest it. It goes in the blood and nourishes a body, an organism by itself that goes its own way, with its own shape, its own character."
Gil, who appears tomorrow night at Lowell Memorial Auditorium, has been one of the most voracious of the tropicalistas. His music starts with the blend of African and European elements that are at the heart of Brazilian traditional music, and adds influences from all over the world. Which, as he says, is common for Brazilian artists. To them, the "world music" boom currently happening in the U.S. is old news. In fact, Gils historical analogy harks back to the "cultural cannibalism" advocated by the poet Oswald de Andrade back in the 1920s.
"I think it's cultural," Gil says, speaking by phone from his home in Salvador, capitol of the northeastern state of Bahia. "Since the very beginning we are a mixed society, you know. And differently from the United States, which historically should have been living the same kind of situation. But the States became hegemonic, they became an empire, so they forgot the other side of the thing, to let things from outside come in. Theyd rather go places and impose things. Brazil, for many reasons, has never become a strong, very powerful nation. We've never been warriors, and we've never been leading [in] economic profits, and what's left for us is to take things that come from outside, so this became a profit here."
That Gil should analyze his music in geopolitical terms is hardly surprising. His English, which is clear and precise, with a gentle Brazilian accent, was learned while in exile in England. The U.S.-backed military dictatorship of the late 1960s was scared by tropicalia, and both Gil and his friend Caetano Veloso were first jailed, then sent out of the country. Typically, Gil used this to his advantage, jamming with English bands like Pink Floyd and reshaping his musical image.
"I was excited about becoming a band leader, in the very pop sense of the term," he says. "Before, I was just a songwriter and a singer, mostly performing solo. Sometimes having a band, but a band that would be like an orchestra, you know: behind, but not really driven by a band leader. I became interested in this thing of driving a band, like the Rolling Stones, Beatles, the Moody Blues or Canned Heat. This wasn't happened before in Brazil. This is modern, this is pop."
Returning home in 1972, Gil put together his band, but in truth it was less a departure than simply one more step in his evolution, which has encompassed pretty much every music in Brazil. Gil has been a performing musicians since his teens, when he began playing accordion and singing the heavily Europeanized music of the Brazilian countryside. At 17, he heard Joao Gilberto on the radio, bought a guitar and turned to bossa nova, which brought him to jazz and the contemporary singer-songwriter styles of France and Italy. With tropicalia, he expanded further, writing songs like "Chuck Berry Fields Forever." Then, in the early 1970s, he discovered reggae, going on to tour with Jimmy Cliff and record with the Wailers.
The key moment of that decade, though, was Gils 1977 visit to Nigeria. Appearing at a pan-African festival there, he met Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade, as well as Stevie Wonder, and rediscovered the power of his own African roots. Back home, he joined a Carnaval samba group and submerged himself in Afro-Brazilian traditions. "That was a turning point," he says. "As a musician, definitely, the rhythms and the highlife music and juju music, all the blending processes that were happening. Caribbean music was becoming very influential in Africa, and I could see some processes concerning the black diaspora. So it was a big impact on my music, and also in my personal, general, spiritual situation.
"I was not that much engaged in performing that consciousness before. Sure, I had a little consciousness about that, but I was not a militant. Now, I am. When I came back, I recorded an album that was specifically about that, "Refavela," and I started to follow the political movements here, the black movements, and I've been ever since."
In the late 1980s, Gils political consciousness reached the point where he decided to take a break from music. He involved himself in cultural affairs, then served for several years on Salvadors city council, and he remains very active, especially in environmental issues. In 1992, though, he went back to performing, and in 1997 released "Quanta," followed by "Quanta Live," the album he will draw on for this tour, his first large-scale visit to the U.S. The "Quanta" albums blend influences from every stage of his career, but are by no means stuck in the past. There is bossa nova, tropicalia and reggae, but also new songs like "Pela Internet," which explore very contemporary concerns.
"Changing is the only way of living," Gil says, when asked how he has managed to keep adapting, growing, and expanding his horizons for four decades. "Changing is the only constant in nature. Paradoxically, it is the only established, remaining, staying thing. And I'm a natural law-obeying soul."
What: Gilberto Gil
Where: Lowell Memorial Auditorium
When: Saturday, 9 p.m.
Tickets: $25, $35, $40 Phone: 617- or 508-931-2000
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By Elijah Wald
For pure heat, Bamboleos visit to Scullers Jazz Club in January has to rank near the top of the years Latin offerings. While there has been a flood of Cuban bands in the last two years, Bamboleo is the first real taste of young Havana. Though deeply schooled in son and timba, the group adds a solid dose of funk and youthful energy, and its show easily sets it apart from the veterans familiar to U.S. audiences.
"Buena Vista Social Club was a fine piece of work, and those are our roots," says pianist and bandleader La[GET ACCENT]zaro Valde[GET ACCENT]s, who brings his group back to Scullers on Tuesday and Wednesday. "But its not what is being played in Cuba. The music that left Cuba in the 1930s, 1940s was this type of music, and for all the people who want to see that image of Cuba, it was a huge success. But that Cuba doesnt exist anymore.
"If you put the Buena Vista Social Club in El Tropical or somewhere like that [in Havana], the spectators may go to see it, but if you put them there again, there will be nobody. Because the style of dancing has changed, the way of listening to music, it has all changed."
Indeed, one of the surprises in Bamboleos show is that their music is not really suited to salsa dancing. Rather than the solid son rhythm favored by U.S. Latin dancers, it is full of quirky polyrhythms and "breaks," and the dancing is more free-form. "For that style, you have to know the turns, know how to count," Valde[GET ACCENT]s says, speaking in strongly Cuban-flavored Spanish. "With our music, you dance any way you want, however you move. Its something organic."
Not that a lot of Americans will feel up to dancing after seeing the gyrations of Bamboleos female singers, Yordamis Megret and lead vocalist Vannia Borges. With their distinctive burr haircuts, they have set a new club fashion in Havana, and they do things with their hips that simply are not human. Combined with male singers Alejandro Borrero and Jorge David, they form a superbly dynamic frontline, and the nine-piece backing band supports them with a blaze of of brass and three powerhouse percussionists.
The shear musical chops of the bandmembers are astonishing, beyond anything a comparable Stateside Latin pop group would be likely to demonstrate. Valde[GET ACCENT]s gives the credit for this expertise to the Cuban educational system, which provides intensive conservatory training for those children who show musical promise.
"It is six, eight years of study," he says. "And you spend the whole time eating music. In Cuba, a musician does nothing but music, all the time. I think that has helped very much for Cuban music to have the level it has now, and its something for which we have to thank our government. Here in the United States, or other places like Europe, if he is not playing with Michael Jackson or Sting or someone like that, a musician has to have some other work -- a gas station, or whatever. But we can really do what we like, not have to think about how to make four pesos more, or how to survive in the economic world."
Bamboleo is not typical, and there are plenty of Cuban musicians who have not realized plum performing careers, but there is no arguing with the versatility and skill of the younger generations of Cuban players. Valde[GET ACCENT]s himself had the added advantage of coming from an intensely musical home. "I am from a family of musicians," he says. "My father is a pianist, he played for a long time with Beny More. So there was always a piano in the house, and I began to play when I was six. In school, I studied violin, percussion, and piano, following the European conservatory system, but always mixed with Cuban music."
Bamboleos sound has the wild, acoustic sound of older Cuban music, mixed with a fiercely contemporary energy, and the groups "Ya No Hace Falta" album (Ahi[GET ACCENT]-Nama[GET ACCENT]) shows them in top form. Their most recent release, "Nno," [GET ACCENT over both ns] is something of a space-filler, consisting of four live tunes and six different club mixes. Asked if this represents a new direction for the group, Valde[GET ACCENT]s quickly demurs.
"That was an experiment by the record company," he says. "I find it very comical. Maybe people will listen to it in all the discoteques, but its not the sort of music that interests me. But you always have to experiment. And even in Havana, theyre playing it in some discoteques, and people go, [OPEN SINGLE QUOTE]Oh, how great!"
For himself, Valde[GET ACCENT]s is planning to continue composing and developing in his current direction. He would obviously love to see his group have the huge success of a Marc Anthony or Ricky Martin, but he is realistic. "For that, you need powerful record company, and a man with a pretty face," he says. "It doesnt matter how he sings." Of course, it is pointed out, Bamboleo has no shortage of pretty faces. Valdes laughs: "Sure, now we just need the powerful company."
In any case, he says the group intends to remain based in Havana. "That is where the kitchen is," he says. "I think that the musicians who have stayed in Cuba have kept cooking the music. Once you stay somewhere else, you stop evolving, you stay wherever you were when you left. Maybe your lifestyle evolves, but the music stays there. Now, I dont mean to say that tomorrow I might not decide to live somewhere else. But in any case it wouldnt be in the United States -- mucho tax!"
Where: Scullers Jazz Club
When: Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 & 10 p.m.
Tickets: $19 Phone: 617-562-4111
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By Elijah Wald
The Ethnographic Museum of Irrelevant Races (EMIR) is not exactly a museum, though it does involve walking around and looking at exhibits. It is not exactly theater, though it is in MITs Little Kresge theater space and features live performers. Director Guillermo Gomez-Pena calls it "performance art," that grab-bag term that can cover anything from sitting at a desk delivering a monologue to tattooing oneself blue and eating cockroaches.
So what is it? The museum consists of seven young people of various ethnic backgrounds, economic levels, and sexual persuasions displayed as ethnographic exhibits. Three are actually enclosed in plexiglass cases; all have explanatory labels. Uniformed guides provide helpful explanations, uniformed guards instruct visitors not to touch. Not even if the Arab takes them hostage.
Does this sound like a demeaning, offensive, insulting spectacle? If so, Gomez-Pena is not upset in the least. "The desired effect is that a show like this triggers a process of reciprocity in the audience," he says, speaking with a warm Mexican accent. "People come in and out of the space as they please and each person develops a kind of hyper-textual journey throughout the space, and hopefully the audience will go back and forth between seduction and discomfort. I think that the ultimate strategy is to seduce them and then to break the mirror of seduction in their faces."
The experience of walking through a dress rehearsal is certainly disconcerting enough. Standing in the front section, there is the Arab (a Jordanian) serving a visitor coffee, a gay white man dancing a jerky dance and screaming about his lust for Latinos, and an Bengali woman stripping off her native costume to reveal herself as a gold-lame-garbed sexpot. Deeper in, one finds a bilingual, bisexual, bicultural Virgin of Guadalupe, a pearl-wearing lady of the Salvadoran elite who crawls around her case like a wild ape, an Appalachian Lesbian alternating between her rural redneck and coffeeshop writer personas, and a Chinese-American who rediscovered himself as an ancient Mayan while working at McDonalds.
And they are not just quietly "being" these characters. Several are yelling, and sometimes they are quite specifically yelling at the viewer. "Im interested in completely destroying the convention of the proscenium, of having the audience separated from the performance," Gomez-Pena says. "Here, you can surround the performers, you can touch them, you can smell them, you can interact with them in various modes. And hopefully, if they are good enough, sediments will begin to settle in the back of the consciousness and to reappear in dreams, in conversations, in memories. So the show begins to work slowly, after the fact."
Gomez-Pena is sitting in the bar of the Marriott Hotel in Cambridge, along with co-director Leticia Nieto. His hair falls straight to the middle of his back, he smiles out from under a thick moustache. His comments are rather staid and academic, in contrast to the anarchic energies on display at Kresge. They sound more like the Gomez-Pena who does commentary for NPR and has written three books and won a MacArthur grant.
He says that for this project he has been less a director than a lightning rod and catalyst. He is part of a team, here for two of the four weeks of intensive workshop-rehearsals organized by MIT theater professor Brenda Cotto-Escalera, with Nieto joining for week three. At the first dress rehearsal, he gives a few suggestions, nudges some performers to be more focused, but does not take control. By the time EMIR opens on Thursday, he will not even be in town. He is heading home to San Francisco and leaving the students to unleash the final product on their own.
"Performance artists occupy the space of the anti-hero in American pop culture," he says. "So we become magnets for troublemakers. I made sure in my prior visits to MIT to visit all kinds of classrooms, I gave presentations about my work, people read my books, some of my films were shown in advance, and then people began to gravitate towards me. I was particularly interested in these fringe sensibilities, these students who feel uneasy, who are critical, who are troubled, who are angry, who have important things to say. So in many ways we perform the roll of social magnets for outcasts and thats an interesting function.
"But what do you do with that, once you have them all sitting at the table? Because there are all kinds of ethical questions that get raised. You can not just open the Pandoras box of the colonial demons and then get the hell out of town, or put salt on the wound and then disappear. These kids are angry, and rightfully so, cause the world is [messed] up. And I like that anger, but its important to shape it, to turn it into good performance energy. So thats where the professional skills come into play. I try to empower them to make as many decisions as possible, and hopefully my ultimate role will be that of editing, to make sure that there is some kind of uniformity, that the world we co-create together has a certain kind of coherence and aesthetic integrity."
Now 44, Gomez-Pena grew up in Mexico City, in a period of cultural ferment. He feels that the young people he is working with do not have "the ideological and cultural certainties that our generation had." On the other hand, he thinks that this has its advantages, at least for performers. They can stand between cultures, ages, political affiliations, and comment both as insiders and outsiders. Thus the spectacle of MIT students, a priviledged minority in many ways, acting out the anger, stereotypes, and confusion of their ethnic, national and socio-sexual backgrounds. But to what end? Why, as Gomez-Pena puts it, put salt on the wound?
"Im really disturbed about the jargon of globalization," he says. "We are witnessing a kind of a multicultural global village in CNN, the Internet, the music industry, the fashion industry, and the new jargon is that we are now living a post-racial society. We are back to a strange form of libertarian discourse: If race is irrelevant, it is up to the individuals to make a difference. And we all know that this is [false]."
Except, of course, for all the people who support the view. "[People accept] this kind of triumphant and utopian discourse of globalization that has permitted all our institutions," he agrees. "But without realizing that globalization is a project of the Northern Hemisphere."
So will EMIR change any of that? Gomez-Pena is not making great claims, but he hopes that it will have some effect on visitors, and he says that it has already been an incredible experience for the performers themselves. He is not the man with the answers, but he is trying to break down some preconceptions, to open minds, and to facilitate a process that will make people think differently about the world in which they are living.
"I like to see myself as a professional trouble maker," he says. "As a builder of ephemeral communities, as someone who shapes someone elses rebellion or anger. Im always looking for ways to create total experiences that are really exciting and playful, but at the same time hopefully politically enlightening and critical."
The Ethnographic Museum of Irrelevant Races is located in MITs Kresge Auditorium, 48 Mass. Ave. in Cambridge, and is open for hour-and-a-half-long viewing periods Thurs-Sat and Monday, beginning at 7 and 9 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 3 p.m. Admission is $8, students and seniors $6. For reservations and information, call 617-253-2908 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Also see EMIRs in-process website at http://emir.mit.edu.
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By Elijah Wald
Latin music is hotter than ever, with salsa classes packed and new dance venues popping up monthly, so it is surprising that more ink is not going to the people who put the music on the map. Say, for example, Larry Harlow.
In the mid-1960s, when Puerto Rican bandleader Johnny Pacheco and lawyer Jerry Masucci formed Fania Records, "The Latin Motown," the first artist they signed was a New York pianist and arranger who would become internationally famous as "El Judio Maravilloso" -- "The Marvelous Jew."
Harlow had trained in classical and jazz, but fell in love with Latin music in his teens, went to Cuba, and became one of the major bandleaders of the 1960s and 1970s. It was a key moment in U.S. Latin music; the Cuban Revolution had cut the scene off from its source, and a new generation of Puerto Rican and "Nuyorican" musicians were moving in to fill the gap.
"The Cubans were coming few and far between, and it was like Pacheco and me and Eddie [Palmieri] and [Ray] Barretto, we kind of held the fort," Harlow says, on the phone from his Brooklyn home. "We were all very Cuban-oriented, but we had our own sound. Like I had two trumpets and two trombones. Nobody had ever put trumpets and trombones before; now every band has trumpets and trombones.
"I was just looking for a new way, getting out where I could do my thing. I had two guys that could double on violins, so I could play charanga music along with conjunto music, I was able to utilize both genres of Cuban music, and it just caught on. I guess being the right time and the right place helped a lot too."
Harlow made over 50 albums, and produced another 160 or so for other artists. He pioneered the use of electronic keyboards, wrote the first Latin opera, "Hommy," which brought Celia Cruz to the New York scene, was producer and pianist of the Fania All-Stars, then brought together the Latin Legends band that comes to Scullers this weekend.
Harlow, Fania, and New York salsa reached their apex in the early 1970s. "The Puerto Ricans were looking for something to identify with, so all of a sudden the lyrics started changing. Instead of it being Para bailar, para gozar -- Lets dance, lets have a ball, all of a sudden you were getting songs that had protest meaning. This is the time of the Vietnam War, so we were singing some really heavy lyrics.
"We started mixing jazz harmonies together with the old Cuban sound, which gave us a little more room to experiment around. The arrangements got a little hipper, and all the way around it just started sounding better. Then the kids started picking up on it. It was something that was totally theirs and they gave it the name salsa."
New York had some 200 Latin clubs, and Harlows band was working seven nights a week. He is laughingly nostalgic as he recalls those days: "We built up a big following, because we always had like 10 or 12 really handsome single young guys in the band, so we always had like 40 or 50 girls that followed us everywhere we went, and they had like 200 guys following them, so we had a built-in audience."
Today, the salsa pioneers have somewhat faded from view, swamped by the flood of attention for Cuban bands. The Cubans give interviews saying that New York salsa was just a substitute for the "real" music, and press write-ups often echo this line. Harlows response to this is terse and unprintable. Then he laughs, and expands on the theme:
"If there wasnt salsa the Cubans wouldnt have any music left to play; nobody would even know what Cuban music is. Now theyre all over the place, working for 3 or 400 dollars a gig and were trying to get 4 or 5,000, and theyre killing us. They aint got toilet paper, and theyre still playing music from 1950. You know, [to hell with] them. And you can print that, too."
He adds that the Latino kids in the dance clubs are all but oblivious to the Cuban musical invasion: "The Cubans are great musicians, theyve got the feel and the [stuff], but they aint saying nothing to me cause they dont play dance music. Nobody over here even knows what timba or songo [the style of more recent Cuban bands like Los Van Van] is, so the kids cant dance to that [stuff]."
Harlows band you can dance to. He is still playing "hard core, 70s salsa," and boasts instrumentalists like the legendary cuatro player Yomo Toro, along with a hot, 20-something singer. ("He sings very tipico; Im sure he would much prefer doing Marc Anthony-type romantic salsa, but hey, youre in my band so you sing what I tell you to sing.") Scullers will have a dance floor cleared, and Harlow adds that there is also plenty to attract a listening audience: "Were a very visual band. Yomo gets down on the floor and plays upside down. We do some really wild stuff."
And he would not want anyone to get the idea, after his tirade on the Cubans and his comments on salsa romantica, that he is bitter or unhappy with his own situation. He has a childrens record up for a Grammy, he is working on a new opera, he has a teenaged protegee [cq; she is female, so gets two final es. Accent on the first of them, if you please] starring in a Broadway show, and he is playing as much as he cares to. "Its still happening," he says. "Im still working, Im still making a living and having a good time."
What: Larry Harlow and the Latin Legends Band
Where: Scullers Jazz Club
When: Tonight and Saturday, 8 & 10:30 p.m.
Tickets: $22 Phone: 617-562-4111
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By Elijah Wald
The invasion of classic Cuban music started by "The Buena Vista Social Club" seems to just keep growing. Thursday night, Eliades Ochoa, the high-energy country singer and guitarist who drove that albums "Chan Chan" and "El Cuarto de Tula," and whose "Sublime Ilusio[GET ACCENT]n" is the standout solo album from the Buena Vista crowd, comes to the Roxy. With him come a pair of Eastern Cuban legends, Las Hermanas Ferrin, the Ferrin Sisters.
Mercedes Ferrin has been singing with her sister Esperanza for as long as she can remember. "We began our art very young," she says, speaking in Spanish from a California tour stop. "We started out learning songs from the radio, and we were always singing in the house. We were not perfect, by any means, because we didnt know anything about singing, we were very young. But we loved to sing, and later we began to appear at festivals of aficionados."
The Ferrins went professional in 1963, but their lilting, string-driven music harks back to a still earlier era. "That was thanks to the great Eugenio Portuondo, who was our accompanist" Ferrin says. "He is already under the earth these many years, but we still are very grateful to him for taking the interest to teach us all about the traditional music, all the distinct musical genres. He was already old, already 80-something, and he talked about these as numbers from his youth -- just imagine! And these numbers, almost nobody plays them. On the disc we are promoting now ["Mi Linda Guajira," due out in the U.S. this summer], there is a contracanto from that time, Madre Mia, and also a criolla."
Ferrin says that it was not common for women to sing the older Cuban styles. "Here in Cuba, there were very few duos like us in traditional music, because I understand that in those times the women were so withdrawn, staying in the house, that very few went into music. And then, successively, we got to know the duo of the Hermanas Marti[ACCENT THE i] in Havana, and others, but still very few. But our father helped us very much. He liked to listen to us sing, and he always encouraged us."
The Ferrins were very popular in the Casas de la Trova, the government-sponsored venues where traditional musicians gathered to play. Like Ochoa, they are standard-bearers of the guitar-based sound centered in the eastern city of Santiago, a more Spanish and countrified style than that played around Havana. For 30 years, they were among the areas most popular singers. Then, in the early 1990s, they retired, though the choice was not entirely of their own volition:
"I must say, as a clarification, that traditional Cuban music is complicated," Ferrin explains. "Most of the young musicians did not know the roots of the trova, what a cancion[ACCENT THE o] is, the contracanto, the barcarola, which are styles of that earlier time, very complicated styles. Eugenio Portuondo, of course, knew all of this, and when he died we got another older accompanist, and he became ill as well and died. After they were gone, we were very uncomfortable, because when they put us with a young person as an accompanist it was not the same. We didnt feel the musical support that we were used to. And that was a real problem for us. It made us very unhappy, we couldnt do what we had been doing, it was as if we had to start all over. So that was when we made the decision to retire."
Nonetheless, they kept singing for their own pleasure, and they were overjoyed when Ochoa came to them and proposed that they make a tour of Spain with him. The tour led to the album and further touring. Ferrin says that Ochoa knows how to accompany the styles they love, though his musicians are younger and on this tour they will be singing only guaracha, son and bolero, rather than exploring the more obscure rhythms. She and her sister have been astonished at the reception they have found in Spain and the United States, she says that getting back into music this way is like a dream come true.
"We always had music in our hearts, we never lost the hope of beginning again, that someone would come along," she says. "And then a prince came, where the two Cinderellas were, and brought us out into the world again. That was Eliades Ochoa, and it was a truly a fairy tale."
Now, the sisters are ready to start a second career, and to ride the wave of international appreciation as far as it takes them. "We were very happy to go back to work, back onstage," Ferrin says. "We dont even know how to express it. Every day we are enjoying it more. We want to communicate our music to the whole world, if possible."
What: Eliades Ochoa and Las Hermanas Ferrin
Where: The Roxy
When: Thursday, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $22 Phone: 617-497-2229 (House of Blues)
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By Elijah Wald
The voice is as sweet and strong as ever, the Spanish lyrics as dark and thoughtful: "No one chooses his family or his race, when he is born/Nor to be rich, poor, good, bad, brave or cowardly/We are born from a decision in which we are not consulted/And no one can promise us results/ . . . Between baptism and hell each person makes a road/ And, with his decisions, a destiny."
Rubén Blades (he pronounces his last name as in English, but has no objections if Spanish-speakers say Blahdace) has a new album, "Tiempos" (Sony), and band, the Costa Rican group Editus, which he brings to Northeastern Universitys Blackman Theatre this Thursday. Thirty-one years after his recording debut and 22 years after his "Siembras," with Willie Colon, became the best selling salsa album ever, he is still considered "the thinking persons salsero."
Typically, Blades rejects the label: "First of all, I was never really a salsa musician," he says, on the phone from his New York home. "I used Afro-Cuban percussion, but my feeling was always that I was attempting to write or describe situations within a city or within a society, and addressing issues that were of interest to people who danced or didnt dance. A lot of people write for the feet, and Im not gonna give you stupid lyrics because I need to babble some idiocy while you move.
"I always felt a tremendous need to document realities and communicate, and because I moved within the dance circuit and the songs had a very strong rhythm to them, people defined me within the salsa boundaries. Not knowing what else to say, they said Oh, this is the more educated salsero, the more intelligent one. As if we were some subspecies they were studying and some of us could manage the trick to press the blue button and get water faster than the other ones."
So would he define himself more in the context of nueva canción, Latin Americas politically-oriented singer-songwriter movement? "The thing there is that there is a very strong ideological base, or at least theres a suspicion that the nueva canción guys are more interested in questioning Pinochet than questioning Fidel. So, I never liked that either, because of the basic dishonesty of criticizing just right wing dictators; I think you have to criticize all forms of dictatorship.
"Also, I was trying to reach the largest possible group of people, looking at them all as my peers, as human beings. I wasnt trying to reach the educated, university-trained professional who would be able to decypher my imagery. I was trying to create something that would resolve my own need to present things in a literate way -- in a poetic way, if I may -- but without alienating the audience."
In his life, Blades has charted a course that fits his independent stance. Now 51, he was born in Panama City of Colombian and Cuban parents (his name coming from a West Indian grandfather), and favored rock and Sinatra before getting caught up in the Panamanian student movement. Along with his musical career, which includes three Grammies, he has earned law degrees from the University of Panama and Harvard (he is shocked to hear that the Tasty eatery is gone), acted in films, television, and on Broadway, and in 1994 finished third out of seven candidates for the Panamanian presidency.
However, despite collaborations with everyone from Ray Barretto and Tito Puente to Elvis Costello and Lou Reed, the man Gabriel García Márquez called "the worlds most popular unknown" is still something less than a household word. He has maintained a major-label contract, but the much-vaunted Latin boom has not elevated him to stadium status. Not that this seems to trouble him. While he speaks respectfully of Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony, both of whom have named him as an important influence, he is openly furious at the whole concept of "crossover."
"I refuse to even acknowledge that term," he says. "Because crossover depends intrinsically on your acceptance that there is a chasm there. And I refuse to accept that. I think music is one common ground, and that means that some guy in Budapest can play rock n roll, and some 14-year-old in China can play salsa, or a Japanese guy can play Irish music.
"The whole crossover thing has an economic and a racist connotation, but the racism is not colored, its cultural racism. And I will not accept that we are divided. I mean, right now as I speak to you Im listen to an Irish band called Solas. Does that mean that theyre crossing over to the Latin market? That theyre not gonna eat any more potatoes, theyre gonna have some rice and beans now, and maybe the girl will grow a mustache so when she does the Riverdance thing the mustache goes up and down? Come on. You listen to whatever youre gonna listen to."
As for the fact that other singers are getting a lot more press and record sales, Blades seems utterly unconcerned by it. The man who reinvented the whole concept of a salsa song with his epic street ballad "Pedro Navaja," and who cites Bertolt Brecht as an influence can hardly be expected to worry about the latest fashions. Though the constant undertone of anger in his speech makes it hard to say he sounds happy, he sounds quite satisfied with the destiny he has found.
"Im not on the cover of Rolling Stone or People in Español -- or in English or Apache -- Im not that kind of celebrity. But Im doing my films, and I try to produce music with intelligence, and that has kept me alive. Because the audiences are smarter than the idiots that sell the records. Basically, thats what keeps guys like Tom Waits alive, and Bob Dylan, for that matter, and myself. I dont think about sales -- if people dont want to by my records I couldnt care less, because I think this is something that needs to be done. And I think that, because of the combinations of things that Im doing, now with this excellent group Editus, were presenting different positions for people to listen to, so that future generations will have something else to sample than all the crap thats out there."
Rubén Blades appears at Blackman Theatre, Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25. For information, call 617-373-2247.
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