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V/A - Son Cubano NYC: Cuban Roots New York Spices 1972-82

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Artist: V/A

Album: Son Cubano NYC: Cuban Roots New York Spices 1972-82

Label: Honest Jon's

Review date: Apr. 24, 2005

Son Cubano NYC: Cuban Roots New York Spices 1972-82 neatly packages the sound of New York’s other Latin music, the more understated Cuban-influenced son. A quick sift through the crates will reveal that the largely Nuyorican vibe of Jerry Masucci’s Fania label dominated and defined the era. The flashy, bell-bottomed approach was crafted for discotheques instead of the dance halls that had hosted the previous Afro-Cuban insurgency, mambo groups like Machito and Tito Puente. However, the artists featured on Son Cubano NYC – including established stars like Cuban trumpet sensation Chocolate and tresero Charlie Rodriguez – made music as hard and as soulful as the so-called salsa of their Fania counterparts, but the arrangements were humble and lean, and the naturalistic production highlighted muscle instead of spray-bottle sweat, passion as opposed to sexiness.

Great liner notes by Al Angeloro, along with extensive commentary by featured musician Roberto Torres, go a good length toward explaining why many musicians thought the term salsa practically discredited the contributions Cubans and their myriad styles of music made to the then-contemporary Latin sound of New York. In the same way Tito Puente was known to have argued, “salsa is sauce, and I don’t play sauce, I play music,” there is a quiet substance and discipline to the tracks on Son Cubano NYC that wasn’t nearly so evident in the more up-tempo sounds of Fania. From an ethnological perspective, Torres lends additional insight as he describes how the son was tailored toward the taste of African listeners, who were responsible for a significant chunk of record sales for NY-based Cuban artists.

The sounds on Son Cubano contrast subtly with those of the more famous wave of son associated with the “rediscovered” Buena Vista Social Club and Afro-Cuban All-Stars that would enter the American consciousness two decades later. The New York version clearly has an urban strut to it, compared to the hotel lobby gloss of the more recent wave, but then again, both derive from the gentle sounds of the countryside. Still, on Son Cubano, fire surfaces from time to time, in the form of the occasional solo by maestros like Chocolate, with his extended call-and-response trumpet phrasing up against the chorus in “Trumpet En Montuno,” and Charlie Rodriguez’s tres work, which remains the corralling influence in “Cuchillo Para La Piña Cubana.” (Translated as “A Knife for the Pineapple,” this track also stands as an example of the ever-present sexual innuendo in, well, nearly all Caribbean music: see Yellowman’s “Throw Mi Corn” or just about any calypso tune for further reference.)

The vocal styles represented from song to song could be subject enough for a compilation, with Lita Branda’s understated but throaty vocals on “Yo Perdi El Corazon” nearly forecasting Albita’s style by two decades, and Henry Fiol’s androgynous singing on “Oriente” adding mystery to the song’s epic, yearning feel. This emotional connection with the time and place surfaces in “Camina,” a reworking of a traditional country work song by Roberto Torres, founder of NYC’s Orquesta Broadway. The chorus, emblematic of the “tipico” style of music, pushes the arrangement, exalting its subject to “come to work, come to fight,” with an almost revolutionary sentiment.

A neat counterpoint to the vocally-dominated selection of tracks is “Dos Hermanos” by the Cuban twin brother percussionists Freddy and Santi Nieto, known for their two-album career as Los Jimaguas. Along with pianist Dr. Ken Leo Rosa (who, according to the liner notes, went on to become a chiropractor), the Nieto brothers add another historical dimension with their updated, jazz-inflected combo sound, reminiscent of Cal Tjader’s classic lineup when it included Vince Guaraldi on piano and percussionists Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo.

If not for this thorough document of a foregone sound, Cuban Son, New York style, might be buried completely by the lycra sheen of salsa. British label Honest Jon's Records has done a good turn by all aficionados of Cuban music by making this happen.

By Andy Freivogel

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