Mixtape Riot Menu

Invisible Man



posted by

(comments are closed)

1944 – 2008

Sad news: rocksteady great (and one of the finest crafters of reggae soul) Alton Ellis passed away recently. I was a late-comer to his magic but I’ve been beguiled by it ever since. His catalog is massive but I’ve always had an ear for his stuff from the late ’60s and early ’70s. Here’s three of my favorite. Jah bless.

Alton Ellis: I’m Still In Love With You
From I’m Still In Love With You (Trojan, 196?)

Alton Ellis: What Does It Take To Win Your Love
Alton Ellis: It’s Gonna Take a Miracle
From Sunday Coming (Trojan, 1970)



posted by

(comments are closed)

Someone recently wrote to ask: “You’ve eluded[sic] to a few of your [Latin music] favourites a couple of times, I was hoping you’d share more of your all time best with us.”

That seemed like a perfectly fair request so I set out to think how I’d approach answering it. For one thing, I’ve actually posted up a few of them over the years and I went back to a few old posts and reattached missing sound files. That will get you these three basic – but essential – Latin dance tunes:

•Joe Cuba: Bang Bang
•Ray Barretto: Acid
•Willie Colon: La Murga

As noted – these are basic insofar as they’re well-known but not having them in your crate is like professing a love for funk and having no James Brown.

I had also written about these next two songs in the past but by past, I mean as far back as four, even five years ago and I thought it was worth coming back to them here, just to refresh people’s memories.

Roberto Roena y su Apollo Sound: Que Se Sepa
From 5 (Fania, 1975)

Quite possibly my favorite Latin track ever. It’s such an amazing mix of styles here, opening with that fantastically funky rhythm before shifting into a stripped down rumba which then turns into an incredible guaguanco section. This is as pure a dancefloor track as you could wish for. Not surprisingly, of all of Roena’s many songs (and he has a ton), this is probably his best known by far.

Mauricio Smith: Viva Guajira
From Bitter Acid (Mainstream, 1967)

I’d put this up as one of the best produced Latin albums Joe Cain ever laid hands on (and that’s saying a lot given Cain’s track record). It’s not often you see a saxophonist heading up a Latin album but Mauricio Smith does excellent work here, especially on “Viva Guajira” which is one of the more upbeat and joyful guajiras you’re likely to lay ears on. The way this song opens – with the piano progression and antiphonal chicken-scratch guitars – never grows old for me.

Ok, onward to songs not previously spoken about…

Monguito Santamaria: Groovetime
From Hey Sister (Fania, 1968)

I’m genuinely amazed I never put this on Soul Sides before; must have been my oversight in thinking I already had. This was probably the song that got me interested in boogaloo and hence, Latin music writ large. It’s that bassline – it’d catch your attention in any genre – and the the swing and swagger of Monguito on here sells how deliciously groovy and funky the whole affair is. Monguito was Mongo’s son though he never came close to enjoying the same popularity. He could, at least, lay claim to being one of Fania’s best boogaloo artists during the era and the way he pulls “Groovetime” together suggests why.

One more boogaloo banger:

Orchestra Harlow: Freak Off
From El Exigente (Fania, 1967)

Larry Harlow has to be one of the most interesting players in the New York Latin scene. He was hardly the only Jewish player in the mix but he was the most visible bandleader and overall talent. Heck, his nickname was “El Judio Maravilloso,” (the marvelous Jew). Harlow’s catalog in the ’60s/’70s era runs deep but despite an impressive catalog of songs, you’d be hard pressed to find one more incredible than “Freak Off.” I was trying to think of boogaloo songs with this level of energy and outside of some of Ray Barretto’s material, I’m not sure there is one.

Fruko Y Sus Tesos: Confundido
From El Grande (Fuentes, 1975). Also on Grandes Exitos de Salsa Vol. 2

My fondness for Fruko’s Colombian take on salsa is well-known and there’s no way I could come up with a list of my favorite Latin tracks and not have him on here at least once. I cycle through which song of his I’m into the most at any given time and this isn’t necessarily the best song in terms of the vocals but for musical content, “Confundido” kills with that powerful, rolling piano riff that opens the song (that and the brass section which lights up the track too).

Pedro Miguel y sus Maracaibos: Descarga Maracaibo
From La Paila (Lider, 196?)

The last track I’ll include here is from one of the bigger names in Peruvian Latin music and while this more of a “listening” cut than something to blow up the dancefloor, I’m feeling how it begins with its folksy vocals that then give into this nimble guitar treatment that’s brisk without being overpowering. These days, this is the kind of Latin that I’ve found most appealing. Hope you do too.



posted by

(comments are closed)

I’ve been reading Jerry Wexler’s excellent, engrossing – but alas, out of print – autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues since I wanted to learn more about his life (catalyzed to do so by his death). Wexler talks about one of his protegés, Bert Berns, the songwriter and producer best known for his work with the Drifters, Van Morrison, Solomon Burke and a slew of others. One of the sources of Bern’s inspiration was Latin music and Wexler shares how some of Bern’s greatest hits, including the Isley Bros. “Twist and Shout” and “My Girl Sloopy” (better known as “Hang On Sloopy”) were all based on the chord progression Bern learned from the best known Cuban guajira of all time: “Guantanamera.”

Here’s the thing about guajiras: they’re a distinctly Cuban style, the term itself refers to a girl from the country and the sound of it is meant to invoke a kind of folksy, romantic and nostalgic mood. It can be a bit confusing though since guajira can refer to either a girl or the song style, therefore when some artists entitle their song, “Mi Guajira,” it’s not always obvious if they’re talking about “my girl” or talking about “my song.”

In any case, when I first started to research the boogaloo and its evolution out of the Afro-Cuban tradition, my mentors like Vinnie Esparza and Chris Veltri tried to explain that a boogaloo rhythm was, in essence, a variation on both cha-cha-chá and guajira and that’s absolutely true. If you listen to either cha-cha-chás or guajiras from earlier in the 1960s, it’s very easy to hear within them the basic structure of boogaloo rhythms as well. As a result, I’ve been a big fan of guajiras because they have that appealing sound I associate with boogaloo, primarily a strong, central montuno riff, often on piano.

What I couldn’t quite figure out though is what exactly separated cha-cha-chás from guajiras and as it was, I was recently hanging out with Joe Bataan and he broke it down (I’m paraphrasing): “the cha cha is upbeat and its usually played in a major key which makes them sound happy. Guajiras, on the other hand, tend to be a little slower but more importantly, the montuno is usually in a minor key, giving it a sadder sound. It’s like blues for Latin.” And suddenly, that totally made sense to me though, given my musicological ignorance, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to think about it in that way.

Back to “Guantanamera.” The basic chord progression here is a I-IV-V; an incredibly common progression that, once you pick up on it, you’ll begin to hear in countless songs, across many different genres. Mathematically, I’m sure there’s an explanation to why the I-IV-V is so pleasing to the ear (at least in a Western context) but it most certainly is part of what gives “Guantanamera” its distinctive melody.

The best known version of the song to most Americans is probably one of Celia Cruz’s versions, especially given her and Wyclef’s collabo from the ’90s. However, the song is attributed to Cuban songwriter Joseíto Fernández (who would have turned 100 this year), who supposedly originally wrote it back in the late ’20s.

Joseito Fernandez: Guajira Guantanamera
From 75 Years of Cuban Music (Pimienta, 2003)

In terms of evidence of how “Guantanamera” has returned through popular music, the examples are legion.

Richie Valens: La Bamba
From 7″ (Del-Fi, 1958). Also on The Very Best Of.

I can’t say this for certain but “La Bamba” was likely one of the earliest examples of a pop song interpolating the “Guantanamera” chord progression and with this massive hit by the young Richie Valens, songwriters were off to the races…

The Drifters: Sweets For My Sweet
From 7″ (Atlantic, 1961). Also on The Very Best Of.

The Isley Brothers: Twist and Shout
From 7″ (Wand, 1962). Also on The Definitive Collection.

The Vibrations: My Girl Sloopy
From 7″ (Atlantic, 1964). Also The Very Best Of.

This trio suggests how powerfully resonant that progression would become, sticking itself into some of the big pop hits of the time. “Sweets For My Sweet” wasn’t a huge song compared to some of the Drifters later material but “Twist and Shout” (originally recorded by the Top Notes in a version that few would likely recognize) would become gold in the hands of first the Isley Brothers and then, of course, The Beatles. (The song is credited to “Bert Russell” which was a nom de plume of Bert Berns).

As for “My Girl Sloopy,” the world knows it better as “Hang On Sloopy” by the McCoys but Berns brought the “Guantanamera” chords back again when he originally recorded the song for the Vibrations.

The Righteous Brothers: You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’
From 7″ (Philies, 1964). Also on Very Best Of

And hell, for good measure, Phil Spector built it into the bridge for one of the biggest pop hits of the 20th century, the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”

Bonus: Jack Costanzo: Guantanamera
From Viva Tirado (GNP, 1971)

The actual song itself has gone through countless versions – this one’s a personal favorite, off of Jack Costanzo’s excellent Viva Tirado album (feat. singer Gerri Woo). Costanzo, aka Mr. Bongo, gives the song a funkier feel but it’s still true to its Cuban roots all the same.



posted by

(comments are closed)

Soul II Soul: Back To Life (acapella mix)
From 12″ (Virgin, 1989)

Bonnie and Shelia: You Keep Me Hanging On
From 7″ (King, 1971). Also on New Orleans Funk Vol. 2.

Patti Drew: Stop and Listen
From Tell Him (Capitol, 1967). Also on Workin’ On a Groovy Thing.

Bobby Matos: Nadie Baila Como Yo
From My Latin Soul (Phillips, 1968)

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: If You Can Want
From Special Occasion (Motown, 1968)

Menahan Street Band: Home Again
From Make the Road By Walking (Dunham/Daptone, forthcoming 10/14/08)

Final Solution: I Don’t Care
From Brotherman soundtrack (Numero Group, 2008)

Freeway: Let the Beat Build freestyle
From ? (?, 2008)

Q-Tip: Gettin’ Up
From The Renaissance (Motown, forthcoming 2008)

Black Ivory:       You and I
From Don’t Turn Around (Today, 1972)

It’s the end of another summer, alas.

Looking back over the summer songs season, I wanted to do the last post on the songs that ended up forming my personal soundtrack the last few months. To be honest, I thought this list would be a lot longer than it ended up being but I wanted to keep it to songs that I kept returning to over and over rather than something I found merely “good.”

Soul II Soul’s acapella mix of “Back to Life” came at me three different ways: Murphy’s Law dropped it at Boogaloo[la] and reminded me how cotdamn fresh it was, Greg Tate’s Summer Songs post made me revisit the Soul II Soul catalog and I finally saw Belly which makes incredible use of the song to open the movie. Personally, I grew impatient to actually get to where the beat drops so I edited my version down to about a 30 second teaser before the “Impeach the President” drums kick in. As ML showed me, it’s always a fun cut to play out.

The Bonnie and Sheila, I have to admit, I learned about first through a quirky youtube video[1] and I wondered how the hell I didn’t know about this earlier. Great little slice of New Orleans funk produced by the great Wardell Quezergue and released on King (the Cincinnati label most associated with James Brown). Words are insufficient to explain to you how much I love this song.

The Patti Drew I owe to Chairman Mao. When I interviewed him for Asia Pacific Arts, he mentioned “Stop and Listen” as an example of a great soul tune that doesn’t cost and arm and a leg yet sounds like a million bucks (not his exact words but you catch the meaning). I couldn’t agree more. Don’t sleep on the equally excellent ballad, “Tell Him” on the same album.

I had totally forgotten about the Bobby Matos and Combo Conquistadores song, “Nadie Baila Como Yo” (nobody dances like me) off the incredible My Latin Soul album until I heard the Boogaloo Assassins play it at their shows. This may very well elevate itself to my top 10 Latin soul songs given how it changes up chord progressions and tepos not once but twice – it’s like getting three songs in one; one of the marks of a superior son montuno. I can’t believe I slept on this track all these years.

I found the Smokey Robinson and Miracles song during my search through Motown’s catalog to find tracks to play out that wasn’t part of their Big Chill/Greatest Hits collection and I never failed to be amazed at the generosity of greatness that Motown provided over the years. For those who think Smokey is all droopy ballads, “If You Can Want” is a loud, proud wake-up call of funky power. How has no one ever done a 12″ edit of this?

I already wrote about the Menahan Street Band and Brotherman songs already but they’re so nice, I had to list ’em twice.

Freeway’s freestyle over “Let the Beat Build” goes well with my official, beginning of the summer post where I nodded at Lil Wayne’s original. Free, who had one of the best albums of last year that few seemed to notice, murders over Kanye’s beat here. After, uh, a million subpar “A Milli” freestyles, I was happy to hear someone pick a different track to rip.

The last song is one I should have started the summer with. Late pass. Q-Tip’s had a rough, um, decade so far in terms of being able to get this music to the masses but I’m hoping “Gettin’ Up” does it right for him in preparation for his Renaissance album. This is, by far, the best thing I’ve hea
rd from ‘Tip since this and without getting all misty-eyed for my halcyon teens and 20s, listening to Tribe, this song just f—ing sounds good in the way the best Tribe songs just sounded f—ing good. (No doubt, it helps that the sample source is also f—ng good: “You and I” by Black Ivory. Read more here.).

By the way, if I had to pick my absolute favorite song of the summer…surprisingly, it’d end up being Solange Knowles’ “I Decided.” Don’t ask me why but this has stuck with me the entire time through without ever ceasing to be pleasurable.

And with that…I bid all you adieu until next May but hope you keep the memory of summer in your mind alive until then.[2]

[1] Don’t laugh – he dances better than you.

[2] Unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere.



posted by

(comments are closed)

Lou Perez and His NY Sound: Caribbean Woman
From S/T (Parnaso, 1972)

Lou Perez y su Orquesta Barrio: Antillana
From Barrio (Parnaso, 1972)

I always find it interesting when artists cover their own songs. It’s hardly an unusual practice but you sometimes wonder how much of it is dissatisfaction with the original version and how much of it is trying to capitalize on an already successful song by flipping a variation on it.

The Lou Perez, to me, is especially notable since, from far as I can tell, these two songs are probably, at most, a year or so apart. “Caribbean Woman” has been a favorite at Boogaloo[la] – dancers seem to dig its combo of Latin rock/funk rhythms with that whiff of island flavor. It’s always reminded me something that Santana’s cousin might have whipped together – not deep but sweetly satisfying.

When I picked up Perez’s Barrio LP, I was surprised to hear him, in essence, remake the song in a charanga style. That means here a faster tempo, a strong acoustic piano montuno and most charanga-ish, the string accompaniment. That plus he flips the lyrics into español.

I’ve never had a chance to play out both songs to a Latin-friendly crowd but I’d be mightily curious to see which of the two goes over better.

Unfortunately, Perez passed away just a few years ago at the age of 78. He wasn’t a household name to casual Latin fans even though his career was rich and long-lasting, having risen with the charanga fad of early 1960s not to mention a prolific songwriter to boot.