It's not exactly the same thing, being a crate-digger in this country as it is being one in Latin America. Here, record collectors fear the early birds at estate sales. In Panama and Colombia, the real scavengers scurry on six legs. They're giant, Tonka Truck–sized bugs, crawling all over musty stacks of vinyl. "They're like alien things coming at me," says Roberto Ernesto Gyemant (aka DJ Beto) of the insects he's encountered south of the border, "not to mention it's hot and you're surrounded by crazy mildews and layers of dirt you know it's not good to be hanging out in."
Since 2003, the 38-year-old Sunset District native has swatted at las cucarachas in the bodegas of Panama and Colombia, on a quest for complex calypso funk, fierce tipico soul, hard descargas, and swinging cumbias and salsas; relics of bygone eras and mingling nationalities he painstakingly edits down into mix CDs. He releases his favorite finds on compilations for the U.K.'s Soundway Records, a label specializing in obscure recordings from around the world. Beto has so far curated and written extensive liner notes for two regional collections: Colombia! The Golden Age of Discos Fuentes: The Powerhouse of Colombian Music 1960-1976 and Panama! Latin, Calypso and Funk on the Isthmus 1965-1975. He recently released a third time capsule, Panama! 2, covering the years 1967 to '77. The disc highlights the merger of Afro rhythms, American funk, Cuban son, Trinidadian calypso, and a host of other hybrids that proliferated in the port nation during a time of cultural revolution.
The musicians on Panama! 2 lose themselves in heatwaves of Latin and African rhythms, from the bird calls and tropical soul of the Exciters' "Ese Muerto No Lo Cargo Yo" to the nationalistic love letter, "Mi Bella Panama," by Los Revolucionarios (Soul Revolution). The Soul Fanatics' instrumental "Ain't No Sunshine" gives off a humid intensity steamier than the Bill Withers version. Panama! 2 is a wild marketplace of howling laughter, vivid electric guitar solos, dynamo percussion, and a live vibe so raw you can almost visualize the perspiration spreading down the players' tailored suits.
Beto has spent the past six years unearthing Panamanians' records and their stories. The UC Berkeley history major is a self-made musicologist when it comes to combos nacionales — small bands liberally mixing the hodgepodge of Isthmus styles. "They were like gods," Beto says of the combos, who played on Panamanian television in the late '60s decked out in matching finery.
Their albums weren't seen as testaments for future generations so much as they were introductions to help the combos book gigs — sometimes up to three a night. Forty years later, many of those calling cards have been lost, and tracking them down is a rough trade. Beto says Panama's population in 1970 was one million; a small country for which only 500 to 2,000 pressings were made of the records released at that time. He adds that as people crowded urban centers, space became a premium. The few surviving copies of an album usually ended up in the trash as fans sacrificed vinyl for floor space. "I've showed up places where people were like, 'Too bad you didn't show up six weeks ago. We threw out 3,000 records,'" Beto says, shaking his close-shaven head. And then there are the "well-loved" albums that have survived, sort of: "The Panamanians partied so much, that when you do find the records, they're like ... " He grins and makes a crunching noise.
But with two Panamanian comps down, and both Panama! 3 and Colombia! 2 coming out later this year, Beto remains an intrepid scout for "funk with a twist." His journey began in 2002, when he took his savings from a career in the software industry and moved to Costa Rica, where much of his extended family resides (his father is originally from Nicaragua). While there, Beto had to leave the country every 90 days for 72 hours to renew his visa. One 2003 jaunt lead him to the "working-class cowtown" of David in Panama, where he ducked into the local radio station to escape the heat. He hit it off with the station's owner, who showed him a back room crammed with unused vinyl. Beto spent three days "just pulling and pulling" records.
Nowadays, this crate-digging pro travels with a portable turntable — and Band-Aids to protect his fingers from thousands of rough record sleeves — but back in David, he was making selections based on the best-looking covers. He bought a stack of 1,500 records for $1 to $2 a pop from the station, which had long since switched format to reggaetón. Back in Costa Rica, he sold a handful of his new acquisitions on eBay, which connected him to Miles Cleret of Soundway, who suggested the idea of the comps.
Beto says all the songs on the Panama! and Colombia! series are legally licensed. He tries to get the artists' direct permission whenever possible, and roughly 60 percent of the performers are aware of the CDs — the others have passed away, or have proven impossible to track down. Eventually he plans on relocating to Colombia, but he moved back to the Bay Area late last year with an arsenal of anecdotes about the crazy characters he's met along the way — as well as an enviable record collection. He shares cuts from his 3,000-strong batch of Latin relics during DJ nights at the Elbo Room and Amnesia, sounding proudest of the moments when his music jumps borders. At the release party for Colombia! Beto says the crowd became so enthusiastic that they actually applauded between songs. "Their clapping was frozen in time," he says. "It was residual appreciation for the art, 40 years later."