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3/31/99

Descarga's arbiter of taste rolls up his sleeves, sharpens his pencil, and gives you the information you need to make smart purchases.


Abel's Picks, Part II




Willie Rosario
Unique

Although this is a romantic salsa album, Mr. Afinque didn't go belly-up in a sea of saccharine slop like so many other hardcore salseros trying to stay with these times that dictate that bands play estrogenic, emasculated music. The percussion still pops and the horns swing with Rosario's trademark baritone sax/trumpet combination. And the singers--Bernie Pérez, Josue Rosado and Primi Cruz--all solid pros, put energy and verve into the songs, sounding lyrical and smooth without bleating or moaning. I especially recommend "Vicio," "Cuando Quieras" and "Físico," but the album overall has solid tunes; it's not like you're buying a third of an album. In general, a nice little pickup.


Machito And His Afro-Cubans
Mucho Mucho Machito

Thoroughly enjoyable release by one of Latin music's heavyweights. Here Machito offers up a bit of everything, ranging from cheerful guarachas like "El Guardia con el Tolete" to a great version of "Tanga," the Latin jazz classic, not to mention edged uptempo tunes like "Yo Soy la Rumba." Machito also bookends some pretty boleros with Graciela on vocals and leaves us with "Entre Juanito y José," one of those raunchy little numbers Graciela was famous for (like "Sí, Sí, No, No" and "No Voy Más Contigo al Cine"). The only problem with this album is that it's short compared to contemporary releases. Sometimes it feels like the tune ends just when youre getting into it. But that can't be helped; back then, songs averaged about 2 or 3 minutes. But don't worry about getting your money's worth. Machito and his Afro-Cubans can do more in that short span of time than most contemporary cats can in 10. Believe me, this big band swang (I dont think swing has a past participle, but it should) its collective ass off, and just happens to be an influence on nearly anybody who's anybody in this music. Just ask Eddie Palmieri, Manny Oquendo, Cheo Feliciano or even el Rey Tito Puente himself at a gig. They will all tell you proudly that they were influenced by Machito, and what's more, they'd tell you to buy this album. So, if you're a neophyte, scoop it up; this album will show others you're a collector of discerning taste and go a long way in developing your Latin music palate. If you're not a neophyte and don't own this album, shame on you. There's only one way to be absolved of that particular sin, and a good hard listen is probably the most enjoyable penance you could do.


Chocolate Armenteros
Chocolate Caliente

Choco's always omnipotent horn lines team up with Willie García's amazing vocals to create a powerhouse album. The playing is superb throughout. It's not exactly a salsa album, nor is it a traditional Cuban conjunto album. You definitely hear both sounds throughout, and it's a delightful mix. "La mula" is all groove and flavor. The song says nothing, but who cares? Warning: in your car, this song could be dangerous. If you crank it up enough, before you know it, you may find yourself doing over 100 m.p.h. just to properly accompany the high-octane melodies and rhythms. And it just goes on from there. "Sigan la Clave" is another wicked dance tune with a short but nice conga solo. "Retozón" is modernized conjunto flavor, the spirit of Cuba transplanted (and flourishing) in New York. "Que se Sepa" was a revelation to me. I thought that Apollo Sound did the definitive version on Apollo Sound 6, but Chocolate and crew do a completely different and perhaps even more powerful take on this tune. This tune is another one that will cause you to speed on the highway. The album also includes a couple of boleros, and Willie shows he's more than a belter, dripping a bit of honey on "Estoy Enamorado" and "Comprensión" to go along with Choco's classic, 50s-sounding runs. The only flaw I can see is "Hot Chocolate," an ill-advised foray into disco. But you can skip that tune with a push of a button or actually play it if you feel like a laugh. And remember, this was released in 1975, a year when you were probably wearing some sort of ugly, double-knit flammable material and grooving to "That's the Way, Uh-Huh, Uh-Huh I Like It." So since you're probably not without sin in this regard, instead of casting the first stone you can scoop this one up; the rest of the album is more than worth it.


Willie Colón
Canciones del Solar de Los Aburridos

Fine collaboration between Salsa's Dynamic Duo before they went their separate ways only to reunite again in Tras la Tormenta. The music, arrangements and playing are all classic New York salsa swinging trombones, interlocked rocking percussion and a cheerful energy sorely missed in today's music. Rubén's songs have less of a sociopolitical edge on this recording. The focus seems to be more on just having fun, but as is usual with Rubén and Willie, the songs aren't mindless or silly; they all have thought behind them. "Tiburón" is the most political tune, a pointed attack on U.S. imperialism. "Te Están Buscando" is a humorous son montuno about somebody who made the wrong people angry and "Madame Kalalú" is a funny number that goofs on a crooked fortune teller. "El Telefonito" is also light-hearted. It's about a guy whose phones keep ringing with calls from a certain girl. "Ligia Elena" is about a girl who runs off with a black musician, scandalizing her upper-crust family. I liked its racism critique and tricky rhythm changes as it goes from danzón to son montuno to chachachá. "Y Deja" is a romantic oldie from the crack composing team Piloto y Vera that has a bossa nova feel and is more of a crooning turn for Rubén. "¿De Qué?" finishes things things off; it's a popping merengue with what sounds like some comparsa thrown in that backs a message about materialism. Overall, an excellent addition to the CD rack.


Willie Colón
La Gran Fuga

One of the cornerstones of any serious collector's collection. This album has a classic cover design by Izzy Sanabria that looks like a wanted poster. It features a mugshot of Willie Colón (looking pretty desperate) and an FBI (Freaks Bureau of Investigation, of course) warning from one J. Edgar González. On the back, the bandmembers are scaling a wall on their way to freedom. In CD form, it's obviously not going to have the same impact. But cover aside, you'll still get the great music from a bunch of young lions. "Ghanae" is a hybrid tune combining some 6/8 and bomba with some assorted other genres mixed in. While not profound, youll soon be hooked in to the catchy chorus. The rest of the album features a raw, strong sound backing Héctor Lavoe, who at that time was a rising star. You'll see why on this recording. He brings his usual jibaro-influenced stylings to the tunes, dropping in wry soneos and (like a true sonero) quoting bits of popular songs to fit them in whatever song he happens to be singing, as he does in "Sigue Feliz," which, by the way, features Jose Mangual Jr. playing some popping bongó over congas in the guaguancó intro.
Other things to listen for on this album are the lyrics. Even in his early twenties, Willie Colón always recorded intelligent material that said something. It was never the dance till you drop themes that often dominated salsa years ago. I suppose this is why this album stands the test of time and gets the nod as being a classic. I'll give you a for instance: "Abuelita" is more than likely a homage to the grandmother who raised Colón, but it's also a nod to all of those Latina wise women who schooled so many of us with love, tradition, home remedies and refranes (as the song points out), which are the popular (and ever true) sayings handed down from generation to generation.
Other tunes I recommend include "Pa Colombia," a tasty son montuno, and "No Cambiaré," a bolero son where Lavoe shows off a bit more of his versatility.
If you're used to the hyper-polished, computer-digital sound of today's salsa, the hardcore wailing of the band may put you off a bit at first. Trust me, just hit repeat on your CD player. This is the real deal, full of rhythm changes that occur at the drop of a conga slap and a street level assault from the two trombones. If any of your synapses fire correctly, the full flavor of this album will eventually kick in and regale you. If this doesn't happen, I suggest you not bother with salsa and just start buying Julie Andrews albums.


Willie Colón
Metiendo Mano

The first collaboration between two legends, back when they were just another couple of young lions on the scene. After you finish wondering why the hell they allowed chicken-chested Rubén Blades to pose on the cover with no shirt on, you will guaranteed groove to the combination of Willie Colón production and Ruben's powerful pen. They don't mess around, either: the first tune is the haunting "Pablo Pueblo," a song about one guy who obviously symbolizes all of the downtrodden in Latin America and the U.S., coming home with their heads down with no future awaiting them. "Plantación Adentro" is a searing condemnation of racism and exploitation, and "La Maleta" is a funny look at an immigrant's life in New York. I also dug "Según el Color," a song about perspective with a surprisingly intricate arrangement that jumps from salsa to bomba while Yomo Toro throws down his cuatro licks and the vocalists employ some jíbaro-style voicings. What surprised me about this album was Rubén's ability as a bolerista. He has recorded very few boleros in his career, but obviously has skills with this genre. For instance, check out his melancholic, moody version of the Frank Domínguez classic "Me Recordarás." He's not going to put Luis Miguel on the unemployment line, don't get me wrong. But he does come off and show us some deft phrasing. Other standout tunes include all the other songs I didn't mention, this one has no throwaway tracks, folks. Great tunes, great production, great arrangements, great playing. Did I leave out the part about this album being great? Again, another automatic shopping cart stuffer. Your sense of personal aesthetics will be eternally grateful.


Willie Colón
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

This one isn't one of those classic 70s roof-is-on-fire-let's-dance-until-our-flares-and-platforms-spontaneously-combust kind of albums. Willie takes some different directions with this one, all of them provocative. One of the biggest is bringing in other elements to vary what was then his standard two trombone guapo sound. He uses saxes, Brazilian percussion and even electric guitars, mixing things up so much you almost feel like you're listening to several groups instead of one. "Toma" starts us off with Willie on vocals, doing a good job. I like this song's Spanish (from Spain) flavor; some of the lines remind me of flamenco music. "Potpourri III" (where are Potpourri I and II, I wonder?) is a bomba-plena medley where the band moves flawlessly from groove to groove and Héctor Lavoe shows off his mastery of Puerto Rican folkloric music. He continues in this vein with "Que Bien Te Ves," a jíbaro song in which Héctor sings a tribute to Chuíto, one of the great jíbaro singers, even imitating Chuíto's style. A revealing tune that shows Héctor's important influences and underscores one of his main contributions to salsa, which was bringing a distinctly Puerto Rican flavor to the singing. "El Cazangero" features Rubén Blades on vocals, back when he was still with Ray Barretto's band, and it's a stirring indictment of repression in Latin America. From a musical standpoint, it brings in some Brazilian flavor by using a cuica or talking drum and then jumps into a more New York mambo kind of groove when the horns kick in; again, not your typical salsa arrangement and quite refreshing. Brazil also pops up in "Cua Cua Ru, Cua Cua," a bossa nova where Willie sings again. These are some of Willie's first efforts as a singer, and it's very interesting to hear these tunes in comparison to his current hits. He's not going to rock your world with his voice, but he has flavor and comes off, and, like Héctor, adds boricua sazón to salsa vocal stylings. Another fun tune for me was "Guaracha," which starts off as an old-fashioned Cuban son sung by Willie and later segues into jíbaro-style music, showing the similarities and differences between the music of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Then it seems to mesh them together when the montuno starts, creating a compelling mix.
If, like a good salsa junkie, you're seeking the usual adrenaline rush, you may be disappointed in this one. However, if you are willing to be more patient and take the time to give it a good listen, I think you'll enjoy this experimental sample of Willie Colon sabor.


Monguito Santamaría
En Una Nota!

C'est magnifique salsa album from conga legend Mongo Santamaría's piano-playing son. Héctor Casanova sang lead and did a masterful turn on this recording. "Ñe-Ñe" is a power tune dedicated to Obatalá, one of the main Yoruba deities who is worshipped in Cuba and in other countries in Latin América. "Devuélveme la Voz" continues the Santería motif, but in a funny, catchy way. It's about a guy begging Changó, the god of the drum and music, for his voice back. The chorus is guaranteed to stick to your skull and lift your spirits all day. The sabor doesn't stop there. Other great tunes include "Ven a Guarachar," "Oye lo que Digo," "Apariencia Na Ma" (where Casanova tears apart a boastful pretender with sardonic glee) and "Arriverderci Roma," a joyful little rumbón composed by Justi Barretto. While not as percussively booming as the version of this tune on Lo Dice Todo by Grupo Folklórico y Experimental Neoyorquino, Monguito and the crew still rock you with energy and masacote. You can't go wrong with this one, it exemplifies why we all listen to this music: energy, life, humor, groove. The musical equivalent of good rum and a good cigar at the end of a long day. So have a drink and light up.


La Sonora Ponceña
Tiene Pimienta

This is classic Sonora Ponceña. Although I'm no Ferris Bueller, I faked being sick to get out of work and ended up at a record shop buying this and Sabor Sureño, two great excuses to play hooky. The title track bristles with the energy and swing that make this band from Puerto Rico's southern pearl one of the all time greats. "La Montaña del Oso" is an old-fashioned, tight son montuno, and the fellas have a ball (and make sure you do too) with the humorous guarachita "La Fiesta no es para Feos." For a moment they get mellow with "Alguien Me Habló" and "No Me Quieras Tanto," two nice boleros. The former shows off Miguelito Ortiz's skills and has an interesting use of trap drums to give it a touch of funk, which sounds unusual in contrast to the traditional horn lines by the brass section. My favorite tune on this album is the chestnut "Mayeya." Papo Lucca and crew do a powerful reinterpretation of this one, energizing it with the classic rough 70s salsa sound. Listen close to Luigi Texidor's vocals on this one; they show off his virtuosity as a sonero. More flavor follows "Mayeya" with the son montuno "Hachero sin Hacha," the salsified son "Tumba Mabo" and "Homenaje a las Gordas." This tongue in cheek tribute to, shall we say, full-figured women, rounds out the album with verve, good-natured humor and badass playing. This is like Siembra, Apollo Sound 6, Planté Bandera, Barretto, Indestructible, and Concepts in Unity, to name a few: it's an automatic pickup.


La Sonora Ponceña
Músical Conquest / Conquista Músical

This was one of Ponceña's biggest albums, created back when "popular" and "great" in music were not mutually exclusive terms. Some of the biggest hits were "Bomba Carambomba" and "Ñañarai Cai." The latter was an old Cuban tune given the Ponceña treatment. Papo Lucca and the guys have always done this, dusting off old Cuban compositions and finding multiple new shades of sabor in them. This tune is no exception to this, popping with the horns, percussion and Luigi's rock-the-house vocals. "Bomba Carambomba" is another typical Ponceña tune designed to jump start your central nervous system with a concentrated dose of sabor, so you might as well shoot up; it's addictive, but completely non-toxic. "Canto al Jibarito" is a spare bomba with slick breaks and a brief interlude of Latin funk that sounds like 70s songo. "La Llave" is my favorite tune off this album, a slinky son montuno where Luigi Texidor shows off his improvisational prowess. "Esta es Venuezuela" sounds like a merengue, but a friend explained to me that it's actually a joropo, typical Venezuelan music. The lyrics aren't going to exactly overwhelm you with their depth, but it is a nice tribute to that country. Very unusual tune because of the rhythm and even features a strange percussion solo. "El Tiempo" is the requisite bolero that you always have on albums from the 60s and 70s, something we almost never see today. Very nice except for some oo-ooo squishy harmonies that I could have done without. Other standout tunes inlcude two more hits, "Pollera Colorá" and "El Pío Pío," which is about a guy who goes to the country to get away from it all and finds the noise is worse than the city. A huge hit that Ponceña still performs to this day in a medley. All of these great numbers and playing combine to create an album that's standard issue for salseros.


La Sonora Ponceña
Guerreando

Personally, this is the last Ponceña album I loved from stem to stern. The singers alternate old-fashioned soneando ("Laye Laye," "Trabajando") with a sophisticated lyricism ("Cuando te encontré," "Causas y azares"). The arrangements are Papo Lucca's stellar best. He works those weaving trumpet lines, always challenging your ear with fresh melodies, plus adds the modern touch of a synthesizer without losing the street-level Ponceña flavor.
And like always, the rhythm is rocking, led by las manos prodigiosas de Jorge Padilla, who especially shines on "Laye Laye." Besides the hardcore stuff that makes them great (like the tasty son montuno "A Guava No") la Ponceña also does the romantic thing on this album, giving a hip, driving twist to "Te Regalaré," which was originally a tune from NG la Banda done in a rather sappy way. Ponceña manages to find the swing hidden in the tune and will surely get it popping on your stereo. In general, a reminder that lo bueno es bueno, y siempre será, just like my abuelita used to say.


Ismael Rivera
Ismael Rivera Y Su Cachimbos - Controversia

Produced by Tito Puente, this album has that tight, big-band sound that characterizes the work of El Rey. Most of the album consists of up-tempo dance tunes, mostly guarachas and mambos as far as I can tell. Short tunes, but a lot of fun. "Compay Guito" is about a little old man who enjoys telling tall tales and "Cordero y Belmonte" celebrates two famous Puerto Rican jockeys, Ángel Cordero and Eddie Belmonte. "Controversia," the title track, starts off as a guaguancó where Maelo shows off his mastery of the rumba genre, then dips into a rocking guaracha where he turns up the heat in a different musical direction. "Gulliver" has nothing to do with the Jonathan Swift character. Instead, it's a funky little dance number with catchy little choruses and Maelo's usual rousing vocals. No real surprises with the arrangments or playing; the tunes are set up and played in a generally straightforward, Puentified way to show off Maelo. Aspiring soneros should definitely buy this album. While he doesn't get very profound with the inspiraciones he shoots out between choruses, Rivera's real genius on this album comes from his phrasing, the way he starts and stops or repeats lines, nimbly dancing around the clave the entire time. And, of course, non-soneros who give it a close listen will also pick up on this and enjoy Rivera's style, which is light years removed from the simpering soundalike singing sycophants you hear in today's music. A short album by modern CD standards, but like all of the greats, Maelo packs and stacks sabor in a very small amount of time. The kind of album you never get tired of and can always pop in and enjoy, id est, a classic. A great addition to any serious aficionado's musical library.


Ismael Rivera
Esto Fue Lo Que Trajo El Barco

A classic album released in a decade full of classic recordings. Javier Vásquez's old school arrangements lay a nice background for El Brujo de Borinquen to work his usual magic. Track one is a funky rumbified tune whose lyrics confuse me to this day, something about a monkey who apparently can talk and whose corn gets eaten by a bird. If you can somehow interpret this and get some meaning out of it, or even more impossible, social commentary, I will nominate you to the Nobel committee for a prize in something, 'cause you'll deserve it. Crazy lyrics aside, this little rumbita is still fun because you hear El Sonero Mayor's rapidfire soneos over a percolating rhythm. "Dime Por Qué" was the big hit off this album, though I can't see why. Maelo is just begging some woman to tell him why she left over okay, but not popping, music. Plus there's no montuno so you hear no improv (yawn). But that's just me, you might like it. What I got into was "La Vaca Lechera" and "La Manía de Tu Mujer," both witty dance tunes. Another favorite was "San Miguel Arcángel," where los Cachimbos (Rivera's band) lay down a funky framework for Maelo to again bedazzle us with his verbal poetry expertise. He never fails to amaze you with the way he thinks on his feet in the middle of the tune. Obviously, you can't tell what was rehearsed and what wasn't, but if Maelo wasn't spontaneously making up his soneos, he sure makes it sound like he was, a talent that escapes today's crop of overrehearsed, hairsprayed pretty boys the labels are propping up against microphones. Anyway, those perdidos aside, Maelo kicks it on the rest of this album with "La Gata Montesa," a strong son montuno that features a nice interplay between Maelo and Patato on conga. He also throws us curveballs of introspection and romance, respectively, on "Incomprendido" and "Hasta Mañana," and finishes up burning through "Traigo Salsa" another big hit off this seminal work.


Ismael Rivera
Lo Ultimo En La Avenida: Con Kako Y Su Orquesta

Back when I started collecting records, this is one of those records my friend and musical mentor Salsa Chino just jammed into my hands one day at Casa Latina. He didn't say anything. It was just understood that I would not leave the store without this album. If you don't have it, I must be your personal Salsa Chino and thrust this CD into your hands. However, I'll be a bit more explicit as to why you not leave this web site without it.
First of all, the arrangements keep you on the edge of your proverbial seat. Kako and the crew throw in surprises all the time, like the way they jump start the mellow son montuno "Mi Negrita me Espera" and go into hyperspace in the middle of "Moti Agua."
And when they're not surprising you, they're rocking your world with kickass playing, burning through "El Cumbanchero," the aforementioned "Moti Agua" (in which the tempo seems to be doubled in about a nanosecond), "El Truquito" and "Siete Pies Bajo la Tierra."
Also, Maelo conducts a clinic on how to be a sonero on this album, blazing through son montunos, guaguancós and guarachas with his usual verve, quick wit and incredible phrasing.
Finally, the songs are well-written and touch on a lot of themes: the slice of life country tune "Mi Negrita me Espera" (a song that reminds me of my late grandfather's tales of trips through the Galician countryside late at night); "Cantar Maravilloso," a song that reflects the misogynism and street life of the Havana barrios from which it sprang; and "Entierro a la Moda," where Maelo describes (in chilling yet amusing fashion) how he wants his funeral to be.
So, to sum up, like you're supposed to do at the end of reviews, you'll probably love this album. If you don't, this could be a symptom of a serious musical, physical or mental problem (for instance, hearing loss, mental illness, poor taste), so seek professional help.


Tito Rodríguez
Estoy Como Nunca

A comeback album for the master, back when some felt he was finished. Very strange. Anyone who listens to Tito for more than a couple of minutes instantly realizes how great he was, so as long as he had his voice, why would he need a comeback in the first place? On this one, Tito is backed up by his superb big band, which always plays tight, strong and perfectly in sync with his silky vocal stylings. Highlights include the excellent title track, a smooth reworking of the standard "Bilongo" and his usual stellar job on boleros like "Estamos en Guerra." You'll also enjoy "Buscando la Melodía," a nice chachachá, "Se Va el Manguero" and "El Agua de Belén." Tito was not an aggressive belter like a lot of the great ones, nor did he have the stiletto wit and nimbleness of a Héctor Lavoe. His talent was adapting tunes to his style, often to the point where no one else could sing them. This is especially true with his boleros like "Mío" and "Inolvidable," which all singers should stay away from. And, even more interesting, this is true with his uptempo numbers. He had a knack for taking rough-Afro Cuban numbers and smoothing them out to where he was practically crooning them. But don't misunderstand. I'm not talking about Pat Boone doing a lifeless cover of a Little Richard tune. Tito was smooth while keeping a sonero's edge, to my knowledge the only singer who has been able to do this successfully. Evidence of this includes one of the songs I mentioned, "Bilongo," and also "Empego Naroco," which as an added bonus features a nice bongó solo by Manny Oquendo. Another of Tito's talents was phrasing. He instinctively knew how much weight to give lyrics, and, even with a song like "El Manguero," a rather simple song, he imbues it with meaning. Other enjoyable tunes include the mellow chachachá "Modulando" and "Carnaval en Caracas," a guaracha with that powerful big band sound you can't help but crank. So feel free to annoy (or perhaps regale, if they have any sort of aesthetic sensibility) your neighbors with Tito's classic sound....


Roberto Roena Y Su Apollo Sound
El Progreso

This is the last great Apollo Sound album. I have bought Roena albums after this one, but this was the last one where I had my usual Apollo Sound reactions: exhilaration coupled with a humble appreciation of the power that great musicians wield and also gratitude that they share it with us so willingly.
El Progreso is a continuation of what made Apollo Sound great. For one, the tight ensemble playing, plus the slick rhythm and tempo changes, unexpected riffs, surprise instruments poking their heads into certain numbers, and well-written songs. They take Celeste Mendoza's woman-done wrong guaguancó "Se Pierde en Esta Vida" and turn it into a contemporary, popping dance number called "Contigo No Quiero Na," only this time, it was the man who gets done wrong. The same theme goes into "Guaguancó del Adiós," which, of course, isn't a guaguancó. But it is a compelling dance number with high energy playing perfect for twirling around your favorite partner. "Viva Cortijo" is pure Puerto Rican sabor in tribute to the legendary percussionist and granddaddy of boricua funk, Rafael Cortijo, who also was Roberto's musical mentor. "El Progreso" is probably the best-written song on the album. It discusses a theme relevant then and now, the environment, and instead of a dance arrangement, Roberto and the boys play a strong yet understated backup that lets the singer and song (and don't worry, it's not a preachy hemp-clothes tree-hugging kind of song) shine. Smart, but that was to be expected from this band, the salsa equivalent of the 1950s New York Yankees. Like Apollo Sound's 5 through 9, this one is a must-have. It exemplifies not just the energy and joie de vivre of Latin music, but also the creative side, the side that challenges the listener. This is especially refreshing today, when so much salsa music is dumbed down more than an Adam Sandler movie. The best part is that all it takes is the press of a button and an open ear to raise your musical IQ.


Roberto Roena Y Su Apollo Sound
La Octava Maravilla

Maybe not the eighth wonder of the world that the title proclaims it to be, but a great salsa album nonetheless. "Rico guaguancó" starts things off impressively, captivating listeners with the tight playing and groove. People try to reproduce this kind of thing today with computers and sampling, but no technology can replace the cohesiveness of a well-rehearsed band where the musicians alternately feed and feed off each other to breathe life into a number. The groove continues on the harder-edged "Amistad Barata" and "Para Ser Rumbero," smoking old-school salsa that almost makes you nostalgic for wide lapels and canvas Converse sneakers. Sandwiched in between is a bolero-son called "Una Mañana," a little gem that might get by you because of the power tunes that overshadow it. "No lo Corras" is a shift into an enjoyable charanga style-number with some pumped Cachete batá licks and "Apollo Theme" features a musical maelstrom where Roberto and crew show off their music-shifting skills, jumping from rhythm to rhythm with ease. "Mañana es Domingo" is a chachachá with some son montuno. It's actually hard to figure out what genre it is, and Roberto probably made the song ambiguous on purpose to cross up knuckleheads like me. In any case, it's full of sharp stop-on-a-dime breaks, swinging horns and Miguel Rodríguez adds the musical cherry on top with his flute solo. "Quisiera Tener" is an okay bolero that didn't knock my socks off, but then the crew finishes strong with "Hora Cero," a song about mankind's evil. Potent lyrics over potent music. It actually sounds a bit strange to hear the heavy lyrics over the joyful percussion and horns, but overall still a lot of fun. Another great 70s pick you should have in the stacks.


Orquesta Revé
Mi Salsa Tiene Sandunga

This mixes together a couple of Revé albums, Suave, Suave and Mi Salsa Tiene Sandunga. However, don't let that stop you. That last track alone is worth the purchase price. Revé and crew tear through a warp speed changüí that shouts out to salseros in the U.S. and Puerto Rico like Willie Colón, Cheo Feliciano and Rubén Blades. "Aquí Todo Se Resuelve" is another typical Revé dance number, slower paced but still streetwise, that puts a happy face on resolviendo, which means finding a way to get what you need; this is something of an art form in Castro's Cuba. "Llegó el Changüí" is exactly what it says, the changüí has arrived, let's all dance. But with its unusual instrumentation and dance edge, "El Charangón" (a nickname for Revés band) manages to make the facile lyrics of even thin songs shine because of the pulsating music behind them. "El Secreto de mi Charangón" is one my favorite tunes represented here in which Revé explains the secret of his success. Again, the lyrics won't have you thinking deeply, but the music will carry you away in a stream of Havana-barrio funk. Also, check the commentary that the singers make during the songs. It will often be something simple, but it's always amusing and fits with the song, adding that extra sazón to the tune. You never hear this on contemporary salsa recordings, and this contrast further underscores the artificiality of commercial salsa. If you're a neophyte when it comes to this group, it may take a few listens to dig Revé. Their sound is street, with aggressive trombones, batá, rocking congas and Revé's simple, unpretentious licks on pailas (timbales). Many of the songs are about life in Cuba, and a close listen is required to get at the meaning of certain songs. But it's well worth it once you get used to their sound. These recordings were made before Cuban music became rather pop the way it is now, so these guys weren't trying to make music for a big international market. For the most part, they were playing for the crowds in teeming Havana barrios like Belén, Jesús María and Los Sitios, to name a few. As such, the sound is rawer, made for the dancer and much less commercial than what you currently hear out of Cuba. That quality alone makes these recordings special and well worth the price of admission.


Orquesta Revé
Papá Elegua

More street-level Cuban funk from the masters. The title track pays homage to the Yoruba guardian of pathways and messenger to the gods. The groove is relentless and very compelling, a potent cousin of salsa. The changúí rhythm is normally a rather sedate, kind of countrified musical genre that's mostly played in the Cuban countryside, especially around Guantánamo. But, as Revé once said, he took changüí, dressed it and brought it into the city. In the hands of el Charangón, this is very much urban music, reflecting the volatile energy of a Havana where millions of people struggle daily to survive; pushing, shoving and striving. This is clear in the music and even the lyrics: "Willie Siete Reales," for instance, is about a guy who spends his time trying to hustle (jinetear) people all day long. Another song that looks at life in Cuba is "Con Mis Mañas Se Resuelve," which refers to the daily hustle people go through just to feed themselves. Other songs include a rebuke to those who try to exploit others ("En la Confianza") and celebrations of the great rumberos of the past ("Rumba Caliente," a particularly smoking number). What I like about Revé, besides the funky drummers on percussion, is their trombone section. They blare aggressively like Willie Colon's section but with a different style. And don't forget the great tresero Papi Oviedo in the background, providing country contrapunto to Revés urban sound. All together, this makes for a strong album, and it's the last one by Revé that I can wholeheartedly recommend.


Ruben Blades
Antecedente

After a weird album about the eyes of blue dogs that sounded so artifical it made techno sound like Delta blues, Rubén went back to the heavy trombone sound that made his career. An excellent move. This album won a Grammy, and for once those boneheads (who actually gave an award to Milli Vanilli and keep giving awards to Will Smith for some reason) got it right. The playing is straight-up New York flavor with Bobby Allende (check out his conga licks), Ralph Irizarry and Marc Quiñones doing their usual superb and tasteful percussion work. The chorus, which is a crucial element in this music that people often overlook, is especially good on this album, thanks to the harmonious mesh of underrated soneros Tito Allen and Nestor Sánchez with Rubén himself. The arrangements are pure New York salsa: strong, clean and direct, perfect for dancing. Another great aspect of this album is that Rubén got away from the highbrow tunes based on the writings of Gabriel García Márquez that filled the weird blue dog album. Instead, he switched to singing about people, and his songs became infinitely more interesting. "Juana Mayo" is a compassionate look at the life of a prostitute. "Noches de Ayer" and "Plaza Herrera" are nostalgic reflections on his childhood in Panamá, so sentimental and captivating you almost feel like you grew up there yourself. "Nacer de Ti" wasn't penned by Rubén, but continues the theme about Panamá and homelands, hence the title "Antecedente" for the album. "Contrabando" is a nice son montuno about the smuggling that goes on in South America, "Nuestro Adiós" is a sad but engaging bolero-son (it has some interesting old-school Cuban sabor with the voicings, listen close) where Rubén does another good but unheralded job and "Patria," a moving guaguancó (check those rocking quinto riffs) another song about about homelands, caps off this outstanding release from one of the premier salsa artists of our time.


Ruben Blades
Caminando

This is the last Ruben Blades album I really enjoyed, I'm sorry to say. I haven't been able to get into his more recent releases although I've tried. But this one is stellar from stem to stern. "Caminando" is up tempo from a musical and lyrical standpoint, urging people forward with life, siempre palante, always a good message. "Camaleón" is a dismissal of a sneaky, predatory jerk who acts like a friend but truly isn't, a song that probably resonates with most of us. "Obalue" threw me. It's obviously a reference to Babalú-Aye or Obaluayé, a Yoruba god of pestilence worshipped as a god that restores health in Cuba, where he is syncretized with Saint Lazarus in the religion some call Santería. Knowing Rubén's intellectual bent, it was interesting to hear him sing about this deity. I'm not sure if this means he believes in this religion or is just singing a song about the beliefs of others. At the risk of quoting Arsenio Hall and the C&C Music Factory, this is one of those things that make you go hmmmm...
In any case, Rubén also turns his attention to politics and class on this recording, describing different levels of society in "Mientras Duerme la Ciudad" and condemning the brutality practiced by so many Latin American regimes in "Prohibido Olvidar." "Tengan Fe" is similar to "Caminando," obviously urging people to have faith. Fortunately, Rubén's talent with a pen (and a phrase) actually make this tune inspirational without sounding mawkish or silly. Other great tunes include the rest of the album, like the intriguing history lesson offered up in "Cipriano Armenteros." Of course, well-written songs with bad arrangements and playing will still suck. But Rubén of course is backed by Son de Solar, which included Robbie Ameen, Ralph Irizarry, Oscar Hernandez, Mike Viñas, Eddie Montalvo and Papo Vásquez, among others, and they provide a great, tight sound behind his vocals.
All in all, an excellent recording. I wish he would go back to making albums like this one.


Ray Barretto
Barretto

This one is an automatic. You can't listen to this music and not have this album. Well, not true, I suppose you could if you're into sensory deprivation. Barretto shows off the best of 70s salsa: energy, fire, humor, romance, experimentation. If you don't have it, here's what you're missing:
First, the title track. The original tune was this weird wanna-be Beatles experimental prehistoric songo done by Juan Formell y los Van Van back in 1969. After the Nuyoricans like Barretto, Little Ray, and Louie Cruz got through with it, it was a whole new song, dynamic and powerful, a shining example of the essence of salsa: a vibrant, inventive boricua reinterpretation of Afro-Cuban music. Mr. Hard Hands doesn't solo on that number, but he drives the tunes with his special, unmistakable thunder thuds, especially on the breaks. "Ban Ban Quere" is more of the same, only it's spiced up by the vocals of a young Rubén Blades, who even then was a sonero mil por mil. "Eso es Amar" is a nice, momentary dip into the bolero, a sorely underused genre of music these days. Two great son montunos are also included, "Vine pa Echar Candela" and "Testigo Fuí;" the latter is a memorable tune from Puerto Rican master composer Tite Curet Alonso. Continuing the mix of rhythms, after a heavy-duty salsified son called "Vale Más un Guaguancó" (another standout job by Rubén), Ray B. and the boys even jump into a bit of charanga on the humorous "El Presupuesto." Finally, as Pablo Guzmán said in the original liner notes, you can turn out the lights and let "Canto Abacuá" wash your senses clean. He wasn't kidding: it jumps from an ancestral opening to modern salsa to a mystical conclusion. I know, I sound like I've been listening to Deeprak Chopra visualization tapes. Once you hear Artie Webb's extraordinary flutework and funky drummer Ray B's visceral slaps and licks, you'll hear what I mean. Enjoy.....





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