CUBA CLASSICS 3: DIABLO AL INFIERNO: NEW DIRECTIONS IN CUBAN MUSIC
Gloria Estefan has already played Havana. So have Latin stars Willy Chirino, Hansel (with and without Raul), Carlos Oliva and the entire suave Miami sound. Pablo Milanés has played Miami, as have Silvio Rodríguez, Los Van Van and Orquesta Revé. Vinyl, tape and CDs cross the sugar and Croqueta Curtains. They are light contraband, to be sure, not even illegal, just sospechoso (suspicious), like stolen kisses between cousins. Miami and Havana listen to each other’s recorded music, sometimes, no doubt, to hear messages banned or shunned on either side. But mostly just to hear Cuban music. To love it.
I was once talking to Cuban-American filmmaker Jorge Ulla, who makes fiercely anti-Castro documentaries but lives and dies for all Cuban music. Just as I was about to drop the needle on an EGREM disk, probably Los Van Van, but maybe Pablo, I said “don’t you realize that we are the flip side of a couple of friends in Havana who this very moment are closing the blinds and turning on the latest hits from Miami.”
Music aficionados who know Cuban music from its core influence on salsa will be surprised by this collection which strays as far as one could imagine from the familiar. There’s reggae: Los Blue’s “Rompe Saragüey”; there’s speed metal: Zeus’ “Diablo al Infierno”; and mostly there’s a def fusion of electronics with Afro-Cuban roots music. Afro-Cuban religious music, from the tradition we know as santería, infuses some of the cuts. Hear the ceremonial batá drums applied to popular dance music in Irakere’s “Bacalao Con Pan” and then hear the electronic approach to authentic santería music in Síntesis’ “Asoyin”: techno-santería. Or, to put a different spin on the theme, hear N.G. La Banda redo a classic popular dance tune with santería lyrics “Que Viva Changó,” but where the original Celina y Reutilio version was folksy and melancholic, N.G.’s is upbeat and jazzy.
Finally, as in all Cuban music, it’s worth paying attention to the beats. Afro-Cuban polyrhythms are complex and challenging, yet deliciously inviting. Grupo Vocal Sampling pays hommage to the great rumba ensemble Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, in a faithful rendition of “Conga Yambumba,” except that they are men without instruments: all the beats, including the percussion solos, are vocal. Cuba’s most popular dance band, Los Van Van, reinvent rock ’n’ roll in their “El Baile Del Buey Cansao.” Instead of constructing the song around the clave — the basic one-two / one-two-three or one-two-three / one-two backbone of Cuban music — they accent the clave itself, like so many Anglo-American rock songs. In a conservative genre like salsa, this would be heresy. But, Cubans are always looking for new approaches to rhythm, “searching” as Los Van Van’s song says, “for a dance form that hasn’t been done before.”
I have to admit, some of this stuff is new to me; my hat is off to the producers’ hipness or off-the-wallness, for digging up groups that I’ve only heard about, like Dan Den, or never heard of, like Los Blues. But there are also popular groups such as Irakere and Los Van Van. And, of course, the bands that Cuban music freaks tape and exchange with one another, like Síntesis and N.G. If I had to rename the album I would call it by the name of the old swimming and yacht club owned by the Cuban Electric Company: CUBANALECO.
And then there is Pablo Milanés. Someday when we Cubans can vomit our politics, we will recognize that Pablo was the heir to our great song writing tradition. There is Carlos Varela, singing his trademark “Guillermo Tell.” To say he’s hot is an understatement. Not only is he the most representative artist of a generation yearning to make itself heard and understood, not only is he a problem to ideologues and bureaucrats, but in Havana he’s hard to miss. He looks like a shrink-to-fit Juan Luis Guerra caught in an out-of-control clothes dryer. Black overcoat, black beard. His model is Silvio Rodríguez. But he’s Silvio gone state-of-the-art. Carlos’ sharp sociopolitical insights, which, judging from the audience’s response in this live concert recording, are very well received by young Cubans.
Years ago, when it looked like a number of prominent Cuban musicians had joined the exodus that Cuban Americans call el exilio and Cubans in the island call la comunidad [the exile Cuban community abroad] , a catchphrase made the rounds among Cuban exiles: “el son se fue de Cuba,” - the son, (our oldest and most representative genre, the one on which so much Cuban popular music and Cuban popular feeling is based,) has left Cuba. True, the musical brain drain was impressive; without it, for example, the New York salsa scene would have been diminished. But Cuba’s musical cornucopia is inexhaustible. Dictators, imperialists, revolutions, embargos, capitalism, socialism, death, no one, no one can stop the music.
- Enrique Fernandez. August, 1992
Irakere, led by pianist / composer Jesús “Chucho” Valdés, is a kind of honor roll of Cuban jazz musicians. Past members include Paquito d’Rivera and Arturo Sandoval (both of whom played on this cut.) Irakere has always had a double identity: jazz concert band and dance party animals. “Bacalao con pan,” recorded in 1973, was their first big hit in Cuba. This was hardly the first time that batá — Yoruba sacred drums — had been used in popular Cuban dance music, but Irakere’s “son batá” was an important moment nonetheless, pointing the way toward an even more prominent role for the African side of Afro-Cuban dance music.
NG La Banda is a supergroup founded by flautist José Luís Cortés in 1988. “NG” (pronounced Spanish-style, “Inna Hey”) stands for “Nueva Generación.” The horn section — “los metales del terror” — previously were Irakere members. Cortés himself, prior to his time with Irakere, was a member of Los Van Van. This tune is a cover of a song known to every man, woman and child in Cuba — Celina Gonzalez’s “¡Que Viva Changó!” NG’s version, with Tony Calá singing lead, gives you an idea of how Cuban bands stretch out on stage, bantering with the crowd and extending their montunos (vamps) to trance-inducing lengths. Changó, whose altar ego is the Catholic saint Santa Bárbara, is the Yoruba god of lightning and thunder. Changó is associated with music, and, not coincidentally, he’s one of the most popular saints in Cuba.
Los Van Van have been enormously popular in Cuba since their formation in December 1969. When they suffered a temporary dip in popularity in the late 70s, bandleader Juan Formell added trombones to the group’s electric-charanga sound. Their comeback hit was “El Baile del Buey Cansao” (The Dance of the Tired Out Ox) — a novelty tune that put them back on the map. They’ve had the trombones ever since.
Now in his seventies, Pío Leyva is maybe best known for writing “Francisco Guayabal,” one of Beny Moré’s biggest hits. The number included here, “Tu No Sabes de Amor/Domitila,” is a pastiche of two songs by composer Ricardo Diaz.
Dan Den was started in 1989 by Juan Carlos Alfonso, former pianist / arranger / music director with Elio Revé’s Orquesta Revé, and also features Revé’s ex-lead singer. They’re very popular, especially with the younger dancing public. This tune, “No Me Carezcas,” is from their 1990 debut album.
One of the most celebrated Cuban albums of the last decade is Ancestros, by the group Síntesis. Released in 1987, it attracted a cult following worldwide and a mass audience in Cuba. The album was made in consultation with singer Lázaro Ros. It consists of Yoruba and Arará ritual melodies, arranged by Síntesis leader Carlos Alfonso (who is the lead vocalist on this track) and saxophonist / keyboardist Lucía Huergo.
Lázaro Ros is Cuba’s foremost akpon (lead singer in Yoruba sacred music). A much-loved figure in Cuba, he is an original member of the Grupo Folclórico Nacional. “Ikiri Adda” is from the album Cantos, a collaboration featuring Lázaro Ros as lead vocalist with the group Mezcla. Mezcla is led by Pablo Menendez, who moved to Cuba as a teenager in the mid-60s from Oakland, California (his mother is singer Barbara Dane.) Cantos also features Lucía Huergo, previously of Síntesis.
Pablo Milanés is a household name in Cuba. A founder of the nueva trova movement and a versatile singer. His songs have been recorded all over Latin America as romantic ballads and salsa hits.
When this album was being put together, no one in Havana seemed to know the name Los Blues. They’re from Santiago de Cuba, 600 miles away at the other end of the island. This was recorded by writer Robert Palmer late one night after a heavy rain during 1990 Carnaval, in a funky open-air joint where they were playing. “We play traditional Cuban music,” one of them said, “but con violencia.” In Havana you hear radio from Miami; in Santiago you hear radio from Jamaica. This is one of the few examples of Cuban reggae; fittingly enough, the song, “Rompe Saragüey,” is a well-known Cuban tune, made famous by Felix Chapottín.
There might be no more important singer / songwriter in Cuba today than Carlos Varela. You can hear the influence of the nueva trova (specifically Silvio Rodriguez) in Varela’s style, but he’s very much his own man. “Guillermo Tell” (William Tell) is perhaps the most-cited song by journalists writing about Cuba in recent years. This recording was made at a standing-room-only show at the Teatro Carlos Marx, which seats 5,000.
Zeus is not the only heavy band in Cuba. It’s not easy being a metalhead in Havana. While most musical groups are on salary to be musicians, there are no officially recognized metal bands, so everything has to be done after work, with very little in the way of resources. This recording was made on an old 4-track 1/4-inch machine, and mixed onto reused East German tape, at one of Havana’s Casas de Cultura — the neighborhood-based auditorium / rec hall places. The longer you listen to it, the more Cuban it will sound.
Despite their name, Grupo Vocal Sampling is an a cappella sextet. Formed by music students who met in choir at the Conservatorio in Havana. Los Sampling’s repertoire consists of practically every kind of typical Cuban music. They’re all about 19 years old, and if you want an example of the high standards of musicianship that prevail in Cuba, here it is. Though this is a studio recording, it’s what they sound like live — no overdubs, no fixes. “Congo Yambumba” is a quintessentially Cuban tune — a rumba made famous by Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, whose quinto player, Jesús Alfonso, wrote it.
- Ned Sublette August,1992
Reviews"This relentlessly winning anthology uncovers an almost equally relentless pantropical diversity: classical Salsa, Rumba-reggae, cheese-happy Afro-pop and hard bopping a cappella." - Request