Friday, 3 December 2021

The Shoebox Files #8: Oscar Peña


This is about a singer called Oscar Peña and his astonishingly addictive and supremely funky track ‘La Inflación de Ofelia’ about which I can tell you pretty much nothing at all, except that it is one of the most glorious and life-affirming recordings ever made and it appears on Vol. 9 of The Shoebox Selections series of mixes. I feel a bit of a fraud even talking about this track, but I guess you can’t know everything. We all have areas of expertise and we all have areas of occasional and casual interest. There’s not enough time, and not enough money, so you end up being a dabbler, a dilettante, feeling guilty for bingeing on certain sorts of music only when the mood takes you. But then, I guess, many of us go through such phases and stages.

I have to give a massive thank you to John Armstrong for including ‘La Inflación de Ofelia’ on the superb 2009 Nascente CD ¡Cuban Funk Experience! The subtitle of the set is ‘Funky Sounds from Cuba & Miami 1973–1988’. This track is from the Miami end of things, though uncharacteristically John didn’t seem to know anything much about the singer or the song. Again, I feel slightly guilty in that I don’t know too much about John, which is odd as his name has been cropping up on compilations for an awful long time. I am slightly relieved to be able to say that, at least, John has been mentioned in the Your Heart Out archives, in the context of pioneering London DJs and writers who opened ears and filled dancefloors (and occasionally the metropolis’ airwaves) with Latin and African sounds, like Dave Hucker, Sue Steward, Max Reinhardt, Gerry Lyseight, and Rita Ray. Beyond that, I confess I haven’t given John sufficient credit.

Anyway, back to ‘La Inflación de Ofelia’ (and what does the song title mean, beyond the literal translation?). It is possible that Oscar Peña was a singer who left Cuba for Miami and worked there with the Charinga ensemble Orquesta Típica Tropical under its director Arnaldo Valiente.  I’m not even sure if the remarkable ‘La Inflación de Ofelia’ was ever a single. It certainly appears on the Miami-based Sound Triangle label’s compilation 15 Exitos Bailables Verdes Pintones Y Maduros, from 1981, which looks suspiciously like one of those 1970s Top of the Pops sets we used to get here. The LP is on Spotify in case you’re curious, and the Willy Chirino tracks on it are exceptional. Apart from that, who knows?

At the risk of being repetitive, I feel guilty about that ¡Cuban Funk Experience! CD also, as I have no real memory of even buying it, but there it was, stowed away in a shoebox, languishing in a cupboard, waiting for its day in the sun. The irony is that among the few bright spots of 2021, this horrible soul-destroying seemingly-endless nightmare of a year, are both volumes of the Soul Jazz Cuba: Music and Revolution sets, compiled by folk heroes Gilles Peterson and Stuart Baker, which in the 2CD editions are beautiful and inspiring, the best thing the label has done in a long time, with a glorious mass of information which is manna from heaven. And, oh yes, there is a wealth of overlap between the Soul Jazz collections and John Armstrong’s ¡Cuban Funk Experience! CD in terms of artists and sounds. But that’s fine.

Just about the only part of mathematics that has stayed with me from schooldays is the idea of Venn diagrams. I do love identifying where areas of activity overlap. So, you could draw a circle for the Soul Jazz Cuba sets and one for the John Armstrong set, and see where the intersection is. Thus, to pick a fairly random track, actually a particular favourite on ¡Cuban Funk Experience!, Los Van Van’s ‘Llegué Llegué’, well, that recurs on the second Soul Jazz Cuba set where it again steals the show. It has one of the greatest intros in the history of pop music. That bassline eh? Pure Liquid Liquid or ESG! And the organ when it comes in! I love it. Though, it still seems oddly reminiscent of something else, that organ bit. I dunno. It could be my imagination.

For us Venn diagram brothers and sisters, there is also a degree of overlap between ¡Cuban Funk Experience! and the wonderful Florida Funk collection on Jazzman from way back when. The two tracks concerned were, rather neatly, previously mentioned here at YHO and I quote: “There is Luis Santi y su Conjunto’s ‘Los Feligreses’ which mocks religious hypocrites, and there is the fantastic ‘Na Na’ by Coke which is absurdly addictive squelchy humid funk.” So, there you go. There is also Ray & his Court’s ‘Da Eso Nada Monado’, which John Armstrong describes as having an “overtly Latin sound that combines son montuno and funk sensibilities perfectly”. Another Ray & his Court track, ‘Soul Freedom’, gave its name to one of the beloved Jazzman Sevens compilations.

It’s funny: Soul Jazz and Jazzman are both labels for which there is a huge reservoir of goodwill, but it seems less likely that Nascente would have ever generated a similar amount of affection. And yet they’ve released some cracking compilations. I have to confess that I don’t even know much about Nascente, and trying to work out where it fits in corporately is bamboozling: from Music Collection International to Demon, though I’m not at all sure how a label that sort of started with Glen Matlock’s Spectres, TV21 and Department S, plus the Edsel subsidiary (The Action! The Creation!) somehow ended up as a conglomerate apparently owned by the BBC indirectly. Or have I got that wrong? Nevertheless, Nascente have had plenty of very fine moments among the label’s prolific output, including the Funk Experience series which this Cuban CD forms part of. And, yeah, I feel guilty that I don’t have more in the series.

Also in that series is another excellent John Armstrong-compiled collection from 2011, NuYorican Funk Experience, which draws on the output of the Seeco and Coco labels. Nascente must have liked the title as John had previously compiled and annotated an essential Fania-fuelled CD for Nascente back in 2000 called The NuYorican Funk Experience, with a follow-up set of the same name in 2002, subtitled ‘Further Adventures in Latin Soul’. Before that John and Nascente had given us a scintillating Salsoul set, The NuYorican Salsa Experience. The chances are you can still pick up these CDs relatively cheaply, which is handy for those among us not solvent enough to commit to multi-disc Fania box sets.

All those Nascente titles, I think it is fair to say, tip their hats to the immortal Soul Jazz NuYorica! collections from the 1990s, which are among my favourite things ever and were quite radical at the time in their elaborate presentation and packaging. There is, oh yes, a bit of overlap, in terms of singers and players rather than actual tracks, with names recurring like Joe Bataan, Eddie Palmieri (there is, incidentally, an incredibly good if inauspicious-looking Nascente Eddie Palmieri compilation, put together by John Armstrong, which has over time become one of my most-played things), Machito Orchestra, Tempo 70, Fania All Stars, and the wonderfully named Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino.

There is also a lovely link between the Soul Jazz NuYorica! and Cuba sets with the presence of Irakere who also appear on ¡Cuban Funk Experience. Different tracks each time too. Is it sad to love that kind of connection? Who cares! I make no apologies. I am that person who applauds because Soul Jazz played with the NuYorica! strapline (‘Culture Clash in New York City: Experiments in Latin Music’) for the Cuba sets. These details matter.

I can’t resist also mentioning the early Honest Jon’s titles Son Cubano NYC and Boogaloo Pow Wow from early in the new millennium. For one thing, they look so great, with the stark and supremely cool Bruce Davidson cover shots and the minimal design work by Will Bankhead of Mo’Wax fame. For another, they sound so irresistibly good. And, as a bonus, there is a degree of overlap with some of the Nascente and Soul Jazz titles mentioned here, with tracks by Chocolate, Los Jimaguas, Machito, Rene Grand, Rey Roig, Ray Barretto, and Bobby Paunetto. Plus, the gloriously daft ‘Pow Wow’ by Manny Corchado gave its name to the final volume in the series of Jazzman Sevens compilations.

I hadn’t realised until recently that there was an Africa Boogaloo collection on Honest Jon’s, complete with Will Bankhead artwork. The title is a little misleading, and the subtitle is rather more pertinent: ‘The Latinization of West Africa’. Nevertheless, it is one of my most-played CDs at present. I like the way Gary Stewart’s liner notes begin by stating: “African musicians seem to have an unquenchable fascination for the music of Latin America, especially Cuba. And why not?”. I guess finding Orchestra Baobab on there has been a bit like rediscovering an old friend, prompting me to dig out the beautifully-packaged (by Intro, so was that the work of Ghost Boxer Julian House?) Pirates Choice 2CD World Circuit set from 2001, with Charlie Gillett’s spot-on opening lines: “By turns inspiring and soothing, spellbinding and exhilarating”.

Perhaps I can be excused because in recent years there has been such a steady stream of compilations connected to the sound of ‘Funky Africa Then’, wonderful titles from Strut, Soundway, Vampisoul, Analog Africa, Soul Jazz, BBE, etc. as well as the whole mp3 blog phenomenon which in turn evolved into labels like Comb & Razor Sound, Voodoo Funk, and Awesome Tapes from Africa. Well, you get the idea. It has been impossible to keep up, which can make you feel guilty, but then we’re back to time and money again.

Perhaps for many of us it was the Strut collection Nigeria 70 which marked a massive turning point in 2001 and opened up many new doors, sharing a past which was until then largely unexplored. Sure, people knew of King Sunny Adé, and many knew Fela Kuti’s name, but beyond that not too much. It helped, naturally, that Strut presented the whole thing in an elaborate and beautiful way, with detailed notes by John Armstrong (oh yes!) and Quinton Scott. It really was a glorious revelation that CD set, and it still sounds incredibly good, even when we know or have access to so much more.

Interestingly the last time the name John Armstrong registered with me was in connection with a BBE release he had put together, Afrobeat / Brazil, which explored the influence of African musical traditions on new Brazilian music. And, again, I feel guilty about my own ignorance and in awe of John’s obvious enthusiasm for and knowledge of current musical activity around the world.  

While thinking about all this I am ashamed to admit that I resorted to looking up John Armstrong on the Internet. And, my word, he has an epic story to tell about his activities over a long period of time DJing, writing, and compiling. His CV, amusingly, is like a living embodiment of the old Weekend thing about how their LP La Varieté took its name from “the French term for popular radio, everything that's not heavy rock; music drawing on diversity and depth”. In fact, much of the musical ground covered on that LP seems very John Armstrong.

As far as I know I have never seen or met John Armstrong, but from what I can tell he seems like a very cool cat, so appropriately hidden away in the notes for the second volume of Nascente’s The NuYorican Funk Experience, with reference to Ricardo Ray’s adaptation of ‘Nitty Gritty’ and I am guessing his own university days, John mentions: “My old friend Chris Salewicz is now a leading author and scriptwriter specialising in reggae and Jamaica, but when we were both humble Leeds mods, a club DJ’s set wasn’t complete without ‘Nitty Gritty’ being dropped somewhere between James Carr’s ‘Pouring Water on a Drowning Man’ and Roy C’s ‘Shotgun Wedding’. Ah, happy days …”. There you go. I would suggest that explains everything.



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