The third in a string of remarkable Soundway releases documenting the catholic impulses of Panamanian calypso, guaracha, and cumbia from the third quarter of the 20th century, Panama! 3 is, like its predecessors, loaded with obscure revelations — the neglected treasures hidden buried in crates and behind stereos throughout the Panamanian isthmus. Strangely enough, however, its most direct US counterpart might be the Nuggets series, which likewise restructures listeners’ understanding of its subject with its breadth and voluminosity. Roberto Gyemant, Miles Cleret, and Will Holland fill the role of Lenny Kaye here, curating these releases with determination and with an attentive, selective eye. As with Nuggets, not every track on Panama! 3 is essential. But the more important argument that the songs make shows the rangy contours of a typically Panamanian style.
In spite of their stylistic diversity, one tissue that holds these performances together is a common sonic fingerprint: almost invariably, the songs appear in the richly textured, gloriously grimy fidelity of their period, and it’s surprising to hear how powerful a role these aural qualities play in making the songs bend and sway. The opening track, Lord Panama and the Stickers’ “Fire Down Below”, is a fine example. The horns are full of knotty grains, underpinned by supple, snaky rhythms, and finished with a ragged vocal; it’s calypso as punk rock, circa 1964.
While they are undoubtedly a product of their own place and national identity, these songs also take shape by engaging — and rearranging — the currents of contemporary popular music. Little Francisco Greaves’ “Moving-Grooving”, for instance, speaks a language so patently belonging to James Brown that the audacity is its own kind of creativity: never mind the similarities, something’s happening on this track. It has Brown’s propulsion, but it’s more slippery, drawing on the energy of one voice overlapping another in a hemispheric collision of cultures. Similarly, the Silvertones’ “Up Tight” is a nuanced boogaloo response to the American Songbook, mashing up saxophone snatches of “Summertime” with a galloping beat and a chorus of handclaps and voices. On track after track, Panama! 3 uncovers a bricolage of voices and countervoices, rhythms and counterrhythms, in a way that nicely reflects Soundway Records’ broader aim: to reveal counter histories of the development of popular music.
For listeners mostly unversed in Panamanian music and culture, it’s difficult to avoid hearing these records without conjuring up a tinge of exoticism. But the collection’s expansive vision suggests that exoticism is not without its benefits, as some of this music truly sounds like it was recovered from an alternate, if glancingly familiar, universe. Indeed, the names of the artists on Panama! 3 alone strike evocative resonances, even for a non-Spanish speaker. Panaswing, Lord Cobra and His Sugar Tone Band, Conjunto Panama: all make promises fulfilled by the music. But these songs are never reducible to their point of origin in any ultimate way. With grooves this wide and performances this soulful, they make a space for themselves on their own terms.
Cultural critic Frederic Jameson once commented on the necessary existence of “third world nationalism”, a current that guides the creation of a unique identity not determined by colonial or global economic forces. The recordings of these combo nacionales gracefully fulfill that requirement as they uncover a patently Panamanian aesthetic, one that values the western tradition of improvisation, but responds to the distinct pulses of the Caribbean isthmus. This collection also proves just how sloppy the category “world music” is, since the world, even from the insulated vantage of the United States, is bigger and wider than any single genre can contain, with all sorts of secret alleys and pathways, all sorts of unattended blind spots and unfinished narratives.