Poetry: What sounded like 'I mean Hell' turned out to be 'I need help'

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The Independent Culture
The Latino Poets

Jazz Cafe, NW1

Latin America has come to London, and not only in the form of General Pinochet. - sexagenarians Piri Thomas and Miguel Algarin, plus relative youngsters Ruben Martinez and Garland Thompson - are a group of agit-prop artists who are only too ready to volunteer their own poetic comment on Latin American current affairs.

More usually resident at the Newyorcian poetry cafe, this group, recently seen at the Jazz Cafe, Camden, is a heady mix of Cuban, Puerto Rican, Spanish Harlem, Salvadorean, Mexican and Californian origins. They have a poetic take on everything "Latino", from US-style democracy to dictatorship, global economics to poverty.

More than anything, however, their work is about the street ... or, more unexpectedly, the highway. Following a plurality of mood poems about growing up rough, Martinez makes a humorous return to "Highway 61", updating Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan by introducing motel voice-mails and Mexican beers to his poem, as elements of a TexMex on-the-road daily life.

The range of the poets' styles is amazing: from ballad to folksong, love song to spiritual (with the Rio Grande substituting for the River Jordan), epitaph (after "all my boys, those who made it" to "those who didn't, in remembrance") to epithet. Many of their poems are about reclaiming the ambiguous terminology of negrito, el mundo grande and mojados - the "wetbacks", so-called after their daily swim to work north of the border, whose glistening wet backs Martinez highlights, calling upon us to admire for their beauty.

As Mexico repopulates the states it shed a century ago - Florida, California, Oregon - so the language is adapting, and becoming cosmopolitan. Slang is international on the whole, although the prevalence and power of insults to mothers (and so the Virgin), seemed out of context in Camden. Still, macho boys love their mothers and their kids, and these four fellows tell us they can even satirise themselves. Their characters boast of taking the heat of the US police force but can't take the heat of jalapeno chilli pizza.

But, as Piri Thomas reminds us, "the voice is a musical instrument". Rarely more so than when Miguel Algarin recites his "wordsongs" while conducting the event with his stabbed hand (what first sounded like "I mean Hell" turned out to be "I need help"). He does more sounds with his voice than most bands do with all their instruments - which is not in any way meant to diminish the power of the British group Sidestepper, who accompanied the Latino poets throughout the evening in a complex dialogue between voices and instruments.

Richard Blair now produces, writes for and synthesises the band from the wheelchair into which a footballing mistake has temporarily placed him. He works with the astonishing Micky Ball - with his throaty trumpet dialogues - and trusty old-timer Roberto Pla, who adds Colombian polish to the group's raw edges.

Thankfully, next year's event is already being planned.