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¡Saoco! - The Bomba and Plena Explosion in Puerto Rico

(Vampisoul; US: 27 Jul 2012; UK: 27 Jul 2012)

According to the extensive and illuminating liner notes (something that is a consistent highlight of Vampisoul releases, an indispensible accompaniment to the music and this time compiled by Yannis Ruel), soaco is of Afro-West Indian origin and refers to the quality of a piece of music or its performer, which moves and excites the senses; synonym of swing, flavour.


And this 30-track album would certainly bear out this definition. As with much of Vampisoul’s releases, this is an exploration of popular music from far away lands that you wouldn’t normally get to hear without their dedicated and expert archival research and desire to spread the gospel, in this instance, of Bomba and Plena music.


This time we are treated to the wonderful sounds that emanated from Puerto Rico over half a century ago, specifically from the period 1954-66, a rich, fertile twelve year period in Puerto Rican music history that would ultimately pave the way for the salsa explosion (and is also the birthplace of both Ricky Martin and Reggaeton!!)


Puerto Rican bomba developed it’s own distinct sounds from other Caribbean bomba rhythms with its dialogue between drums, singing and dance whilst plena, which traces its roots back to the poorest quarters of the city of Ponce, tends to be a narrative, or stories, of and from the communities it was developed in. What they both have in common, and which is in abundance on the album, is irresistible rhythms, propelled by blaring horns, drums, piano, maracas, tambourines and distinctly Latin America vocal performances that keep up the tempo.


It is clear from Ruel’s liner notes that central to the history of the period that the album covers are three names: percussionist Rafael Cortijo and singers Ismael Rivera and Mon Rivera.


Cortijo and Ismael Rivera worked extensively together and Cortijo Y Su Combo Con Ismael Rivera tracks pepper this album from opener “El Bombón De Elena” to penultimate track “Cucala”. Their popularity and influence on Puerto Rican life was such that their songs and names are still sung today, both in celebration and as signifiers of Puerto Rican cultural heritage and identity.


It was Cortijo’s skill and foresight that turned his ensemble into a combo and which set the seeds for others to adapt his approach to Latin American music particularly with salsa. Opener “El Bombón De Elena” encapsulates this. With a simple drum beat kick starting the track before the trumpets cut in and then the choral like vocals, the track is a messy upside down, back-to-front affair and yet it is clear this is a tight band who know exactly what they are doing, and what they are doing is getting those hips swaying! It’s a joyful track and from here on in it doesn’t relent.


Mon Rivera makes his first appearance, billed as Mon Rivera Y Su Orquesta, on the track “Karakatis Ki” a real tongue twister of a track in keeping with Rivera’s nickname of El Rey del Trabalengua (the Tongue Twister King). “Karakatis Ki” has an insistent drum and trombanga background (another invention of Mon Rivera, replacing trumpets and saxophones with trombones) as Mon Rivera repeats the refrain Karakatis Ki living up to his nickname and providing a glimpse of why he became so popular with Puerto Ricans. It’s a real fun track but like all the others on the album, it’s made to make you dance!


While these three titans of Puerto Rican music dominate the album, they are by no means the only musicians on show. Baltazar Carrero’ s “En Órbita” is a beautiful accordion/vocal track and other artists such as Los Caballeros Del Ritmo and Monse García Y Su Conjunto highlight the depth and quality of the music that was being produced during this period.


It almost goes without saying that Vampisoul releases are routinely of high quality, impeccably researched and introduce ‘forgotten’ music to new audiences whilst providing an incredibly important historical perspective on the roots and cultural importance of the music.


¡Saoco! - The Bomba and Plena Explosion in Puerto Rico continues this lineage, a fabulous historical document.

Rating:

Founder of the Birmingham Popular Music Archive and Exec Producer of the documentary Made in Birmingham: Reggae Punk Bhangra (you may discern a common theme here!) I get way more pleasure than is acceptable from uncovering obscure facts and stories about music from my home city. The sight of some long forgotten band performing on stage, captured in a crappy in 1970's photo, is likely to send me over the edge! In my spare time, I work with some fellow popular music and radio fanatics in the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research at Birmingham City University in the UK.


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