In 1990, world music imprint Mango Records put out a compilation entitled Sueno Colombiano, gathering together a selection of artists who had recorded for Colombia’s legendary Discos Fuentes label. The album mixed together examples of cumbia, salsa, caribe, and general música tropical by some of the label’s signature artists, such as Fruko y Sus Tesos, Wganda Kenya, and the Latin Brothers. Sueno Colombiano celebrated what was already a long career for the record company founded in 1934 by Antonio Fuentes in his native Cartagena.
Two decades later, restless musical explorers Vampisoul offer up a longer, deeper look at the 1960s and 1970s output of Discos Fuentes, offering two and a half hours of catchy and curious tracks from the aforementioned artists and others involved in this golden period of Afro-influenced, funked-up tropical music. If Mango’s compilation was a retrospective review of still recent recordings, Vampisoul’s is more explicitly a work of vinyl archeology, unearthing the spatially and temporally remote in a manner not dissimilar to contemporary projects by Now Again, Soundway, and Analog Africa, all of whom have been looking to Colombia on recent releases. In fact, Soundway have already covered very similar territory, having released a collection of Discos Fuentes material from the same era in 2007.
Although there are a number of artists represented on this compilation, one man’s name turns up again and again. Julio Ernesto “Fruko” Estrada was as important to this era of the label’s output as Fuentes himself, acting as multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, arranger, and studio technician for a variety of projects emerging under his name and those of others. Reading the excellent and voluminous liner notes by compiler Pablo E Yglesias (a.k.a. DJ Bongohead), one gets the impression of a Zelig-like figure, someone present at all the important moments in the “Afrosound” era, and who appears amongst the line-up of numerous acts playing a wild variety of styles.
Fruko y Sus Tesos, the group most obviously identified with Estrada, offered up a fuzzed-out salsa quite distinct from the variety being developed in New York at the same time. The group provide 11 of this album’s 43 tracks, several of them featuring wonderfully smooth vocals of sonero Joe Arroyo. “Flores Silvestres” finds Arroyo’s voice soaring over some seriously distorted electric guitar, frantic percussion, and salsa piano. Arroyo also takes control of “El Ausente”, his confident croon seemingly unbothered by the spicy stew of brass and percussion behind him, or by the distorting guitar that marks this as a product of 1970s experimentalism. Meanwhile, Piper Pimienta, Arroyo’s forerunner in Fruko y Sus Tesos, provides his trademark high vocals on “Cachumbembé”, a track he recorded shortly before leaving the group in 1972; it’s a fantastic performance, especially when the manic instrumentation breaks down around the two minute mark and Pimienta takes the spotlight.
Afrosound, the group that gives this compilation its title and theme, are represented by nine tracks. Fruko helped put the group together as a response to the popularity of cumbia amazónica, a hybrid genre that had emerged from the Amazonian region of Peru and which was built upon a mixture of cumbia, indigenous music, and rock and pop styles. The genre was exemplified by groups such as Los Mirlos, whose signature tune was covered by Afrosound on the latter’s first album in 1973. Fruko’s contribution to the genre was reportedly to add more tropical percussion and more experimental sounds, though it is arguable whether these were lacking in the so-called “chicha” music of Peru, as other Vampisoul compilations have made clear. Afrosound’s music was indeed experimental, though its quirkiness can occasionally grate. A few listens of “Dog, Cat” (complete with animal noises) and “Jungle Fever” (cue sex noises) will probably prove enough for most people. Less annoying psychedelia can be found on the timewarping “Salsa con Tabaco”, which moves deliriously from salsa piano to trippy electric guitar, only to come back for an almost clear-headed reprise before shooting off into the ether once more.
Wganda Kenya contribute seven tracks, including a version of the Carl Douglas classic “Kung-Fu Fighting”, entitled “Combate a Kung-Fu”. It’s hard to gainsay DJ Bongohead’s observation that “the use of a flute mellotron, psych-fuzz guitar, and ‘chopsocky’ film shouts is nothing short of dope” on this track. Another of the group’s contributions, “El Caterete”, manages to simultaneously dig deep into African trance styles and head for the weird jugular via what Bongohead accurately describes as “jungle opera yodeling”. Both these aspects are briefly set aside for some jazzy piano vamps that, along with some semi-scatted backing vocals, suggest the exotica of Arthur Lyman or Martin Denny. It’s not all battiness with Wganda Kenya, however, as the dance number “Rosalía” proves. The track, from 1979, anticipates the keyboard-heavy sounds of various Caribbean musics in the following decade, not least those that would dominate the “pico” soundsystems of Colombia’s coastal regions.
The rest of the album’s tracks come from a handful of other groups in the Discos Fuentes stable, all of whom mix elements of established styles such as salsa, cumbia, and vallenato with more recent, often experimental, sounds. Sexteto Miramar, for example, serve up a “Salsa Boogaloo” which does exactly what it says on the tin. Another group from the 1960s, Los Corraleros de Majagual, provide more rural textures via the accordion of vallenato legend Calixto Ochoa. There are three deep, funky, and brass-heavy cuts from the 1967 album Mi Buenaventura by Peregoyo y Su Combo Vacaná, which, as Bongohead asserts, bear some parallels with West African music from the same period (pre-Afrobeat but taking cues from James Brown, 1960s jazz, and extended African percussive patterns).
One of the balmiest, yet most beguiling, tracks on The Afrosound of Colombia is a take on Los Falcons’ early 1960s hit “Cumbia de Sal” by an outfit called Cumbia en Moog. Like so much else that got “mooged” in the 1970s, the version is novel both in its function as an obvious novelty track, but also, more notably as we listen across the years, in its clear pointers to the future. Its modernity—an Afromodernity, as this compilation makes abundantly clear, but also a tropical, Latin modernity—can be discerned in the deep, squelchy keyboard patterns that could have soundtracked a sci-fi film of its era, an early computer game, or a whole range of electronic popular music whose time was yet to come. As has so often been the case with Latin American music, be it tropicália, cumbia amazonica, or baile funk, the ingestive processes of a highly mediated global postmodern world are more than matched by the innovative productions of local musicians.