MUSIC OF CUBA part 4

AFRO-CUBAN ALL STARS
ABSOLUTELY LIVE II (VIVA MEXICO!)

Live Volume I from these Afro-Cubists was captured in Japan in 2001 (& got a scathing review from yours truly on the bottom of the "Cuba part 4" page). Just as the body replaces all its cells every 7 years this seems to be a new generation of the band. This new recording, from an evening in the magnificence of Guanajuato, Mexico, is strong, especially on the classics, "El cuarto de tula," and "Tumba y bongo" of Arsenio Rodriguez. It's a good show, lots of familiar oldies and no grandstanding this time out. It's a bit vain calling them All-Stars since they are really a bunch of unknowns, but they needed the grandiose title when they backed the famed Buena Vista Socialites. (The reverse is true of the West African Highlife Band which truly is a line-up of All Stars performing under an unassuming name.) The leader is Juan de Marcos Gonzalez who was plucked from the ranks of one of the greatest Cuban bands, orquesta Sierra Maestra (who preserve traditional music, and who also gave birth to Cubanismo), to assemble a band in the old Egrem Studios in Havana when Nick Gold of World Circuit had the idea of bringing African soneros to Havana to record with the old-time Cubans. That time the Africans didn't make it and they settled for Ry Cooder. Later they did come, and you can hear Mar Seck, Laba Sosseh and Pape Fall on the Popular African Music CD Los Afro-Salseros de Senegal en la Habana. The other problem -- also endemic with Africando -- is, if you induct some retired musicians into a band they burn out and die at an alarming rate. So the early stars of this band: Pio Leiva, Ruben Gonzalez and Ibrahim Ferrer all died over a decade ago and have been replaced by 14 suitably youthful performers of distinguished pedigree. Clarinetist Laura Gonzalez is grand-daughter of Marcos Gonzalez and great-niece of the brilliant pianist Ruben Gonzalez, and it turns out daughter of Juan de Marcos, so we learn indirectly he is the son of one of Arsenio's singers. Juan de Marcos stirs up the crowd by yelling "Viva Zapata," etc, but they are already predisposed to party and dance with abandon to the songs their parents also loved.


MARACA
LO QUE QUIERO ES FIESTA!! (Ahi-Nama AHI1078)

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.


ALFREDO RODRIGUEZ
LIVE: OYE AFRA (OP118)

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.


ARSENIO RODRIGUEZ Y SU CONJUNTO
EL ALMA DE CUBA
GRABACIONES COMPLETAS RCA VICTOR (Tumbao TCD 315 2007)

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!


ISAAC DELGADO
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.


BAN RARRA
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.


SABORIT
QUE LINDA ES MI CUBA (TUMI 134)

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.


MALECON SOCIAL CLUB
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.


FAMILIA VALERA MIRANDA, ANTOINE "TATO" GARCIA & SABRINA ROMERO
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 VALDES
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.


IBRAHIM FERRER
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.


SIERRA MAESTRA
SON: SOUL OF A NATION (TUG CD1039)

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.


COMPAY SEGUNDO
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.


LUSSÓN Y LUSSÓN
¡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.


JOAQUIN POZO & LATIN MILLENIUM
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.


BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB (TM) PRESENTS
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.

CONJUNTO MODELO
SIGUIENDO NUESTRA LINEA (Envidia A70 7111)

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.

COMPAY SEGUNDO
EN CONCIERTO/EN CONCERT/LIVE/IN CONCERTO ETC (Warner Latina 61931-2)

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 MORE & SU BANDA GIGANTE
GRABACIONES COMPLETAS 1953-60 (TUMBAO TCD 309*)

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.

AFRO-CUBAN ALL STARS LIVE IN TOKYO
(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.