[9 August 2010]
Analog Africa, the reissue label that releases the results of crate-digging forays by DJ Samy Ben Redjeb, has focused for most of its brief history on the 1970s recordings of Beninese musicians, such as the splendid Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou. The label swaps continents for this release, which focuses, as do recent compilations from similarly-minded labels Soundway and Vampisoul, on Colombia. Redjeb has chosen the accordionist Anibal Velásquez as the featured artist for this new venture, and Mambo Loco presents ten typically catchy numbers by the man and his conjunto.
In Colombian music, the accordion is most closely associated with vallenato, a zydeco-like genre driven by accordion and scraped percussion. Those elements are certainly to be found in Velásquez’s music, and the band with which he made his first recordings in 1952 was called Los Vallenatos de Magdalena. However, the music on offer here would not all be classified as classic vallenato, being instead a mixture of that genre, cumbia, Cuban guaracha, and much else besides. Velásquez was known as a musical innovator, bringing a fusion of old and new Latin styles to the Colombian music scene movement known as Música Tropical.
Velásquez was born in Barranquilla (Shakira’s home town) and was responsible, like Lucho Bermúdez before him, for bringing the musical culture of that coastal city to the country’s interior via tours, recordings, and television appearances. Velásquez’s music retained more of the Afro-Caribbean tropicality associated with coastal musics such as cumbia, porro, and vallenato, and arguably represents a less watered-down version of such musics than was common following their translation to the more European highland cities of the interior.
There is certainly plenty of excitement in the tracks on offer here. Album opener “Carruseles” kicks off not with accordion, but with some classic Cuban-inspired piano, the keyboard lines working brilliantly with the Latin percussion and bass guitar to set up an irresistible groove. The song is definitively owned by Velásquez throughout via an infectious vocal that alternates the song title with interjections of the artist’s name and lusty cries of “Mamita!” In case we’re in any doubt as to whose song this is, Velásquez provides a ten second flurry of accordion at the song’s close.
The groove continues wonderfully with “Los Vecinos”, with additional acoustic guitar coming to the fore. “Cecilia” is another three-minute masterclass in brilliant rhythms (scraped, tapped, bashed, and shaken), jazzily cascading piano, and vocals that seem to insist enjoyment is mandatory. Velásquez’s accordion is at its most fluid and dancing on “Mi Cumbia”, which, despite its name, would seem to qualify more as classic vallenato in its instrumental configuration. At two minutes and 29 seconds, it’s also a classic pop record.
“Que Paso” stretches itself to a relatively luxurious five and a half minutes, wrapping call-and-response vocals around the dancing lines of piano and accordion. It’s actually possible to take a completely different journey to the one the main tune seems to suggest by following the minimalist abstractions of the bass guitar and the zigzagging path of the piano during its solo. It’s not clear to what extent this is deliberate or accidental, but the result is thoroughly absorbing or infuriating, depending on your attitude to the strictures of musical timekeeping (it’s best to relax and go with the former and be absorbed).
There’s a ragged, rustic feel to “Vestido Novo” that suggests Velásquez was keen to stay connected to his roots in the coastal and rural regions of northern Colombia. One could imagine this as the result of an ethnographic field recording as much as the product of a modern recording studio. To say this is not to falsely primitivize Velásquez or his music, but rather to remain attuned to the basic essence he was trying to stay true to in these songs, a quality just as notable in the gimmicky, maniacal laughter that accompanies his hit recording “Mambo Loco”. The delirium of this song fits both the pop market’s desire for novelty and the trance-inducing sonic projection evident in the music’s Afro-Colombian roots.
As an innovator, Velásquez was able to tap into both these worlds, producing hundreds of audience-friendly recordings that concisely expressed all that was and remains best about the multitude of cultural routes that Latin American music has taken. The only downside of this otherwise excellent compilation is its brevity; it’s a short, sweet dose of tropical medicine that will doubtless leave listeners wanting more. Those so afflicted are directed towards the recent releases by Soundway and Vampisoul, and to the latest album by LA-based vallenato outfit Very Be Careful, all of which are helping to make this a very Colombian summer.