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Perfume de Salsa, Solo Ella CD
Africando, Trovador CD

Review: Two Examples Of The Internationalization Of Salsa

by George De Stefano

Latin music, though often tagged as too ethnic to cross over to audiences outside its core following, has amply demonstrated its global reach: since the 1930s North Americans, Africans, Asians, and Europeans have heard the call of clave and found it irresistible.

But international admirers haven't only lent receptive ears (and feet) to the music's Afro-Caribbean exponents; they've also produced their own homegrown strains. Senegalese salseros, light-bearing orquestas from the land of the rising sun, Scandinavian charanga -- wherever the music has taken root, local musicians have taken it up.

The internationalization of salsa continues apace with two new releases, one a Eurofusion of Afro-Caribbean styles and jazz that's intermittently satisfying, the other a glorious crossbreed of African and Latin music.

Perfume de Salsa's novelty lies in nationality — Dutch, and gender — they're an all-women octet in a genre that has largely kept women at its periphery. Originally a jazz band, after two years they traded in their drum kit for Latin percussion and turned to salsa. The jazz element remains strong, though; harmonies are more oblique, solos more exploratory, arrangements more complex than is typical of most salsa.

The band is well-schooled in Latin idioms (salsa, plena, merengue) and the selections on Solo Ella, their first album, are a mix of cover versions and originals by band members or associates. The results, however, are spotty. On Todos Vuelven (a cover that won't make anyone forget Ruben Blades' version) they take advantage of the montuno section's opportunities for improvisation, but the piano solo is uninteresting and goes nowhere.

Far better is "Elena, Elena," a plena done originally (I think) by Ismael Rivera. Timbalera Titia Bal lights a polyrhythmic fire (check her also on "Perfume de Agua") and tenor saxophonist Sonja Griefahn rides the big fat plena downbeat with plenty of verve and passion. The vocal is basically a unison chant, which compensates for Anabela da Silva's generally lackluster singing. (Vocals, including the coros, are the band's weakest suit.)

If "Elena Elena" is a joy, part of the fun involves the unmistakable, though maybe unintentional sapphism of having a woman vocalist ardently telling the eponymous object of her affections that she "adores" her enough to propose marriage and cohabitation. And "Dame un Traguito," the album's closer, finds da Silva demanding a traguito (little drink to loosen her inhibitions so she can pursue the nena she's been eyeballing. Given salsa's machismo — and sometimes outright misogyny — this qualifies as a bit of welcome subversion.

Extra-musical considerations don't factor at all when it comes to enjoying Africando's Trovador, a thrilling collaboration between a Senegalese vocal trio and some of New York's finest Latino musicians.

It's also the smartest "concept" recording to come along in ages. The meeting of the African singers — Pape Seck, Medoune Diallo, and Nicholas Menheim — and seasoned Latin players makes perfect sense when you realize that not only did the rhythms of salsa originate in Africa but that today's Afro-pop largely evolved out of Cuban music, especially charanga, which has been popular in Africa since the 1930s. (For more on the Africa-Latino exchange, see Larry Birnbaum's informative liner notes, plus John Storm Roberts' essential Black Music of Two Worlds).

Classic yet utterly fresh, Africando reassures by demonstrating the enduring vitality of Afro-Cuban tradition while providing the shock of the new through some startling cross-cultural juxtapositions. For instance, the vocalists sing in Spanish and Wolof, sometimes using both languages in the same song. But there's much more than linguistic fusion happening here.

On "Lakh Bi" the echt-African growly timbre and rhythmic punch of Pape Seck's lead vocal flouts the charanga tradition of smooth vocalizing, and the incongruity creates something new and wonderful. Seck, however, has to share the glory with Orquesta Broadway flautist Eddie Zervigon, whose work here is nothing less than stunning.

Zervigon also shines on "Medoune Khoule," a charanga tune celebrating the shrimp harvest at Varadero Beach in Cuba. Eddie, fiddlers Felix Ferrar and Lloyd Cutler, and the rest of the orquesta lay down elegant funk while the three singers luxuriate (as does the listener)in the variegated textures of their voices: Seck gruff and grainy, Benheim honey-smooth, and Diallo high, nasal, and Islamic-inflected. (Larry Birnbaum hears Juan Luis Guerra in Diallo, but I also pick up Youssou N'dour, the Senegalese mbalax maestro.

On the title track the trio turns over lead vocals to Orquesta Broadway singer Ronnie Baro, whose "Trovador" is a praise-song for his African and Latino vocal heroes. The illustrious roll call includes Beny Moré and Labah Sossah, Andy Montañez and Salif Keita, as well as Adalberto Santiago and Vayo El Indio, who handle the coros on the album.

While I'm lavishing superlatives on Africando, it would be criminal to overlook the superb arrangements by Boncana Maiga, a native of Mali, and the vibrant production by Afro-pop veteran Ibrahima Scylla. They, along with the remarkable vocalists and musicians, have created a gorgeous hybrid that blows away the predictable and insipid pop salsa that's so lamentably prevalent these days. Who knows if art critic Robert Hughes is into salsa, but he couldn't have asked for more compelling proof of his claim that some of the most interesting things in history and culture happen at the interface between cultures than Africando.

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