EL CHANGUI MAJADERO (self-published)

An exciting new outfit that fans of changüí will love. Sometimes called the country music (musica campesina) of Cuba, changüí is a bustling story-telling form with call and response vocals and spare instrumentation. The lead instrument is the tres, a six-string guitar with pairs of harmonizing strings (gG cc Ee) and a sprightly almost harpsichord-like twang. This percussive sounding guitar is supported by acoustic bass and then there are three percussion instruments: bongos, maracas, and a metal guiro called a guayo. While their hands are busily occupied the performers are in full voice and have their craft honed to a fine art. I was surprised to read the band are from East L.A. because if you had told me eastern Cuba that would have made perfect sense. They have translated the form perfectly and are aware of the rich traditions of the music: the bongo becomes a solo instrument; the bass echoes the patterns of the marimbula which is like a giant thumb piano; the tresero and the vocalists improvise. Garcia, the group's leader, started out as a boxer (on the Mexican junior olympic team), until he heard Grupo Changüí Guantanamo and was hooked and took up tres. He even went back to school to get a Masters in Afro-Cuban Jazz! Changüí is the root of Cuban music just as blues is the root of American popular music. Garcia's father composed corridos, which are sung news bulletins or ballads on current events, in a tradition that goes back to the medieval troubadours in the era before print, so that fits in with the timelessness and timeliness of the songs in the changüí repertoire. Garcia went to Guantanamo to study with the group whose LP had entranced him, and learned many songs from them. He found fellow souls back in LA who were also interested in the form: between them they have played with Maraca, Poncho Sanchez, Son Mayor and other luminaries of Cuban music. They knock it out of the park with this set: lovely, revelatory, beautifully recorded and strikingly new.

EL VIAJE (Mack Avenue MAC1114)

This is a great album, when they are not singing that is. I like Latin Jazz, and Cuban pianist and composer Harold López-Nussa exemplifies all that is great about it: he has a strong aura of competence based on incredible chops from a conservatory training, a deep knowledge of the music, a great sense of rhythm and a solid backing band. Nussa recorded Villa-Lobos' Fourth Piano Concerto with the Cuban National Symphony Orchestra and you get a feeling of Brazilian samba right at the outset, complete with the wispy non-vocals on "Me voy pa' Cuba." The other schmaltz-factor must come from his years touring as pianist behind Omara Portuondo, but if you set aside "Dos Gardenias" there is plenty of muscle in that repertoire and even drippy tunes can create space for a good pianist to work out. So I did not mute the opening track and mercifully it soon frees itself into a space of some keyboard pyrotechnics and fresh-ground percussion. The band features brother Ruy Adrián López-Nussa on drum kit and percussion and Senegalese bassist Alune Wade who also sings. Ruy and Harold's dad Ruy Francisco also guests on drums, and there are drop-in appearances by other percussionists. The percussionists drive the music but are also driven by López-Nussa as he does some tricky finger slamming himself on the keys. Most of the tunes are originals, but there are two well-selected covers: a Thelonious Monk tune, "Bright Mississippi," which itself was based on the changes of "Sweet Georgia Brown," and here it becomes "Feria" -- it was already well covered by Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez (who, coincidentally, is on the same label). What sounds like accordion on the ballad "Lobo's cha," is a triola. It's a plastic toy you blow into, with a keyboard, made famous by Augustus Pablo, but deftly handled here by Dad. The other classic is a rip-roaring rendition of "Bacalao con pan" by Chucho Valdés. "El Viaje" slows the tempo again, but Wade's singing spoils the lovely flugelhorn part by Mayquel González. Just my opinion, of course, but it seems redundant to have someone vocalize a melody along with a trumpet or horn playing the same notes. When Wade sticks to his bass playing like on "D'una fábula," he is excellent. Another ballad "Oriente," had another novel keyboard -- maybe another toy, it's not identified -- but then we get into a duet with muted trumpet and piano that reminds me of one of my favorite soundtrack albums, Elevator to the Gallows. It's moody and cinematic, oh, until Wade come in singing in his wistful falsetto. The outtro is a jam on the title track, with casual chatter and messing about which reminds me of Alegre All Stars' legendary sessions. For all the wimpy moments, this album still has clout.


There were some great musicians who, late in their careers, waltzed through the portals of the Buena Vista Sock Hop: Ruben Gonzalez, Compay Segundo, Barbarito Torres and Elaides Ochoa being the obvious names. I saw Eliades Ochoa with Cuarteto Patria live and it was a spectacular show; and before, during and after the BVSC he continued to record with his small group, in which he seems more at home. His latest offering is with a new and expanded group of "Latin Soul" brothers: he has added lead guitar, piano, three conga players, trumpet and sax. Still, he does here what he does best, play guitar and another similar instrument called an armonio, which is a tres (Cuban 6-string guitar) with two added strings. He is a phenomenal guitarist but has added another luminous performer on that instrument, Julio Montoro, who brings four original compositions to the set and adds the wild electric guitar formerly contributed by arriviste Ry Cooder in Ochoa's previous outings. They throw a couple of classics into the mix, including a song by Celina Gonzalez, which Ochoa's sister Maria sings, as she does on the other tracks, when Eliades is not taking the lead; her singing is occasionally strained and the only weak spot on this album. Another gem, "Oye ya," is from the Miguel Matamoros songbook. Even label boss Mo Fini contributes a song! The album title means something like "Country + more country." The style of music, "Guajira" is a traditional folkloric (i.e. country) music of Cuba, here updated with the electric guitar grafted on. Most of the tunes are guajiras, sons or guarachas, though quite a few are called "Latin," implying a fusion of various Cuban and extra-insular influences. You can even detect modern African influences on "El Reto." I wonder if they have encountered Diblo or Lokassa ya Mbongo on their travels. There's a cumbia beat to "Que viva la Alegria." "Rumberito baila" begins with Maria calling out the great Rumberos, like Chano Pozo, Pancho Quinto, Tata Guines and other musicians and singers, including Tito Puente and Celia Cruz -- I wonder if this is glasnost or just sentimentality since Cruz's passing. The guitar interplay is brilliant but then the seething bed of congueros is really tight involving three congueros, one of whom plays bongo or drums occasionally. This is a fired-up set, balanced with some great mellow interludes.


Forty years is a long time, and it's over 40 years since Irakere made its debut with a fusion of Afro-Cuban ritual music with jazz and even rock influences. To celebrate the history of the band, Chucho Valdés is touring the USA (now that Obama has discovered his latin groove) and the band's leader and driving force Chucho Valdés, son of the legendary Cuban pianist Bebo, is now the headliner. He is a fine pianist and can pound out big ham-fisted chords, or lapse into very sedate classical bits of Lecuona or Johann Sebastian. As recently as August 2015 the band was touring Europe and this album is a fresh out of the oven recording of them in France. It's now a second-generation of musicians, many of whom are in Valdés new project The Afro-Cuban Messengers. I believe the original band expired about a decade ago. The Messengers have been augmented with three trumpeters and two saxophones for this tour. I am less engaged by the sax player (I didn't get any packaging material so don't know the specifics of the band). Chucho, whom I think of as junior though he is 74, says he cried when the band rehearsed the old Irakere material, such as "Misa Negra," "Juana 1600," their unique take on "Stella by Starlight" called "Estela va a estallar" and the extra-classic "Bacalao con pan." There are strong Afro-Cuban ritual elements in the drumming and chanting that kick off the album but then it goes into a more familiar jazz groove. Of the tracks mentioned above, only "Juana 1600" is on the Marciac set, the other tunes are two by the Afro-Cuban Messengers, "Yansá" and "Lorena's Tango," and three jams. Each track does have space for a conga and percussion solo which is welcome but it makes the band seem that much more noodly when they come back in. "Afro-Comanche" goes from a Bach 2-part invention into a jam and then an orchestrated bridge that reminds me of Les McCann & Eddie Harris' Swiss Movement. Come to mention it, the next track, with the uninspired title of "Afro-Funk" also sounds like that evergreen disc. The last track "Yansá" turns into "Take Five," though I had not noticed the time signature before then. It breaks down into the "knackered horse" rhythm where the conga player clip-clops slower and slower, a novelty overused on this disc. You'll have to catch them live if you want to experience the old Irakere material.


This is an all-star line-up to celebrate Cuban son music as performed by the soneros of Santiago. The big names joining up are Eliades Ochoa (last survivor of BVSC?), Andy Montañez, Ismael Miranda and Oscar de Leon, each of whom sing lead on one song. The set list is familiar but that gives everyone a chance to show off and the sound is amped up and hot. Songs of Duo los Compadre -- both Lorenzo and Reinaldo Hierrezuelo and Compay Segundo -- plus Vieja Trova Santiaguera make up the bulk of the repertoire. The first thing that comes to mind is where is Barbarito Torres and why have we not heard from him in ages? But there's overflowing talent here. I have never heard of Aymee Nuviola but she has a cheeky delivery reminiscent of Celia Cruz in her prime (& a bit of googling shows she just received a Latin Grammy nomination for best Salsa Album of 2015). The first disc ends with "Su Señoria la conga" and if there's one thing that drives me wild it's a good conga with snake-charming reeds flailing wildly over beat me daddy percussion. That track was written by Flea (no, not that Flea) and features Joaquin Solórzano on "Corneta china." If a disc of this is good, a double-disc is a real indulgence. Fans of Cuarteto Patria will love the appearance of Elaides Ochoa performing "A Georgina" on disc two, though the string quartet is not strictly necessary. The great Alejandro Almenares also features on this cut. "Amor silvestre" dispenses with guests and shows the rip-it-up sensibilities of the core group with killer bongo and hard driving cowbell urging on the singers, trumpet and coro. Every now and then a scorcher like this comes along and makes me wish I was still a DJ. You could have the dancefloor in the palm of your hand with this album. Capitalist swine in the form of MacDonalds or Starbucks may get to Cuba before me, but I feel assured this timeless music will still be there when I make it.

LOST & FOUND (World Circuit)

The Buena Vista Socialists were like Africando in two ways: they were a nostalgia band that turned into a real meal-ticket for some old musicians and their promoters, but consequently (to their being old) they had a knack of dying off. So I believe BVSC is now extinct although the younger Afro Cuban All Stars who were their backing band continue to tour. However the music remains and for anyone who wants another dose, or has worn out their four albums, we now get Lost and Found, a mellow album of chestnuts and lesser-known cuts from the BVSC in their prime. Some of the tracks were laid down in Egrem Studios, Havana, during the original 1996 session that led to their breakout as massive international stars. (Although Ry Cooder was there and put his name on the recording, the sessions were organized by Juan de Marcos González, the true leader of the group.) A few more of the tracks here were recorded in subsequent world tours. "Bruca Manigua," featuring Ibrahim Ferrer, kicks it off, then the great Eliades Ochoa steps up with his guitar for "Macus," backed by the even more legendary Compay Segundo on coro. Some fine piano (Rubén González) introduces "Tiene Sabor," sung by Omara Portuondo. It's all high calibre material, perfectly executed. I can't get enough of laoud player Barbarito Torres: he has toured to my vicinity twice but otherwise I don't see any new albums from him. You may have enough versions of "Como Fue" or "Lagrimas Negras" in your collection, and maybe better ones too (certainly Benny Moré is infinitely preferable as a vocalist to Ibrahim Ferrer), but it's reassuring to hear the old familiar refrains wafting out of the speakers and bright moments for the top-notch backing musicians on bass (Cachaito), timbales, bongo & conga (Miguel "Angá" Díaz) etc. One treat is a trombone-led danzon, "Bodas de oro," featuring Jesus "Aguaje" Ramos on trombone with a big backing band and sadly, González' last-ever recorded piano solo. What sounds like violin is I guess Cachaito bowing his bass on the oddly named "Black chicken 37," a little spontaneous duet with Díaz. You can see why it was overlooked in the heat and excitement of the first album, but it's a fine little memento. I am a sucker for danzons and boleros so this is most suiting to my taste. I like the sequence: Eliades Ochoa opens big at the beginning then returns for two more laid-back brief cuts two-thirds of the way through. These two were grabbed after-hours in the Egrem studios and have a great late night feeling. Ibrahim and his big band take on another Arsenio song live, "Mami me gusto" features bass, trumpet & trombone solos and a wildly enthusiastic audience. Rubén González wraps it up and ties a bow around it with his brief recital, "Como siente yo," performed in his London gig of 1996 after his return from retirement age 76.

CHA CHA CHA (World Circuit)

From the label that brought you Buena Vista Social Club, it says optimistically on the front of this nostalgic reissue. Since he was born over a century ago, it's unlikely Abelardo or remnants of his band will be touring again to promote this. Fans of Cuban son undoubtedly have one of his "best of" compilations (e.g., that on Edenways 1997), or Bruca Maniguá by Abelardo Barroso con la Orquesta Sensación from 1961. His history is well-documented in the annals of Cuban music. One of the first son groups was Sexteto Habanero and in 1925 Abelardo joined them ... as driver! But the following year he joined first Sexteto Boloña of Alfredo Boloña as sonero, then Ignacio Piñeiro's Septeto Nacional, and traveled to New York to record for Columbia Records. Columbia insisted on having a trumpet and Barroso was able to vocalize in concert with trumpeter Lázzaro Herrero who had expanded the sextet into a septet. In the 30s he was known as "Caruso" when he sang with Cachao's brother Orestes Lopez and was with them as they transformed the danzón into the charanga. In the mid-30s he launched a solo career with his wonderful and timeless "La Huerfanito (the Orphan)." In the mid-50s, strapped for cash, he approached orquesta Sensación and suggested they re-record his 1939 classic, "En Guantánamo." Older members of the audience ate it up and he made new fans. This monster smash was followed by other classics including "El Guajiro de Cunagua," "Tiene Sabor," "El Panquellero,"and "La Hija de Juan Simon," all of which are collected here. Barroso who has a throaty tone, suggesting a glass or two of rum has lubricated his throat, never used a microphone and ultimately paid the price: he had to have surgery on his vocal chords in 1967 which ended his career. Also the Cuban revolution ended his triumphant overseas tours to Miami and New York. Even the legendary Beny Moré looked up to him as a teacher and, as Machito laid claim to the mambo, Barroso made the cha cha cha his own domain. It is wonderful that World Circuit has returned to Cuba and if this flies they may delve further into the vaults. If you think the cha cha cha is something staid your swinging uncles and aunties did at cocktail parties, check out the wild percussion (guiro, timbales and congas), tight arrangements with piano, violins and flute, and especially the slurry good-time vocals of señor Barroso, the Cuban Caruso.

CASA DE TROVA: CUBA 50s (Tumi 228)

This is a kind of music I love: classic son and trova from Santiago de Cuba. It's a great collection from the man who wrote "Mueva la cintura mulata" (made famous by his first band Cuarteto Oriente; it is not on here, though I wish it were). Born in 1927, Almenares is one of the last of the troubadours of Cuba's golden age. He still gets down to the Casa de la Trova where he plays with the likes of Eliades Ochoa, who already made his fame and fortune thanks to BV Social Club. This is a warm and wonderful set of his original compositions. It's well recorded, with crisp percussion and big bass in the mix, there's just one drawback: It's a two-CD set and instead of two discs packed with great music, there is one disc of songs and one of instrumentals. I really could do without the instrumental disc, especially since there is some mediocre soloing from gypsy violin (!), sax and flute replacing la voz. But then the tres strides forth and all is well. Almenares carries the whole thing, for in addition to being the composer he is also the tresero. This is not a condemnation of the album, since it's still priced as a single disc, I just think it was a waste of time adding the instrumental disc which I probably won't listen to again. Almenares is credited as composer (& his father on some tracks), but some of the songs, like the bolero son "Mujercita linda" show the influence, even the licks, of Trio Matamoros who established this field (in terms of recorded music, at least). It's a bit coy to claim an original composition when it is a note for note cover of "Amorosa guajira" by Nené Allué but then even the mighty Beatles stole this tune for "Do you wanna know a secret" (I have often wondered who brought it to them, because in 1963 it was already an oldie on 78 rpm. Probably a friend of George who knew how he liked to arpeggiate chords on his guitar). I don't wish to sell this short: It's a great set of finely honed originals, impeccably rendered by tres, guitar, double bass and percussion. There are two singers and a guest appearance from Eva Griñan to whom the album is dedicated as she died after it was recorded. The Casa de la Trova is high on my list of places to visit: music like this demonstrates why.

SIEMPRE CLASICO (Machete Records M212)

Fans of Buena Vista Social Club will really enjoy this laid-back set, and maybe recognize some of the standards presented here. It is a collection of classics from the Cuban repertoire of boleros and trova, performed by one of the Oviedo brothers, backed by the superb Latin jazz musicians of the John Santos Sextet. The overall ballad tone also suggests Johnny Hartman: smoky late nights with rum twinkling in a glass of ice. Isaac Oviedo was the singer's father and his brother is tresero Papi Oviedo, who actually is in the BVSC. Isaac was exposed to North America listeners by the team that made Routes of Rhythm, the TV documentary with Harry Belafonte, and Rounder put out his sole American CD in 1992 on which Ernesto sang. Isaac's other son Papi had a fine release called Encuentro entre Soneros on the Candela label in 1997 and then a duet with Papa Noel called Bana Congo that came out on Tumi in 2002. So here is the debut of Ernesto, who is now 78, but has been performing with the Estrellas Cubanas in Havana. Santos brought another legendary Cuban to the set: timbalero Orestes Vilató, who also plays bongos and bell when not battering the timbales. Vilató (who has been part of some crucial outfits, including Santana, Ray Barretto and Cachao's bands) gets to rock out on bongos on "La Historia de un Amor," a ballad that was the theme for a 1956 Mexican movie and here it is turned into a riotous rumba. I miss tres, especially on "Bruca Manigua," (while has solos from violin and timbales), but guitar is provided by José Roberto Hernandez who is featured on "A mi Manera" by Marcellino Guerra. Marco Diaz on piano is a outstanding throughout.

LATIN NOIR (Piranha)

My iTunes is out of hand. There's over two weeks of continuous music in there and it's not all stuff I want to hear or even know (And I am not just talking about the tunes labeled "Track 01"). I ask labels not to send me links to downloads, but rather physical copies of new items, but that's becoming rarer. So I decided to start weeding. I threw out the Rough Guide to Latin Dance -- it was all over the place and incoherent: Started off badly and had many flat spots which would clear the dancefloor. There were two good tracks on there "Santa Isabel de las Lajas" by Sierra Maestra and "Jaloux Jaloux" by Mystic Orchestra from Colombia. Then I found this Latin Noir, which is just the ticket, though my copy is not all there, I seem to be missing some tracks. Either I deleted them, they didn't unzip, or they walked off. There are three overlapping artists with the RG2LD, Maurice El Medioni, the Algerian pianist who does trinkly old-style ballroom dancing salsa, accordeonista Chango Spasiuk and Watcha Clan. The main offerings are an abundance of son and rumba, such as "Todo eso" by Seguidores del Son and a lovely version of "Ruñidera" by Son de Mayabeque, new groups to me. They are modern keepers of the tradition (I suspect) like Estudiantina Invasora who are here with a rousing live "Commandante Che Guevara." The sound is crystal clear, and you can appreciate all the nuances of percussion and still hear them when the horns arrive on "Rumba para los Olu Bata" by Eddie Bobe. "Las Alturas de Simpson" is a creaky, squeaky old-time danzon by Piquete Tipico, and a pure delight. Next up Alfredo Guiterrez, oops, that's missing too. Too bad, as I suspect it's a good one. Man I hate this download crap! Drives me to distraction. How can people stand this nonsense? Anyway, Latin Noir is a good compilation, if you can manage to keep it all together. One more thing, dear folks at Piranha, can you turn off the music on your website? I hate having music from websites competing with the music I am listening to, it's most distracting. Or at least have a mute button on your homepage? Sorry to get off topic, reader, but I have now discovered that all the tracks on here are mislabeled in iTunes, so I am dumping this behemoth and going to go to VOX which is a free music player. Yes, check out Latin Noir, it might soothe your frazzled self.

A DREAM COME TRUE (Viva Combo Music VCD033)

This project is indeed the fulfillment of a dream. In the last half century many Cubans fled their homeland and settled in Miami, New York, Spain, and other places, bringing their music with them. Huge stars, like Celia Cruz & her Cottontops (Tito Puente &c), made their careers outside their native island. Producer Richie Viera had the idea to bring 40 top-flight Cubans back to Havana and cut a super-session at EGREM studios, along with some who didn't leave, like tresero Pancho Amat and guitarist Elaides Ochoa, who has won Grammies for his solo projects as well as his role in BVSC. The Cultural ministry waived the rules to allow back some musicians who have been critical of the Castro regime and made possible the return of Isaac Delgado from Puerto Rico, as well as Chocolate Armenteros and Xiomara Laugart from New York, among many others. The assembled stars lick out the jamjars on some classic tunes including Los Van Van's "Muévete," an inverted 12-bar (G, F, C9, G), which always makes me think of "Sympathy for the Devil." Another clear rock influence is the opening of "Xiomara," which unmistakably quotes "Sunshine of your love" on the horns. In order to give everyone a chance, several versions of some titles are included, featuring up to seven vocalists, so you get "Latin Diva" versions, instrumental versions, "Dos Amigos" versions etcetera. This is actually not so great as you end up with two almost identical albums unless you listen closely to distinguish the vocalists. It's an embarrassment of riches: they should either have invited fewer guests or had a wider repertoire. There are a lot of Los Van Van songs plus well-known hits by Adalberto Alvarez and others. The opener on both discs, "Preparate pa' lo que traigo (Get ready for what I am bringing)" is an all-out jam; the second version has a smoking tres solo from Pancho Amat, definitely one of the outstanding soloists on this Cuban instrument. I don't think you really need three takes of Albita's "Que manera de quererte," or "Muevete," though they certainly have fun on these classic cuts. The energy is high so I guess if you get this it wont matter which disc you put on, you'll get an instant salsa party, and no one will need to say, Wow, play that again!

AFROCUBISM (World Circuit/Nonesuch 525993-2)

I am having a hard time getting behind this: it should be one of the best albums of the year, yet it leaves me dissatisfied. The idea is solid, in fact it was the idea that became Buena Vista Social Club, by accident. Nick Gold's original plan was to get a bunch of Malian musicians to Cuba to jam but due to visa problems they never arrived. So at the last minute Ry Cooder and his son showed up and filled in the spaces that were to have been filled by Djelimady Tounkara of the Rail Band and Bassekou Kouyaté -- as if they could. Everyone agreed it was a great missed opportunity, nevertheless the resulting BVSC albums went on to sell 8 million copies, and hopefully gave a little financial relief to some fine musicians in their twilight years: Ruben Gonzalez, Ibrahim Ferrer, and so on. Unlike the BVSC band members, the project never died. Meanwhile another producer, Günter Gretz, got the dream super-session together, with Laba Sosseh, Pape Fall and Mar Seck on vocals, Issa Cisshoko from Baobab, guitarist Yahya Fall of Number One de Dakar, & others who recorded Los Afro-Salseros de Senegal en la Habana in 2001. That's a great album, though without Cuban performers. But Popular African Music doesn't have the marketing clout of World Circuit. So here, belatedly, is Afrocubism, which features Eliades Ochoa and his Cuarteto Patria backing vocalist Kassé Mady, Toumani Diabaté on kora, Bassekou Kouyaté on ngoni, Lassana Diabaté on xylophone and Djelimady Tounkara on guitar. It should be superb but instead is two separate albums: one of Grupo Patria going through some mouldy oldies interrupted by the occasional burst of inspiration from the Africans. I get the feeling they didn't really rehearse this (a trip to cyberspace confirms this: it was recorded in Madrid without rehearsals), so true cold fusion is lacking. The problem with this disc is it's an Eliades Ochoa album with guests. Ochoa is fine in his own context but he cannot match riffs with Djelimady the way someone like Barbarito Torres could. "Guantanamera," "La Culebra," and "Al vaiven de me carreta" are such chestnuts Ochoa plays them in his sleep (as here), and of course they morphed into a million other tunes as they crossed the Atlantic back to Africa, but you don't feel the excitement in this exchange: Ochoa does his thing and then sits back. I think if this had happened two decades ago, as planned, it would have been phenomenal. The Africans' contributions are indeed exceptional (like "Djelimady Rumba" or the Malian classic "Jarabi"), and stand on their own, but the kind of thrill that comes from a real encuentro, like the "Soukous goes to Barranquilla" stuff, is missing. Some of my geriatric friends will enjoy it for nodding out, but it's like Casa de la Trova, Djelimady solo, and Symmetric Orchestra on shuffle.

SIN RUMBA NO HAY SON (World Village 468105)

Though their founder, Ignacio Piñeiro, died in 1969, Septeto Nacional chugs along purveying son to the world, as they have since the 1920s. Piñeiro was first to think of adding trumpet to the line-up, creating the son habanero, and scoring massive hits with "Echale salsita (Put some salsa on it)," "No juegues con los santos (Don't mess with the saints)," and the truly sublime "Suavecito." His Septeto Nacional recorded in New York in 1927 and toured the world until the group fell apart in the mid-thirties over money squabbles. But they reformed in the 1950s and are now on their fourth generation of players. They toured last year (their first gig in San Francisco since 1933 made the local news) and are back again, promoting this new album. They do three oldies, injected with new life as songs they have worn like a white suit and still manage to keep it sparkling. The other material is composed by band members in the classic style, or covers by noted composers such as Marcelina Guerra or Almenares' "Mueva la cintura," which turns into "Autumn leaves" in the bridge! From the first notes of "Embale tiene la llave," a tribute to Carlos Embale who sang with the group in the early 50s, by bongocero Francisco Oropesa, we are in that blissful space where the "llave" is not only the key to happiness but the clack of the hardwood sticks, the claves, that propel the rhythm. Enrique Collazo Collazo is also an exceptional tresero: just check out his solo on "El Plato roto." Los Rumberos de Cuba show up for some fine drumming in the middle of the album. Here is a group of talented artists who are comfortable with their accomplishments and have attained the highest level of their art without needing to show off or showboat, just coast along on the clave.

SONANDO YA (World Village 450011)

I am a huge fan of Grupo Sierra Maestra from Cuba. They keep the Son Montuno and other favourite Cuban traditional sounds alive and vital. Over the years they have ebbed and flowed and left a high tide of great CDs. This is their 11th CD, that I know of. At the outset they had two massive talents in their ranks: Jesus Alemañy on trumpet and Juan de Marcos Gonzalez on tres. Their peak was perhaps the 1994 recording DUNDUNBANZA! which paid homage to the music of Arsenio Rodriguez. Alemañy left in 1995 to form Cubanismo, the spectacularly successful salsa orchestra; Juan de Marcos, of course, is band leader of Buena Vista Socialists and Afro Cubist All Stars. The band continued and made recordings with guest artists, and even toured the US. But then lead vocalist José Rodriguez died in 2005, so now only half the original band remains, under the stewardship of bassist Eduardo Himely. They are still wonderful, in my estimation, but really don't have the explosive power of their earlier recordings. For this outing they provide mostly original compositions in traditional styles, such as son, son montuno and guaracha. There are still moments of fine musical convergence: "Juan Andres," the sole changuí track, catches fire, & they go steaming out on a conga "A ti, no te sale!!"

AFIA A CUBA (SNEP Mediadisque, available as a download from Amazon)

She is from Togo; they are legends from Cuba. Aragon emits sparks with charged charanga orchestration: flute, violins, swinging baby bass, and this time out the legendary Pancho Amat on tres, Guillermo Rubalcaba on piano, and Tata Güines (who died early in 2008) on congas. I have seen Amat in concert a few times and he is an awesome player. I think I have seen the other two old-timers too, and I have definitely seen Aragon (at a Russian Community Hall in SF) but my memory is getting shaky. Suffice it to say when you draft three legendary musicians into a class act like Aragon you are dealing with high level creativity. Here's a case of Africans getting it right once again. After the great work of Lassissi and many of the men who were drafted into Africando, like Pape Seck from Star Band, fellow-Senegalese Laba Sosseh, the great Gnonnas Pedro from Benin, we now have a female vocalist from Africa fronting a smoking Latin danceband orchestra. So far Mala has done mainly wretched disco stuff in the 90s, but she seems to have found her footing with salsa. I have to thank artist Ken Abrams for turning me on to this. There is so little exciting new music that I often despair; then we get NO touring acts in San Francisco, apart from esoteric stuff that I am reluctant to take a chance on, or predictable things like Afro-Cuban All Stars at a sit-down concert hall. And increasingly labels are not putting out actual albums but just those aetherial things called downloads which often have low-fi mp3s instead of the wide dynamic range we vinyl aficionados like. But this sounds fine, despite the maddening lack of info (I figured out the guests from shout-outs in their solos). And while the sound quality is okay, the musicianship is exceptional. This will make you jump for joy, if not grab a partner for a twirl around the floor. There's a tribute to Los Van Van, otherwise I think it's mostly original material, but of course the soloists quote all sorts of familiar yet maddeningly hard to pin down things.


It's been a while since we heard from Cuban flautist and bandleader Maraca. He has been touring -- Cuba, Mexico, Africa, Europe, North America and Reunion Island, and trying different styles of music. He brought a band to Yoshi's at the end of August 2008, but it was a band of expatriates (plus Craig Handy, an African-American jazz saxophonist as the stand-out talent), because his regular band of Cubans cannot tour the United States. Maraca (Orlando Valle) has a French wife and lives in France. Despite the different line-up he previewed the new album and it went over big with the dancing crowd in Oakland. It starts out straight-ahead salsa but then nuances into guaguanco, guajira, and even a cumbia. "Lo que quiero es fiesta" sounds very Colombian and even features an accordeon. When they did an old Beny More standard I was over the moon. The sound was muddy but IJ went back the next night and said they had straightened out the sonic problems. The album features his regular Latin line-up but also electric guitar on five tracks. I of course would have preferred a tres, but there's plenty of traditional Cuban craftsmanship on display on piano (Alejandro Falcon), electric bass (Sergio Raveiro) and congas (Rafael Valiente). Luis Valle multi-tracked his trumpet & trombone, and there's Andres Perez on baritone sax. Vocals are handled by José-Miguel Melendez and Lester Hojas with Ammiel Castellanos shouting encouragement and a guest appearance from "El Nene" on a guaguanco dedicated to the late great conguero Tata Guines. Ceaseless touring has sharpened Maraca's band to a fine point. He drives from the sidelines, pointing out solos, singing coro, counting down to the chorus and adding percussion to the groove. He is a superb flautist but doesn't hog the mike. The title track is excellent, and so is the coda: the little percussive tribute to Tata Guines. Live, my favourite track was "Guajira para Mimi." High-energy party music to make you wind your waist.


Mike Charropin, despite the name, is Alfredo's wife, and she has selected her favourite performances from among the live recordings he made on tour in Europe between 1998 and 2005. It starts in a sodden wet mood in Vannes 2001 with "Claudia," credited to Chucho Valdez, but actually it's the theme from "Un Eté 42" and if I were Michel Legrand I would be calling my lawyers. The audience recognizes it and eats it up as it sparks up into some deft trinkling and bravura conga slapping from legendary Tata Güines. (His name is pronounced "Weenies" rather than like the Irish malt beverage, and with Tata as his first name it's a good thing he's Cuban.) Actually it could be one of five other congueros too as there's a huge list of credited musicians not specific to any one song. There's a distant violin solo, like from across a vast arena, but at least the mike is close to the piano. Faint jazz horns join in for a crescendo. Next we get three songs in a row recorded in Athens in 2003, definitely featuring Tata Güines & Changuito. The piano is to the fore yet it's mellow, in fact it's not so much a big show as the kind of music you want on in the background when you are relaxing, cooking, or simply pondering. By track 4, "Mario's Blues," we are in descarga heaven with the hovering violin of Ruben Chaviano, prodded by wild timbales, and some hard sax from either Jose Carlos Acosta or Marco Agoudetse. We go from a Son Montuno, played by a trio, to a classic danzon: "Almendra," complete with flute, and some brilliant piano improvisation. (I love it when a pianist can go from Rachmaninov to Bobby Weinstein's "I think I'm going out of my head" in the course of four bars without blushing.) But then we get into an outro jam of "Oye como va" that detracts from the mood. Next up "Summertime," by Jorge Gershwing, that famous Cuban. The trio returns (to Paris) for a smoking "Tres palabras"; I am not sure who the featured bassist and conguero are but it is hot, hot, hot. The title track, an Afro, or Yoruban praise song to Yemaya, predictably, goes through the roof.


Some of us have waited a long time for this: the complete RCA Victor recordings of Arsenio Rodriguez, made between 1940 and 1956. Arsenio was the tres player who revolutionized Cuban music, changing the traditional septeto line-up and adding more rhythmic complexity to it with a piano and tumbador (conga drum), and doubling the trumpet. His tumbador player was his brother Israel "Quiqui" Scull who ended up in jail after stabbing a man and was replaced by "Chocolate" Alfonso while he served a 4-year stretch. When Quiqui returned the band had two tumbadores and they were celebrated in the son monuno, "Kila, Quiqui y Chocolate." "Papa Kila" was the bongocero, considered the best in Cuba. By then, Summer 1949, the band had consolidated with the two top trumpeters, Felix Chappotin and Chocolate Armenteros, swelling the ranks. Arsenio's music had a huge impact in the barrios of Havana where his son montunos and guaguancos were all the rage in the 1940s & 50s. The fact that two of his musicians were called "Chocolate" should remind us that pre-revolutionary Cuba was a racially divided society, and club patrons wanted to see light-skinned musicians on the bandstand. Not that Arsenio, who was blinded at age 7, gave a damn. He was really interested in the roots music he picked up from his grandfather who had been brought from Congo as a slave to work the sugar plantations.

Arsenio y su Conjunto, La Habana, 1951
Standing: Lázaro Prieto [double bass], Miguelito Cuní [lead vocals], "Lili" Martinez [piano, arranger], "Florecita" [trumpet], Carlos Ramírez [guitar, backing vocals], René Scull [vocals], Félix Chappotín [first trumpet]
down in front: "Papa Kila" [bongo], "Quiqui" [tumbador], Arsenio [tres], Armando "Chocolate" Armenteros [trumpet], Felix "Chocolate" Alfonso [tumbador].

Despite attracting the best musicians in town, Arsenio's conjunto only got into the studio sporadically as the first two discs cover a six year period. It was the era of the Second World War and while Batista was an ally of Roosevelt, Cuba did not participate (other than sinking a stray German sub). On their third date the conjunto cut "Como traiga la yuca," featuring one of the most scorching tres solos ever laid down. The song, laden with double-entendres, became known as "Dile Catalina," because of the opening words. Arsenio had arrived. In "Sandunguera," Bustillo on trumpet quotes "Stormy weather" as Lino Frias goes off on piano. I doubt you could hear a more up-to-date Latin band anywhere on the planet today. In fact Lino gets more solo time than Arsenio on these early sides. Only three songs from the first disc have been anthologized on CD before (on the Harlequin disc), though a dozen of these early rarities appeared on the rare Cubanacan disc from Puerto Rico I was able to track down through Round World Music, years ago. But some of us in the hard core Arsenio collector's league have been sharing CDs made from 78s that Emiliano Echeverría has been playing on KPFA radio as a New Year's Day treat for several years. Now everyone with an interest in great Cuban music can get a major slice of the pie.

I am constantly impressed by what a backseat driver Arsenio is. He only occasionally steps up to the mike to lay down a solo statement (like on "Cuba cha cha cha" recorded in New York). The arranger of the band was usually the pianist, and fans of Buena Vista S.C. will thrill to finally hear the debut recordings of Ruben "El Bonito" Gonzalez who cut 11 sides with the band in 1945. (It really pissed me off when that idiot who did the documentary on Buena Vista Social Club was whirling around Ruben and wandered off just as the late great pianist started showing photos and talking about his days with Arsenio!) Ruben's replacement was Luis "Lili" Martinez, one of my favourite Cuban pianists, who, incidentally, was the sole white member of this magnificent conjunto. Many bands made big cash offers to Lili to entice him away but he had found his spot, and the 7 years he played with Arsenio epitomised the perfection of Cuban son montuno. For me, the dozen 1946 recordings (which appeared on Montuneando [TCD031]) with Lili are the pinnacle for this group: "Chicharronero," "Dame un cachito pa'huele," "El Reloj de pastora," "Cangrejo fue a estudiar," "Juventud Amaliana" & "Semilla de caña brava," are stunning in their brilliance.

There is no doubt that this box is a labour of love. There are two booklets: one by producer Jordi Pujol Baulenas, the other by David Garcia who wrote the definitive book about Arsenio's music (I should have acknowledged his sending me a copy sooner!). Some of the tracks are from scratched 78s, one ("Me quedé sin ti") was so bad they didn't include it, and one or two sound a little out of round here and there. But it only focusses you on the fragile beauty of it, like listening to Robert Johnson or Skip James on their early sides. There are 151 songs here. Previously Tumbao has released 33 of them on two single discs. If you have those discs, and are not a completist, then be happy with what you have. Filling out the set is for compulsives and obsessives who will pay the huge entrance fee just to check it off on their landmarks list (like tourists leaving the Taj Mahal without a second thought or look back, wondering how long to Fatepur Sikri). But doubt not this is the Taj Mahal of Cuban music: an exquisite shining bittersweet monument, ringing with stinging tres riffs, shrill trumpet volleys, trinkling piano rills, crisp slapped bongo, resonant tumbabor & double bass. (Leave your shoes at the entrance.) The cream of the crop, from "Cangrejo va estudiar" to "Dundunbanza," is already on the market, but if you have a hankering to hear Arsenio work out on Harold Arlen's "Sobre el arco iris (Over the rainbow)", among other wonders, then you surely need this box set. I am ecstatic to find the original "Cero guapos en yateras," recorded on the same hot June afternoon as the exquisite "Cangrejo fue a estudiar"-- the band passing around a joint, a bottle of rum -- they knew it so well, having worked it up in concert -- laughing inwardly when Arsenio winds it up for a vertiginous solo, but then he suspends time and space and everyone, agape, has to drop out except the percussionists. Wow! what just happened? -- It's gone in an instant; the band pulls together for a final chorus, but thanks to Nipper and his magic Victrola, You Are There!

EN PRIMERA PLANA (La Calle Records B000PC6FVQ)

I had to check this out because my old boss Robert of Round World was raving about it in THE BEAT. But then he is clearly biased while I was never a huge fan of timba. Twenty-some years ago he dragged me to see NG La Banda at the Galeria Showplace in San Francisco (the worst in a city of bad musical venues), a tall empty echoey building. We found the only place we could hear ANYTHING was behind a column on the stairs on the second floor, behind the band, where the reverberating mud balanced out to make a sound like a boomy car radio heard through the cinderblock walls of a Miami motel. That night I concluded NG stood for "No Good"! Craving more artistic freedom, which like so many things is green and wrinkled, Delgado has moved to Miami where he was able to team up with some Cuban legends to record this album. Cachao, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Giovanni Hidalgo are on here. They are all brilliant individually and I am sure their fans are in ecstasy over this release. There is one outstanding track: "Cemento, Ladrillo y arena," where Hidalgo goes off and Rubalcaba throws out some great chops but it goes into a long fade instead of a resolution. The disc ends with a decent changui. While it may be a must for NGs & Van-Vanistas, overall this disc left me feeling, once again, like I was backstage trying to enjoy something I couldn't quite get.

CON SABOR AL GUASO (Salsa Blanca May 1-1112-02)

After the recent "back to Cuba" longings of Papa Noel and Ricardo Lemvo, among other African performers, it's nice to hear some classic traditional Cuban son. Bán Rarra was recorded in California, but hails from Guantanamo, Cuba. The only "famous" member is bassist Yunior Terry of the legendary Cuban family Los Terry who usually only manage to record by the miracle of overdubbing since he is resident in the States while the other members of his family are back in Havana. The sprightly tres (played by Miguel Martinez) and guitar are gently plied while the percussion (clave, bongo, guiro, maracas, guayo, campana) is clean and crisp. There's son, nengón, changui, kiribá and other styles here, including folkloric ones that are rooted in Voodoo which is Haitian rather than Cuban in origin. For the nengón, a large wooden sound box, the marimbula, replaces the bass, and the dancing montuno tres (played here by Jon Griffin) is joyous and exuberant. "Rico Vacilón," a cha cha cha, follows this. It's not the Palladium Ballroom style of cha cha but the folkloric one. If you want a great introduction to these traditional Cuban styles, check out the 4-CD set OFFICIAL RETROSPECTIVE OF CUBAN MUSIC, which is also available from Salsa Blanca's website. However for a sampler, this disc has integrity and unexpected moves. (Plus it's a bargain at only $8.) The stately tres and raft of percussion is augmented by timbales for the mambo medley. We end up with a conga oriental: if you like the sound of Ornette Coleman jamming with the Joujouka tribesmen, you will dig this. It's wild. This is a wide-ranging yet succinct and coherent package, and it's thoroughly enjoyable.


Like anyone, I go through musical fads where I listen to a lot of one kind of music and then turn it off. I hardly listen to South African music any more, and recently have had enough Nigerian funk to last me a long time. Occasionally I surprise myself when I am driving, listening to tapes in my car of my radio show from a decade ago and there's a great set of diverse music. But DJs are supposed to have broad and eclectic tastes. I don't need to hear "Guantanamera," and if I want to hear "Lagrimas Negras," "Chan chan," or "Suavecito," I've got the classic CUBA - EL SON ES LO MAS SUBLIME (ASPIC X 55513) close at hand. But I never get tired of the sparkling son of Cuba, especially when there is a good laud or tres player on the session.

Grupo Eduardo Saborit come from Manzanillo in Eastern Cuba. They keep their campesino or country sound vital, absorbing outside influences like cumbia, and writing their own material, in addition to covering tunes from classic (Electo Rossell Chepin's "El platanar de Bartolo") to contemporary (Candido Fabre's "Dame tu amor Guantanamera"). There's a funny and touching story connected to this recording. Though the band members have been playing individually for 40 years and have a radio show in Manzanillo (near Guantanamo Bay), they have not had much recording success. When Mo Fini of Tumi Records went to Havana to supervise a recording session the engineer told him there were some people waiting to see him. He went out back and there was a parked tractor and trailer. The trailer opened and immediately the 8-piece conjunto broke into song! (They had driven all the way to Havana in this conveyance.) Fini was so moved -- quite apart from the funky smell and the fact they had been waiting three days for him to show up -- that he signed them on the spot & produced this, their first album. They turn it on for son montunos and guarachas, then their first cumbia, "Amargo dolor," is a beauty, and this is followed by a pilon, "El platanar de Bartolo" which rocks out and doesn't let up as they go into more sons, guarachas and congas. This is the best new traditional Cuban album I have heard since Sierra Maestra's SON: SOUL OF A NATION last year.

COMO ME GUSTAS (Chant du Monde 276 1408)

I don't think Nick Gold will be losing any sleep over this release. Someone trying to cash in on the played-out "Social Club" name has assembled a group of veteran Cuban musicians to go through chestnuts of the son repertoire. I believe Vieja Trova Santiaguera was the first such group, concocted by a foreign businessman. But of course Cuba, particularly Santiago, is full of readymade groups who have been playing together for years and have the chops. This new group is quite talented but the overall impression is of a tired revival. After "Lagrimas Negras," "Dos Gardenias," "El Carretero" and "Viente Anos," I am sure I am not the only listener yelling "basta!" They get it together for "Toda una vida," a sleepy ballad by O. Farres. I do have a soft spot for Pablo Milanes' "Yolanda." Remember Robert Wyatt's version? Though I tend to shun Nueva Trova, this song has a perfect cyclical chord progression. The cover shot of "Como me gustas," of the band walking along the malecon in Havana, reminded me of Barbarito Torres' HAVANA CAFE, still one of the best son CDs ever, but there's no one approaching his calibre as a musician on here.

CANTOS DE IDA Y VUELTA (Long Distance 0610206)

You like steak and you like shrimp, right? But are you the kind of person who orders steak AND shrimp? If so, you will enjoy this album which unites Cuban and flamenco music. Actually there's a lot to enjoy here: the jangling acoustic guitars and clave of Cuban traditional music with the hoarse vocals, handclaps and flourished strings of flamenco. Catalan gypsies have long adapted sones, changing lyrics or tempos to refashion Cuban songs to suit their needs. "Negro bembon" became "El Gitano Anton" in the Catalonia of the 1950s. When the late Compay Segundo performed "Sarandonga" at a music festival in Perpignan, the gypsies were electrified: wasn't this their very own essential gypsy wedding song? Someone had actually written this, and not only that, here he was singing it?! So producer Guy Bertrand had the idea to bring together the best gypsy artists he could corral with the renowned Familia Valera Miranda, keepers of the flame of the traditional son since the 19th century. It's a great set and swings back and forth between the sympathetic styles though mostly sounding Cuban. The decider is where I will file it. Yes, there are a couple of chestnuts on here ("Sarandonga," "Lagrimas negras"), but they are imbued with original ideas and subtleties in interpretation that make them fresh and enjoyable.

BEBO DE CUBA (Calle 54)

This is a deluxe package, containing two CDs, a 60-page book, and a DVD. I haven't watched the DVD yet, but have really been digging the two albums SUITE CUBANA and EL SOLAR DE BEBO for the past month. Pianist Bebo is one of the giants of Cuban music, having risen to prominence in the mambo era of the late 40s. He was in the first Latin jazz jam sessions and steered many young artists to fame, but he took a powder and vanished into obscurity in the 1960s when he was on tour in Europe with the Havana Cuban Boys and he fell in love and settled down in Stockholm. He re-emerged 35 years later with the latest wave of rediscovered Cuban old-timers. He had a huge hit with BEBO Y CIGALA, his duets with flamenco vocalist Diego el Cigala, and released his first solo album BEBO last year. These two albums are quite distinct: EL SOLAR DE BEBO is a classic jam session with some fine contributions from Paquito d'Rivera on reeds and Juan Pablo Torres on trombone. The rhythm section (New York's finest: Andy Gonzalez on bass, Milton Cardona on congas, Steve Berrios on drums, Edgardo Miranda, guitar and tres, etc) cooks along waiting for someone to step up and solo, so there's a really relaxed air and of course it all comes together for those little epiphanies when it locks into a groove and goes up a notch. Bebo's playing is lyrical, he uses a lot of boleros as a starting point. This album could be from the 50s except it's a really crisp recording (I mean you will hear quotes like "Theme from a summer place" and other chestnuts of Latin jazz improvisation). While EL SOLAR is a mellow jam session, the other disc, SUITE CUBANA, shows Bebo at his best, as a composer and arranger. Here he has assembled a big band to recreate the style of his lush outfits in Havana back in the extravagant days of card sharps with diamond stick-pins and showgirls in ostrich feathers. Bebo wrote the piece in Stockholm in the 90s; each part is in a different style, starting with a mambo dedicated to his buddy Cachao. "Devócion," a bembé in 6/8 time seems dissonant (unless you are familiar with this style of music from, say, the Fort Apache band) until the big wall of brass starts to soak its colours throughout. There are four trombones, five trumpets and five saxes, so there's a lot of wind. Even when Bebo is just holding down the montuno part on piano, you glimpse him through the big arrangement, like on "El son de Cecilio," which has a wild tenor solo from Mario Rivera. The guaracha-mambo "Ecuación," has Diz written all over it, though there's a hint of Desi Arnaz too in the comfiness of it! The centrepiece of this disc, it's in the style of Dizzy's famous Latin jazz suites, and ends with the famous horn line which I always hear as "Chano Pozo buddly-bup-tee." Bebo Valdes is 86 now but writing, arranging and playing like the master he is.

TODA UNA VIDA (Dynamo Records DYNR009CD)

IJ loaned me a DVD of Pio Leyva in concert. I am always trying to get people to pay attention to the living Cuban artists instead of those tottering on the brink of oblivion in the Buena Vista Terminal Ward. Sadly however, Pio has lost the plot, and the best part of the show was the conga solo. But Death has not slowed down the career of Ibrahim Ferrer and, indeed, his music seems to be improving. His latest is a studio date with the energy of a live performance bearing a 2005 copyright date and no other information (It's a promo, also loaned to me by IJ). Apparently recorded in the 1950s, it is a slamming set, that doesn't let up, connecting salsa to earlier traditions in Afro-Cuban music. A trawl through the web yields no information, other than the usual hopeful "Be the first to write a review" appeals from merchandisers. The Dynamo Records website says "We are currently preparing an album of unedited material from Ibrahim Ferrer including four tracks never before released in Europe." I suppose it's not that important who is playing on here. Ferrer is in fine voice, though the EQ is a little off-kilter in places. He has a lot of eager youthfulness matched by the fiery ensemble playing, super-duper timbales and congas, a big horn line with a shrieking trumpeter, undermiked tres, keen coro, piano and bass in the pocket. This is (mostly) how it's done (not the undermiked tres). Hopefully some of those folks with the heirloom Buena Vista collection and nothing more will latch onto this and have their grey hair catch fire.

Update from press release: These tracks (11 of which were unreleased), were recorded during Ibrahim's times with Pancho Alonso (who he performed with for over 20 years), the Orchestra de Chopin and Benny More.


After the thin sound of the GV 78s it's nice to get the big room boom of some classic Cuban music as delivered by the reliable Sierra Maestra. They took a sabbatical as their leader Juan de Marcos Gonzalez was seduced by the bright lights and launched off an endless world tour with the Afro-Cuban All Stars. Their last four albums were recorded in Europe, but now the group are back home in Havana and have found a niche in an old studio for this beautiful recording. Times have changed: no one is guzzling rum before the session and few of them smoke. In fact, Havana, the cigar capital of the world, has just enacted laws banning smoking in public! All that whizzing about Berlin and London left their last few albums seeming a little distracted and the break has been good for the group who are all turning 50 and about to celebrate 30 years as the saviours and leading exponents of the Cuban Son (They started as university students in 1976). This time out they are sure of their goal: nothing short of a complete retrospective of the evolution of the Son from its earliest incarnation in trios like Miguel Matamoros', up through the big band sound of the 1960s. They have cherry-picked great songs from Nico Saquito's "Al vaivén de mi carreta" to Beny Moré's "Santa Isabel de las Lajas," from Arsenio Rodríguez' immortal "Bruca Maniguá" and "Dile a Catalina" to Ignacio Piñero's soaring "Suavecito" and Miguel Matamoros' "Olvido." It is sublime from beginning to end. Yelfris Valdés on trumpet is a fine new addition. He's filling big shoes -- it's a position once held by Jesus Alemany, founder of Cubanismo. The great Barbarito Torres adds his magical lute to "Al vaivén de mi carreta." (I wonder how many times he's played this? I certainly have many recordings of it, and never tire of this classic.) Emilio Ramos on tres is a suitable replacement for Juan de Marcos, and the bassist, Eduardo Himely is now assuredly in charge as musical director. I can't believe they haven't recorded "A la Loma de Belén" before: it seems like it should be their signature tune. But then so do many of the other classics of this repertoire, like Lili Martínez "Mi son, mi son, mi son," a paean to the music with the great line, "Tengo en mi casa una pareja de gata con ratón que bailan son (I have a cat and mouse at home who dance the son together)"! Midway through they take it down to the congas for a great guaguanco "El Paso Franco-Bardo," where high-voiced singer José Antonio Rodríguez really soars with only the bass accompanying him until the outro. Rodríguez packs emotion into "Suavecito" -- the booklet has the complete lyrics of all the songs so you can follow what he's singing. If you want something that's classic but fresh, no need to look further than this. Instead of a retread of some old tired soneros check out the vital sounds of Sierra Maestra.

EL COMPADRE AGAIN (Cuban Essentials ESC 6516-2)

It's a well-known fact that Jimi Hendrix only released ARE YOU EXPERIENCED, ELECTRIC LADYLAND and then AXIS: BOLD AS LOVE before dying, but if you go to a record store you will see over 30 CDs by him. On closer inspection you will find that his repertoire "Red House," "All along the watchtower," "Purple haze," "Voodoo chile," etc appear on all these other albums in varying degrees of fidelity. Now that Compay Segundo has died, right after being discovered by the Buena Vista set when he was up in his 80s, there are more and more albums by him coming out. And so, once again, we get to hear his classic "Chan Chan." Otherwise it's an interesting set from this back-up singer who had the good fortune to be surrounded by excellent musicians in his sessions. The Cuban Essentials series aims to put out "Best of" compilations of the Usual Suspects: Eliades Ochoa, Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo -- also known by my pal Steve as "los Teletubbies Cubanos". Take another analogy: photography. After his death the work of Walker Evans soared in value and now there are literally dozens of monographs on him including, inevitably, "the Lost Work" (which begs the question if it is no longer lost shouldn't it be called the Found Work?), while other equally interesting WPA photographers, Vachon, Lee, Rothenstein, etc, are completely ignored. Returning to Cuba, Pio Leyva, I believe, its still alive. Where is the hoopla about him, the box sets, the tribute albums, the all-star sessions? You could pick several other singers and ask the same question. If you like the repertoire of Casa de la Trova groups, then this is for you. Compay had the fortune to play with the groups of Miguel Matamoros and Nico Saquito as well as Cuarteto Patria and his own Duo los Compadres. Drawn from three sessions recorded in 1974, 1985, and 1990, there is only slight overlap with the last release, the double CD GRACIAS COMPAY. I like this album and recommend it, unless you are not a Son fan, but I reiterate my complaint: we need more recordings by more artists, not more recordings by the same few artists.

¡ESTÁS JUGANDO...! (Envidia A70 7123)

This looked a bit suspect: two dudes in shades and goofy coveralls, with a vintage American car on the cover. Is this Cuban music or marketing hype? I thought. Well it is certainly Cuban music, and in fact excellent Cuban music, which I should have guessed from the fact that it is on the Envidia label. Now my brother has joined the Duchess in thinking that salsa is repetitious, relentless and overall boring, so it puts me on the spot when I want to defend something I think is good. This one is worth going to the mat for (especially with La Duchessa!) It's old style salsa with heavy son and guaracha influences and is the second release from the Lussón father and son team who have a top notch band behind them in this recording. The father grew up singing though he had a hard life and suffered for his black skin hue in the 1950s. So I guess we will overlook his lapse in taste in not only the green pastel shirt with blue pastel coveralls in the cover photos, but the giant sleeveless gold satin jumpsuit he's wearing inside (with those white shades!) that make him look like a blind Teletubby. In the 1980s he joined the famous Chepin-Choven orchestra (which also produced Ibrahim Ferrer) as singer. After a long run in which he became known as a master of the classic son and guaracha style, he joined the even more famous Chappottin y sus Estrellas, part of the heritage of Arsenio Rodriguez, led by Felix Chappottin. Chappottin's son "El Nino" plays with their current band alongside a monster trombonist, Fidel Camué, and Eloy Abreu on second trumpet. Though he's compared to Pio Leyva, I find Lussón Sr has a more robust voice. The exceptional pianist Eduardo Cana wrote a tribute to Compay Segundo which appears with another tribute "A tí Benny Moré," written by Miguelito Cuni. Lussón Jr only sings lead on one track, "Que no sea de mil maneras," which he wrote, but he puts forth a great coro throughout. This was recorded in March 2005, but it has a timeless air to it.

DESCARGA CUBANA (Envidia A70 7106)

The Barcelona-based label Envidia sought out some hot young Cuban jazz, and found the grand-nephew of legendary conguero Chano Pozo romping on the skins in the solar where Chano launched forth to New York in his short-lived but stellar career. Rolando de la Rosa on sax has been boning up on his Coltrane. Young Yonny Alvarez on piano has that deft classical touch that adds so much to Cuban encuentros. Add "El Niño," the progeny of Chappottin, on trumpet and you have a great session. Joaquin toured the world in the salsa boom of the early nineties then settled down to teach at the National Arts School in Havana. From these classes he formed his group in 2001, after winning Cuba's top tambor award in 2000. (From my syntax you can tell I've been reading Spanish liner notes!) It's straight-ahead Cuban jazz, well within the tradition ("If you don't know it, don't try it," they say), but interesting enough for all its traditional structures. After a brief "Gershwing" piano solo, there's an effective reggae bass-line to "Momentos," which is a nice change, but it is quickly subsumed by a fierce piano montuno, shrieking trumpet, then it segues into a lyrical ballad on the sax, which builds back to a fiery montuno. Don't be put off by the homely name and generic title, this is a fine album which balances some great conga playing with creative new jazz. The liner notes claim it as a live recording, which adds to the urgency, though I wish they had left on applause or intros to substantiate their claim. It is exceedingly well recorded: the crisp percussion comes through loud and clear.

GUAJIRO MIRABAL(World Circuit/Nonesuch 79810-2)

I am not opposed to Buena Vista Social Club. I have a few gripes, it's true. One is that little Trade Mark insignia in the name which shows the serious marketing intent behind their every note. But Nick Gold is entitled to his millions, as long as he keeps putting out records. On reflection it's the public I object to, which is a hopeless situation. The original Buena Vista was a bunch of old timers (really old timers) and Ry Cooder cruising through some standards of the Cuban repertoire which had been done far better by many other groups. The toothless blinkered public thought it was the greatest thing since cream cheese, eating up all the subsequent releases without even looking at the adjacent bins to check out Abelardo Barroso or Yuri Buenaventura. The juggernaut ploughed onwards as some of the original members inevitably croaked and like the far superior Vieja Trova Santiguera, some younger members were introduced. Now it's time for a spotlight on Manuel "El Guajiro" Mirabal, octogenarian trumpeter and a fine band paying tribute to the greatest of them all: Arsenio Rodríguez. From the cartoon cover, which is a knock-off of Arsenio's SABROSO Y CALIENTE cover, to the repertoire which includes "Chicharronero," "Dombe Dombe," "El Reloj de pastora," and other Arsenio hits, it's a class act. The rhythm section of Cachaíto López on bass and Miguel "Anga" Díaz on congas is becoming as legendary as Arsenio's own back-line. Papi Oviedo on tres was an obvious choice, he is one of the great exponents of the instrument and a true link to the sound of the son montuno which Arsenio pioneered. "Guajiro" (Countryboy) Mirabal brings back his cohorts from the Orchestra Rumbavana days: Luis Alemany and Alejandro Pichardo on second and third trumpets. This trio played together for 30 years in the pit of Havana's Tropicana nightclub. The rest of the band replicate the line-up of Arsenio's conjunto from the 40s, including a bright young spark on piano: Roberto Fonseca. Some of Mirabal's quotes date him: "Holiday for strings" pops up in "Mi corazón no tiene quien lo llore" and "Windmills of your mind" (sic!) in "Dueda" which he quotes then tries to cover up! It would be impossible to top Arsenio's 1940s band, with Lili Martínez on piano and Felix Chappotín on trumpet, but this is a wonderful homage and clearly recorded. There is one link to Arsenio and that is the appearance of the great Rubén González (who was Arsenio's pianist in the late 30s) on piano on the last cut.


I have this recurring conversation with deejay IJ. "What's new and exciting in the world of world music?" I ask him. "Nothing," he replies. So then I idly poke through the bins on Rasputin music's mezzanine of world music. I chanced upon this Conjunto Modelo disc and bought it. Intrigued, he put it on the store's sound system and immediately a shopper wanted a copy. "You've haven't lost your touch," he tells me. Modelo were the black conjunto; their African-ness showed in a time when Cubans wanted light-skinned musicians serving up their watery iced cha-cha-chás. They were formed in 1940 when Arsenio Rodriguez was pioneering the son montuno and rearranging the line-up of Cuban groups. The traditional sextet line-up consisted of botija, clave, bongó, guitar and tres, backing the singer. Arsenio added a trumpet and replaced the botija with a bass. He took the tresero's montunos of Oriente province he had grown up with, and underlay a Congolese rhythm called the Diablo. The sound was still not dense enough for him so he massed the trumpets by adding a couple more, and added a piano and tumbadora, creating modern Cuban music in one inspired go. Musicians called the new line-up la chambelona. Arsenio would later add the guiro and more brass instruments but the format of Cuban music was revolutionized for ever. In 1953 Arsenio went to New York for an (unsuccessful) eye operation and stayed in North America. His tres player, famed arranger Niño Rivera, regrouped Conjunto Modelo from the left-overs of Arsenio's band who merged with members of trumpeter Felix Chappotín's band. They cut a few sides which went into legend (available on Tumbao TCD059). But Rivera was called away by other bands and, lacking good management, the band folded. Now, fifty years later, a group of young musicians has decided to take up the name of Conjunto Modelo and revive their repertoire, as well as creating new music in their spirit. There are a couple of vocalists from the old days, Eduardo Font a.k.a. Paniagua (from Chappotín y sus Estrellas), and Eduardo Sandoval. Jesus Chappotín is on trumpet and the rest of the group are younger guys with affinities or ties to the originals (Miguelito Cuni sang on Modelo's 1953 sessions and his son plays percussion here.) You can enjoyably compare their versions to the originals by Modelo and by Arsenio's original group with Lili Martínez on piano and Lázaro Prieto on bass.


No matter how much you might will it, Francisco Repilado, aka Compay Segundo, is dead. However the juggernaut of Warner Brothers music seems to think that there are fans clamoring for more versions of "Chan Chan," and there must be, hence this further installment of his music, recorded on two discs, one titled CLUBS 1995-6, the other THEATRES 1998-9. (The CLUBS disc wouldn't work in my regular CD player, being some kind of new-fangled "advanced" CD, so I had to play it in my TV's DVD player.) The set list is different from what you find on GRACIAS COMPAY, but his vocals are still shaky (this being the end of his career). However never-can-say-goodbye Compay fans will snap this up particularly because the CLUBS set is a good intimate live recording with banter. Personally I love this kind of chamber music: two acoustic guitars, bass, and percussion with harmony vocals doing son and guajira classics. I don't mind that the repertoire hasn't changed much in 60 years, because the songs of Miguel Matamoros -- "El Paralitico," "Son de la Loma," and "El Tren" -- always sound fresh. In the CLUBS Compay and his boys are just giving it their all for a small crowd of about 50 lucky listeners. The rapport is immediate, the minor glitches, flat notes and flubbed leads, don't detract. Compay as always speaks better than he sings and his guitar playing is muffed but endearing. The THEATRES set is very well recorded and features a larger ensemble, including the twin clarinets we encountered on the GRACIAS COMPAY album. But the Buena Vista hoopla had hit and Compay had slowed down. The repertoire is portentious, more self-consciously aware of history. Almost the whole of the second disc overlaps the GRACIAS COMPAY release. The band take things at a stately pace and his voice is a lot weaker, making the whole set much more tentative. This compilation is interesting but only the first disc is compelling. I wish they had issued it separately. So let's hear it, one more time, for the great Compay!!


Benny Moré, "the legendary idol of the Cuban people", had a voice equal to the great American singers like Nat "King" Cole or Sam Cooke. His Gigantic Band pioneered a smooth kind of instrumental backing that echoes the work of Nelson Riddle and the American big bands in the Swinging Sinatra era & influenced every subsequent band in Cuba and Puerto Rico. I've often thought the way Sinatra's voice would hover then swoop to catch up to the band must have come from his seeing Benny Moré in Havana in the days of mobsters and casinos. Moré is so much a legend that I was astounded once to meet someone who had seen him perform. How can that be? I asked since the person was my own age. Apparently Moré's popularity was so great he would give Saturday matinee concerts for working women and mothers who couldn't catch his night-club act. My acquaintance was then a little boy running around in the large dark nightclub in the afternoon while his mother stood entranced before the stage.

Like too many artists out of synch with the real world, Moré drank a lot and became unpredictable, often missing concerts. He had recurring laryngeal infections probably from straining his voice then medicating himself with booze. But, like Billie Holiday, when he was on he was red hot. His music was essentially roots music, drawing heavily on Afro-Cuban traditions, but he could do any style: biguine, mambo, guaracha, son montuno, and make it uniquely his own. He is arguably the greatest interpreter of the bolero ever. At first he was known as the Barbarian of the Rhythm, then the Barbarian of the Melody, but, to me, neither title really suited his style. He was rebellious and original but not barbaric. Trying to escape his harsh childhood and intended life as a sugar cane cutter, he moved to Havana and tried out for all the talent shows and radio contests. Fame was elusive but he did land a gig singing with the Conjunto Matamoros for a tour of Mexico in 1945. After the year-long tour, he stayed in Mexico and in 1947 made his first, spectacular recordings with Perez Prado where the warm colouring of his voice is already in full effect. Returning to Cuba, he fronted the band of Ernesto Duarte scoring a hug hit with "Como fue (how it was)", but differences caused him to split from Duarte and form his own Banda Gigante. From 1955 to 1957 they were on top of the world, touring Venezuela, Jamaica, Haiti, Mexico, Columbia and the US. Moré even sang during the 1957 Academy Awards in Hollywood after narrowly escaping from jail in Caracas for assaulting a promoter who tried to stiff him. Journalists at home were already proclaiming his successor. Fame and fortune brought many problems which he exacerbated. When doctors diagnosed cirrhosis of the liver he responded by having a tequila drinking contest. His health deteriorated from the late 50s as he quickly destroyed himself with alcohol, dying aged 43 in 1963.

This four CD set is astounding. While it doesn't include "Como fue," it has so many hits that it is a treat to listen to all the way through. Sonically it is very fine (a decade ago the original masters were rediscovered in the RCA vaults and digitally restored), though a few songs have been taken from records. In addition the box includes a 124-page booklet with lots of photos, detailed notes on the songs, composers and musicians, and all the lyrics. There is one amazing glitch for so meticulous a production: disc four track two is supposed to be the bolero "Por que pensar asi?" but is a repeat of "Oh, vida" from disc 2. It's not a big deal as "Oh vida" is a masterpiece but I wonder what happened to the other track. It does appear on two other CDs: GRANDES VOCES DEL BOLERO (CANEY CCD 801) and THE VERY BEST OF BENNY MORE VOL 2 (RCA).

The 15-piece band is stunning. Subsequently well-known band members are Chocolate Armenteros, on trumpet, Generoso Jiménez, trombone, and Chombo Silva on bass saxophone. Miguelito Cuni was second voice for a while. The arrangements are lush and complex: listen to "Oh Vida" or "Y hoy como ayer" which are like mini symphonies. However the Afro-Cuban percussion is something you don't find in Rachmaninov or Shostakovich. The band members were much in demand and many of them played with several other orchestras so there were often substitutions for tours or even recording dates, but their musicianship is the greatest.

If like me you are hesitant because of the cost or the fact that you have a lot of this stuff on other albums, rest assured, this is a crucial brick of music, and a cornerstone of any Cuban collection.

(Globe Star Recording B000286S7O)

After being ignored by the Buena Vista Socialites, Juan de Marcos Gonzales proved that living long is the best revenge. While the aging Buena Veestans have croaked by turns, he put together an outfit of younger talents and has been exploiting the BV brand name in an ongoing world tour. Stopping in Tokyo in 2001, they were caught on film by the local tv company and that concert is now out on CD and DVD. The red version apparently has some compression problems, so you are urged to look for the brown volume, according to those in the know. I don't think it is worth owning, but I enjoyed seeing it. The filming is pretty good (light years better than the desperate Wim Wenders junk that was so popular) and the sound is exceptional, especially considering how big the band is, but the repertoire is lacking and there are no real solos. The keyboard player does get to show off a bit but not enough. It is a completely different band from the one that made that great first Afro-Cuban All Stars album and toured to promote it. Juan de Marcos has grown into a prize twit. Now he's in the limelight and all the songs include a namecheck for him, he is wearing a gold zoot suit and acting like the cat that ate the canary. Too bad. I guess he's overcompensating. His once decent tres playing is crap. He does a couple of perfunctory solos with a heavy effects pedal distorting his sound. At least he had the decency not to solo on the Arsenio Rodriguez track. The sad thing about the show is that the material is all the stuff he did so well with his old band Sierra Maestra, but they have re-arranged the songs for big band and it doesn't really fit. The songs are well known, but it would have been smarter to use the songs written for the big bands of Machito or Prado, rather than the simple Trio Matamoros & Arsenio stuff that sounds so bloated in this format. The audience is having a good time, though no one is dancing. The old singers come out and do their stuff, including an Omara Portundo look-alike to fool the audience, but the young lead singer is rather shabby. I kept waiting for a round of solos from the massive horn assembly, but it didn't come. Still, an amazing amount of talent came out of Sierra Maestra. Cubanismo is the best offspring and it seems that Juan de Marcos is trying to keep up with Jesus Alemany, but he doesnt really cut it, even if his sales are higher.