I always get miffed at the way people refer to pop musicians as artists. If there is any group of entertainers who are further away from fulfilling the definition of being an artist than they are I've yet to come across it. It's not really their fault of course; it’s just the way the system works.
You see to be an artist means that you are continually attempting to try something new. Experimenting with form and style in search of a new way to represent what you are trying to depict, tell, or explain. That of course is the antithesis of what the pop music business is all about. There the object is to find something that sells and repeat that formula as much as you possibly can until the world moves onto the next thing and leaves you as yesterday's hit.
This isn't just a modern phenomenon; it has been going on since the early days of popular music back in the 1920's. There were whole buildings in lower Manhattan where each office contained a piano, enough cigarette smoke to cause a miniature green house effect, and one or two people churning out song after song in an attempt to either create the next big thing or imitate it.
Those musicians we remember from that time periods, like the Gershwin brothers George and Ira for instance, are the ones who were the artists continually breaking new ground with their music. The same holds true for the contemporary scene as well. Think back over the last ten years about who you remember from pop music and I'll bet they stand out because they were different from what the mainstream was churning out.
Now I'm not saying that just because somebody experiments they are going to be remembered, some experiments are still better left un-tried (Pat Boone doing Heavy Metal springs to mind as does Neil Young's Transformer album) and the sooner forgotten the better. But there are also those attempts that make you sit up and pay attention to the people behind the project.
The new self-produced and independently released disc by Afuche, Carajo Is Worse Than Hell is a great example of the latter. The two main players in Afuche are Zach Ryails and Ruben Sindo Acosta, and they are accompanied on this disc by Mike Brown on acoustic bass, Josh Lawrence on trumpet, Ryan Perrey on electric bass, and Charlie Amador on drums and additional percussion.
With that sort of line up the assumption that Carajo Is Worse Than Hell being jazz like would only be fair. So the first song on the five track E.P. comes as a wee bit of a surprise. "A Cue To Bathe" starts out as Klezmar as anything you'd hear played in Fiddler On The Roof and halfway through turns into something resembling a Buena Vista Social Club reunion.
It would never have occurred to me to segue from Eastern European Jewish to Afro-Cuban rhythms, but, hard as it might be to believe, the transition between the two was without incident. It sounded as natural as if they just moved from one verse of the song to the next but playing in a different key.
But that's a key element of successful experimentation and creativity; finding the means to ensure seemingly disparate elements fit together and be able to make something new out of that joining instead of it just sounding like an incoherent mess. There is sometimes a fine line between self-indulgent crap and artistic expression, but Afuche never seem in danger of being guilty of the former.
One of the things I appreciated most about this disc was that unlike other bands, Afuche don't seem to confuse experimentation with discordance. You can still make thoughtful music that is tuneful and melodic while experimenting with personal modes of expression, and there is no need to proclaim your alternativeness by eschewing the idea that music be an enjoyable experience for your audience.
"What Distracted Slowdrag", the last song on the CD, is a wonderful jazz composition with some beautiful keyboard work and great interplay between the instruments. What impressed me most about this piece is the awareness it expresses of the music that has come before them. Instead of pretending that they are creating in a vacuum where music has no history, they have used the works of people they admire as a starting point.
In the case of this song elements of Charlie Mingus compositions are obvious to my ear because that's what I'm familiar with, but I'm sure others would recognise other influences as well. To it is a sign of maturity in an artist when they don't recklessly disregard what's come before simply because it's already been done but instead use the past as their foundation to build something new upon.
Afuche might have been a deliberate attempt by Zach and Reuben to take a different approach to creating music than either of them had followed in the past, but that doesn't mean they are simply being experimental for the sake of being experimental. Carajo Is Worse Than Hell is the type of disc we need pop musicians to be making more often in order to guarantee the future will at least be interesting.
This is intelligent music created by artists who are willing to take chances in the hope of discovering something new and exciting to perform. That you get more good music from the five songs on this disc than you do on most twelve-song discs these days should tell you how successful their experiments were.