Usually when I see the name of a country I can come up with a few pieces of mental imagery or music to make it seem real, but of Panama I see nothing except a sunny city street and Geoffrey Rush looking rabbitty in a white suit. Pierce Brosnan is in the foreground with his eyelids partway down and his expression careless. It’s The Tailor of Panama, a film I saw once, years ago, and then forgot until this CD came along and I had to face the reproachful tone of the blurb on the back of the cardboard envelope.
“There is a lot more to Panama”, it says, “than canals and hats, although its music has never featured prominently on the musical radar of many Western connoisseurs”. I scratched around to find out what I could about Panamanian music and discovered a few things. They have their own cumbia, which is known as the cumbia panameñia, and their national dance is the tamborito. The tamborito has its roots in the metre of Spanish poetry, and its performance requires men to wear a white shirt, dark trousers, and a small bag. What is in the small bag, if anything, and why they’re expected to wear it, I’m not sure. But there you are. A small bag.
But Panama! is not about small traditional bags, or men in white shirts. Panama! is here to show us that this small country with fewer inhabitants than some foreign cities can produce music that sounds just as good as anyone else’s. Some of the musicians were visitors, resident at local clubs and bars, but Panama was their conduit. This result doesn’t have the feeling of infinite riches that compilations from larger countries such as Brazil sometimes achieve, yet it’s still a solid effort.
It starts with a piano being ridden up and down, a heady trumpet, a squeal of braking brass, both cool and exciting. This is Los Exagerados with “Panama Esta Bueno y . . . Ma”. The Exciters’ “Exciters Theme” comes next and it’s even better: chilled yet hot, trotting and regular in the background, sliding and smirking and growling at you in the foreground.
The Exciters are one of the highlights of this album. As well as their “Theme” they also play “New Bag”, a funk piece with a sixties hippie-psychedelia guitar and more heady foreground growling. A singer comes in and tells us to do the mashed potato. “Hoo-wee! Come on now. Do you feel all right? I said, do you feel all right? Hmp! Good gawd!” He’s a man who enjoys his James Brown.
Then there’s a woman duetting with a man on “Viva Panama” by Papi Brandao y Sus Ejecutivos, and she has a terrific soprano flutter, a strange, antique falsetto sound, as if she’d stepped off a record from an earlier decade and agreed to join in. I wish I knew her name but the cardboard sleeve I’ve got doesn’t include notes. The label says that the store release will include “in-depth liner notes, original cover scans, and contemporary photos”. Perhaps they’ll have her in there.
There’s probably more Latin on this compilation than funk, with Maximo Rodriguez y Sus Estrallas Panamanas setting off some popcorn mambo on “Mambologia”, and cumbia and tropical styles scattered throughout the album. Los Silvertones’ “Old Buzzard” is a catchy mixture of a Latin backing and calypso-style verbal delivery, but despite the subtitle, Panama! doesn’t leave you with the impression that Panamanian calypso had a strong following. Lord Cobra’s “Rocombay” is the most significant piece of calypso here, and there’s an awkwardness in the playing that suggests musicians who had trouble staying in synch with one another.
Panama! is a welcome album, partly because, as it says, you don’t hear a lot from the Panamanian music scene and it’s good to have a heads-up from these places once in a while to remind you that they exist, but mostly because it’s the home of some worthwhile music that you can’t get any other way unless you’re willing to dig through enormous stacks of old records. My resident layman enjoyed the CD enough to comment on it afterwards, which is rare. He likes The Exciters.