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Various Artists, ¡Diablo Al Infierno! Cuba Classics III, New Directions in Cuban Music CD

Review: ¡Diablo Al Infierno! (Devil, Go To Hell!)

by Bobby Sanabria

Cuba, dominatrix of the Caribbean; island of the ancient Indian ruler Cubanacan; birthplace of the rumba and són which have in turn provided us with the vocabulary for what we today call salsa. The influence of this island has been prolific, incompasing North America’s musical traditions(jazz, rock, etc.) and culture. But make no mistake, the U.S./Cuba relationship has been a clearly symbiotic one ever since Don Azpiazu and his Havana Casino Orchestra exposed North America to the real deal with their recording of the són-pregón "El Manicero"("The Peanut Vendor") in the 1930’s.

The compilation ¡Diablo Al Infierno!: Cuba Classics III by pop/rock/world beat explorer David Byrne and Cubanophile Ned Sublette best exemplifies this relationship while at the same time showcases contemporary Cuban music and indicates where it’s headed. (Volumes I and II dealt with new troubadour music and dance bands from the 60’s and 70’s respectively).

Irakere opens up the compilation with their 1974 dance hit "Bacalao Con Pan" ("Codfish With Bread"). Although Irakere’s identity in the U.S. has always been one of a progressive Latin/Jazz ensemble, they have always played dance music as well. This tune clearly shows the influence of Latin/Rock artist Carlos Santana, but it goes deeper, combining elements of the Són with the Yoruba sacred drums (Batá) of Nigerian ancestry and the obvious rock touch.

The group Síntesis follows with their Jazz/Rock/Fusion sound applied to a song from Arará (a tribe from Nigeria related to the Yoruba by their similar religious practices) tradition. What Irakere started in the 70’s by bringing Cuba’s African heritage “out of the closet,” Síntesis brings to full fruition using contemporary electronics on their 1987 tune "Asoyin" (the Arara counterpart to Babalúaye, the deity of pestilence). Cuba’s musical heritage has been one of evolution — but always with respect for tradition. This cut is a great example of this.

Los Van Van made their mark in the 1970’s by creating, through the efforts of their bassist/leader Juan Formell and their drummer José Luis Quintana (A.K.A. “Changuito”), their modern interpretation of the Són, Songó. Drawing upon elements of the Rumba, Són, and funk, Los Van Van became Cuba’s most popular and influential dance band. Van Van’s sound of flute and strings (Charanga) combined with brass (in this case trombones) emulating the Conjunto (small groups that play Són w/brass) style is showcased on their 1982 cut "El Buey Cansao" ("The Tired Bull").

Pio Leyva, an icon in Cuban music (who, by the way, is in his 70’s), does two guaracha’s (a fast humorous style of Són, also known as Bachata-Son) as a medley: "Tu No Sabes De Amor/Domitila" ("You Don’t know About Love/Domitila"). He’s best known as the composer of "Francisco Guayabal" (A hit for the legendary sonero Benny More as well as Tito Puente) and is still kickin’ culo in his old age. Although this 1985 cut is more in the “típico” vein (traditional as opposed to progressive, it is a good tune for listeners to juxtapose against the progressive material included.

"Iriki Ada" is another African rooted chant (for the Yoruba deity of metal, Ogún) adapted to the modern electric fusion sound as interpreted by Mezcla. The most well known lead voice (Akpwón) of this music; Lazaro Ros, is featured here. If you want to learn how to interpret this music vocally, Ros is one person to definitely check out. This 1990 cut showcases Ros’ hauntingly sorrowful lyricism in a uniquely modern context (the image of blues legend John Lee Hooker being backed up by the Santana band comes to mind).

Los Blues, who are from the Oriente region (eastern) of the island, exemplify the influence of Reggae on Cuban music with their version of a Cuban standard "Rompe Saragüey." “Da riddim” here is definitely Jamaican but with a heavy Cuban interpretation and shown how heavily and readily the island absorbs and reinterprets other styles.

Grupo Vocal Sampling provides the most striking cut on the album. Their name is an inside joke. They are a completely a-capella vocal sextet (Ala Take Six, Manhattan Transfer, etc.). The accent here is on unaccompanied. These 19 year old conservatory students don’t use any musical instruments or accompaniment; they imitate everything with their voices. "Congo Yambumba" is a completely vocal performance of the classic rumba by Los Muñequitos De Matanzas quinto (Drum soloist) player Jesüs Alfonso. This 1992 cut shows the virtuosity that has been attained by Cuba’s musicians; something that perhaps may never be attained again. Cuba’s youth are “Articulate, literate, passionate, and fiercely musical.” as Ned Sublette’s opening liner notes state. This cut proves it beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Dan Den, led by pianist Juan Carlos Alfonso, is a trombone based dance orchestra that plays Són, etc., but again with a modern twist. Dan Den’s “Salsa” has a sabor (taste) swing and everything from elements of the blues, rock, to touches of modern technology like synths and electric drums (the timbale soloist burns with quiet fire). The 1990 "No Me Carezcas" ("Don’t jive me and hold back") features the explosive Ricardo Contreras on vocals. Alfonso’s arranging style has enough twists and turns to keep any dancer on their toes.

If Dan Den represents contemporary dance orchestras in Cuba and Irakere represents the Jazz/Latin connection then N.G. La Banda (Nueva Genaración, the band) represents these dichotomies in perfect harmony. “M + M” arrangements (Modern and to the Max) by their leader flautist José Luis Cortez are interpreted with precision, along with a rhythm section that melts steel, have made this group the talk of the island. Their interpretation of the classic "Que Viva Changó" ("Long Live Changó," Yoruba deity of thunder) features vocalist Tony Cala using Yoruba phrases, street slang, references to “big booties” of Cuban women, etc. in a vocal tour de force. The unfortunate thing is that the complete time was edited short for this release but it shows N.G. is a force to be reckoned with.

The troubadour tradition is represented by Pablo Milanés (a house hold name in Cuba) who interprets his own composition "Homenaje" ("Homage") about his own socio/political roots and Carlos Varela’s "Guillermo Tell," about youths constant conflict with the establishment, represents the Nueva Trova style. Milanés, whose songs have been interpreted all over Latin America, has added many modern elements to the troubadour style. In this tune, his trap drummer interprets a Batá rhythm know as Iyesa on the tom toms and uses it as a vehicle for the tune. The vocal chorus in Spanish is interpreted as if it were an African chant, adding to the lamentful mood of the piece. The jazz inflicted electric piano solo climaxes this 1987 excerpt.

Varela, on the other hand, completely goes the other way. His voice and his guitar are his only accompaniment. This haunting tone poem uses the William Tell legend as a framework for its message on this 1990 live concert excerpt.

Rock and Roll’s rhythmic roots have much to do with clave and Tumbao (the rhythmical glue that Cuban music is based on and the brass, conga, and piano parts that drive it). If you don’t believe it, listen to early rock and roll and its bass lines and then compare those lines to the bass lines (Tumbao’s) of Són (Salsa). This compilation comes full circle with the inclusion of the tittle track "Diablo Al Inferno" ("Devil go to hell") by one of Cuba’s Heavy Metal bands, Zeus. As Sublette states in his liner notes, “the longer you listen the more Cuban it will sound.”

This compilation, as Cubanophiles will attest, is only the tip of the iceberg as far as what’s happening in contemporary cuban music, but for the novice and collector it is a good representation. Although Cuba has been closed off from the U.S., the symbiotic relationship continues to nourish both parties involved. Who knows what will happen when the island finally opens up? The powerbrokers in Miami are already in a struggle as to who gets what. Whatever happens, the music on this album is a testimony of the greatness of a culture that is constantly in evolution. In the 1950’s if you were hip you were down with the “Cuban Cool". How many parents of the “baby boom” generation danced the Mambo/cha-cha and went to Cuba for their vacations? Thanks to people like Byrne and Sublette we get another chance before the shit hits the fan.

¡Diablo Al Infierno! Cuba Classics III, New Directions in Cuban Music

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