Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Tempo 70 - El Primer LP (Mericana, 1972)

After all of the Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, and Fania, I feel it's time to head out of mainstream Latin into the used record bins for another rare treat, and I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Tempo 70 is the brainchild of Argentinean pianist Bebu Silvetti, who in the early 70s relocated to Puerto Rico and put together the band featured today. Over the course of his life, he played everything from son montuno and guaguanco to Latin jazz to disco. In fact, he is most well known for his 1976 disco hit Spring Rain. Four years prior, however, Silvetti's Tempo 70 would experiment with Latin soul ballads, guaguanco, and a notoriously funky, though relatively unknown, hit on El Primer LP.

IMPORTANT: (Edited August 19) The information above has been disputed. A while ago a person claiming to be Silvia Silvetti, daughter of Bebu Silvetti, commented on this post saying that Bebu never lived in Puerto Rico and was never involved with Tempo 70. I attempted to contact this person via their email, sylviasilvetti@hotmail.com, and received an automated message saying that the email does not exist. About a week later, I received an email and more comments from that email address, with the message containing the following: "I'm not disputing that those songs are my father's, I was disputing the information that he NEVER lived in Puerto Rico and was not aware of that album. I know many albums were published without his knowledge." Previously, I claimed that this person was a fake internet identity. After being contacted again, I will admit that I am still skeptical as to the whether or not this person is legitimate after they emailed me, as a hotmail address can easily be created, and none of the things being said by this person are verifiable. That being said, it is certainly possible that Bebu wrote El Galleton and it was published/covered/stolen by another band without his permission. It is equally possible that it was otherwise. The person claiming to be Ms. Silvetti has their story; what follows is the evidence that supports another story. I cannot claim that either is right, I can only post it to keep everyone informed of the differing accounts. As always, I attempt to post as accurate information as possible, and in the event that the commenter actually is Sylvia Silvetti, then I would like to thank her for reading my blog and contributing to the information posted here.

What follows is the evidence supporting the Bebu Silvetti and Tempo 70 link: the picture below of the El Galleton single clearly displays Bebu's name, and I have a number of web sources claiming the involvement of Bebu Silvetti with Tempo 70:

And, furthermore, El Galleton was recently featured on a compilation entitled Nu Yorica! Culture Clash in New York City, and that compilation credits Silvetti as the man behind the song. A number of websites document this:
http://www.all-tv.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&searchlink=BEBU|SILVETTI&sql=11:dpfpxqrgldke~T4 If anyone has more information about this, feel free to contact me. Continue reading for the rest of the review.

To be fair: I am not a huge fan of El Primer LP as a whole album (read on before you write it off, though). The first time I threw it on I was greeted with an absolutely horrible bolero (ballad), and there is a somewhat unspoken code in Latin music that if an album kicks off with a bolero, you'd either better be on your guard or 70 years old. To some extent, the sagely advice proves correct: about half of the album is plagued with very poorly done boleros with a cantante whose awful, gaudy high notes betray his safer swimming in shallower registers.

On the other hand, the rest of the album is filled with upbeat, roots-based tunes. El Charlatan has the dynamics of Ismael Rivera's Cachimbos (aka Cortijo's band during a particular period in their stint with Rivera), and the singer performs much better here. La Pequita de Paquita features some excellent Eddie Palmieri-esque piano work.

The real gem of the album--and what makes buying the whole LP worthwhile....that is, if you can find it--is El Galleton, a much drooled-over 45 that turns both Latin and soul-heads alike. El Galleton plays more like a night at the Apollo than son montuno. The song begins with some excellent descarga on the bongos, and then a rather silly call-and-response verse comes in where the band orders you to Juntale la manteca a'l galleton (Slap the butter on the cracker). The e song breaks down as they switch to pondering the philosophical difference between una galleta (a cracker) and un galleton (a &!*%&# huge cracker--the use of -on at the end of a Spanish word is somewhat, though not exactly, akin to the English superlative, much like changing "funky" to "funkiest," where the -est means "most or very funky"). Before you know it, a surge of organ feedback has washed over you and you're suddenly being chased by the fuzz across Spanish Harlem's 110th in a Latin-ised blaxploitation film. Even the church organs cut through the addictive horn lines to make you get up and dance.

In the interest of flexibility, I've given you two options. You can listen to and download El Galleton as if it were a 7" single, or y0u can download the entire album. Both are available. I'm only presenting the option because I personally listen to El Galleton much more than I do the entire album, and I wouldn't force an album on anyone just for only one song. That being said, I still think that El Primer LP is worth checking out, and it's so rare that you'll be one of the few ears to have ever heard it. As long as you just skip past the boleros (or slow-dance to them with your old lady, if that's your thing), you'll find some good cuts worth your time.

Picture taken from Office Naps

Listen to El Galleton

Saturday, August 4, 2007

El Cantante (2007) Review

With all the fuss I've raised over El Cantante (including uploading the entire Hector Lavoe discography), you can bet I was there opening day to revel in the glory of seeing Hector Lavoe's life adapted to the big screen. So what did I think? A very haphazardly put together review follows. If you don't want spoilers, or just can't stomach strong opinion, then don't read it!

In short: what a terrible disappointment.

It's almost difficult to know where I should begin, but I would like to get one thing straight. I want everyone who reads this blog to know that, contrary to what the film implies and a number of people are saying, Hector Lavoe did NOT create salsa music. The line in the film where Johnny Pacheco (played by Nelson Vazquez) painfully delivers lines claiming that Lavoe & Colon mixed "mambo, merengue, jazz" into a "sauce like gumbo" and dubbed it salsa is outright false, and a gross mistake on the part of everyone involved in the making of the film. Though certainly instrumental in popularizing it, Lavoe was one of numerous poster children for the music at the height of its popularity, not its creator. The origins of salsa as a music are heavily disputed. Its earliest use dates as far back as the 1920s with the Cuban son of Ignacio Pineiro, and artists such as the Venezuelan Federico y Su Combo, the Puerto Ricans Charlie Palmieri, Pupi Legarreta, and Joe Cuba all released album utilizing the word salsa long before Colon and Lavoe began their career with 1967's El Malo. In truth, salsa is a Latin hybrid drawing from the musical traditions of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and a host of other Latin countries. Cuba, Panama, Colombia and many more all had thriving salsa scenes that rivaled that of Fania, but simply did not have a place in American consciousness to lay claim to salsa music. So, for us over here in the states, whether gringo or even Nuyorican, salsa may seem to have been born in this country, but it was not. To say that Hector Lavoe or even Willie Colon and the Fania label were the architects behind this music would be as erroneous as claiming that Miles Davis invented jazz, or that Led Zeppelin invented rock n' roll. It's simply not true. A useful distinction that I make is in referring to the Fania scene as Nuyorican salsa, rather than simply salsa. This acknowledges that, in its tenure in New York City, salsa took on a new sound with refined instrumentation and production values that made it distinct from other forms of salsa. But the only and original form of salsa it is not.

A few other inaccuracies plagued the movie as well. Some question whether or not Puchi (Hector's wife played by Jennifer Lopez) was as important in Hector's life as El Cantante claims it to be. Furthermore, not only was the reference to the origins of the hit song El Cantante unconvincing, but the story is, by many accounts, false. The movie portrays Ruben Blades taking the stage with an acoustic guitar, and giving Hector, who is in the audience, as a gift, a new song that he had written. Considering that Blades ranks as one of the best singers in all of Latin music, it's rather unfortunate that the actor playing him could barely carry a true note. Moreover, the actual story of the song was one of enormous tension. Blades originally wanted to record the song himself, and some accounts say that Colon convinced him to reluctantly give it to Lavoe. Though afterwards Blades acknowledged that Lavoe did a better job with the song than he ever could have, the real-life account is still one of dispute, rather than that of the film in which a wide-eyed, naive Blades dedicates a song to a man whom he claims a childhood hero (which, in some ways, does not make chronological sense).

Having seen director Leon Ichaso's previous biopic Pinero, and being sorely disappointed at the hectic and overwrought cinematography and schizophrenic pacing in that movie, I should have anticipated those same aesthetic aches in the Lavoe film, but did not. Unfortunately, they are all there. Ichaso's pointillist, hurried glimpses of virtually every angle in a room or scene is a tried and true case of using far too much to say far too little. The film runs the chronological gamut of over thirty years, but Ichaso saw fit to make it seem as though a contextually-undefined, ten minute snapshot of Hector Lavoe's life every five or so years could paint an accurate and satisfying picture of the artist's career. Riding the Lavoe timeline with Ichaso at the helm is akin to a nauseating roller coaster. The plot only surfaces in fits, jumps, and starts, with no real sense of pacing in an attempt to make Lavoe's out-of-control lifestyle appear vibrant. To that effect, the film only falls into cliches, haphazardly using blurred scenes of Lavoe with a needle in his arm to say something about Hector's character.

The portrayal of Hector Lavoe (as played by Marc Anthony) truly amounted to something as the film began, but had altogether vanished by its mid-point. Numerous accounts describe Hector as the most humble, good-natured man that one could ever meet, and Anthony surprisingly nailed that aspect during Lavoe's rise to fame. The initial romance between Puchi and Lavoe is charming, and Lavoe's lines witty without being overbearing. One of my favorite moments in the movie involves Lavoe on tour, after a show with a beer in hand, innocently following Willie Colon and his current female companion towards Colon's room. When Colon forcefully shuts the door behind for some privacy, thereby locking Lavoe out, Anthony produces the most perfect, awkward pause and unassuming saunter back to his room. Small details like this reeled me into Lavoe's character as the movie began, but as the sex-drugs-salsa kicks in, Anthony began portraying a completely different, aggressive character with no real impetus behind the change. Perhaps even more important, Ichaso places no substance behind Hector's depression and his battle with drugs. Throughout the movie, his faults are taken at face value with no apparent need for explanation. The result is a character who seems as unexplainable to audience members as he is to the actor impersonating him.

Hector's wife Puchi has been heralded by many as the role that Jennifer Lopez was born to play. In some ways, this is absolutely correct, as Lopez's interpretation crackles with raw energy. That energy, however, is ultimately without direction, as Lopez fails to differentiate Puchi as anything other than plot-line filler. Yes, Lopez has done a terrific job of displaying a very heated Nuyoricena, but the problem is that Puchi is not simply that. What makes Puchi Puchi, as opposed to a stereotype of an aggressive wife of a musical superstar, is completely lost in the fray.

The musical performances of Hector Lavoe, on the other hand, are vibrant, and I certainly have to commend Anthony for an excellent impression of Lavoe on stage. Anthony copies Lavoe's inflections while still retaining the signature timbre of his voice, and even nails many of Lavoe's live mannerisms such as cradling the bottom-most section of the microphone. The music was a welcome aside from the virtual strobe-lighting of the rest of the film.

In that vein, it seems that "the music was great" is about all that I can say after seeing El Cantante. I would have derived a more enjoyable experience from seeing Anthony impersonate Lavoe on stage for nearly two hours. I suppose that after this disappointment, at the very least I do have the Lavoe records to come back to. El Cantante plays much better as a soundtrack than as a film.

But, it's easy to be a critic, no? I highly recommend that you see the movie for yourself, and I encourage disagreement in the comments. I wanted to walk out of the theater raving about the movie because I had placed a lot of weight in seeing a person so obscure to those around me--yet vital to my family, my culture, and myself--receive some due recognition. I will admit, in closing, that a large part of my review may very well derive from the the disappointment felt after having placed such importance on this film for so long.