Chichi Peralta’s De Vuelta al Barrio is a very pleasant surprise from a record company in the Cayman Islands. Sr. Peralta is a talented musician and bandleader from the Dominican Republic. His name is really Pedro René Peralta, but everybody calls him Chichí. He likes to emphasize that the last “i” should be accented because “Chichi” sin assento doesn’t sound very good in Spanish. That saucy, insistent upswing at the end of his nickname can be a stand in for his energetic, upbeat arrangements.
Peralta is a master percussionist, daring composer, and an arranger brilliant at fusing tropical rhythms. He’s created his own dynamic style, known as Fusón, by mixing, matching and, as the name implies, fusing diverse rhythms and styles like jazz, Afro-pop, Afro-American, Afro-Cuban, with Latin rhythms including the Dominican merengue, guaguancó, bachata and vallenato. Chichi Peralta is quickly becoming recognized as a bandleader in the tradition of Tito Puente. Peralta won a Latin Grammy last fall for De Vuelta al Barrio and one listen to the CD will do much to explain why.
The dots and dashes of a telegraph key fly through the air. Timed to fall slightly under the under-30-seconds time allotment for public service announcements broadcast on radio anywhere in the Western world, the echo-laden, deep voiced announcer makes up for lost time with his sense of drama and hysterical enthusiasm on “Servicios Publicos”. This spirited fun segues naturally into the next good-humored track, “Desengaño”. The mood is set instantly by the sparkling movement of a high-strung cuatro (guitar) leading in. The happy, lively piece is carried along by the percussive rhythms of the tambora, a bright-sounding drum. Even an accordian, an instrument once traditional to merengue, is thrown in at the top. The lyrics are carried by a clear tenor voice accented by an intermittent chorus. You’ll try to sing along with the infectious refrain.
That’s just for openers. The record then goes around the world in rhythms. Latin pop meets Indian raga on “El Beso de Judas” with sitars, drones, psychedelic guitar parts, and lyrics sung into a telephone (or is that the cosmic hot-line?). Improbably, merengue is united with hip-hop on “Baila Venga Chichi”. Maybe not so improbably considering a brief history of merengue: popular with the downtrodden masses, shunned as vulgar by the upper classes.
Under Rafael Trujillo’s long dictatorship, merengue’s popularity flowered in the Dominican Republic. Coming from peasant stock, Trujillo linked the music with his presidential campaign to represent the rural underclass. In his first bid for election, Trujillo pushed his campaign and the merengue right along with it onto the newly installed radio stations. Once in power, needless to say, Trujillo deprived the music of its traditional role of social commentary. He did continue to support the music as a national expression of the former underclass, and so helped provide a place for the musicians to work in the dancehalls. Soon, larger merengue orchestras developed for the dancehalls, with piano and brass catering to the tastes of the new urban audiences. As the orchestras grew larger, their bandstands encroached on the limited space of the dance floor. Today the “ballroom” merengue is a bit reminiscent in feel and sound to big-band salsa dance music.
Peralta’s exuberant “La Morena” may be closer in reality to the Afro-Brazilian axé style of Bahia. But listen to the popping, sliding bass, the way the voices are used, the bright staccato horns at the top, and bubbling high-life sounding guitars and tell me this doesn’t sound like Afro pop. Hear this one song and know why Peralta is featured on the well-respected Afropop site.
Peralta’s music is a very good example of how different rules of music can be melded together in a dynamic system, which can lead to an interesting meditation on adaptability. With Peralta’s compositions, rigid music categories are temporarily disregarded. Varying components are used, yet somehow individual elements emerge recognizably intact even when fused. Peralta arranges with great clarity and knows exactly where to provide emphasis. Not an easy task when layering several handfuls of genres, as even their individual meters can make demands on the composer. Because he knows the measure of his ingredients, Peralta doesn’t mix blindly.
De Vuelta al Barrio is a generous offering of music styles so varied it’s a challenge to name them all. The 16 selections encompass nearly an hour of captivating music. The lustrous presentation includes extensive liner notes in Spanish surrounded by line drawings, original art, and emblematic designs. The thick pamphlet shows photographs of life in the Dominican Republic today mixed with antique sepia-toned photos of inspirations from an older era. Unlike many recent Latin pop releases that only have room in print for the star, here each and every one of the many performing musicians is credited individually by name and instrument.
In 1997, Chichi Peralta made his solo debut with his first album Pa’ Otro La’o, a record that rapidly built his reputation as a fearless and energetic creative force. If you’re an adventurous and forward-leaning listener, you might want to explore that record together with De Vuelte al Barrio.