“Social distancing” became the buzz-words of our world for more than a year and a half between 2020 and 2021. Everyone suffered in body and soul – or, to be a little more specific: spiritually, psychologically, emotionally and financially. No one was spared from the sinister brutality of the COVID 19 virus that blanketed the planet. Personal stories continue to be compelling – especially from those who lost loved ones. But while the health departments of governments worldwide kept grim statistics of those affected and anecdotal events have been repeated by medical professionals, the artist – largely silenced because she/he was deprived of an audience to speak – and sing and dance to – has delved into the effects of this deadly pandemic on the mind and the soul, and the cultural of humanity.
Far from using an epithet that has become almost trite throughout this pandemic, the use of it by the Gabriel Alegría Afro-Peruvian Sextet is metaphoric. This leaps out at you even before you listen to the music because the names of George [Floyd] and Breonna [Taylor], and Octavio [Juárez] and Natalia [Alegría] are inked in red, in the set list. The former two are famous for becoming martyrs and dubious figureheads to the cause of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, their names inextricably linked with the newborn children of Yuri Juárez and Gabriel Alegría and their respective partners – forever linked by birth to the deaths of Mr Floyd and Miss Taylor, and the growing list of black lives snuffed out as the babies’ lives were just beginning – testaments to a human pandemic that has been going unnoticed for centuries, despite the slavery being abolished hundreds of years ago.
Social Distancing, then is a tale of two pandemics – one that has gripped our consciousness for a year and a half and another that continues to elude the most astute conscience. Many artists – particularly musicians and poets – have expressed their anger and angst about being deprived of their livelihoods and that too in many relevant ways. But few in ways that are in a powerfully poignant manner as the musicians of the Gabriel Alegría Afro-Peruvian Sextet – in composition as well as in performance. The toll on mental anguish and hope is powerfully stated at the very outset of this repertoire with a solemn, dirge – Mario Cuba’s “Opening: And the People Stayed Home”. A mournful flugelhorn and hissing cymbal announces the song before the guitar chimes in and then the rest of the band; then, rising in the mournful, funerary rhythm of the song and a change from minor to a major [and augmented] chord[s] accompanied by strings, and containing the lilting uplifting message with the introduction of the poet Kitty O’Meara reciting her magnificent poem: “And the people stayed home/and read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art/…And the people healed/And the earth healed…”
Lest we forget, this is an Afro-Peruvian ensemble – one of the most innovative ones around – and as such the festejo is never very far away. Gabriel Alegría is a master of the form, as we experience from “Mirando el Shingo”. Much of the picante verve and sashaying swing of the festejo has to do with the inimitable Freddy “Huevito” Lobatón, a human dynamo who propels the music of this band with his cheeky vocalastics and mastery of the quijada, the bouncing rhythms of [both of] which drive the incessant beat of this music. It is a lively segue into the principal work “Social Distancing”, a suite which connects the proverbial dots between both pandemics. Freddy “Huevito” Lobatón is masterful in the dark tone of his vocals – matched by the visceral energy of saxophonist Laura Andrea Leguía and the moaning and wailing of Mr Alegría’s horn. The second movement “The Mask” holds up a mirror to the sinister theme of “George & Breonna”. With a slurring rhythm and with Freddy “Huevito” Lobatón’s diabolical laughter [and vocals], and the chants of the others, setting an ink-black tone of the work as its definitive themes and imagery unfolds. The suite ends with “The New Normal”, in which the grey and foreboding shadowy minor blues that is also – of necessity – heralded in notes of hope.
This is in turn a natural segue into “Any Day Now” and “Amaranta” – two exquisite compositions by the superb woodwinds player and [it also turns out] composer Laura Andrea Leguía. The latter piece is one of the most eloquent pieces of music on this recording – a work enameled as if with a veneer of fine and precious metal. “Octavio y Natalia” – as mentioned earlier is the bookend for “George & Breonna”, a beautiful work but not without its emotion ensconced in liquid tones played as if caressing the two children who are glorified by the song. The album closes with Kitty O’Meara reprising the performance of her iconic poem – this time in Spanish, a language – which given its cadenced melodic and the rhythmic intonation of its accented syllables adds many layers of moodiness to both the theme of the recording and the brilliant performance by all of the artists. What sets this album – and by inference the players on it – apart from others in their tribe is their ability to enunciate, what Mr Alegría calls, using the Quechua word pachamama, which translates to Mother Earth. Connecting it all is his glassy trumpet playing and the vibrant vocal high-jinx of Freddy “Huevito” Lobatón, together with the uplifting Peruvian festejo and landó rhythms. It is this which makes Social Distancing one of the finest, most hauntingly beautiful works to emerge in this annus horribilis – 2020-2021.
Track list – 1: Opening: And the People Stayed Home; 2: Mirando el Shingo; 3 – 6: Social Distancing – I: Covid 19; II: The Mask; III: George and Breonna; IV: The New Normal; 7: Any Day Now; 8: Amaranta; 9: Octavio y Natalia; 10: Reprise: Y la gente se quedó en casa
Personnel – Gabriel Alegría: trumpet, flugelhorn, guapeo and vocals; Laura Andrea Leguía: soprano and tenor saxophones, guapeo and vocals; Yuri Juárez: guitar and vocals; Mario Cuba: basses; Hugo Alcázar: drums, guapeo, vocals and cajita; Freddy “Huevito” Lobatón: cajón, quijada, cajita, campana, guapeo and vocals; Russell Ferrante: piano and keyboards; Jocho Velásquez: guitar; Kitty O’Meara: poetry and recitation
Released – 2021
Label – Saponegro Records
Runtime – 57:24