Available at: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B000BH4YOU/103-6812569-4129468?v=glance

Cult Cargo: Belize City Boil Up
[Numero Group; 2005]
Rating: 8.8

Belize is not a nation that gets much attention from the rest of the world. A slice of Central America's Caribbean coast smaller than Vermont, it's a former British colony that only gained its independence in 1981. But Belize has a vibrant, diverse, and well-mixed culture that whips together influences and people from across the Caribbean, as well as Europe and Africa. The traditional dish of the country is something of a metaphor for its population: It's called the "boil up," and it essentially involves boiling whatever's on hand-- whole fish, plantains, pork bones, pig's tail, whatever-- together in one pot.

Taking things one step further, the boil up also serves nicely as a culinary analog to the country's musical output. Though it's a part of the mainland, Belize is essentially a Caribbean country, and its close ties to Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago are apparent on even a cursory listen to the limited recorded output of the local and ex-pat Belizean musical community. And of course, like any Anglophone country, Belize was hit by the soul and funk sounds of the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s. The exuberant embrace of all of these influences is excellently chronicled on Belize City Boil Up, the latest from Numero Group and the inaugural release in what figures to be a series of similarly themed Numero compilations called Cult Cargo.

The bulk of the music on the disc was actually recorded outside of Belize, either by bands formed in the Belizean communities scattered in large American cities, or by Belizean groups touring abroad in Brooklyn and Jamaica. Compton Fairweather's CES label, originally founded as an electronic security system installation company, served as the official curator of the country's music, releasing nearly everything in the United States. Unfortunately, not many people outside of Belize were listening, and the music has languished in obscurity.

This set of 16 scraped-together tracks has an aura of the impossible about it. How could this music possibly have existed for so long without being heard by anyone other than a handful of absurdly dedicated crate-diggers? Lord Rhaburn's "Disco Connection" is outlandishly danceable, a white dwarf of precision instrumental funk with incredibly sophisticated production that hints at dub, as well as some genres not yet invented at the time of its recording, like house. The reverb on the saxes is majestic, and the bassline has an indescribable humidity to it, burning front-and-center in the mix. Rhaburn was a towering figure in Belizean music and one of its most prolific recorders. His other three songs here run the gamut from roots reggae to deep soul and strutting surf rock with a funky Muscle Shoals undercarriage.

Also clocking in with four tracks are the Professionals, led by Jesus Acosta, who first appear as a hardcore calypso band with a wonderful take on the traditional "Guajida" (also known as "Guarija"), opening it with a bright, rugged sax melody that oozes sexuality. They flirt with psychedelia on "A Part of Being With You", morph the O'Jays' "Backstabbers" into horn-drenched reggae, and reinvent the theme from The Godfather as a spooky breakbeat masterpiece. The Web were actually based in Brooklyn, and their "Things Are Going to Work Out Right" is one of the most impressive songs in this boil up, beginning as a bluesy soul ballad slathered in Philly-smooth horns, only to explode midway through into a raucous funk workout stuffed with staccato horns, chicken-scratch guitar, and wailing Hammond organ.

The other three artists whose songs have been resurrected by this comp were sadly less prolific but no less remarkable in their skill. Most of these bands played thousands of shows and recorded only when they had the rare opportunity, and their discipline is readily apparently on the precious vinyl they did manage to produce. The Soul Creations offer a two-part funk instrumental called "Funky Jive", which is easily on par with anything the Propositions and other similar America funk acts of the era were turning out. The Harmonettes give up a smoking rocksteady take on Johnny Nash's "Can't Go Halfway", then outdo themselves by transforming Shirley & Co.'s slick disco smash "Shame, Shame, Shame" into a nasty, ragged funk song. The set is rounded out by an oddball song from Nadia Cattouse, a Belizean living in London: "Long Time Boy" is exotica pop full of whistling flute and wandering guitar that feels totally out of time and place. It could have come from anywhere, any time, perhaps even outer space.

Boil Up is possibly the most solid release to date from Numero Group, which is by this point one of the best and most thoughtful reissue labels in the country. If you like funk-- and especially if you feel you've already largely mined American r&b-- there's plenty to dig into here, and hopefully more where that came from.

-Joe Tangari, October 27, 2005