Manuel Obregón y la Orquesta de la Papaya
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Manuel Obregón y la Orquesta de la Papaya
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cd cover Travel in Central America, buy a map produced by the Ministry of the Interior of whatever country you're in, and you'll find something peculiar. The maps show blank territory beyond the national boundaries. A product of the peculiarities of Spanish colonial administration, Central America was balkanized before the concept had a name. But just as politicians rarely consult their constituents, cultural dynamics ignore the boundaries imposed by states. The inhabitants of Caribbean Central America (los costeños) have never been partial to borders, long accustomed as they have been to the region's multicultural milieu. Consider this 1847 account, Englishman Thomas Young's Narrative of a Residence on the Mosquito Shore, wherein the traveler marvels at the vibrancy of costeño music:

"Whilst the natives were enjoying themselves, handing the cassava beer around, the sound of the drums came rapidly advancing, and a group of mahogany cutters arrived, consisting of Creoles from Belize, and the Caribs,... who, after greeting their Mosquito Indian friends, and making very low bows to the English, commenced dancing with might and main, the drums being played very well with their open hands. The scene to us was so perfectly strange,... and yet so real, and in such vivid colours, as to be striking and picturesque; the Caribs with their red trowsers, caps, white shirts, and dark complexions, the Creoles, in snow-white clothes, and their shiny black and merry faces, the copper-coloured Indians, and the pale faced Englishmen."

Substitute the cassava beer with rum and other controlled substances, and Manuel Obregón y la Orquesta de la Papaya are something like that, fourteen artists from Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, mostly unknown to each other until they met for this project, making music as if the isthmus had no borders. Costa Rican singer, pianist, melodica player and composer Manuel Obregón leads the conjunto, blending the myriad musical traditions of Central America in a dynamic fusion with rock and roll, a combination immediately recognizable to the live San José, Costa Rica, audience heard on this recording-but a mix little known beyond the region.

It's a convergence that has been a long time in the making, reflecting the influence of North American rock, jazz, R&B and country western, European classical, Native American elements, the African diaspora strains of Garifuna, Creole, reggae and Cuban music, regional folk traditions, and the revolutionary Central American nueva canción of the 1980s and 1990s.

Six tunes by Garifuna and Creole artists of Belize and Honduras lay the foundation with polyrhythmic drumming, commanding call-and-response vocals and conch shell trumpet, combined with amplified guitar, a pulsing meld familiar to those acquainted with the popular punta rock sound heard on Central American dance floors. Thus, "Bredda" David Obi's upbeat "Hello Everybody" gives a nod to each of the region's musical idioms in turn, a kind of Central American "Dancing in the Streets," while Pen Cayetano's "Sweet Africa," an anthem for African-descent people in the region, reminds listeners of a fundamental connection with the motherland of humanity.

Indigenous strains also infuse the folk canción of El Salvador (the classic "El Carbonero"), the marimba figures of Nicaragua ("Dos Bolillos"), the Maya clay drums and deadly politics of Guatemala ("Genocidio"), and the piercing vocal cries or gritos of Panama ("Grito," "Calle Arriba, Calle Abajo"). Twentieth-century infusions include the accordion, melodica (shades of Augustus Pablo), and electric organ and guitar, as on "Viva Panama" and "Shall I Baby."

Inscribing his own mark, leader Obregón strikes a fine balance between his classical and rock-influenced sensibilities, and the diverse folk elements of the isthmus, moving between pensive acoustic piano figures, Hendrix- and Allman-inspired guitar, and a thundering drum kit. The concert-closing "Catedral" is a brooding fifteen-minute piece that weaves piano, marimba, electric guitar, drums, Garifuna percussion and Amerindian gritos, a most extraordinary coda to a remarkable recording that confirms the arrival of Central America on the world roots music scene. - Michael Stone

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