Cuba's Past Is Present

The extraordinary material gathered here speaks not only of a particular era in Cuba (primarily the Forties and Fifties), but of the exchange of Cuban music with the world. Together these songs evoke the concept of displacement and exile in a transcendent way that's not only about Cubans. The album starts off with "Be Careful, It's My Heart," written by Irving Berlin and recorded in English by Cuban pianist and cabaret performer Bola de Nieve. In this version Bola's recorded vocals alternate with those of Nostalgia bassist Omar Hernandez, a Nat King Cole-Natalie Cole-type tactic that works surprisingly well. Hernandez, the album's arranger, has reworked an Edith Piaf song ("Mon Manege a Moi") into a danzon. Ariel Cumba, a man, sings it in French, retaining the female pronouns. Also included are numbers originally recorded by the infamous torch singer La Lupe, and Freddy, a husky black woman who worked as a cook before embarking on her brief singing career. "Un Cubano en Nueva York," an amusing Forties' obscurity, was perhaps the first song recorded in Spanglish.

Grupo Nostalgia and guests put on an impressive and original show. Luis Bofill cements his reputation as Miami's own Benny More. Maria Ruesga's deep lusty vocals are pure steam on "Mienteme," originally a hit for famed bolero singer Olga Guillot. Hernandez's classy arrangements sound fresh while adhering to period style. His original music on the last track, which pairs swinging Afro-Cuban percussion with chanting by Anselmo "Chembo" Febles, leaves you wanting to hear more from him. Producer Carlos Alvarez, who also produced Nostalgia's raucous live album last year, polished the band's sound but left it rough around the edges. It's as if the whole sensuous recording was soaked in rum. All together, a risky production that worked.

Issac Delgado is one of the finest singers and most innovative bandleaders to come out of contemporary Cuba. You wouldn't know it, though, after listening to his latest album, the misguided La Primera Noche, recorded in Spain for New York's RMM records. The album mixes Delgado's old favorites, including songs by Cesar Portillo de la Luz and Celina Gonzalez, with original compositions by the singer and his co-producer and bassist, Alain Perez. Although not badly produced, La Primera Noche is like an easy-listening version of the ballsy contemporary Cuban dance music called timba. Facile lyrics, cheesy synthesizers, and Kenny G.-ish horns make for a sad performance from someone who knows better. A saccharine duet with Spanish singer Ana Belen is simply depressing. This recording is a cautionary tale of what happens when an accomplished Cuban artist consciously panders to foreign commercial tastes.

The new album by the venerable Orquesta Aragon serves up what's expected. This capable production, recorded in Cuba and available here on Candela Records, features a retrospective of hits by the 60-year-old band, revamped by the orchestra's current lineup. This compendium of dance-inducing cha-cha-cha's heavy on African dance-music influences, virtuoso violin, and flute, makes for a comfortable ride for experienced Cuban music fans. For neophyte listeners who want to do some time-traveling through the history of Cuban music, the members of Orquesta Aragon make for some mighty fine guides.

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