Spanish Harlem Sounds
By David Lynch
AUGUST 11, 1997: In an early scene from The Big Chill, Jeff Goldblum's character, a music writer for People magazine, brags about his terse writing style, boasting that can describe any band in under 200 words. The punchline? "And that band had two drummers!" Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers, and .38 Special aside, even the stingiest writer would be hard-pressed to write about Ta Mére, a local sextet who do in fact have two drummers, in twice that many words. In fact, because the group's two percussionists, José Galeano and Brad Evilsizer, are the engine that drives Ta Mére, one could expend volumes of verbiage on them alone. Given their different backgrounds and musical influences, it's amazing that Galeano and Evilsizer play so well together. Galeano, who began playing at the tender age of six, has never taken a formal music lesson; his primary influence was his familial environment, one in which the family, including his uncle José Chepito Areas, who was Santana's percussionist for many years, would jam together often. From his native Nicaragua, Galeano listened to radio emanating from the most important Latin music island in the Caribbean -- Cuba. Locals who heard Roy Hargrove's Crisol during the Clarksville Jazz Fest last month, for whom Ta Mére was lucky enough to open, know full well the anvil weight that Cuban musicians carry in the jazz world.
Evilsizer calls his percussionist partner "The Director of Groove." Galeano's arms pump furiously like pistons when he plays, but it's Evilsizer who lays down the skeletal structure of the songs. This backbone supports not only the Tasmanian Devil on the conga next to him on stage, but also the other band members and the many music fans that are increasingly coming to Ta Mére's shows. Evilsizer, who has a degree in Music Engineering, spent most of his pre-Ta Mére time playing with local jazz and rock groups such as Will Taylor and Ian Moore, but hearing him with Galeano, you'd think they grew up playing together. Simply put, their teamwork defines Ta Mére.
Complex rhythms, for historical, cultural, and social reasons, play a far greater role in defining Latin music than they do in other genres such as hard rock or country. One of these reasons is the area north of 100th Street in Manhattan. Starting in the Thirties, Spanish Harlem has served as an urban, Latin-specific Crescent City-type mixing bowl and proving ground, producing salsa. This new style fused the native rhythms of émigrés from Cuba and Puerto Rico with jazz horns and a splash of street savvy.
Salsa is not music from the conservatories or for the concert halls (although Ismael Rivera's Carnegie Hall gig in 1974 demonstrated that salsa became popular enough to move into the latter). This is music of working people at play, spontaneous street music at heart; street music is the desire to participate by clapping or knocking out a beat on whatever's handy -- a beer can, perhaps. It's a desire for freedom from the restrictions, formalities, and inhibitions of urban life, achieved by joining the collective action.
This invitation to play to one's own beat has left salsa with a intricate sense of rhythm. Yet, when playing or listening to salsa, one doesn't think in terms of counterpoint or complex melodies, but rather of mood, motion, color, and rhythm. That's where the hip-shaking comes in, and bouncing backsides is one element that's always present when Ta Mére plays live. Even in the very dance-unfriendly environment at the Live Oak Theatre, fans waiting for Crisol couldn't inhibit the dance bug during Ta Mére's opening set. They starting shakin' their money-makers in the aisles.
But there's much more going on musically in Ta Mére than just crotales, hi-hats, and timbales. Once again, the band is blessed with two complementary musicians, this time on guitar. If you can't think of many prominent electric guitarists playing Latin music it's because they're aren't many. Unlike be-bop, funk, or fusion, the electric guitar traditionally plays a subdued or nonexistent role in Latin music. Of course, the skill and beauty of flamenco players such as Paco de Lucia are legendary. And this isn't to say that there aren't any good electric guitarists playing Latin music or that they all suck. It's just that they're few and far between.
This doesn't bother David Pulkingham, though. He's more than happy adding his personal touch to Ta Mére's musical tapestry. Texas-born but raised in the British Isles, Pulkingham started playing guitar at an early age and has formal classical and jazz training under his belt. With Ta Mére, his fluid guitar lines incorporate velvety-smooth jazz runs, textured volume swells, and biting blues licks. "I've only started playing salsa music in Ta Mére and Christian has shown me a lot of what I know," says Pulkingham, who also plays flute occasionally in the band.
Ta Mére's lead singer and other guitarist, Christian Fernandez, was born and raised in Marseilles, France. His mother, a flamenco singer, brought her children with her while she toured the French-Spanish border area, and in doing so, passed down the tradition to Fernandez and his four siblings. But Fernandez's wanderlust made him leave home as a teenager to make his livelihood as a busker on the street corners of Europe. While living off of a street musician's pay was difficult, the musical experience was rich.
Hooking up with well-known eight-string jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter, Fernandez and a third guitarist formed a trio called the Rhythm Pygmies in the mid-Eighties. Instead of playing as a guitar trio, however, Hunter moved over to bass and Fernandez switched to drums, while the other musician took over the guitar responsibilities. On more than one occasion throughout France and Switzerland, police had to stop the trio from playing, because people eager to get a closer listen to the group blocked street traffic.
Fernandez is described by his bandmates as being the "consummate musician" and is accused of "knowing way too much about music." He has exposed Pulkingham to Brazilian stylings and shown Evilsizer new drum patterns. Moreover, Fernandez sings in the many languages that constitute Ta Mére's growing song list; when you hear the band play, don't be too hard on Fernandez for not singing more in English -- it's his fifth language. His guitar playing, as one might imagine given his experiences, is a mixed style of Brazilian jazz-flavored flamenco.
As good as these four musicians are, the band's depth and upper limits are defined by the two remaining members of Ta Mére: Luis Guerra on bass and Michel Navedo on trumpet. Guerra, also classically trained, is equally adept on the acoustic or electric bass, and the group's pulsating rhythm and deep groove are largely due to his graceful playing. Guerra, who can be as expressive as Coltrane's early Sixties bassist Reggie Workman while soloing, appears to have as much fun as the many frenetic dancers that cram the dance floor, occasionally playing barefoot on stage. "Latin music creates such a warm vibe to dance and to just enjoy yourself," says Guerra.
As for Navedo, though he's only played trumpet for three years, his being born in Puerto Rico and having grown up in New Orleans has left him well-versed in Ta Mére's mix of musical styles. Navedo's playing is both ethereal and powerful, occasionally adding bits of melodic levity not unlike Sonny Rollins' frolicsome playing. His bell-like tone and tight playing adds both a strong jazz and a punchy Latin spice to the band's sound. Navedo, who pre-Ta Mére played with Son Yuma, studied and played in Cuba, adding to his solid knowledge of Latin jazz.
While the band has been playing together for less than a year, their fan base is growing rapidly. This isn't due to enormous sales of their debut CD (because it hasn't been released yet) or hours of radio play. Their support comes from their powerfully polished live shows. The individual band members get energy from the other players as well as the audience, and that energy pours forth from the stage -- a warm, positive, joyous energy, taking the form of tightly arranged music.
Of course, as a great live band, they play to the venue as much as the audience. Their weekly shows at the Ritz, the band's hometown hang and location of their first gig in January, have become quite popular. It's not unusual to see long lines running outside the front door of the club during their Thursday slot. And if the Ritz is too packed for your comfort level, check out the B-Side for happy hour on Fridays. Finally, there's Los Pinguinos (the Penguins), the moniker under which some of the band plays as a more acoustic jazz combo.
Luckily for fans, though, they play quite a bit around town as Ta Mére. In the past few months, getting gigs hasn't been a problem; clubs list Ta Mére and people show up. They show up to places like Miguels (where the salsa dancing is as hot as a Texas summer), and the Mercury Lounge, the site of a recent, very successful double bill with Big Game Hunter. In fact, the two bands playing together seems to be turning into a favorite double bill for a good number of locals. Says Navedo, "Even though we play two different styles of music... the audience will stick around for the other band."
Not only is this true for the pairing of Ta Mére and Big Game Hunter, it also extends to the bands' pairing with Hot Buttered Rhythm and Concerto Grosso. "The youth scene in Austin used to be strictly overdriven guitars and alternative music," continues Navedo. "Now the same young crowds are looking for other styles. They're finding it in the jazz of Hot Buttered Rhythm, the hip-hop styles of Big Game Hunter, and in our Latin rhythm."
Which means that Ta Mere have already begun to demonstrate that Latin music is capable of evolving and progressing by absorbing new elements without losing its identity. This, however, doesn't mean we want to hear .38 Special play "Oye Como Va."
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