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At Long Last

Marta Ramirez and Carlos Gomez make beautiful music together
Steve Satterwhite

After years of struggle and relative obscurity, Carlos y Marta are about to make a name for themselves. At least that is what this Miami-based duo now hopes with the recent release of debut -CD Trova Bolero on the Duque Productions label. Although they've been performing for an ever-growing South Florida audience since 1987, Carlos Gomez and Marta Ramirez have thus far been unable to aspire to more for lack of a commercially released recording, the obligatory first step for any artist hoping to reach a larger-than-local audience. Now, with a well-packaged CD as a calling card, the duo can finally set out in search of the wider recognition that has so far eluded them. And wider recognition, according to their enthusiastic supporters, is something these musicians clearly deserve.

"Carlos y Marta give listeners a chance to hear a type of music not often heard, and to hear it interpreted with incomparable quality," says Cuban guitarist Carlos Molina, president of Miami's Classical Guitar Society and an admirer of the duo's work. "In addition to Marta's exquisite vocals, the duo has the very capable guitar of Carlos Gomez, who besides being a wonderful instrumentalist is also a fine composer as well as one of the best arrangers of music for guitar and voice working today. It's really a shame that they are not more widely known." The music of the duo consists of Carlos Gomez's own compositions, as well as often-neglected Latin American compositions belonging to various nationalistic styles, including Cuban trova, Puerto Rican danzas, and Brazilian songs.

Being on the margins, however, is nothing new to Carlos Gomez, a music veteran who in the late 1960s, along with musicians like Pablo Milanes and Silvio Rodriguez, was one of the founders of Cuba's nueva trova movement. For the last twenty years or so, however, Gomez had been kept away from the mainstream: first, in Cuba, for political reasons, and later, in exile, for being out of tune with the demands of the commercial music industry.

Born in Trinidad, one of Cuba's oldest cities, Carlos Gomez grew up listening to the playing and singing of the local trovadores and internalizing the works of seminal trova composers like Sindo Garay, Alberto Villalon, Patricio Ballagas, and Manuel Corona. When in the late 1960s the musical movement that eventually became la nueva trova began to cohere, Gomez -- by then in Havana -- found himself a part of its first generation of proponents. Alongside musicians like Silvio Rodriguez, Pablo Milanes, Mike Pourcel, Noel Nicola, Eduardo Ramos, and others, Gomez had by then begun to create a body of original works that eventually attracted considerable national attention.

The young musicians destined to become identified with nueva trova were seeking to create works consisting of honest poetic expression within aesthetically rich musical compositions. Poetic honesty, in their view, could not elude social commentary, and in this the group found inspiration in the work of U.S. musicians like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger as well as in the nueva canción and canción protesta movements of contemporary South America and Spain. In their search for musical richness, on the other hand, the young Cuban musicians were influenced by sources as diverse as the island's early twentieth-century trovamovement and the music of the Beatles.

Aware that the genre's ideals of social relevancy would sooner or later cause it to collide with the official establishment, Cuban authorities began to get involved in the activities of the fledgling movement. In 1972 a meeting took place in the city of Manzanillo, in the province of Oriente, that resulted in the "official" establishment of what henceforth became known as La Nueva Trova. Subsequently, a process of bureaucratization eventually took complete control of the initially unfettered movement.

The 1980 episodes that culminated in the Mariel exodus brought to a head the general feeling of discontent that had for years been growing in the hearts of many Cubans on the island. It was at that difficult historical moment that Carlos Gomez made public his intentions to leave the country, with the result that he was subsequently barred from all professional artistic activities. Almost five years of internal exile passed before the musician was finally able to leave Cuba in 1985 and head for Spain. By then La Nueva Trova was nothing short of an official government institution.

In 1986, in Madrid, Gomez met Marta Ramirez, an exceptional singer from the Canary Islands who had studied at the local conservatory and was then seeking guitar lessons from the exiled Cuban trovador. Deeply impressed by Ramirez's voice and musical sensibilities, Gomez began working with the young vocalist and two years later, by then married and living in the city of Miami, the two musicians formed the duo Carlos y Marta.

In exile Gomez was still an outsider, finding himself out of tune with the commercial demands of the music industry. Finally, after more than twenty years, he will have his first release. Trova Bolero is a collection of performances recorded in January of 2001 at a concert at Miami's Teatro Bellas Artes, where the couple has been performing regularly for the past few years. The songs range from late nineteenth and early twentieth-century trova compositions, such as José Sanchez's "Tristezas," Garay's "Retorna Vida Mía,"and Villalon's "¿Recuerdas, Morena Mía?"to original compositions by Carlos Gomez himself. The CD also includes pieces from the 1940s and 1950s such as "Sufre Más," by José Antonio Mendez; "Corazón No Llores," by Rafael Hernandez; and -- perhaps surprisingly -- Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Dindi."

In addition to Carlos's guitar accompaniment and the voices of the duo, the CD features Ulises del Toro on tres, a Cuban derivative of the guitar, Nelson "El Flaco" Padron on general percussion, and Onel Mulet on a surprisingly melodious tenor and alto saxophones. The absence of a bass will lead many listeners to expect the recording to have a noticeable weakness in the lower registers. Not at all. Gomez's guitar style is so comprehensive that there is never a moment of dynamic deficiency or imbalance.

Trova Bolero, which contains a note of presentation written by saxophonist Paquito D' Rivera, is the first release by Duque Productions, Inc., a local label headed by Yisel Duque and former Carlos Varela sound engineer Waldy Dominguez. "We want to focus in on the many talented Cuban artists here and in Europe that have so far been neglected by the big record companies," says Duque. "We know that there is a wealth of talent out there that deserves to be recorded." Judging from this first release, in fact, the new label appears to be technically ready to take on this potentially very important work.

The debut by Carlos y Marta is beautifully packaged and includes flattering photographs of the artists in concert. The work of sound engineer Dominguez has produced a recording of superb quality, something quite rare when the performances are recorded live and onstage.

All of the songs included, save one, are well chosen for what is essentially a "concept album." The exception is Jobim's "Dindi," an otherwise beautiful composition that simply does not seem to fit into this particular recording project.

Musically there are several aspects worth noting. One is the exceptional voice of Marta Ramirez, which comes through on most of the CD as a focused and skillfully used instrument. At times Marta employs an elegant vibrato with great results while at others -- as she often does in her voicing of Gomez's "A Mi Madre" -- she holds key notes without a hint of vibrato, with great resulting effects. The talented singer's voice is often full-throated and always deeply pleasing.

While every number is interpreted with sensitivity and musical elegance, the unquestionable highlights of Trova Bolero -- at least to this writer -- are the five original compositions by Carlos Gomez. And while four of these serve to frame the poetry of José Martí, all five carry Gomez's unquestionable musical brilliance. In fact one is left to wonder why, with such obvious talent, Gomez did not include more of his original work in the CD.

Those not yet familiar with the work of Carlos y Marta will undoubtedly be pleased with the general quality of Trova Bolero. The duo's many fans will be happy with the new release. And all will probably wonder why these talented artists are not better known.


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