It's a surprise right up there with hearing rap at a nursing home. Buena Vista Social Club bassist Orlando Cachaito Lopez busts out of the senior activity center for señors with a genre-bursting release worthy of a youngster. But few urchins could wield the know-how to carry off Cachaito by swaddling its mayhem in five decades of professional cool. The disc starts off reasonably enough once the bass man finally makes it to the ringing phone of spoken intro "Siempre con Swing." "Redención," a classic penned by Cachaito's descarga pioneer uncle, Israel Lopez, yawns, hangs up the receiver, and sets feet slowly on the floor as charanga-sweet violins and butterfly flute lazily usher in the day. This apparent sweep through the hallway of nostalgia quickly uncovers odd-shaped lumps under the rug. As Miguel Anga Diaz beats the congas with mood-altering enthusiasm, Clifton "Bigga" Morrison pops in with reggae-inflected electric organ jabs that throw open the door to dub effects. Violins stutter and echo, the bottom drops in and out of the mix, Policarpo Tamayo Garriga's trombone snarls, and sleep suddenly is forgotten.
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Cachaito is the feverish dream of Lopez, Buena Vista Social Club musical director Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, and Ibrahim Ferrer's musical director, Demetrio Muñiz, who masterminded the fizzy horn and string arrangements here. Together the three men don't so much compress the history of Cuban dance music as elongate it into a format that can swallow and absorb almost any outside influence. The shape-shifting amoeba draws in nontraditional figures such as French DJ Dee Nasty, South African flugelhornist Hugh Masekela, and James Brown Revue saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, whose horn charts have occasionally resuscitated Van Morrison over the past twenty years. Ellis's circling melody lines on "Tumbao No. 5" transmogrify a drum and bass exercise into a memorable little slice of tension. Masekela lends so much grandeur to the Jamaican-tilting "Tumbanga" you could chisel his lofty solo in solid marble and it would still take wing.
But it's the Cuban musicians who consistently provide the disc's most unexpected performances. The pizzicato strings on "Oración Lucumi" fall like snow in a glass globe shaken hard by a pointed Juan de Marcos tres solo. Groove-heavy "A Gozar el Tumbao" spills in on Manuel Galban's reverb-laden surf guitar and a thick miasma of brass. Sonero Ibrahim Ferrer comes out of nowhere with a short ascending cameo of a vocal on "Wahira," the only noninstrumental track onboard. The apparent sentimentality of the piece sets wistfulness at the mercy of clambering horns, wah-wah electric guitar, and the omnipresent Lopez-Diaz rhythmic juggernaut. Like every other composition here, "Wahira" is less than a fully realized song, more than a studio jam. It feeds your head but keeps you hungry. The happiest remedy is to play the disc again and lap up whatever spills over the edges. Cachaito is something of a mess, but, oh, what a lovely mess, a free-range, continent straddling big idea. Its dozen ambitious cuts whisk by with the briskness of a single song and the slight mystery of a tune whistled in the dark.