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V/A - Palenque Palenque: Champeta Criolla & Afro Roots in Colombia 1975-91

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Artist: V/A

Album: Palenque Palenque: Champeta Criolla & Afro Roots in Colombia 1975-91

Label: Soundway

Review date: Jul. 22, 2010

Erasing ignorance can be bliss, especially if it’s accompanied by the discovery of a hitherto untapped source of musical delight. Who knew that in the mid-1970s, a quarter century before the world Afrobeat revival picked up steam, musicians were cutting the stuff to considerable acclaim in Colombia’s coastal cities? No one outside South America, that’s for sure, except for the African record distributors who helped fuel the craze. Colombia’s links to Africa stretch back much further. The port city of Cartagena was a major terminal for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and waves of runaway slaves made their way to palenques, fortified free cities on the country’s Pacific coast, whose population to this day is 90 percent African-descended.

In the 1950s, sound systems, similar to those in Jamaica, called picós became a fixture of social life in cities like Baranquilla and Cartagena. Alongside local sounds, they played music from elsewhere in the Caribbean and Africa. Picós competed to secure African records by the likes of Fela Kuti and Orchestre Polyrythmo De Cotonou, steam their labels off, and use these exclusive songs as bait to lure audiences. As in Jamaica, demand for hot new tunes out-stripped supply and local musicians stepped into the breach. The Palenque Palenque compilation is a primer on that homegrown music, which was named Champeta after the knives wielded by the working-class people who fought and danced to it. In typical Soundway fashion, it was assembled by a life-long fan — C olombian crate-digger Lucas Da Silva. And per usual, the packaging and annotation are treats for the eyes and brain; the 32-page booklet includes vintage band photos, record sleeve images and colorful contextualized essays.

But the real treat is the record. Twenty-one songs strong, it’s a summer party soundtrack as well an introductory education. The 15 Champeta musicians included on this set had their ears to the ground, picking up not only African sounds but also those of the rest of the Caribbean, as well as more northerly funk and rock influences. The music is undeniably African throughout; there’s the Fela-like interlock of chanted patois, stuttering guitar and honking sax on Cassimbas Negras’ “Bumburumbumbum”; the lilting guitars, rubbery bass and high-pitched backing vocals of Abelardo Carbonó’s “Palenque”; and the surging hand drumming on Cumbia Sigo XX’s “Naga Pedale.” It’s also designed to keep the energy high; if you aren’t galvanized by the snarl that kicks off Wganda Kenya’s “Pim Pom,” you really should have the nurse cut back on the narcotics in your drip bag.

But it doesn’t deny its Latin roots either; Carbonó’s “Quiero a Mi Gente’s” chicken-scratching guitars ride a manically clip-clopping cumbia groove, and the squelchy keyboards and layered bongo beats that punctuate Los Soneros de Gamero’s tersely barked vocals speak the lingua franca of tropical disco at the same time that the heavily echoed horns sing the siren song of the Kalakuta Republic. And the Donald Duck-voiced commentary that Carbonó (when will this guy get his own set?) drops into “La Negre Kulengue” shows that he grasps the same lesson as Arthur Russell, Lee Perry and Jordy: You can get away with all sorts of ridiculous shit so long as you take care of the beats. Great stuff.

By Bill Meyer

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