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Danilo Pérez: Panama 500

Danilo Pérez’s recording Panama 500 is remarkable. It is remarkable because it is a herculean task to be able to capture—albeit in snapshots—the history of Panama as it celebrates a landmark 500th anniversary.

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Danilo Pérez

Danilo Pérez’s recording Panama 500 is remarkable. It is remarkable because it is a herculean task to be able to capture—albeit in snapshots—the history of Panama as it celebrates a landmark 500th anniversary. In September 2013 the country celebrated not only the arrival of the Spanish explorer, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, but also the Spaniard’s crossing the isthmus to reach the Pacific from the New World. It is sweeping epic and covers the mythology relating to the beliefs of its proto-historic Guna peoples. And here is where the attempt by Mr. Pérez gets unique and interesting. Eschewing the urge to put music and folkdance above history, Mr. Pérez crowns his opening musical narrative “Rediscovery of the South Sea” with an initial invocation from Román Diaz, ostensibly to call upon the Gods to bless the enterprise. Then the music is melded in with a narration of the Guna peoples and at once Panama’s cultural anthropology and ancient genesis is tied to seemingly Biblical creation stories (although this must have become known much later, with the Spanish on the shores of Panama. However, it is interesting that early griots—prior to the advent of the African slaves brought in by the Spanish—consider the land to be on loan from God the father, “Bab Dammad”—so much so that it sets Panama’s ecological agenda even before the land was created, which again is unique. But on to the music.

Album cover - Danilo Pérez: Panama 500
Album cover – Danilo Pérez: Panama 500

How would a musician—even one as adept as Danilo Pérez use a chamber work to create the history of a land. It must not have been easy. Like every other country in Latin America, most the indigenous peoples tend to be left aside, but not on the music of Panama 500. Mr. Pérez involves them with the narration of the statement of purpose of the land at the very outset of the music. His devices are as unique as his use of instrumentation. First a violin to herald Román Diaz’s chant, where he invokes the presence of the Gods; then the piano in a slightly subordinate role so the mythology and beliefs can be strongly established. Percussion is cleverly used in a manner to suggest the Africanization of the isthmus, with minor chords in a cross-hatch manner so as to establish clash of peoples. This settles down when the piano retreats into a dallying mode so as to suggest conflict resolution. The third sequence herald’s calm, suggesting that various tribes have accepted one another and the invocation of the Guna people takes place, setting the stage of the great socio-religious pontification.

Of course, next follows the Spanish conquest, the formation of Spanish colony by Vasco Núñez de Balboa and the various treaties that take the governing of the isthmus out of the hands of the indigenous peoples and puts it squarely in the hands of its conquerors. Music here is tentative at first then grim, with the piano and the percussion at loggerheads suggesting conflict again. Here the violin plays a sequence that is simple but sad, with a sudden rush, but soon things smooth over and the resolution with in the music as piano and percussion, now with a dissonant bass rising in a glorious manner. Freedom after 300 years and now it is time to set the country’s course. Mr. Pérez digs so deep into his heart and bares his soul when it comes to being true to history—and so he must, now, as he assumes the role of a silent griot at least in this piece.

The role of percussion is superbly defined by Mr. Pérez. Although there must have been a temptation to use more wildly struck drums to signify strife, Mr. Pérez seems to have resisted, using instead gourds with their resonating seeds within. This softness immediately suggests the cultural anthropology of the Guna people, who were welcoming to the point of pain—suggested, in turn by piano and bass, which when Sachi Patitucci’s cello is added, suggests a coming together of the music—a grand resolution to be more precise. The significance of “Abita Yale” and “Gratitude” are both connected with not just the dismissal of the Spanish, and allegiance to America, but also the American’s assistance in building the historic Panama Canal linking the Atlantic and the Pacific nations. “The Canal Suite” is an exquisite piece of music. It is as complex and as epic as the endeavour that went on for a decade and rightly so, Mr. Pérez‘s music glorifies the achievement. In the final analysis, however—and with the return to the “Narration to the Reflections on the South Seas” and the “Celebration of Our Land” Mr. Pérez seems to take the listener in another direction and that is the direction where he hopes the indigenous peoples will have their say in the progress of the country as much as he knows the big business will. Grand chords and big finishes to each of the final sequences provide premonitions of this as the music must inevitably come to a close, but not before Mr. Pérez also suggests less strife and harmony in the celebratory nature of his final piece: “Celebration of Our Land”.

Track List: Rediscovery of the South Sea; Panama 500; Reflections on the South Sea; Abita Yale (America); Gratitude; The Canal Suite: Land of Hope; The Canal Suite: Premonition in Rhythm; The Canal Suite: Melting Pot (Chocolate); The Expedition; Narration to Reflections on the South Sea; Panama Viejo; Celebration of Our Land.

Personnel: Danilo Pérez: piano, cowbell; John Patitucci: electric bass (2); acoustic bass (3, 4, 9); Brian Blade: drums (2 – 4, 9); Ben Street: bass (1, 5, 8, 11); Adam Cruz: drums (1, 5, 8, 11); Alex Hargreaves: violin (1, 2, 8); Sachi Patitucci: cello (3); Román Díaz: percussion, chant (1); Rogério Boccato: percussion (2, 3, 8); Milagros Blades: ripcador (1, 7); caja, pujador (7); Ricaurte Villareal: caja, güiro (1); José Angel Colman: vocals in guile gaya (guna language) (3); Eulogio Olaideginia Benítez: gala bissu (similar to kena), gala ildi (similar to zampoña) (4); celebration of our land in guna language is garga odole, imitation of 2 birds (12); José Antonio Hayans: Gammuburwi, celebration of our land/garga odole, imitation of 2 birds (12); Marden Paniza: director and coordinator of guna musicians, author of the narration (texts were derived from the collective thinking of the guna people).

Label: Mack Avenue Records
Release date: February 2014

Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

Featured Albums

Adrien Brandeis: Siempre Más Allá

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Roberto Jr. Vizcaino, Adrien Brandeis, Roberto Vizcaino Guillot - Photo Nayeli Mejia
Roberto Vizcaíno Jr., Adrien Brandeis, Roberto Vizcaíno Guillot - Photo: Nayeli Mejia.

Listening to the music of Siempre Más Allá, it certainly seems that the young French pianist, Adrien Brandeis has strengthened the belief that he is a proverbial citizen of the Afro-Caribbean universe. To be clear Mr Brandeis still loves all music and swings as hard as any pianist who loves Black American Music – that is, music that you can sing and dance to. But also continues to be beguiled by the rolling thunder of Afro-Caribbean music. The wild call of the rhythms and the joie de vivre of the questing melodies and harmonies not only appeal to his ear, but also speak to him in the hidden parts of his heart.

By his own admission Siempre Más Allá took root during three tours to Mexico undertaken under the aegis of the Fédération des Alliances Françaises du Mexique. The virtually all-Afro-Cuban repertoire of the album radiates charm at every turn. These disarmingly natural and eloquent performances bring out the music’s inherent drama and penchant for tumbao with a deft touch while indulging Brandeis’ lyrical instincts to the full. Meticulously balanced, the four quartet pieces, the trio and duo pieces feel as if they are chamber works. Brandeis’ astonishingly insightful playing is musically captivating and technically blemishless. Each phrase rings so completely true that one can’t imagine the music played any other way.

Adrien Brandeis: Siempre Más Allá
Adrien Brandeis: Siempre Más Allá

The album features Mr Brandeis and a group of very accomplished musicians. These include the celebrated Cuban percussionist Roberto Vizcaíno Guillot [on two tracks] and his son Roberto Vizcaíno Jr., Mexican drummer José Loria Triay make up the wall of percussion. The Brasilian bassist Giliard Lopes brings his distinctive veritas to the whole rhythm section. The big surprise here is, perhaps, the presence of the great Cuban Horacio “El Negro” Hernández sitting in the drum chair on La buena vibra.

Siempre Más Allá is an affirmation of Brandeis’ enduring love and natural affinity for Latin music. Not surprisingly the music seems to echo the famous Latin American phrase: “¡Que rico bailo yo!” [which, in English, exclaims: “How well I dance!”]. This is no hyperbole as the music – in its pulses and rhythms show as Brandeis traverses the rhythmic topography of the Caribbean and Latin America. Along the way Brandeis plunged into the world of changüí, the chacarera, Brasilian gaucho music and the ancient melodic thunder of bàtá drums.

From the get-go listeners will find themselves immersed in quite another world of rippling percussive grooves. The track Ek Bakam, for instance, conjures the intricate architecture; the line and flow of an epic Mayan civilisation located in the Yucatan. Narratives from the Latin world abound – often paying homage to famous traditional musicians. Pancho’s Power is one such chart inspired by the vivid world of the legendary trio Los Panchos. Brandeis gives his percussion section a lot of space when he puts the spotlight on them on Tierra de Oportunidades – a wistful memory of the pianist’s three tours to Mexico, which is also incidentally the popular provincial slogan of the Mexican state of Guanajuato. On Huachi-Huachi Brandeis digs deep into the epicurean delights of the only Latin country in North America with this song in praise of a kind of gourmet Mexican fish: the huachinango.

Brandeis then celebrates his association with percussion colourist Roberto Vizcaíno Jr. with the extraordinary music of Vizcaíno Blues, a piece unique with its exploratory chromaticisms and elegant sonorities that beautifully capture the eloquence of the percussionist in whose praise the music is written. Mindful of the fact that Vizcaíno is Cuban but makes his home in Mexico, Brandeis shapes the rhythmic and harmonic palette of the piece accordingly. On La Buena Vibra Brandeis delivers astonishing pianistic fireworks in the piece’s melodic and harmonic lines, played at a frenetic pace, to mirror the style of its dedicatee, Michel Camilo. The pianist demonstrates an authentic home-grown grasp of Cuban music as he reimages Voy a Apagar la Luz, by the legendary and late-singer Armando Manzanero, here adapted as a wistful solo piano work. Meanwhile on the dizzying ride of Humpty Dumpty the pianist pays homage to another idol: Chick Corea, by revisiting the sparkling composition of the recently-deceased piano maestro.

It is hard not to be mesmerised by this spirited and finely nuanced music artfully crafted in an album by Adrien Brandeis, a pianist who is about to take the world by storm with a recording that is going to be one of the finest by any musician located outside the Latin American sub-continent.

Tracks – 1: Huachi Huachi; 2: Alegría; 3: Pancho’s Power; 4: Ek balam; 5: Un peu d’espoir; 6: Vizcaíno’s Blues; 7: Tierra de oportunidades; 8: Humpty Dumpty; 9: La buena vibra; 10: Voy a apagar la luz

Musicians – Adrien Brandeis: piano; Giliard Lopes: contrabass; José Loria Triay: drums; Roberto Vizcaíno Jr: congas and bàtá drums. Featuring Roberto Vizcaíno Guillot: percussion [1, 6]; Horacio “El Negro” Hernández: drums [9]

Released – 2022
Label – Mantodea Music Productions
Runtime – 58:25

YouTube Video – Adrien Brandeis – Siempre más allá (EPK)

YouTube Audio – Adrien Brandeis – Vizcaíno’s Blues

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