One of the first labels to record commercially in Cuba, Columbia documented the island's music into the 1950s. The vogue of the past few years has produced a mixed bag of vault-raiding Cuban retrospectives, but for historical coverage, erudite commentary, and exceptional sound quality, this archival sampler's 25 tracks are hard to match. Annotated by U.S. ethnomusicologist Dick Spottswood, the bilingual liner notes offer an informative introduction to seminal if poorly known artists of the first half of the twentieth century. Running chronologically, the selection begins with the early orquestas típicas and sextetos, including María Teresa Vera's Sexteto Occidente and Sexteto Nacional ("Mujeres Enamórenme" and the sublime 1928 version of Ernesto Lecuona's "Siboney"). A most unusual cut is Coro Agrupación Artística Gallega's "Las Mozas de Vilanova," which opens with a brisk Asturian bagpipe cadenza and moves into an a cappella chorus that conveys the enduring Spanish influence in Cuban music.
An early Cuban jazz innovator, Alberto Socarrás (Orquesta Cubanacan leader), also played with Benny Carter; he does two big-band "rumba" instrumentals in the style popularized in the United States the 1930s. The Lecuona Cuban Boys are represented with three 1930s hits, the Lucumí-tinged "Tabú," the uptempo novelty tune "Rumbah Tambah," and the ringing vocal chorus of "Rumbas Cubanas." Showman Desi Arnaz performs "La Conga en New York" and "Impromptu," a Socarrás composition featuring the author's reed work. The album closes with Conjunto Cubakonga, whose brass harmonies and piano montuno project a remarkably bright, contemporary sound. The casual aficionado will not recognize most of the artists on The Music of Cuba, but its previously unreleased tracks and familiar tunes in unfamiliar musical settings will offer surprises even to those better acquainted with Cuban music. - Michael Stone
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