Voodoo Love Inna Champeta Land does all it can to bridge the gap between the thrill of a live performance and the detached calm of the cool synthetic disc that you listen to alone in your room. “You don’t need a crowd,” it laughs, cavorting with puppy enthusiasm. “We are the crowd.” Every emotion is punched up, every trumpet is clear, every voice swells and shouts, everything good is highlighted, and everything bad is gone. The disc is fat with the physically demanding roundelay of Central and West African dance tunes (highlife, soukous, music that lets you know that it can outlast you; you’ll tire before it does), the triumphant stab of Colombian trumpets, South American shout-outs that unexpectedly urge you to attend to African guitarists, and the occasional pat on the back from Henry Ortiz’s excited accordion. It’s complex without being confusing, a brilliant Frankenmixture that sounds completely natural.
Champeta is one of those genres that has managed to sneak under the English-speaking world’s radar without a corresponding dearth of attention in its homeland, which is, in this case, Colombia. Colombia is known abroad chiefly for its cumbia, a combination of African, European, and native music that has developed into something different from any of its sources. It is distinctively, unmistakeably Colombian. Champeta is different. Its African roots are still strongly pronounced. It can sound so much like an African dance tune that it’s not surprising the English-speaking music market has ignored it. If you want to listen to highlife, kwasa kwasa, juju, mbaquanga or rumba then there’s already a tonne of the homegrown Mama Africa bands to get through so why would you need to look overseas to South America?
Whatever impact champeta has made in the English-speaking market owes its existence to the efforts of Palenque, a label that introduced itself to the world in 1998 with the release of a compilation called Champeta Criolla. Criolla was followed in 2003 by Champeta Criolla 2. In the same year Network released Radio Bakongo, a vehicle for a champeta musician called Paulino Salgado who turns up on Voodoo Love singing and playing drums. (And Lucas Silva, one of the brains behind Voodoo Love, had a hand in Radio Bakongo and the Champeta Criolla albums.) But its profile has stayed tiny. Thanks to the near-invisibility of the genre and most of its musicians, Voodoo Love Inna Champeta Land feels as if it has exploded out of nowhere. It’s African but not African, Colombian but not Colombian, reggae but not reggae; it is streaked through with other kinds of music — Cuban, chanting, funk — without embodying any of them completely.
The Mystic Orchestra is an umbrella name for a collective project that brought a long list of guitarists and singers from Guinea and Congo together with Colombians who added more singing and other instruments: accordion, tuba, trombone, maracas, saxophone, tambora, tiple, güiro. There is a Nigerian singer, a Guyanese keyboard player, and a Cameroonian named Guy Bilong who drums. The photographs in the case hint at the breadth of experience on which the project has drawn. There are young men in stocking headgear, old men with white hair creeping out from under their caps, a man with rasta dreads; another man waving a record player and a small mixing desk; a middle-aged man on a guitar; a solitary woman with her hands on her hips and, on the front of the box, a conspicuously corny picture of a black man wearing faux tribal dress: golden robes, a fur wrap, and an enormous bulbous hat like a porridge-coloured brain growing out of the top of his skull. Stars and planets hang from the ceiling. He is resting one knee on an old chair and a forest of branches has been set up on the table behind him. It’s a tongue in cheek depiction of a tribal king with his riches and fetishes. In its optimism and variety the picture suggests 1960s psyche playful spacey experimentation, the sort of thing that sometimes fizzled out under its own indulgent self-importance, and sometimes, loonily, worked. Voodoo Love is at least partly loony and it works.
In a review of an Afropop album earlier this year I wondered if we’d ever get to hear Afro-freakfolk. This, I think, is it. At times it has that wayward but purposeful tapestry quality that you hear in experimental Finns like Lau Nau or Islaja. Instruments jet to the surface as if you’d taken a handful of paint and squeezed so that worms of different colours squirted out between your fingers. Even during the final song they’re still introducing new ideas. You can jump around to it too, which I admit, much as I love it, you can’t really do with the Finnish music. Voodoo Love Inna Champeta Land is extravagant and ambitious. It’s a find.