Orlando "Maraca" Valle segued easily from his years as a prodigious flute player with Cuban jazz heavyweights Bobby Carcasses, Emiliano Salvador, and Irakere to leading his own band, Otra Vision, purveyors of well-crafted good-time music. Performing a brand of popular Cuban music with wide appeal, Maraca and Otra Vision have, like Cubanismo -- another group with an infectiously joyous vibe -- followed a rigorous tour schedule and become a staple at international festivals. That Maraca has developed a steady following in the United States is largely due to the efforts of his record company, Los Angeles-based Ahí-Namá, which has persisted in its quest to make Cuban music a significant presence in the U.S. market when other labels have tired of the trend or just disappeared.
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Tremenda Rumba!, Maraca's third disc on Ahí-Namá, gets off to a spectacular start, with the conservatory-trained flautist departing further from jazz than ever before and putting his chops as a player and arranger in the service of living up to the album's name (Incredible Party). The first track, "Se te acabó la rumba," is Cuban dance music arranged for an international audience; in other words, the sound of musically sophisticated salsa. "Castígala" weaves totally fresh and absolutely irresistible Latin rhythms led by Wilfredo Campa's great sonero stylings with the contemporary Caribbean street sensibility of Amiel Castellanos's swaying rap. Maraca calls the sound "salsa-ragga," and it would be a huge Spanish hit if radio were right. (And there's at least some chance it will be on the less Cubaphobic West Coast.)
This is all great fun until the album takes an unexpected turn. Suddenly an old-style danzón begins -- and it's frankly a bummer (who let Buena Vista Social Club in, and why?). Tremenda Rumba! then becomes -- as so many Cuban albums before it -- a sampler of Cuban music styles: a hard-edged timba, a carnival conga, Afro-jazz ... this potpourri approach is a time-honored Cuban musical tradition (complete with genre labels on the track list), but one that feels pretty tired. It seems Maraca felt the need to demonstrate his artistic versatility, and perhaps was afraid to drop the jazz solos for fear of losing his rep as a serious musician. All the music here is well executed and in some cases innovatively arranged, and it's all easy on the ears, as could be expected from the extensive guest list of esteemed Havana musicians who joined the band in the studio. But it's too bad Maraca didn't stick with the powerful groove of the first few tracks. The results could have been truly tremendous.