Music

Spanish Harlem Orchestra: United We Swing

Few Latin bands are as able to convey the same amount of energy as this large New York ensemble.


Spanish Harlem Orchestra

United We Swing

Label: Six Degrees
US Release Date: 2007-05-15
UK Release Date: 2007-06-18
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With the establishment of Spanish Harlem Orchestra in 2000, New York old-school salsa experienced an innovative and exciting revival. Basing their sound on the "salsa dura" or heavy salsa that permeated New York City's Eastside El Barrio community in the 1960s and the 1970s, Oscar Hernández and his 13-member ensemble not only continue a tradition that proved important to the El Barrio community, but they also invest older roots with new meaning by shifting the classical into the contemporary. Their music inaugurates, perhaps, a new golden era in Latin. For as often as Spanish Harlem Orchestra looks back to NYC salsa and the Cuban and Puerto Rican pioneers that made it possible in the first place, the ensemble also looks forward to creating a fresh place for Latin music amid the world's increasingly globalized and, to use Hernández's term, "bastardized" beats"."Our timing was perfect," Hernández asserts in an interview with Rudy Mangual in Latin Beat Magazine, "because salsa music had been losing its way in recent years to formulaic bands that sounded the same, saturated with the latest trends that bastardized our rich rhythms".

Although Hernández's comments in this interview and others come dangerously close to affirming an impossible sense of cultural purity, it is undeniably true that Spanish Harlem Orchestra's rhythms are unique. Few Latin bands are as able to convey the same amount of energy as this large NYC ensemble. For all that, Hernández has, since the successful releases of the Grammy-nominated Un Dia En El Barrio in 2002 and the Grammy-winning Across 110th Street in 2004, moved away from his New York City neighborhood. The release of United We Swing marks both the ensemble's creation of original compositions and their signing with the California label Six Degrees.

In contrast to preceding albums, nine of the tracks on the new album were created by the ensemble, a feature that has considerably discouraged Spanish Harlem Orchestra's critics from complaining about the prevalence of covers. What some critics don't realize, however, is that new covers of older songs constitute an important facet of the ensemble's repertoire, which focuses on bringing back to life sounds that risk being forgotten. The modern twists Spanish Harlem Orchestra have introduced to the classics are a necessary first step in their revisionist project. Their collaboration with Six Degrees represents yet another direction for the band, one that has so far been received with enthusiasm internationally.

Indeed, Spanish Harlem Orchestra occupies the cutting edge of contemporary Latin, and nowhere is this more evident than on United We Swing. Oscar Hernández introduces the members of the ensemble in "SHO Intro" to a sizzling mixture of horns, piano, congas and bongas, a musical phrase that aptly precedes and anticipates the album as a whole. The CD only goes upward from there, with "Llegó La Orquesta"/"The Orchestra Has Arrived" showcasing the pleasing vocals of Ray De La Paz and Marco Bermudez and, impossible to ignore, the musical direction and piano work of Hernández himself. This is largely where the group most succeeds, namely: in their seemingly effortless ability to assemble an appealing mix of vocal and instrumental sounds.

Gems include "En El Tiempo Del Palladium"/"In the Times of the Palladium", "Que Bonito"/"How Lovely", "Soy Candela"/"I Am Fire" and Hernández's beautiful "Danzón For My Father"-- a tribute, in fact, to his father Emilio Hernández. Yet even this cursory list does not do justice to the ensemble's at once fun and soothing arrangements, all of which subtly inflect classical Latin with the ensemble's own, more modern, manipulation of the traditional form. Hernández and his collaborators certainly accede to the title of the album: the tracks are remarkably contained in their unification and coherence, to the point where one track almost seamlessly blends into another while shifting gears into a different, and remarkably distinctive, composition.

The only track that seems to barely fit is the last: "Late in the Evening"/"Tarde En La Noche" is a reconfiguration of Paul Simon's original of the same name, from his 1980 album One Trick Pony. Despite Simon's laudable effort to attune his vocals to a Latin arrangement, the track proves somewhat anomalous alongside the others. Spanish Harlem Orchestra's vocals, moreover, appear to upstage Simon's. For whatever the reason, "Late in the Evening" seems to fall flat in an album that is otherwise quite expert in its fluid juxtaposition of disparate sounds. For Spanish Harlem Orchestra's part, the ensemble is proud of their collaboration with Simon. In the same interview cited above, Hernández explains: "I was honored that Paul Simon agreed to do the recording because he doesn't just record with anybody. In the end, the song sounds like the band performing, with Paul Simon singing lead, which is awesome." While I don't share Hernández's sentiments about the album's closing track, I must agree with him that notwithstanding Simon's cameo, the group's performance on this latest release is, in a word, awesome. United We Swing will appeal mostly to fans of classic and contemporary Latin, but it should also gain some new converts to the genre and remind us all that the traditional still maintains a special place in a world where "bastardization" has become fashionable.

7

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.


In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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