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Review: New Cuban Releases

by David Peñalosa

New Label! El Inspector De La Salsa (Caribe Productions)

El Inspector de la Salsa is a funny name for a record company, but the material they offer is great. Following in the footsteps of a Qbadisc, El Inspector has packaged popular Cuban music for North American consumption. What is especially enjoyable is the fact that these are new recordings. This is some of the latest music to come out of Cuba. Included in the CD booklets are the lyrics to the songs. Thank you!

NG La Banda La Que Manda

NG La Banda has for some time been considered to be the cutting-edge of Cuban popular dance music. Their blend of son Cubano, funk, and jazz is irresistible. It's no wonder that they have created quite a following both inside and outside of Cuba.

Popular dance music in Cuba has been borrowing from American pop music for decades, often coming up with some hip hybrids. However, it seems that Cuban musicians get their hands on technical innovations years after their American counterparts, and to my ears the keyboard synthesizer and synth-drum sounds I hear on current Cuban records sound dated, even silly. These sounds are part of a greater trend which has been covering Cuban dance music with a slick pop sheen. Despite such detractions, the feeling and artistry usually shine through.

Los Papines Rumba Sin Alarde

It is so wonderful to hear a new release from these rumba masters. Los Papines are the four Abreu brothers. They have been recording since the 1950s and play in a nearly telepathic manner. There are so many drums being played here at once, but because of the care invested in their tuning and the Papines rhythmical prowess, what could sound cluttered is instead a conga symphony.

Los Van Van Lo Ultimo En Vivo

Los Van Van began as an experimental charanga group which added a trombone section and played the songo feel. The group's sound has evolved into something that today is closer to NG La Banda.

This CD was recorded live in Cancun, Mexico. There must be a simpler way logistically, to record Cuban bands these days. The performance is as tight as any studio recording you are likely to hear.

The legendary Jose Luis "Changuito" Quintana has departed from the group, and now works full time as an international musical educator. Changuito's innovations with timbales and band-style congas have influenced an entire generation of Cuban percussionists. His incorporation of snare drum rudiments into conga drum technique can be heard in the playing styles of Giovanni Hidalgo and Richie Flores. (Leader and bass player) Juan Formell's son Samuel has replaced Changuito on the drumset and is doing a great job of filling some big shoes.

Pacho Alonso Y Su Kini Kini Yo Siempre Tengo Lo Que Tu' Necesitas

Talk about a slick pop music sheen. Sheesh! If I want to hear some contemporary Cuban music with an edge, I suppose I'll have to pull out my Orchesta Reve CDs. Despite my aversion to the prevalent synth-sound on this release, I still enjoyed about half the selections. (Not a bad average when it comes to my tastes.) Several songs are catchy and have funky grooves. Alonso's use of women in his chorus is an attractive element and something I'd like to hear more of.

New Label! La Cumbancha (Salsa Center)

For a time now I have had a not-so-secret fantasy of licensing some of the musical treasures stored at the Egrem archives in Havana. Some of the best music of all time resides there, and has yet to receive the international distribution (and therefore recognition) it deserves. Over the past decade, while I have been fantasizing about getting this music out, others have actually been doing it. It's been a pleasure to be able to purchase clean sounding CDs to replace my scratchy LPs or, even worse, 10th generation cassette tapes. La Cumbancha is an enjoyable series. They have obviously been mining the Egrem Studios for its musical treasures. Keep digging, there's lots more there!

Various ArtistsGuantanamera 16 Versions

Here we have 16 versions of the classic Cuban song "Guantanamera." If you love the song, you may think that you've died and gone to Guantanamera heaven when you hear this CD. On the other hand, someone else may believe that they have gone to the opposite place when they get half-way through the selections. What's next, a compilation consisting of 16 versions of "El Manicero" ("The Peanut Vendor")? Perhaps you like this sort of compilation. It actually comes in handy for my radio show gig. I can find a version of "Guantanamera" that will fit into almost any set.. Included in this CD is the original version by Joseito Fernandez. The groups represented here are good choices. The beautiful female harmonies blended with bata' drums in the Las D'Aida version is my favorite.

Orquesta Neno Gonzalez Danzones

The Orquesta Neno Gonzalez is not a group that I'm familiar with, and because of the lack of sufficient liner notes I can't tell you much about the band other than Neno Gonzalez wrote all the compositions and the musical director is Carlos Gonzalez. The danzon first appeared in the 1880s. It evolved out of the European contra danza and created quite a stir with its sensual dance and clave-based structure. Eventually the danzón orchestras evolved into the modern charanga groups who's instrumentation consists of flute, violins, (sometime cello), piano, bass, timbales and congas. Aesthetically, this CD features tight performances with crisp fidelity.

Sexteto Raison Sexteto Raison

Just as the danzón is the grandparent of modern day charanga, the son conjunto sound of Sexteto Raison represents the roots of the horn based salsa bands of today. I especially enjoyed the changui piece "Asi el Changui." Changui is an early folkloric form of the son that remains one of the funkiest musical styles in Cuba today. One of the beauties of both the Danzones and Sexteto Raison CD is that you get to hear historical music with the clarity of today's digital sound quality. [Note: This CD includes the original version of the Gilberto Santa Rosa megahit "Que Manera De Quererte, Que Manera" — Ed.]

Orquesta Reve El Ritmo Changüi,

This is a re-release of an older Orquesta Reve record. Bandleader Elio Reve says he took the changui rhythm and adapted it into his charanga orchestra. The result was a unique feel that created a large following. Orchestra Reve has recently gained a long deserved recognition internationally. The sound represented on this recording is great charanga but it's from a period that precedes the more current experimental phase that utilizes bata drums, rumba and funk.

Orquesta Maravilla De FLorida El Agua Coge Su Nivel

This is tasty Cuban charanga. Founded in 1948 in Camaguey, Orquesta Maravilla de Florida is yet another killer group from Cuba. If the only charanga groups you've heard have been those from New York like Orquesta Broadway and Tipica '73, then allow me to make a suggestion. Check this Cuban charanga out.

Orquesta Aliamen Orquesta Aliamen

Orquesta Aliamen is one the hottest charanga orchestras to ever interpret the songo rhythm. Their performances were revelations about the possibilities of blending folkloric and modern Cuban music. However, I regret that this particular release gives us just a glimpse of Aliamen's songo chops. For the most part, this CD is a well crafted set of modern (dare I say "commercial") son based material. Still, just because this isn't the ultimate recording of all time doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't get it. I found it quite enjoyable and would recommend it even above Orquesta Maravilla de Florida.

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