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Orquesta Batachanga, "Mañana Para Los Niños" CD
Machete Ensemble, "Africa Volume One" CD
Conjunto Cespedes, "Una Sola Casa" CD

Review: The San Francisco Bay Area Scene

by David Peñalosa

The San Francisco Bay Area has long been an intermittent contributor of innovations in Latin music. What follows is a brief history of those contributions and three individual recordings in particular.

Starting in the late 1950s, Cal Tjader created a West Coast “cool” version of Afro-Cuban jazz. His group included Willie Bobo and Afro-Cuban percussion virtuosos Mongo Santamaria and Armando Peraza. At the end of the sixties, the band Santana appeared on the scene with a new sound that became known as Latin Rock. After Santana two other Latin Rock groups gained notoriety: Malo (featuring Carlos Santana’s brother Jorge and master drummer Francisco Aquabella), and Azteca (containing members of the percussive Escovedo family: Pete, Coke and Sheila). During the decade of the 70s, the Bay Area was home to top-notch salsa, jazz and percussion based funk bands. The members played all the genres. This phenomenon created a large pool of players who could adeptly fuse idioms such as salsa and funk. Bill Summers’ Summer’s Heat and Pete & Sheila Escovedo’s group, Pete & Sheila, played this type of hybrid with great success.

The 1980 Mariel boat lift brought great numbers of Cuban musicians into the United States . The professional and folkloric Latin music scenes in New York City and Miami were forever changed by this new influx of musical talent and knowledge. The San Francisco Bay Area was also enriched by this Cuban migration. For nearly two decades, many practitioners of Cuban music in the U.S. had little contact with actual Cuban musicians, learning their craft instead mostly from records. That method is fine, but it does not compare to person to person contact.

Many Bay Area musicians made the pilgrimage to Cuba in the 1980s seeking the many masters of Cuban music: Pello El Afrokan, Cha Cha, Lazaro Ros, Los Van Van, etc. Bay Area musicians returned home with their knowledge of Cuban music greatly augmented (and often corrected).

The 80s also saw the beginning of the Bay Area’s samba schools and San Francisco’s annual carnaval. Carnaval is in its 13th year now and includes not only the cities five samba schools but music and dance from many different countries and cultures. The San Francisco Carnaval is a wonderful celebration of ethnic diversity. This year Eddie Palmieri and Olodum were the out-of-town featured guests.

Today in the Bay Area there are many local salsa bands playing actively in clubs. Some of the more notable groups include Conjunto Cespedes, The Machete Ensemble, Pete Escovedo’s group and Orestes Vilato's Los Kimbos.

The cultural mix in the clubs is very diverse. Blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians are found all dancing together. Some are exquisite salsa dancers, while others try to move in time as best they can. Latin music here depends on the support of a non-Spanish speaking audience for its survival.

The sound of these groups is different from what one would hear in New York City. Besides the borrowing of funk and jazz that I mentioned earlier, Bay Area bands have often looked to the contemporary music of Cuba for inspiration. Orquesta Batachanga (a precursor to the Machete Ensemble), was the first dance band in the continental U.S. I’m aware of that regularly played the contemporary Cuban rhythm songo. Songo is a post-revolutionary rhythm that has blended folkloric rumba and funk into the son. Check out Los Van Van and Orquesta Ritmo Oriental if you’re interested in hearing great songo music. Batacumbele and Zaperoko (both from Puerto Rico), were exciting interpreters of songo. However, the Latin music capitals New York City and Miami have produced little music other than jazz that has utilized this infectious Cuban ryhthm. This fact is due most likely to the taste of the domestic audience and the political issues surrounding Cuba.

Orquesta Batachanga released two records, the second of which Mañana Para Los Niños was re-issued on CD by Earthbeat! records in 1990. It remains one of the strongest works in the genre to come out of San Francisco. Co-led by Rebeca Mauleon and John Santos, Batachanga played an exotic blend of ancient roots and cutting edge contemporary sounds. Yambatá is one such example of this blend. It features the Cuban tres guitar, cajones (wooden boxes used in the form of rumba known as Yambú), batá (double-headed drums of the Yoruba people of Nigeria and their descendants in Cuba known as Lucumí), chekere (Lucumí beaded gourd instrument), and gankoquis (Ghanaian double iron bells). This experimental bit of Afro-Cuban folklore is my favorite on the whole record. Guest artist Orestes Vilato demonstrates the proper way to play pailas on En Mi Casa O En La Rumbas, a piece originally recorded by the Conjunto Matamoros around 1950. Libre alumni Dan Reagan provides some inspiring trombone playing on Mañana Para Los Niños as well.

Africa Volume One by the Machete Ensemble can’t really be called a salsa album per sé. It’s really the hub where the spokes of jazz, salsa, and Afro-Cuban folklore intersect. The group is led by Bay Area percussionist/scholar John Santos with help from Rebeca Mauleon and John Calloway. For those who aren’t aware of it, I should mention here that Ms. Mauleon has recently come out with an excellent book entitled The Salsa Guidebook for Piano and Ensemble. She is currently spending a lot of her time in Cuba.

Africa Volume One features the talents of Orestes Vilato, Dan Reagan, the great Cuban master percussionist Armando Peraza, and trombonist Steve Turre (who also plays conch shells). Another strong presence in the Machete Ensemble is trombonist/arranger Wayne Wallace. An impressive 46 musicians perform on this record.

The title cut Africa is centered around the guaguancó rhythm, and at times contains juxtaposing melodies layered over each other, reminding me of some of the compositions by the late composer Charles Ives. On the song "Africa," one also hears Armando Peraza singing lead and playing the quinto (the lead drum in guaguancó).

"Oba Lube" and "Asesú" are based on Lucumí call and response chants, beautifully orchestrated by John Callaway’s arrangements. This style defies conventional classification. If you enjoyed Jane Bunnett’s Spirits of Havana, which came later, or Group Folklorico y Experimental Nuevoquino’s records, which preceded it, then I would certainly recommend to you Africa Volume One by the Machete Ensemble.

Conjunto Cespedes was founded in 1981 by Gladys “Bobi” Cespedes, her brother Luis Cespedes, and their nephew Guillermo Cespedes. This transplanted Cuban family has been honing their craft over the years, now the Conjunto is a world class act. Recorded at Oakland’s High Note Studios and produced by John Santos, the Cespedes’ 1993 Una Sola Casa is without a doubt one of the best CD’s of the year.

I should confess right now that Bobi is one of my all-time favorite female vocalists. As John Santos says in the liner notes: “Much of the magic of the Conjunto revolves around lead singer Bobi. She is a first class Sonera, Rumbera, Guarachera, Bolerista, composer and Akpwon (lead singer in the Yoruba-based liturgical music). The youthful exuberance of her voice belies the profound depth that only a lifetime of immersion in the folklore and tradition of her native Cuba could provide. Her elegance, presence and strength are anchored in the fact that she is a priestess in the Afro-Cuban Lucumi tradition with over twenty-five years as a “daughter of Obatalá”. The power Bobi draws upon is dramatically evident throughout this project as she leads us into other realms beginning with the opening prayer. It is this same timeless power (which has guided rituals for centuries) that drives the irresistable rhythm and rhyme of Conjunto Cespedes.

Bobi is adamant that the Conjunto plays són and not salsa. I take this to mean that they play a more authentic sound. After all, the term salsa for the most part means Cuban són from anywhere but Cuba. Salsa is what’s played in New York, Venezuela, Colombia and Puerto Rico.

You can hear and feel the deep roots on Una Sola Casa with Cuban classics from the 20s, 30s and 40s and folkloric rhythms such as chenche kuruku (batá), guaguancó and bembé. However, this is by no means an old-fashioned sounding recording. The sound quality is crisp and bright and the arrangements are hip and modern. “We played some real songo”, bass player Rob Holland enthusiastically told me. The congas, timbales and bass all worked together to pull off the very syncopated feel that is Songo. Jesus Diaz took care of the percussion arrangements and Wayne Wallace did the horn arrangements.

Every song here is a gem. However, my particular favorite is "Respecto A La Tierra" which carries the message “respect humanity, respect life”. All the songs are sung in Spanish, but the bi-lingual lyric sheet that accompanies this CD makes the message accessible to a wider audience. Perhaps we will be seeing more bi-lingual liner notes in the future. I hope so.

No matter what, you can expect to hear fine work to come out of the San Francisco Bay Area in the future.

David Peñalosa is a student, teacher, and performer of folkloric and modern Afro-Cuban music. Currently he is helping Earthbeat records develop a new line of Cuban-based music.

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