ALBORADA (Tumbao TCD-094)

It's a while since I jumped on any new Cuban releases, but I keep my eyes peeled for interesting reissues of the good stuff. Ñico Saquito became well-known at the end of his life, performing at the Bodeguita del Medio, the Cajon de Bateo, and the Casa de la Trova in Santiago, accompanied by Cuarteto Patria, the Conjunto Oriental de Bimbi, or El Duo Cubano. He wrote some fabulous songs, which were widely covered, including "Chencha la Gamba," "Maria Cristina," "A la orilla del Cauto" and "Al vaiven de mi carreta." He was something of a snappy dresser and remained a star to the end. Saquito which means "little sack" was a nickname from his youth when he was so good at baseball people would say he was like a little sack for catching balls. After working as a smelter, he started out as a radio station music arranger, but soon got himself a spot on the airwaves with a band fronted by Orlando Vallejo, a talented singer, who abandoned a succesful career in Cuba to try his luck in the USA and died in misery. Saquito's early recordings, from 1946 to 1951 are collected on this wonderful disc. In addition to guarachas, for which he is best known, there are son montunos and boleros, so a nice blend of styles. He wrote in many styles including "rural" or Cuban country music & in the 1950s, while living in Venezuela, wrote songs in support of Fidel and the Revolution which earns him credit as the first Cuban protest singer. The 1947-51 recordings presented here are truly noteworthy, with piano in the mix, "laughing" trumpet, sporty bongos, and stately vocals by Alfredito Valdez and Ramon Veloz who sings and plays piano on the peak of the album: the consummate rendering of "Al vaiven de mi carreta."


This record accompanies a PBS documentary which featured clips from American movies and television showing the impact of Cuban music on our culture. It's structurally similar to the KONBIT compilation which introduced Haitian music in 1989. The two main complaints I've heard about the record are that it's poorly recorded and that it doesn't work apart from the video. To me it sounds fine, and I had the record before I saw the show, which had some shortcomings. The section on Africa was so brief we never really understood what the connection was. There was a side trip to Spain with footage of singers in an Andalusian field and lots of clips of Harry Belafonte dancing with the locals in Havana, rubbing his nose and sniffing, and trying to appear with it. If you're hip you probably already have the tracks by Irakere or Chano Pozo and poopoo the record because it has Bing Crosby doing "Siboney" and a version of "Guantanamera." But both tracks are essential to understanding the development of Cuban popular music: "Guantanamera" is the most popular bolero-son ever recorded and is a link to the Spanish troubadour tradition, whereas Bing Crosby was just a starched front for the Xavier Cugat orchestra. The whole gamut of Cuban music is put in perspective from the introductory "Chant to Elgua," the beautiful original version of "The Peanut Vendor," which launched the rumba craze in America, to the moving "Buscando America" by Ruben Blades. The inclusion of the "rumba originals," Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, a percussion and vocal ensemble, prompted me to buy their fine album CANTAR MARAVILLOSO on Globestyle. For me however the supreme discovery of the year is Celia Cruz's live version of "Bemba Colora" on this album. Her call and response with Tito Puente's orchestra is fabulous, the whole has an erotically-charged salsa throb to it with a shrieking soprano sax that sounds closer to the Joujouka tribesmen of Morocco than jazz.

MULATAS MAGICAS (Pimienta Records 245 360 590-2)

Despite embargos, restrictions and the lack of instruments, Cuba still produces the finest jazz pianists in the world. The debut Ruben Gonzalez Junior CD is a great example of a mellow album you can put on and have in the background or listen to attentively. Either way it works. The first two tracks, with up-and-coming female singers the Chiki Chaka Girls, are a bit too laid back, but by track three things start to blaze after a fuliginous start. I am all ears when Ruben Junior carves out a piano solo that does his old man credit. Latterly Ruben Senior was in the Afro-Cuban All Stars while Junior has been working as a session player, so this is his first solo album. But it is every bit as assured as if he had a dozen albums under his belt. Of course he has the likes of Miguel Cruz on percussion, Adalberto Lara on trumpet, and Juan Pablo Torres on trombone, so he is hardly going to make a flop. Torres also serves as bandleader. By track five "Dulce coco," they are in rip-it-up mode, but it ends too soon. Then we get a dreamy lounge piece to make us feel sophisticated while we mix a Cuba Libre. Vocalists include the hot young star El Nene and the grand old man of son montuno Pio Leyva. There are no writing credits but the songs are familiar, including the chestnut "Marieta" (by El Guayabero), which they tear up with El Nene on vocals, and a tribute to "Pio Pio Pa," with the great man himself growling lead. Apart from the Chiki Chaka Girls -- and their mother (!), who seem a bit overhyped, this is a superb album.


Unless you are a serious student of rumba it's a little hard to take a whole album of drumming and chanting. Yes, there are exceptions: Los Papines, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Grupo Yoruba Andabo, but they are just three of the best rumba groups from Cuba and to appreciate them you really have to see them in concert with the stark white costumes, tentative opening dance steps, and trance-like involvement in the music. If you are a deejay, a real rumba is a great way to ground a set of Cuban music, but most of us need a bit of variety to heighten the contrast between a full band and the stripped-down sound of just congas & acapella vocals. That's why a new album from BIS music makes so much sense. LA RUMBA SOY YO takes pure rumba and augments it with electrified dance music from Cuba to present a tapestry of all the musical styles that evolved out of this pure form. For all popular Cuban music, from Xavier Cugat and Machin eighty years ago to jazz and pop groups like Irakere, NG la Banda and los Van Van today are rooted in rumba. The cuts on this compilation range from solo conga by Tata Guines or solo guitar by Alejandro Valdes to large electric bands with brass blaring over steaming percussion sections. "Sobre una tumba una rumba" by Ignacio Piñeiro is given a fresh workout by a big band fronted by Haila on vocals. Another outstanding track is "Un violon pa' Chano" which features a busy violin solo by Lazaro Dagoberto Gonzalez that is part Paganini and part palm court orchestra (the acoustic forerunner to lounge). Then we return to the unadorned rumba tracks and our brains fill in the orchestration around the vocals and drumming. It's a satisfactory approach and makes for a very listenable set.


This latest entry into the Salsa Mundo series focuses on European acts and is a strong entry. Of course Europe had the same "Son Fever" as the US starting in the 1930s, fostered by Hollywood movies, and broadened by touring bands. In addition many Cuban musicians moved to Europe to work and play. Don Gonzalo, Bebo Valdez, Sabu Martinez and many others went to play and stayed, and while the USA was undergoing its foolish embargo for the last 40 years, Europeans have had the run of the island and continued to bring the best salsa acts on tour. The album kicks off with a slamming charanga by Salsa Celtica; it is not at all odd to hear the violin lead being taken by bagpipes, in fact it works great. Amsterdam's Paradis are totally in the pocket as bandleader Ilvio Pieterz chops out a classic piano solo. You can figure out the influences: Big band Machito sound from Finland, intimate Arsenio-style conjunto and jazzy Charlie Palmieri licks in the UK, the Tito Puente showband style in France. I'd only heard of one of the acts on here, Oscar & Co from France. The other dozen are even more impressive in their chops and dedication to the salsa idiom. This one cooks.


A rare approach is taken for SANTEROS & SALSEROS. This CD has almost nobody you've heard of, however it still delivers first-rate Cuban music. It's on the Real Rhythm label and has been reissued by COD music of Switzerland. It presents, in sequence, examples of Santeria, Rumba, Danzón, Bolero, Campesina music, Son, Mambo, Cha-cha-cha, Son Montuno, Balada, Salsa and Conga. Some of the tunes are familiar but the groups aren't, with the exception of Septeto Nacional. Thus we get to hear these Cuban tunes as they are performed by traditional musicians who are not revising it in light of foreign relations. Hermanos Izquierdo are a family orchestra founded in 1946 who contributed substantially to the development of the Danzón and Cha-cha-cha; their version of Enrique Jorrin's "Osiris" is really fine. If like me you already have two dozen anthologies of Cuban music, you probably don't need this one. If you would like a short course in the many distinct forms of Cuban music, this is a good place to start. If you want some heavy reading matter to go along with your mini-course, then get the Piranha book and CD FROM AFROCUBAN MUSIC TO SALSA by Dr Olavo Alén Rodriguez instead.


The great legacy of Cuban music is in wonderful songs, fine lyrics, exquisite harmonies, superb arrangements -- whether for two guitars and bongo, or a sextet adding double bass and guiro, or a septet with a trumpeter and clavé. As this style evolved at a leisurely pace over the course of the twentieth century, many groups such as Trio Matamoros and Septeto Nacional came to it and added to the style we know as Son. While son is one of the most influential musical forms to come from Cuba, it is not as familiar as the rumba, mambo, or cha cha, which evolved from it. It starts from simple guitar riffs backed by percussion, but most of the melodic weight is carried by raspy vocals, which add charm to the music; occasionally a trumpet adds to the mix of ragged voices. All of these discrete components blend to create one of the most memorable, intoxicating sounds on the planet. This 1994 recording from the tireless Septeto Nacional of Ignacio Piñero on the Cuban national label, Egrem, comes via Canada. Going strong since the 30s, the Septeto plays stringed instruments against percussion derived from Afro-Cuban religion. The balladeering vocals share the melody with a trumpet. The son, a traditional Cuban form that preceded salsa, along with the guaguanco, bolero and rumba (other offshoots) is represented in twenty classic selections.

MAS CUBA LIBRES (1999 Network 33 182)

While Los Teletubbies Cubanos are basking in the limelight, some of the real hardworking Cuban old-timers are still making fresh-sounding music. Septeto Nacional has a superb new recording from World Network. The title MAS CUBA LIBRES is an amusing pun on drinking and a devil-may-care comment on America's attitude about the current isolated situation of the island. They have lined up some outstanding guest stars and, frankly, it's very much in the mode of BV Social Club but unlikely to generate anything like the hoopla. The guests include Pio Leyva and Caridad Cuervo on vocals, Pancho Amat on tres, and the legendary Guillermo González "Rubalcaba" on piano. This is a really fine son album, and it would be nice if it caught on before the fickle American trendazoids decide that traditional Cuban music is just another "lambada craze" and go off in search of the next thing.

"Son is musica mulatta, a Cuban blend of European and African," wrote the great Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén. Son emerged in Santiago, on the far eastern tip of the island about a century ago when European string instruments like the guitar were added to the African percussion of bongos, maracas and claves. Both black and white Cubans accepted it and the verse form (from Spain) added the final touch to give it shape. Typically, today there is a trumpet solo to add counterpoint to the vocal melody. The addition of piano is unusual but in mulatta music, anything goes! Favourites from the founder of Septeto Nacional, Igancio Piñeiro (1888-1969), are included here, like "Coco Mai Mai" and "No Jueges con los Santos." I'm glad they added piano because Rubalcaba's solos are great, particularly on Lili Martínez' "Oye come suena" and "Uno, Dos, Tres" by Rafael Ortiz.

RUMBERO SOY (World Music Network)

Fans of Cuban Son Montuno will rejoice at the news of a new release from Orchestre Sierra Maestra. It's their best release since ¡DUNDUNBANZA! in 1994, but the departure of leader Juan de Marcos Gonzalez is noticeable. From Gonzalez' later project, the BV Social Club, Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo show up for guest vocal spots and guitarist Marc Ribot also adds atmospheric touches to a couple of tracks. As ever the material is drawn from the classic repertoire of artists like Ñico Saquito and given a bright modern arrangement for a traditional septeto line-up. Recorded in a French chateaux the album is so comfortable and laid-back that it has lost a little of the edge that made their earlier recordings so compelling.


Though Ry Cooder is credited as the producer, the real genius behind the Buena Vista project was Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, the tres player and arranger. Previously, he put together Orchestra Sierra Maestra (with trumpeter Jesus Alemany), a group devoted to keeping the son of Eastern Cuba's Oriente province alive in performance. Sierra Maestra are one of my favorite bands and I feel privileged to have seen them in a local club setting (Yoshi's) instead of the concert-hall required for an act like Afro-Cuban All Stars. (I have to say that all the songs on the new Buena Vista album have been done better by other bands. Their version of "Como baila Marieta" is the hottest track on the album, but I prefer Sierra Maestra's version on their last album, TIBIRI TABARA.) Now Harmonia Mundi has reissued Sierra Maestra's RUMBEROS DE LA HAVANA from 1991, a sort of greatest hits. I say it's a greatest hits, because it serves as an introduction to Cuban musical history and includes the group's interpretations of many famous older songs, in different musical styles, from rumba to yambu to guaracha to son. Though there is no personnel listed, I'm pretty sure the brilliant trumpet playing on this recording is by Jesus Alemany who went on to found the superb Cubanismo.

ETERNA MELODIA (Lusafrica / BMG France)

A recent Cuban issue of note is ETERNA MELODIA by Orchestre Tipico Oriental. As their name implies, they are a classic band of soneros from Eastern Cuba, though the band moved to Havana many years ago. Originally conceived as a group to play the famous works of Miguel Matamoros, their repertoire grew and they now play the tunes of the leader Isidro Sarria Aristica. He writes classic sones, or son boleros, which have the two-part structure familiar to fans of the genre. They start with a largo where the theme is stated and move to a montuno where the jam kicks in with a chorus. There's a guitar, tres, maracas, and the quintessential Cuban instrument: bongos. The songs are pure, which means you won't hear Bonnie Raitt plunking along, and these old-timers are confident in their relaxed way, coasting through the material with that wonderful floating feeling over the rock solid clavé (I'm beginning to wonder if listening to Trio Matamoros is where Franco found the confidence to suspend the time signature in his guitar solos). There are a couple of touchstones: a melody called "Ensalada de sones" which is a potpourri of famous riffs (Miguel Matamoros' "Olvido": an original kick-out-the-jams 78 released in 1928 as the B-side of "El Que Siembra su Maiz" -- recorded in the RCA studios in Camden NJ, it sold 74,000 copies in Cuba -- "Papa Montero," and "Silencio" by Sexteto Habanero). The only song not by Aristica is vocalist Rolando Cisneros's homage to Beny Moré, which also takes a nice jagged tres solo as the outro, after extolling the talents of "el Barbara del Ritmo." The CD contains but a dozen 3-minute songs, a wonderful taste of some of the sweetest music made in the Western hemisphere. As the liner note says, "this is irresistible, authentic music, uncontaminated by the commercial virus that has debilitated so many contemporary pieces."

EN VIVO DESDE LA HABANA (Mock & Roll, 2001)

In need of a pure salsa fix I turned to an oldie: Tito Gomez y Orquesta Riverside EN VIVO DESDE LA HABANA. A small label, Mock & Roll of Miami, has leased the music for five live albums from the golden age of Cuban big band radio, the 1950s. Of course the sound is rather thin but it's clear and well-restored and the one-dimensionality adds to the mood. The band has superb arrangements of original and covers material. They kick off with "La Engañadora" by Enrique Jorrin and "Me voy pa' New York," and also do "Red Roses for a Blue Lady," as well as other mambos. But the treats are in the occasional classical quotes from the saxes or violins and it all goes down very smoothly. Great relaxing music or background for a pleasant evening as the silken-tongued Gomez tickles your fancy. Most of the material is still part of the standard salsa repertoire so you will feel at home and maybe even be impressed by the chops of the Orquesta Riverside musicians from half a century ago. They go out steaming on a descarga of "El de la Rumba Soy Yo." It inspires me to check out the Conjunto Casino and Barbaraito Diez broadcasts included in the same series.


I don't usually write negative reviews of new releases. If it's bad I ignore it, but sometimes I feel I have to steer you away from a booby trap. Such is the case with the new TRIBUTO A LILI MARTINEZ CD on the Unicornio label which is so sleepy and loungey it's barely there. "Lili" Martínez was the pianist & arranger in Arsenio Rodriguez' conjunto and wrote some of the memorable tunes for that group, including "Sazonando," "Quimbombo," "Que se funan," "Chicharronero," and "Alto Songo." This new recording has a guest appearance by Isaac Delgado. The pianists are Miguel de Armas and Manolito Simonet; Elpidio Chappotin (son of Felix?) plays trumpet; others include El Nene and Mayito on coro and vocals. It was recorded in Havana but it's a major disappointment. Luis Martínez Griñán (1915-90) had a strong influence on later pianists like Eddie Palmieri, Frank Fernandez and Chucho Valdes. He was self-taught and started out as accompanist at a dancing academy. He came to love Chopin above all. In 1945 he joined Arsenio's conjunto (Arsenio called him "La Perle del Oriente") and five years later moved with Chappotin through a succession of bands, till his retirement due to infirmity in 1967. He later was coaxed out of retirement to play with los Ases del Ritmo. Among my favorite albums featuring Lili Martínez are Conjunto Modelo's GUAGUANCO EN LA HABANA which has three of his original compositions, and two other albums (also on the Tumbao label): MONTUNEANDO con Arsenio Rodriguez y su Conjunto and DUNDUNBANZA from the same group. Both CDs are taken from original 78s that were recorded in Havana from 1946 to 1951. There you get the full force of the incipient salsa form as it was emerging in Arsenio's line-up. Steaming versions of Lili's tunes, including "No me llores mas," "Pueblo Nuevo se paso," and "Chicharronero" can be found on these albums. So hold the Geritol, and cue up the originals.


From the early twenties to the mid-fifties, Miguel Matamoros was arguably the most popular singer in Cuba, writing and recording hundreds of songs that became international hits with simple guitar and light percussion backing. This Tumbao collection gathers two dozen trio classics in a fragrant bouquet of Boleros, Sons, and other Creole rhythms. Trio Matamoros's tight, intuitive guitar-work and unaffected, rich harmony vocals arrive full-blown in the earliest of these recordings. From the churning, propulsive beat of "Oye el Cha-cha" to the humorous ballad "Beso Discreto," punctuated with kissing sounds, a range of their material is displayed in clear, remastered sound.