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Your taste for Bill Laswell's collection and "reconstruction" of various Cuban sounds, Imaginary Cuba, will depend entirely on your taste for the patented sonic stamp that the producer, bassist, and self-described "mix-translator" affixes to nearly all his musical projects. Imaginary Cuba stands as a virtual journey through various Afro-Cuban percussion tracks, street singing, and strummed tres melodies, with more than a healthy helping of Laswell's familiar ambient-wash production. Although the disc gathers performances by Cuban musicians such as Frank Emilio, Septeto Nacional, and Los Ibellis, it's less a various-artists compilation than a DJ mix, complete with added production and beats that seamlessly move each track into the next.
There are moments when Laswell's production takes him to some interesting territory, as on the four "Habana Transmission" tracks, on which he layers breakbeats, dub bass lines, and hip-hop snare drums underneath washes of Afro-Cuban percussion and forcefully plucked tres guitar parts. But his indelible stamp and production values are also a double-edged sword, and there are plenty of moments where the union of more complex rhythmic elements of Afro-Cuban music and Laswell's more straightforward funk beats seem forced. On tracks like "Chacon and Daniel," where he squeezes a dub bass line behind intricately woven percussion and tres riffs, the Cuban elements take on the aura of window dressing, and it's almost as if he seems intent on producing a disc that could be titled "Bill Laswell makes Cuban music sound like ... Bill Laswell!"
Moments on this record that are also a bit baffling: It's unclear what an old piano plunking out "Stars Fell on Alabama" (here titled "Loungin with F.E.") has to do with Cuba, unless we're meant to infer from the waves of echo and reverb that it was recorded in the grand old ballroom of a crumbling Havana hotel.
In the end Imaginary Cuba works best as one producer's vision of the marriage between Afro-Cuban music and his own already-developed sound. Those who are relatively new to Cuban music or more accustomed to the electronic-based sounds Laswell usually trades in may find this a bold experiment in musical fusion with some interesting Cuban spices. Other listeners, particularly those familiar with the various Cuban styles touched on or hinted at here, will probably just find it pretentious. -- Ezra Gale