The best roots music always tells you something about the place it was made in or inspired by. And if the subtitle of Chango Spasiuk's new album (Songs from the Red Land) and the cover shot of a red dirt road snaking over the horizon under a powder-blue sky isn't enough, there's always the CD inside.
This is chamamé, a ravishingly beautiful, evocative folk style which emanates from the Corrientes and Misiones provinces of Argentina's far north east, where jungle means trees, not beats. It's not nearly as well known as tango, which Chango refers to as grey music, presumably, because it conjures up images of the asphalt and concrete of Buenos Aires; chamamé is multi-coloured in comparison. And Chango's chamamé has an almost cinematic quality, richly conveying a sense of rustic, rural communities set in a rough-hewn landscape. Where yerba mate tea is harvested by machete-wielding field workers and the temperature hovers around 40 Celsius for much of the year. Chamamé also powerfully echoes the diverse cultures that have settled here.From the indigenous Mbyá-Guarani Amerindians, to creoles and European settlers who arrived in the 19th century and introduced the accordion - Chango's instrument of choice.
Thankfully, producer Ben Mandelson hasn't substantially tampered with Chango's sound. And he's still using much the same musicians as on his previous album, Chamamé Crudo (2000). They've wisely dropped the electric bass in favour of acoustic, and percussionist Chacho Ruiz Guiñazú is playing Peruvian cahón, berimbau, African boxes and udu instead of kit drums, which means more space for the accordion to breathe in. It's a largely instrumental album, although there are fine vocals from regular singer Sebastián Villalaba and a guest appearance by chamamé veteran Antolín Gómez.
Chango's compositions range from fairly traditional chamamé to more abstract, but equally inspired experimental pieces. Tellingly, they mesh seamlessly with the few respectful covers by his chamamé forebears such as Blaz Martínez and Tránsito Cocomarola, if any further evidence were needed that this is an artist at the top of his class.
Whichever one of a startling range of moods Chango inspires, his music is always desgarrada (heartrending, torn-up inside), a sweet and sour mix of joyful exhilaration and melancholy. From earthy to erudite, Tarefero de mis Pagos is a timely reminder that fusion in music is usually something best left to occur naturally, over time. I can think of few better ways to spend an hour than with this, one of the very finest albums of the year. --Jon Lusk
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