Croatian salsa, Cuban ska, and Oregonian mambo!?!? These are three of the unlikely gems listeners will find on Afro-Latin Party. What started out as an effort to provide the perfect soundtrack to a Latin dance party became a tribute to the global appreciation and realization of the musical ricochet between Cuba and Africa.
Central to the Afro-Latin phenomenon is Africando, who provide three songs on Afro-Latin Party, each with a different African lead singer. In the 1960s and 1970s, the biggest names in African music—including such heavyweights as Youssou N’Dour and Salif Keita—were performing Latin music, thanks to vinyl that came over from abroad. Cultural exchange between Cuba and the socialist governments in Mali and other parts of West Africa was a regular phenomenon. Performers like the Fania All Stars and Celia Cruz toured Africa and became musical icons.
In 1992, legendary Africando founders Ibrahim Sylla and Boncana Maïga traveled to New York to record with top local salsa musicians, many who were taken by surprise by these Africans performing their phonetically learned Spanish lyrics. Interestingly, many of the band members on the three Africando tracks here, also play on other tracks on Afro-Latin Party.
“I once asked [Putumayo founder] Dan Storper, ‘If you could sign any band in the world ever, who would you sign?’” says album producer and VP of A&R Jacob Edgar. “He said Bob Marley and thought for a moment, and then said Africando.” The band, which uses a revolving roster of African singers, “takes these two separate worlds, and adds something to the style, in the way they sing and the way they arrange, that is so magical. It is almost better than the sum of these two powerful musical elements,” adds Edgar.
It is not surprising to find Nuyorican José Mangual Jr. on the collection. His song, “Ritmo con Aché” celebrates the African roots in Latino culture, referring to the West African Yoruba word, aché—a divine life force from the santería religion, which blends West African spirituality and Catholicism. In 1968, Mangual joined forces with Willie Colón and Hector Lavoe to record some of the most influential salsa albums of all time. Nor is it a shock to hear Chico Álvarez on the set. He’s probably best known for his highly respected New World Gallery program on WBAI radio in New York. Here he sings “Cógele el Gusto,” a song made popular by Celia Cruz in the early 1960s. It was also one of the earliest tracks to use the word salsa to describe Afro-Cuban dance music. This track was first released in 1981 on SAR, the same label that has put out much Afro-Latin music.
Things get interesting when Ska Cubano’s “Babalu”—another tribute to santería—rings through the sound system. Ska Cubano exists as if Cuba never closed its doors to the rest of the Caribbean in 1959. Before that, styles like Trinidadian calypso maintained great popularity in Cuba. With old school Cuban players and a young, stylish ska singer from South London, this band is sure to make waves as Americans hear more from them in the future.
Cubismo—whose presence on this album confirms the global reach of Afro-Latin music—is not only Croatia’s best salsa band, they pride themselves on being able to compete with the hottest groups out of New York or Havana. Jacob Edgar came across the band in his pre-producer days as a music journalist, when he wrote them up for world music mag The Beat, a review that Cubismo later quoted in their own liner notes.
Portland, Oregon’s Pepe and the Bottle Blondes—who are led by a former singer from Pink Martini—deck themselves out with an updated 1950s kitsch mambo delivery. “Cuéntame Que Te Pasó” is a taste from their self-released debut album Latenight Betty. Also from the west coast is Congo-born Ricardo Lemvo, who is equally at home singing in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Lingala, and Kikongo. The CD is rounded out with a salsified Martinique classic, first recorded by Rasta banjo player Kali, but performed here by Martinique-born, Paris-based zouk-super-producer Ronald Rubinel.