Sharing a love of the atavistic songbooks and instrumentation of their respected homes in both Colombia and Haiti, and both making recording comebacks of a sort, the electro-cumbia progenitors Sidestepper and power-house RAM have reworked their signature sounds for their latest albums, Supernatural Love and 6: Manman m se Ginen. Independent of each other, the two collectives will unveil their anticipated LPs on February 5th, both of which rework ancestral Latin and Hispaniola music and ritual with a shock of contemporary, joyous, oomph!
Entrenched in the colonial and art deco mixed architectural beauty of Bogota’s most historic barrio La Candelaria, Sidestepper have gone back to the basics, but embraced a whole host of musical styles on their first album in a decade. Co-founded in 1996 by former Real World Records studio engineer and producer/DJ Richard Blair, who originally travelled to Colombia in the mid 90s to work with Afro-Colombian folk star Toto La Momposina, but decided he loved the culture and music so much he’d stay for good, and local singer/songwriter/producer Iván Benavides, Sidestepper were renowned instigators of the electro-cumbia fusion that swept its way across the clubs of Medellin, London and New York. Changing personnel over the years, the free flowing collective has remained a potent and innovative force in connecting the local salsa and cumbia rhythms with the bass and trance movements.
Bored however with hearing the same old “kick, snare and hi-hat”, Blair and reinvigorated Sidestepper line up that features virtuoso percussionist Juan Carlos ‘Chongo’ Puello and “soulboy/vocalist” Edgardo ‘Guajiro’ Garcés joining the band’s lead singer Erika ‘Eka’ Muñoz and guitarist Ernesto ‘Teto’ Ocampo, has changed direction with an adventurous and ‘supernatural love’ for the roots of Colombian music.
A sauntering whistling backing track here and a sunny rhythmic sway there, the whole album has a more or less relaxed feel to it. The South American vibe is present of course, but the beautifully caressed and articulate guitars could be from the Mali desert or Nigerian delta, and the sweetly reverent backing vocals could be from the South African townships. Though the opening duo of tracks, the soulful hand drum exhortation accompanied ‘Fuego que te Liama’ and gentle sweetly-laced shaman trip ‘On The Line’, are quintessentially Latin, even with the guest singer Elkin Robinson’s Anglo-Caribbean lilt on the latter. But by the third, and title, track we’re in a free-spirited realm, with the band jamming through the loosest of psychedelic folk and dub rhythms. Guest vocalist Andrea Echeverri is given the lead, though Blair pitches in on this almost gospel like slice of Californian valley soul as played by The Bees. Cut from the same cloth, but with a slight twist, the album’s finale ‘Supernatural Soul’ continues the good time vibes, but sounds like the late Michael Karoli of Can, during their Future Days era, has slipped in on guitar. Meanwhile, the spiritual trope ‘Song For The Sinner’ could be The Beta Band’s lost South American lament, and the two-part dreamy celebration of life ‘La Flor y La Voz’ merges bass synth with hints of a Massive Attack style aria.
Supernatural Love is a bright, flowing encapsulation of the current Colombian music scene, with sonic feelers reaching out across the continent and towards Africa. Unrushed and organic, with exceptional musicianship throughout the collective return with one of their best albums yet, merging gospel, soul, cumbia, salsa, Afro-Colombian, folk, psych and dub seamlessly together to produce something infectiously fresh.
Although still playing their residency gigs at the Hotel Oloffson, jamming with the likes of Arcade Fire, in Port-au-Prince and playing live throughout the world, the mizak-rasin (a style that combines traditional Haitian Vodou with folkloric and rock and roll music) powerhouse RAM, have remained absent from the recording studio for the past decade. In the tumultuous world of Haitian politics, the infamous and legendary RAM have managed to survive despite their synonymous protestations against the military junta that seized power during the early 90s, and subsequent leaders: As Morse himself puts it, “Our existence is a political statement”. Death threats and sabotage almost derailed the band on numerous occasions during the last twenty-five years, yet they remain stoic and ever critical of the government, taking up musical arms with the much put-upon population: disheveled and hit with devastating natural terrors such as the 2010 earthquake; served by a continuation of corruptible and shaky governments.
Named after the initials of their road well travailed founder Richard A. Morse, RAM perform an entrancing spectacle of the ritualistic. Morse, originally born in Puerto Rica but brought up in Connecticut, spent the 80s rubbing shoulders with the polygenesis New York art and music scene’s Jean-Michel Basquiat and Warhol’s factory. His interest piqued by the new wave’s adoption of Afro-diaspora rhythms and world music (see Brian Eno and Talking Heads), Morse decided to travel to his native homeland to study the Haitian sound.
The son of Haiti folk legend Emerante de Pradine, Morse was already well aware of his ancestral roots, but had yet to indulge in or absorb the rich history of the island fully. After an initial short trip, Morse found himself it seems so seduced and inspired by Haiti’s culture that he decided to stay for good. Marrying local dancer and singer Lunise, he kick started the frenzied, rambunctious RAM, channeling the ideas he picked up on in New York and merging them with the signature instrumentation and sounds of the local Vodou belief and the drifting currents of the Caribbean and Africa. It would be a local and then international hit, with Morse’s band even lending a song to the Tom Hanks starring Philadelphia film soundtrack. But despite the success, Morse withdrew back further into the Haitian psyche, and started singing in the local dialect, Kreyol.
Back then after a hiatus, RAM once again take up the peoples struggle on their new album; a record whose feverish and yearning rhythms fall congruously into “two families”: as Morse points out, “The drums with turning pegs are from Africa. Haitian rhythms are played on drums that don’t have pegs. They are tuned with cords and string, and are indigenous inspired.”
Hurtling into a blurting saxophone punctuated stonk, RAM almost trip over the speeding rhythms on the opening ‘Papa Loko (Se Van)’. And later on they repeat this storming of the barricades with the equally freefalling, saxophone harassed Ethnio-jazz and Ska frenzied ‘M’prai Dòmi Nan Simityè’ – a song dedicated to the top hat-sporting spirits of death, life and procreation. Elsewhere the album is stripped off its ferocity, replaced by gentler island breezes and ambling sweet West African highlife. ‘Koulou Koulou’ is a perfect example of this; the hymn like soothing Kreyol vocals of Lunise wafting over a sauntering highlife backing. Or on the disarming plaintive ballad ‘Ogou Oh’, which begins with a Popol Vuh like soothing but venerable piano and later breaks out into a tribal drumming ritual.
Constantly moving, transforming often-complex interplay with transcontinental imbued high energy and the local carnival spirit, RAM combine their activism and messages of hope and struggle with a strong evocative and infectious groove. Manman M Se Ginen is a beguiling and infectious album, full of tradition but electrified for a contemporary audience.