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Sin Palabras, with Tambor de Firmin and Proyecto F
House of Drums
Piranha / Germany (www.piranha.de)

In New World societies, the unequal encounter between Europeans and Africans produced hybrid cultural forms distinguished by an innovative capacity to recombine a variety of aesthetic influences in unexpected and compelling ways. Peoples of African descent never surrendered the improvising stylistic frameworks they brought with them in their involuntary removal to the Americas, transposed though the artistic result may be. Cuban expressive culture thus exhibits an irrepressible capacity to borrow, synthesize and transform influences sampled from around the world, with no particular regard for the sanctity of the traditions upon which they freely draw.

Case in point: Sin Palabras, which melds traditional Cuban percussion and repertoire with keyboard and turntable technology to create a distinctive house mix, leavened with the Santería drumming and chanting of Tambor de Fermin, and Proyecto F's Rap Cubano antiphony. Allied as their aesthetic vision is with such fellow island artists as Sintesis and NG La Banda, and Panamanian rapper El General, Sin Palabras injects all its work with a brilliant, unerring rhythmic intensity. An insouciant blend results: Cuban sacred and profane musical strains for the 21st century, a distinctive and compellingly danceable home brew whose paradoxically freewheeling cultural integrity will terrorize some purists while it electrifies others more attuned to the ever-innovative attitude of Cuban music at its best. - Michael Stone


Dr. Olavo Alén Rodríguez
From Afrocuban Music to Salsa [Book & CD]
Piranha / Germany (www.piranha.de)

Growing interest in the music of Cuba testifies to its enduring cross-cultural appeal. Consider the recent success of Buena Vista Social Club, the best-selling Afro-Cuban recording ever. However, Cuban music is rooted in a compelling social, artistic and intellectual history that deserves equal consideration. This timely release provides a superb introduction to the cultural and historical influences informing the spirited eloquence of Cuban musical traditions.

Ethnomusicologist Olavo Alén Rodríguez is founder and director of the Center for the Investigation and Development of Cuban Music (CIDMUC). This knowledgeable selection of archival field recordings offers an engaging overview of the music's genesis and cultural evolution from its West African and Iberian roots. It includes an instructive 180-page monograph that assesses Cuban music's five major genres (son, rumba, canción cubana, danzón and punto guajiro) in an attractive graphic format with numerous photo illustrations and an extensive discography and bibliography. The 26 tracks, by artists rarely heard outside of Cuba, exhibit a consistently high level of musicianship. This work shows clearly that, absent the commercial pressures of market capitalism, Cuban folk music sustains a powerful presence throughout the island. An indispensable collection for scholars, students and aficionados, and an excellent teaching resource on the music and dance of Cuba and the African diaspora, it belongs in every serious research library. For newer fans, it introduces the diverse pedigree of Cuban expressive culture. Moreover, the cultural vitality evident in this release accentuates the political impotence and cultural folly of the long-lived US blockade of Cuba. This is music whose creative genius knows no borders. - Michael Stone


Pinareno: From the Tobacco Road of Cuba
Alula Records (www.alula.com)

cd cover Pinar del Rio is Cuba's westernmost province and home to the ten musical groups that perform the 13 tracks on this album. It is indeed Cuba's "tobacco road," a fertile stretch of green fields and rounded limestone mountains, and that the urbane Habaneros consider Pinarenos to be bumpkins, provincial folk lacking in culture or elegance. The 13 tracks on this album jet through a wide range of Cuban styles, including nostalgic boleros, lively sones, showy guarachas, and controversia, a kind of game where two poets/singers compete by inventing verses. Although it takes some sharp turns musically, it is held together by the regional focus, a Pinareno style that turns out to be a lovely balance between the rough vitality of straight folk music and an overly polished professionalism. For example, in one section of the album, "Dejame que te lleve," a slow, melodramatic cancion lamenting the passage of time is followed by "Todo el mundo quiere bailar" (Everyone loves to dance), a sunny, spicy guaracha that is punctuated by a lively montuno (chorus). Next is a wonderful, trumpet-rich instrumental rendition of the classic bolero "Como fue" ("How could this happen"), followed by "El pintor," a grinding, earthy rumba with poetic lyrics and an almost purely African feel--bongos, claves, call-and-response.

Other gems include three songs by Campesino Cuyaguateje, a 40-year old conjunto that plays "musica campesina" (country music), especially the first track, "Guateque Campesino (Coutry Banquet)," a rousing son, and the last, "Sobre Amistad Finlandia-Cuba, an example of "controversia," a style that sits squarely on the Spanish end of the Afro-Cuban spectrum. Controversia is a form of improvised oral poetry, where several singers take turns inventing verses, backed by tres and drums. The subject of the song is "the friendship between Finland and Cuba." The subject of the album, though, is the vitality and variety of Cuban music in the most distant corners of the island. Detailed liner notes, in Spanish and English (with only the occasional laugh-out-loud sentence), are also a nice surprise. - Elisa S. Murray


Conjunto Céspedes
Flores
Xenophile (www.greenlinnet.com)

Conjunto Céspedes is a San Francisco-based band, but its heart is set firmly in Cuba, a Cuba that wears its African heritage in rich, nuanced colors. Formed in 1981 as an acoustic trio of la familia Céspedes, with Gladys "Bobi' Céspedes singing, and husband Luis and nephew Guillermo taking turns on guitar and tres. Over the years, they've added pieces, expanded their repertoire, started recording (1993), and enjoyed extraordinary success. One of the biggest reasons why is Gladys' voice, strong and rich as molasses and capable of leading the band through, on this album, both the hypnotic call-and-responses of the santeria prayer song "Aideu" and the melodrama of the classic bolero "Nosotros." Flores, produced by famed perccussionist John Santos, is their deepest exploration to date of the "Afro" part of Afro-Cuban music. Examples include "El Tambor tiene su magia," an all-percussion song with hypnotic bata drums and congas that could have been recorded in West Africa, and "Aideu," a chanted "santeria" prayer hypnotically banged out by bells and the chekere. Others are straight-ahead salsa numbers with bright horn work and emphasis on clave, such as "Flores para tu altar," one of the best tracks on the album, "Umelina," and "Defiende el Amor," one of two composed by nueva trova star Pablo Milanes. The other by Milanes is "Canto a la Abuela," an affecting song about what a grandmother had to teach a boy. Lyrics are always poetic and often political, unusual in world of popular Latin music. The liner notes are a joy, with all songs translated, and all musicians and instruments listed. About half the songs were composed and arranged by band members. - Elisa S. Murray


Cubanismo
Reincarnacion
Hannibal Records (www.rykodisc.com)

In 1995, trumpet virtuoso Jesus Alemany returned to his native Cuba to put together what has been variously described as "an all-star recording project," "a salsa collective," and, simplest of all, "Cubanismo!". He invited his favorite Cuban musicians to participate, including pianist Alfredo Rodriguez, conga master Tata Guines and Cesar Lopez on alto sax. The album captured the finest tracks of their "descargas," showcasing jazzy, brassy takes on classic Cuban dance styles, and enjoyed such success that the group has reunited to record two more since, 1997's Malembe, and the recently released Reincarnacion. Reincarnacion is a "descarga" a jam session that is pure exuberance from start to finish, with a joyously blistering beat set from the first track, "El Platanal de Bartolo," a song made famous in the 50s of the lesser-known "pilon" style. It is updated here with exciting vocal work from new lead vocalist Rolo Martinez, a new arrangement by legendary pianist Ignacio "Nachito" Herrera (also a newcomer to the group), and exceptional horn work from Alemany, who continues to push his limits beautifully throughout the album. The group then sets out to dig up, uproot, rip apart, and paste together every Afro-Cuban style from mambo to guaracha to chaguii.

Other stars include "Con Mana Se Rompe" a son with a smoking tres solo (yes, that's possible), the final descarga "En las delicias," which builds a house in which every musician has room to strut their stuff, and--best of all--"El paso de Encarnacion," a slower, heated version of a classic guaracha that was made famous in the 1960s, according to the excellent liner notes. It's brought to a high simmer by a wonderful back-and forth between the chorus and the trumpet, and Herrera's nimble piano lines that provides the backbone of the song. A flute adds light and air. Close your eyes and imagine the dancers fused to the beat of this music. It doesn't stop; neither do they. Some may find the album too broad, but with guides as skilled as this set of musicians, the tour works. - Elisa S. Murray


Made in Havana: Thirty Years of Cuban Rhythms
Music Club

While Pinareno: From the Tobacco Road of Cuba, profiling music from Pinar, is a discovery, Made in Havana, profiling "30 years of great homegrown Latin music from Havana," is a rehashing. It's a strange melange of classic styles, commercial merengue and salsa, and nueva trova that does the equivalent of "21 countries in 10 days," preferring to go wide rather than deep. (One quick example is Orquesta Original de Manzanilla's textureless merengue, "Un Poquito de Muchacho.") A few years ago, Made in Havana might have been perfect for the beginning Cuban-music listener, but in a market that is currently exploding with excellent compilations of Cuban bands both old and new, it's not a standout.

That said, there are a number of rewarding tracks: "La Basura," a fine cha cha cha by Orquesta America; the explosive "Los Sitios Entero" by NG La Banda, one of Cuba's hottest top dance bands, featuring hypnotic bongos; Celina Gonzalez and Campo Alegre's rootsy son "Adorada Guajira," featuring a terrific tres solo; and Sierra Maestra's "Bururua Barara," an extraordinary example of their classic son style. Nueva trova star Silvio Rodriguez has two tracks, "Ven" with Jose Maria Vitier, and Pablo Milanes' folk classic "Yolanda." His spare guitar and sweet voice is as affecting as always, but out of place on this album. But I have to admit that "Guantanamera," the Jose Marti poem-turned-song that Pete Seeger made famous in the 1960s, still holds charm for all its ubiquity and Abalardo Barroso's is a slow, sexy version. In the end, though, it's a strange basket of fruit, with too many stylistic shifts draining the album of exuberance. The fragments have brilliance, but the whole does not. - Elisa S. Murray


Irakere
La Colección Cubana
Music Club

Los Van Van
La Colección Cubana
Music Club (www.vci.co.uk)

To the purist, the idea of roots music mutating into just another marketing category may be anathema. Still, in these digital postmodern times, is there any real surprise in finding one's world music tastes repackaged in the midline section at Global Cartel Records, or the bargain bin at X-Mart? Until recently, Rhino has led the way in the US reissue and compilation market. But the UK Music Club label seeks to change that with an eclectic deluge of mid-priced back-catalog releases, including sound collections of Cuba's perennially popular combos, Irakere and Los Van Van.

Scorching pianist and composer Jesús "Chucho" Valdés assembled Irakere some 25 years ago in a visionary fusion of jazz and Afro-Cuban percussive traditions, drawing personnel from the eminent Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna. Irakere's alumni include well-known expatriates Paquito D'Rivera, the versatile reed and woodwind player, and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. This specimen compilation offers several inspired Valdés originals, contemporary settings of traditional sones, a taste of Cuban classical pianists Lecuona and Saumell, variations on a Beethoven opera ("La Molinaria"), and a D'Rivera revision of Mozart's "Concert for Flute and Adagio." Thus speaks Irakere.

As musical director of Los Van Van for the past three decades, Juan Formell has overseen an innovative retooling of Cuba's charanga and son traditions, free of the commercial pressures of market capitalism. Los Van Van features the yeoman work of percussionist Changuito, pianist Cesar Pedroso, bassist and composer Formell, and the group's signature interweaving of violin and trombone trios. Their discreetly rock-tinged songo sound continues to offer the culturally astute, eminently danceable music and acute social commentary that Cuban and overseas fans have come to expect. Los Van Van projects a creative sensibility whose influence is widely manifest - just listen to Dominican merenguero Juan Luís Guerra, or such distinguished salseros as Nuyorican Willie Colon and Panama's Ruben Blades. Taken together, these anthologies offer an engaging taste of Cuba's most popular and musically auspicious combos. One critical improvement Music Club could make: Provide inquisitive reissue buyers with a discography so they can track down the source recordings to listen and learn more. - Michael Stone


Viento de Agua
De Puerto Rico Al Mundo
Agogo/Qbadisc (www.qbadisc.com)

The core group is three Puerto Rican musicians based in NYC: Hector "Tito" Matos, well known for his work in many bomba and plena bands, and reed players Ricardo Pons (classical) and Alberto Toro (jazz). They are part of a strong Nuyorican musical movement that is blending the classic sounds of salsa with hip-hop, jazz and rock and slamming it all together in a rough and heady dance music that is still heavy on the roots and light on the pop. Viento de Agua ("the wind of water," a reference to the thick air before a tropical storm.) This music is heavy on the percussion, with four generations of players represented, including veterans like Juan Gutierrez and Sammy Tanco, Bobby Sanabria (who also contributes the kit drum on a number of track) and a young prodigy (8 years old!) named Camilo E. Molina Gaetan. They also have a rock solid horn and flute entourage, and pianist Desmar Guevara's playing is percussive and right on the mark. Guests add electric guitar (Marc Ribot), sax (David Sanchez) as well as some visiting vocalists. For lovers of Latin music with lots of roots and plenty of groove, this is a must. - CF


Sierra Maestra
Tibiri Tabara
Nonesuch/World Circuit

Another Cuban record from Nonesuch that covers a different vibe than Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club sessions. Sierra Maestra are a slightly younger, perkier, brassier ensemble that play more often for your dancing pleasure as compared to the art-song folk-jazz connoisseur bliss afforded by the universally hailed BVSC. This recording presents a portrait cross-section of rhythms from the eastern provinces of Cooba collectively known as son,considered to be the essential force in Cuban song and Latin popular dance in general.

A fundamental [1 2 3 1-2] or reversed [1-2 1 2 3] pulse forms the starting point for countless variants of accent and syncopation developed by other percussion: claves, metal güiros, the gourd-rattle maracas, congas and bongos. But this is only the beginning of the complexity told. Add to that the sophistication of guitar, piano, trumpet and lively vocals, both solo and harmonized, and this is a headful in the reference chair. Taken as a whole one is easily, more appropriately whisked away onto a dancefloor of infallible yet extraordinarily elaborate beat.

Sierra Maestra amaze with their command of the many old and new strains of Afro-Cuban rhythms which span here more than a hundred years of cross-pollination. Of them, Tibiri Tabara includes guaracha, with its lightly aggressive swing; son-afro's rum-soaked exuberance, the suave lilt of son montuno, sucu-sucu's steady charging pulse, and the old and rustic changuí. A feature of much of this music is an emphasis on alternating chorus and solo vocal improvisations within a tune. Further, the band leaves at least a little space in each selection for interest-enhancing cadenza. That Sierra Maestra play all of these with faultless expertise, embracing as they do, a broad range of Carribean sentiment - from homage to deities to embittered love - is, and I use the word carefully, remarkable.

Layed down in London, this shiny recording makes for a highly articulate presentation but sounds a little too sterile for this reviewer. Hate to bring up BVSC again, but, by comparison, Tibiri Tabara is far less woody and warm. Of course it may have been Jerry Boys' strategy to contrast it with Cooder's production, which nonetheless is plenty good. Packaged with notes and translated lyrics, nicely presented on a backdrop of Cuban postal stamp enlargements. - Steve Taylor


Candido Fabré
Poquito a Poco
Candela Records (619 Martin Avenue, Unit One, Rohnert Park, CA 94298)

Little by little, as in the title cut, music of the son montuno is arriving in the United States from the source, Cuba. Happily for this one-time violin player in charanga groups, the sound of flute and fiddles is heard once again. This type of salsa instrumental lineup has been out of fashion in the States for over a decade but has lived on in Cuba in Los Van Van, Orquesta Aragon and Original de Manzanillo. Candido Fabre is a veteran of the latter and is recognized for his singing and writing.

The swing in charanga bands is lighter than in brass conjunto ensembles, but they can swing just as hard and danceabley as their louder brethren. The spotlight is on Fabre´'s vocals, with very little instrumental improvisation and montuno sections. Though tradition-based, this is not folk music. The fifteen member band is precise and slick, and delivers an exciting account of one of the popular musics of Cuba. - Stacy Phillips


Son De La Loma Regalo Del Ciego (Blindman's Gift)
Rykolatino / Rykodisc

While salsa aficionados regularly lament that Latin music has become too cookie-cutter and bland, there have been a spate of interesting releases with. To mark its debut, Rykolatino has released three CDs that are markedly different than the salsa romantica filling the airwaves these days. One of them, "Regalo Del Ciego (Blindman's Gift)," is a re-release of a tribute album to the blind Cuban bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez.

The sound here is rootsy, warm and just a little bit raw. The band is tight and swinging, making up for the lack of studio gloss with plenty of heart. The band features commanding piano solos from the late Alfredo Rodriguez and a particularly hot brass section. For those aching for the old days of salsa, they are at least partly here again. - Marty Lipp


Armando Garzón with Quinteto Oriente
Boleros
Corason CD CORA 131 (www.rounder.com)

The latest surge of North American interest in Cuban music has largely overlooked the more European-influenced, dance-oriented genres of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as the contradanza (habanera), danzón and bolero. Originating as a solo or duet vocal with guitar accompaniment, the Cuban bolero, whose romantic sensibility derives from the European bel canto tradition, became a fashionable slow-dance style throughout Latin America after the First World War. Mexican groups including Trío Calaveras, Los Tres Ases and Trío Los Panchos would rework the bolero into the suave, three-part vocal harmony arrangement that remains popular among audiences of a certain class in Latin America.

This disc reveals Armando Garzón as an astonishing counter tenor, and the foremost interpreter of the classic Cuban bolero - here tastefully backed by the Quinteto Oriente on tres, guitar, double bass, percussion and backup vocals. A native of Santiago, Garzón is a perennial favorite of audiences in Cuba, the Caribbean and mainland Latin America. If the Cuban bolero has an analogue in the soulful jazz ballad, then Garzón has a fraternal counterpart in the tragically lyric Chet Baker (and in a different mode, the extraordinary male alto of European aria and lieder fame, Jochen Kowalski). Forget the three tenors, Garzón is the sublime and genuine article. And just for fun, compare his renditions of the chestnuts "Chan Chan," "Dos Gardenias" and "Y Tú Qué Has Hecho" with the versions on Ry Cooder's recent Buena Vista Social Club. Garzón owns these boleros, along with the album's eleven other smoldering declarations of passion. Now, if Corason would just issue a Cuban son collection by Garzón. - Michael Stone


La Calle
Santa Morena
Bembé

The regime of political correctness imposed by reactionary Miami elements has often prevented local clubs and radio stations from disseminating the popular music produced and enjoyed daily on the dance floors of Cuba. So expatriate and international aficionados have had to find other ways to follow the driving pulse of the island’s evolving musical heritage. As this disc confirms, Cuban dance music has continued to unfold in ways distinct from the homogenized salsa of the international Latin music industry of New York and Puerto Rico. La Calle, formed in 1991 and voted Havana’s best salsa band in 1995, finds inspiration in the patron saint of Cuba, for whom they name the album. The rhythmic legacy of Afro-Cuban rumba comes through strongly here, with an energetic vocal ensemble and the tight, bright horn sections reminiscent of the influential Cuban combo Irakere. Echoes of the best collaborations of Willie Colon and Ruben Blades can be heard, as can newer influences of jazz, rock and hip hop. This is Cuban dance music, tried and true, straight from Havana, and if Miami is tuned out, it is missing out on something the less ideologically challenged in Latin America and Europe already appreciate for its own intrinsic aesthetic merit and expressive verve. As they say in Cuba, ¡gózalo! -Michael Stone
(Recorded by Eusebio Dominguez. Edited by Jimmy Durchslag. Bilingual notes by David Peñalosa.)


Habana

There is big hype on three releases from World Circuit (via Nonesuch) ushered into existence by Ry Cooder and World Circuit's Nick Gold, in recording sessions in Havana from 1994. THE BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB is a collection of some of the city's best musicians, joined by Mr. Cooder in a rollicking, uninhibited set of tracks. Front and center is Compay Segundo, an acoustic guitarist with formidable skill and creativity. Joining him are vocalists Ibrahim Ferrer and a phenomenal bolero singer by the name of Omara Portuondo, who's lush and elaborate style makes her a must for a solo album sometime soon. Guitarist/singer Eliades Ochoa adds a passionate color to the set, pianist Reubén González is brilliant, percussionists from Sierra Maestro and stellar bassist Cachiato Lopez add the groove and the list of great musicians goes on and on, adding strings and horns to an incomparable cast.

The Buena Vista Social Club, is however, clearly a Ry Cooder event, and while his subtle input is at times veiled, it is there in every track, as he adds unconventional long slides, fuzz-tones and jazz finger-picking throughout the album. In the last few tracks, we are treated to a veritable "Paradise and Lunch" in Havana. It may never be hailed as the greatest "Latin" music record in history, but it certainly comes down as one of Cooder's best and a mile post on the road to bringing the music of Cuba back to North America again.

Pianist REUBÉN GONZÁLEZ's keys are all over Buena Vista Social Club, but on the next of these three recordings, Introducing Reubén González is the star. At 77 years old, this is amazingly his first solo recording, and it cooks. He's an expressive, often witty player with an intuitive sense for salsa, cha cha cha, son and jazz. Here with many of the same players from the Buena Vista sessions, González gets to strut, flourish and serve up a few pyrotechnic moments as well. His sense of harmony is impeccable, his ability to play between the lines is as avant as any new jazz, and yet the whole thing is so rootsy it crawls. Is it authentic? Hell no. Is it entertaining and enlightening? To the max.

Finally, we get to what was chronologically the second of these sessions, A Toda Cuba le Gusta by the AFRO-CUBAN ALL STARS. This is a song-lovers haven, with six distinct and wonderful vocalists contributing to the ten tracks. Two tracks will have you addicted. "Pio Mentiroso" roars under the voice of Pio Leyva, a gritty shouter 80 years old. "Alto Songo" is a son montuno that features five of the voices, all together and in traded solos, and a nice little Ry Cooder slide solo for extra measure. It is perhaps the essence of this set of albums, full of life, full of voices, full of gusto and just a damn fine time.

And there's also the six piece horn section that runs through all three recordings, which includes member of Sierra Maestra, Irakere, Arieto and Orchestra Riverside, along with guests like Orchestra Aragon's flautist Richard Egües. - CF


Various Artists
Cuban Gold 4: Fuego Candela! The Smokin' 70's
QBADISC

From the top-notch "Cuban Gold" series comes another jam-packed collection of tasty Cuban cuts from the archives of Harry Sepulueda -- owner of New York's Time Square Record Mart. Cuban Gold 4 presents a rare treat for the domestic consumer -- it's like stumbling across a cigar crate full of dusty 45's drenched in Havana soul by luminaries like Orquesta Aragon and Los Van Van. Don't be fooled by imitators -- this is the real deal. - W. Todd Dominey


Orlando "Puntilla" Rios and Nueva Generación
Spirit Rhythms: Sacred Drumming and Chants from Cuba
Music of the World/ Latitudes CD LAT 50603 (www.musicoftheworld.com)

This recording is a fine introduction to the West African-derived rhythmic underpinnings of the sacred batá ensemble drumming of Cuban Santería. The product of African bondage and resistance in Cuba, the music of Santería evolved from the Lucumí religion of Nigeria, whose ancestral orishas or deities Cuban slaves mapped onto the Catholic pantheon of saints. Adherents develop a direct, personal relationship with a specific orisha, each of whom is vested with an identifying sequence of devotional chants (cantos) and rhythms (toques). In Santería, the bembé gathering pays homage to the orishas, while the toque convocation seeks to invoke the orisha's actual possession of the devotee. The Cuban exodus inevitably brought Santería to the United States, where congregations are now widely rooted. Since arriving himself in New York in 1981, master drummer Orlando "Puntilla" Rios has sought to perpetuate and convey to wider audiences the expressive traditions of Santería, along with such seminal forms as rumba. This disc conveys the uncompromising power of the music of Santería - and it stands as a powerful corrective to the profane aping of bembé by the eponymous "Miami Sound Machine" and its mercenary legionnaires. - Michael Stone


Orquesta La Moderna Tradicion
Danzonemos
(Candela)

For me, one of the revelations of the acclaimed "Master Sessions" recordings of Israel "Cachao" Lopez was his playing of the Cuban style called danzon. This elegant style, invented in the late 19th century, has the delicacy of chamber music, yet has an unmistakable, insinuating Latin swing.

This San Francisco group, headed by percussionist Robert Berrell of Cuba, explores this stately, thoroughly charming genre. The 11-member instrumental group includes strings, woodwinds and percussion, playing both original and traditional numbers --even remaking "As Time Goes By" in cha-cha rhythm. The Orquesta's "back to the future" approach is a welcome reminder that not everything old should be forgotten and that occasionally slowing things down a bit ain't necessarily bad. -Marty Lipp


José Angel Navarro
Miel
Ashé / Rounder Records.

José Angel Navarro, by day a civil engineer in Cuba, is a self-taught acoustic guitarist whose music finds inspiration in the Yoruba-derived devotional music associated with the spiritual practice of Cuban santería. Indeed, Navarro dedicates this album to santería’s primary orishas or ancestral deities, each of whom is invested with rhythms (toques), songs (canciones) and powers uniquely their own. This disc will come as a revelation for listeners familiar with the legendary Brazilian guitarists Bola Sete and Luiz Bonfá (of Black Orpheus fame, and then some), whose West African rhythmic roots reside at the heart of their eminently New World music. Navarro’s unorthodox approach speaks to the best of their work, and remains true to the essence of its syncretic cultural inspiration. As in the most winning of expressive styles grown out of the African diaspora, Navarro’s music sustains the aesthetic, ethical, and philosophical values characteristic of the African-influenced performance traditions of the Americas, and seized upon as increasingly global popular forms. But don’t take it from me — the most transparent endorsement comes from my two-year-old daughter, who in her own way knows her Cuban music, and who comes running to dance when this disc comes up on the CD changer. - Michael Stone
(Recorded by Paco Benages and Jordi Rotis. Edited by José Angel Navarro. Notes by Samuel Morgan and Rachel Faro)


If you're more of a purist or a fan of the great historical bands of Cuba, then the good news is a new album by ORCHESTA ARAGÓN, a band now pushing well past fifty years of age and still growing. Cha Cha Charanga is bright and luxurious, rife with violin flourishes, Egües' flute and great grooves. It's pretty rich stuff, maybe a little too much so for some Latin music fans, with a heavy tendency to drown out the rhythm section with ostentatious string arrangements, but that flute is something to hear, and well worth wading through the sugar to get to.

At the opposite side of the dancefloor is PANCHO QUINTO, the great Cuban percussionist and, here, a challenging figure who shamelessly blends Cuba's drums and drum styles into a strangely cohesive whole that lies somewhere between the avant garde and dockside street music. En Solar la Cueva del Humo

(Round World, 593 Guerrero Street, San Francisco, CA 94110 fax:255.8491) is almost all voices and drums, the real roots of Afro-Cuban music, although they do break into a full band of tres, bass and piano on the opening track. This is rumba that breaks the rules.


VARIOUS ARTISTS Cuba, I Am Time
Blue Jackel

If you know Cuban music, you will find treasures you always wished you had. If you don't know Cuban music, you will after a few weeks with this set. Laid out here in both 4 CDs and over 100 pages of small-type text is a pretty complete history and overview of Cuban music, from the Yoruban drum roots to the slickest Cu-bop and Cuba-pop. This is not come easy listening sampler, but a real study of a complex and sometimes difficult music that still manages to be danceable, joyous and fun. Each record looks at a particular aspect of the music; Invocations checks the religious roots), Cantar the great singers, Bailar shows you how to dance, and Cubano Jazz delineates the groove. Each record includes historical pieces by well known names (Celina Gonzalez, Cachao, Chico O'Farrill, Trio Matamoras, Sexteto Habanero and Mario Bauza just scratch the surface) and modern innovators and interpreters (Los Van Van, Los terry, Jesus Alemañy and Steve Coleman's sessions with AfroCuba de Matanzas). Well documented notes accompany of wealth of good music. If I would nit-pick I would have wished that the historical side was a little heavier, but only of they had made five instead of four. - CF


LOS TERRY From Africa to Camaguey
(Round World Records)

The wonders of Afro Cuban jazz have been with us for decades. The blending of deep Cuban and African roots into jazz has been explored in countless ways by countless American jazz men and women, but is not so often that we get to hear what the Cubans themselves are doing. LOS TERRY bring it to us on in From Africa to Camaguey, a hot set of very deep roots and lots of innovative jazz. Nothing here will knock you over on the first listen, but the musicianship is rock-solid, the arrangements tight and exciting. They start with a firm foundation of percussion and voices, add dazzling piano and flute and present a recording that will definitely stand out from the crowd. - CF


ROY HARGROVE'S CRISOL Habana
(Verve)

The Havana Jazz Festival has spawned several new recordings already in the last year, and the latest child of this seminal event is Habana by trumpeter ROY HARGROVE'S CRISOL. Habana is not as directly Cuban as Steve Coleman's recent venture, preferring to use a more universal band to interpret what they heard in Cuba. The band includes American trombonist Frank Lacy, Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes and Puerto Rican saxophonist David Sanchez among its numbers, bringing the recording a broader "Latin jazz" feel. Among the essential tracks: "Kenny Dorham's steaming "Afrodisia" and Hargrove's own sweet and soulful "Ballad For The Children." - CF


Son 14 - Cubania - Candela
As the name implies, Son 14 is one of the predominant cultivators of son - a universal style of Latin music originating in Santiago de Cuba and one of contemporary salsa's fundamental roots. Propelled by Eduardo "Tiburon" Morales, whose hoarse voice has been "well seasoned by rum and cigars," Son 14's witty arrangements and sharp brassy sound sparkle throughout every hip-shaking track. - W. Todd Dominey


ERNESTO LECUONA
Lecuona Plays Lecuona
RCA/BMG Classics
While almost any fan of world music (and anyone who has taken advanced guitar lessons) knows the classic guitar composition "Malgueña," few have heard the composer play the song as it was written, for the piano, from the "Andalucia: Suite Espagñola". Ernesto Lecuona made his career making music for theater and film, making the most of the 20th century's new musical freedom to mix the lush piano music of the 19th Century with Latin, jazz and contemporary themes and ideas. His piano works are now presented in this 2 CD set of recordings made for Victor in the late 20's and again in 1954. They include some revealing music like his series of "Danzas Afro-Cubanas" composed in throughout the 20's and recorded in the 1954 sessions. While much of his work reflected the still reigning influence of Chopin (the lush) and Ravel (the Spanish influence), these Latin piano pieces are daringly different for their time, and it is reasonable to presume they influenced the coming Latin Jazz movement in some small way. While the older recordings tend to be a little staid by today's standards (a few could well have been written by Chopin, so closely they adhere to the style), there are enough moments of brilliance to bring the composer's vision to life in 1997. Special mention goes to reissue producer Harold Hagopian, whose tender ministrations brought these old wax and metal masters to elegant life on CD. - CF


ALBITA
Dicen Que...
(Crescent Moon/Epic)

This fiery and passionate performer, whose defection from Cuba made her a media darling, has stretched out a bit with this, her second U.S. disc. Self-producing this time out, Albita experiments with textures and rhythm changes, but keeps these salsa pop tunes jumping. Her creativity makes many of these energetic tunes a little problematic for slapping on a typical dancefloor playlist, but she deserves mucho credit for spicing her salsa with a variety of flavors. - Marty Lipp


Cachao
The Master Sessions/ Volume 2
Crescent Moon/Epic

This latest volume consists of thirteen tunes drawn from the same 1994 sessions that produced the Grammy-winning first installment. The Cuban acoustic upright bass virtuoso, composer and band-leader has obviously hand-picked his team and they inhabit the grooves body and soul. Some of the stalwarts on hand include Paquito D'Rivera on clarinet and alto sax, Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros on trumpet, Paulinho Da Costa on percussion, Nestor Torres on flute and Richie Flores on congas. The actor Andy Garcia, whose personal mission to gain a wider audience for Cachao got these recordings made, sings back-up and plays some percussion. The material is a festival of styles from throughout the Island and ranges from torrid to suave. The rumba gets personal here and a delirious son montuno celebrates one of Cuba's most essential time signatures. Furiously engaged descargas (jams) send spirits soaring and inhibitions packing. An earthy guaracha with massed horns, a plinking tres guitar and call-and-response vocals is full of news about the daily grind as luscious danzas, which are spun out of impassioned string sections fronted by woodwinds, surge against a post-colonial formality.

A bolero son called "Romantica Mujer (Romantic Woman)" is a pantheistic drama presented with the worldly intimacy of a bar-room serenade. During "Eleggua", a dialogue between an aggressive mixed chorus and frenzied drummers emerges from Yoruba history lived and recalled. Cachao's bass supplies a point of departure for the tunes and points the way home, either snapping at our heels at center stage or growling in fun from a warm corner. As a composer, his homegrown virility is tempered by the finesse of his conservatory training. He relates stories about everyday people, jokes and matters of the heart while visiting local deities draw near, joining in the dances that they have demanded and inspired. - Christina Roden


Los Guanches
The Corpse Went Dancing Rumba
Corason/Rounder

This was guaranteed to be a great recording because the band is formed from the rhythm section of the equally great Quarteto Patria, bassist Armando Machado and percussionist Joaquín Solóranzo. This is the first release by this two year old group, and it shows great promise. They play the country music of Cuba, the son, and they play it with great energy and not a little abandon. In particular, listen to the tres playing of Carlos Elis Ávila. While the band sticks pretty much to a "traditional" repertoire of hits from the 30s and 40s, he attacks the tunes with great syncopations and some jazzy twists. The singers, leader Rafael Casacó and second vocalist and maracas player Alfredo Alsonso are both good, and exhibit some of that same sense of adventure in their phrasing. Los Guanches certainly aren't in the experimental or fusion vein and stay very close to their roots, but within this framework they find some room for playing it fast and loose. Here is an excellent debut, one that will deserve repeated listening.


Yes, Jesus Alemañy's ¡Cubanismo! is as retro as it gets, rootsy guaguanco, son montuno and danzon from the heyday of Cuban music and the early days of New York's Caribbean jazz scene. As the lead horn player for Cuba's legendary Sierra Maestra, he certainly has the historical context down, and on these searing tracks he and his band (featuring the incredible pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and legendary percussionist Tata Guines) blast through it with energy and style. Old school? Listen to the be-bop like horn riffs and rolling piano solos in "Tumbao de Coqueta" and tell me it matters!


Ernesto Lecuona Lecuona Plays Lecuona
RCA/BMG Classics
While almost any fan of world music (and anyone who has taken advanced guitar lessons) knows the classic guitar composition "Malgueña," few have heard the composer play the song as it was written, for the piano, from the "Andalucia: Suite Espagñola". Ernesto Lecuona made his career making music for theater and film, making the most of the 20th century's new musical freedom to mix the lush piano music of the 19th Century with Latin, jazz and contemporary themes and ideas. His piano works are now presented in this 2 CD set of recordings made for Victor in the late 20's and again in 1954. They include some revealing music like his series of "Danzas Afro-Cubanas" composed in throughout the 20's and recorded in the 1954 sessions. While much of his work reflected the still reigning influence of Chopin (the lush) and Ravel (the Spanish influence), these Latin piano pieces are daringly different for their time, and it is reasonable to presume they influenced the coming Latin Jazz movement in some small way. While the older recordings tend to be a little staid by today's standards (a few could well have been written by Chopin, so closely they adhere to the style), there are enough moments of brilliance to bring the composer's vision to life in 1997. Special mention goes to reissue producer Harold Hagopian, whose tender ministrations brought these old wax and metal masters to elegant life on CD. - CF


Orquestra Original De Manzanillo (Qbadisc) is a contemporary charanga group, flutes, violin, piano and percussion reinventing the sound of such famous bands as Septeto National. Based on the son of eastern Cuba, enhanced by lush arrangements, and then super-charged with some fat electric bass, the music is at once sublime and impulsive. It's for dancing, from romantic slow numbers to exciting floor burners. At the front of the stage is the rhythmic and intuitive singing of Candido Fabré. This is how to make roots music live in the future!

A little hotter, a little tougher, NG La Banda made their first US CD appearance on the Luaka Bop Cuba Classics compilation. En La Calle (Qbadisc) was recorded in 1989, and shows off what is possibly one of the most energetic bands in Cuba, featuring former members of some of its most famous groups, Irakere, Ritmo Oriental and Los Van Van. For my money, they have matched and will probably exceed the power of either. They're heavy on the brass, who they call "Los Metales del Terror," and infused with great drumming. If the six minutes of "La Expresiva" or the souped up guaguancó of "Los Sitios Enteros" doesn't blow you out of your chair, call the morgue, because you're a goner.

"All of the songs are in their original form... no part has been changed for the sake of novelty. If ou stripped away all the instrumental parts you would have the song authentically sung as it is sung in the rituals." So goes the warning on Ancestros by Cuban pop group Sintesis. The tradition they refer to is the music of the batá drums used in the worship of the Afro-Cuban deities of . Sintesis could be an exciting band. Their singers are superb, the percussionists hot, and the idea of updating the ancient music of the santeria is promising. Unfortunatly, they're not up to it, and the uncreative use of too many synthesizers and too many trite pop-jazz phrases makes this a less than satisfying ride.

"If you stripped away all the instrumental parts..." you might hear Los Muñequitos De Matanzas. They are possibly the best known guaquancó band in Cuba and play rumbas, the drums, voices and dancers of the real rumba. Rumba Caliente 88/77 (Qbadisc) features recordings from 1977 and 1988, and if you are into the Afro-Cuban connection, this is the recording for your head, your heart and your feet. Stripped down to basics, the music exudes heat, sexuality, unbeliveable spiritual energy. When they ban automobiles and close down the power plants, this will be the music of the world!


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