Cuba will probably always be a place of longing and nostalgia, yet nothing seems to slow the breakneck pace of Cuban musical innovation. It's as unstoppable as a freight train. The sheer number of prodigious professors, tempered in street rumbas and trained in top conservatories, nurtures Cuba's penchant for combining classical lyricism and rhythmic abstraction to the nth degree, the coolest jazz and the hottest dance music, an unflinching blend of the hedonistic and the sacred. These Indy picks in new releases from Cuba, or with a Cuban flavor, give you a taste of what's cooking beyond the usual Buena Vista fare.
Ricardo Lemvo y Makina Loca
Ricardo Lemvo is a man in love with two mistresses: Cuban guaguanco, and Congolese rumba. This African-born salsero celebrates his steamy, musical love triangle in a song called "Dos Mulatas" (two hot babes), on his new release Ay Valeria! Having jumped labels from Putomayo, Lemvo continues to make an infectious mix of soukous and salsa that will put any dance party into a fever pitch. Idiosyncratic humor gets free reign on a song about "Wago the poodle from Ouagadougou," balanced by more serious lyrical fare about African colonial history and tests of true love. Mostly, though, this is a carefree outing with tongue planted firmly in cheek, and musical inflections from the Afro-Portugese, to Dominican merengue, and Cuban timba and son—with lots of African sabor.
Rumba Sin Fronteras
Pancho Quinto isn't a rock star—he's been playing rumba in top Cuban folkloric groups like Yoruba Andabo for decades. On Rumba Sin Fronteras he amplifies (literally) the melodic elements of the rumba, a percolating all-drum jam with male voices, making a crossover move as mysterious as it is new.
Floating a jazz/bolero horn line over carnival drumming, adding the percussive piano/marimba/keyboards of Omar Sosa and R&B elements inspired by the booming low rider stereos he heard in San Francisco's Mission District, and playing a cajn (wood box) on this album that he made out of plywood from Home Depot, Quinto demonstrates that innovation is at the heart and soul of any traditional music genius.
(Razor and Tie)
Yerba Buena means good weed, but you won't need to smoke this to get high—President Alien is the ultimate diasporic cocktail for the plugged-in urban guajiro. New York bassist Andres Levin (the producer for funky iconoclasts such as MeShell Ndegeocello and Colombian rockers Aterciopelados) took his azucar straight out of Cuba for the front lineup, featuring the bewitching Xiomara Laugart. Add Latin hip hop, Santer'a singers, and a Caribbean jazz horn section, and you've got a party that just won't stop. Plays with the all the cliches of tropical music (cumbia, cha cha cha, rumba, guajira, mambo, reggaeton) updated to make this definitely the freshest thing on the shelf.
Cesar Pedroso y Los Que Son, Son
De La Timba A Pogolotti
If you like piano montunos that tweak the usual chord progressions into something rare and unexpected, then the Cuban timba of Cesar Pedroso (Pupy) y Los Que Son, Son is waiting for you. What is timba, you ask? It's a lot like salsa—you can dance to it—but it has a deeper, much funkier groove (and a lot more notes) than commercial club salsa in the U.S., which sounds canned and slick by comparison. In short, timba, if you've got the ears to hear it, is a sublime fire, raising you higher. Pupy was Los Van Van's keyboardist, and with Juan Formell he helped invent their sound which reigned supreme in Cuba for 30 years. Now on his own, Pedroso is churning out hot dance albums with the best singers and musicians on the island. Que Cosas Tiene La Vida, (Egrem) and Timba, the New Generation in Latin Music (Pimienta) both deliver truly slamming remakes of tunes Pupy wrote while with Los Van Van, and his latest is named for a Havana barrio. If you can find it, buy it—this is Cuba's Next Big Thing.
Tributo a Celia Cruz
Some say that women can't sing salsa—with Celia Cruz as the exception that proves the rule. This prejudice has never stopped Cuba from producing fantastic female singers by the bushel full, and notable among the recent crop is Haila Mompie (late of timba band Bamboleo, now frontwoman for Azucar Negra) with this shimmering tribute to the Queen of Salsa, produced by fellow crooner Issac Delgado. This may be the perfect album to break in North American ears to the new Cuban sounds, as Haila covers la Guarachera de Cuba's greatest hits, with help from stars from the timba scene like Jose Luis Cortes (NG La Banda), Mayito Rivera (Los Van Van), and Paulito FG (Paulito y su Elite). Haila is as distinctive, stylish and vocally strong in her own right as Celia was in her day, and her fresh take reintegrates Cruz into the island's musical history—the best kind of homage.
In the 1950s, musicologist Fernando Ortiz came up with an appropriately noir metaphor for Cuban folklore: an orchid, exquisite in aroma, color and design, transplanted from Africa to be born in the Caribbean rainforest. Elio Villafranca is the latest in the dynasty of great Afro-Cuban pianists to transplant his own exquisite combination of jazz, classical and Latin American influences to North American shores. The Bronx-based composer cites Schoenberg and Santer'a, with a keyboard mastery that is at times driving, at times lushly romantic. Power players Jane Bunnett (reeds), Pat Martino (guitar) and Terell Stafford (trumpet/flugelhorn) provide the greenhouse effect for Villafranca's robust debut, Incantations Encantaciones, an original entry that has garnered the 34-year-old comparisons to Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Definitely one for jazz fans to keep an eye on.
Sylvia Pfeiffenberger can be reached at email@example.com.