The tunes are great and the DJs skilled, but don't the musicians deserve some credit?
Los Chicharrons is the project of a pair of DJs who fuse Afro-pop into irresistibly groovy dance music. Denmark's Morten Varano and the Dominican Republic's Ramon Santana may share little by way of background, but both bring their high-energy aesthetic to this batch of remixes and relentless dance tracks. It's hard to imagine a better soundtrack to a dance party, or even a workout session, than this album would provide.
The record kicks off in high gear and stays there. Opener "Kounandi" mixes a whumping bassline and snappy snare drum with layers of organic percussion, balafon, chanted vocals and occasional unexpected accents -- a flute solo, anyone? The record reels off a string of equally dynamic tunes, with "Saramba’s Song", "Ma Donar", and "Koko" maintaining the pace. Many songs clock in at the five-to-six minute range, so the rhythms have plenty of time to take hold and sink in.
It's a damn shame that the musicians playing on all these delightful tracks aren't credited, at least on the review copy; publicity material mentions the DJ duo traveling through Mali, where they "hooked up with local musicians and recorded some songs" before returning to Paris, where the tracks were embellished and mixed. Not a word is devoted to naming the musicians themselves, though. There are moments in which some singers sound an awful lot like Salif Keita or Youssou N'Dour, but it's tough to be sure without written credits, and equally hard to believe that musicians of such stature would allow their work to be used without acknowledgment. Just as important are the unnamed instrumentalists, whose sweat and muscle propel these songs.
Regardless, the record is a joy for anyone who delights in pulse-elevating dance music, or impeccably performed Afro-pop -- or maybe who just wants to stay awake and alert on a long drive. The back half of the album is as relentlessly propulsive as the front, with enough consistency to satisfy the need to bounce, but enough variation in the tracks to fend off monotony. (Although not, perhaps, exhaustion.) "Equal Opportunity" sure sounds like it's got Salif Keita's gravelly, soulful voice soaring over mournful trumpet lines -- and plenty of frenetic percussion, don't worry -- the chorus even seems taken directly from his 2005 song "M'Bemba". Even more danceworthy, "Bamako" slips sly electric guitar into the mix, along with powerful vocals by someone I should probably recognize (Amadou Bagayoko, maybe?).
The remaining tracks don't deviate from the established template, although "Mali Brass" is a trifle slower than the other songs, and standout cut "Kanafo" introduces kora in a lead role for the first time; it probably sounds like the most "traditional" song on the record. With its strong female vocals and call-and-response rhythms, "Kanafo" raises the question: why would anyone need to remix African pop into dance music, when it is already so ludicrously danceable to begin with?
Chances are, if that question bothers you a whole bunch, you're unlikely to buy this album anyway. But if you're able to put such conundrums out of mind while shaking your booty, there is a very good chance that you're the sort of person who will find much to love among these relentless grooves.