Chips and Salsa 

English drum 'n' bass meets Colombian world music. Hilarity doesn't ensue. Meet Sidestepper.

No doubt about it: Richard Blair's music could be really bad. Not just soundwise, either -- it could be exploitative and self-important in a way most electronic music isn't. Typically, dance producers are content cloistering themselves in their studios, which could be anywhere, and conjuring abstract sounds, which could originate from anything: a sample of a blender, the hiccup of a drum machine, a computer- generated signal. But Blair, who records under the alias Sidestepper, is a knob-twiddler with a passport.

Sidestepper splits his time between London, England, and Bogotá, Colombia, marrying the sleek production values of his native First World with the polyrhythms that grew out of the African diaspora -- not just in Colombia, but also Jamaica and Cuba. His project, by its very nature, immediately suggests some corny notions: injecting cool London fog into the steam of the rainforest, mingling transatlantic dance music cultures through a mixer, or stirring up 21st-century recipes of salsa with electric ingredients.

The number of potential awful food analogies alone -- peppers, spices, and the like -- should make us wary.

Yes, Blair's Sidestepper guise could easily be just another carpetbagger with a sampler, or just another globetrotter suffering delusions of grandeur similar to those American guitarist Ry Cooder endured on his Buena Vista Social Club outing, which arrived at some great music but managed to sap the fun out of it. But what elevates Blair's music above Starbucks compilations is simply the honesty of his approach. He's not grabbing Latin rhythms piecemeal, loading them into a computer, and forcing them into a club-friendly template. Nor is he treating traditional music such as cumbia and salsa like museum pieces. On 3 AM (In Beats We Trust), his second full-length effort, Sidestepper arrives at a hypermodern Latin music that the local club kids in Bogotá -- raised taking salsa lessons but also hip to techno and Ecstasy -- have been embracing.

"I really don't think I could have made this record without having reverence for the complex musical language that is Latin music," he says over the phone from Bogotá. "I'm definitely not into the cut-and-paste thing, but instead I'm trying to build things from the ground up -- how you can arrange this electronic rhythm in a Colombian way."

It's an idea whose time has apparently come. Interest in the nebulous fields of electronica and world music seems to be sagging of late, with both suffering from profound watering-down and overexposure. The backlash against electronic music, in part, has been motivated by the yearning for a return to the human element -- witness the rise of live techno-replicating acts such as the Rapture, the New Deal, and Soundtribe Sector 9. Instead of holing up in the lab and artificially lifting parts from the Colombian records he was infatuated with, Blair decided to assemble top-notch players into a quasi-band format. It's not a band in the traditional sense, in that the various singers and instrumentalists usually come together in the virtual space of his studio equipment, but "95 percent of the sounds come from live players," as he puts it.

On his first album, 2000's More Grip, Blair took a much heavier hand as a producer, bending the hand percussion and horn-playing of his musicians around the programmed breakbeats of drum 'n' bass, that funk-on-steroids sound originating in his native Britain. 3 AM is far more subtle in its plasticity, coming off more like a dubby, electronically shimmering updating of salsa.

The goal, he says, was to cover his tracks as much as possible.

"What I'm more and more getting into is where you can't tell what's electronic and what isn't," he explains. "Especially in the rhythm section --where it grooves along and feels organic, but it's got weight and electronic power to it, too."

Sometimes, the studio augmentation is only detectable in the slightly-too-orderly clip of the beats or the duration of the echoing horns, as in the album's opener, "Deja (Mary)." On the two tracks with the remarkable Cuban singer Ronald Insante -- "Dame Tu Querer (Musa)" and "Aunque Me Duela La Vida" -- Blair's touch is discernible just in the unusually deep bass and the soft waves of synthesized melody that laps at the more prominent and unaltered brass section.

That Blair would be immersing himself more and more into the raw sounds of Colombia with each release isn't surprising. He's been spending more of his year there, and as his mastery of the language has increased, he's been able to make more inroads into the local music scene. He originally came to South America on assignment while working for Peter Gabriel's Real World label in the early '90s. In between sessions as an engineer at Gabriel's Bristol studio, where he worked alongside Brian Eno and Pakistani star Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, he traveled to Colombia to play and record Toto de Monposina, a local singer. He became enchanted by the incredibly diverse musical styles and the warm people, and a few-week trip stretched to months.

Blair rented a flat and devoured "hundreds and hundreds" of Colombian records -- primarily the classic salsa sound of the mid-'70s -- ferreting out the production quirks that gave the music such immediacy. In 1994, his attention split between Latin music and the brand-new British drum 'n' bass sound, which was also syncopated, constantly shifting, and deeply sexual. He had already honed his beat-making chops back in England where he'd crossed paths with the moody Bristol contingent Massive Attack, Portishead, and Smith & Mighty, so the integration of his two passions was inevitable.

In 1997, he released the single "Maine," which incorporated a salsa piano loop and was, by most accounts, the first Latin drum 'n' bass track ever. For a few years, he enjoyed an unusual ambassadorship between two cultures at once -- DJing and heavily promoting the previously alien electronic sounds in Bogotá, and introducing Colombian flavors to First World drum 'n' bass fans. This hybrid aesthetic reached its zenith with More Grip, a heavily warped and studio tricked-out interpretation of cumbia and salsa. As testament to his real understanding of the local fare, the album has "become sort of a modern salsa classic here rather than an electronic thing, and people think of it as a Colombian record," he says.

On 3 AM, though, the willy-nilly percussive rolls of drum 'n' bass are gone; the only remnants are the lurking, elephantine bass lines. The spirit of fusion is still strong, however. "You can find the derivation of all the beats on there," Blair says. "Lots of Jamaica and Afrobeat, whatever, but in the end, I wanted to make beats that were a lot more timeless, that had less to do with this month or that month. And the drum 'n' bass thing was just a way into making salsa electronically -- it was just the form that was the most available to adapt and use. But this time, I wanted to make a few new rhythms really. They're not quite Colombian and not quite Jamaican, but some sort of marriage between the two."

Injecting a shot of authenticity into the songwriting is Ivan Benavides of the Colombian band Bloque, who shares production and writing credits. Together, they assembled a semi-regular cast of players who record and tour with them, including singer Janio Coronado, trumpet player Dyan Diaz Conde, and Pernet, a keyboardist who also is a rising dance music producer. (Sadly, the melancholic-voiced standout Insante isn't allowed to leave Cuba.)

After ten years of involvement in Colombian music, Blair has arrived at a format that satisfies both his purist's infatuation with salsa and his clubber's devotion to beats. "I wanted to have the electronics as a base, and that's obviously where the tracks come from, but I wanted to have everybody sing and play on them in a very live way, so we made it like people would make a record twenty years ago," he says.

"That doesn't go out of fashion, the live element -- capturing moments and capturing performances. I think I've got something now that the great salsa producers would respect."

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