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Miguel 'Anga' Diaz - Echu Mingua

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Artist: Miguel 'Anga' Diaz

Album: Echu Mingua

Label: World Circuit

Review date: Aug. 2, 2005

Great percussionists rarely get their due in any situation. Bata drummers in Nigeria, Benin and Cuba are often relegated to lining up and practically begging for their supper at religious ceremonies that couldn't occur without their drumming. The great conguero Chano Pozo came to the United States at the invitation of Dizzy Gillespie; in just a few short years, he introduced the indelible stamp of Afro-Cuban fire to Dizzy's many incarnations of bop and resultant experimentation, only to die in a knife fight over manteca (slang for “dope,” from the Spanish word meaning “lard.”) Even today, great solo congueros like Giovanni Hidalgo and Richie Flores remain stuck in superstar sideman gigs, with the occasional over-produced solo album (typically silky, oak-paneled arrangements of Latin jazz standards, each with a requisite solo and a surprise guest here and there) stuck in between endless drum clinic tours.

The prodigious Miguel “Anga” Diaz has managed to sidestep a few of the ruts and potholes that retain so many of his gifted peers. Along with collaborators Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez – who, along with his uncle, the legendary Cachao, is one of the world's great Cuban bassists – and an international posse including French dj Dee Nasty, flautist Majik Malik , and Malian griot Baba Sissoko, Anga brings forth a coherent volume of hot and sticky groove and texture . Many of the artists backing up Diaz came together on the groundbreaking Afro-Cuban dub odyssey Cachaito in 2001, in which Lopez and Diaz brilliantly dismantled post-bop jazz, Mikey Dread-era laboratory experimentation, and heaps of Cuban guajira and bembe sounds, reassembling all as a Frankenstein's bride of clave and mediterranean hip hop.

Echu Mingua, named for Anga's la guardia or “patron saint” in the Yoruba religion, continues with the bold genre deconstruction of the Cachaito sessions. As a deity, Echu is said to manifest himself in as many as 121 caminos or distinct personalities, and Anga's work remains true to that spirit of polymorphic grace. The album opens with “San Juan Y Martinez,” an audio collage of sounds from Anga's house and home town layered atop sonero style singing, Anga's uzi-flavored conga dispatches, and a stealth introduced beat from Dee Nasty. Anga and company then move into “Rezos” (“prayers,”), a track that shifts gears from Palo-inspired coros into a groove that veers dangerously close to Ramsey Lewis smoothness, but is cleverly broken up by Dee Nasty's scratching, an effect that finds a humble corner of the mix and never rises to the point of being obnoxious.

Clearly in deference to the presence of Cachaito, the great Cuban pianists Ruben Gonzalez (now playing shuffleboard in the sky) and Irakere-founder Chucho Valdes, Diaz wisely includes moments like the polite danzon “Pueblo Nuevo,” and relaxes the pace just long enough to allow these masters to flex their traditional muscle before delving into another fusion. Anga seamlessly works his own conga playing – steeped in the African roots of lukumi music – into these jams without stepping on the toes of his worldly collaborators. In fact, the song “Tume Tume,” featuring kora and Sissoko's rabid talking drum, works if only to demonstrate the deep blood ties between Cuban music and its West African fore bearers.

Despite this pan-global posse's omnipresent sonic gadgetry (one exception is the oddly beautiful trio arrangement of “Dracula Simon,” featuring only Diaz, Cachaito, and Magik Malik, replete with Herbie Mann-esque shrieks between the notes of his flute solo), a profound respect for classic American composition from George Gershwin to Cachaito’s hero Charles Mingus, is never more than a song away. One of Anga's trademarks as a percussionist is his tendency to play multiple, carefully tuned congas. While he certainly isn't lacking in the flash and speed of mano secreto (“secret hand”) conga technique, Anga displays an often otherworldly musicianship in his cold fusion combination of crackling percussion, pentatonic melody and hard groove tumbao-style bass lines, all from his congas, in full effect during the creepy string-laden rendition of “Round Midnight,” using seven drums. In what is perhaps the album's most transcendent moment, Anga and Cachaito fearlessly reinvent and reinvigorate “A Love Supreme,” introducing unexpected rhythmic shifts, strange new textures (particularly the string section) and boldly quoting the original with force and grace.

Echu Mingua sags in a few spots, particularly when Anga's drums lose ground to the beehive of activity that is this ensemble. Throughout the album, however, the roots and core of Anga and Cachaito's fresh take on global groove propel the affair forward with gusto and determination.

By Andy Freivogel

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