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Review: Roots and Folklore: New Releases

by David Peñalosa

Ritmo y Candela: Rhythm at the Crossroads
Patato, Changuito & Orestes Vilato CD Redwood

In all the years that the great percussionist José Luis "Changuito" Quintana recorded with Cuba's premier group Los Van Van, one had to strain their ears to hear this master's playing on that group's LPs (and later CDs). It wasn't until a friend of mine stood next to Changuito on stage with a recording walkman that I was able to finally hear the remarkable intricacies of his playing. Well, folks, at long last everyone can now clearly hear the timbales and drum set played by Changuito, probably the most influential band percussionist of an entire generation.

Ritmo y Candela was recorded in San Francisco in late 1994 when Changuito was traveling around the U.S. giving demonstrations, classes and performances. With only a small window of time available, producers Greg Landau and Robert Leaver were able to lay down enough initial tracks to provide a foundation for a full-length CD. Local San Francisco Bay Area musicians came into the studio later to complete the songs. What's incredible is that it's nearly impossible to tell which tracks were done first by listening to this recording. The entire work has a complete, albeit uncommon, sound.

Obviously the approach here is one of a loose descarga. All the better though to allow the three percussion virtuosos an opportunity to stretch-out. Perhaps I'm greedy, but I could have heard still longer solos by Changuito and Orestes.

Carlos "Patato" Valdes played with some of Cuba's best dance bands such as Sonora Matancero and Conjunto Casino. He was also one of the small handful of Cuban percussionists who came to this country in the 1950s. Many congueros growing up in the United States studied and emulated his style of playing. Patato's most important contribution to the art of conga drumming was his use of multiple drums (as many as five), meticulously tuned, and used in a role similar to that of the bass. This melodic approach revolutionized conga drum playing. Patato's sparse older sounding style of improvising is a striking contrast to the flashy roles of Changuito's and Orestes' solos.

Orestes Vilato is one of the finest timbaleros residing in the U.S. today. His resume includes stints with Ray Barretto, Fania All-Stars, Santana, Cachao, John Santos' Machete Ensemble and his own Bay Area-based Los Kimbos. This CD exposes Orestes' mastery like few other recordings.

Ritmo y Candela has a remarkable sound that could appeal to a wide variety of world music listeners. This is quite an accomplishment, considering that it also will appeal to hard-core Afro-Cuban music fans. The first song, "San Francisco Tiene Su Propio Son," is a typical son featuring the lead vocals of the Bay Area's own Fito Reinoso. "Guiro Para Ogun" is a traditional piece in honor of the orisha Ogun. "Calipso en las Nubes" is a calypso-songo fusion featuring Changuito on traps and the steel drum played by Jeff Narell (Andy's brother). Holding together the entire recording is the always top-notch piano playing of Rebeca Mauléon.

Conga Masters Duets
Jose Luis "Changuito" Quintana and Giovanni Hidalgo Video DCI

Giovanni Hidalgo has the reputation of being perhaps the best conguero on earth. Few people may know, though, that he was a student of Changuito, and incorporated the Cuban drummer's revolutionary technical advances on the congas into his own playing. Giovanni knows well the drum vocabulary of Changuito and can thus feed-back any lick he may play. This echoing of riffs makes it appear as though there is one drummer with four hands, playing eight congas.

This pair of masters have a keen sense of what spaces are available to riff in and never step on each other. Funky drum melodies are spontaneously interrupted by choppy quinto licks and mindboggling rolls. With all the incredible rolls these two drummers include, I'm reminded of "dueling" tabla masters.

Conga Masters is a video unlike any other so far. The entire performance consists of Giovanni and Changuito playing four congas each. It is rich, tasteful and intense. Sort of like an intense dessert. The video is only forty minutes long. Don't worry, you will feel satiated when it's over.

Roots and Folklore: Lucumi Music

We have another new batch of Lucumi music available. This religious music of Cuba has been covered a lot here in the Descarga Newsletter. I've taken up a fair amount of space in Roots and Folklore covering the origins of Lucumi music, so to avoid being redundant, I'll give only a brief explanation of what this music is about.

Lucumi refers to the Yoruba in Cuba, their religion, music, dance and Cubanized dialect. There was a large influx of Yoruba slaves brought to Cuba in the first half of the nineteenth century. Crucial to the Yoruba cosmology are the pantheon of deities known as orisha. Orisha worship is quite prevalent in Cuba to this day. The music used in ceremonies held in their honor is what we are dealing with here.

Lucumi music has an irresistible appeal. Although the sound is obviously African, the subtle influence of European melodic and harmonic sensibilities has created an Afro-Cuban hybrid. These songs have been a consistent source of inspiration in the secular forms of rumba and popular dance music (known outside of Cuba as salsa).

The most important type of drums used in Lucumi ceremonies are the batá. Batá are a set of three double-headed hourglass shaped drums, of three different sizes. From the largest to the smallest, the names of the three batá are: iyá, itótele and okónkolo. The batá literally speak Yoruba (Lucumi), a tonal language. Their different timbres roughly replicate the Yoruban phonics. These "talking drums" speak directly with the orisha. In Cuba, however, these drums have over time begun to speak in a profane manner. Their "vocabulary" has been evolving in ways that suit the Cuban sensibilities. As a result, some of the meanings of the batá liturgy are slowly being lost.

Sworn to the Drum
Francisco Aguabella Video Flower Films

Sworn to the Drum, a film by Les Blank is a profile of one the great un-sung heroes of Afro-Cuban music in the United States. Francisco is among that small group of Cuban drummers who, following in Chano Pozo's footsteps, immigrated to the US. in the 1950s. Three others from that group: Patato, Julito Collazo and Armando Peraza are also featured in this video. In fact, there are a lot of important figures in Cuban popular and folkloric music appearing in Sworn to the Drum.

Besides being an accomplished band drummer, Francisco Aguabella is one of the most talented and knowledgeable folkloric drummers. He's been initiated into numerous religious "houses" in Cuba and, surely, the depth one hears in Francisco's band playing is due in large part to his immersion in the folkloric music. For him, it is a way of life.

San Francisco Bay Area percussionist, composer and historian John Santos is the primary narrator. Other artists who speak on the importance of this master's musical contribution include Dizzy Gillespie, Israel "Cachao" Lopez, Katherine Dunham, Robert Farris Thomson and Carlos Santana.

With mixed footage of interviews and historical performances, the film treats us to inspiring clips of Francisco playing with some fellow "giants." The performances were held in San Francisco. One of them, called the Conga Summit featured Aguabella with Patato, Julito Collazo, Daniel Ponce and Cachao. This show alone would make an outstanding video.

Some of the San Francisco musicians seen in this documentary include Bobi Cespedes, Jesus Diaz, Sheila E., Pete Escovedo, Rebeca Mauleón, Harold Muñez, Armando Peraza, Carlos Santana and Michael Spiro. At one point, Bobi does a beautiful rumba dance solo, before being joined by Buddha Huffman in an exquisite finale. Only one of several magic moments captured on film.

Thirty-five minutes long. Two thumbs up! Check it out.

The Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba

The Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba is the premier folkloric ensemble in a country blessed with many amateur and professional regional folkloric groups. The Conjunto Folklorico Nacional specializes in the folkloric music and dance of Havana (where they reside), but also collects, studies and disseminates Afro-Cuban culture from the entire island. This prestigious group performed in New York City in 1978. Now, eighteen years later, the Conjunto is set to do their first extensive tour of the United States. Obviously, the American embargo against Cuba makes such tours very difficult. This is a special opportunity for Americans to see this amazing ensemble up-close.

Billed as the Cuban National Folkloric Dance Ensemble of Cuba, the Conjunto will be appearing on the east coast, in the mid-west and out on the west coast. Some of the cities they will be performing in include: Arcata, CA; Atlanta, GA; Berkeley, CA; Boston, MA; Brooklyn, NY; Charlotte, NC; Cincinnati, OH; Claremont, CA; Denver, CO; Iowa City, IA; Louisville, KY; Milwaukee, WI; Minneapolis, MN; New Haven, CT; Olympia, WA; Portland, OR and Washington, DC.

Musica Yoruba
Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba CD Bembe

Bembé Records has just re-released the Conjunto's classic recording Musica Yoruba. Since I'm personally involved in this particular project, I will leave the objective critiques to those truly qualified.

Musica Yoruba consists entirely of Lucumi songs for the orisha, accompanied by batá drums. It holds the double distinction of being one of the most well produced records of this type, as well as having performances by one of the largest assemblages of Cuban folkloric masters ever. Recorded in the 1970's, this recording has captured a period when the Conjunto still had a lot of the founding elders in residence.

Three master akpwons ("callers" or lead vocalists of Lucumi songs), grace this album: Lázaro Ros, Felipe Alfonso and Zenaida Armenteros. Lazaro Ros is Cuba's most famous akpwon. His folkloric group, Olorun, has recorded two CDs: Olorun (Xenophile) and Arara (Artex). Lazaro is also the primary performer in two experimental releases with the Cuban fusion bands Mezcla (Intuition) and Sintesis (Qbadisc). Musica Yoruba captures this master in his prime. The late Felipe Alfonso had a very rhythmically playful style of singing. This is most likely the best documentation of Felipe's impressive singing. Zenaida Armenteros, who like Lázaro and Felipe, is a founding member of the Conjunto, is still in the group. Zenaida's voice is hauntingly beautiful, conveying an earnest communication directly with he orisha. Those who catch their performances in the US this year will be privileged to hear her sing in person.

The three batá drummers heard on Musica Yoruba are Carlos Aldama (iyá), Mario Jauregui (itótele) and Ramiro Hernandez (okónkolo). Carlos Aldama was a founding member who studied batá under Jesus Perez when that master was in residence at the Conjunto. Currently, he is lead drummer for Olorun, and plays with Sergio Vitier. Mario Jauregui, another founding member, studied batá with the master Pablo Roche at the age of nine. He also played at the Tropicana nightclub with Jesus Perez. Ramiro Hernandez is still in the Conjunto today. He played with batá masters Jesus Perez and Trego Terragrosa.

1. ELEGGUA (2:28)
2. OBATALA (6:46)
3. YEMAYA (8:59)
4. CHANGO (4:33)
5. OYA (5:07)
6. ORULA (2:31)
7. ODDUDUA (5:16)
8. BABALU AYE' (5:23)
9. ELEGGUA (1:23)
total time: 42:38

Ilu Aña
Regino Jimenez, Amelia Pedrosa CD Fundamento

Ilu Aña was recorded during the bi-annual ten-day workshop of Afro-Cuban music, dance and culture, called Cubanismo!, held in Banff, Canada in 1994. All six drum heads are clearly heard in deliciously balanced stereo. This is one of the clearest recordings ever made of bata drumming and songs for the orisha. A new standard in the recording of the batá has been set.

The thorough CD booklet is bilingual. This is, hopefully, a new trend. I appreciate it when a company goes through the trouble and expense necessary to communicate with their customers. It's frustrating when a label doesn't give you any background about their recordings.

The CD begins with music from the Orú Cantado, an extensive body of liturgical songs and rhythms. The seven selections of this section are for seven of the most popular orishas: Elegua, Oyá, Ogún, Yemayá, Obatalá, Ochún and Changós. Amelia Pedroso Acosta is the lead vocalist. She's an esteemed authority on Lucumi music, having studied with her grandmother and her uncle, the famous akpwon and musicologist Lázaro Pedroso. What a treat to have Amelia calling the songs of this Orú Cantado. Sometimes, though, she and the chorus sound like they're in two separate keys. Amelia's talents can also be enjoyed on Conjunto Clave y Guaguanco's CD Songs and Dances (Xenophile).

Singing in the chorus is Librada Quesada Mazorra. A founding member of the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional, Librada will be among the Conjunto members taking part in the upcoming US. tour.

The second section is the Orú Ide lgbodú. The Igbodú, also known as Orú Seco, is a highly structured suite of complex rhythms. There are twenty-two to twenty-four rhythms, called toques, which are prayers in homage to each orisha. To quote the booklet: " Each musical prayer is really a sonic representation of the vibratory principle of that particular orisha." Each toque has one to five movements. Within the movements, conversations between the lead drum, iyá, and the itótele take place. In addition, the iyá may improvise within the parameters of each movement. There are two main batá lineages within Cuba. One is from Havana, the other, Matanzas. The material on Ilu Aña is from the Havana branch.

When one first hears these incredible drums, their musical complexity may sound like rhythmical chaos. The perplexing nature of the batá's music is due in a large part to the fact that the drums are double-headed. The large drum heads of the batá are called the enu, the small heads, cha cha. In a way, the enus and cha chas behave like two separate drum batteries, each playing their own rhythms. The enus are the fundamental "battery," playing the drum melodies which are the most apparent. The timbre and range of pitch of the okónkolo and itótele's enus are similar to that of conga drums. The pitch of the iyá's enu, however, is considerably lower than one would find in even the lowest tuned conga. The cha chas play a secondary melody that, while not as prominent as that of the enus, is the discernible sound which gives the batá their unique flavor.

The three drummers are Regino Antonio Jiménez Seaz (iyá), Fermin Nani Socarras (itótele) and Sose Pilar (okónkolo). The Igbodú section highlights the drumming genius of Regino Jiménez. At one time, a student of Jesus Perez, Regino took over as Director of the Percussion Orchestra of the Danza Moderna when that master passed away. Regino's batá battery is in much demand in the Havana Lucumi community, playing as many as a half-dozen ceremonies a week. He has also been the teacher to many batá students internationally.

According to co-producer Mike Spiro, one of the main purposes of this recording was to provide a documentation of his teacher Regino's musical mastery. The Igbodú in fact was produced in such a way as to make it the ultimate batá study recording. Whereas master batá drummers often orchestrate the Igbodú as a series of rhythmical medleys, with one orisha's rhythm seamlessly flowing into the next, each orisha's toque here clearly ends before the next one starts. This makes the identifying of the individual rhythms a breeze.

"Rumba Tonado" is the last track. It's an unusual style of secular drumming with a strong 6/8 feel, that enjoyed much popularity in the Oriente province during the 30s and 40s. Composer Jose Pilar sings the lead and plays the lead drum simultaneously.

Another important factor of this recording is that the majority of the royalties go to the musicians themselves.

Sacred Rhythms of Cuban Santeria
Various Artists CD Folkways

With the growing interest in world music, the Folkways label may now be "discovered" by a whole new group of people. Santeria is another name for the Lucumi religion. The accompanying CD booklet is bilingual and well laid out, but there are slight inaccuracies sprinkled throughout. It's ironic that Ilu Aña and Sacred Rhythms of Cuban Santeria both came out last year, and Musica Yoruba came out this January. When it rains, it pours, I guess. Unlike Ilu Aña, this Folkways release features the Igbodú from Matanzas. This is a far superior recording to the Anthologia de la Musica Afrocubano Vol. II (Egrem) which is the only other commercial recording of Matanzas Igbodú.

The Orú del Igbodú is performed by the batá battery of Amado Diaz Alfonso from the city of Matanzas. This 1994 performance was done in dedication to the orisha Yemaya, orisha of the ocean and mother of the world and the other orishas. It is quite possible that it was recorded during a bembé in honor of that deity. The liner notes are a little misleading when they speak of Yemaya possessing someone at the ceremony. The impression given is that this would occur during the Igbodú. In fact, no dancing or singing is done during this part of the ceremony and possession would typically happen after the Igbodú.

The second section of this CD is called Orú para Chango. It's performed by the El Niño de Atocha gourd ensemble, which belongs to the temple-home of Benito Aldama, its director. The ensemble was founded in 1922 in the town of Limonar, Matanzas province. Gourds covered with a beaded net called chekeres are the main instruments used here. The style of music is most commonly known as guiro.

Section three is a performance of bembé, a rhythm similar in structure and function to guiro. Drums and a hoe blade (in the role of a bell) are the instruments utilized. When Latin bands play in 6/8 time, it is usually guiro or bembé that they are replicating. The ensemble heard here, Ara Oko, is from the town of Marti, Matanzas province.

The final section is guiro performed by the San Cristobal de Regla gourd ensemble. They're from the town of Regla, in the City of Havana Province. The instrumentation consists of two drums, three chekeres and a cowbell. There is some superb chekere playing here.

All in all, Sacred Rhythms of Cuban Santeria is a valuable documentation of some important Lucumi music. If there is any drawback, it would have to be its "field recording" quality. Folkways used to be about the only label that dealt with world music when you could hardly find that music anywhere. The fidelity of their LPs had some of the lowest quality around. Although this CD is certainly a notch above their previous products, I think if they want to be taken seriously in the expanding world music market, they had better upgrade their standards.

Fiesta Santera Lucumi: Tambores Batá
Various Artists CD Santero

Back in the "old days," this record was one of the few sources of Lucumi music available in the United States. No doubt, this CD will provide some nostalgic enjoyment for those who remember hearing this when it was in LP form. At the time of this recording (probably late 50's or early 60's), Julito Collazo was one of the very few batá drummers in the US. Julito and Patato are featured drummers on Fiesta Santera.

Bembe Coversations, Vol. 1
Arturo Reme Rodriguez CD Ethin Productions

Bembé Conversations is an instructional CD and booklet. This is one of the more straight-forward Lucumi drum systems, making it an appropriate rhythm for the beginner and intermediate drum student. The main challenge one must master to grasp bembé is the feeling of an even six over an even four.

The variations in this lesson can be used as a way to converse on the drum. Besides drum patterns, patterns for chekere and some songs for the orisha are presented. Consider this the bembé starter kit.

Of course, the medium of video is a more complete means of conveying information of this type. However, this material is laid out in a methodical manner. Between the booklet and CD, it's not difficult to pick it up.

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