March 16, 2009

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Sach O ate fries with mayo and two burritos while researching this story.

In the mad dash towards Tropicalia, Hindi-Pop, Afrobeat, and every other hastily discovered internet-approved form of non-Anglo pop music, there hasn’t been much room for humor. Seriousness begets authenticity, authenticity begets that warm fuzzy feeling of self-importance in a record nerd and anything remotely funny reminds everyone that we’re still all dealing with pop records and NOT discovering some long-lost culture. Our foul decade was one with irony as a defining virtue, but oddly enough while the “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” so-bad-its-good ethos works for shitty electro, everyone wants their (ahem) “foreign records” to represent an ideal, authentic representation of another culture, sans giggles. Why else would you bother with stuff that isn’t in English?

(Note: I guess I shouldn’t complain. Apparently Irony+Afrobeat=Vampire Weekend, a band that makes the paternalistic accidental colonialism of 80’s “world music” look downright appealing in comparison.)

Chakachas’ Jungle Fever is a funny record. It’s also inherently inauthentic, a funk album by a band of Belgian session musicians specializing in Latin styles already well past their due date among connoisseurs. This would be enough to damn it to the cut-out crates of history, to be dug up by Madlib for some obscure mix-CD except for one important detail: the title track was such a monstrous funk jam that when Polydor released it States-side in 1971, it went on to be a dance floor smash.

Subsequently sampled by Public Enemy, The Beatnuts and 2 Live Crew among others, Jungle Fever was a start-stop masterpiece of James Brown style guitar licks, funky drumming and near-orgasmic female vocals that probably got it banned from a couple of radio stations for fear of breaking indecency laws. So popular was the song that legend has it Polydor got a black band to pose as Chakachas at the Apollo, figuring it would go over better than putting the actual Northern-European session men up on the world’s deadliest stage.

So interesting history aside, what are we looking at here? Well, Chakachas had been together for more than a decade before Jungle Fever’s release and were well versed in Samba, Rhumba, Salsa, Cha-Cha and other complex styles the western buying public was content to label as exotica. They were also keenly aware of the funk explosion taking the world by storm and updated their style accordingly, infusing their older compositions with harder horn lines, funkier drums and an overall tougher sound, fit for the new decade. The dueling influences generally play nice but the joyous, sunny Latin-pop and funky rhythm section occasionally clash, tripping over each-other in their exuberance.

Far from detracting from the record though, this giddy energy is infectious and the result is an excellent slice of 70’s cheese/funk that’s perfectly suited for a day at the pool, a Quentin Tarentino soundtrack or any time you need something stereotypically Latin. It’s not subtle and you occasionally feel like this is the cover band at the best Holiday Inn ever, but that’s part of the fun and the kitchiness never eclipses the excellent musicianship on display. Sure tracks like “Un Rayo de Sol” and “El Rico Sol” may occasionally veer into Mexican restaurant fodder but any cantina playing stuff this funky deserves your patronage and harder funk workouts like the spaghetti-western pastiche El Canyon Rojo will have sample heads dashing for their MPCs.

Cheesy but serious, sophisticated but funky, undoubtedly sincere yet too much fun to be an actual tribute, Jungle Fever is as good a defense as any for random experimentation and fusion. While hardly the catalyst for a booming Belgian/Latin funk cultural exchange, the record is an interesting one-off; a true product of its time, unburdened by much cultural baggage apart from the appreciation for Latin-soul displayed by its musicians. Who knows, if something similar dropped today, maybe I’d diss it for being too glib. Probably not though, these guys don’t name drop Peter Gabriel and the results are funkier than anything El Guincho dropped. I’ll take that.

Download:

MP3: Chakachas-“Un Rayo De Sol”
MP3: Chakachas-“El Canyon Rojo”