Afia Mala & Orquesta Aragon - African Rumba
Afiwavi Mawaulana Missohou, who goes by the name Afia Mala, was born a member of two royal families in her native Togo. Music was her calling from a young age, and she released her first album in 1979. One of her country’s best-known musical stars, Mala has explored many genres of music over her long career from African soukous and Caribbean zouk to American soul and folk.
Most recently, Mala has focused on her passion for Latin music, teaming up with the legendary Cuban group, Orquesta Aragon, to produce the 2008 album Afia a Cuba. Founded in 1939, Orquesta Aragon has long been the standard-setter for the charanga format, which unites the elegant sounds of violins and flute with swinging Afro-Cuban percussion.
Recorded at Havana’s Egrem studios and featuring a number of guest stars, the album reunites Cuba and Africa yet again, this time with the added elegance of the charanga’s flutes and violins. Sung in the Togolese language Mina and Spanish, “Lonlon Vanvan” grooves from start to finish.
Every year, millions of people travel to Mexico. Many head to the tourist resorts and beautiful beaches of Playa del Carmen or Puerto Vallarta. Others trek to the highlands of Oaxaca and Chiapas, where for centuries impassable forests have shielded indigenous cultures from total assimilation. Millions more venture into the urban sprawl of Mexico City to experience its exceptional museums and other cultural treasures. Many wind their way down the Baja California, enjoying the arid isolation and astonishing vistas of the Pacific. The Mexican landscape varies from dusty desert dotted with cacti to tropical rainforests overflowing with flora and fauna.
Mexican culture is as diverse as its landscape. Its roots stretch back thousands of years to the Aztec, Maya, Zapotec and other Native American empires. Echoes of these indigenous cultures still resound loudly in the modern setting, informing all cultural expressions including language, food, art, architecture and, of course, music. While the Spanish imposed their language, culture and religion on the local populations, the result of 500 years of cross-cultural fusion is a remarkable blend of European and Native American culture, with elements of African influence sprinkled along the Gulf and Pacific coasts.
The music of Mexico reflects this fusion, and has added layers of other influences on top of it, from the lively beat of German polka to the suave ballads of Cuban bolero. The style of Mexican music best-known outside of the country is mariachi, the string and brass ensembles whose bouncy rhythms and dramatic melodies have turned up in countless films and television shows. Unfortunately, the ubiquitousness of mariachi, and the recognizable style of tight charro suits, lofty sombreros and overtly emotional vocals has led to stereotypes about Mexican music. While mariachi is indeed an important part of Mexican musical culture, it is just one aspect of a scene that also includes rhythmic harps of Veracruz, peppy accordion riffs of norteño and poetic ballads of Oaxaca sung in indigenous languages, among others. There are also scores of contemporary artists who have made a conscious effort to explore their roots and offer new interpretations of traditional themes.
The most pervasive musical form in Mexico is called son, but it is quite different from its Cuban counterpart. There are many regional variations of son. Each has its own unique repertoire, rhythmic and melodic structure and instrumentation. The best-known son style is son jaliscience, from the southwestern state of Jalisco, which is the music the original mariachi bands used to play. Also popular is son jarocho, from the state of Veracruz on the Gulf coast. Son jarocho is notable for its African influence as well as being the source of one of the most popular Mexican songs of all time. “La Bamba” is a traditional son jarocho that Richie Valens and subsequently Los Lobos turned into international hit pop songs. Son huasteco, from the Huasteca region, is a vibrant and danceable style that features elaborate violin parts and soaring falsetto vocals.
Other popular Mexican music styles are ranchera, corrido, and norteño. The word ranchera derives from the word rancho, or ranch, and although it developed in an urban setting, ranchera is based on themes of rural Mexican life. The corrido is a ballad form that developed in the 19th century and remains relatively popular to this day. The expansive lyrics of corridos tell detailed historical narratives or relate tales of legendary folk figures such as Pancho Villa. Known north of the border as Tex-Mex, norteño is accordion-led music that developed in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. European rhythms such as the polka, waltz and mazurka were adapted to create this style that is now popular throughout Mexico and among Mexican communities in the US. The lyrics are very down-to-earth, dealing with everyday people and scoundrels, and themes such as lost love, tragedy, defiance and immigration. Styles that have recently become popular in Mexico are banda, cumbia and Mexican rock.