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The Sounds of Panama's Mixed Musical Heritage


And let's end this hour at a bridge between worlds. Panama is the link between North and South America. Its canal connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. It's transportation systems have drawn migrant workers from almost everywhere, and they brought their music along.

Oliver Wang reviews a CD called Panama: Latin, Calypso and Funk at the Isthmus.

Mr. OLIVER WANG (Music Critic): The 1960s and '70s in Panama were as culturally vibrant as they were politically turbulent.

(Soundbite of song from album, Panama: Latin, Calypso and Funk at the Isthmus)

Mr. WANG: Dozens of new bands formed out of the Afro-Caribbean communities living in the courts of Panama City in Colon.

(Soundbite of song from album, Panama: Latin, Calypso and Funk at the Isthmus)

Mr. WANG: These groups were known collectively as combos nacionales, national groups, and through them a new kind of Panamanian sound emerged, mirroring musical styles as distinct and distant as New York boogaloo, Cuban descarga and Trinidadian calypso.

(Soundbite of song from album, Panama: Latin, Calypso and Funk at the Isthmus)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. WANG: The combos nacionales never boasted a single signature sound in the same way we associate samba with Brazil or (unintelligible) with Cuba. At the crossroads of the Americas, music traveled from around the world on ships, trains and radio.

Local musicians eagerly absorbed and synthesized these different styles and rhythms. One of the country's best-known combos, The Exciters, brings this home on its theme song. Afro-Cuban percussion, loungy jazz textures, and rock psychedelia undulate together in a hypnotically soulful way.

(Soundbite of song, Exciters Theme)

Mr. WANG: While all the songs on the anthology nod to the serendipitous ways in which music travels and miscegenates. No track better captures this phenomenon than Los Mozambiques cover of Viva Tirado.

(Soundbite of song, Viva Tirado)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Yeah, won't you listen to me baby. Well, I think I'm going out of my head, baby. Yeah (unintelligible). Well, I think I'm going out of my head, baby, yeah...

Mr. WANG: Viva Tirado began life in the early 1960s as a composition by Los Angeles jazz bandleader Gerald Wilson. His song was a dedication to Tijuana bullfighter Jose Tirado(ph).

(Soundbite of song, Viva Tirado)

Mr. WANG: From there, the song was covered by other artists, but most famously in 1970 by the East L.A. group El Chicano, which transformed Viva Tirado into a brown power anthem, giving it a funkier feel and a stronger rock edge.

(Soundbite of song, Viva Tirado)

Mr. WANG: Eventually, the song found its way down to Panama where Los Mozambiques took the fusion process a few steps further. Not only did they add both English and Spanish lyrics to what had been an instrumental, but they also combined Viva Tirado with elements of both Frankie Valli's hit ballad, Can't Take My Eyes Off of You, and Summertime, the classic number from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

(Soundbite of Viva Tirado)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Summertime, and the living is easy...

Mr. WANG: This song reflects how so much of the Panamanian music of this era came from places outside of the country but found a new harmonic home in Panama. Music styles like Afro-Latin jazz, R&B and Calypso have diverse origins themselves.

What Panama created was a nexus through which they could intersect and continue to evolve. These musics were already floating through the world but it was in Panama where they could meet at this bridge between cultures.

(Soundbite of song from album, Panama: Latin, Calypso and Funk at the Isthmus)

INSKEEP: Or at least at a canal between cultures. Oliver Wang writes about music from his home in Los Angeles. He reviewed Panama: Latin, Calypso and Funk at the Isthmus.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of song from album, Panama: Latin, Calypso and Funk at the Isthmus)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Oliver Wang is an culture writer, scholar, and DJ based in Los Angeles. He's the author of Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews of the San Francisco Bay Area and a professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach. He's the creator of the audioblog and co-host of the album appreciation podcast, Heat Rocks.
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