Latin Fever

Ensamble Polifónico Vallenato/Sexteto la Constelación de Colombia
Fiesta, Que Viva La

It’s very important to establish the right frame of mind when reviewing an album, I always think, so before popping this one into the CD player I sprayed on the fake tan, opened my shocking pink ruffled shirt to the navel, and poured myself into my sequinned dancing trousers. You know, like any normal person would when contemplating an album with song titles like “Cumbia” and “Merengue”.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I was greeted by a blast of free jazz/tropical-punk mayhem. Although the rhythms and tunes on this intriguing disc are recognisably Latin, I think it’s safe to say that you’re unlikely to hear the Dave Arch Orchestra tackling them on Strictly Come Dancing any time soon.

Fiesta, Que Viva La is actually a portmanteau album, showcasing the works of two separate ensembles formed by the same pool of musicians from Bogotá’s Javeriana University in the late 1990s. The first five songs (and a burst of introductory chatter), are by the Ensamble Polifónico Vallenato. Imagine a Colombian version of your favourite BYG Actuel free jazz horn-blower playing accordion in a local incarnation of The Pogues, and you’ll get some idea of what this sounds like.

Vallenato is a type of popular mainstream folk music, and an ubiqitous sound at the time these tracks were recorded. As bass player Mario Galeano tells it, “we used to live very far away from the university and we always had to take a one hour ride in the morning and then one hour in the afternoon to get there, and the kind of vallenato that you were hearing on the public buses was a very cheesy type of 90s vallenato…so we decided to do our take on that cliché sound…and to do our own noisy, atonal version.” Mission accomplished, on this evidence.

The tracks by Sexteto la Constelación de Colombia lose the accordion, bringing in a heavy battery of percussion and the ethereal sounds of flutes, whilst keeping the free-blowing skronk levels high. These songs came about as a result of the band’s growing interest in rootsier folk music from the Caribbean coastal regions, so they adopted a new musical persona to play them. They manage the difficult trick of being true to the source and totally out there at the same time.

The musicians have since dispersed into other avant-garde tropical outfits like the Meridian Brothers and Romperayo, so this disc is a valuable document of a formative and fertile moment in Colombian music. Take this along to your local Latin dance club and you’ll either clear the floor, or find some very interesting new partners.