David Alvarez y Juego de Manos

Long before slide-guitarist Ry Cooder helped off-island audiences rediscover Cuban music with the Buena Vista Social Club, U.K.-based label Tumi Music was releasing the best in Cuban and Latin-American styles, both traditional and forward-looking. Neither David Alvarez nor the members of his back-up band Juego de Manos, whose name can be translated loosely as "Hand Jive," are anything like the eloquent and elegant fossils of the Buena Vista Social Club. Alvarez, for example, is a lean and youthful 28 years old, and he chose his players from a pack of recent music school graduates in the early Nineties. The sound of Mundo Loco is future-oriented and ranks with the newest and most innovative offerings in Latin pop. Dominican Juan Luis Guerra pioneered this form of cheery Caribbean music buttressed by sturdy and complex arrangements. With decidedly son-oriented grooves, Alvarez offers the same arrangement savvy here.

The eleven compositions of Mundo Loco offer rollicking good Latin dance music with teasing nods to the Afro-Cuban past. The pace of the collection is quick with only two ballads in the bunch. Rhythmic high jinks save the work from the fate of so much salsick slop. On the opening track, "Tambor" ("Drum"), Alvarez's voice can be heard hovering solo above a backdrop of percussion, before the rest of the band kicks in: tres, bass, piano, brass, and a rich vocal chorus. "Tambor" also features a protracted clave reversal in the middle of the song which creates a sense of bent time. What began as a quirky, deliberate, and stilted piano-centered dance number shifts midway into a more typically brass-driven Cuban-spiced salsa vamp.

Aside from the lush musical arrangements, which reach from classically austere piano phrasings to spacey synth-heavy meanderings, the most striking feature of this CD is Alvarez's inimitable voice. Somewhere between a tenor and an alto, Alvarez sounds like a sublime hybrid of a billy goat and Julio Iglesias after too many Cuban coffees. In "Habanera Sola" ("Lonely Havana Girl") he uses his trademark extended oscillating vibrato to fill the bolero's wide expanses. That voice fuels a lyrical resourcefulness, as in the title track where "la risa es una bomba de flores que crecen/por la senda del olvido" ("laughter is an explosion of flowers which grow/along the path of forgotten love"). The powerful package of voice, rhythm, and wit shows enormous promise for the future of Latin pop.


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