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Review: The Return Of Africando: Tierra Tradicional -- Also Reviewed: Cheito Quiñones: Cheito

by George De Stefano

La música Cubana, performed by Cubans or not, in diluted forms or full strength, has been a steady current feeding North American and international popular music for most of the twentieth century. But lately it seems to be enjoying one of its sporadic bursts of greater popularity.

Gloria Estefan's Mi Tierra won a Grammy and has been the top-selling Latin title since its release nearly a year ago. The Estefans, Gloria and her producer-husband Emilio, assembled a gorgeous collection of boleros, són montunos, guaguancós, and danzones that evoked and honored a glorious past, but never devolved into a nostalgia trip. (Less happily, the 1992 Latin Grammy went to Linda Ronstadt for her Cuban outing, Frenesi.)

And thanks to Ned Sublette's Qbadisc releases, recent music from Cuba has become widely available in the international pop marketplace.

Further evidence of the inextinguishable vitality of Cuban idioms comes with two new releases — Tierra Tradicional, the second installment of the Latino-Africano collaboration known as Africando, and Cheito, the debut of Miami-based singer/trumpeter Cheito Quiñonez.

Tierra Tradicional comes from the same sessions that produced Trovador (volume one), but part two is no plate of tepid leftovers. It's as picante, and satisfying, as its predecessor. Producer Ibrahima Sylla and arranger Boncana Maiga, both of Senegal, took six singers — fellow Senegalese Pape Seck, Nicholas Menheim, and Medoune Diallo, plus salsa stalwarts Adalberto Santiago, Yayo el Indio, and Ronnie Baro, and backed them with an orquesta featuring some of New York's best Latin musicians, including flautist Eddie Zervigon, pianist Sergio George, and saxists José "Chombo" Silva and Mario Rivera. The recipes come largely from the Cuban cookbook, but there are Puerto Rican and Mexican flavors, too. Add Wolof seasonings, and you've got a multicultural stew so sabroso that by comparison much contemporary salsa tastes like oatmeal.

Just like volume one, the new jam hooks you from the first bars of the first track — a reworking of one of my favorite Cuban songs, Guillermo Portabales' "El Carretero," that the Africandistas call "Ken Moussoul Guiss Li." Medoune Diallo's nasal tenor and Ronnie Baro's baritone make a piquant pairing, while Chombo Silva's urgent tenor sax raises the drama level.

The title track is immediately recognizable as Beny Moré's "Cienfuegos" (on these "reinterpretations" of old material songwriting credits really should be shared with the sources); Nicholas Menheim sings the verses of this praise song to his homeland in Wolof and the coro heartily replies in Spanish.

Yay Boy lets Pape Seck unleash his big, scary growl of a voice (he sounds like a Senegalese cousin of American bluesman Howlin' Wolf) and the great Eddie Zervigon blows one of his biting, rhythmically in-the-pocket solos. Zervigon, along with violinist Felix Farrar, also shines on Sama Rew, a driving són that provides some of Tierra Tradicional's most exhilarating moments. Sama Thiel, Pape Seck's other featured number, takes off from El Gran Combo. Seck improvises first in Spanish, then in Wolof, while saxist Mario Rivera goads the ensemble with fiery soprano obbligatos.

The crosscultural layering gets denser on "Sabador" — it's a Mexican folk song, "La Bamba," first popularized internationally as Tex-Mex rock 'n roll, now Afro-Cubanized and sung in accented Spanish by a Senegalese, Nicholas Menheim. This spirited blend works so well that the too-familiar tune seems reinvented.

Tierra Tradicional closes with a (superfluous) re-mix of the title track, but the climax is the next-to-last number, "Ndiabaane," seven-minutes plus in which Africanismo reaches its apogee. Diallo's fluid, Islamic-flavored microtonal sonerismo, the coro of African and Latino voices in all their exuberant glory, Chombo Silva's tenor flights, Sergio George's fierce comping on piano: what a great fucking idea this project was!

Think of Cheito as El Hijo de Mi Tierra. Produced by Emilio Estefan, the debut of Cheito Quiñonez, who sang coros on Gloria's blockbuster, features some of the same musicians and songwriters. And like its progenitor, Cheito is a canny mix of the traditional and the contemporary. Estefan's production makes use of synthesized string sections and electronic percussion, but he also gives you acoustic guitar by Juanito Marquez (one of the stars of Mi Tierra) and Quiñonez's distinctly Cuban trumpet stylings.

Marquez's bolero, "Tu y Yo" creates a Cuban ambience with its gentle guitar and piano guajeo and Quiñonez's plaintive rendering of the poetic lyrics. Even better is "Te Juro," whose composer, Estefan, brings to Cheito's party what he brought to Mi Tierra: a song so drenched in Cuban tradition you're sure you've heard it somewhere, sometime before, but not a measure of it sounds hackneyed. Quiñonez's vocal here, as on several other tracks, evokes Ismael Miranda, with a bit of Héctor Lavoe.

"Tu Territorio" — co-written by Roberto Blades, Ruben's brother — is an ingratiating slice of Puerto Rican-style salsa romantica, with an appealing chorus and a sweet metaphor of the singer-as-immigrant pleading for a "pasaporte" to his lover's heart.

Of the uptempo tracks, Quiñonez does a credible Joe Arroyo impression on the rollicking "El Baile de la Vela." "Baila Sonero" and "Contrapunto Musical" are just what their titles suggest: well-played and zesty, if lightweight, dance music.

Cheito Quiñonez, on the evidence of his first recording as a leader, is not an original or even very distinctive voice. But he is an engaging entertainer who knows one way to seguir la tradicion: honor the roots, but freshen them, too. And, if you can, get el maestro de Miami to be your producer.

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