Various: Colombia!

[15 July 2007]

By Deanne Sole

When I saw that two of the labels I admire had collaborated on an album I said to myself, “Ah, self, this is going to be brilliant.” I like Discos Fuentes because I like cumbia, and Fuentes (which was created in 1934 by Don Antonio Fuentes, a radio station owner in Cartagena who needed recordings of local music and couldn’t find any) has an unparalleled library of the stuff going back decades. And I like Soundway because they’ve released a compilation of songs by the Beninese funk band T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo that is one of the most satisfying African CDs I’ve come across in ages. And—furthermore!—Miles Cleret, the man who compiled the Poly-Rhythmo disc, is the same man who compiled this one. So it stands to reason that the result is going to be something to make you dance and sing. Well, perhaps not you, but me.

Discos Fuentes compilations of the past, at least the ones that have been released in English-speaking countries, have tended to be either straight cumbia or straight salsa. Colombia! breaks away from that. Cleret seems to have been looking for songs that go with certain adjectives, rather than songs that fit certain genres. Those adjectives would look like this: hot, fast, energetic. The beat that animates most of the songs is swift and efficient as a bird-peck and as unforgiving as a headlong gallop—a particularly Colombian sound, not like the lazier rhythm usually associated with neighbouring Brazil. This is a very full, very busy CD. Wherever you look, someone is making sweeping gestures on a piano, or going for broke with a clarinet or racing along with a trumpet, and if you peer under those people then you find others, equally involved, with drums and guitars, hammering or strumming or biding their time, waiting for a chance to grab the spotlight and let rip. Colombia! is almost obsessively occupied, like the work of an art brut artist with a pencil who can’t bear to call a picture finished until every last scrap of paper has been given its own squiggle.

Everybody here is competing—everybody wants your attention. It’s an outpouring of riches. After a while my brain went numb and just lay there, sucking it in. Trumpet! Clarinet! Piano! Something that sounds like a cowbell! The cowbell brings its meaty clonk to Wganda Kenya’s “Tifit Hayed”, and then to the next song, “Fandango en Percussion”, by Pedro Laza.

“Tifit Hayed” is punchy, features a gleeful piano, and is enlivened by the sound of the lead singer making lippy jelly-wobble noises to amuse us or sound fierce. Wganda Kenya is one of Discos Fuentes’ studio bands, created to cater for that part of the audience that wanted local versions of popular African songs. Their other song, “Elyoyo”, is weak by comparison. The chorus sounds subdued and wary, as if no one trusts his neighbour to hit the cue at the right time.

Fruko y Sus Tesos, the group that gave Joe Arroyo his start as a singer, makes up for “Elyoyo” with three excellent tracks. In “Improvisando” they’ve taken the backing riff from The Yardbirds’ “For Your Love” and thrown in piano, cymbal stings, trumpets, and new lyrics, until it melts and turns salsa. “Salsa na Ma” teases us with a long piano opening that turns a corner in an instant and deposits us in the main body of the song. “A La Memoria Del Muerto” is sterner and darker.

Then there are the groups that get only one song each. Lucho Bermudez on “Gaita de las Flores” has a sprawly vibe and a 1960s clarinet sweetness. This is the sort of song that Bollywood liked to copy, once upon a time. El Sexteto Miramar smacks its lips over “Cumbiamba”. “La Pata y El Pato”, from Climaco Sarmiento, is one of the few songs on this album that features women’s voices—it may, indeed, be the only one—and it is slower than the rest, a steady, swanning tide through which the percussion beats. The two women dovetail together; they have an antique radio-bourne overlay. Orquestra Nunez on “La Samaria” lets a semi-muted horn fuss like a bee under a coffee mug while a clarinet zings past. There is cumbia and salsa and funk and gaita and songs that are a mix. There are some terrific 1960s organs. The album almost giggles with verve.

You should not go into this disc if you are: feeling tired, fond only of minimalism, wanting quiet background music, or not in the mood for trumpets. It’s very up-front, very bold, very joyous, and it wants to drive you to the pure animal pleasure of throwing your limbs around. Writing about “La Pata y El Pato” has reminded me just how few women there appear to be in the Fuentes back catalogue—it’s a thought that strikes me today particularly firmly because I spent this morning finishing off a review of Papa Noel, realising, as I wrote it, that the Congolese rumba scene was far from being overburdened with women either, and now I’m starting to wonder why I listen to this music at all when it virtually ignores my sex. Then I put on Colombia! again and realise that I listen to it because it’s good, very good. But almost no women. And I am torn.

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