Bayanga(RAS Records 06076-89603-2, 2003)
RAS Records, known as one of the finest reggae labels, steps a bit off their beaten path with this disc. Yes, there is a helping of reggae spirit in Bayanga’s pulsating rhythms, soulfully conscious lyrics and the dreadlocked appearance of some of its members, but there’s more at work here.
Bayanga are a sizable band from Puerto Rico with a passion tending to lean more towards sounds from elsewhere in the African diaspora. They’re perfectly capable of taking a crafty turn into salsa, plena, bomba or Santana-like Latin rock, but the main inspirations seem to come from Brazil and Jamaica.
The wall of percussion that forms the backbone of nearly every song is largely of the Brazilian variety, and Bayanga do some great things with it. Check the clever combination of Brazilian cuica and Australian didjeridoo on “Cohimbre’s Stylee,” for example, or the expert looseness with which the percussion battery can hammer away at the very spot where the guitar or keyboard chop would be in traditional reggae.
Don’t overlook the band’s versatile horn section, though, or the steady guidance of keyboard player/musical director Eduardo Cabra in his ability to navigate forays that include dips into ska, samba and Cuban rhythms. Lead singer Hermino Cabrera doesn’t have much of a vocal range, but his deft phrasing and assured charisma keep the songs moving.
It’ll take more than one listening to pick up everything this disc has going on, and you won’t mind putting forth the effort. With a bluesy slide guitar here or a simple but attention-grabbing melodic punch there, Bayanga have reached into some well chosen sources to come up with a very good sound all their own. Brazilian music fans, reggae lovers, percussion enthusiasts and anyone who appreciates deeply satisfying grooves without a drum machine in sight will enjoy this one.