The little-known Central American state of Panama has become much more familiar through Soundway’s excellent series of compilations of vintage pop from its vaults. This third (and hopefully not last) volume concentrates more on the highly accessible local form of calypso, which makes it the most enjoyable so far.
As with previous volumes (the second is reviewed here), there’s a fascinating 24-page booklet, with photos, scans and notes by co-compilers Roberto Ernesto Gyemant and Will Holland, which explain the cultural contexts and offer delightful anecdotes about the artists. For example, when talking about Los Invasores, by El Raton, Gyemant enthuses: “In true Panamanian style, guitars replace the piano.”
Most will associate Panama with the canal that runs through it, connecting the Pacific and the Caribbean, and the diversity of its music reflects not only the proximity of so many musical powerhouses (Cuba, Colombia, Trinidad etc) but also the diversity of the immigrant labour force that arrived nearly 100 years ago to construct it, or work in the supporting service industries. And then there are the influences from further afield, which reflect styles internationally popular during the era.
One obvious example of the latter is the sassy ‘boogaloo gone Panama style’ of Los Silvertones (also featured on Volumes 1 and 2), which manages to also include a woozy quote from Gershwin’s classic Summertime. Another is the hilarious James Brown pastiche of Little Francisco Greaves’ Moving-Grooving, complete with shrieks, grunts and a funky drummer.
The influence of neighbouring Colombia is clear in the rough cumbia stylings of Amalia Delgado con El Conjunto Inpiracion and Yin Carrizo. And Cuban sounds are, of course, omnipresent, most obviously in the work of Papi Brandao y Sus Ejecutivos, whose Bilongo includes the “kikiribu / mandinga” refrain, which will be more widely familiar from Mandinga on the debut album by the Buena Vista Social Club’s late pianist Rubén González.
But it’s the numerous examples of ‘calypso Panameño’ which make this collection so endearing, kicking off with Lord Panama and the Stickers’ raucous, bilingual Fire Down Below. Other treats include the theatrical Chombo Pa’La Tienda by Soul Apollo with Frederick Clarke, Lord Cobra’s instantly catchy Colón Colón and the ghostly Masters Are Gone, (by Sir Valentino con Combo Esclavos Alegres), which is halfway to a gospel ballad. A whole volume or even series devoted to these guys would be more than welcome.