If there is one place outside Cuba, El Barrio and the Bay Area, where African music survives and thrives it is in Toronto. This is largely due to the fact that Toronto is home to a very large population of splendid Cuban musicians and musicians – like Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer – who are passionately in love with Afro-Caribbean music. But it is also because of one venue, the Lula Lounge, that has championed the cause of Afro-Cuban music (as well as, of course, all South American music including Brasilian music via regular events and the now famous Lula World Festival). The rock-steady growth of the venue – thanks to a management that is both passionate about the arts, street smart, and thanks to a hugely supportive private patrons and, especially the Ontario Arts Council and a Canada Arts Council, no matter what the shade of political animal holding forth in Queen’s Park or on The Hill – has encouraged arts in general, and the art of every country to survive and flourish.
One of the beneficiaries of all this is Sean Bellaviti, an Italian-born piano virtuoso and a regular at the Lula Lounge. This recording, Toronto Mambo by Bellaviti and his Conjunto Lacalu is a sublime musical palimpsest to the Afro-Caribbean idiom. It is also a celebration of one of the world’s most vivacious musical styles and Sean Bellaviti must be congratulated right out of the gates for his unselfish manner in which he has shared the stage with a group of very talented musicians, some of whom are first generation Canadian-Cubans for whom it will be doubly difficult to stay true to their Latin heritage.
The album has everything: a fairly extended set of music that seems to gain in energy and momentum as the record progresses – from mambo to guaguancó, rumba, bolero and more. Sean Bellaviti has made four significant contributions to the album in addition to his pianism, that is, two of the compositions have been written in collaboration with Wilfrido Urbaez and Alessandra Da Rocha respectively. Both are talented writers in their own right. Another four compositions come from the pen of Pablosky Rosales, whose hands and fingers are otherwise better known for tearing up the strings of the tres. These eight (plus two more fine works) provide all the material necessary for Afro-Cuban music to burn with a crackling fire throughout. The raw excitement of this performance – through steaming trumpet-playing and the pungent sonorities of voices from luminaries that include Rosales himself, Alberto Alberto, Adis Rodriguez Galindo, Yani Borell and Angel Luis Marquez. And let’s not forget the ubiquitous Luis Orbegoso who plays bongó, campana and tumba, and also produces yet another fine record in the process.
Track List: 1: La Llave; 2: El Amolador; 3: Caballo Viejo; 4: Un Novio Músico; 5: Suavemente Canto Yo (a lo Palmieri); 6: Micaela; 7: La Mawa; 8: Lucy; 9: En San Leopoldo; 10: Toronto Mambo.
Personnel: Sean Bellaviti: piano; Luis Orbegoso: bongó and campana (1 – 5, 7 – 10), tumba (6), harmony and vocals (8), lead vocal (1); Alex Naar: maracas and güiro; Andres Magno: timbales (1 – 3, 5, 8, 10); Jairo Acuña: congas (1 – 5, 7 – 10); Rosendo Leon Jr: bongo de palo and campaña (6); Pablosky Rosales: coro, tres (1 – 5, 7 – 9), lead vocal (8); Adis Rodriguez Galindo: coro, lead vocal (4, 10); Alberto Alberto: coro, lead vocal (7, 9); Yani Borell: lead vocal (2, 5); Angel Luis Marquez: harmony vocal (9), lead vocal (6); James Rhodes: trumpet (1 – 6, 8 – 10); John Pitman: trumpet (1 – 5, 7 – 10), trumpet solo (5); Patrice Barbanchon: trumpet (1 – 8, 10); Alexis Baro: trumpet (1), trumpet solo (7); Rufino Maceiro: trumpet & solo (9); Vern Dorge: baritone saxophone (1, 10); Ruddy Bolaños: bass (1 – 8, 10); Roberto Riveron: bass (9); Jimmy Bosch: trombone (7); Herman Olivera: lead vocal (3).
Label: Lula World Records
Adrien Brandeis: Siempre Más Allá
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.
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 
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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