Septeto Nacional and Guests
Mas Cuba Libres

In 1927, Ignacio Pineiro, a sometime stevedore, cigar roller, and carpenter, formed Sexteto Nacional. The band's repertoire was the son, the newly popular Afro-Cuban genre that fused European song form and instruments (such as the tres) with African elements such as strong percussion and call-and-response sections. Pineiro, whose band quickly snagged a contract with Columbia Records, soon added a seventh, a cornet, and began to shake the son tradition up in other ways, adding more syncopation and a more sophisticated arrangement, creating a sound that Arsenio Rodriguez would eventually revolutionize, a sound that would eventually beget such worthy heirs as salsa. Septeto Nacional became known as one of the finest son bands on the island, vying for title of most popular with Septeto Habanero. Many of Pineiro's compositions became instant classics.

The band, currently in its third generation of musicians, shows that it is still going strong, sailing through an exuberant mix of sones and boleros with a sound that is classic but never musty. Nacional features its usually fine lineup of musicians, including Ignacio "Richard" Castro as bandleader and sonero Raspa, as well as a stunning list of guest artists, including Pancho Amat, legendary master of the tres; Tata Guines, known as Cuba's finest conga player; and rough-voiced vocalist Pio Leyva, who, at 82 years old, could tell as many stories as any of the wrinkled Buena Vista Social Club set. In "Más Cuba Libres," the band sails through a exuberant repertoire of sones.

Several of the best tracks are updated versions of Pineiro's original compositions. These include "No juegues con los santos" ("Don't play with the gods") which includes impeccable work on the tres by Amat; and a fast-paced rumba titled "Coco mai mai," which becomes a lively, extended montuno in which vocalists Leyva and Bertha Portuondo trade off call-and-response duties. "Oye como suena mi son montuno," is another winner, carried by the washboard-hoarse voice and sonero genius of Leyva and the gloriously nimble chops of pianist Guillermo "Rubalcaba" Gonzalez.

A couple of boleros are included, adding a welcome note of rhythmic, bittersweet melancholy. In "Quimera," Septeto Nacional vocalist Eugenio "Raspa" Rodriguez leads the band with smooth, passionate vocals. "Tu mi afinidad," another Pineiro composition, finishes off the album with a sentimental-but never sugary-paean to the power of love. Más Cuba Libres also features extensive liner notes in four languages, including recipes for such famous island drinks as Cuba libre, daiquiri, and mojito. - Elisa Murray

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