Lucid Culture


Septeto Nacional Make the Buena Vista Social Club Seem Like New Jacks

How’s this for oldschool: Septeto Nacional have been around since 1927. The current incarnation of the band made its US live debut last year; this album, Sin Rhumba, No Hay Son, their debut recording outside of Cuba, makes the Buena Vista Social Club seem modern by comparison. Their founder, bassist Ignacio Piniero (1888-1969) is credited with introducing horns to Cuban music: sin Ignacio, no hay Machito? It’s rustic, roughhewn, often joyous but also plaintive oldtime latin music. The African clave beat is there as it is in so many latin styles, but Crispin Diaz Hernandez’s deft percussion lurks behind a thicket of richly jangly acoustic guitar from Dagoberto Sacerio Oliva and tres by Enrique Collazo, spiced with Agustin Someillan Garcia’s trumpet, with Raul Acea Rivera on bass and the aptly nicknamed Eugenio “Raspa” Rodriguez on lead vocals. It’s a mix of originals along with a couple of vintage Piniero numbers in several vintage styles including son montuno, rhumba, guaracha and the sad, pretty bolero that’s the third track here – did Willie Nelson hear that before he wrote Let It Be Me?

Collazo steals the show here, particularly on the album’s best cut, El Plato Roto (The Broken Plate) and its stinging, spiky solo at the end. The catchy, sly minor-key dance number, Mueve Tu Cintura (literal translation: shake your hips) has the tres casually whipping through a long, biting series of chords at the end. And his incisive jangle drives the sassy La Mulata Rumbera (featuring an inspired vocal by guest Bertha Portuondo) and the bouncy Me Dieron la Clave (They Gave Me the Clave), with a solo that literally snarls. The Piniero tracks share a vibe that’s antique yet ahead of its time: Arrollo Cubano foreshadows what will become calypso, while Donde Andabas Lanoche (Where Did You Go Last Night) is an island take on flamenco. La Rhumba No Es Como Ayer is actually so ayer it’s not funny and it’s a fun trip back in time: what mento is to reggae, this is to salsa. There’s also the slow stately swinging bolero En Tus Ojos Yo Veo (I Look in Your Eyes), the wry El Discreto (a cautionary tale – be careful who you confide in) and the boisterous, jazzy La Fiesta de los Animales that closes the album. It’s a lot of fun and it’s out now on World Village Music.

September 14, 2010 Posted by | latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, Uncategorized, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Some Sweet Retro Cuban Sounds for Summer

Sierra Maestra were one of the original son revivalists in Cuba back in the 70s. Had that era’s Cuban music been widely available for export – or widely available island-wide, for that matter – they would have beaten the Buena Vista Social Club to the punch by about twenty years. What differentiates Sierra Maestra is that they mixed classic covers with original compositions done retro style. With all but two of the original members still alive, their new album Sonando Ya continues in that vein. Their sound is a lot more rustic than the Fania-style salsa that everybody knows and loves, more rustic than Machito, for that matter. This is Cuban roots music, bouncing and shuffling along with a clatter of a four-man percussion section, guiro, tres, guitar, bass, trumpet and vocals. But unlike what the title suggests, it’s not really dreamy at all. There’s a joy and swing to everything here – this is dance music, after all, and it’s no less vital than the stuff the band was doing thirty years ago.

Vocals rotate around the band in a sometimes exuberant, sometimes sly call-and-response. The opening son montuno tune is a tribute to mountain roots, with a characteristically catchy trumpet chorus. A trio of voices resound throughout a bouncy, dramatically tinged guaracha son ballad, reminding not to hate on them for their good fortune. A cautionary tale about a gold-digging girlfriend works a contemporary salsa tune quietly and bucolically, fretted instruments taking the place of the piano; a plaintive oldschool son number pleads for forgiveness, lit up with a long tres solo that vividly underscores son’s contemporaneous relationship with jazz. The rest of the album mixes bustling  dance tunes with a handful of ballads. Maybe it’s the time of year, but this cd has a visceral heat to it, evoking a Hemingway-era milieu, rum and sugarcane and heavy Caribbean night air. With summer going full blast, albums like this makes more and more sense. It’s out now on World Village Music.

July 8, 2010 Posted by | latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Tito Gonzalez – Al Doblar La Esquina

For those who love oldschool latin music, this is a straight shot of rum. For those who discovered it via the Buena Vista Social Club, it’s…hmm…a good mojito. Cuban expat tres (Cuban guitar) player and singer Tito Gonzalez is a feel-good story: he got to see the world as a commercial fisherman, drove a cab, studied under Papi Oviedo of the Buena Vista Social Club and then with Cuban guitar legend Octavio Sanchez Cotán. Courtesy of the other musicians in his taxicab union, Gonzalea made his pro debut at 40 and finally made it to the US in 2000 where he became a fixture of the San Francisco Bay Area latin music scene. Backed by an absolutely dynamite, horn-heavy band, Gonzalez takes you back to the future not in a DeLorean but in a 1955 Nash Ambassador, to a time when Guantanamo meant gambling and girls rather than Geneva Convention violations.

Because that era wasn’t so far removed from a previous one without electricity, many of these songs show their folksong roots. Cuba being an island nation, a whole lot of diverse styles washed up onshore, many of them represented here. Traditional Cuban son is the framework for all the songs here, but there are also elements of rhumba, tango and especially bolero on the slower numbers. A vibrant call-and-response vibe is everywhere, whether between lead vocals and backing chorus, piano and horns, or, in too few places actually, Gonzalez’ spiky tres and the piano. The songs are a mix of party anthems and aching ballads, notably La Despedida (The Goodbye), a big, intense Machito-style three-minute masterpiece with a strikingly haunting horn chart. The slinky bolero-inflected ballad Aquel Viejo Amor (That Old Love), written for Gonzalez’ former wife, subtly works a bittersweet piano riff all the way through to a gorgeous, horn-driven crescendo at the end. The wistful Cancion Por Bonnie, another bolero-based tune is another standout track with some clever baton-passing among the horns. The album’s final track, Evocation is straight-up oldschool son with intense, percussive piano, Gonzalez finally wailing on his frets and joining the fun. It all makes for great summertime music – maybe it’s just as well we’re so far behind the eightball getting around to giving this delightful album a spin.

May 26, 2010 Posted by | latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review – The Rough Guide to the Music of Cuba

Pretty much every attempt to assemble a definitive anthology of music for a particularly country or style opens a can of worms. Credit the Rough Guide folks for at least taking a stab at this. Arguments over who ought to be on The Rough Guide to the Music of Cuba – or who ought not to be on it – could go on for days. “No Machito?!? Sacrilege!” But if you look at this simply as a sort of digital mixtape, it’s a fun dance album. As with the other cds in the series, they compilers start with a vintage sound and move forward, in this case to some of the first-rate (and impressively retro) bands coming out of Cuba in recent years. As has been the case with the Rough Guide cds lately, there’s also a bonus cd, in this case by the long-running, well-loved Sierra Maestra, who’ve been keeping the flame of vintage Cuban son music alive since 1976. As an introduction for the uninitiated, this is as good a place to start as any.

Los Estrellas De Arieto contribute Que Traigan El Quaguanco, a deliciously long oldschool-flavored son number by these 70s stars. Sierra Maestra’s El Son No Puede Fallar works an insistent groove for all it’s worth. For piano-based salsa, there’s the Afro Cuban All Stars’ Reconciliacion. The most innovative of all the cuts here is from the catalog of the late, legendary Buena Vista Social Club bassist Orlando Cachaito Lopez: Mis Dos Pequenas is an eerily slinky quaguanco instrumental, a lushly vivid mix of slide guitar, organ and violin.

The Afro Cuban Jazz Project’s Coge Este Tumbao introduces a bright, happy, more modern feel with call-and-response vocals. Percussion gets representation from the late Pancho Quinto’s hypnotic, shuffling La Gorra. Of the more recent material on the compilation, Mexico-based Azucar Negra probably represent the best of the current crop of veterans still active here. There’s also Sama Y El Expreso De Oriente’s big hit Guarachando from a couple of years ago; Maikel Blanco Y Su Salsa Mayor‘s tersely exuberant Que Tengo along with slick numbers by Los Van Van, Osdalgia and Elio Reve Jr. and a lone accession to reggaeton by Guantanamo natives Madera Limpia.

The Sierra Maestra cd is as richly, rustically evocative as ever, guitar, piano, horns and percussion interwoven into a hypnotic, hip-tugging net that shifts under your feet while it keeps you moving. Try standing still to this: impossible. At better record stores and online.

August 4, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Quimbombo at Stuyvesant High School Auditorium, NYC 7/29/09

Quimbombo is a Cuban stew and also the title of a famous Cuban son dance number from the 1950s. This particular Quimbombo is similarly sabroso (tasty). With two guitars, fretless bass, trumpet, sax and a literal herd of percussionists on everything from congas to timbales to campana, cajon and bass drum, they play son, the precursor of salsa that took root in 1930s Cuba and was repopularized sixty years later by the Buena Vista Social Club. The way this band plays it, it sounds like salsa but with guitar in place of the piano. As their show Wednesday night – moved indoors because of the rain – proved, they’re ecstatically good at it. Sitting and watching them rumble and rhumba through one hypnotic groove after another was viscerally uncomfortable – the body unconsciously starts to sway, it wants to get up and dance!

Their set mixed classics along with originals from their most recent cd Conga Electrica. Their first number set the tone for the night with a long, crescendoing guitar duel, David Oquendo’s incisive electric nylon-string chords trading off with the acoustic player’s gorgeously steely, ringing tones. They followed that with a swaying ballad, Cuando Tu Vayas A Oriente (When You Go East) and then Con El Trapo Rojo (With the Red Flag – a bullfighting reference), building from an ecstatic percussion intro with booming bass drum to a hypnotic verse with electric guitar and then finally a long, trance-inducing one-chord jam out. This could be the band’s theme song – or one of them anyway, considering how often they manage to namecheck themselves when there’s room.

Que Me Importa A Mi (What Do I Care) scampered along playfully with chorus-box electric guitar; the next tune went on hypnotically for what seemed at least ten minutes, highlighted by a strikingly murky flute solo, not what you would expect from an instrument with such a high register. By the time they got to their gorgeously ringing signature song – a hit for legendary Cuban pianist Luis “Lili” Martinez – there was finally some movement toward the back of the auditorium. There’s no sitting still to stuff like this.

July 30, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Omara Portuondo – Gracias

Still going strong at 78, the iconic Buena Vista Social Club singer offers a heartfelt “thanks” here a la Keith Richards’ “glad to be here/glad to be anywhere.”  This new cd mixes vintage Cuban style romantic ballads and laments with a decidedly tropical feel, produced with taste and restraint by Brazilian 7-string guitarist Swami Jr., who also plays throughout. While Omara Portuondo didn’t write anything on the cd, she doesn’t have to look far to find a legion of A-list players lined up and ready to work with her, a global cast including percussionist Trilok Gurtu, Israeli-American jazz bassist Avishai Cohen and pianist Roberto Fonseca.


The cd opens with Adios Felicidad (Goodbye Happiness), imbued with a frequently characteristic, stoic, restrained beauty. The Sunny bossa number O Que Sera (a Flor de Terra), a duet with Brazil’s Chico Buarque, gets just enough beautifully minimalist salsa piano and congas to give it sway and bounce. The big, dramatic, piano ballad Vuela Pena (Fly Away, Pain) shows Portuondo’s voice undiminished as she reaches for a big crescendo, evoking a “terrible pain that poisons” and “turns a princess into the oldest queen.” Then she brings the drama up even higher on Cuento Para un Nino (Childrens’ Story), a hopeful ballad for future generations that impressively manages to avoid being cloying. The coy Amama Como Soy (Take Me As I Am), a tribute to her late, lamented contemporary Elena Burke is a swaying dance number again spiced with piano and congas. Rabo de Nube (Break in the Clouds) reverts to a hopeful, tropicalia feel with pensive bowed bass, followed in the same vein by the title track, a duet with Uruguayan candombe crooner Jorge Drexler.


Pretty much everything here has considerable, frequently minimalistic beauty. The album’s one misstep is a schmaltzy a-capella duet between Portuono and her granddaughter: by and large, unless you’re Lou Reed and you’re making the Berlin album, musicians should keep their brood away from the mic til they’re old enough to realize how cheesy it is to record them before they’re grown. Otherwise, if there’s any other criticism of this cd, it’s that it’s so tasteful and so impeccably done that a fan of this kind of music might well hear a conga break where Cohen takes a subtle little run up the scale, or might imagine a blazing horn chart in place of those synthesized strings. But those are matters of style: at 78, Portuondo is entitled to do whatever she wants. And if Obama makes good on his hint that the US might soon normalize relations with Cuba, it would be great to see her here. Til then, great to see her anywhere. 

December 10, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment