Afro-Cuban All Stars

(World Circuit)

By now you know the heartwarming story of the Buena Vista Social Club: American guitarist goes to Cuba, locates almost-forgotten elder statesmen of classic Cuban music, records album, watches album become worldwide smash. Said Cuban musicians receive long overdue recognition, adulation, and royalty checks. But one sometimes-overlooked fact of the Buena Vista Social Club album is that it showcases a classic son style rarely heard in Cuba today, outside of Havana tourist bars.

By contrast the Afro-Cuban All Stars' debut album, A Toda Cuba le Gusta, a searing big-band excursion recorded and released concurrently with the BVSC disc, featured many of the same musicians and represented a much more contemporary salsa sound. Led by Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, the All Stars were conceived as a group that could bridge the gap between classic and newer styles of Cuban music. The follow-up "Distinto, Diferente" is, if anything, an even stronger example of the astonishing breadth and diversity of sounds emanating from Cuba today.

The album mainly sticks to a big-band salsa style that balances classically folksy guajira and son montuno sounds with more contemporary styles such as timba, and that balance is reflected in the band's lineup. With a mix of veteran Cuban singers such as Manuel "Puntillita" Licea, Felix Valoy, and Omara Portuondo, and younger talents like Dennys Martinez and Lio Verais, "Distinto, Diferente" succeeds by paying homage to the past without being stuck in it. Nowhere is this more evident than on the latter half of the opening title track, in which the elder and younger singers trade lines over a scintillating son montuno rhythm. The album covers wide ground, including an Afro-Cuban religious track for drums and voice ("Warariansa"); a smaller septeto arrangement that wouldn't have sounded out of place on the Buena Vista album ("Huellas del Pasado"); and a beautiful bolero ("Homanaje a Martha Valdes") that highlights singer Portuondo's mastery of the style.

Mostly though, "Distinto, Diferente" succeeds in being 62 thrilling (and irresistibly danceable) minutes of Cuban music because the group's All Star moniker isn't a marketing ploy. The band truly features some of the best talent that Cuba has to offer, including percussionists Anga Diaz and Amadito Valdes, pianists Ruben Gonzalez and the young David Alfaro, legendary flutist Poyo Tamayo, laúd player Barbarito Torres, and de Marcos himself, who showcases his beautifully melodic tres soloing on "Tributo al Niño Rivera." While the All Stars have been somewhat unfairly overshadowed by the runaway success of the Buena Vista Social Club, "Distinto, Diferente" proves that at least musically, they're still second to none.

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Ezra Gale
Contact: Ezra Gale