I was privileged to review Gregorio Uribe’s previous album “Pluma y Vino” when it was released in early 2013. I re-read my first review and the concluding line was “My God, I love this album!” Gregorio kindly kept me informed along the way of a big band album that he was preparing. My first thought was, “Gregorio Uribe with a big band? I can’t wait!”
The months seemed to drag on but now we have Gregorio Uribe Big Band’s “Cumbia Universal” and it was more than worth the wait. The 16-piece band is full of talented and skillful artists, led by Uribe’s accordion.
The first question to be asked and answered is “What is a cumbia?” Uribe describes it as “part rhythm, part genre, part movement.” It is an invitation to hear, to dance, to think.
The album opens, appropriately, with “Yo Vengo” which is “Here I Come.” It is a cumbia that herald’s Gregorio’s arrival and sets the mood and pace for the album. It is charmingly bold with lines like “Thank you for the invitation but remember that I’m in charge!” You’ve got to love a guy with that kind of swagger. The opening accordion is lilting with the powerful rhythm section joining in to open the door for the hot horns.
Gregorio is an excellent singer and a visionary band leader. The backing vocals are fun and cheerful. Linus Wyrsch lights it up with a brilliant clarinet solo.
“¿Qué Vamos a Hacer Con Este Amor?” (What Are We Gonna Do With This Love?) is a smoking hot vocal duet with Gregorio and Argentina’s Solange Prat about the craziness of love. That vocal duet is accompanied by a union of Colombian and Jamaican rhythms.
Sharel Cassity’s alto sax trades off with Uribe’s accordion and the whole track begins to center on the attraction of differences; the attraction of man and woman, two different rhythms, accordion and saxophone. Ignacio Hernández gets a blazing guitar solo to show the fiery end of such wild attraction. Like binary stars inexorably drawn to a cataclysmic union.
“El Avispao” (The Cheater) is, according to Gregorio, about cheating the system—“the root of Latin America’s problem.” With all of that, the music is joyous and energetic. Three rhythms are employed and become the bandstand for the solos of Jonathan Gómez on the alegre drum. That instrument is considered a cornerstone of the musical heritage of the Colombian Caribbean coast. Hundreds of sounds may be created with the alegre drum. Gómez vibrantly sets up the terrific horn solos. This is a riot.
“Goza Cada Dia” (Enjoy Every Day) is a cumbia that encourages the listener to “enjoy everything in its own time.” The patient encouragement is to live life in its immediacy—the “Eternal Now” as theologian Paul Tillich would have phrased it. But whereas Tillich spoke of owning our past and our future in the “Eternal Now,” this cumbia speaks of releasing past and future and living in this moment. Pain of the past and anxiety for the future lose their hold in the rhythm and the music of this moment. I’ll take the music over the theology.
“Cumbia Universal” features the legendary Reuben Blades. His style is different from Gregorio but, together, they conjoin in this cumbia which spread throughout Central and South America and now finds welcome in North America, as well.
Gregorio’s vibrant accordion is a joy to experience. Muted trumpets introduce the great Reuben Blades vocals. Blades and Gregorio are so well-suited to each other that the differences become flip-sides of the same coin.
The underlying rhythmic currents create an inevitability to the movement of the music. Carl Maraghi’s wonderful baritone sax solo is energetic and even emotional. This is an amazing track.
“¿Por Qué Se Ira Mi Niño?” (Why Does My Child Leave Me?) is an agonizing lament heard in Colombian villages when an infant dies. As the liner notes state, “For such a dirge to exist, this tragedy happens far too often.”
The rhythm is a salsa and the lyrics are heart-rending. Matt McDonald’s smoking trombone solo adds a white-hot intensity to the anguish of bereavement. Even when the tragic tones make their transition into the salsa, it is representative of the realities that color life. Even when happiness can be experienced, the grief remains as an ever-present backdrop in daily life.
“Caribe Contigo” (With You in the Caribbean) is a romance set in the pristine beauty of the Caribbean. The sapphire seas and emerald mountain, bathed in the sun, can drive lovers to crazed expressions of their passion. The tambura and puya rhythms approach and intertwine like a couple who cannot resist each other.
The horns are electrifying, the vocals rich and the rhythms, as always, lively. Mike Fahie’s trombone and Gregorio’s accordion are bright and beautiful.
“Welcome to La Capital” describes the cultural life of Bogotá, capital of Colombia. Gregorio has no qualms about exposing the racism with his own homeland. He explains that the population is made up of African, European and Indigenous peoples and the only future is together. The lyrics sarcastically (but truthfully) the underlying feelings of “I love Black people but I don’t want one to marry my daughter”—certainly a sickness expressed far beyond the confines of Bogotá.
There are intricate rhythms at work here, as complicated as cultural diversity can be, from Peru, Colombia and Brazil. Jonathan Powell’s trumpet soars above the complexities like Truth looking down on our behavior.
The biggest surprise—and it was a good one—was hearing John Lennon’s “Come Together” in the cumbia rhythm. This was amazing! Exactly as John intended, diversity meets in harmony. To achieve that, Gregorio brings together great vocalists like Reggae;s Meta Dia from Senegal, Sagit Shir from Israel’s pop scene and Portuguese Jazz vocalist Sofia Ribeiro with Gregorio leading the way. Lennon would have cheered this!
“Ya Comenzó La Fiesta” (The Party Has Begun) commemorates the town of San Pelayo’s celebration of the parro musical style and dance of the cumbia. The fiesta is full of music, dancing, marching through the streets and, of course, drinking. The musical procession works its way through the streets, accompanied by the clarinet of Linus Wyrsch, the trumpet of Hugo Mareno and Karina Colis’ drums.
As the song says, “The party has begun…We’re going to Gregorio’s place.” I want to go, too!
Gregorio Uribe Big Band’s “Cumbia Universal” is exciting and lively, full of energy and compassion and wisdom concerning what is and what can be. Amazing vocalists, fantastic instrumentalists, bone-breaking rhythms and stunning compositions and arrangements are all underscored with love and warmth. Gregorio Uribe is a visionary an a prophet of what can and will be, driven by the universality of music.
I’ll say it again. My God, I love this album!
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl
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