WHILE MY CITY Pages colleagues were madly assembling our "Best New Band" poll a year ago, I was off to the remote hills of Monte Verde, Costa Rica, mingling in broken Spanish with the townspeople and farmers hailing the end of the rainy season in a four-day festival of music and dance. The night before the ecotourists showed, I saw something that made me wonder why dancehall reggae isn't more than a rarefied pleasure among American hip-hop fans.
Picture a swelling throng gathered around the edges of a long tent, watching the youth shimmy in the middle. A husky DJ in a baseball cap spins discs at one end, dropping a few salsa hits to whet dancers' appetites for their real beans and butter: ragga. Then the instantly recognizable snap of Beenie Man's "Let Him Go" hits the air, and a score of campesinos coax new partners onto the straw, writhing as the ground vibrates to a shouted refrain: "Oyabuoyfrennackanacka--leteemgooo!" I gather that this Kingston-inflected eruption contains something about dumping your boyfriend if he messes around. Regardless, some teenage lads in nice white tennies and small gold chains begin dancing solo, like your roving gringo reporter. Suddenly, they start busting out break-dance moves, twisting like snake creatures as the elderly farmers look on, baffled.
This is Costa Rica, remember, the Argentina of Central America: the most genteel--and white--of Latin nations. But one thing travel teaches you is hip hop is everywhere. Suddenly it made perfect sense that dancehall monarch Beenie Man, who had been giving Ricky Martin a run for his dinero on San José radio all week, would embody the essence of hip hop to rural youth, his ragga riddims matching the rolled consonants of the language. "Let Him Go," from 1999's The Doctor contains not one word of Spanish, and it might sound barely intelligible even to most English speakers. Yet it ably combines two qualities hip-hop fans cherish in any tongue: absolute assuredness and absolute playfulness.
No surprise, then, that the languid, easy croon of Wyclef Jean feels at home on Beenie Man's forthcoming bid for Northern play, the poppy, remarkably rich Virgin Records debut Art & Life. If the Fugees made deep genre-dabbling and international border-hopping sound as effortless and giddy as stumbling into a Tijuana karaoke bar, the Puffy-referencing "Love Me Now" flows with the ease of an afterthought. Beenie's cartoon squeals and rapid-fire DJing run into a blur before the cut speeds up its "O.P.P." Jackson Five sample into an inexplicable chorus of "We Shall Overcome." Hey, why not?
Eleven tracks and six producers later, Beenie closes his carnival with "I Got a Date," where he mumbles something about needing to get out of church early to meet with his flesh-and-bone angel. Then he soulfully connects a few easy genre dots, linking the Alton Ellis rock-steady classic "Girl I've Got a Date" with the American hit that eventually copped its bassline, several singles later: the Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There." Not genius, exactly, but a hell of a lot more fun than, say, Massive Attack.
Though Beenie Man has a Minneapolis connection in Flyte Tyme Studios, whose Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis put him on their How Stella Got Her Groove Back soundtrack, he performs in the Twin Cities for the first time this weekend. Beenie plays an 18+ show with openers Silver Cat and Little Kirk on Sunday, April 9 at the Quest; (612) 338-3383.
Folk 'n' Noise
FORMER ST. PAUL resident T. Griffin has a nice term for his addictive combination of acoustic guitars, urban-realist lyrics, and spare samples: "porch techno." That doesn't quite capture what's so nervy about the Brooklynite's Tortuga (Shiny Little Records), which feels both acoustically down-home and lyrically honest in a way that recalls such locals as Mason Jennings, Pablo, and Ben Connelly. The last in this list will be backing Griffin when he performs Tuesday, April 11 at the Bryant-Lake Bowl; (612) 825-8949.
Speaking of cool alternatives to the rock-club hustle--we were, weren't we?--fans of noise and sound collage should check out this year's installment of Subzero, a festival of local experimental music held on Saturday, April 8, from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. at the cavernous Soap Factory; (612) 623-9176. Billing itself as "13 bands, 7 hours, no heat," the event features the Laundry Room Squelchers from Miami, with openers Unconditional Cock (a.k.a. Cock ESP with members of Unconditional Loathing), the inestimable DJ Ts, Thumb, and Future Perfect stars Zaftig. Thank Jah for global warming.
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