Few groups have had a larger impact on Afro-Colombian music than Son Palenque, the vibrant ensemble that helped develop palenquera music and ushered in the popular champeta musical genre and dance. Throughout the late 70s and 80s, Son Palenque masterfully mixed African styles played at sound systems and combined them with the traditions of San Basilio de Palenque, the home of Palenquero, the only Spanish-based creole language in Latin America. Considering how timeless their sound has become, it’s hard to believe they first recorded for Fonobosa Records in 1980. What followed was a golden decade of danceable, driving music that explored the connection between Colombian and African cultures.
Afro-Colombian Sound Modernizers collects the best of Son Palenque’s legendary years (with one recent track thrown in) in a detailed, yet accessible package. Throughout the set, the group expands upon palenquera music, dipping into chalupa, bullerengue and lumbalú styles played on modern instruments like electric bass, electric guitar, and saxophone. The tambora drum is prominent and percussion takes the lead on these tracks. Group vocal chants accompany every song and typically engage in call and response with the lead vocalist, Justo Valdez Cáceres.
The music is vibrant, infectious and psychedelic. This subtle variety of psychedelia adds to the trancelike state of the compositions. As the vocals and drums repeat and build circular patterns, saxophones float above the band with reverb and delay. These infrequent embellishments are the only genuine examples of instrumental flair to be found on the record. Everything is steady, consistent and to the point throughout each track with the lead vocalist taking charge. The drums are pushed to the front, but the electric bass and electric guitar sit back at times. A careful listener will notice the enthusiastic popping of bass and guitar strings, giving many songs a solid, thumping foundation.
One of the strongest tracks, “Cumbia Africana,” kicks off this collection with style. The title is self-explanatory and mixes a bit of cumbia with a slice of afrobeat to create something entirely addictive. The deep, textured rhythm could find a home on the docks of Cartagena or on the coastal shores of Angola.
“Palengue Palengue” is a fine gem of Afro-Coastal psychedelic music. The rhythm holds strong with bass and guitar providing a contrasting, polyphonic backing. The saxophone slips in and out of the groove, modified with effects. It’s easy to lose oneself in this progressive track while the expressive woodwind sings out.
“Adiós Batata” is a recent composition that appeared on Ma Kamajan ri Musika ri Palengue. After the group spent years on the fringes, they got together to record with guitarist Sekouba Bambino Diabaté, leader of Bembeya Jazz. That inspired a studio session which produced this funeral song featuring a lumbalú rhythm that grows with intensity as the song progresses. One of the drums repeatedly hits a resonating tone that offers a hint of dissonance, increasing the tension in a remarkable way.
Son Palenque drew inspiration from the diverse array of sounds picked up at picós, or musical block parties. Hearing highlife, soukous, mbaqanga, rumba and afrobeat gave them the opportunity to shift the sound of Afro-Colombian music towards their exciting interpretations of artists like Les Vikings, Voltage Huit, M’bilia Bel, Sam Fan Thomas, and Mahotella Queens to name several. This music was on the cutting edge and Afro-Colombian Sound Modernizers collects twenty essential tracks, accompanied by comprehensive liner notes provided by Lucas Silva in Spanish and English.
Originally published in RootsWorld Magazine.