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V/A - Rough Guide to the Music of Cuba

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Artist: V/A

Album: Rough Guide to the Music of Cuba

Label: World Music Network

Review date: Jul. 27, 2009

After an outstanding collection of cumbia and the so-so “Cuban Street Party” of last year, the folks behind the Rough Guide series of music have hit with a nice balance of underground Cuban dance classics and a few songs that show promising new directions in the 90-mile outcast’s music scene.

Packaged inexplicably with a full album by son stalwarts Sierra Maestra (guess what: nearly all son sounds the same to the average listener, the same way I’d expect sparrows to sound like one another), The Music of Cuba keeps a foot planted in the post-revolutionary era by including a track from Los Van Van (yep, they were the Go Go’s before Carlisle and Company), a group formed by bassist/composer Juan Formell, who matriculated from the charanga ensemble of Elio Reve (whose son makes an appearance on The Music of Cuba as well). Formell’s group has long been one of Cuba’s most popular dance bands, since their beginnings in 1969, and the composer himself has been credited with spearheading trends in Cuban music which are sometimes based on a single rhythm (timba being an example). Here, however, Los Van Van has begun to show their age, or at least a sense of schmaltzy nostalgia that is all too common on Cuban state tv. On the cut “Ya Empezo La Fiesta,” the band charges in with a fusion-y cascade of chords, only to settle into a tinkly piano-driven montuno backed by synthesizer and strings and flutes... it’s already a bit too much. Soon the chorus bursts into “Comment allez vouz... how do you do?” and they seem to be retreading ideas of lovey-dovey globalism that groups in the US were already challenging in the ‘60s. Perhaps one can’t blame Cubans for missing out on 40 years of popular cultural dialogue, but the explanations don’t make the sentiment sound as fresh or bold as Formell’s music has tended to be. Other established groups, including Juan Carlos De Marco’s Afro-Cuban Allstars (with the elegant “Reconcilacion”), round out the record’s old school foundation.

If for no other reason than to show they haven’t fallen completely behind the rest of the Caribbean and the Americas, the inclusion of Madera Limpia’s “La Corona” (“The Crown”) nicely showcases a relatively fresh reggaeton rhythm that morphs back and forth between a more timba-style beat, neatly balancing old (relatively; timba is an update of salsa with a little more funk) and new. Some of the more adventurous takes, however, are not necessarily from new artists. Pancho Quinto, a legendary batalero (bata drums are at the forefront of the Afro-Cuban religion’s musical traditions) offers a smooth, almost ambient update of rumba with collaborators pianist Omar Sosa and santero/drummer Octavio Rodriguez on “La Gorra.” Synthesizers swell, a hi-hat ticks along, and even wah-wah guitar oozes out of nowhere on this standout, at once sublime and ruggedly psychedelic, a Cuban update of “Shaft” that marries 400 years of African rhythmic insurgency with the slick modern trappings of Cuban musicianship, from a country of players reputed to be amongst the world’s most technically accomplished jazz players.

Like the recent Rough Guide Cuban Street Party, this compilation hedges the resurrection of popular tracks that have already seen release, as well as slightly left-field entries that give it an edge. Here, one of those oddities is Cachaito’s (Orlando Lopez, nephew of Cachao) “Mi Dos Pequenas,” a product of his thrilling collaboration with conguero Miguel “Anga” Diaz, in which the two (along with a cast of musicians and producers from Paris and London) explore numerous ideas like danzon (Cachao’s roots), dub and hip-hop. With both Anga and Cachaito having passed in the last three years, the inclusion of this track alone makes Music of Cuba an invaluable primer of both older and more cutting edge Cuban dance music.

By Andy Freivogel

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