We say: Colombian block party champs rock your sound system.
We review a lot of great world music here at Perceptive Travel, but I think the last time I've had so much fun hearing a new album was when I first checked out Mexican Institute of Sound. And before that, Nortec Collective. If you like those, you'll probably like this, but Systema Solar is mainly focused on one thing: to make sure you have a good time. Sure, the Spanish lyrics have a serious message at times, but really this is pure party music that will make you giggle and shake whether you speak the language or not. If it doesn't at least get you smiling and make your foot start tapping, go schedule a medical check-up.
This album starts out with a bang with "Bienvenidos" (Welcome) and almost never lets up. Most songs make use of thumping bass guitar beats, record scratching, crazy percussion samples, synthesizers, and vocals that sound like they're coming from a few guys rounded up at the local cantina. Toss in some whacked-out screeches a la Public Enemy and an occasional horn section and you've got the makings of an infectious block party.
Turns out that's how this group got its inspiration: from huge block parties on the Caribbean coast of Columbia, from a culture where the goal is to have the biggest speakers, the biggest sound, and the biggest crowds. Crank out the tunes, sing and rap over the top, and have a blast. This collective of DJs and producers isn't made up of great vocalists trying to impress you with their talent or virtuosity: they want to make you smile. Most songs have one primary vocalist singing like he's telling a joke, with a few backup vocalists providing the chorus. Some tracks are jams more than songs, stretching to seven minutes, but the sonic landscape changes enough to keep them interesting.
Things hit a lull for a bit in the middle on tracks 6 and 7 and the last track is just the guys in the group talking and joking. Otherwise though this is a great collection and it goes out with a bang with "Quien es el patron?" Imagine the rapper from Cypress Hill singing in Spanish with a Tijuana horn section behind him, a DJ scratching, and a call-and-response chorus. The publicity notes call this Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latin, but in the end this is the most original party music I've heard in a while.
Sale El Sol
We say: The biggest global pop star keeps delivers again in two languages.
Shakira's success is no mystery. Besides having so much natural sex appeal that men would gladly hack their way across the Darien Gap on foot to sleep with her in her native Columbia, she is also a born performer with a powerful voice. Singing in both Spanish and English and being able to get most anyone to work with her with one phone call, she can crank out hit after hit that will go on the radio from Madrid to New York to Santiago in a heartbeat. As a result, she may now be the world's most recognized, best-known singer.
She is also a gifted chameleon, being able to fluidly move from one musical style to the next. She kicks off the album with a mid-tempo rocker and then sounds like the Cranberries singing in Spanish later on "Mariposas." But she makes it work, going into dance songs, heavy reggaeton, Latin hip-shakers, arena rock anthems, and weepy ballads---none of it sounding like a stretch.
Most listeners will probably end up leaving a few tracks off the iPod. "Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)" has both English and Spanish versions but is an odd mix of Edge-like guitars, South African background vocals, and pounding electric drums. Then next up is a love ballad that starts out with just piano before the sappy strings kick in. The power ballad "Antes de la Seis" isn't much better, but will surely be one of those lighter-waving moments in concerts.
Thankfully these are just interludes between more upbeat songs like the international radio and club hit "Loco," which is in Spanish and features El Cata as a guest vocalist. (Another remix is mostly in English, with Dizzee Rascal doing the rap guest honors instead). "Rabiosa" is more of the same, an instant smash with a Latin horn section and either El Cata or reggaeton star Pitbull doing the counterpart vocals depending on which mix you choose. "Addicted to You" is a simply irresistible pop song (sung in a mix of English and Spanish) with Cuban-sounding piano and and sax players, but a driving beat to make it dance-floor-friendly around the world.
Anyone who has ever worked in marketing has to be awed by what Shakira has accomplished, especially in this fragmented media age. But just as Madonna and Ricky Martin had to back up the hype with hit songs and a great live show, Shakira keeps delivering the whole package. Sale El Sol is what it's supposed to be: a collection of guaranteed hits with enough interesting twists to make the non-fans among the 7 billion residents of Earth perk up their ears and join the flock.
Mexican Bootleg CDs
We say: Instant party for a couple of bucks
This is not a single release, but a review of a world music medium you'll find in any Mexican market and many stores as well: the ubiquitous mix CD. Putting aside the morality and legality of this for a moment, the reality is that if a song is even slightly popular in Mexico, you will be able to find it on one of these collections. If the song is super-popular, like Pitbull's "Calle Ocho" or Don Omar's "Me No Speak Americano," the song will seemingly be on half the mixes you pick up. Regardless, the whole thing will usually cost you the grand price of 20 pesos (about $1.70). So if you only like a few songs, who cares?
There's nothing fancy about these CDs. They have pretty covers to peruse as you're standing in front of a stand of 100 of them, but inside is just a seemingly blank CD that's been burned with the proper mix. The mix usually includes an obligatory intro track that's a quick mash-up of everything featured on the CD. The modern equivalent of the overture I suppose. Then after that it's a parade of hits, sometimes classified by genres: electronic, dance, love ballads, ranchero, cumbia, or mariachi band music, for example.
What I really admire is a bootlegger's desire to stretch sometimes and created a themed mix that goes beyond genre to be for a specific situation, like "Noches Romantica" (romantic nights) with a naked couple on the cover rolling around in bed. Sometimes I want to buy these just because they make me laugh. On my last trip to the market I couldn't resist; I had to pick up the Especial Solo para Borachos collection pictured above: "Special Only for Drunks." It's a great collection of cry-in-your-Corona" classics about lost loves, devotion, best friends, and long-distance relationships.
Sure, this system sucks if you're a musical artist trying to actually sell what you've recorded. But these days most bands and singers make their real money from concerts and merchandising anyway, so maybe this is the quickest way to get your music into the hands of the masses. Next time you're in a Mexican city, keep an eye out for the music stands and take a chance on the three-for-50 pesos deal. You're bound to end up with some new tunes you'll like.