Words by Wayne Marshall—
While Panama is widely acknowledged as the birthplace of dancehall reggae en español, Puerto Rico gets credit for eating up the faithful versions of Panamanian artists like Nando Boom and El General and spitting out something more hip-hop laced and sample-based, as heard on the Noisy collages that made dembow loops the centerpiece of maratón mixtapes. But Panamanian producers deserve props of their own for developing and popularizing an equally distinctive and irreverent, sample-based approach to Spanish dancehall (though faithful approaches persist under the plena banner, sin duda).
Panama’s master of the style is El Chombo, aka Rodney Clark, a pretty Jamaican name, though the internet reports (very vaguely of course) that he was born in the US and moved to Panama as a youngster. None of these facts are remarkable in Panama, where people have been named Rodney Clark for a century (at the turn of the 20th, Panama was receiving 62% of all Jamaican emigrants), and where foreigners continually arrive, especially from the US in more recent times, drawn into Canal-related work as so many Caribbean migrants before them. “El Chombo” is also something dark-skinned people, especially Afro-Caribbean folk, have been called in Panama for a long time. El Chombo’s embrace of the term and intentional projection of blackness were central to his first mixtape series, Spanish Oil, which he was issuing annually in the mid-late 90s at the same time Playero and The Noise were circulating their seminal mixtapes. The reference to oil is, of course, a reference to blackness, and it’s telling that reggae in Panama was sometimes called petróleo in the 90s, not unlike melaza (molasses) in Puerto Rico.
In 1997 El Chombo began a second series, Cuentos de la Cripta (yes, after HBO’s Tales from the Crypt), which proved more commercially viable — in Panama and beyond. Released internationally in 2000 by Sony, Cuentos de la Cripta 3 included an unlikely hit ostensibly about a flying cat but also leaving plenty room for interpretation. Like “Chacarron,” a more recent runaway hit by El Chombo, “El Gato Volador” is a joke of a song that seems to offer meta-commentary on the state of the genre itself. In place of the melodic mumbling and awful Kurtis Blow impression on “Chacarron,” however, “El Gato Volador” delivers clownish but articulate vocal performances of nonsensical lyrics. After confessing that they didn’t bring anything to sing in the studio, Chombo and his sidekick note that they do know this story about a flying cat. The first verse is practically dada-esque:
Hago como iguana / I do like an iguana
Hago como mosquito / I do like a mosquito
Hago como pollito / I do like a chick
Hago como ballena / I do like a whale
Hago como vaca / I do like a cow
Muuuuu / Mooooo
Pero ustedes lo que quieren es… / But what you all want is…
El Gato Volador / The Flying Cat
The second verse just lists a series of famous cartoon cats (Felix, Sylvester, Garfield), and the third is inexplicable. But there’s an especially telling moment in the second chorus when an ad-lib pokes in to admit that it’s a pretty crappy song, isn’t it? (Listen for “Porquería de canción ¿no?” at the 1:00 mark.) El Chombo cooks up a tasty sample soup for the track, including dembow-esque drums and a Cypress Hilly wail that might well be a snip from “Insane in the Brain” (also a popular sample in PR at the time). And it’s significant, if not too remarkable, that the song bumps along at 110 beats-per-minute: for a while Panama’s homecooked reggae was simply called “110” based on the popularity of that bubbly bpm — a speedfreak allegiance to midtempo grinds long before moombahton planted a flag in that territory.
As for the video, the midriff-baring, tie-dyed fly girls look practically demure compared to their Puerto Rican cousins in reggaeton videos from this period. And given that the song makes reference to its own recording, all the studio shots make sense. Otherwise we mostly see the guys striking poses in and around the Canal Zone and Panama City, including an iconic shot in front of the Goethals monument, an imposing marble monolith named after the chief engineer of the Canal. The video closes with a spooky clip of Chombo as crypt keeper, holding the torch aloft for Panamanian reggae — and devil knows what else.