February 2008

Salsa Africa
February 8, 2008 Lula Lounge Toronto
Witnessing The Birth Of “Timba Toronto” In Its Cradle Of Global Collaboration
by Sebastian Cook with photos by Roger Humbert
Salsa Africa had been one of the most anticipated musical events in the city for quite some time, all the more so due to a postponement. One look at the lineup of musicians was all you needed to get a sense of just how special this evening had the potential to be. And indeed, from Lula owner José Ortega’s vision of celebrating the links between salsa and African music, we witnessed nothing less than a new genre of music — timba Toronto. While Lula has certainly offered an embarrassment of riches in terms of Cuban-style timba where jazz, funk, hiphop, Afrobeat and other styles were layered into a salsa foundation, this was different. What we heard was a brand new sound that could only happen here in Toronto, with 14 of the city’s finest musicians from no less than 10 countries and an even richer diversity of musical sensibilities.
I found it appropriate that a tune from Adam Solomon of African Guitar Summit opened the show, because the AGS project conceived by Todd Fraracci struck me as having been the most similar in terms of its scope of creative ambition. It was a slow, gentle African rumba, with both African and Latin rhythmic and harmonic influences shining distinctly on their own and together — the perfect selection to introduce the audience to this new idea. One guitar in a salsa band is unusual enough, never mind two, making the effortlessly rolling licks of the Kenyan Solomon and his AGS bandmate Donné Roberts of Madagascar all the more enjoyable to hear in this setting. I had heard the blues with Afro-Latin influences many times before, but never a salsa arrangement so touched by blues harmonies. There was a slight misstep at the end of the song, perhaps fitting for this birthing.
Adam Solomon
Roberts’ song “Wenge Yongo” (from African Guitar Summit II) was next. For some time now, I have viewed Roberts to be the most naturally and fluidly gifted musician I have ever seen in this city, and here was more to bolster that perception. This Malagasy soul song translated brilliantly into a new context with big, joyous horns, typically visionary keys from Roberto Linares Brown that sounded like a vibraphone, and deliciously snappy percussion.

The first song from the Latin side of this diaspora was Ruben Blades’ “West Indian Man”, a reggaeton/calypso number that as bandleader Luis Orbegoso explained spoke to the horrific racism faced by the workers who built the Panama Canal. Then came a song called “La Monda Pata” by a Los Angelo with the first name Ricardo whom Orbegoso spoke of as a proponent of Africanized salsa. It started with a sublime montuno from Linares Brown, moved into Yeti Ajasin’s first show-stopping vocal volley, then a fiery trumpet blast from Alexis Baro and Alexander Brown, returning to the montuno and finally a welcome solo with Orbegoso’s distinctively nuanced and rhythmically authoritative conga.

Next was the highlight of the opening set to these ears, an original called “Africa” by Linares Brown, whose playing and arrangement genius (he has arranged for a who’s who of Cuban salsa masters including Adalberto Alvares) is making him one of the most talked-about players in “Havana Norte”. It started with a dark and foreboding orisha-style rezos rhythm, layering in some slick bluesy guitar from Solomon and Roberts and then more incredibly soulful verse from Ajasin, whose passion and presence on stage makes it easy to forget that Spanish is a new language to her. The first set then closed with a number that showcased the heartbeat of salsa — blistering percussion and the montuno.
Roberto Linares Brown
One can only speculate on what Orbegoso said to his band after the first set. Whatever it was, they returned after some typically brilliant selecting from DJ Billy Bryans to deliver one of the most memorable single performances I have ever heard. It started with a tribute to José Ortega, who unfortunately was not in his club to witness his vision coming to life so spectacularly; fortunately for him, he was in Brazil. Things then got a little tense, as a CD plug by Solomon was authoritatively yet gently quashed by Orbegoso. Following a quite noticeably tense moment of silence, Orbegoso reintroduced Solomon to applause from the crowd, and then the Kenyan showman launched “Mama Africa” with his deep, rhythmic Afrobeat chanting and djembe. The guitars slowly lilted into a crescendo, with Linares Brown layering over a drone on the keys. Ajasin’s voice brought the crowd to a frenzy while Solomon played to the front of the dancefloor. Now, Salsa Africa was in full swing.

A chant from Ajasin harkened the twin African guitars again, with an Afro-Cuban Dixieland sound taking shape. A haunting piano roll from Linares segued into that joyously familiar sound of Roberts’ “Sadebake” — a personal favourite song that was about to be transformed into a psychedelic Afrosalsa groove from beyond. This frenetic improvised playground was the perfect place for Richard Underhill to make his first real baritone sax statement of the night. Orbegoso let fly with the first truly “Luchoesque” conga salvo of the night, which is to say it appeared that he was chomping at the bit to play with the same intensity with which he had been leading the band. And one could hear why he’s considered by many to be the finest conguero in the country. Bassist Sandy Mamane laid acid-jazz and funk lines that created the rare dynamic of full-throttle yet “in the pocket” salsa. For me, this was confirmation that we were hearing not only a brilliant idea; but a style of music unique to Toronto with the potential to cause a paradigm shift. The wealth of elite African and Latin talent in this city is well documented. But never before had the best of the best from both worlds come together, and with this song the words “Toronto timba” came to mind. “Sabor,” cried Ajasin in her sumptuous alto.

Orbegoso brought us back to the essence of salsa with a song called “Abidjan” by one of his mentors Ray Barretto, the inspiration for another of Orbegoso’s ensembles, Moda Eterna. Muted trumpets carried the breezy melody into a truly breathtaking percussion exchange between Orbegoso, drummer Mark Kelso, and timbalero Alex Godiñez; the congas and timbales in a relentless salsa dura rhythm with Kelso’s exquisitely timed, cymbal-heavy jazz beat providing an almost melodically percussive overtone. Indeed, this band would not be one bit out of place at a jazz festival. And for good measure, the guitar-heavy close of the song brought out the spirit of Jimi Hendrix — psychedelic rock salsa.

Then, the single most breathtaking individual moment of brilliance of the show came from Ajasin on her talking drum. She pounded out the rhythms that had their own call-and-response with such intensity that she began struggling to hold up the drum. Her expression was one of pure catharsis, and from way down deep she kept on going, getting funkier and more adventurous with her beats as it went along. And the crowd felt every bit of it with her, getting progressively louder yet more entranced, exploding in an almost primal applause when she finished. Bringing this remarkable night to its close were a rumba-funk groove with gorgeous three-part harmony vocalizing, followed by “Che Che Colé” from the great Willie Colon. At first, I was mildly upset that there was no encore. But then I thought, “It has to be pretty tiring to give birth to a new kind of music.”

Two thoughts carried me the short walk home. One, that the possibilities for this project are truly staggering. And two, we are lucky that the musical road from Africa to Latin America and back again now goes straight through Toronto.

Donné Roberts & Luis Orbegoso

Yeti Ajasin
> more photos of the concert <

> photos from the rehearsals <

The band
Luis Orbegoso – congas, vocals & bandleader
Roberto Linares Brown – keyboards
Donné Roberts – guitar, vocals
Adam Solomon – guitar, vocals
Yeti Ajasin – vocals, percussion
Daniel Stone – bongos, small percussion, vocals
Alex Godiñez – timbales, vocals
Sandy Mamane – electric bass
Mark Kelso – drums
Yannick Malboeuf – trombone
Jamie Stager – trombone
Alexis Baro – trumpet
Alexander Brown – trumpet
Richard Underhill – baritone sax
Listen to this concert @ CBC Radio 2 – Concerts On Demand.
We welcome your comments and feedback
Sebastian Cook
• • • • • •
Roger Humbert
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The Live Music Report

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