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Are you familiar with the work of Pulitzer Prize winning composer Roger Reynolds? I know I’ve heard some of his material in the past, but several hours ago my friend Carl Jacobson posted a Spotify link to him, and I’ve been in a trance ever since. I can’t figure out this guy’s sense of form. I don’t care! His textures are overwhelmingly compelling!
Have to right the ship. Solution: cancel him on Spotify and instantiate Curtis Mayfield. “Superfly” to start, just to remind myself that at the bottom I’m really slick. Then slide over to “Move On Up.” This is Curtis on the divide between honoring the groove and lifting us up with his divinely inspired message.
Ultimately, if you want to mesh with the great Curtis Mayfield, it comes down to reckoning with “Keep On Pushing,” the one track I’d take with me to that mythical island where your possessions are limited. I work with young people in prison; let’s be frank, a majority are of the minority. When I play this recording I ask them to consider this verse:
“Look over yonder, what’s that I see?
A great big wall stands there in front of me.
But I’ve got my pride, so I move on aside,
And keep on pushin’”
Invariably, there I am, trembling with pride at how far we’ve come, letting these kids know-if they don’t already-that without the grace of Curtis and countless others, unsung, of his and earlier times, they wouldn’t have the opportunities that await them upon their exodus from the joint.
In Nicaragua, there’s no musician alive as responsible for carrying on and maintaining the musical traditions of Maypole, Palo de Mayo, than Mango Ghost. When I arrived in Bluefields this Spring to record with Mango, five years after our initial meeting, it was that Maypole sound, unique to the multicultural Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, that I was after. Back in the 1970′s, Mango Ghost recorded many Maypole standards with his band Los Barbaros. His rich, soulful voice and prolific drumming were signature to the region and propelled Bluefields into the musical and cultural center of the country. Mango told me several stores how he’s recorded dozens of records of many styles: Maypole, Merengue, Calypso, Bolero, Soca, Mento and many more though most were literally washed away by hurricane Joan in the early 90′s. A born performer, Mango Ghost, now 76 years old, has been playing in the barrios, nightclubs, theaters and national venues throughout Nicaragua and Central America since he was a teenager.
When we began rehearsing for the record, it became clear to me that Mango was more interested in laying down some of his classic Bolero ballads that he’s been singing for 50 years as opposed to many of the Maypole numbers that I had been expecting. Going with flow, I was happy to let the material develop naturally and produce whatever songs Mango wished to record. After a few weeks of rehearsal and nearly a month of tracking, we came away with a rich collection of ten songs, eight in Spanish, two in English, heavier concentration of Bolero, one Cha Cha Cha and a few CosteÃ±a numbers as well.
After completing the tracking for Mango’s record in mid May, I set out to get the band together and do a Maypole session in the spirit of the season. Tracking in the outdoor La Loma Restaurant at the highest point of the city, we ran through 15 Maypole classics, several which Mango recorded with Los Barabors and others which have been remade and rerecorded by other groups such as Dimension CosteÃ±a. But if you ask anyone, no one can hit these classics quite like Mango. Having recently lost a leg due to infection, Mango can’t rock the full drum set like he used to. However, he still hits the congas well and his voice is as rich and strong as ever, with depth and character of a CosteÃ±o Ray Charles. Its was a great pleasure to lay down these classics with a true legend.
Bluefields’ Living Legends: Putchie, Claudi Hodgson and Mango Ghost rehearsing/tracking for Mango’s upcoming record
If Murphy’s Law applies anywhere, it certainly applies in Bluefields, Nicaragua. Two days after landing on the coast, my brand new $6000.00 audio card burnt out. The ULN-8 was to serve as the centerpiece of my recording efforts down here and for future mobile recording projects. As a big fan of MH labs and a 5 year user of their products, I was fired up to finally get my hands on a ULN-8 before I came down. Hand carrying the unit on the plane, bus and panga cozied inside a custom Calzone case, I couldn’t have handled my single rack space dream machine more delicately on the way down.
The day after I arrived to the Bluefields Sound System compound, I plugged the ULN-8 into my Furman P-1800 AR voltage regulator/power conditioner and set up a little bass and guitar session through the ULN-8′s front side DI’s.
As Putchie ran me through some Maypole classics, I found the selectable pre character and conversion on the ULN among the best I’ve heard. It certainly stands up to the API 3124>Firecace 800 that I brought down. The amp modeling had some very nice presets and I found the HaloVerb, though very DSP intensive, sounds every bit as true as the UAD‘s I usually mix with back in New York.
Nonetheless, rehearsals sounded great through my sexy new ULN on Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday, after finding out the brand new Cry Baby wah petal I got from Guitar Center for Putchie doesn’t wah, I powered up the ULN-8 it flickered, stuttered, shut down and wouldn’t power up. With voltage looking fine and all the other gear running problem free, I began trouble shooting and immediate got in touch with MH customer support who were very responsive.
We quickly ruled out a problem with the external power supply. All signs pointed to a freak burn out with the internal power source. I took my injured ULN-8 to the local electrician/hole-in-the-wall-by-the-park and after removing the board, we quickly confirmed an internal power burn out. MH labs promptly sent out a replacement board. Normally this would mean a few days problem solved in most parts of the world. But this is Bluefields. There is no road from the Pacific. Addresses don’t exist. So we had the replacement board sent to Edwin’s PO box here in Bluefields and are optimistically hoping for a “quick reach” via the US Postal Service.
Still, the burn out hasn’t really set me back so far thanks to fact that I brought two audio cards. Rehearsals, bass and guitar tracking have sounded good with the API’s and the RME – as good as cheap Nica instruments can sound through premium pre’s and converters. All in all, I’ll be fine without the ULN-8 until the band gets back from a gig up in Puerto Cabeza and it’s time to track drums…that is, if the drums make it back with the musicians.
The last day before any international recording venture, no matter how many weeks of preparation, always turns into a mad, crazy blitz to tie up all loose ends in NYC, pack, get to the airport and through security, eat something.Â Breath.Â I made it.
After checking one very heavy bag of cables, maximizing hand baggage allowance, I roll my custom Calzone 4 space rack, with a backpack full of mics, hard drive and MacbookÂ onto the plane.Â From Brooklyn, I fly through Miami to Managua, Nicaragua on course back to Bluefields where for a good part of summer 2005, I spent seven weeks recording, filming, documenting and absorbing music along the Miskito Coast with my friends at the Bluefield Sound System, Edwin Reed-Sanchez and AlexZander Scott.
For the last five years, fellow midwesterners Edwin and Zander, transplanted themselves in Bluefields where though local outreach they have developed unique relationships with great musical talents from the coast, nurturing young talent and working to revive and preserve traditional music.Â Â Â Since my last visit, they built Bluefields’ first recording studio and have been hard at work developing projects with musicians, producing concerts and holding cultural events.
The return mission is on: to record with Bluefields’ Living Legends of Maypole and Mento music, Sabu and Mango Ghost.Â Fellow songsters, turned enemies reunified at an opportunity, through a modest cultural grant, to record for the first time in three decades and likely the last.
After reaching Managua at 1am,Â I meet with Edwin at the airport.Â We crash at Santos Hospedaje, wake for some desayuno typico and hit the market the next day to buy some mic stands.Â Â Â After stopping back at HECHO magazine where we stashed our gear for the afternoon, we board the Marcopolo bus for a six hour voyage east across the country until the road ends in the Indian village of Rama.Â Â Â To reach Bluefields, we take the ponga along the Escondido where an engine stall and mid river boat swap only held us up a half hour.Â Before 10am, we’re on the Caribbean coast. My Calzone still rolling strong off the docks loaded with an MH ULN-8, API 3124+, RME Fireface 800 and Furman P-1800 AR.Â Â Â The air still heavy and the music swirling a dense collage in the streets, a quick taxi and we reach Bluefields Sound System Headquarters.
Enter Bluefields’ Living Legends:Â Sabu,Â Mango Ghost, Putchie and Claudio Hodgson
-performed in front of the construction site of Mango Ghost’s new house. Â A building project initiated by the people of Bluefields to honor Mango’s life long contribution to music and culture in Nicaragua.
From the Rif Mountains of North Africa to the Caribbean Mosquito Coast, Michael J. Gassert captures music and sounds steeped deeply in the roots of humanity. Whether it’s the sunrise prayer sung from a Minaret in Beirut, a hand-busted beat thrown on a jail cell bunk in Bluefields or weaving ghaita melodies of Moroccan Masters, MikeSound’s keen ear leads him through sonic landscapes of time, culture and identity. Wisconsin songster, New York City engineer/film production sound mixer, World Music producer, Mike is a citizen of sound, archiving rhythms of life across artistic boundaries. Here, he blogs about his adventures.