For students of musicology who like some weighty matter to go along with their listening, look no further than Dr Olavo Rodriguez's beautifully presented package: FROM AFROCUBAN MUSIC TO SALSA, a 180-page book and CD from the Piranha label out of Germany. Dr Rodriguez covers the main categories of Cuban music and you can hear fine examples of each of the styles he discusses. The design of the book is relaxed and handsome and a far cry from the frenetic junk that ruins so many CD booklets, rendering them illegible. The musical selections include four Afro-Cuban chants, five examples of the son, including changui and son montuno, four rumbas, five orchestral danzons (some of them a bit creaky), including Ases del Ritmo and two selections from Charanga Tipica de Rubalcaba, and four songs described as El Punto Guajiro.

Musically this compilation stands alongside another fine German release: World Network's CUBA: EL CAMINO DE LA SALSA which also uncovers neglected gems of great Cuban folk music. Septeto Nacional and the rumba group Afrocuba de Matanzas appear on this compilation, but so too do groups I'd never heard of before: the appropriately named Orchestra Sublime and the superb Conjunto Campesino Cuyaguateje who turn in a rollicking acoustic version of the standard "Al vaiven de mi carreta (The rocking of my cart)." So if you are one of those people who only owns one Cuban CD, now it's time to spring for a few more.

GRACIAS COMPAY (Warner Latina 60884-2)

This double album celebrates the life and work of Compay Segundo (Francisco Repilado) who, after being rediscovered at an advanced age, worked hard until his death last year. I first heard his classic song "Chan Chan" about twenty years ago and I have many versions of it, so I don't really need the two more on this set. However it is a fitting capper to his career. In 1995, before the Buena Vista Madness, he was in Spain recording at Cinearte Studios in Madrid. Four albums were cut: a trio set; one with an expanded band including three clarinets; duets with notable world music types such as Khaled, as well as other Cuban stars Pio Leyva, Omara Portuondo and, surprisingly, the young and wet heartthrob Silvio Rodriguez. This definitive collection features his own band on the first disc. He began singing on Radio Havana in the 1940s and although his name means "Second vocalist," he was a strong member of various bands, including that of Miguel Matamoros. He wrote some classic Cuban sones, including "Sarandonga," co-written with the first Compère, Lorenzo Hierrezuelo. Repilado did a lot in his 96 years, particularly at the end. This two-CD set is a testament to his greatness as composer and performer. It is a treasure.

AKOGUIN THERESA (Disco Stock SA 300070)

With the gradual breaking down of the trade embargo with Cuba, Norte Americanos are being treated to decades of the finest music long denied us. Of course New York salseros and rumberos have been growing in popularity among non-Latin audiences since Desi Arnaz's heyday in the fifties, but now some of the pure folk music of the sadly maligned Marxist nation is reaching our shores. Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, the rumba originals from Cuba, took this country by storm on their fall 1992 tour, as did another old-timer, Mario Bauza. Both had stellar musical issues too, but I'm hooked on Laba Sosseh (actually from Ivory Coast) who is backed by Cuba's classic 50-year-old-&-still-going-strong Orquesta Aragon on a collection of old son montuno ballads with great flute and strings like only Aragon can arrange.


OK so your curiosity overcame your good sense and you went to see Wim Wenders' crappy movie about the Buena Vista Social Club. It's a classic case of cultural slumming by a trendazoid with more money than ideas, that really puts the new Buena Vista Social Club album in a bad light (and bad acoustics too). The endless spiraling camera shots are an indication that Wenders really felt out of his element in this world. But I hope you also caught LAGRIMAS NEGRAS, the far superior film about Cuban music, specifically La Vieja Trova Santiaguera, a great group of old Soneros from the Easternmost tip of the embargoed isle who rehearse then go on a European tour.

But Cubans still top the stack of CDs I want to listen to. Another outing by a member of the notorious BVSC, Eliades Ochoa's SUBLIME ILLUSION, has just been released by Virgin records. He's the broad guy in the cowboy hat who looks like he could be at home in a roadhouse in Texas. Another troubadour from Santiago, his best known work is with Cuarteto Patria, which is legendary in Cuba for having accompanied the great Ñico Saquito on his last album, GOODBYE MR CAT as well as backing the legendary Duo Los Compadres of Francisco Repilado and "Compay Segundo" (another of the BV all-star line-up).

I'm not going to compare the new Elaides Ochoa album to the latest from BVSC, that would be pointless. There are greater forces than mere marketing at work, causing it to fly out the doors far out of proportion to its intrinsic merit. But let me say that you won't be disappointed with Ochoa's "solo" effort. It's a classic of the son and bolero style of which he is one of the living masters.

In the variety of tunes presented here, there are a few tasteful solos by non-Cubans, notoriously Ry Cooder who plays a guitar duet on the classic danzon, "La Comparsa," to end the album. Also Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica and David Hidalgo on guitar embellish & augment "Teje que teje," a romping metaphorical song about an intoxicated girlfriend. For contrast, compare this take to the guaracha version on Cuarteto Patria's A UNA COQUETA which came out in 1993 on the Corason label. Another comparison is possible between the title track and the version on Barbareito Torres' recent HAVANA CAFE. Torres' effort is my favorite album of the year so far, so I'm not going to comment further, but it's interesting to see the Socialites spreading the gospel of son and covering many of the same songs as their material gains wider acceptance in the Western market.


Dr Olavo Alén Rodriguez has done it again. His last production, FROM AFRO-CUBAN TO SALSA was a book about the development of Cuban music with a CD to demonstrate the different styles. His new production is a 4-CD set: the OFFICIAL RETROSPECTIVE OF CUBAN MUSIC presented by the Center for the Investigation & Development of Cuban Music, Havana.

Drawing on the archives of field recordings at CIDMUC, each CD presents two styles of music. Volume One is Musica Afrocubana y Rumba performed by Omo Trago, Afrocuba de Matanzas, and others. This is the rootsy drum and vocal music used in Santeria rituals.

Volume Two covers the most popular current form of Cuban folk music: the son. Gaining in popularity since the twenties and thirties when the son-montuno was developed, the son continues to influence dance forms today. While the groups presented by Dr Alén Rodriguez are unfamiliar to me, the material is not. Miguel Matamoros' "El beso discreto" is used to demonstrate guaracha with a marimbula added to the line-up (a big version of the African thumb-piano, the marimbula here is used mostly as a percussion instrument, with the player tapping on the sound-box for a great woody effect). Another guaracha performed here, Ñico Saquito's "Menéame la Cuna (Sway my crib)", a song loaded with double entendres, is less well-known. "Sarandonga" which I think was written by Arsenio Rodriguez, is here credited to the singer Aldo del Rio, who recorded it in Pinar del Rio in 1989. The ever-popular "Echale Candela" really turns the heat on, while Ignacio Piñeiro's "Te busqué anoche" is delivered by Son del Mayabeque. The closing track of this CD is "Querida Paloma," a rocking jam by the group La Melodía from Guantánamo who use guitar, tres, electric bass, and a raft of percussion.

Volume Three, Punto Cubano y Cancion, starts with Decimas -- freeform poems of ten lines often improvised with simple tres and percussion accompaniment, guiro, claves, and even machete. The link to medieval Spanish music is most apparent here. There is an ad-libbed cutting contest between two poets, and demonstrations of Afro-Cuban spiritual singing, which however sounds a lot like Western liturgical music to my ears. But then I can "totally" hear the Beatles' "Do you want to know a secret?" in "Amorosa guajira," which Dr Alén Rodriguez describes as "a cancion of urban origin that relates sugarcoated and idealized peasant themes." Could it be that the Fab Four were hip to Trio Matamoros in the early sixties?

This cancion is followed by a very wet "bolero con feeling" by Bola de Nieve, performed by Aldo del Río, accompanying himself on tres (I guess the snowball melted into a stream). I'm not a fan of Nueva Trova, so I will not comment on the Silvío Rodriguez composition performed by Duo Enigma, other than to say if you like the folksy guitar intro on "Stairway to Heaven" you'll love this.

Things perk up with the bolero-son delivered by Estudiantina Matancera; yes it's "Lagrimas Negras," another classic from the legendary Miguel Matamoros. And again the set ends with a rave-up, this time an afro-cancion "Raices Cubanas" performed by the son septet Los Naranjos.

Volume Four, El Danzon y la Musica Tradicional Actual, puts me back on terra firma as far as familiar and enjoyable melodies are concerned. Though the ensembles here are definitely on the warbly side (fans of Portsmouth Sinfonia will dig the slightly out-of-tune violins), the cuts get more & more confident. Track 3, José Urfé's landmark "El Bombin de Barreto," composed in 1910, here quotes "El Manisero." Tracks 2, 4 & 5, played by Charanga Típica Cubana under the direction of González Rubalcaba, are reminiscent of Cachao's lushly orchestrated danzons (on MASTER SESSIONS and similar albums). "El cadete constitucional" quotes, remarkably, "Hooray for the red, white and blue." I wonder if this is a conscious quote or whether they adopted it from Warner Bros cartoons. Track 5, "Para Elizabeth," is clearly based on Beethoven's "Für Elise." And again we get a smoker to close, Grupo Yarey, an electrified group fronted by a saxophone playing the melody, give us "De mi hacia tí."

Though the four albums are inevitably uneven, it is safe to say this compilation is exhaustive, and the serious student or fan will not find a better-laid-out exposition of the many styles of popular Cuban music than this set.


I was so repelled by the hype around the Buena Vista Social Club that I didn't check out Omara Portuondo's solo album, and now that I have I must be contrite. It's a superb example of old style Cuban big band music with fine arrangements and great singing by the liveliest of the geriatric crew who make up this "Stars on 45" of boleros. Fans of Graciela, who fronted Machito's band, or Maria T. Vera, who died in 1965 but even then was known as "the ambassador of the popular tunes of yesteryear," will enjoy it. In fact, Portuondo performs three songs associated with Vera: "He pertido contigo," "Ella y yo," and Vera's own habañera, "Veinte años." Back then, Portuondo was making her mark in the Cuarteto d'Aida who created a new romantic sound known as "film" style. But it's to the era before Vera -- the forties -- that this album returns for its style. The sound of Beny More's mambo "Donde estabas tù?" comes replete with a big horn section. We have to visualize the floor show by the Tropicana dancers that went with this. The musicianship is superb and there is a complete string orchestra in addition to the stellar line-up including Papi Oviedo on tres, Mirabel on trumpet, and Ruben Gonzalez on piano.

The muted trumpet and piano are to the fore on "No me vayas a engañar," a simple, short and gentle bolero that again brings in a big horn section reminiscent of Beny More's Banda Gigante.

By now the works of the great Cuban composers like Ernesto Lecuona and Miguel Matamoros are becoming as familiar as American standards by Cole Porter and George Gershwin. Gershwin knew Cuban music and even appropriated Lecuona's melodies for his Cuban Overture in 1932. Portuondo does "The Man I Love," now rewritten as a song of loss, instead one of anticipation. For a change of pace there's Arsenio's Rodriguez's "No me llores mas," a duet with Ibrahim Ferrer (who won the Grammy as the best new Latin artist, though he sounds like he's ready to give up the ghost). I prefer the version by Sierra Maestra on DUNDUNBANZA! -- the album that in some ways led to the BV Socialite Phenomenon. Portuondo's version sounds too eager for a reconciliation. The band pours on the shmalz on "Veinte años." The whole album exudes dreaminess and a return to a lost Cuba. If you like to wallow in it, this is the album for you.


Orquesta America SABOR PROFUNDO is the latest from a band that was founded 50 years ago in Havana. That was when Enrique Jorrin launched the Cha Cha Cha craze with his hit "La Enganadora." Like the title suggests, there is a deep richness to the selections here which cover mambo, various types of son, cha-cha-cha and guaracha. The line-up is classic charanga which is a big band with strings but no brass. There is a wooden flute prominent in the melody, coasting on the strings, and a swinging rhythm section anchored by bajo and piano. You can hear how the sound evolved from the danzón in the formal courtly introductions to each piece before the flute starts to jam and everyone lifts the tempo a notch. There is also a medley of sones to show the treatment accorded those famous riffs by a bigger band. This is a sweet and swinging album full of classic charanga: what more could you want?

EN ROUTE Harmonia Mundi; World Village)

The venerated Orquesta Aragon from Cuba toured the USA twice in 2001 and really tore the place up. Their latest release EN ROUTE was recorded in summer 2001 in Paris. It's presented as a career retrospective without being a greatest hits package. It includes sorties into rock and roll and sucu sucu as well as their more familiar charanga sound leaning heavily on their virtuosi on violin and flute. Aragon started in 1939 as a danzonete but evolved to include mambos and caught on to the cha-cha sound as soon as it was pioneered by Enrique Jorrin and his Orquesta America. In fact Jorrin gave them charts to copy. After the revolution they became even more popular though they were occasionally criticized for singing old songs that described bourgeois lifestyles! Their hits, like "Pare Cochero," "El Paso del Encarnacion" and the classic danzón "La Reina Isabel" are absent. There's a rap song and the accidentally funny "La Gioconda," which anyone in the Western world knows as Alan Sherman's "Hello mudda, hello fadda!" Perennial favourites like "Siboney" or "Bruca Manigua" are also omitted, but this is a band with a staggering repertoire. Back in the 60s they covered "Yaye boy" by Africando, Franklin Boukaka's "Le Boucheron" and even did a cover of Los Bravos' "Black is Black." There is little sign of the easy-listening, lounge side of their repertoire (from Saint-Saens to Tom Jones' "Delilah") but that is the fun of a band that has evolved over 60 years: there is plenty more to find. Indeed this is a fine introduction to a tight orchestra that still swings.


A rare opportunity to get three of Cuban music's hottest percussionists in one room occurred in San Francisco in 1994 during the Encuentro del Canto Popular. Some outstanding local talent added jazzy fills to the funky descarga (jam session) created by Patato on congas and Changuito on bongos, while Orestes Vilató, on timbales, added rhythmic thunder. This album covers a lot of ground. "Guiro para Ogun" is a traditional Afro-Cuban incantation. The dreamy "Calipso en las Nubes" features steel drums while "Yo tengo Ritmo" has jazzy baritone sax breaks. The moody "Desde el fondo del Rio" starts out like "Riders on the Storm" on electric piano and coalesces into a reverie of the many directions possible within the improvisational framework of Afro-Cuban music. You say potato, I say "Buy this Grammy-nominated record!"


A different approach is taken by THE ROUGH GUIDE TO CUBAN MUSIC. First there's a book by Philip Sweeney: a pocket-size, illustrated 350-page guide to the music which, despite it's apparent size, is a quick once-over of the highlights of the story of this complex engrossing musical culture. Then there's the CD titled CUBAN MUSIC STORY compiled by David Flower which is a different, equally personal take on the story with a couple of nods to the classics (it opens with Beny More and closes with a cornball lounge piece by Peruchin) but mostly hits on recent successes (Afro-Cuban All Stars, ¡Cubanismo!). There are a couple of less-than-stellar cuts (Azucar Letal, the Zap Mama of Cuba), and no Arsenio Rodriguez, Cachao, Septeto Nacional or Trio Matamoros, but that's one we could argue all night. To do it right would take at least a 4-CD set. The compiler's justification for leaving out much historic material was the sonic quality. Instead he has focussed (a little too narrowly I think) on recent dancefloor hits. The Buena Vista Lite touch suggests this one is for neophytes.


THE ROUGH GUIDE TO CUBAN SON from World Music Network strolls down one of my favorite memory lanes. From the wealth of material available, the compiler, Phil Stanton, has chosen the biggest hits by the most famous names. One of the oldest Son groups is Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Pineiro, but here they are represented from their 1998 album, SONEROS DE CUBA. I thought the sequel MAS CUBAS LIBRES was better, but their "En Guantanamo" shows the classic form of the Son with tres and a solo trumpet and the clavé 3+2 beat that became the basis of salsa. Right after this we are slapped with the fat sound of Afro-Cuban All Stars performing Lili Martinez's "Alto Songo" and there's no mistaking Ry Cooder, since they namecheck him. Too bad his slide guitar contributes nothing to the sound. I wish Juan de Marcos the arranger would stop being so modest and play the tres solo himself and let Cooder practice his Spanish instead. Vieja Trova Santiaguera gives us a sweet rendering of Miguel Matamoros' "El Tren," complete with mouth percussion and whistling instead of a trumpet. My favourite version of this is by Barbarito Torres who is absent from the present compilation. But there's no argument with Orchestre Sierra Maestra's "Chango Ta Veni," one of the classics of the revitalized son. The big sound is spearheaded by Juan de Marcos on tres and the bright trumpet of Jesus Alemany, who later formed Cubanismo. The composer himself, Nico Saquito, gives us his "Maria Cristina." Now we get to hear some rocking geriatrics. Another classic is Maria Teresa Vera's "Eso no es na," accompanied by Lorenzo Hierrezuelo. "Chan Chan" is given a delicate touch by the Familia Valera Miranda. This is a song that is approaching "Peanut Vendor" status in the canon of popular Cuban recordings. It's right behind "Lagrimas Negras" & "Son de la Loma" as perilously close to the overdose zone. The album ends with the slamming Los Jubilados, yet another gang of oldtimers who got together to reignite the flame of their youth in this wonderful sound. For beginners this CD is a great introduction; for the jaded types who've heard it all, it is still well-sequenced and saves you having to jump up and play deejay when you want an hour of great Cuban music.

[Cuba section continues]