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WEEKEND REVIEWS | Pop Music Review

Carlos Vives Makes Old and New Dance Together

August 07, 2000|ERNESTO LECHNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Anybody who has spent at least the first 10 or 12 years of his or her life in Latin America will tell you: Reality there is experienced differently from the rest of the world.

There's something about the brutal contrast between the opulently rich and the hopelessly poor, the indigenous culture and the European idiosyncrasy, the constant philosophizing and the passionate devotion to religion, that makes life south of the border a never-ending succession of miracles, small and big.

And when it's time to party, music is everywhere, sensuous, loud and percolating.

Saturday at the Universal Amphitheatre, Carlos Vives captured the complex essence of the Latin American experience with enviable precision.

It was a stunning, two-hour show that underscored why he is the most important Latin artist of the year--and a favorite in next month's Latin Grammy Awards program. He goes into the first annual competition with four nominations.

What's admirable about Vives' work is that he operates within the confines of the Latin pop world, a genre that for the last two decades has been flooded with soulless stars and plastic, saccharine-heavy product.

Vives doesn't seem to care. Rather, he appears to exist in an altogether different dimension than his competitors. Not surprisingly, the key to his success is the sincere love he harbors for his country and its traditions.

Titled "El amor de mi tierra" (The Love of My Land), the singer's latest album pays homage to his native Colombia, the beauty of its provincial life and its infectious musicality. "Son~amos con la paz," reads a handwritten sentence inside the CD jewel case. "We dream with peace."

Vives has spoken of this record as a musical antidote to the violence and social chaos that currently afflict Colombia. Life there is not all bad, was Saturday's implied message. The people still have their music, and their desire to live and dance.

And dance they did. Before a capacity crowd that waved Colombian flags and simply refused to sit down, Vives delivered superior versions of most of the songs from the new album.

As a songwriter, Vives designs his melodies to take advantage of the talents of two formidable players. First, there's the hot and sweet accordion of Egidio Cuadrado, which uses the traditional vallenato music of Colombia as a starting point, then expands its scope to include other sounds, reminiscent of norten~o, tango and cumbia.

Then there's the gaita (an elongated, high-pitched flute) of Mayte Montero, a diminutive but volcanic woman who brings Vives' songs closer to the sound of the Andes. Watching her dance wildly while toying with a variety of percussion instruments is a spectacle in itself. The remaining eight musicians form the plump structures on which those two virtuosos interplay with each other and with the singer's pleasant, evocative vocals.

Vives' fusion is seamless: vallenato coexists with rock 'n' roll, with occasional incursions into reggae, salsa and ballad territory.

The record also includes a cumbia, a cover of the Colombian standard "La Piragua." If you're familiar with the classic 1969 version by Gabriel Romero y su Orquesta, you know that matching its flavor is a daunting task. Live, Vives turned it all around, inviting the audience to sing the chorus, passing the challenge with flying colors.

A night of genuine triumph.

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