Old-School Panamanian Reggae Run-Down

In honor of our intrepid Office Manager, Director of New Media, Producer Extraordinaire (etc., etc., etc.) Sam Backer, who is currently taking a very well-earned vacation in Panama (creating waves of jealousy throughout the Afropop office), we put together a little mini-set/history lesson in Panamanian reggae (AKA reggae en español, known locally as plena, not to be confused with Puerto Rico’s plena, que es otra cosa) which inspired the underground music scene in 1990s Puerto Rico, which birthed the music known as reggaeton. For more on this history, listen to these fabulous Afropop shows: Reggaeton Roundup: New Moves in Latin Music and The Panama Beat.

Early Panamanian reggae artists and DJs built their songs on the riddims of popular Jamaican dance-hall, which they dubbed off LPs onto tape and sped up, or re-recorded their own versions. They often imitated the melodies of, or simply translated Jamaican hits into Spanish, for example Renato’s 1984 version of Lovindeer’s “Babylon Boops.” Panamanian reggae grew increasingly popular in the lower-income Afro-Antillean neighborhoods of Colón and Panama City through plays at small parties and on local buses and portable sound systems.

Renato: “La Chica de los Ojos Café,” 1985

This was one of the first big hits of reggae en español, the first song to spread the genre beyond Panama to neighboring Latin American countries. Renato composed it as a response to a popular television soap opera of the same name, and recorded multiple versions of it throughout his career.

El General: “Pum Tun Tun (Tu Pum Pum),” 1989

Recorded in New York in 1989 by Edgardo Franco AKA El General, a Panamanian rapper with a Jamaican producer, this tune even hit the U.S. airwaves at number five.

Nando Boom: “Ellos Benia (Dem Bow)” 1991

Nando Boom’s version of Jamaican Shabba Rank’s “Dem Bow,”  (which actually uses the New York-based Panamanian producer Ramón Bustamante’s Pounder riddim) introduced the Dem Bow to the reggae en españolscene, where it would become integral to the Puerto Rican underground producers, defining the beat of reggaeton.

El Chombo: “Spanish Oil” and “Cuentos de la Cripta” Mixtapes 1995- 2004

Very influential mixtapes produced by El Chombo, featuring many local artists, including Kafu Banton.

Kafu Banton: “Pato” 2000

 And Lorna, who had a big hit with “Papi Chulo” in 2004

Well, that was fun! Of course, there is so much more important history and great music, but hopefully that got you started down the right road.

More recent artists? We know of El Roockie and Danger Man (RIP), and apparently these are the hits of 2014, but we’ll leave the rest up to you, and to Mr. Backer. He’d better bring back the latest Panamanian mixtapes!