Thirty-three for thirty-three, pt. 3 (22 – 19)

22. Abelardo Carbonó y Su Conjunto, “Palenque,” s/t, Producciones Fonograficos Felito, 1982 (Colombia)

I’m generally reluctant to use a marketing term like “tropical” to describe music. It risks the sin of exotcizing that has justifiably relegated mountains of once poshly issued RCA and Philips ethnographica to the mildewed corners of warehouse book stores. The mostly white run, European and North American reissue labels I track for leads on international music occasionally scatter tropical pudding adjectives for silly product taglines.* “Soul-fueled stompers from…” “Astro-Atlantic hypnotica from…” “Cosmic Arab Disco and Searing Dancefloor Bangers…” – actual titles composed as if from a magnet poetry set of African diasporic music descriptors. But here, I’m going to write against my critical instinct.

“Palenque,” Abelardo Carbonó’s buoyant ode to San Basilio de Palenque, the first officially recognized community of free African slaves in the Americas, is supremely tropical. The song is tropical, not in the sense of mid-century marketing exotica, but rather because it engages with the Caribbean and African heritage of Colombia’s northern coast. Guaguancó filtered through soukous guitar. Fela’s Afrobeat and Cuban son refried with currulao and vallenato percussion and breezy psychedelia. Cumbia punctuated by the piercing, crystal clear guitars and the group vocals of classic Hatian compas. Carbonó’s compositions contain traces of diverse stylistic influences, while maintaining a wonky, readily recognizable individuality. His work is like a leftfield, more costeño, cousin to Fruko’s constellation of Afro-Colombian projects out of Discos Fuentes (see Wganda Kenya’s first album, in particular). “Palenque” speaks to several African, Caribbean and Afro-Latin music genres, but only distantly. It is without obvious genre, broadly tropical. As a deejay who attempts to program diverse music, songs like this are pivot points, able to connect many styles, as I’m sure the Picoteros in Colombia know well.

The song’s form is simple. “Palenque” starts when it starts and ends when it fades without much contrived structuring, more like a living glimpse than a dead statement. The progression is four measures of three major chords, G, D, A, D – a progression familiar in highlife or soukous. There is one verse, repeated twice, and a chorus that isn’t more than “Palenque, Palenque” repeated. At the beginning of the verse and in the chorus, the voice is double an octave above. The octave voice is dropped in the second half of the verse, creating a feeling of intimacy with the lone singer as well as a simple timbral variation to break the song’s repetitiveness. The lead guitar arpeggiates the chords of the progression, but there is no guitar solo, no slide freakout as in “Muevela” or “Quiero A Mi Gente.” Jafeth Carbonó’s bass doesn’t waver substantially from its pattern. There is no novel interlude to break up the repetition of the verse. Without ornamentation, asides or departures from the looping percussion, bass, guitar and voices, what remains is pure, unpretentious Afro-Colombian pop.

Even after dozens of close listens (which is not the intended audience experience of this song), I can only make out some of the lyrics in “Palenque,” not enough to force me to reassess the song. The octave voice and the reverb don’t help to clarify, and I believe, if anything, that a self-exoticizing degree of lyrical obscurity is intentional. Elsewhere with Grupo Abharca, Carbonó had obscured lyrics by singing verses composed from a Wayuu dictionary. But this inaccessibility is tongue-in-cheek. It is not elitist. It becomes an invitation to participate.  

*One day, I’ll apply scientific rigor to examine this marketing trend.

Side AA: Vashti Bunyan, “Just Another Diamond Day”

21. Donald Byrd, “Places and Spaces,” Places and Spaces, Blue Note, 1975, USA

Behold the feel good party jam of 1975, 2075, 3075, of every seventy-five. Rejoice, for we are human beings alive on the Blue Planet. Donald Byrd’s “Places and Spaces” is a direct injection of pure hope, hope that there are new places to discover or an old place to rediscover where people are doing the right thing. Unlike most summer jams, “Places and Spaces” is not a young song. It’s perspective is that of an experienced man, who has “had a lot of women, seen a lot of land” before coming to understand that life is a renewable fountain.

As with much of what Larry and Fonce Mizell touched in the 70s, Places and Spaces should be considered a Mizell production first and a whoever-the-bandleader-is project second. The Mizell brothers wrote, arranged, performed on and sang most of the album. And that isn’t to diminish Byrd’s contributions; he was Fonce’s teacher at Howard and the nexus of a generation of younger jazz musicians who worked with the brothers. Like the Ravel of jazz-funk, Larry Mizell delivers a plush, soaring arrangement, launching a song that is structurally only two riffs into the stratosphere. What happens to your face when the bass and strings first come in? Go ahead and listen to it again. The funk band rhythm section – drums, bass, guitar – remains the anchor as voices, keys and what I believe is a penny whistle played with bonkers vibrato complement the strings arrangement. Credit the Sound Factory recording and mixing engineers for the crisp and mud-free recording.

Byrd’s hummingbird trumpet is integrated with the arrangement as the soul above it all. It doesn’t appear for more than a minute and acts as an understated counterpoint, dancing around the strings. We are a far cry from the small combo, head-solo-solo-head, format prominent in Byrd’s early recordings with Blue Note. Byrd and the Mizells are taking their cues from the symphonic R&B arrangements that Fonce helped to produce for Barry Gordy earlier in the decade. “Places and Spaces” is the adult “I Want You Back.”

The main riff (C#, D#, G#), over which “place and spaces out there” is sung, is major key, uplifting. The counter riff is a gritty inversion of the primary riff centered around a D#m chord. In this second section, we get the street lyrics with hints of prostitutes, drugs and perhaps a bit of world weariness: “Down on the westside / Where all the girls hide / All you have to do is decide / What you gonna buy? / Sliding toward the east coast / The very steep coast / People getting high.” If the revelry has a sinister, exploitative shade in this section, all that is swept away as the main riff returns and hope is renewed. Later in the song, the two riffs are combined for the outro and the cycle of grit and renewal, grit and renewal is compressed. We leave with a life lesson in hand, “had a lot of women, seen a lot of land, takes a little while, then you understand.”

Side AA: John Coltrane, “Selflessness”

20. Candi Stanton, “Young Hearts Run Free,” Young Hearts Run Free, Warner Bros., 1976, USA  

Candi Stanton’s “Young Hearts Run Free” is the single most convincing vocal performance of the modern soul and disco era. Without a doubt, Dave Crawford’s lyrics and accompaniment and Sylvester River’s arrangement are all top notch in an of-its-time way and foundational to the song’s success, but Stanton’s devastating performance elevates the song above its peer disco anthems. I am convinced to my core that she has emotional empathy with the lyrics, and was convinced before I learned that Stanton had been married and divorced twice with five children by 1976. Stanton uses every millimeter of the compressed dynamic range available to a vocalist on a disco hit to lead us through the song’s narrative of disappointed love and faltering self-empowerment,  turning each phrase into a musical shot at the unobtainable release from her bad relationship. If you didn’t know, this is what Soul is, an expression against freedom disappointed. 

“Young Hearts” deals with the hard compromises of family economics, especially compromises that mothers are often forced to make, in a manner uncommon to disco. (And I am not of the opinion that disco categorically lacks emotional and philosophical heft.) Self-empowerment is a common theme. Consider Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out,” Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” or The Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive.” Each of those performances is stuck on one emotional register; limited by the lyrics or the vocalist’s empathy, none are as convincing as Stanton’s. “Young Hearts” deflates self-empowerment. It upends the American infatuation with hustling, and reaches into an emotional gray area comparable to somewhere Nina Simone’s best songs go. 

The hook is anti-anthemic. It lingers in your head like a pop hook should, but is made ironic by the qualifying “never be hung up, hung up like my man and me.” The hook is sadder, more muted than the “just can’t break away” pre-chorus, where the lyrics proclaim failure in contrast to the music’s heightened, grasping energy. In the pre-chorus, the melody becomes staccato, rises, horns pound the rhythm where, in the first verse, they had only played a fill between lines. A backing choir joins Stanton, echoing “just can’t break away” like the ghosts of every missed opportunity she’s left behind. The brief drama of the pre-chorus makes the deflation of the chorus that much more wrenching, and in retrospect with each repetition, inevitable. The second verse picks up the theme of the chorus, encouraging happiness through self-preservation and self-knowledge. But the release sought in the second verse never occurs. Unable to fulfill her own self-empowered happiness, Stanton passes on a life lesson – focus on yourself before a lover convinces you they are worth compromising over. Even that advice contains a shadow of futility if the co-existence of love and freedom is the sole purview of foolish youth.

Side AA: Nina Simone, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”

19. Fela Kuti & Egypt ’80, “Beasts of No Nation,” Beasts of No Nation, Kalakuta Records, 1989, Nigeria

“Beasts of No Nation” was Fela Kuti’s first record after two years imprisonment stemming from a bogus 1984 currency smuggling charge. The side-long, twenty-eight minute recording is a massive, multi-fronted fuck you to the international world order propping itself up through the perceived authority of The Disunited Nations. It’s a fuck you to world leaders who cash in on military conflict, who posture liberalism while legalizing white supremacy, who criticize Apartheid while violently suppressing dissent in their own country. Perhaps with time to reflect as the 1980s burned away and with the increasing stakes of his own political presence following the murder of his mother during the destruction of the Kalakuta Republic compound in 1977, and the undermined Movement Of The People presidential bid 1979, Fela decided to aim big with “Beasts.”

Fela was aware of his role as a voice of the people, a voice of popular dissent. People want a comment on his time inside prison? Look at the “craze” human society under Muhammadu Buhari’s rule outside the prison walls, run by corrupt police and soldiers who kill student protesters in Ile-Ife and Zaria, run by magistrates and judges who convict to curry favor with the regime. He responded to imprisonment not by being silenced, but by further elevating the stakes of his lyrics, targeting the international ruling class. “Basket mouth wan start to leak again.”

Fela Kuti was brilliant at balancing scope and specificity in his lyrics. Consider “Expensive Shit,” which sets a wider criticism of the Nigerian military dictatorship in a story where he swallows a planted joint during an arrest and trades feces with a fellow inmate to avoid prosecution. Or “International Thief Thief,” where Kuti extends a dispute with Decca label owner and I.T.T. executive Moshood Abiola to criticize African sellouts to white slavers and colonialists. Similarly, in “Beasts of No Nation,” he weaponizes South African Prime Minister P.K. Botha’s own infamous response to anti-Apartheid protests, “This uprising will bring out the beast in us,” to undermine Botha’s authority as a world leader, and furthermore to deny Botha’s own humanity. If Botha wants to be an animal, Fela Kuti will take him at his word. Before Fela quotes the origin of the animals-in-human-skin metaphor, he applies it to Nigerian government leaders and the leaders meeting as The Disunited Nations: “many leaders as you see them […] / animal in human skin / animal in putu tie-oo / animal in wear agbada / animal in putu suit-oo.” Reagan, Thatcher, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and the keenly mocked “East West Bloc vs. West Bloc East,” are all targeted. 

Fela’s simultaneaous evisceration of Botha’s Apartheid regime and the neo-liberal globalists who continued to accommodate it during the Cold War is the emotional and philosophical crux of the song. His voice swerves off key and breaks in mockery when delivering Botha’s, “This uprising will bring out the beast in us.” He rejects Botha, Thatcher, Reagan and their U.N. pals presumption to “dash [give, gift] us human rights.” As beasts, these “animal can’t dash us human rights.” For human rights are not property to be granted and traded, especially not by those who deny the continued slave trade. And if human rights were property, animals would certainly have no command over them.

“Beasts of No Nation” contains some of Fela’s best horn writing behind the muscle of six saxophones (including two baritone saxes). After years and dozens of listens, I still find the interlocked saxes and trumpets on the outro to be absolutely thrilling. The first, largely instrumental, half features excellent solos by Soji Odukogbe on guitar and Yinusa Akiniobosun on tenor sax. The large backing choirs and ensembles used in Africa ’70 and Egypt ’80 recordings underscore the vox populi status Fela responds to at the beginning of the song. These are all live studio recordings without overdubs. They still feel public and participatory.

Side AA: Mos Def, “Mathematics”

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