Album Review: La Mambanegra – La Galeria [Afropicks, 21st January 2016]

La Mambanegra, the excellent Colombian dance orchestra is on a mission to, “bring a new concept of salsa and Latin music to the world.” Colombia is the birthplace of the now infamous cumbia that made its way up the Magdalena River to receive an almost mythical status as a musical genre. However, for their new release La Galeria, La Mambanegra chose not to play Colombian music, and have focused on Latin music instead, releasing an album that expresses Latin identity and traditionalism.

La Galeria will sound very familiar to fans of Latin American dance music, with the salsa vibes and even the arrangement of the album being immediately recognisable. There is also wind instrumentation that appears in long bursts throughout, demonstrating a real appreciation of Jazz in the music of Irakere. Acoustic drums have also found a new home in Latin American music since the early to mid 20th century, marking a whole new era for the genre.

Every single song on this album is well executed. ‘Sabor de la Guayaba’, which translates to ‘the taste of Guava fruit’, is a purely hedonistic experience: it is the sound of pleasure that in itself brings pleasure to the listener. The singer lets the instruments interact, but does not let them dominate his singing. The choir’s contribution is convivial and truly heartwarming. ‘Barrio Caliente’ moves slowly but with purpose, a clear expression of their personality. It is the sound that comes from a living, breathing place and we can safely assume that this place is the Barrio, or the neighbourhood. ‘Parece Perfecto’ is a funky explosion of instruments that pulsates the listener and is another in a list of great songs.

One of the great challenges in producing an album like this is how to make wind instruments and acoustic drums produce sounds that will make the audience dance, and that have the required amount of fury and fire to them. In ‘Cantare Para Voz’ however, we hear exactly that: a slow dance, with sounds tailored to make us swoon to the beat of a finely tuned orchestra. ‘Cantare Para Voz’ is expertly crafted and is by far the best composition on this album.

With its many acoustic instruments, La Galeria asks us to listen and to take in Latin tradition, in an age of DJs and electronic music. The rhythm and language here are explorations of an identity, and what’s great is that this not the sound of a hotel band, but of a band that believes in Latin identity and that it can be expressed in song.

It’s also important to note that the listener is allowed enough space for ambiguity and is not expected to subscribe to any sort of ideology with La Galeria. In the end, it is a fun album that is rooted in very strong conceptions of a Latin self.