[29 August 2006]
Music was organic in the first place. It was the sound of nature, the sound of people communicating, the sound of the soul, expressed by the body—and a few wooden instruments and drums.
Turn on the TV or the radio and we can’t help but feel that something has been lost along the way. Technology has progressed and the Boyband-maker 2000 can churn out converor-belt simili of bleached pop at a rate of 10 songs a minute. Electronic music has suffered as well, particularly in the ever-widening wasteland known as downbeat, a genre usurped by omnipresent, high-budget vaselined nu-cool advertising, forcing it into overpolished blandness.
What has essentially been lacking is an organic sound, something fresh and authentic, crisp and captivating. Something spirited and real, that may end up confined to the downbeat shelves of the record store, but is somewhat less than defined by the blanket genre label. Gotan Project managed to create something like this with their fusion of passionate tango with organic elements.
Martin Perna is organically attuned. A founding member of the celebrated Texas latin-funk big band Grupo Fantasma, he builds self-sustaining housing, refits old camper vans as live/work spaces, grows gourds and tomatoes and nurses a plum tree. Perna seems to be in touch with nature and humanity. This may explain why he has created a deliciously earthy vein of laidback Afro-Cuban funk, joining up with a founder of festive Brooklyn Afrobeat outfit Antibalas Adrian Quesada for a musical escapade that ficticioulsy soundtracks the adventures of a traveling young boy, lost on his way to the sun.
It was even organics that brought the two musicians together for the project. Perna was on the return leg of an eco-road trip from Brooklyn to Mexico when his vegetable oil-powered Mercedes-Benz broke down near Quesada’s house in Austin, Texas. Perna spent two weeks fixing the car and recording at Adrian’s Level One home studio at night. A few fine tunings later, the album dropped on the Aire Sol label in 2004—and it’s a wonder why it has taken two years for a somewhat bigger label, Thievery Corporation’s Eighteenth Street Lounge, to pick up on this gem.
Funky guitar-strummings pepper accentuated hip-hop-styled drums on invigorating runarouds of laidback instrumental funk, spanning Latin to Afro-Cuban styles and kicking in hints of Fela Kuti and classic Blue Note Rhodes sounds along the way. Both Perna and Quesada seem to be better at ease working outside their respective 11-man big band constellations and the music on El Nino Y El Sol feels more comfortable than the sometimes overly tightknit Antibalas funk. The duo also pull back the strong ethnicity that is defining in the Antibalas and Grupo Fantasma sounds, leaving only fragments of their inspiration to form a rich tapestry of sounds that finds a delicious balance within itself. A soaring flute peppers several of the songs and is even joined by a few Mancini/Axelrod-esque strings on “Grenudos”, adding to an indeciferable feeling of bliss that makes this album something truly special.
El Nino Y El Sol is one of those albums that creates vivid images. It’s crisp like a dry wind across the prairie of a Mexican border state in late-afternoon sunshine—with deliciously light water-and-seaside-breeze interludes. It conjures up dreams of the desert and the ocean at once. Rarely has laidback funk felt so vibrant, so alive, with an exquisite organic feel-good vibe that brings a smile to the lips of the listener.
To set El Nino Y El Sol in a downbeat context is perhaps misleading. It’s barely electronic and the electronics are succintly woven into the fabric of each song. It is also so far beyond what the genre has provided that bland downbeat labelling would never do it justice. Ocote Soul Sounds and Adrian Quesada take their place as an Afro-Cuban Gotan Project—or perhaps a Breakestra for beach relaxation—with an album that is exceptional and essential.