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V/A - Si, Para Usted: The Funky Beats of Revolutionary Cuba, Volume One

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Artist: V/A

Album: Si, Para Usted: The Funky Beats of Revolutionary Cuba, Volume One

Label: Waxing Deep

Review date: Jun. 7, 2007

Generally communism and good art are mutually exclusive; command creativity is no more likely to work than command economics. Where there are exceptions, it’s usually because of a breakdown in the chain of command. Joe Boyd wrote a marvelous article a few years back about how the heavy hand of Stalinism’s weak grasp on one small country at the periphery of the iron curtain accidentally facilitated the creation of Bulgarian women’s choirs.

Si, Para Usted uncovers another. Apparently the Cuban revolution’s policies resulted in a proliferation of well-trained musicians who didn’t have to answer to market forces since they were on salary so long as they showed up and played. Some of them interpreted Castro’s dictum “Inside the revolution, everything, against it, nothing” as a license to create. There was no centralized Ministry of Culture until the late ’70s, so while they did encounter occasional censorship, it wasn’t systematic. Experimentation flourished.

The result was a profusion of music that was surprisingly tuned in to the rest of the world and ready to collect on old cultural debts. North American jazz and rhythm and blues and West African pop music had been borrowing from Cuban sounds for decades before anything on this collection was recorded; Juan Pablo Torres y Algo Nueva’s “Y Viva la Felicidad” is just one of the tracks here that cashes in those IOUs and invests the results wisely. Recorded in 1973, the tune has a heavy bass and complex rhythmic churn reminiscent of the irresistible grooves being dug in Ghanaian pop music around the same time, as well as vibe flourishes and a marvelous trombone solo (which is criminally faded out) that could have come out of Dizzy Gillespie’s ’50s big band. Ricardo Eddy Martinez blends borderline disco beats with Santeria drumming, glossy synths, Michael Karoli guitar, and vocals that are one part Silver Convention to three parts Flora Purim. Reportedly the tune is better known to foreign DJs than it is in Cuba. And Irakere’s “Bacalao Con Pan” has a ripping distorted guitar and visceral drumming that takes the gutsy rock energy of early Santana up several notches.

Some borrowings would have been better left uncovered – tart funk guitars can’t redeem Sintesis’s blend of fusion jazz licks and too-fluffy singing. But that’s the album’s only total dud. Some of this stuff sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday. The CD’s opening track, another Torres contribution called “Son a Propulsion,” blends Fela-like horn blasts with Isley Brothers fuzz tones and some whooshing electronics that push the tune way left of the center of ’70s funk and closer to Antibalas’s last album. It must be pointed out that the liner notes, written by compiler Dan Zack, acknowledge more than once that his selections were anomalous one-offs. That makes them more special in a way; I’ve never heard anything quite like the opium den exotica of Mirtha Y Raul’s “Casina Y Epidecus,” and since Cubans generally had much more access to tobacco than any sort of dope, one wonders about its genesis, but that’s just a mystery to savor.

It’s easier to comprehend why you haven’t heard this stuff before. Cuba’s only 90 miles from Miami, but the US cultural embargo hasn’t exactly made it easy to get ahold of the full breadth of Cuban music. And it’s still no cinch – Waxing Deep mailed this CD to me from Canada. Let the contraband play on!

By Bill Meyer

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