Surprise is the one reaction you don't anticipate from an Eliades Ochoa album. Admiration, yes. But you don't expect the unexpected. If anything the master of the Cuban country son usually errs on the side of tradition, as on 1999's enjoyable yet slightly stiff Sublime Ilusion. But Estoy Como Nunca (Higher Octave) lives up to its translated title I Feel Better Than Ever with a relaxed sense of confidence; the Santiago de Cuba cowboy takes unusual departures from his Cuarteto Patria oeuvre that end up paying off big.
You notice the expansive attitude right away with the rhythmic, freewheeling title cut, whose airy swing rides the updraft of Los Lobos and Los Super Seven member David Hidalgo's acoustic guitar. And what's that, a bass solo near the end? The next track, "Arrímate Pacá" ("Slide Over Here"), jump-starts with a syncopated vocal section punctuated by handclaps, stutters around an internal coda, gets quiet with a bass and guitar passage, then hops back onto the propulsive vocals with hints of street corner doo-wop. A lovely instrumental reading of the Ernesto Lecuona classic "Siboney" with flamenco overtones emphasizes the ornamented Spanish style of early twentieth-century Cuban compositions and brushes the cobwebs off an otherwise over-recorded chestnut.
A guest vocal by Raul Malo of Los Super Seven and urban cowboy outfit the Mavericks isn't the bolt from the blue that it first appears, since Malo is now Ochoa's Higher Octave labelmate. The reprise of "No Me Preguntes Tanto" ("Don't Ask Me So Many Questions"), more folkloric than the big-band blowout of the song on Malo's solo CD Today, easily earns its space here. Malo and Ochoa's elated vocals bounce off one another like excited electrons orbiting a brand-new element, inspiring both singers to elevated levels of passion despite the comparative cool of the arrangement. Malo sounds like a city slicker in overdrive, Ochoa like the aw-shucks rustic who ultimately out-cons the con artist, while Anibal Avila's laughing trumpet tosses a handful of sand at any perceived sincerity in a thoroughly playful number. As always Ochoa preserves the solid traditional base of campesino music throughout the disc, but he's never seemed to be having this much fun before in his post-Buena Vista Social Club outings. And come to think of it, neither have we.
Putumayo's Congo to Cuba anthology promises to explore the Africa-Caribbean musical dialogue in the same way that the label's Mali to Memphis album probed links between West African traditions and North American blues. There's enough high-quality Congolese material out there to fill about a dozen collections on this theme without denting the catalogue of recordings by Franco, Tabu Ley Rochereau, and other pioneers of African rumba from the early 1960s. Then there's Kanda Bongo Man, Loketo, and the whole shebang of Parisian-based Congolese superstars of the 1980s who turned the classic vocal-heavy genre into rhythm-based party music with its trademark stratospheric guitar arpeggios. But Congo to Cuba opts for a miserly approach instead by mysteriously including exactly one cut from the Congo. And Tshala Muana's uncharacteristic salsa foray, "Congo," pits her ethereal off-kilter voice against a horn section that all but swallows her songbird subtlety while simultaneously quashing the quirky mutuashi folk funk on which her reputation rests.
The unexpected paucity of the classic Congo rumba that rocked Africa for decades scores this disc about a C in the truth-in-advertising department, up-graded to a low B for the spine-popping virtues of the West African pieces that are on board. Male vocalist Mama Sissoko's "Safiatou" fills a son groove with liquid guitar, while fellow Guinean and female vocalist Mama Keita adds a kora and mandingo drums to "Tougnafo." Senegal's Papa Fall upholds the string of parental monikers while bringing the bounce of a synthesized balafon to the airy charanga "African Salsa." From Benin, Gnonnas Pedro supernaturally transforms the Beny Moré classic "Yiri Yiri Bon" into "Yiri Yiri Boum," tricking up the bottomless rhythm with an electric piano solo tossed off with Fela Kuti-style abandon for a suggestion of Afrobeat.
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The Cuban tracks lag in comparison, and the performers are even less well-known than the West Africans. Straddling septeto and big-band styles, Chico Alvarez's "Val' Carretero" is rock solid with fine lead vocals, trumpet, and piano break. But it doesn't have the oomph a disc opener should wield and lacks anything approaching the crackle of Sissoko's simmering Guinean meltdown that immediately follows. Chocolate Armenteros delivers a so-so performance of "Ritmo de Mi Son," which has seen far superior versions in the recent past, including as the root for the title cut of Rick Trevino's Mi Son. On the other hand, Monte Adentro's brassy "Igualita Que Tú" leaps to the head of the class with a son featuring a saxophone contribution from Nigeria's Dexter Johnson, bringing the disc full circle. Good as this Congo to Cuba may be in places, once you get a sense of what's been left off, you'll long-o for the Congo and ponder why so little of it resides on the perfect showcase for classic rumba.