Music Reviews
Mar Dulce

Bajofondo Mar Dulce

(Surco) Rating - 8/10

Bajofondo are easily dismissed as the mercenary project of a Hollywood-hungry super-producer, with Gustavo Santaolalla in the Ry Cooder role. A former folk singer - his early records were penned in a hippy commune - then rock producer in Argentina and Los Angeles, Santaolalla went on to contribute to the soundtracks of films such as The Insider and Babel. Alongside Santaolalla, the Uruguayan DJ and producer Juan Campodónico and the pianist and DJ Luciano Supervielle assembled a mixture of well-known tangos, electronic beats, and sampled or invited guest vocalists and musicians. The result was 2002's Bajofondo Tango Club, alongside the work of Gotan Project, one of the albums credited with the invention of "electronic tango".

Most of those involved in the Bajofondo project have tended to reject the "electronic tango" label, although as a marketing strategy and a slot for reviewers, the term works just fine. It does, however, simplify the complex relationship that their music has with traditional tango, a genre known for border disputes and expulsions, perhaps most notably the refusal of many aficionados to recognise the work of the best known modern tango composer, Astor Piazzola. Uruguay and Argentina are countries with different musical heritages; the traditions of the former, in particular, are more open about the contribution African music made to the development of the tango. Candombe, an African drumming style originating from the Congo, has a stated presence in Uruguayan music that it lacks in Argentina's.

After ...Tango club it was Supervielle's eponymous solo release, the second recording by the Bajofondo group, that made it clear that there was more to their work than sticking a dancefloor beat under a 1930s tango: contributions from the Uruguayan rapper Santullo, a stomping remix of Perfume - a collaboration that showcased another star of Uruguayan music, Jorge Drexler - and the astonishing voice of Cristóbal Repetto, all made for a rounded and provocative debut.

In the last couple of years, something curious happened to an outfit that began very much as a samples project. While touring, a relatively stable band has come together, featuring elements of the tango "orquesta típica" such as the bandoneón, and an almost unique Stroh violin or violín corneta (basically a fiddle with an ear trumpet sticking out of it). Live, Bajofondo are about as much fun as can be had; their album launch shows in Buenos Aires in December were half-homecoming, half-NYE party, with tickertape, chandeliers, balloons, and dancing girls thrown in for good measure.

"Mar dulce" is Spanish for "sweet sea", or, more idiomatically, "fresh water". The term was first used in the 1500s by the Spanish conquistador Juan Días de Solís to describe the River Plate, the body of water that separates the countries we now call Argentina and Uruguay. As the title of the third outing from the Bajofondo collective, it tries to capture both the close yet conflictive musical relationship between the neighbouring countries and those characteristics the music shares with the deceptive, tricky river.

Unlike previous releases, Mar Dulce was recorded as a proper studio album. The collaborations are with bigger names: Soda Stereo's vocalist, Gustavo Cerrati, perhaps the most important figure in Argentine rock of the last twenty years (imagine Bono, but not a moron), sings on the stand-out, stoned-AOR of El mareo, with additional programming from the marvellous Uruguayan duo Omar; Juan Subirá (of Bersuit) growls his way through Hoy; and even Elvis Costello appears on the downbeat Santaolalla soundtrack ballad, Fairly Right. I'm not sure what to make of the appearance of Nelly Furtado, other than to note that her vocal performance is dumped on from a great height by the doyenne of Uruguayan tango, Lágrima Ríos, who sadly died a year ago, and the Andalucian rapper Mala Rodriguez, who scowls like a street fight all over El andén.

There are four reasons why this album is necessary: firstly, it will make any party you happen to be soundtracking sound very clever. Secondly, following the samples and contributions will open up a whole world of modern and traditional music from the Southern Cone to you. Thirdly, both live and on stage, tracks like Pa'bailar rock a squeezebox like you've never heard. And, finally, Ry Cooder is nowhere in sight.