Undercurrents No.6: No Toques la Uni-Q!

Our daughter Veronica, who turns one next week, is gaining more balance and growing more curious by the second. She likes to turn the volume knob on our Arcam A19 integrated amplifier – always up, never down. She enjoys tugging on my AudioQuest Rocket 33 speaker cables. And, most alarmingly, she recently discovered the KEF LS50’s Uni-Q driver. I think she wants to eat its tangerine Waveguide. While I can’t blame her – it does look scrumptious and I absolutely do want to encourage her interest in the stereo – this is simply unacceptable behavior. 


But what should I do? Should I remove the KEFs from their stands and replace them with something inferior?  Should I put Veronica in a cage? I don’t know. I’m torn. A Sonos Amp and a couple of their wall-mounted speakers – or, heck, maybe even a complete Sonos system with sound bar and subwoofer – is becoming an increasingly attractive idea.


It’s fun to dream. Most likely, I’ll soon make a trip to our storage space, where I’ll wrestle with records and baseball cards and photographs, to retrieve my Wharfedale Diamonds. Their drive units aren’t nearly as tempting as the KEFs’ and can be easily protected behind cheap grilles. Problem solved… 


But…


But the sound. The sound will suffer. My ears will suffer. I’m not sure if I can tolerate that. Maybe I can teach Veronica not to poke at the Uni-Q drivers. At daycare, her teachers speak to her in both English and Spanish. At home, we’ve found that she seems to respond more appropriately to instructions when they are spoken in Spanish. Unfortunately, we don’t know much Spanish. We find ourselves most often saying sientate (sit down), por favor (please), and, my favorite, no toques (don’t touch). 

The other day, Miss Mayra told me that Veronica likes to dance to salsa. This, of course, sent me on a hunt for more music to share with my daughter. Browsing through TIDAL – Wait, “browsing” isn’t the right word. It was more like mining or drilling or furiously, hungrily digging – excavating – through TIDAL’s library as though I were an archaeologist and TIDAL was my holy ground, searching not for ancient ruins but for the greatest salsa of all.

The task was more challenging than I anticipated not because TIDAL’s selection is weak but because so much of the music, as defined and popularized by Fania Records – the genre’s best-known label, a sort of Blue Note or Motown of Latin music – is often inconsistent, marked by wonderful highs and some questionable choices. It’s similarly challenging to discuss salsa without mentioning various tensions: between artists and producers, between Cuba and the United States, and even between artists within the genre, some of whom refused to acknowledge salsa as a musical form. 

Like many others, I have come to believe that while the music’s roots are certainly in Afro-Cuban son montuno, the music itself blossomed among African Americans, Italians, Jews, Puerto Ricans, and the many others who made their homes in and around New York City in the 1960s and 1970s. So, in salsa, we hear rock, jazz, funk, soul, and the traditional sounds of Puerto Rico and Cuba – sometimes beautifully balanced and sometimes conspicuously cluttered, sometimes wonderfully memorable and sometimes painfully homogenized. 

While salsa certainly looked to jazz and rock for inspiration, it often lacked the focus and depth that those genres exhibited. Where are the Kind of Blue of salsa? The Abbey Road? The Pet Sounds


Here are a few possibilities:

Willie Colón and Rubén Blades: Siembra

The search begins with Siembra, the second of four collaborations by trombonist Willie Colón and singer-songwriter Rubén Blades. Willie’s name comes first, but, to me, this has always been a Rubén Blades album. It opens with 36 seconds of straight-up disco-funk, complete with elastic bass line and cocaine-covered strings, which must’ve had listeners wondering whether they’d purchased the wrong record. It seamlessly shifts into the deepest salsa groove, introducing listeners to “Plastico,” which, along with “Pedro Navaja,” features some of Blades’ most urgent and politically-charged writing. The music throughout is powerful, danceable, and often beautiful. And while this album burns far more than most, even it is not without its moments of string-soaked schmaltz – it was released in 1978, after all. I mean, the schmaltz was maybe inescapable? 

Still, this one makes the list easily. And, oh yeah, it has babies on the cover.  Lebrón Brothers: En La Unión Está La Fuerza

There is frustratingly little written about the Lebrón Brothers and less still about this particular album, which, to my ears, is flawless. It opens with “Dulzura,” a pure banger, before gracefully swaying into the languid “Solamente Tú,” showcasing in just two songs, spanning just five minutes, so much of the what made the Lebrón Brothers special – simultaneously smoother and grittier than all other practitioners of the music. There is strength in the union, for sure. The fifth track on this album, “Juro Que Fue Verdad,” is one of my all-time favorite songs – of any genre. With sudden rhythmic and tonal shifts, its composition has more in common with the music of Metallica, Sonic Youth, or Miles Davis than that any contemporary salsa artist. 

No one made music like this. No one makes music like this. 

Orchestra Harlow: La Raza Latina: A Salsa Suite

This one is new to me. I discovered it while browsing – seriously, browsing – Tidal’s recommendations for albums related to the aforementioned Lebrón Brothers record. Raised in Brooklyn within a family of musicians and performers (his father, Buddy Khan, was a bass player and bandleader; his mother, Rose Sherman, was an opera singer; and his younger brother, Andy, played flute), Larry Harlow grew fascinated by the musical sounds of New York City – first jazz, later and more prominently Latin music. At times in my own life, when I felt insecure about my background – my Puerto Ricaness – Harlow’s album, Yo Soy Latino, served as inspiration and guide. If he, through the music, could boldly and confidently claim a place within Latin culture, so could I.  

La Raza Latina is Harlow’s attempt to document all of salsa – from Africa to the Caribbean to New York City and around the world. Recorded in 1977 with 30 musicians and eight singers (including Rubén Blades), the entire suite was not performed live until 2010, at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival. That must’ve been a great time. Near the album’s close, the chorus sings in English, “Come on our dream / We’ll go through our music one more time / Love, dance, and sing / For what’s ours is ours for all mankind.”

I recently found a used copy of the LP. I’m looking forward to throwing it on the Rega and dancing with the girls. 

The Like Button

Over the last few weeks, several noteworthy albums have been released. Here are a bunch that have inspired me to click the Like button:

  • Kassa Overall: I Think I’m Good
  • Intronaut: Fluid Existential Inversions
  • Jhené Aiko: Chilombo
  • Pantha Du Prince: Conference of Trees
  • Nadia Reid: Out of My Province
  • William Tyler: Music from First Cow
  • Anna Calvi: Hunted
  • Swamp Dogg: Sorry You Couldn’t Make It
  • U.S. Girls: Heavy Light
  • Boldy James and The Alchemist: The Price of Tea in China
  • Pulled By Magnets: Rose Golden Doorways
  • Black Market Brass: Undying Thirst
  • Collocutor: Continuation
  • Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree: Names of North End Women
  • Greg Dulli: Random Desire
  • Arca: @@@@@
  • Six Organs of Admittance: Companion Rises
  • Agnes Obel: Myopia
  • Califone: Echo Mine
  • Best Coast: Always Tomorrow
  • Moses Sumney: græ: Part 1
  • King Krule: Man Alive

COMMENTS
grantray's picture
dbtom2's picture

Hey Pop,

Your column describes the frustration and delight of streaming. Searching on a streaming service for a type of music without knowing the genre or artist results in either too many choices or too few.

But once all that silt is panned, there's gold.

It used to cost a good bit of money to sift through whatever the record store clerk thought might be good choices. What the streaming services need now is an artificial intelligence similar to the best record store guru.

My 3 grown daughters regularly remind me of the times we spent dancing and grooving to the music from my stereo. The speakers were set high up on the wall units. It was that way until their teens. They didn't seem to mind. ;)

Best wishes,
Tom

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