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Review: The Cuban All-Stars...Tata Güines Meets Angá

by Bobby Sanabria

Those of you who read the Descarga Newsletter know how music from Cuba has slowly been increasing in availability. No longer do you have to get a 4th generation cassette of Los Van Van or Original de Manzanillo from a friend of a friend whose cousin happened to be able to go to Cuba for a convention on socialized medicine because he works for the State Department, ya dig? Although the U.S. imposed embargo on Cuban exports has lasted till now, Cuba's cultural impact has been felt worldwide, especially in Europe where the music is influencing everyone from Acid Jazzers to Techno Rockers. Much of what we get here in the states originates from Euro-backed companies who have complete freedom to deal with Cuba on a business level. The German based Enja label led by Matthias Winckelmann has put out progressive jazz and Afro Cuban based jazz (Jerry Gonzalez and the Ft. Apache Band's Obatalá to give an example) for years, and now they continue the tradition with this release. The organizing of an all star session is always a precarious one. Will the players leave their egos at the entrance to the studio? Will there be an organized concept featuring the strengths of each player's style or will there just be a wild blowing free-for-all? Pasaporte answers all these questions and more with flying colors. Although this is an all-star album, its focus centers around two virtuoso Cuban congueros who represent the past, present and future of El Jicamo (the term Eastern Cubans use for the conga drum).

Tata Güines (King of Güines), whose real name is Frederico Aristides Soto, is legendary in percussion circles having participated in the legendary Descargas (Jam Sessions), organized in the late 50s by Walfredo de Los Reyes Sr. and Israel "Cachao" Lopez, where he was featured as a soloist. He has worked with a virtual who's who in Cuban dance and jazz oriented music while being the clarion for the current crop of young conga virtuosos of the island.

Miguel Diaz, a.k.a. Angá;, is an excellent representative of this contemporary school. He first came to notoriety when, in 1987, he replaced the late great Jorge "El Niño" Alfonso in the Cuban supergroup Irakere. Combining the traditions of the past with the high tech chops of today, Angá's style has received critical acclaim from congascenti worldwide. Overseeing this meeting of "Grand Master" and "Young Virtuoso" is another Irakere member, flautist/keyboardist Orlando Valle who, along with Angá, brought the project to full fruition.

"Presentación" opens up with both players in a solo spot. Tatá begins first showing off his brilliant tone on two drums. Clean and mean best describes what you'll hear. Next Angá enters on five conga drums showcasing his speed and agility. If you ask me my opinion, it's cool, but on this one the ol' Grand Master wins hands down on clarity, dynamics, tone and ideas. Age and maturity have their advantages. Next a fast stop time ensemble passage follows the conga overture signaling a breakneck rumba/descarga over a 24 bar minor blues theme Valle wrote to showcase Angá.

Benny Moré's "Rumberos de Ayer" features the legendary sonero (singer of són) Raul Planas singing about some of Cubas's greatest rumberos (Chano Pozo, Malanga, etc.). Planas, who is supposedly in his 80s, simply kills with the regal quality of his voice. Angá is again featured on congas, but it is Planas who steals this one.

"Descarga Pa'Gozar" at first starts out as just a classic fast, dominant seventh chord mambo with a simple melody, but Cesar Lopez on soprano, Carlos Del Puerto (Irakere's bassist), Tatá on congas and Angá on timbales take burning solos that are supported by Frank Emilio Enrique's piano playing. He's influenced a whole generation of keyboardists. Charanga flute master Richard Egues opening flute, and subsequent solo work, brilliantly showcases the style.

Calixto Callavas classic rumba "Donde Va Mulata?" is a showcase for Tatá Güines' mastery of the rumba vocabulary on congas, along with a transition combining both rumba with batá drums. Ernesto Gatel's voice along with Guillermo Pompa on tres and, yet another bassist from the legendary Lopez family, Orlando Lopez "Cachaito" add the final touch.

"Angá", another Valle composition, opens with another fusionesque intro segueing into a son-funk-tuno blues melody with a nicely added harmonic twist. Valle's writing is great on two levels. It's appealing to the pop-jazz crowd but it's not stupid. It is musically challenging and, in this case, based on two traditions; blues and, of course, also Afro-Cuban rhythm. Like Miguel Angá himself, the tune is hip and funky (check out the batá section). Juan Munguía on trumpet (another Irakere-ite) excels, and there's some nice dialogue between Angá and bassist Del Puerto who close out the tune. Oh, by the way, I failed to mention that Angá performs also on drumset - very tasty and, above all, funky.

The Chano Pozo composition, "Blem, Blem, Blem," features another legendary vocalist, Merceditas Valdés. Although the tune is a classic and is a deserving tribute to Chano's influence, it goes nowhere other than to feature Merceditas. "Tata Se Ha Vuelto Loco" features another meeting of older and younger generations. Estanilao Sureda "Laito" is featured on vocals on this rumba/guaracha that takes off in the montuno featuring both Laito and Tata. Unfortunately, Tata is not really given a complete feature here which could have really made the tune explode.

"La Clave de los Primeros" features the vocals of the young Moisés (aka "Yumurí") Valle on this guaracha/rumba that, in its lyrics, affirms "the clave is from Cuba and from here came the first who played rumba and són." Angá is featured on a brief but brilliant timbale solo. The tune being the final number, one would think that a blistering interchange between both Angá and Tatá would occur, but other than mentioning Tatá, he is nowhere to be heard. My guess is that scheduling conflicts permitted only a few brief encounters.

Although this album supposedly focuses on Tata and Angá, it is clearly a vehicle for Miguel 'Angá' Diaz. Nothing wrong with that. He thought of the concept and deserves the credit for putting a musically challenging yet listener friendly album together that showcases his talents and pays tribute to a legacy that is rich. We need more like Miguel who are great players but also have musicality. Kudos to Enja who put together a beautiful package from the artwork to the bilingual liner notes, which give some brief yet accurate info on the players. Take note: This is a dance record as much as it is a Latin jazz record. As it says on the back cover (which is made to look like a Cuban cigar box): "The Surgeon General Warns: Listening to this music can cause unexpected dance fever." So pilgrim, make sure you pick up your Pasaporte!

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