Anyone who’s paying attention to world music in the past 20 years or so knows about cumbia. This Colombian folk music style has taken the world by storm in the 2000s. But its cousin vallenato (“vai-yeh-NAH-toh”) is less well known outside the world of Latin music. The Los Angeles-based group Very Be Careful has been making records heavy on vallenato and cumbia for 20 years now, and with Daisy’s Beauty Salon they’re poised for a breakthrough. Pretty much all of their 12 releases since 1998’s Deception Is Easy (produced by the legendary Money Mark) have been recorded live on tape. Some even started out as bootlegs. But for this album they stumbled onto an abandoned studio with a 64-track analog console at its heart and knew they had to use it.
“We rushed in there with no planning,” says frontman and Arturo Guzman, who founded the band with his brother Ricardo. “The songs weren’t finished and we did it on the spot in two days, with no overdubs. Magic happened because we didn’t talk about it, didn’t brood over how the session was going to go. If we think about it too much, it won’t happen.”
Vallenato is a stripped-down music, using just accordion and percussion, with a driving, one-two-three, cha-cha-like rhythm and lyrics that draw on stories found in everyday living. Its heyday was from the 1950s through the ’70s, and the brothers Guzman bring it and cumbia too back to those times before Latin music like this got all electric and pop. They have added bass, either electric bass guitar or acoustic double bass, to make it even more danceable.
It’s infectious. I don’t know Spanish nearly well enough to know everything Guzman’s singing about, but it’s not necessary. With his eclectic and colorful accordion melodies and chords, percussion from Ricardo and Dante Ruiz, Rich Panta on the caja drum and Craig Martin on bass, you could dance to this stuff all night. You can tell even on this rather low-resolution live video.
Guzman’s vocal style, somehow occupying “passionate” and “laconic” at the same time, really pushes the whole thing over the top for me.
The best track is possibly the first one “El Disfraz.” It really charges along on all that rattling percussion and drumming, with a tune that’s immediately catchy and a sing-song chorus. Next up is La Hormiga (“The Ant”). One listen to this and you’ll probably be bouncing along and whistling it to yourself. They even assist by reprising it in the final track.
I don’t usually like Christmas songs, but the loping “Santa Clos” is funny and endearing, a minimalist poet’s look at the gift-bringer. I don’t know if it’s a children’s song but even I understand most of the words. Or is “El Soldado” (“The Soldier”) the most catchy? Or perhaps “El Reloj” (The Wristwatch”). That one has an impossibly memorable instrumental break between the verses.
“La Escuela” (“The School”) is another one with an appropriately sing-song structure and rhyme scheme. It’s a love song in which the narrator confesses that (translating loosely) “at school the only thing I learned was to think about you.”
The song titles, lyrics and simple melodies all speak to this music’s origins as a working class dance music. The Daisy of the album’s title is the Guzmans’ mother, who owned the eponymous beauty shop and who also wrote a lot of these songs.
Daisy’s Beauty Salon made me an instant fan of Very Be Careful. I’ll be exploring their back catalog and hoping for them to pass through my barrio on their next tour. You can keep an eye on dates at their Facebook page.
(Steadybeat/Downtown Pijao, 2018)