Part of a tidal wave of Afro-Cuban albums released in the past couple of years, Cuba Caribe is no nostalgia trip. It's a solid albeit uneven compilation from some of the island's most dynamic dance bands. The best track is the first, "La fruta" from Los Van Van, one of the island's longest-performing dance bands, known for their unusual lineup of violins and trumpet, and a rock-son fusion they call "songo." "La fruta" is a textbook example of songo, starring Pedro Calvo's exuberant vocals and a fast, hypnotic beat. The rest of the album is a mixed bag; occasional gems, occasional duds. Manolín, El Médico de la Salsa (the doctor of salsa) shows us he indeed knows that rhythm can heal in "Pegaito, pegaito." On the downside, NG La Banda mixes rock and salsa to trite, studio-driven effect in "La bruja," only somewhat redeemed by a satisfyingly lively montuno (call-and-response) section. There are some more acoustic numbers, including "Te la quitaron," a son from Elio Revé.
At times the buffet approach of the album detracts from the listener's appreciation of what's being dished out. For example, one of the best tracks on the album is Los Papines' "Claves para un timbero," a richly harmonized, highly percussive example of the African-inspired guaguancó. The song is a treat; the rhythm, which changes mid-phrase at times, is intricate, and the sound compelling, but as it is sandwiched between two non-memorable examples of salsa rock, it's difficult to fully appreciate here. Luckily, Los Van Van finishes the album off so nicely with "Hay mujeres," a sparkling son about women troubles, that much is forgiven. - Elisa Murray
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