The current surge of interest in Cuban music in the U.S. should come as no surprise. First of all, Cuban music, in all its forms and mutations, is more readily available than ever. There is more interest in world music in general, and Cuban music in particular in recent years. Second, Cuba still has the allure of forbidden fruit due to the asinine Blockade. With everybody from Leo DiCaprio to Ted Turner traipsing around the island, as well as thousands of other Americans arriving through Jamaica, Mexico, and Canada, Cuba is more accessible than before. Its isolation has meant that there are no McDonalds and Walmarts every 100 paces as in Puerto Rico or Cancun, so Havanaís crumbling beauty reminds us of another time, and music from an earlier era is what has captured our attention.
From the Squirrel Nut Zippers to Louis Prima, weíre slowly inching back in time. When Louie Armstrong went to Cuba to play gigs, for example. Cuban music has always been wildly popular in this country, but due to the Cold War a few decades were spent out in the cold. As singers and musicians emigrated to the U.S., there was still no sense of what was happening musically. The Nueva Trova Cubana made its way across Latin America with its ambassadors Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes, but never met with success in the U.S. (for those Spanish speakers with a certain socialist bent-but certainly unpopular in anti-Castro Miami. Also, you canít dance to Silvio Rodriguez-you have to listen to his lyrics.) The film the Mambo Kings (based on The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos) in the early 90ís made inroads with its excellent soundtrack of Cuban music from the 1940ís-50ís, while David Byrneís Luaka Bop put out compilations of Cuban Music. Cultural exchanges between Cuba and the U.S. increased under the Clinton administration, and the interest has only grown. This yearís Buena Vista Social Club (Wim Wenders) beautifully blends the past and the present on the island. The CD has taken on a life of its own and itís certain that the movie will in time become a crucial photograph of a Cuba that is certain to change.
Back to the present. So now we have Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez 24/7 on the radio. Great news if you love the repetition of pop music, right? But if you donít like it in English, itís unlikely that youíll go bongo over it in espanol. And Puffy in any language gives me the heebie jeebies. All the same, pop has progressed beyond Madonnaís "La Isla Bonita" or "La Bamba". Spanglish and Latin rhythms are now a part of our national diet.
Cuban music is enjoying its place in the sun and rightfully so. For some Old School Cuban the Buena Vista Social Club, produced by Ry Cooder, is a sure favorite. A group of long forgotten but still alive and kicking musicians were found and banded together to make a musical recording that went on to win a Grammy and explode internationally. Well, if you ainít got it yet, make this your pick. This was not recorded in a top of the line studio, yet the quality doesnít get better than this in terms of musicianship. Every instrument, voice, and sound is the summation of talent and age. Their signature track of "son", "Chan Chan", is the sum of all talent on the album. Ruben Gonzalezís sensual piano on "Pueblo Nuevo" is heartbreaking, while diva Omara Portuondo croons a soulful bolero in "Y Tu Que te has hecho" that you will understand even if you donít speak Spanish. Ibrahim Ferrers talent for hurly burly vocal improvisation is highlighted on "Candela". And baritone Compay Segundo moans in "La Bayamesa".
If Buena Vista Social Club was not enough to satiate you, do not fear. Buena Vista Social Club presents Ibrahim Ferrer has just been released in the States, coinciding with the release Wim Wenderís film that documents their music making. The spotlight is on Ferrer the entire time on this album, though the rest of the band generously support him with their musicianship. Ferrer, who spent years singing with Beny More returns to his glory days. His velvety voice covers standard favorites such as "Como Fue" and "Aquellos Ojos Verdes" at a gentle pace. In "Cienfuegoes Tiene su Guaguanco" he pays homage to his hometown and music style that originated there.
Certainly the piano playing of Ruben Gonzalez stood out on the Buena Vista Social Club, and now IntroducingÖRuben Gonzalez lets the piano wash over you. It was recorded over 2 days with no overdubs in Havana. And of special note, this is only his second recording in 50 years. What lacked in quantity has been replaced by extreme quality. The lively "Cumbachero" and spontaneous "3 Lindas Cubanas" set the mood of his son cubano. "Melodia del Rio" is as beautful as its title.
These three CDís are brimming with a lust for life that would make Iggy Pop blush. They will make you curse the day you were born in a town with no Cubans.