Nunca Tarde – Album round-up (Irakere, Ëda Diaz, Maria Rita, Fer Franco and more)

By 04 March, 2024

Not as many as usual for you this month, which isn’t to suggest a paucity of good new music, but more perhaps that I am getting on top of things – for once in my life. Or… maybe I should be making this a bi-monthly column. Answers please on a postcard.

Grupo Irakere: Teatro Amadeo Roldan Recital (Mr. Bongo)

Last month, I flagged up Grupo Irakere’s eponymous 1976 album. Following hard on its heels, Mr. Bongo have now reissued the group’s debut album from two years previously as the third instalment of their new Cuban Classics series. It’s raw, rambunctious and a little rough around the edges, as befitting a debut and as exemplified by the semi-legendary opener, “Bacalao Con Pan”. It’s followed by the strange “Danza Ñañiga”, which sounds more like a Swamp Dogg production for an obscure southern soul label than the kind of thing we have come to associate with the island’s premier Afro-Cuban jazz outfit. But then they hit their stride with tracks like “Taka Taka Ta” and the percussion-laden “Misaluba” to show just why Irakere were destined for such big things.

Ëda Diaz: Suave Bruta (Airfono)

Here’s another worthy debut, this one from a young Franco-Colombian singer and classically trained pianist who found solace and experienced a kind of epiphany in taking up the double bass. “Without it I might not have devoted my life to music,” she confesses. Perhaps it was synonymous with all the Cuban tumbaos on which she was raised in the family home in Medellín. Quite apart from the electronic experimentation and production tricks, there’s a whole lot going on and a whole welter of influences (she takes her album title, for example, from a Joe Arroyo classic) in these 11 multifarious tracks, including a sample from the great Colombian big band leader, Lucho Bermudez. Despite Diaz’s lovely vocals, I confess that it has taken me a while to get into it. As a champion of the human touch rather than that of the machine, I was unsettled perhaps by the staccato electronic rhythms. I see now, though, just what an exciting and original talent this artist is. There’s something about Björk at her wackiest in Suave Bruta and the publicist’s description of the music as “haute-couture pop” is spot-on.

Various Artists: Merengue Típico: Nueva Generación (Bongo Joe Records)

This rousing compilation of exuberant accordion-rich meringue was assembled by Xavier Daive, or Funky Bompa as he’s known to his associates, for the way-out wacky Swiss label. The Belgian vinyl hunter rifled the crates of post-Trujillo-era Dominican Republic for 7” gems from the ‘60s and ‘70s representing a golden era of meringue típico. The genre has a long and distinguished history and listening to these traditional-sounding 10 cuts, one can’t help but feel the connection with, say, Colombian vallenato music, to which Ëda Diaz’s grandmother would probably have introduced her. It’s exhilarating good-time music that tends to coalesce (upliftingly), so it’s not easy to pick out individual highlights – suffice to mention the first single from the compilation, Fefita La Grande’s “Caña Brava”. Unusually in a world dominated by male lead instrumentalists, she was a pioneering female accordionist – who is still performing today as an octogenarian, now calling herself La Mayimba.

Sergio Krakowski Trio & Jards Macalé: Mascarada: Zé Keti (Rocinante)

Jards Macalé has got one of those voices – a little like Leonard Cohen’s perhaps. I came to embrace the Candadian crooner’s during his post-bankruptcy renaissance, but I still struggle with this legendary Brazilian’s. To these ears, he sounds like someone getting over a bad bout of flu. As a result, this rather extraordinary album, which came out back in January, is not what you might call easy listening. It’s a tribute to a samba master, but is very much a jazz album – and leaning towards avant-garde jazz at that. The 11-minute title track, for example, is an instrumental woven around very brief snippets of the melody Kéti composed in 1964 with Elton Medeiros. The brainchild for the collaboration was guitarist Todd Neufeld’s, one third of the New York-founded trio along with pianist Vitor Gonꞔalves and master percussionist Sergio Krakowski. Apparently, they had been experimenting with samba when the guitarist threw in the idea of doing the tribute album with the veteran songster. Jards had a history of avant-garde dealings and had met the sambista right at the beginning of his own career. Krakowski explains, “What unites Jards and the trio is the reverence for silence. The implied more than the explicit.” I concur, but even so would file this under “interesting”.

Maria Rita: Brasileira (Mr. Bongo)

Here’s another interesting release, but without any of the challenging subtext. It’s an album that first saw the light of day in 1988, yet sounds remarkably contemporary with its fusion of New Age electronics, Afro-Brazilian rhythms and the singer’s clean, confident vocals – which cut powerfully through the Amazonian rhythms of “Cântico Brasileiro No.3 (Kamaiurá)” and resonate brightly accompanied only by some shimmering percussion in the lovely “Lamento Africa/Rictus”. It’s a voice that dominates and leaves a lasting impression in the same way that Virginia Rodrigues’s did on her startling 1997 debut, Sol Negro. Not to be confused with Maria Rita, daughter of Elis Regina and successful singer in her own right, I can’t tell you what became of the famous one’s namesake, but if nothing else she gave us a texturally rich, diverse and quietly remarkable album to explore.

Fer Franco: Ritos de Paso (Independent)

Which just leaves us this new electronic album from Mexico City courtesy of a Guatemalan artist and producer by the name of Fer Franco. The fact that he enlisted the support of fellow Guatemalan Mabe Fratti and Hector Tosta, both of the estimable Titanic fame, pricked my interest, even if this brand of heavy techno/electronic music with a twist of kraut-rock thrown in for good measure isn’t really my cup of herbal tea. It has plenty of moments, though, such as the atmospherically charged “Eliminar Lo Innecesario” and “Tu Señal”, whose robotic rhythm incongruously underpins the deliciously sweet vocal of Mabe Fratti.

See you in a month – or two, depending on the postcard response.

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