Alex Reyes plays his guitar. Photo by Eric Jackson
New Shorty & Slim CD
A long and long-distance collaboration bears new fruit
by Eric Jackson
Being The Crossroads of the World, Panama is the source of many a diaspora. People come here from lots of places, and leave here for many destinations. The gradual end of a colonial enclave known as the Canal Zone, which finally ran its course at the end of 1999, sent out another wave of emigration, the Zonians and US military people who mostly went elsewhere. The center of gravity of the Zonian diaspora is the Gulf Coast, weighted heavier toward the Tampa area. Some of the people who extended the Canal Zone way of life by taking civilian jobs with the US Department of Defense went with USARSO to Puerto Rico, or SouthCom to Miami, or to bases in Germany, Japan or wherever. This scattering was particularly intense for the younger generation, for whom there were few opportunities to earn the standard of living to which they had become accustomed here.
It almost busted up Shorty and Slim, with the former (David Seitz) headed for a job in Germany while the latter (Alex Reyes) stayed on this side of the ocean. It’s a problem to have an ocean separating the main songwriter and lead guitarist (Seitz) from the lead singer (Reyes) and the rest of the band and crew.
But not quite. Shorty and Slim live, and have put out their first CD in about seven years, since before the canal’s final reversion to Panama.
Shorty & Slim made their mark in performances and three previous discs as the youngest generation of Panamanian calypso, with an appreciation for Caribbean musical forms, put-on Antillean voices and local themes tinged with the occasional bit of Canal Zone nostalgia.
But the social context here is of a post-treaty nature. These are not guys who grew up in fear of the other side of the street, who fled in something approaching terror and to this day grumble about being stabbed in the back by Jimmy Carter. These are young men who came of age during a time of a dissolving colonial boundary, in a social milieu very different from the old Zonian society from when this reporter was a kid. The Zonians who left with plans never to return appreciate Shorty & Slim for the nostalgic memories, but those who visit as much as they can and intend to return as soon as possible tend to appreciate them more in the present tense. They may be a nostalgia band at the CZ reunions, but they’re one of the expressions of Panama’s English-language culture for those of us who live it.
But that separation is hard, and it meant that on December 29 at Lum’s the album introduction gig featured Shorty and Slim without Shorty, Seitz being in Germany. It was still a lot of fun, and Reyes said that Seitz will be with the band when they play with The Mighty Sparrow et al in Boquete during Carnival.
The party at Lum’s was fun for a crowd of several generations, even if the place is not well set up for music, and even if the Miller Beer sponsorship has these Barbie and Ken types walking around in strange neo-Central European uniforms --- or were they closer to the things that the plutocratic forces wear in Trashman commix? --- to promote the brand (or maybe an American-style putsch?), and even if it was the latter part of a long working day for me.
I found myself at a table mainly populated by 70s Balboa High grads, from which the view of the band was obstructed. And about that time, the lyrics got around to:
…dem was acting like buffoons
then I realized
they were my best friends from high school
And the people watching was to match --- spilled beer, widespread disregard for the laws about smoking in enclosed spaces, conversations like: “Bitch!” “But I’m such a nice bitch….” And as my own mental faculties began to wander, I began to ponder how free trade with the Americans might affect the meat market qualities of this and other Panamanian bars.
But the intermission ended, the band played more of the things from the new CD and certain salient facts began to emerge.
First, Going Down to Panama is about two-thirds a “new” album and about one-third a collection of things that were recorded at a live gig at the Balboa Yacht Club six years ago. Maybe the live stuff is to keep those who liked the previous three Shorty & Slim discs from being disappointed by the new musical styles the band explores in the first 11 tracks.
The new music “is kind of country, borderline country, with a little bit of rock and roll, and not as much calypso as before,” Reyes said. And it’s good --- no creative person wants to get jammed into one thing for too long, and these new directions mean that despite everything, Shorty and Slim are live and evolving.
The initial track and title cut, Going Down to Panama, was, like all but one of the new songs, a Dave Seitz composition. That incurable homesickness afflicting all who have drunk of the Chagres River is a familiar theme, even if the style is soft rock. Do a video with that music and the right visuals and you’d have a better tourism promotion than any of the high-priced ad agencies have produced for this country to date.
Next we get The Chiva Bus, a calypso about some Panamanian working class culture that some of the more clueless guides to travel and living in Panama warn you not to sample.
Riding the chiva bus is most advantageous
It saves you on gas and it makes your courageous
The third cut, “Big Ship,” gives us Danny Mellado’s steel drums and a maritime theme, but despite that the island influence is mixed with others and it’s hard to pigeonhole this one by genre. Similarly, the fourth cut, Hey You, has an unmistakably reggae beat but can’t be unambiguously labeled such.
This Old House is a Seitz tune that was “Zonianized” by Reyes, about one of the architectural expressions of the 96-year US presence here, is something of a country song that again pulls nostalgic heartstrings.
Colon It Look Like Venice, the sole Reyes solo composition among the new songs, is about Colon underwater after a big rainstorm. Though sung with an Antillean accent, it shows more American soul than Caribbean music influence.
No Es Una Carrera, a joint Seitz-Reyes composition, is also sung in a Caribbean voice, but more of a soft rock tune about cayuco racing.
Jammaman is a reggae tune: “just get irie now --- don’t want no negatory ting.”
Then comes Out on the Ocean, pretty much a country tune in style, even if mother, prison, trucks, trains or farms don’t figure in the lyrics.
Puro Tilin-Tilin is a calypso tune about so many of the disappointments one encounters when “they advertise for a tasty treat, but now we all know betta” --- and not just in the ice cream business.
The last new song in the collection, Mine, is a soft rock love song, a fine tune to end a new collection.
But of course that’s not the end of the CD. The “bonus material” from that 2001 gig includes live versions of Fadda Madda, Pedro, Life on Mango Street and I Don’t Like Snow.
This is a fun CD, and evidence of Shorty & Slim’s musical growth under trying conditions.
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