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V/A - Panama!: Latin, Calypso & Funk on the Isthmus 1965-1975

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Artist: V/A

Album: Panama!: Latin, Calypso & Funk on the Isthmus 1965-1975

Label: Soundway

Review date: Jun. 18, 2006

One might guess that Panama’s strategic geographic location between continents, cultures, oceans and seas would contribute to a local music flowing with varied streams of influence. Proof of such a supposition can be found on this engaging collection. Focusing on the fecund 1960s and ’70s, Panama! reveals an effusion of hot and cool grooves that draw from various blends of indigenous styles and rhythms, Afro-Latin jazz, and funky American soul.

The collection begins in high style with strong descarga-style blowing by sax-man Jose “Chomba” Silva on Los Exagerados’s “Panama Esta Bueno Y Ma.” With a big-but-gentle Sonny Rollins tone, Silva lays down lines that dance with the rhythmic facility of Antillean Beguine. Rafael Labasta adds searing, stratospheric Cuban-style trumpet to the dialed-in montuno laid down by piano, upright bass and percussion. It’s Latin jazz with a few surprising – and very appealing – twists. (The Afro-Cuban/Puerto Rican/Salsa continuum was obviously beloved in Panama during those decades, and related approaches show up on many of the tracks collected here.)

There are other directions represented, too, including the sort of soul-funk workouts exemplified by the likes of The Exciters, Los Fabulosos Festivals, and Los Mozambiques. Here we are treated to some ripping, heavily-effected guitars to go along with a distinctively Latin/Caribbean poly-rhythmic spin on funk and rock, and, perhaps best of all, some compelling and soulful Spanish-inflected vocals that are quite unlike anything else in the Afro-Latin Diaspora. There’s a certain accent and timbral warmth in these vocal tones that seems unique to the region.

Papi Brandau Y Sus Ejecutivos’s “Viva Panama” offers up a taste of the accordion-driven cumbia that is the music of the nation’s interior, and it also features some fine vocals, in this case a mix of male and female voices with a definite country tinge.

The collection also opens up what might be a whole new direction worthy of exploration: Panamanian calypso and mento. Los Silvertones’s “Old Buzzard” is a smooth mento with sweet, skipping high-life horns, elegant vocals, and a little taste of charanga flute. And sung in a rasping, story-telling style over rippling string band accompaniment, Lord Cobra’s reading of the Calypso classic “Rocombey” is an attention-getting tale of love and Voodoo .

As musically engaging as Panama! is, its overall appeal is enhanced by excellent liner notes. Roberto Ernesto Gyemant does a fine job of setting up the cultural and musical contexts of the records he and label honcho Miles Cleret selected. Even better, he tells some good stories about his own connections and how his quest turned up some interesting sources, conveying with passion and honesty the way his own heart led him to the heart of this not-so-well-known music. For those seeking “new” sounds in vintage Afro-Latin music, Panama! might well be one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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