The London-based World Circuit label has had phenomenal success with Buena Vista Social Club, Afro-Cuban All Stars, and septuagenarian singer Ibrahim Ferrer's recent solo album. With more than two million records sold, the label is clearly on to something good: the preservation of twentieth-century Cuban musical styles on respectfully but smoothly produced albums, all smartly packaged for international consumption. The label's latest, Bossa Cubana, a compilation of hits from the Sixties vocal group Los Zafiros, accompanied by guitarist Manuel Galban, bassist Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, master conguero Tata Guines, and others, stands out from the pack of current Cuban reissues. This album's release at the height of the latest crossover craze is timely. Los Zafiros were the Cuban pioneers of Latin American pop fusion, the island's answer to the Platters. The band formed in the early Sixties, when Cuban youth had discovered doo-wop, rock and roll, and the electric guitar. Los Zafiros were so struck by the Platters that they did a Spanish version of the American group's "My Prayer" -- the Cuban hit "Mi Oración," one of the seventeen tracks on this compilation. The four Habaneros wore sharkskin suits, and their slick Temptations-style footwork, loose hips, and teen-idol looks had as much to do with their audience appeal as their music. But Los Zafiros were not merely emulating American bands. They followed a tradition of vocal groups in Cuba, and their expressive singing on numbers like "Por No Comprenderte" and "Herido de Sombras" was rooted in the son and Latin bolero genres. Their American-tinged numbers incorporated a mix of Caribbean rhythms. "La Caminadora" is a streetwise rumba. "Sabes Bien" has an unorthodox calypso beat, and the infectious "Bossa Cubana," punctuated by the singers' bird calls, melds a Brazilian flavor with pop vocals and funkified electric guitar.
Los Zafiros' easy mix of international good-time music and sexy moves brought them a rabid female following and rampant radio play. In Cuba they were the Ricky Martins of their day. But their success was short-lived: In addition to strife among the band members, their American style became out of synch with the new era wrought by political changes on the island. By the Seventies, Los Zafiros were forgotten. A 1997 biopic directed by Miami resident Hugo Cancio, son of surviving Zafiros vocalist Miguel Cancio, renewed their popularity in Cuba. This compilation was generated by Ry Cooder, who last year recruited former Zafiros guitarist Manuel Galban to play two Zafiros songs on Ibrahim Ferrer's album. A heady trip back to the days of heartfelt, innovative pop, Bossa Nova should be required listening for today's crossover wannabes. Los Zafiros got it right. -- Judy Cantor
Originally released in 1993 on a German indie label and subsequently issued on these shores the next year by Deja Disc, Bloomed brought the roving singer/songwriter Richard Buckner a smattering of critical acclaim amid the mid-Nineties semiboom of altcountry, as well as a major-label contract with MCA. Hearing Rykodisc's generously appended reissue of that debut album today, following his two good-to-brilliant efforts for the big-league label that recently dropped him, Bloomed is something of a belated revelation: Where his MCA discs (1997's Devotion & Doubt and last year's Since) paired Buckner's gruff, wood-grained voice and impressionistic lyrics with the artful rock and roll embellishments of producer J.D. Foster and a host of indie-rock session pros, Bloomed presents Buckner at his most direct and bare. The sparse accompaniment of banjo, pedal steel, mandolin, and accordion is perfectly suited for Buckner's bleak tales of ravaged lovers and romance both sweet and sour: from the doom-laden twang of producer Lloyd Maines's banjo that carries the suicide parable "22" to the unshakable angst of "This Is Where," which is underpinned with moaning dobro and pedal steel.
As both a reluctant pessimist and a lovesick fool, Buckner's writing throughout Bloomed spans the gamut of lyrical darkness. In "Mud" he warns his son that "love can be a monster, kid," yet he remains hopeful throughout most of "Rainsquall" that the clouds will part, before finally conceding that "when the storm moves on/dear I might be gone." Old love literally haunts him to death in the aching "Six Years" and merely torments him in "Daisychain," but it's "The Worst Way," one of five bonus tracks culled from a previously unreleased 1994 session, that defines his mastery of melancholia. With just his own plaintive guitar and a vocal that's like a whiskey-soaked midnight whisper, Buckner is alone, staring at the ceiling, unable to shake the memory of a relationship he knows never should have happened. "I want you in the worst way," he sighs, hating himself for the very thought, "the way we used to be." Such despair has seldom sounded as beautiful. -- John Floyd