Venezuela has always been the land of possibility. For more than 5 centuries, the different European, African, Middle Eastern and other cultures of the world have fused harmoniously with the native traditions of this exotic place. The result, particularly in musical terms, is the presence of rich and diverse styles, of which many are unique hybrids that do not exist anywhere else. Each one reflects a particular facet of the extensive and multicolored fabric of the Venezuelan culture. The national identity of the country covers a dazzling array of influences, which extend from the peaks of the Andes all the way to the Caribbean coastlines, and even farther still to the infinite expanse of the planes and lowlands that characterize the interior of the country.
While for years the powerful cocktail of musical styles from a handful of Latin-American countries has delighted listeners and musicians in virtually every part of the world, the gems of Venezuelan music have largely existed in the shadows, reserved for the few brave souls that have dared to venture into deeper waters beyond their familiar shores. As Cuban mambo, Argentine tango and bossa nova from Brazil have won global admiration, the musical richness of Venezuelan and other South-American countries has evolved organically and out of the glare of international spotlight.
The pianist and composer Leo Blanco explores the fertile sounds of his homeland and other terrains in this surprising virtuoso work. While it expands our collective appreciation of these fertile expressions, Blanco adds his nuance, subtle yet evident in its own style, highly intuitive.
Many of the his most acclaimed musical friends, among them the percussionist Antonio Sanchez, the saxophonist Donny McCaslin, the guitarist Lionel Louke, native of Benin, join Blanco in this journey through nine pieces and through the most remote regions of Venezuela, Colombia and Peru. Far from proposing a simple jazz perspective from their different South-American musical styles, Blanco and his colleagues focus on a particularly appealing element: the vast influence of African cultures on the music of these lands. “When most people hear the term ‘Afro-Latino’ in reference to music,” admits the pianist, “they immediately think of Cuba and Brazil.” I’ve always loved the music of these two titanic cultures, but I think it is time to open the door and show the rest of the world how Africa is one of the most significant influences in popular music today, all across the Americas.”
Blanco’s approach in this project is uncompromisingly holistic. No shortcut was allowed. From the rhythmic and melodic elements to the details of the arrangements, the selection of musicians and the selective use of a wide range of exotic percussion instruments from Africa and South America, their intention was to unite the traditions of jazz and Afro-Latino roots in an unprecedented form. The results are revealing and stimulating. The opening piece sets the appropriate atmosphere and prepares the listener for what is to follow.
“Caravalleda” gets its name from a small African village n the Venezuelan Caribbean coast, where local religious customs have produced the rhythms that Blanco utilizes here: el sangueo. “Overall, the percussion is a vital component of my music,” he explains, “The way I tackled the project was to achieve interaction between a number of layers of more traditional sounds and contemporary sounds in the music world. I looked for percussionists who were familiar with the traditional African elements present in Venezuela, Colombia and Peru and then combined their sound with other rhythms of the world, those of Africa and Central Asia.” In the rhythm section, Sanchez is accompanied by Venezuelan percussionist Jackeline Rago and by co-producer Steve Shehan, expert on oriental rhythms.
The connection to Africa is consolidated in “Serendipity,” another piece with Venezuelan roots featuring the use of quintuple sets of bamboo tubes used as rhythm instruments in the African-Venezuelan community, in Barlovento, Miranda. The guitarist Louke evokes the transatlantic link through his allegorical playing while Heeidi Rondon, a talented African-Venezuelan singer, lets free an energetic call and response duet with Louke. The hypnotic presence of the McCaslin saxophones and the robust accompaniment leader make the track only one of the many highlights of the album.
“Gaita” captures the simplicity and elegance of an Afro-Colombian procession through the wail of Victor Cruz’s Colombian flute playing – the complementary male-female version of the traditional bagpipe – and the seductive undulating line Blanco plays.
“Peru Lando” is another revelation, as the Blanco’s piano floats on the andante pulse of the Afro-Cuban rhythms, captured on Diego Alvarez’s crate, and occasionally flow with the Robert Cachimuel’s delicate Kenachos, flutes used in the folk music of the mountains of Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru.
The validity of Blanco’s vision is confirmed when the session migrates towards “Afro East” and “Yemen,” extending his sonorous journey to the borderlines of the shared experiences between Africa and Latin America. The challenge of successfully integrating seemingly disparate elements is achieved through diligently constructed polyrhythmic nuances, songs of Ghana, and the right mix of Ethiopian folk instruments (harp and violin) with the vernacular African and Venezuelan percussion.
The titular track of the album is another triumphant moment when Blanco leads the smallest unit of the session according to the jazz parameters: a quintet, which crosses the demanding terrain of an arrangement that spans more than eleven minutes. The transition from a work rooted in world music to the first part, makes a sound that owes more of itself to jazz, demonstrates how the African pulse is maintained in an explicitly gender-oriented scenario. (??)
“Long Term” extends the Blanco’s jazz tangent en a high voltage scene which showcases his rhythmic skill on the piano and the enveloping tone of Billy Drewes’s clarinet.
The final work, “Venezuelan Rhapsody,” pays homage, albeit in a modernist way, the most famous Venezuelan rhythm, the galloping 6/8 joropo.