Various Artists

The Story of Cuba
(Hemisphere)

The hyperbolically titled The Story of Cuba could not possibly live up to its name with a mere fifteen tracks. While its compilers certainly take poetic license, the disc does offer a lively variety of contemporary Cuban music, including songs performed by NG La Banda, Elio Reve, Los Van Van, and powerhouse percussionists Los Papines. There also are strains from the past via crooner Antonio Machin and the Orquesta Maravilla de Florida, plus a rap version of “Guantanamera” that you might buy the album just to hear.

There's not much rhyme or reason to the playlist, except that many of the songs have been released on Caribe records (distributed by EMI Spain), and Hemisphere is an EMI imprint.(The compilation was put together by Seju Monzon of EMI Spain). Unfortunately for the uninitiated Cuban-music listener, the liner notes give no information about any of the artists or the dates the tracks were cut. They do include a glossary of Cuban musical genres, provided by Cuban musicologist Helio Orovio, but it too is eclectic rather than comprehensive. The album, logically, provides examples of the styles described: cha-cha-cha, son, timba, danzón, and, interestingly, the pilon, a spicy ballroom beat devised by band leader Pacho Alonso that briefly was the rage in the Sixties.

The CD starts out a little weak, but patience is rewarded as it steadily improves. Although there's nothing on it that will send one running from the room, the first song, “Bueno y Chevere,” comes close. Performed by Rojitas, a singer who's known in Cuba but has never had the success of his Nineties counterparts, the track's shrill brass and insipid lyrics -- “Soy latino, es algo divino” (“I'm Latin, it's something divine”) -- make it a good candidate for the skip button. Pachito Alonso does a sweet version of his father's “Rico Pilon,” punctuated by a lusty chorus of voices singing with a kind of gusto that makes the song sound something like a Broadway showtune.

The Story of Cuba gets serious with “El Hijo de Elegguá,” performed by Celina Gonzalez and Reutilio Dominguez. Cuban soul queen Celina's chanting vocals are imbued with understated hypnotic power. Habitual Latin-music listeners unfamiliar with Celina will probably think of Peruvian Susana Baca when they hear this track. (They also should go out and buy one of her albums, posthaste.) Other Afro-Cuban numbers stand out here, among them the pounding “Rumba Sin Alarde” of the great percussion group Los Papines. The song's breathtaking simplicity sounds much more exciting here than Los Van Van's “Que Le Den Candela,” a by now shopworn track that certainly did not need to be included on yet another compilation. Also fresh and fun is Grupo Amenaza's guajira-rap version of “Guantanamera” that combines aggressive rap with spicy tumbaos and rolling timba choruses. (They should, however, lose that Seventies intergalactic electric keyboard playing, the bane of contemporary Cuban music.)

In the end the story behind The Story of Cuba is one of capitalizing on the current popularity of Cuban music, which comes as no surprise. But unlike some of the carelessly produced garbage that the labels have tossed into the market over the past couple of years, this one's a keeper: a nice, upbeat collection with some formidable surprises, recommended for those who don't already own a lot of Cuban albums.

 
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