The urban son originated in the late 19th century as an Afro-Cuban style evolved on the sugar plantations of the Oriente. Its sextet consisted of vocals, claves, bongó, maracas, tres and bass accompaniment originally played on a clay jug (botija) or the marímbula (an oversize version of the West African thumb piano or mbira). Adding a trumpet to the mix in 1927, Ignacio Piñeiro (in Columbia Records' answer to RCA Victor's popular Sexteto Habanero) created the definitive sound of the son, the traditional Cuban popular dance-music-rhythm complex carried abroad as "salsa" since the 1960s.
After the Cuban revolution, the son fell on lean times at home with the emergence of nueva trova and the growing international popularity of New York salsa, essentially a retooling of and elaboration upon Cuban son and rumba. The 14-track compilation Salsa offers a contemporary illustration in a cornucopia of popular global Latin styles: Senegal's Africando; Colombia's powerful singer Yolanda Rayo, rap-influenced La Misma Gente, and Orquesta Guayacán; Panamanian salsa romantica sensation Leo Vanelli; Dominican songbird José Alberto "El Canario"; Nuyorican figureheads Johnny Polanco y Su Conjunto Amistad, and trombonist Jimmy Bosch; Puerto Rico's Truco & Zaperoko, Plena Libre, and Rodolfo "Nava" Barrera. But at the vibrant Cuban heart of the recording are Buena Vista Social Club vocal marvel Ibrahim Ferrer ("Qué Bueno Baila Usted"), and two son legends, Conjunto Casino and Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro, whose respective selections are excerpted from the collections reviewed below.
It may have languished, but the son never expired. Indeed, the most representative and authentic expression of Cuban cultural identity vis-à-vis popular dance music enjoys continued vitality, as the Buena Vista phenomenon confirms. Among the originating son survivors is Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro, which in its third generation and eighth decade of existence perpetuates its ageless sound signature. Soneros de Cuba offers a modern take on Cuban roots with a fresh mix of son, guajira, bolero and rumba-son. Singers Eugenio Rodríguez "Raspa" and Dorgis Guilarte Matos "El Criollo del Son" meld with the trumpet stylings of Fernando Carlos Sánchez Chávez and the precision tres phrasing of Enrique Collazo. Guests are singer William "Baloy" Valdez, journeyman trumpeter Julio Padrón, trombonists Jorge Nestor Aquino and Juan Carlos Marin, and pianist Irvin Ferreiro Alfonso, lending a fuller sound to the traditional septet, as on "Cuba Canta," a suave guajira-son, and the loping son-montuno "El Adios de Este Momento."
Founded in 1937, Conjunto Casino was renowned for its eloquent vocals (Roberto Faz, Jesús Navarro Jimenez), brilliant brass arrangements, and dynamic percussion (Carlos "Patato" Valdes). Indeed, the "Campeones del Ritmo" (Champions of Rhythm) became one of Cuba's favorite dance orchestras in the 1950s. They persisted through the 1960s by recruiting youngbloods who maintain the core sound. The latest cohort, under the direction of trumpeter José Camero, is still sizzling today, boasting the world-weary vocals of septuagenarian Navarro Jimenez and backing singers Armando García González and Maximiliano Castañeda. Montuno en Neptuno #960 is their first release in a decade, and the energetic 12-piece ensemble—with the crisp piano work of Rafael Oliva Mesa, a superb horn section, and a dead-on rhythm contingent—hones a fine edge on such classics as "Que Te Consuele el Diablo," "La Sitiera" and the Arsenio Rodríguez bolero "Dudas que Te Quiero." Guests include singer William "Baloy" Valdez, trumpeter Julio Padrón, pianist Orlando Perez Montero and tres master Enrique Collazo of Septeto Nacional.
From Santiago, the cradle of Cuban son, singer-guitarist Reinaldo Hierrezuelo was a founding member of Cuarteto Patria. In the early 1950s he joined his brother Lorenzo and cousin Compay Segundo (Dúo Los Compadres) on studio recordings. Compay left in 1953 after an argument, but the brothers continued performing together, touring worldwide until Lorenzo's progressive blindness forced his retirement in 1983. Reynaldo joined Conjunto Caney and Cuarteto Hatuey (with Compay Segundo, Marcelino Guerra "Rapindey," and Evelio Machín), also performing as a soloist, and he was a long-time accompanist for Celina y Reutilio.
Cuarteto Patria legend Pancho Cobas tapped his cousin Hierrezuelo to join a nascent quintet of Santiago son old-timers in 1993. Aided by Cuban ethnomusicologist María Teresa Linares, Spanish filmmaker Ion Intxáustegui and Nubenegra producer Manuel Domínguez assembled the yet-unnamed revival group, adding Aristóteles Limonta (bass), Amado Machado (vocals, maracas; since deceased) and Reinaldo Creigh (vocals, claves), all veterans of celebrated Santiago son institutions Estudiantina Invasora and Cuarteto Patria. Vieja Trova Santiaguera, the resulting combo, recorded a demo in Havana in the fall of 1993, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Pura Trova, a two-CD folio with a beautifully illustrated, generously documented 90-page book, captures that history. The first disc offers a dozen studio gems, including Marcelino Guerra's guaracha "Me Dieron la Clave," the Miguel Matamoros chestnut "Son de la Loma," Hierrezuelo's "Gusto y Sabor," and Rafael Cueto's spirited "El Tren" (the disc also contains files with the text of the album notes in French and German). The second CD's 16 tracks comprise unreleased studio tapes and live performances from the group's triumphant sweep through western Europe. Highlights include a four-track concert segment from "Lágrimas Negras," the award-winning 1997 documentary film on the band, five cuts with legendary sonero Marcelino Guerra (drawn from his last recording, Rapindey, on Intuition Nubenegra, 1995), and with Hierrezuelo's sister Caridad on vocals, "Los funerales de Papá Montero," from the tribute album A María Teresa Vera (Intuition Nubenegra, 1997).
Vieja Trova's members are all in their 70s and 80s, but they retain an ardent grip upon the son, despite the intimations of some that the son is a pre-revolutionary genre whose time is past. As the feisty Hierrezuelo remarked to a tactless European journalist who asked whether the son wasn't dying out in the face of Cuban nueva trova, "No, only the musicians are dying. The music never dies." This priceless collection offers sublime testimony to Hierrezuelo's pointed declaration.
Singer, tres player, percussionist and teacher Felix Valera Miranda has deep family roots in the Oriente, making him a natural to head the Traditional Music Department of the Santiago Provincial Music Center. Valera Miranda also leads his own family sextet, whose consummate artistry and archetypal repertoire (dating in some cases back to the nineteenth century) sustain the profound expressiveness of Cuban roots music. Valera Miranda's lilting tres resonates throughout this inviting collection of Oriente classics, with superb choral backing and fine instrumental work on cuatro, double bass, maracas, claves and bongo. Consider Sindo Garay's plaintive bolero "Retorna," two archetypal Miguel Matamoros boleros ("Juramento," a testament of undying love; "Dulce Embeleso," a mystical paean to romantic devotion), two complexly melodic sones by family friend Francisco Repilado "Compay Segundo" ("Llora Mi Nena"; "El Penquito de Coleto"), another son by Compay's former partner, Lorenzo Hierrezuelo (the spicy "Rita la Caimana"), and a lyrical bolero-son, "El Calvario de un Poeta," by the legendary sonero Marcelino Guerra "Rapindey."
Francisco "Pancho" Amat, an acknowledged Cuban tres master, provokes comparison with such legends as El Niño Rivera and Arsenio Rodriguéz. Born in Havana province in 1950, Amat studied music formally, founded the group Manguaré in 1971 and led it for 17 years, during which time he and his compatriots served as international musical ambassadors. In the early 1970s Amat also collaborated with Chilean nueva canción stalwarts Víctor Jara, Inti-Illimani, Isabel Parra and Quilapayún. He studied arrangement with Orquesta Aragón leader Rafael Lay, and elevated tres playing to a new level by applying theory and technique gleaned from his mastery of classical, jazz and trova forms. Amat is also a record and television producer, and he has played with a range of international musical luminaries including Adalberto Álvarez, the Chieftains, Ry Cooder, Cubanísmo, Alfredo de la Fé, Oscar D'Leon, Cesaria Evora, Giovanni Hidalgo, Mongo Santamaria, Yomo Toro, Barbarito Torres and Dave Valentín.
Amat's De San Antonio a Maisí embraces traditional Cuban music from Cabo San Antonio (at the western end of Cuba) to Punta Maisí (the furthest point east). It delivers on its promise with a tasteful reworking of Cuban classics, plus three Amat originals. High notes include two Miguel Matamoros compositions, "Reclamo Místico" (the writer's first recorded bolero-son, a classic that Amat transforms into a descarga vehicle for guest singer Alejandro Sequeda), and "La Cocainómana" (wherein trovador Silvio Rodríguez revives an obscure son). The bolero "Anda y Dime" fronts Dúo Evocación, a first-rate female vocal pairing (recently heard on Compay Segundo's Calle Salud) whose crystal-clear tonalities mark them as coming artists in their own right. "El Vaivén de Mi Carreta" features Spanish singer Santiago Auserón's freshly expressive interpretation of Ñico Saquito's classic guajira-son. At the recording's heart is the Afro-son "Fanía," featuring Candito Zayas, the Ballet Folklórico Nacional singer whose sacred Abakuá-language vocals power the album's most compelling guest spot. Ringing throughout is Amat's tres and cuatro artistry, and the arranger's finely honed sense for creating a vibrant ensemble effect in which no single artist stands apart.
Trombonist, composer and arranger Juan Pablo Torres debuted with Armando Romeu's Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna in 1967, working alongside future Irakere greats Chucho Valdés, Paquito D'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval before founding his own jazz ensemble, Algo Nuevo. As a producer he guided such legendary sessions as Estrellas de Areito (1979). Torres also has collaborated with such legends as Cachao, Chico O'Farrill, Eddie Palmieri, Patato, Bebo Valdés, Astor Piazzolla, and fellow trombonists Robin Eubanks and Steve Turre. Son Que Chévere pays its respects to Cuban tradition, but this tribute, conceived in an orchestral framework, is anything but a museum piece. Consider the stellar lineup, including Aldo del Río, Lázaro Reyes and María Elena Lazo (vocals), Julio Padrón (trumpet), Javier Zalba (flute, saxophone; known for his work with Cubanísmo and Buena Vista Social Club), Tony Pérez (piano), and percussionists José Luis Quintana "Changuito," Jesús El Quiño, Tata Güines and Alfredo Rodríguez "El Indio," among others. The result is a fully modern distillation of vintage Cuban son.
Asere takes its name from the sacred Efik-language greeting of the Afro-Cuban Abakuá religion, meaning literally, "I salute you." The name references the enduring inspiration of Cuban soneros Lorenzo Hierrezuelo, Miguel Matamoros, Ignacio Piñeiro and Ñico Saquito, as well as the romantic influence of nueva trovadores Pablo Milanes and Silvio Rodriguez. Cuban Soul reveals the highly percussive sensibility this youthful octet brings to the son and related genres. Lead singer Cesar Ronald Infante Vaillant projects the vibrant idealism of Cuban new song on "En Mi Piel," a testimonial son to lost love, and the poetic "La Flor y la Hoja Seca," a melancholy reflection upon impossible human affection. "Ruñidera" is a solidly contemporary son, while "El Gato No Coge Ratón Corriendo," an infectious rumba-son, turns the guaguancó form inside out. The album closes with a flat-out jam on "Descarga Asere," heading out with a towering conga figure drawn from Cuban carnaval.
Yo Soy el Son, Asere's second release, presents a vivid array of modern son and nueva trova, including five titles by founder, musical director, guitarist and singer Adan Pedroso. The septet formation includes a strong lead singer in César Ronald Infante, a spirited vocal chorus, and solid backing on trumpet and trombone (Miguel Angel Valdés de la Hoz), tres (Juan Reyes Peréz), double bass (Denny Martínez Hernández) and Afro-Cuban percussion. Pedroso's composing talents shine especially in the trova selections ("Caracolillo"; "Alguien Me Dijo un Día"), and on the deep percussive groove and vocal abandon of "Tengo Ganas," a smoldering son montuno. Also featured are songs by Infante (a densely rhythmic "Del Tambor el Homenaje") and Pérez ("Se Formó," a rumba-son). A closing salute to Asere's antecedents includes a polished reworking of the classic Ignacio Piñeiro son "El Diablo," in a rendition confirming the musical vitality of an emergent generation of Cuban neo-traditionalists.
Another young septet, Jóvenes Clásicos del Son, was voted Best Cuban Group in 1997 on the basis of a string of popular hits testifying to the penetrating influence of Los Van Van on Cuban popular dance music. The ardent "Brujería de que" showcases the dazzling lead singing of Pedro Lugo Martínez "Nene," whose vocal style recalls Los Van Van's Juan Formell. Indeed, the band's eclectic brand of timba-tinged son owes much to Los Van Van, and is strongly oriented to youthful dancing tastes. Their polished approach is exemplified in "Para Siempre Tenerte," a suave contemporary bolero by David Alvarez, and Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Pedro Guerra's "Contamíname." Another influence is sonero Candido Fabré, whose "Ya Se Durmió la Guitarra" and "Tate Tranquilo Corazón" bring the group closer to traditional son than any other number except the classically rendered "La Flor y la Hoja Seca."
David Alvarez y Juego de Manos invests the son with an international Latin pop feel. A crossover star whose romantic vocals recall Carlos Vives, Alvarez (composer, guitar, lead singer) penned eight of the eleven tracks on Mundo Loco and arranged the rest. Loidis Taboada (flute), Rember Duarte García (trumpet) and Abraham Ceferino Valiente Hernández (trombone) cover the upper range, along with a strong five-person vocal chorus, but the ten-piece ensemble's binding energy resides in the rhythm section (keyboards, bass guitar, timbales, conga, bongo, percussion). Guest Chucho Valdés adds a muted piano groove on "Habanera Sola," whose quiet romanticism glides upon the smooth-jazz undertones of guest guitarist Elmer Ferrer Orsini.
In an idiosyncratic and popularly inspired overseas reading of Cuban tradition, Spanish singer, guitarist and harmonica player El Curi (Antonio Curiel) serves up an erudite tribute with En La Habana. Recorded in Madrid and backed by Cuba's own Septeto Santiaguero, the album showcases El Curi's wounded romanticism, rascally tenor and evocative songwriting talents. It reveals the wry, knowing gaze of an aging European anti-imperialist hipster and Santería convert reflecting upon desperate love and the inexorable contradictions of daily life on the streets of his beloved Havana (often one and the same thing). Singer, Nubenegra label mate and compatriot María Salgado takes guest turns on several tracks (e.g., "Como la Espuma"). The influences here are multiple, from jazz, rock and blues (the harmonica-laced "Malecón Blues"; "Tarde de Lluvia en La Habana) to the melancholy bolero-son "Pendiente Vivo del Mar," and the Babalú-Yemayá groove of "Café Habana."
Stepping out on his own after impressive turns with Irakere, Adalberto Alvarez, Septeto Nacional and Conjunto Casino), trumpeter Julio Padrón is joined by Afro-Cuban All Star pianist Davíd Alfaro, Septeto Nacional trombonist Juan Carlos Marin and Los Amigos de Santa Amalia. Their Descarga Santa takes Cuban tradition straight into jazz territory. "Lady Bird," a Tadd Dameron piece and the only non-Cuban number, opens the album with a nine-minute descarga workout that puts Padrón, Marin, David Suarez (tenor sax) and Alfaro out front in succession. The first of three Marin compositions, "A Medianoche" opens with a descending piano montuno whose Latin funk undertones, big brass and vocal chorus give way to Marin's extended trombone exploration and Padrón's muted trumpet stylings. Alfaro contributes two compositions, "Bonito Cha-Cha-Cha" and the title track; the snappy piano montuno of the latter opens ground for a raspy call-and-response between himself, Marin, Suarez, and Padrón, whose own solo invokes the dynamic tones of Freddie Hubbard. David Suarez steps out front on Marin's "Homenaje a David," sharing honors with Alfaro's muscular keyboard pyrotechnics. Guest diva Moraima Marin delivers a light-hearted rendering of "Capulito de Aleli," a Cuban standard, while singer Aramis Gallindo lends an impassioned rumba edge to Padrón's closing "Coros Mios." Grounding the group is a solid rhythm section: Alexis Cuesta (tumbadoras), Lukmil Perez (drums, timbales), and alternating on bass, Alfredo Hechavarria and Raul Gil Garcia. One tight ensemble, Los Amigos de Santa Amalia represent a force of future reckoning in jazz cubano.
Flautist, composer and musical director Orlando Valle "Maraca" requires no introduction to Cuban music aficionados. Schooled in the renowned tradition of Irakere and Cubanísmo, and a studio musician much in demand, Valle has turned bandleader in recent years, fronting the Afro-Cuban Jazz Project (Descarga Uno, Circular Moves, 1999) and Otra Visión, his present group. Among its over two dozen associates are standout soloists Moisés "Yumurí" Valle (vocals), Pancho Amat (tres), Enrique Lazaga (percussion), José Luis "Changuito" Quintana (timbales and percussion), Irving Acao (alto sax) and Javier Zalba (baritone sax). Recorded in France, ¡Descarga Total! presents a blistering mix of progressive son, guajira, danzón, cha cha chá, mambo, salsa, paca, Yoruba incantation, rap, pilón and descarga. Maraca's jazz leanings are patent, but the incessant rhythmic, instrumental and vocal interplay transcends the classic Cuban big-band sound. Eschewing a formulaic reworking of the past, Maraca conjures up an irresistibly danceable tour-de-force of the vital sacred and secular African roots of modern Cuban music in its ongoing contemporary revelation.
Cuarteto Chanchullo, a talented foursome of well-traveled Cubans based in Hamburg, Germany, comprises Ricardo Alvarez (piano, keyboards, backing vocals, musical direction), Leandro Saint-Hill (flute, saxes, lead and backing vocals), Omar Rodríguez Calvo (bass, backing vocals) and Silvano Mustelier (conga, bongo, timbales, cowbell, güiro, maracas, woodblock). Zambumbia offers an engaging son-influenced repertoire that—with four compositions each by Alvarez and Saint-Hill, and one by Rodríguez Calvo—reveal a group of considerable songwriting depth. But they're equally adept on classic Cuban roots terrain, as with Saint-Hill's erudite soprano sax reading of "Guajira en Menor," by Pedro Justiz "Peruchin," one of the piano greats of the descarga ("jam session") era of 1950s Cuba. Saint-Hill has played with saxophone wizard Tony Martínez's Cuban Power band, and Martínez returns the favor on Alvarez's "Huerfano de Swing" (a bright, tongue-in-cheek reprimand of a feckless rube stuck in a stylistic time warp), and Saint-Hill's "Danzonetando," which takes a retrospective stylish turn without conceding the ensemble's thoroughly contemporary disposition. Guest pianist Ramón Valle also checks in with dispatch here and on "En la Volga," an upbeat son descarga.
The group's pervasive sense of irony is manifest in the many ambient streams and spoken asides woven throughout the recording. Consider their read of "La Basura," whose good-spirited vocal call-and-response approach evinces a real affection for a 1950s form, rescuing the cha cha chá from terminal museum status. Rodríguez Calvo's son montuno "La Gente Se Quema" renders soulful tribute to the vitality of the barrio that nurtured his youth, while the title track, an Alvarez son descarga, moves into the realms of cubano jazz, whose reflective side they explore as well on the bolero "Tú Mi Delirio" and "Miramar," a suave danzón mambo. Saint-Hill's conga "Jocy Chancletera" and Alvarez's signature "Mi Changüi Chanchullero" reveal the sassier side of a quartet that seems poised to gain a broader audience on the European front.
Another coming force among younger Cubans working abroad, the Puentes Brothers, Alexis and Adonis, are twin sons of master Cuban guitarist and teacher Valentin Puentes. The brothers began serious study with their father by age six, inspired by the jam sessions that ensued when family friends like Ibrahim Ferrer dropped by to visit. They formed a quintet with their father, began composing in the son genre, and soon won national notice. A 1995 Canadian tour presented new musical horizons, leading the brothers to relocate there. Alexis and Adonis are consummate singers, multi-instrumentalists and prolific composers (10 of the 12 tracks are originals). Morumba Cubana sizzles from the first bongo stroke and chiming tres of "Asegúrate," to the hot-wired groove and infectious humor of "Oye Rumberito," the guitar virtuosity and rhythmic drive of the Brazilian-flavored "Corazón en Fuga," and the fadeout of "Esta Noche," a poignant jazz-trova experiment featuring Alexis' smoky vocal lead. Their lively, inventive approach to son, rumba, samba, timba, bolero and trova promises to transport traditional Cuban music into the global cultural realm of the 21st century.
As if their own virtuosity were not enough, the Puentes deploy a guest roster of first-rate Afro-Cuban jazz players, including Canadian woodwind virtuoso Jane Bunnett, and from Cuba, piano ace Hilario Durán, flautist Javier Zalba, batá drummer Francisco Hernandez Mora "Pancho Quinto," and renowned drummer-timbalero Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, along with string players from the Toronto Symphony.
In a recent telephone exchange, Jane Bunnett downplayed her own role in the recording, but was generous in praising the brothers' musical flair. "They're just incredible talents for how young they are, and they're writing some fine new music. They're taking the Cuban son in a good direction, giving it some great young energy. Alexis and Adonis are not just doing lip service to the son, like some Cubans who had been ignoring their own traditions and moving away from the folkloric things until Buena Vista [Social Club] came along. For a long time nobody used batá, nobody used the folkloric singers. But the Puentes are doing it with a real love for the music and a deep sense of connection. I really love them. They're doing it energetically and authentically, and they're seriously going to change the shape of the music."
An enhanced CD, Morumba Cubana also includes biographical information, a rundown on traditional Cuban instruments and musical genres, video dance lessons, and (built around "Oye Rumberito") a wry video parody of the MTV gangsta form. (The video, also accessible via their web site, has already been tapped for the film Road Rage.) It's a simple matter of time before the Puentes' warmth, exhilarating style and deep commitment to updating traditional forms brings their abundant talents to new international audiences.
Should the preceding be too overwhelming, The Rough Guide to Cuban Son is an astute, far-reaching introduction to the fundamentals, the animating core of the international music known today as salsa. True to mission, it exemplifies all a world-music recording can and should be. Its 17 tracks and 70-plus minutes of music are a trove for newcomer and aficionado alike. Included are founding forces Septeto Habanero, Septeto Nacional and María Teresa Vera; classic performers Beny Moré, Ñico Saquito, Orquesta Melodias del Día and Orquesta Aragón; modern traditionalists Cañambú, Septeto Santiaguero, Sierra Maestra and Son de la Loma; trend-setters Cubanísmo and Los Van Van; and out-of-retirement sensations Los Jubilados ("The Pensioners"), Vieja Trova Santiaguera and the Afro-Cuban All Stars. The notes and discography are extensive, and the enhanced CD offers authoritative excerpts on Cuban music history and style from The Rough Guide to World Music. For a worthy introduction to Cuban traditional sounds, begin listening here. — Michael Stone
Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro
Vieja Trova Santiaguera
La Familia Valera Miranda
Pancho Amat y el Cabildo del Son
Juan Pablo Torres
Jóvenes Clásicos del Son
David Alvarez y Juego de Manos
Julio Padrón y los Amigos de Santa Amalia
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