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How Punk Led Dean Pallen to Nuevo Latin

May 2011

Bolero in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's Chilperic (1896). From Wikimedia.

By Mike Levin

“Canadians are not used to hearing a singer pour every bit of their being into a song the way a bolero singer will.” Dean Pallen, Rimbombante.

Hollywood used Ravel’s Bolero to turn Bo Derek into a sex goddess in the movie 10, and then dropped her into lechery in the abysmal feature Bolero. This isn’t Pallen’s idea of the genre. His version may also be sweaty, but it’s far-more traditional, the slow dance music that started in Spain 200 years ago. He stumbled onto it in his punk-rock phase and has been using it ever since to navigate a musical path yet to discover its true direction.

Latin band Rimbombante is one of three headings Pallen is taking right now as a songwriter and saxophonist. Another is with Raivo, a world-pop-and-jazz group. And then there’s his solo jazz album called Strathcona Park.

“I’ve finally found that I’m grounded in jazz and love experimentation with music from around the world. But ultimately I’m a pop musician.” he says. His sound isn’t all that confusing – melodic mashups – but the influences are, probably because Pallen didn’t grasp music with a passion until his late 20s.

Rimbombante live. Courtesy of Dean Pallen.

He comes from a working class family in London, Ont., where creativity, politics, even academics were never articulated. No surprise that he fell in love with punk music, especially the Sex Pistols, in his teens. It was also no surprise when he realized punk music was a crucible for politics, and Pallen soon became a very political person.

While working for UNICEF in Madagascar for three years following university, he got a bigger picture of the real needs of developing countries, something most NGOs can’t address. Now approaching 50, he’s made a career as a consultant in development-oriented projects. Music devoured while in Africa or Central America was always his travelling companion.

Punk led him to Mink DeVille, a phenomenon in New York’s alternative music scene from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s but also a unique interpreter of nuevo-Latino melodies picked up from American Cajun to Cuban boleros. It fueled Pallen’s fascination with Latin music.

He spent a year in Costa Rica, just to learn Spanish, before focussing on development work.  He heard indigenous bolero and realized it fit his sensibilities. It also wore out boxes of his saxophone reeds.

“I’m passionate about a lot of different things, but I’m always looking for music that can take you somewhere, more musicians, more instrumentation,” Pallen says. That’s why his affair with traditional bolero (on 2010‘s Una Aventure Mas) could never be satisfying.

As he developed Rimbombante and Raivo, he found “all sorts on influences creeping into my compositions. I always wanted to (create) uniquely original music.” Then he met Brazilian guitarist Evandro Gracelli and Cuban drummer Arien Villegas, who joined Rimbombante and collaborated on original material that will show up on 21 Extra Days of Summer this year, a Latin tribute to the work of Brian Wilson (Beach Boys).

Pallen feels this original repertoire has better dance hooks and fuses Latin pop and jazz into a much more attractive package. His litmus test for what works: “If I find myself humming it.”

Rimbombante will play Eri Cafe May 14.

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Images Sur Toile (2009)

Gatineau’s annual showcase of Outaouais artists happens May 14, 15 in the stunning foyer of Gatineau’s City Hall. Images Sur Toile offers the opportunity to see artists that rarely show up in Ottawa galleries.

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