Despite John Keats’ blunder in his famous sonnet, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” it was Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa who, in 1513, marched across the isthmus of Panama and became the first European to stare “with eagle eyes” upon the Pacific. In the process, “stout” Balboa established the first of the European settlements in the new lands.
In celebration of the quincentenary of that event, Panamanian pianist-composer Danilo Perez is releasing a musical tribute to his country and its broad range of cultural influences, in a new album called Panama 500. Perez says that Panama is “a place where a lot of influences from all over the world come together.” It is a land of multiple traditions, and it was Perez’s feeling that the music on his album should mirror those traditions.
He speaks of what he calls the “three dimensional” quality of his music, a blend of jazz, native folk elements, and the European classical traditions. Harvard professor David Carrasco, who contributes the liner notes, puts it this way: “Danilo and his ensemble trans-culturate jazz, Latin American folk wisdom, classical music, North American blues, with Middle Eastern and Asian sounds in the mix.” Perez’s expansive view of what music should be refuses to accept generic limitations, just as he feels his country is not subject to cultural limitations.
Perez, well known for his work with the Wayne Shorter Quartet, has gathered a variety of musicians who represent these different traditions and that he has played with over the years to join in his project. Joining him on some tracks are Shorter vets John Patitucci (bass) and Brian Blade (drums), on others are his trio partners Ben Street (bass) and Adam Cruz (drums). They are supplemented by violinist Alex Hargreaves and cellist Sachi Patitucci for the classical touch. Multicultural Latin American folklorica is represented by percussionists Roman Diaz (Cuba), Rogerio Boccato (Brazil) and from Panama, Milagros Blades, and Ricaurte Villarreal.
The music is a programmatic description of the country’s history and culture beginning with a piece called “Rediscovery of the South Sea,” which paints a sonic portrait of Balboa’s trek through the jungle, complete with native chanting to represent the local inhabitants in contrast to more classically-inspired violin passages. The celebratory title song follows playing with Panamanian dance rhythms, while “Reflections on the South Sea,” a more serious piece, features the cello of Sachi Patitucci.
“Abia Yala,” which is the native Guna term for the Americans, like most other pieces on the album emphasizes the combination of different cultural influences by juxtaposing the jazz trio and a pan flute-like instrument played by a Guna musician, Eulogiio Olaideginia Benitez. “Gratitude,” in some sense an outlier, Perez says is an acknowledgement to all his influences, jazz and familial. There is the three-part “Canal Suite” followed by “The Expedition.” “Panama Viejo,” bookended by native narratives ends the album.
Danilo Perez’s Panama 500 makes it clear that not only is it possible to integrate diverse traditions, it is a dynamic way to create an original voice—a delightful voice, well worth the effort.