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Various Artists, Cuban Counterpoint: History of Son Montuno CD

Review: Cuban Counterpoint: History Of Son Montuno

by Diane Gordon

The roots of virtually all Latin dance music are deep in Cuban soil. Cuban Counterpoint: History Of Son Montuno traces these roots back to their Spanish and African origins in the Cuban countryside with extensive commentary by Latin music authority Morton Marks. This recent Rounder Records release includes twenty two cuts of definitive material from field recordings to early works by towering figures of Cuban music, such as Arsenio Rodriguez.

The Son, which originated in the Oriente province of the eastern part of Cuba, was a group of guitar and percussion instruments that was a precursor to modern Cuban music. Son Montuno, from the Spanish word "monte", for mountain, refers to the hard-driving style so named for the repeating call and response montuno section, an essential part of modern Latin music. The guajeo, the piano vamp characteristic to Latin music, also called montuneando, derived from son montuno.

It's tempting to compare Cuban Counterpoint with the much-touted Robert Johnson tapes released by Columbia Records two years ago. The compilations present seminal music that spearheaded two important styles of African American music: the blues and the Cuban son. But Cuban music has always been a synthesis of African and European elements, made possible, in part, by strong similarities between musical styles of West Africa and Spain. As Marks points out, early sones played by the Spanish tobacco growers, called guajiros, included a montuno section showing that cross-fertilization began from the beginning of Cuban colonization.

The Latin continuum, a phrase coined by Latin music expert John Storm Roberts, is clearly evident here. Included is early work by Celia Cruz and Israel "Cachao" Lopez, two major figures of Cuban music still at the forefront today, with the Sonora Mantancera, one of the most important pioneering conjuntos established in 1924.

Then there's some cuts by the Cachao All Stars, lead by the man who introduced the descarga, the jazz styled jam session to Havana in the '50s, thereby setting the stage for the mambo craze of Europe and the Americas. And Latin bass playing would not exist without this man.

Cuban Counterpoint: History Of Son Montuno is essential listening and reading for Latin music aficionados, with precious few reservations. It would of been nice to have some music of the 81 year old and still active Mario Bauza, the key connection between Cuban music and American jazz. Also, there is only passing mention in the otherwise exhaustive and authoritative notes about what is most essential - clave - the ubiquitous five-beat pattern that is the rhythmic backbone of all Cuban music. The concept of playing in clave is so ingrained to the Cuban ear that musicians report that to play "cruzao," or out of clave, will cause dancers to stray off the floor.

Otherwise, Cuban Counterpoint is a magnificent and important document of Cuban music.n

(Editor's Note: We would like to thank Beat Magazine for permission to publish this review)

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