The band Cha Wa take the stage at the Copacabana, New York, on a cold night in January. The horns play precise rapid-fire funk as J’wan Boudreaux leads, “I say Mighty”. His voice is bold and clear. It is 1960’s soul. Two singers are front stage, whirling and rocking as they tap tambourines. At first, the audience is still frozen, soon they warm up. Some jump up and down: the music excites them. Others squeeze to the front of the stage. Cha Wa are having fun unlike some other performers.
They wear long, elaborate, costumes that they took a year to make – so J’wan told us with pride. They continue their forbear’s tradition of marching in the Mardi Gras parades of the 1800s. They wear blue, red, and silver feathers of those Indian tribes who welcomed slaves escaping their masters. Joe Gelini, the group’s drummer and founder says, “We wanted to take the roots of what we love about New Orleans brass band music and Mardi Gras Indian music and then voice it our way.”
The horns open a new song, moving with slow ease. “Get on out the way,” the chorus chants, and the audience joins in. The instruments echo the chant, accentuating it. More people start to dance, some climb up onto their seats for a better view. Midway through, an electric guitar breaks out of nowhere and improvises funk. The horn section adds power to the music and an additional punch at the end of the piece. This group could keep the audience dancing all night. And although Cha Wa’s set is only a handful of numbers, their heat sets everyone on fire.
The Copacabana’s dance spaces on all four floors are pulsating. But their atmosphere is filled with music from four continents. GlobalFEST highlights the best young groups in world music. They have each won a place on the stage. The high intensity Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness come from Soweto. The political edge of the group 47SOUL are Palestinians. Debashish Battacharya is Calcutta’s famed slide guitar master.
But Orquesta Akokán stand apart. When they come on stage in the main ballroom, you enter 1960’s Havana with its tailored suits and sleek dancers. They play classic Cuban dance music – Beny Moré’s mambo meets jazz. Akokán is a Yoruba word that means “from the heart,” and this soul reinvigorates the older music, just as Buena Vista Social Club did. The vocalist José “Pepito” Gomez on ‘Mambo rapidito’ picks out his words like a Dizzy Gillespie staccato solo over Cuban percussion. On “Un Tabaco par Elegua” he tells us about Elegua, a god and a guardian of the dead. He starts to sing, and an elegant acoustic guitar joins in. A steady percussive rhythm keeps rolling forward, and the horns punctuate the music. The musicians are dancing. The intensity grows. A chorus of vocalists opens up. And dancers in the audience weave ever more sensual circles around one another.
On “Yo Soy Para Ti,” the singer starts by translating the opening lyrics:
For you, for you, I’ve been born just for you:
Para ti, para ti, yo he nacido mi vida para ti.
The horns move in. The percussion plays a steady undercurrent. The vocalist stretches out notes to express love and longing. He goes beyond Spanish to communicate to everyone. The music and the musicians sway together. The lead vocalist calls: the chorus responds. Passion and precision. Emphatic unisons and graceful improvisations. Veterans and apprentices. The tradition continues.
Old school Cuban music heard live never ceases to captivate.