It’s a concept that's hard not to be crazy about. Colombia’s Palenque Records teamed up with NYC’s Dutty Artz to create Palenque Records Remixed, an album of fresh remixes sourced directly from the stems of original recordings.
A palenque is a walled city, and in the last 400-plus years the walls of San Basilio de Palenque have housed the first free city in the Americas, one with a language all of its own (Palenquero) and a deep tradition of oral histories originating from the escaped African slaves who were the city's original founders. The people of San Basilio de Palenque have also created an incredibly rich and unique music that Palenque Records has been trying to carry outside of the walls of the city for the last 15 years or so with releases from groups like Sexteto Tabala, Son Palenque, and Batata y Su Rumba Palenquera. For their side of things, Dutty Artz brings a pretty deep roster to the table, drawing on Captain Planet, Chief Boima, Reaganomics, and Geko Jones and Atropolis, the two DJs who catalyzed the transcontinental project in the first place. The combination of these two extremely divergent crews is often compelling and exciting, although it does sometimes fall flat.
The mix opens with “Calabongo”, an endlessly upbeat intersection of transplanted Congolese style guitar work, call-and-response chants, and the four-on-the-floor kick drum pattern that’s become ubiquitous throughout contemporary American top 40 music. Watch out for this track, because it’ll turn your head a few times with it’s flowing river of swells and deep beats.
So Shifty’s drops a fairly conservative take on “Macaco Mata El Toro” is up next, and the best thing about it is that it barely registers as a remix in the first place. The song isn't taken to any sonic terrain that a band couldn’t cover, only adding a bit of drama to some of the movements and larger gestures in what sounds like an attempt to mimic a live performance of the material. It's nothing too alien, but tons of fun.
Geko Jones & Atropolis Remix apply their skills to Sexteto Tabala’s “Un Solo Pie”, a track that it's impossible not to love from the second it starts. The beat actually begins fairly slowly, but that only allows it to access the more sensual parts of the dancing-human’s brainstem before speeding up to the point of near aggression.
Now here’s where the mix gets really interesting. “No Habla Na (Boima Remix)” sounds, more than any other of the other track on this compilation, like a construction, the result of an outsider’s deep meditation on the sounds and history of Palenque de San Basilio. Unlike So Shifty or Captain Planet’s remixes, which create a nearly seamless interplay between the various cultures in motion, Boima’s remix makes Colombiafrica The Mystic Orchestra sound like the source material for an artistic dissertation, an approach that can be either powerful or easily ignored, depending on the brain of the manipulator. The verdict’s still out.
Later in the mix, Matt Shadetek provides a particularly artful re-imagining of the source material with Batata’s “Ataole.” A beautiful, plucky guitar line gets chopped and screwed into that wonderful grey area between the sounds of an electric guitar and a synthesizer where it’s hard to tell the difference. Moreover, this remix is the least about the beat, a much needed breath of fresh air on this mix. Even when a heavy rhythm drops about halfway through, this track remains about the bass, horns, and voices. The sensation is something like dreaming in a room about 5 degrees warmer than you’d prefer it to be.
“Yo No Puedo Mas (Rafi El Remix)” is one of the most radically transformed of the remixes, and even though one of the virtues of this compilation is the numerous moments in which the interaction between the more traditional musical culture of Son Palenque and the modular, my-culture-is-everyone’s mentality of these DJ’s is at its most subtle and invisible, it is a standout nonetheless. Check out those airy synths and reverb drenched claps underpinning the central chant, and try to deny the electricity created when these decidedly modern elements interact with the naked humanity of the sampled voice.
While it certainly provides plenty of thrilling moments, when taken as a whole, the compilation drags on a little long in the same vein. The highlights tend to be either those tracks that had been minimally altered (see So Shifty’s contribution), or those that had been taken so far from home that it was hard to remember where the music started in the first place. On this comp, the best of those latter, more beat-centric remixes were those that transplanted the tastiest rhythms of northern Colombia onto the irresistible pulse of four-on-the-floor. They sound like the club, if the club were concerned with not only with getting booties to shake, but also with creating a dense, detail-rich weave of rhythms that are both easy to digest and endlessly explorable.
Unfortunately, the tracks that aren't highlights (of which there were a fair number) too often seemed a little like filler. Still, at it's best, the concept behind the mix is sterling, and some of these tracks are to die for. Moreover, we can't commend Dutty Artz enough for taking the time to work closely with the original creators of the music that makes the basis of this album. Here’s hoping that Palenque de San Basilio will still be pumping out top-notch grooves for years to come, and that there’ll continue to be gifted DJs like the Dutty Artz crew out there to show us how to dance to it.