Cuba's Past Is Present

Old Cuban music never dies, it just gets reissued. Blame it in part on the success of the 1997 Grammy Award-winner Buena Vista Social Club, but remastered or re-recorded CDs of all manner of Cuban oldies keep on coming. In 1998 record companies strip-mined the seemingly infinite mountain of Cuban patrimony as never before. Multinational major labels and independents have issued a cavalcade of albums this year featuring old coots with great chops, gems from the Forties and Fifties, revolutionary rarities, and innovative postmodern homages that have taken the strains of Cuban nostalgia far beyond its home base in Miami's exile community.

A potpourri of recent offerings issued just in time for the holidays exemplifies the variety of recycled Cuban music being produced: restored recordings from the island's archives, fresh arrangements of Cuban evergreens by contemporary musicians based in Miami and Cuba, and a venerable orchestra's retakes of their own erstwhile hits.

Cuba Es Musica, a four-disc set, compiles musical performances taped for Havana's Radio Progreso during the Forties and Fifties. A testimony to the most fertile era in Cuban big band music, the set features songs by period stars like Barbarito Diez, Benny More, La Sonora Matancera, and Conjunto Casino. The recordings, which were stored on 78 rpm discs in the Radio Progreso archives, were recovered by Venezuelan producer Alejandro Blanco-Uribe. In accordance with the Cuban Music Institute, he took them to England's Cambridge University, where they were restored using the Cedar Audio System, a state-of-the-art technique for cleaning up old recordings. The tracks on Cuba Es Musica are indeed free of crackles and clicks from the old vinyl; still, the sound quality is thin and distant, due most likely to the less-than-stellar recording facilities at the radio studio. With today's technology, more might have been done to enhance it.

Nonetheless it is possible to appreciate the lilting flute, thumping upright bass, and other acoustic instruments that characterized the era's typical band format. And the set is worth listening to if only to hear Rolando LaSerie singing the bawdy "Si lo Encuentro lo Mato," accompanied by pianist Bebo Valdes, and Orquesta Sensacion's playful take on "El Manisero."

But Cuba es Musica contains nothing anywhere near as exciting as Panart's famed Cuban Jam Sessions (reissued in 1996 by Musart), or the down-home emotion of Buena Vista's country son. The Radio Progreso performances (at least those selected by Blanco-Uribe) represent the commercial tastes of the time: romantic ballroom music. The tracks on this compilation are a scant two or three minutes long, too short to extend into the juicy instrumental solos and vocal improvisations that are the hallmark of the Cuban sound.

Blanco-Uribe has included only about 30 minutes of music on each disc, perhaps keeping in mind that a little of this vintage stuff goes a long way. (In any case he could have fit this material on just two discs.) As a historical document, Cuba Es Musica has value. Longtime Cuban exiles and prerevolutionary Cubaphiles are sure to enjoy the set for the memories of the good old days this music is bound to inspire.

Willy Chirino's Cuba Libre is the Miami salsero's personal salute to what he refers to as "Cuba B.C." (Before Castro.) This zesty dance album of well-known oldies features Chirino performing duets with Celia Cruz and a host of Miami-based singers, including Jon Secada, Roberto Torres, Chirino's wife Lissette and his daughters, the Chirino Sisters. Albita Rodriguez's lusty vocals on "Que Viva Chango" and brief interlude on "Soy Guajiro" are arguably her best showings on any recording since her arrival here in 1993. Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval also guests.

There's a likeable looseness to the entire production, and it sounds as if fun was had by all involved in the recording sessions. Chirino has gathered songs in a variety of Cuban styles: son, guaracha, country guajira, and guaguanco. The tracks include the usual suspects -- "Guatanamera," "El Manisero," and "Son de la Loma" -- with saucy arrangements by Chirino, Carlos Infante, and Steve Roitstein. In the style of contemporary dance groups from Cuba, Chirino has wisely added hard-edged percussion to his trademark pop-salsa style, resulting in a gutsier sound. "Cuba Que Lindos Son Tus Paisajes" with Cruz, "Que Viva Chango," and "Habanera Tu/La Bella Cubana" with Secada and the Chirino Sisters are standouts. Elsewhere, touches like galactic electric piano riffs sound dated and cheerleading vocals about Cuba's storybook past ("La Esquina Habanera") soon become cloying and tiresome. But overall Cuba Libre is a likable effort, a sunny sampler of local talent.

Another made-in-Miami production in a very different mood, Grupo Cafe Nostalgia's Te Di la Vida Entera smolders like a lipstick-stained cigarette. Far from a rousing tribute to the treasures of Cuban music's hallowed past, it points to the musical future. Echoing from the island's underbelly, Te Di la Vida Entera reeks of the beloved decadence of Havana nights.

Cafe Nostalgia owner Pepe Horta is the executive producer of the album, released in Europe by the French label Naive. (It is due out in the United States in early 1999.) Te Di la Vida Entera was conceived as a soundtrack for the novel of the same name by the young Cuban writer Zoe Valdes, who lives in Paris. (The songs are mentioned in the book.) The novel has not been published in English, which renders the concept largely irrelevant to many listeners here. No matter. Snatches of dialogue from the novel recorded between songs come off as superfluous, but not particularly bothersome. Most importantly, the music tells its own story.

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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