About two years ago I got a copy of a CD called Panama! Latin, Calypso and Funk on the Isthmus 1965-75, a compilation of mestizo folk music, Afro-Cuban rumba, mento and calypso, all performed by Panamanian musicians. The CD quickly became a household favourite for two reasons: first, the music had strong funk, rock, blues and jazz influences that made it incredibly infectious and rebellious; second, the CD came with extensive liner notes that read like an enthusiastic travelogue. Someone hadn't merely thrown these songs together. They had done their homework to find out why this music sounded the way it did: a collage of funky island rhythms from all over: North and South America, Colombia, the Caribbean and Africa. Yet the music, which evolved during a time of political upheaval and regime change in the country, is precisely Panamanian.
The album was assembled by DJ Beto, aka Roberto Ernesto Gyemant, a 38-year-old San Francisco-based DJ and writer who has spent years travelling to Panama and the region interviewing musicians and digging through album crates. His travels resulted in a second album, Panama 2! Latin Sounds, Cumbia Tropical & Calypso Funk on the Isthmus, 1967-77, released in June by Miles Cleret's Soundway Records.
Beto also co-produced the album Colombia! The Golden Age Of Discos Fuentes: The Powerhouse Of Colombian Music 1960 to 1976, is working on two follow-up Colombian music compilations and a third Panamanian music compilation. He is writing a book on the history of Latin jazz and dance music from 1930-75. We recently caught up with him to discuss his fascination with Panamanian music and the nature of its unique sound.
More Intelligent Life: How did you become interested in Latin music?
DJ Beto: My father was born in Nicaragua and the family moved to Costa Rica in the 1950s. I was raised in San Francisco, so my experience of Latin music was Latin rock like Santana and Malo, and “lowrider oldies”, which is Latin doo-wop and soul. In 2002 I moved to Costa Rica, and while travelling in Panama came upon a bodega full of records. The owner let me buy whatever I wanted. After three trips, I must have bought around 1,200 LPs and 500 or so 45s.
MIL: What happened next?
DJB: In Panama I connected with a group of older musicians, like 76-year-old Anel Sanders, the first to play the stand-up timbales in Panama with Armando Boza’s Orchesta in the late 1940s, and Bush Buckley, who led the best salsa group in Panama from about 1968 to the early 1980s. Through them I came to understand that Afro-Cuban music, salsa or Latin dance music is not just about Cuba and New York, but about the whole of the Antilles and Caribbean, especially Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Panama and Colombia.
MIL: How did the "Panama!" series come about?
DJB: When I visited [Panama], I was blown away. Panama’s geographical location next to Colombia, near Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Cuba, and its occupation by the US army for most of the 20th century, led to a massive mix of influences. The population is so mixed its almost unimaginable. Chinese and Arab and Hindu and Sephardic Jews and Greeks and Irish and gringos and tribes of native Indians, colonial blacks who are Catholic and speak Spanish, Antillean blacks from British Islands who are protestant and speak English, and French blacks and Cubans and Mexicans and Colombians and all the Panamanian mestizos. It’s insane, and totally unique.
MIL: What do you think defined Panama’s music from the '60s and '70s, more than anything else?
DJB: The presence of Afro-Antillean blacks. For a period of time, the Panamanians took their music and it became the expression of that generation, the ’68 to ’75 generation, which globally was one of the most interesting and fertile times in music. So much music came through Panama. A Panamanian band had to play rancheras for the Mexicans, fox trots and jazz for the gringos, rumbas and guarachas for the Cubans, cumbias for the Colombians, calypsos for themselves and later soul, funk, bossa nova, salsa and boogaloo got mixed in. Soul bossa novas, guaracha funk and Panamanian jazz aren’t just strange and interesting combinations, they are mostly gorgeous, amazing new expressions.
MIL: What shaped the sound of the music most?
DJB: The use of the guitar. Many small combos did not know how to play a piano or have access to one, so the guitar stood in for the piano. Because of the Antillean background, a very tropical feel underlies this guitar-led music. It’s very island, even when it’s a fast salsa. It gives it a natural, smooth swing that mostly comes from the ukulele, banjo and guitar in calypso and mento.
MIL: How long did you spend in Panama during each trip, and what were those experiences like?
DJB: I have probably visited 25 times, the shortest for ten days or so, the longest for about two months. I was in Panama for the centennial celebration in 2003. What a party! Grumbly patricians noted that the people in the streets didn’t know which end of the flag to put on top, the red or the blue. They didn’t care, they were just happy to be there. There is this feeling in Panama that things are getting better, that grandpa only had an out-house and now they have a DVD and a car. There is massive poverty and corruption, but there is also a lot of optimism.
MIL: What was it like to speak with musicians who were living and playing music in Panama in the late '60s early '70s? What did you learn?
DJB: Some are a little bitter because they felt they were chewed up and spit out by the label owners, and especially the public that turned away from the combos nacionales sound in the late '70s. But most realise they had a good run of it, and they had so much success they got soft. They also got killed by DJs, [who were] much cheaper to hire, and soon Spanish reggae dancehall/early regueton (reggeaton) started, and the youth loved that.
MIL: How did the social and cultural climate of the '60s and '70s in Panama affect its music?
DJB: In 1968 Omar Torrijos had a barracks revolt. He dismantled the upper-class hold on political power and let poor people of colour into universities and public jobs. He was a populist socialist dictator and is still well-loved in Panama. The head of his secret service was Manuel Noriega. So the late '60s were a coming-out party for Antillean blacks and poor mestizos in Panama, and their music was the soundtrack for the new Panama that soon began to demand the return of the canal. There were a number of things that changed the music as well. New, cheaper electric instruments, cheaper record players and records, and television. And all of a sudden, there are beautiful black faces on television, all the time, playing this music every weekend. The dances were packed and the combos had double and triple bookings every night.
MIL: Where did you find a lot of the records that made it onto the new album?
DJB: [British DJ/musician, producer] Will [Holland] and I found them everywhere you can imagine. We have been to every radio station in Panama, in flea markets and from collectors in crazy neighbourhoods in Panama City. All the masters in Panama have been lost or destroyed, or are held by a company that had no right to them but keeps putting them out under their own label. It was very important for us to locate the musicians and pay royalties and tell their story. We'd hear something amazing and be like, "Holy shit, that was recorded here. Do you think he's still alive? Let's go find him."
MIL: What is the cultural/musical/social climate like in Panama today?
DJB: The political and local discourse is lively, and regueton is still huge. There is also reggae and a lot of rock, and a lot of metal, trance and modern dance music. Regueton has gotten more hip-hop oriented as well, and there is some good hardcore hip-hop there. Musica tipica (accordion-led) is still popular. To my ears the most exciting music in Panama is the regueton/hip-hop mixes, but word is that salsa is making a comeback, so the mixes in the near future should be very interesting.
MIL: What’s the biggest difference politically in Panama now versus the late '60s? How is this reflected in its music?
DJB: I think things were still a bit naïve and fun-loving in the late ‘60s. Crack cocaine hadn’t arrived. There's a real innocence in the music. It's political, but it's beautiful. Today PlayStation culture is big. People are into things, not get-togethers and politically, things have sort of stabilised. In the late '60s in Panama, things were definitely in upheaval, and young musicians stepped into the breach. I think things are pretty good now, and there is less creativity because of it. The creativity is still coming from the poorest, I think, for whom regueton can be a way out of the hardest barrios.
Panama 2! Latin Sounds, Cumbia Tropical & Calypso Funk on the Isthmus, 1967-77, compiled by DJ Beto for Soundway Records, is out now