Panama! 3: Calypso Panameño, Guajira Jazz & Cumbia Típica on the Isthmus 1960-75
The narrow waist of the Americas (as Pablo Neruda once put it) was a major transshipment point between the Atlantic and Pacific long before the Panama Canal's construction claimed the lives of thousands of black English-speaking Caribbean immigrant laborers in the early twentieth century. The presence of U.S. military forces and contractors, overseas radio broadcasting, international touring bands, imported recordings, foreign films, the constant migratory flow, and local ethnic and linguistic diversity made for a unique and vibrant popular music culture.
While much music has gone undocumented, plenty more mid-twentieth-century vinyl has been lost to tropical moisture, mold, dust, needle wear, neglect, technological change, and heedless discard. Of course, as an endless tsunami of shoddy reissues from Cuba to West Africa painfully confirms, any sham can stroll into a developing country recording vault and slap together a gushing, half-witted compilation destined rapidly to disappear into the second-hand dustbins.
A stellar exception is Soundway Records, which recently issued its third Panamanian volume from the 1960s and '70s, a reminder that this global crossroads has long nourished a vibrant musical culture in a society that, while open to all and sundry, sustains a unique sonic legacy. Hence, researcher Roberto Ernesto Gyemant's dogged dedication to salvaging and documenting the extraordinary Panamanian sounds of the period is all the more revelatory. This CD set reveals the dynamic character and openness to influences far and wide that give Panamanian popular music its distinctive character. The traces are all here, from Afro-Cuban folklore, Latin jazz, calypso, and cumbia, to North American jazz, funk, blues, and soul.
Something of the jubilant character of the music also inheres in the band names: Sir Jablonsky, Los Silvertones, Los Exagerados, Bush y Sus Magnificos (no relation to the disgraced U.S. political dynasty), Exciters, Freddy y Sus Afro Latinos, Lord Cobra and Pana-Afro-Sounds, Los Dinamicos, Papi Brandao y Sus Ejecutivos, The Soul Fantastics, Tamborito Swing, Los Mozambiques, and Los Revolucionarios, among many others.
On Volume 3, Cuban composer Guillermo Rodríguez Fiffe's familiar "Bilongo" is a swaying descarga with a tinny cumbia guitar by Papi Brandao y Sus Ejecutivos. Also in an Afro-Colombian vein, "El pajaro Zum-Zum" presents the accordion strains commonly associated with Panama's southern neighbor, a reminder that the country was a province of Colombia before the United States intervened to secure control of the terrain that yielded the Panama Canal. On "Moving-Grooving," Little Francisco Greaves conjures up the hovering spirit of James Brown, on a pounding rock-solid drums 'n' bass, handclap-grunt-and-scream foundation worthy of the Godfather of Soul. By the Silvertones, "Up Tight" is romping echo-chamber Latin boogaloo and soul with a dash of Gershwin (a la "Summertime") and a hint of Beny Moré-they don't make them like this anymore. Extending that now-rare groove, Orquesta Los Embajadores serves up "Shingalin en Panamá," 1967 Latin shing-a-ling like it was never heard in Spanish Harlem. Ralph Weeks and the Telecasters rework the Roger Graham-Don Peyton-Spencer Williams chestnut "I Ain't Got Nobody" (which received any number of boogaloo treatments in 1960s New York) into a descarga cum guajira titled, naturally, "Gua-Jazz." "Masters Are Gone," by Sir Valentino con Combo Esclavos Alegres ("The Happy Slaves Combo," ironically named), is a haunting minor-key string-band calypso with a hint of reggae and a shout out to Martin Luther King-an anthem of black cultural endurance.
In "Chombo pa' la tienda," by Soul Apollo and Frederick Clarke, the stereotypical chombo figure (local slang for black immigrant laborers from the English-speaking Caribbean) is sent to the store with his ill-tempered mother's call-and-response shopping list, enumerated in rapid-fire English patois, faithfully repeated to the Chinese shopkeeper in street Spanish. Back home, the black-humorous climax comes when Chombo attempts to withhold the change from his tipsy mother with a diversionary tale about how the boys on the street all ridicule her abusive alcoholic ways. Panama! 3 offers all this and more, in the unsentimental spirit of a place where, if nothing comes easy, nothing escapes the ribald optimism reflected in this sizzling (and superbly documented) slice of Panamanian cultural history.
Fittingly, compiler Gyemant dedicates Volume 3's 23 gritty nuggets to Lord Cobra (a.k.a. Wilfred Berry). With his Sugar Tone Band, "Partido Calpysonian" issues a triumphant challenge to Trinidad's calypso king Sparrow, wherein to no one's surprise, Lord Cobra ascends to rule, and Colón, Panamá emerges as the epicenter of the good-time universe. A rare discovery and revivalist's labor of love, these titles showcase Panama's once again brand-new bag, vital music from a bygone (but thankfully unforgotten) era. It just took a while for the rest of us to get the news. - Michael Stone
CD available from cdRoots