If back in 1985 someone had told Los Pericos that they would be celebrating their 25th anniversary making a record with all of their Jamaican idols, they would have laughed their heads off. Indeed, when the band formed in 1985 the odds that a band from Argentina would make it to the international reggae scene were abysmal, not in the least because at the time reggae was a genre virtually unknown in their own country. And yet, fast forward to 2011 and behold Pericos & Friends, a collection of newly recorded versions of the band's hits, each featuring one or more guest artists, including reggae legends Toots Hibbert, the Skatalites, the Wailers, Mykal Rose, Ali Campbell, Pato Banton, Sly & Robbie, and Gregory Isaacs, as well as Latin American colleagues such as Cidade Negra, Os Paralamas do Sucesso's Herbert Vianna, Gondwana, No Te Va Gustar, and Molotov's Tito Fuentes, among others. Life has not always been this rosy for Los Pericos, however, and the scars left by the departure of main singer Bahiano in 2004 have not healed well. Since then, the band has released two studio albums with guitarist Juanchi Baleirón taking over vocal duties. So far it has been a moderately successful attempt to continue their career without their most distinctive element, which was made easier by performing new material. Revisiting their standards, on the other hand, makes direct comparisons between Bahiano and Baleirón utterly unavoidable -- much to the detriment of the latter, who is merely an adequate replacement, whereas Bahiano is a terrific reggae singer. Posed with a tricky question -- should we bravely try something different, or stick to imitating the way we used to sound with Bahiano? -- the answer still appears dubious. The new versions work much better when the song is either tackled for the first time, as in the fine covers of "Iron Lion Zion" and "Natural Mystic," or when they are substantially reworked, as in the slower, de-electrified take on "Casi Nunca Lo Ves," the only one of their hits that can claim to better the original. Otherwise, when they stay close to the source, with Baleirón aping Bahiano's mannerisms (such as the staccato, repeated vowels in "Mucha Experiencia": "la-a-a-a-do"), they run the risk of sounding like an ace Los Pericos tribute band rather than Los Pericos covering themselves!
As for the illustrious guests, some work better than other, as is the norm with this kind of project. As a rule of thumb, the best songs are the ones where one can feel Los Pericos interacting with the guest in question, as in "Waitin'" with Ali Campbell, or the aforementioned "Casi Nunca Lo Ves." In other instances, such as in Gregory Isaacs' "Mucha Experiencia" (one of the very last recordings he finished before his death) or "Complicado y Aturdido" with Cidade Negra, when they simply take turns at each verse in a different language (with lyrics that often don't match, to boot), the effect is a bit distancing. All things considered, Pericos & Friends is a pleasant record performed by a top-notch reggae band, perhaps only guilty of bad timing, as the shadow of Bahiano is still too near. Clearly, Los Pericos have a right to celebrate having reached their 25th anniversary; it is only a pity that their 25th anniversary has reached them at a time when it was perhaps wiser to keep consolidating their Mark II formation, rather than to invite ungrateful comparisons -- but then again, you can't really choose your birthday, can you? The most amazing thing about this album, however, is that it is really a dream come true for a group that, all the way from Argentina, managed to earn the admiration of its international peers and founding fathers of the music the bandmembers loved. The reverse side of the equation is equally marvelous: that a humble music from the shantytowns of Kingston has managed to become a beloved and truly universal language, spreading its joys to all corners of the Earth.