William Cepeda is a man on a mission. For some time the trombonist for the United Nation Orchestra has stressed the music of Puerto Rico, so we do not forget its contribution to the Latin sound. His album Afrorican Jazz: My Roots and Beyond
put a big band atop bomba drums and “versa negro” chanting (Capeda calls it a precursor to rap.) This album is more folkish: traditional tunes and chants (some originals too), sung in high voice with deep percussion. It’s a dense happy sound, some resemblance to Cuban vocals but with a flavor of its own. No wonder Cepeda wants to share it with the world.
At times you will hear Cepeda’s horn or a shout from the shells; such moments are rare. The sound is built around the bomba drum, which traditionally is a narrowed rum barrel. It’s a deeper, duller sound than the conga, and is joined by maracas, scratchers, and the like. The opener, “Afro Boriuca”, is representative: as Cepeda plays a relaxed line, the singers state the whole chant, then a series of vocalists trade a phrase with the chorus. The beat gathers strength, and the singers get faster, ending with a shout of “Puerto Rico!”
The spiraling intensity is thrilling on the first half of “Yuba Medley”, as a simple line gets thicker and tougher. Cepeda’s soft shell seems to cry; it’s a bird calling in the distance. “San Tomas” is dedicated to the island, but can’t be confused for the Sonny Rollins calypso. It’s an intense chant, the wmotional singer (the credits don’t say who) shouting bold as the ladies sing “San Tomas”. “El Conde de Loiza” is fast with sadness: the melody sounds Cuban, and the percussion boils along.
The best tracks come in the middle. “Amalia” has the tangy vocal of Nellie Lebron, and the slow-into-fast approach works like a charm. A male chorus answers Nellie, the sleeping drums slowly come to life, and the chorus crowds Nellie for atttention. She answers by getting faster, and lastly by joining the chorus. It’s a keeper, as is the follow-up, “Meliton Tombe”. A rooster corws, shouts ring through the village, and the chant is infectious. “Majestad Negra: begins deeps, and Harry Diaz with a wonderfully passionate voice declaims the famous poem by Luis Pales Matos. (The chant returns, and briefly quotes “The Peanut Vendor”!) This is the pick of the litter; Diaz’ voice really makes it. “El Belen” is a tribute to composers Ismael Rivera and Rafael Cortijo, both of whom are mentioned by name. It’s mostly sad, but the midsection dances and the singer gets emotional in his joy. Much of the album is like that: while the drums rain, and the voices often gloomy, every so! often there’s a great ray of sunshine, and that makes your day!