Sunday, October 1, 2000 | Print this story
From Cuba, Insistent Rhythms That Intrigue
By ERNESTO LECHNER
Although the countless releases from the tired salsa subgenre known as
timba would have you believe otherwise, Cuban music and its many
permutations have been responsible for some of the most intriguing
Latin albums of the year.
From new albums by two Buena Vista Social Club members to an archival
recording of infinite charm, some of this month's most intriguing
releases are connected, in one way or another, to the island of
*** 1/2 Ruben Gonzalez, "Chanchullo," World Circuit/Nonesuch. ***
Eliades Ochoa, "Tributo a Cuarteto Patria," Higher Octave.
How many Buena Vista Social Club-related albums can we take? As it
turns out, the million-selling phenomenon has spearheaded an entire
genre: the nouveau son.
These two collections deliver an aural snapshot of the changes and
revelations pianist Gonzalez and singer-guitarist Ochoa have gone
through while on the road to international success.
Gonzalez's "Chanchullo," in particular, is an altogether different
animal from the record the pianist made in 1996 during the initial
Buena Vista sessions. In the intervening years, the now 83-year-old
veteran toured the world, gave hundreds of interviews and was the
keyboardist of choice on the stunning solo efforts by Ibrahim Ferrer
and Omara Portuondo.
This activity seems to have infused Gonzalez's playing with an extra
burst of fire. Some of the material on "Chanchullo," such as the
rollicking title track and an elegant version of Orquesta Aragon's "El
Bodeguero," will be familiar to those who saw the live Buena Vista
shows last year.
Surrounded by most of the musicians from that tour (including
trumpeter "Guajiro" Mirabal and trombonist Jesus "Aguaje" Ramos),
Gonzalez exudes a sense of confidence that was missing from the days
when he would arrive at the Havana recording sessions before the
studio doors opened, just for the pleasure of sitting at the piano and
remembering the old days.
The pianist's first album has sold about 600,000 copies worldwide,
according to his record label, and on this follow-up (due in stores
Tuesday), the unlikely superstar justifies the attention. The furious
dialogue between congas and piano on the more experimental "La Lluvia"
illustrates Gonzalez at his most frantic, free of creative limitations
and able to enjoy life at its fullest.
Ochoa's record is a variation on his excellent "Sublime Ilusion." The
rootsiest member of the Buena Vista collective, the singer has also
enjoyed wide recognition in the last few years. His immediate reaction
was to record a tribute to the Cuarteto Patria, the 60-year-old folk
group he has fronted since 1978.
Originally, the record was going to be a Santana-like all-star affair
defined by a list of guest artists. Fortunately, Ochoa understood that
this program of simple songs deserved a more organic approach and he
left all grand ideas behind. The warmth with which the Santiago de
Cuba native revisits chestnuts such as "Yiri Yiri Bon" and the bolero
"Cuando Ya No Me Quieras" is more than enough to turn this sophomore
effort into a cause for celebration.
* * *
*** 1/2 Chico O'Farrill, "Carambola," Milestone.
Since his resurgence in 1996 with the excellent "Pure Emotion" and its
follow-up, 1998's "Heart of a Legend," this Cuban composer, arranger
and bandleader has continued to experiment with a variety of
Afro-Cuban formats, from the descarga to the bolero. "Carambola"
completes a trilogy of sorts with old and new numbers alike, including
a majestic rerecording of his seminal "Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite."
Salsa fans, however, will rejoice when they listen to the
old-fashioned "Oye Mi Rumba." The song includes a guest vocal by
Graciela, the singer with the legendary Machito orchestra who has been
brought out of retirement by O'Farrill. Anybody familiar with the
recordings of Graciela and the late Machito (they were brother and
sister) from the '50s and '60s will appreciate the magic of this cut.
* * *
** 1/2 Los Zafiros, "Story," Ahi-Nama.
If you listened to the compilation by this '60s Cuban group released
last year by Nonesuch, chances are you were left pining for more of
Los Zafiros' refreshing blend of doo-wop, bossa nova and
That anthology coincided with the inclusion of a Zafiros tune ("Herido
de Sombras") in Ibrahim Ferrer's first solo album. Manuel Galban, the
group's original guitarist, participated in the recording and then
toured with Ferrer and other Buena Vista Social Club players.
Now, the Los Angeles-based label Ahi-Nama has dug into the vaults for
some more Zafiros recordings, which serve as the soundtrack for an
upcoming film dealing with the group's tragic history. Most of the
founding members died at a young age, and the group disintegrated in
Unfortunately, half of the tunes in this collection are repeats from
the Nonesuch release. But the newly uncovered ones are must-haves,
most notably the gorgeous, string-laden bolero "Hermosa Habana."
Perhaps to compensate for the scarcity of original material, the disc
includes some music videos (accessed on a CD-ROM drive) from the
Ahi-Nama stable of performers, including Bamboleo, Laito Jr., Arte
Mixto and Maraca, plus four vintage clips of Los Zafiros themselves.
* * *
*** Various artists, "Latin Travels," Six Degrees. Latin goes
electronica courtesy of quality acts such as Zuco 103, St. Germaine
and Suba, and the resulting soundscapes are exhilarating. You might be
worried about what a battery of samples, drum machines and layers of
keyboards could do to your basic salsa and bossa nova patterns. But
the cool piano lines and hot trumpet riffs here prove that these
seemingly disparate worlds have one goal in common: to lighten up your
spirit with their relentless hedonism.
* * *
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair),
three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already
released unless otherwise noted.
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Ernesto Lechner Is a Regular Contributor to Calendar
Los Angeles Times