Wide Horizons

In years past the Viva! Chicago Latin Music Festival, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this weekend in Grant Park, has drawn grumbles for its booking decisions–in 1996 the local Afro-Caribbean Music Society even formally complained that Tito Puente shouldn’t be headlining because he plays here so often, and that salsa star Oscar D’Leon had been featured just the year before. Then again, a festival that shoots to represent the considerable breadth of Latin music will never please all of the people all of the time. This year’s omissions are bound to bum somebody out too: despite the flood of great Cuban musicians who’ve made first- and second-ever appearances here in the last year or so, the only Cuban on the 20-act roster is expat crossover star Albita. And rock-en-espa–ol groups like Cafe Tacuba, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, and Los Amigos Invisibles, which have busted through all kinds of cultural and language barriers in recent years, aren’t represented at all. Still, the four biggest acts cover a pretty good range:

Saturday evening will kick into high gear at 6, when New York’s DLG (Dark Latin Groove)–a vocal trio that really does make pop music for the global age–takes the stage at the Petrillo Music Shell. DLG delivers a slick blend of salsa, hip-hop, funk, and reggae, but the most arresting element is the soulful slow-jam pleading of lead singer Huey Dunbar. Last year’s Swing On (Sony Tropical) has heaps of commercial savvy, weaving percussive raps through Dunbar’s energetic wailing for a successful Latino analog to the sound of mainstream black radio. It’s purely confectionary, but don’t be surprised when these heartthrobs–already a favorite on Billboard’s Latin charts–start to creep up the pop ladder as well.

Puerto Rico’s Victor Manuelle, who closes out Saturday’s Petrillo program, is too much a traditionalist to covet the pop audience, but his edgy salsa has made him a fixture on the Latin music charts for several years now. You don’t need to speak Spanish to know that his songs are all about matters of the heart–his mock sobbing or a harsh half-English kiss-off like “Ciao, baby” make the message perfectly clear. Salsa singers, or soneros, are judged by their ability to improvise, from subtle variations in phrasing to full-fledged scatting. A recurring, elongated “eeeey” is about as close as Manuelle gets to the latter, but he breaks up and reexamines his lines with the skill of a seasoned jazzer. Though the covers of his two most recent albums, A Pesar de Todo and Ironias (both on Sony Tropical), are studded with cheesecake poses, the music inside gets by on substance.

I can’t say the same for Albita, who plays Petrillo at 6:15 Sunday. Few Latin artists have garnered as much mainstream attention as she has since arriving in Miami in 1993. Most of the notices have focused on nonmusical issues, some worth noting (though her image is alternately voluptuous and androgynous, she’s a steadfast feminist, employing a female music director) and some completely irrelevant (Madonna, Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, and Sylvester Stallone are fans–wow). She has a limited vocal range, her band is more exuberant than experienced, and on her most recent album, Una Mujer Como Yo (Crescent Moon/Epic), she’s gone fishing for crossover dollars by adding some tepid merengue to her repertoire. But she’s such a witty, charming performer that even if, like me, you don’t understand a thing she’s saying, it’s hard not to enjoy her live.

Los Tigres del Norte, one of the most popular Mexican-American groups for three decades (and the subject of a review this week in Section One), close Viva! on Sunday night. Most of us Yanks would call their music Tex-Mex, but south of the border it’s called norte–o. The Mexican equivalent of polka, norte–o hinges on a relentless two-beat rhythm, intricate bass lines, chirpy accordion, and nasal singing–often describing working-class tragedies like going to a dance and getting shot over a woman. Anyone who lives in a Latino neighborhood has probably heard Los Tigres in the local bodega or blaring from a passing car’s radio. The numbing rhythmic repetition of the music happens to drive me nuts, but if you’re curious about the form this is the group to hear.

For a complete schedule, see the Viva! Chicago box in this section.


Back in the late 60s, New Orleans music giant Mac Rebennack ducked into a phone booth somewhere and came out as Dr. John–a gaudily attired swamp-voodoo priest whose early recordings, from Gris-Gris (1968) to The Sun, the Moon & Herbs (1972), ingeniously mixed psychedelia with native Crescent City forms. But not long afterward he abandoned that trip to become a veritable New Orleans jukebox, and unfortunately, aside from a couple fine albums he cut with the Meters, he’s spent most of the last 25 years running on the fumes of his 1973 repertory classic, Gumbo. His brand-new album, Anutha Zone (Virgin), which he’ll be supporting this Thursday, September 3, at the New World Music Theatre, is clearly an attempt to revisit his psychedelic days. His voice sounds great, and with contributions from British rockers like Gaz Coombes (Supergrass), Paul Weller, Clive Deamer (Portishead), and Jason Pierce (Spiritualized), as well as Chicago jazz guitarist Bobby Broom, it’s certainly one of the most interesting Dr. John albums in years, but it lacks the mercurial, murky ambience of the old stuff. He opens for B.B. King and the Neville Brothers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Albita photo by Mark PoKempner; Los Tigres del Norte photo by Sam Quinones; DLG uncredited photo; Victor Manuelle uncredited photo.