Listening, last year, to the Strut compilation, Next Stop… Soweto Vol. 2, I had the impression that there was a mysterious feeling of distance between the tracks, as if a magnetic field was somehow keeping them apart—and on this album, I noticed it again, which is strange, because they were compiled by different people. Soweto Vol. 2 was the work of Duncan Brooker and Francis Gooding, while Tropical Discotheque comes from a three-person collective that calls itself Sofrito, the name presumably riffing off the Spanish ingredient, a mass of chopped food fragments mixed together to make a base. “One of the UK’s leading tropical music collectives”, claims the publicity sheet. “The ethos of Sofrito comes from a shared passion for vintage Tropical music coupled with roots in the UK underground club scene”, explains the group’s website. “The Sofrito releases champion the Tropical Discotheque sound—mixing up raw Afro flavours with Disco and Latin rhythms”.
The album starts with a hammering cumbia, “Quiero Amanacer” by Banda Los Hijos de la Niña Luz. The percussion is direct and hard, a boom-boom-boom saved from straight doof status by the presence of trumpets and Niña Luz’s voice. We move into track two, Les Ya Toupas du Zaire’s “Je Ne Bois Pas Beaucoup”, and a hammering beat resumes, though the pace is different, the singing is different, and even the brass is different, a runnier sound. Then in the next song, “Pitchito” by Frente Cumberio, the hammering is back again, but softer, shuffled, muffed, rubbed or rustled rather than banged out, with a keyboard farting bubbles all around.
The fourth track, “Arrete Mal Parlé” from the Fair Nick Stars, takes the idea of softening and carries it further. Here, the percussion shares more time with the brass, it isn’t as single-minded as it was in “Quiero Amanacer”. The heavy pace is opening into something more nuanced; we, the dancers, we’re allowed to relax, and attend to our movements; we’ve been woken up by Banda los Hijos, and now we settle, the compilers trust that we’ve found our way into their set—they threw us in suddenly and crudely with that boom-boom, but they know we’re not that obvious. They respect us, they don’t think we’ll be satisfied with just the original boom. Then they say, you have a brain, now here’s some food for it—a more complicated interplay between lead voice and chorus, percussion and the other instruments.
When I set it down like this, I can see a clear line carrying through and being played with each time, from percussion with Luz, whose tone is sharp as thistles, to percussion modified with soft jelly in “Pitchito”, to more percussion worked in new ways later on. Why do I have the impression of pauses, of lacunae between songs, as if they didn’t fit together? I wonder if I’m imagining it. Don’t, as I did when I first read about this album, see the word “discotheque” in the title and think you’re going to hear something like 1970s disco: the album we’re looking at is made up of cumbia, salsa, highlife, calypso, descarga and things like that. It has a number of those unexpected finds that often make compilations worthwhile. I like Mighty Shadow’s “Dat Soca Boat”, and I like the evidence here, implicitly presented, of humankind’s ingenuity. Presented with a simple problem, “How do you make people dance?” we find 15 ways to respond, all of them different and none of them wrong.