Leading the pack of labels in the “post-world” music industry is Brighton-based Soundway Records. Instead of confining a culture to a narrow, “indigenous” definition, the label highlights incidents of cultural exchange that support the idea of fluid identity. Past releases include the Orlando Julius and his Afro Sounders reissue, which showcased a Nigerian group equally at ease with highlife as Motown; the Mulatu Astatke sampler EP, which featured the Father of Ethio-Jazz, a man whose music swayed between Middle Eastern harmonies, Ethiopian melodies, and jazz progressions; and the Ghana Soundz series, which traversed the well-worn path of Afrobeat, but highlighted artists from the titular nation in contrast to the predominantly featured Nigeria. Whether this affect is conscious or unconscious, the label has made inroads toward exploding the world-music myth and reframing the me-or-them perspective as one of active discourse.
Branching out from the African continent and following the baby steps of a couple Caribbean-based seven-inches (The Blue Rhythm Combo and Richard Stoute and the Telstars), Soundway finally dips into the fertile South American catalog. And what better place to start than with Discos Fuentes, one of Columbia’s oldest and widely recognized labels?
Discos Fuentes is an appropriate jump-off because its history is steeped in the fusion that Soundway champions. The label emerged in the ’30s and struck gold in the ’50s when the international Cuban mambo craze crashed head-first into cumbia, along with other popular forms, such as big-band jazz. Although Discos Fuentes continues to pump out a broad range of popular music, the label’s output from the ’60s and ’70s matches the dusty international aesthetics of Soundway. The result, Columbia! The Golden Years of Discos Fuentes: 1960-1976, is an eclectic crib-sheet compendium of both the label’s signature dance-floor burners and one-off funk curiosities.
Understandably Columbia’s native cumbia form, itself a hybrid form identified by a steady, shuffling rhythm, is interpreted repeatedly throughout the collection. However, the style is reinterpreted in a number of manners: Lito Barrientos y su Orquesta ease the tempo and punch up the horn charts to give “Cumbia en do Menor” a quasi-vallenato-meets-mambo feel; meanwhile, La Sonora Cienaguera breezes through “La Piojosa” at a merengue-like clip. Jazz rears its modal head on more recent numbers by Fruko y sus Tesos (“Improvisando”) and the Latin Brothers (“Patrona de los Reclusos”), and ’70s cheese funk throws its sweaty sweet-back into gems like Wganda Kenya’s “Tifit Hayed.”
Keeping in mind that Discos Fuentes has stayed relevant by producing popular music, not just jams for the near-sighted and overweight music freakniks, conventional salsa like Fruko y sus Tesos’ “Salsa Na Ma” figures repeatedly through the compilation. However, Columbia! succeeds in painting a broad picture of the Columbian soundscape. No longer content with pegging a whole nation with one sound or rhythm/riddim, Soundway continues to pave the way for other (especially older) labels in reframing how to share our neighbors’ music.