Essential Merengue: Stripping The Parrots
review by Art Menius
Since 1968 Eduardo Llerenas has recorded artists from not only his native Mexico, but Cuba, Haiti, Belize, the Dominican Republic, Martinique, and Jamaica. He began releasing his vast personal archive in 1992 as Corason Records. Corason has already released nearly two dozen titles making a dazzling circuit through son both Cuban and Mexican, traditional fiddling from western Mexico, diverse strains of Calypso and mariachi, and fantastic sounds of Africa in America.
The world music business unfolded during the past decade as a western phenomenon fueled by both Third World and indigenous artists, yet marketed by westerners both respectful and mercenary. Labels big and small in North America and Europe released CD’s of traditional and pop oriented music from around the globe. Although many made a genuine commitment to tradition and scrupulous dealings, they remain western firms. Corason, now distributed in the United States by Rounder Records, joins certain Native American firms among the first important labels actually based where the music originates.
Corason penetrates deeply into particular places and sounds that provide the living roots of more popular styles. Stripping the Parrots: Essential Mergenue takes its title from the culinary component of the wild country parties that spawned merengue, the African-Spanish music from the Dominican Republic. Dating from the mid-19th Century, this diatonic button accordion-drum-scraper-marimba bass music differs from high-speed Haitian méringue. Sexteto Peravia, one of five veteran merengue groups heard here, keeps alive an early form of the genre, employing clave sticks and, rather than the accordion, tres guitar with the six strings tuned as three pairs. Their sound resembles the Cuban son more than the music of the album’s other ensembles. The insistent claves seem inconsistent with the rolling beat characteristic even of the somewhat languid neo-merengue of superstar Juan Luís Guerra.
Everything on Stripping the Parrots proves much closer to tradition and the Dominican countryside than Guerra and distant stadia. Only Rafaelito Arias y su Conjunto features even the long fashionable saxophone, which can, as on “Compadre Pedro Juan,” evoke melodic echoes of Mexican mariachis above the merengue groove. And what a groove merengue proves. This dance music aims not so much for the feet as for the stomach, the rolling nexus of much of African-based dancing. On Cachucha y su Conjunto’s “Manuelito Barrios,” for example, the scraper rocks the feet, while the goat stomach tambora drums, appropriately, direct the midsection roll, further moved by the marimba and the accordion flourishes. The disc’s program begins, interestingly, commences with two examples of pambiche, simplified merengue sans call and response, created for the invading American soldiers of 1917.
This CD celebrates traditional merengue with its dancing rhythm, but none of the big band overkill popular since the 1960s. Nor do any of these five backwoods outfits employ the triple lead vocalists attacks of the commercial version. One lead singer, occasionally a duet voice for call and response, suffice. Llerenas’ liner notes, in the original Spanish and English unlike the Anglo-centric major labels, provide a wealth of detail about the instrumentation and the music, but almost nothing about the performers. That suggests that Llerenas concerns himself more with music than personality, and on Stripping the Parrots he serves us a delicious traditional music rich with its own rustic personality.