The first time I listened to this album, idly, cursorily, it seemed to me that I was listening to a collection of two very separate branches of music, one Latin-American, with bits of cumbia and descarga, Cuban sounds, and so on, and the other African-American, with soul and tingling guitars and sex, with no cowbells or any of the other things that characterised the cumbia and the descarga. That only changed at track 16 when Caribbean-accented Sir Jablonsky came into the album with “Juck Juck Pt 1”, a reggae guitar bopping around an innuendo. It wasn’t until I listened to it a second and a third time that I began to hear that middle ground, the combinations, that the compiler Roberto Ernesto Gyemant was writing about in the booklet when he said that Panama was a meeting place of cultures, the local countryside sound, musica tipica, supplemented handsomely by styles from the outside.
I had been seduced, I realised, by the noises my brain thought it already knew, on one hand the Colombian sound of tracks like “La Murga de Panama”, and on the other hand the North American guitar in The Duncan Brothers’ “Dreams” and the soulful “Ooo-oos” of “Ain’t no Sunshine” by The Soul Fanatics. I was overlooking the unfamiliar and letting the familiar mush together in my head. Over time I tried to sort it out, but the mixture is, in some places, fairly dense. The music itself is bright and eager. A photograph inside the booklet shows the five Duncan Brothers striding toward the camera in outfits that must have been brilliantly white in real life; the age of the reproduction has given them a milky blueish tinge. Flares make loops around their ankles.
Panama sits south-west of the Caribbean, south of North and Central America, and north of Colombia—hence the strong Colombian sound that runs through so much of this album. The construction of the Panama Canal brought workers there in the early 1900s, some of them European and Asian, but most of them from the Antilles. Gyemant tells us about this in some detail. His potted history essay, along with the commentary he delivers on each track, the paragraphs dense with a combination of knowledge, anecdote, and opinion, makes buying the physical format worthwhile just for the booklet. The notes are full of asides. It (“Juck Juck Pt 1”) sounds so modern, with such clean production, but the horns sound like they belong to the era that I love. Consistently beautiful horn arrangements are a hallmark of Panamanian calypso.” “The gorgeous vocal lines of female lead singers in musica tipica are amply demonstrated here by singer Leonidas Moreno. Also present in profusion are a collection of the inspiring salomas of the Panamanian campsino—the celebratory yells that Graham Greene in his novel Getting to Know the General called ‘barking.’”
The song he’s referring to in the second quote is “La Escoba”, credited to Alfredo y Su Salsa Montañera. And it’s true, Moreno’s yodel is gorgeous—the men’s challenging shouts are rough and panting as well as forceful but her voice has the brilliance of clean silver and something of the same bite that comes through the Garifuna women recorded and released by Stonetree and Cumbancha. Moreno is the only woman singing on the album and after “La Escorba” I wish there were more. Or more songs with her in them, anyway. But Gyemant is a democratic compiler, giving us only one track from each group, no more, even when the group is the Exciters, “a super-group,” in his opinion, “pretty much the cream of the crop.” Anyone who owns the first album in this series, Panama!, which covers the decade between 1965 and 1975, will be nodding in recognition. A few other familiar names turn up. Lord Cobra returns, loving awkwardly on his girlfriend in “Love Letters”, and so does Papi Brandao, waving the patriot flag with “La Murga de Panama”. There are more musicians on this second album, more songs overall, and I had the feeling that things were happening backwards. Isn’t the sequel supposed to be the weaker album, as the compiler runs out of material? Listening to Panama! I had the impression that he was struggling to find enough bands to fill a compilation but on Panama! 2 he seems to have an abundance. It was the feeling of abundance that made me want to listen to the album a second and third time, and it was this that made me notice those combinations—the fact that “Love Letters” starts with a North American guitar, moves into a Cuban-Latin trumpet, and that both of these are part of a crooner-remake of a calypso …