Tag Archives: Cuban music

Artist Profiles: Alfredo Rodríguez

Alfredo Rodríguez

Composer and pianist Alfredo Rodríguez was born October 7, 1985 in Havana, Cuba.

Alfredo has a solid musical background. He began studying percussion at the age of 7 but his real passion was the piano and that’s what he finally chose. He studied at the Manuel Saumell, Amadeo Roldán conservatories and at the Higher Institute of Art of Havana.

His first major performance took place in 2006, at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival, where he was discovered by acclaimed music producer Quincy Jones who proposed to be his manager. Three years later, in 2009, after crossing the border from Mexico with the United States, Alfredo Rodríguez Jr. moved to the United States and began a new phase in his life, guided and produced by the influential Quincy Jones.

Alfredo’s debut album, Sounds of Space, produced by Jones himself, was released in 2012.

His second album, also co-produced by his mentor Quincy Jones, The Invasion Parade, came out in 2014. The Invasion Parade explores his memories of Cuba, the people and culture he left behind, and finds his new place. Guests include bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding and percussionist and vocalist Pedrito Martínez.


Sounds of Space (Mack Avenue, 2012)
The Invasion Parade (Mack Avenue Records, 2014)
Tocororo ‎(Mack Avenue MAC1109, 2016)
The Little Dream ‎(Mack Avenue MAC1130, 2018)


Alfredo Rodríguez’s Richly Textured Piano

Alfredo Rodríguez – The Little Dream ‎(Mack Avenue MAC1130, 2018)

The Little Dream showcases the talent of yet another Cuban piano star, Alfredo Rodríguez. This is Alfredo’s fourth album for American label Mack Avenue, produced by acclaimed producer Quincy Jones and Alfredo. It was recorded in Madrid and Los Angeles.

The format on this album is a superb trio featuring Alfredo on piano and vocals; Munir Hossn on guitar and electric bass; and Michael Olivera on drums and percussion.

The Little Dream incorporates jazz, classical, Cuban and global music influences. Despite the jazz training, Alfredo’s piano has a deeply Cuban flavor. In addition to his piano performances, he adds beautiful wordless harmony vocals.

The interaction between the elegant piano, the creative electric bass lines and exquisite percussion is deeply satisfying.

Most of the material on the album are originals by Alfredo, although there are a couple of jazzified versions of popular classics in the Hispanic world: “Vamos todos a cantar” by Teresita Hernández and the well-known bolero “Bésame mucho” by Mexican singer Consuelo Velázquez (misspelled in the booklet).

On most of the album, Alfredo uses the acoustic piano, although he also picks up the Rhodes electric piano, engaging in tasty fusion.

The Little Dream is masterfully-crafted and features the exceptionally expressive piano work of a formidable Cuban musician.

Buy The Little Dream in Europe

Buy The Little Dream in the rest of the world


The Cuban Danzón

Danzón is a ballroom dance played by the Cuban charangas. It is a descendant of the popular the Spanish danza of the 1800s and the French contredanse (contradanza) brought by the French immigrants fleeing the Haitian Revolution, who settled in the Cuba’s eastern region. The danzon was preferably danced during winter, because, according to the dancers, it led to extreme overheating. Therefore, in winter Cubans danced danzón, and in summer they waltzed.

Danzón in the 19th Century

As the name in Spanish implies, the danzon is a long dance. In the mid 19th century, Miguel Faílde created the instrumental accompaniment to the dance. The first danzon was performed by a traditional wind orchestra, at the Matanzas Lyceum, January 1st, 1879. The name of the first danzón known was “Las alturas de Simpsom.” The name of the piece was a marked homage to the site in the city where popular celebrations were held.

Years later, musicians like Raimundo Valenzuela, Enrique Guerrero and Félix Cruz, added to new elements to the popular genre.

Danzon in the 20th Century

At the beginnings of the 20th century, José Urfé revolutionized danzon music completely by introducing a mountain son using the tres (three string guitar) style used by musicians in the eastern provinces of Cuba. Musicologist Helio Orovio said: “El Bombín de Barreto (a song by Urfé) defined for the rest of the century, the singular style that would distinguish the danzón forever.”

From Cuba, the danzon spread to other nations, like Mexico.

Danzon’s Offspring

The danzon generated new genres like the danzonete and the cha cha chá. Barbarito Diez became the King of the danzon. The danzón owes its ample diffusion and clearest interpretation to Diez.

The danzon is currently celebrated during the Havana Danzón Festival, that includes concerts, conferences and meetings that clarify the influence of the danzón on musical genres that came decades later, such as salsa.

Sources: Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematograficos (ICAIC), Helio Orovio, World Music Central

Danzón books

Danzón: Circum-Caribbean Dialogues in Music and Dance (Currents in Latin American and Iberian Music)

Danzón Recordings

The Cuban Danzón


Omar Sosa and NDR Bigband to Release Es:sensual

Omar Sosa and NDR Bigband – Es:sensual

Acclaimed Cuban pianist Omar Sosa and Germany’s NDR Bigband are set to release Es:sensual on January 18. This is the international release of this album that previously available only in Germany.

Es:sensual is a continuation of pianist and composer Omar Sosa’s collaboration with Hamburg’s NDR Bigband (North German Radio-Norddeutscher Rundfunk) and renowned Brazilian cellist, composer and arranger Jaques Morelenbaum, whose inaugural effort can be heard on the Omar Sosa-NDR Bigband CD Ceremony (Otá, 2010).

Buy Es:sensual


Artist Profiles: Tiempo Libre

Tiempo Libre

Childhood friends Tiempo Libre’s members individually fled from Cuba and eventually reunited in Miami where they enjoyed thriving careers performing touring and recording with such artists as Albita, Cachao and Arturo Sandoval. In their free time or Tiempo Libre in Spanish, the seven musicians would come together to realize their collective musical dream of forming the first all-Cuban timba group in the U.S.

Moving against a tide of predictions that a broad musical audience would not embrace the timba music native to their homeland they formed their group in 2001. Years later they are recognized as the leading creators and performers of timba music outside of Cuba. Tiempo Libre are keeping the timba tradition fresh and evolving through their unique blend of classical, Cuban and American influences.

Their extensive tour history includes concerts at prestigious venues around the world. They have performed on The Tonight Show, Dancing with the Stars, numerous shows on Telemundo and Univision and have received airplay on numerous radio stations. Tiempo Libre even achieved the Cuban equivalent of being on a box of Wheaties by having their likeness featured on a million Cafe Bustelo coffee cans throughout the United States.

Tiempo Libre’s first recording for Sony Masterworks, Bach in Havana was nominated for a Grammy award for Best Tropical Latin Album. The album, a fusion of Bach with Afro-Cuban rhythms featuring guest tracks by Paquito D’Rivera and Yosvany Terry was released in May 2009. The group’s previous two albums Arroz Con Mango and Lo Que Esperabas on the Shanachie label were both nominated for Grammys. The group starred in a musical production Miami Libre inspired by its collective immigrant experiences at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center.

In Fall 2008 Tiempo Libre was hand-picked by classical music’s celebrity flute player James Galway to arrange and record O’Reilly Street which included an Afro-Cuban take on music from the jazz suites of Claude Bolling.

In 2011 Tiempo Libre released My Secret Radio. Tiempo Libre’s line-up in 2011 included musical director Jorge Gómez on keyboard; Raul Rodriguez on trumpet; Leandro Gonzalez on congas; Tebelio (Tony) Fonte on bass; Armando (Pututi) Arce on drums; Joaquin (El Kid) Diaz on lead vocal; and Luis Beltran Castillo on saxophone & flute.


Timbiando (2004)
Arroz Con Mango (Shanachie 2005)
Lo Que Esperabas (What You’ve Been Waiting For) (Shanachie 2006)
O’Reilly Street (Red Seal 2008)
Bach in Havana (Sony Masterworks 2009)
My Secret Radio (Sony Masterworks 2011)
Panamericano (Sony Latin, 2015)


Cuban Punto Inscribed in 2017 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Photo by Juan Carlos Borjas, Grupo Guijarro – Consejo Nacional de Casas de Cultura, 2009

UNESCO announced today that Cuban punto is inscribed in 2017 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Punto is the poetry and music of Cuban farmworkers, consisting of a tune or melody over which a person sings an improvised or learned stanza of ten octameter verse lines, with a rhyming scheme.

There are two principal variations of Punto: punto libre, a tune of free meter; and punto fijo, which can be in key or crossed. Throughout history, punto has habitually been practiced in the countryside, although variants now exist throughout the rest of the population.

A teaching program is organized in Houses of Culture across Cuba, involving workshops instructed by bearers and practitioners of punto.

Seminars, workshops, contests, festivals and events aimed at safeguarding and revitalizing punto are organized throughout Cuba and an occupational category has now been assigned to the work of the practitioners and bearers, turning this into a way of living for many.


To Beny Moré With Love Wins Best Traditional Tropical Album Latin Grammy Award

Jon Secada and The Charlie Sepúlveda Big Band – To Beny Moré With Love

To Beny Moré With Love by Cuban-American singer Jon Secada and The Charlie Sepúlveda Big Band won the Best Traditional Tropical Album award at the 18th Latin Grammy Awards. The arrangements are by Ray Santos, who worked with Beny Moré in the 1950s.

Beny Moré was a legendary Cuban singer and bandleader who influenced Latin music in the United States and abroad.

The album combines Secada’s vocals with Beny Moré’s original vocals (who passed away in 1963) and was criticized by some members of the Moré family.

Buy To Beny Moré With Love


Caught Up In Getting Caught Up

It is a long time since I have contributed reviews to this site. The reasons are many, varied and not a matter of public record. They’re also quite boring, so you wouldn’t want to hear about them in any case. My tendency had been to write reviews in groups united by some sort of genre, style or perceived common-ground theme. But I presently find myself so far behind that the disconnected overview I am about to subject you to is the only approach that will effectively close the gap. Apologies, and away we go.

As a longtime fan of Afrobeat music, I was greatly interested when I heard that Chicago Afrobeat Project would be collaborating with drummer Tony Allen. Allen, after all, was the man behind the kit for all of Fela Kuti’s groundbreaking records and was just as instrumental (pun absolutely intended) in creating the Afrobeat style. What Goes Up (Chicago Afrobeat Project, 2017) does not disappoint. Allen’s militantly polyrhythmic drumming is as spot on as ever. He also brings the experimental feel of his recent works, so the album isn’t simply formulaic Afrobeat but rather an effective blend of contemporary textures (including measured doses of rap) and traditionally-grounded grooves.

Horns, stinging keyboards and no-nonsense vocals (largely female) share most of the upper mix with Allen’s drums, while bass, guitars and percussion provide covert menace beneath. The lyrical unrest typical of Afrobeat is very much present in songs that address racial and gender inequity, political nonsense, media trickery and the belief that the high and mighty will be toppled sooner or later. None of the tracks are even five minutes in length (another departure from the once-usual Afrobeat template) and lest you think it’s all message-laden heaviness, “Afro Party” will handily prove otherwise. If this is the current state of Afrobeat, it’s in a healthy state indeed.


Betsayda Machado & La Parranda El Clavo – Betsayda Machado and Parranda El Clavo – Loe Loa: Rural Recordings Under the Mango Tree


While Afro-Cuban, Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Colombian and Afro-Peruvian music have all been getting their due of late, Afro-Venezuelan music hasn’t fared as well. Perhaps the level of upheaval in that nation has some bearing, but now there’s a degree of redress to be found with Loe Loa: Rural Recordings Under the Mango Tree (Odelia, 2017) by Betsayda Machado and Parranda El Clavo.

Percussion and vocals are all you hear on this field recording (albeit captured with modern technology), and given that Betsayda and her many-strong ensemble are descended from escaped slaves who lived in hidden village communities, the drumming and call-and-response voices ring with an air of both celebration and defiance. This is thunderously rousing music, binding in its spell and guaranteed to raise your spirits to the highest heights. Alan Lomax is surely smiling from the Great Beyond.


Ilú Keké. Transmisión en la Eritá Meta


Similarly, Transmision En La Erita Meta (Sendero Music, 2017) is all about drums and voices, though the drums here are more than instruments. They are a trio of sacred Cuban bata, vessels of sound created to invoke and seek the blessings of the deities known as orishas, belief in which originated among the Yoruba people of West Africa and survived the slavery era. The worship system of Santeria was later syncretized with the saints of Catholicism, but purer forms of orisha worship endure in Cuba and elsewhere.

Spoken testimonies are interspersed among the 21 tracks on the CD, and if your understanding of Spanish is as non-existent as mine, the hypnotically complex pulses of the double-headed, bell-festooned bata and reverent vocal chants are all you’ll need to connect to the Divine. The disc comes with an extensive booklet that tells in great detail how the story of the particular drums used fits into the overall tradition that inspired their use. It’s as absorbing to read as the drumming is to listen to. Curl up and absorb yourself in both.


Aurelio – Darandi


Keeping close geographically as well as covering more music that came about in the age of slavery, Darandi (Real World/Stonetree, 2016) by Honduran Garifuna master musician Aurelio, captures him at his raw best. Following a performance at the U.K. WOMAD festival, he took his band to the in-house studio at Real World Records and recorded a dozen live-and-direct tracks that are a kind of greatest hits from his three previous studio albums.

Acoustic and electric guitars, bass and a pair of snare-buzzed traditional hand drums provide the accompaniment to Aurelio’s nimble voice and the glorious wraparound of his three backing vocalists. The African roots of Garifuna music resound in the highlife-like guitar chiming and feverish drumming, but Spanish and Central American indigenous elements are just as present. I’ll leave it to you to research the Garifuna origin story if you don’t already know it. I’m too busy listening to this excellent music.


Monoswezi – A Je


The liner notes of A Je (Riverboat Records/World Music Network, 2017), the latest by Monoswezi, describe them as “African-Nordic jazz alchemists.” And who am I to argue? Such wording makes my task of describing their music that much easier. I’m fairly sure this is the group’s third album, and the most immediately striking addition to their sonic brew is the harmonium, that hand-pumped organ so central to Pakistani Qawwali devotional music. The instrument gives a penetrating mystical edge to Monoswezi’s already very fine fusion of Mozambican, Norwegian, Swedish and Zimbabwean sounds. As before, I’d peg the rhythmic side of things as mostly African, though melodically it’s the punctuation of instruments like clarinet, banjo and the prior- mentioned harmonium that add the welcome Scandinavian chill and outward reach.

New to the lineup is Sidiki Camara, a calabash and ngoni (lute) player whose name I’ve seen in the credits of many a West African music album and who brings an extra layer of spark to this one. A Je is Monoswezi’s best yet, full of propulsive, hands-on percussion, adventurous but mutually perfect combinations of lead instruments (such as banjo and mbira plucking happily side-by-side) and vocals that sound like jelis singing tales of recent trips to Arctic zones and beyond. Consistently great listening through and through, so count it a must-have.


Elida Almeida – Kebrada


Closer to the African mainland (just to the west of it, specifically) we find the latest up-and-coming singer from Cape Verde, Elida Almeida. She scores on Kebrada (Lusafrica, 2017) which despite her young age finds her fully adept at the heart-stirring nuances of singing in familiar Afro-Portuguese styles like funana and coladera, mixing things up with some Latin and Caribbean inflections. Nothing revolutionary, just great music for the many out there who love the sounds Cape Verdeans have brought to the world. The fact that one of the contributing musicians is recently deceased Malagasy accordion master Regis Gizavo makes it even greater and more than a little bittersweet.


Stringquake – Cascade

Sometimes three pieces are all you need. Such is the case with Stringquake, whose album Cascade (Stringquake, 2016) blends Amelia Romano’s harp, Misha Khalikulov’s cello and Josh Mellinger’s percussion into instrumentals that range from intimately moody to absolutely grand. The two stringed instruments complement each other to perfection, an intertwining mesh that trades leading roles of tonal beauty while keeping pace with a percussion backdrop that includes cajon, frame drum, tabla and steel pan. You can rightly call some of this chamber music, some of it jazz fusion (like the cover of Don Cherry’s “Guinea”) and some of it world music in the not-otherwise-easily-classified sense. But it’s all beautifully, passionately rendered and stands up to repeated listens that continue to impress.


Astrid Kuljanic – Transatlantic Exploration Company – Riva


If an unconventional musical foursome is more your speed, check out Astrid Kuljanic on her release Riva (One Trick Dog Records, 2017). Her band, comprised of accordionist Ben Rosenblum, bassist Mat Muntz and percussionist Rogerio Boccato, is called the Transatlantic Exploration Company and her own background of having been born in Yugoslavia, studying music in Italy and Manhattan and finding inspiration on the Adriatic island of Cres makes the name perfectly fitting. And not surprisingly, the music fits the moniker as well. Kuljanic’s swooping, versatile vocals make her sound at home singing reconfigured traditional Croatian songs, scatty jazz pieces, samba-inspired charmers, a quirky original or two and a completely unique take on Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia.” She and her players sound like they’re having a blast and the music is again hard to classify, but the whole thing is head-spinning good. Available from www.onetrickdogrecords.com


Divanhana – Live in Mostar


Lovers of sevdah, the often-melancholic traditional music from Bosnia and Herzegovina, will rejoice in Divanhana’s Live in Mostar (ARC Music, 2017). The band sports instrumentation that only bows partly to tradition (accordion, electric piano, electric bass, drums, percussion and violin) and livens up their “Balkan blues” with jazzy breaks and klezmer-like seasonings. The achingly gorgeous lead vocals of Naida Catic (particularly on the unaccompanied “Daurko Mila”) are clearly a major asset, but the entire band rises to the occasion.

Given how crystalline the sound is, you might easily mistake the disc for a studio album until the audience reaction reminds you that a lucky bunch of folks were able to enjoy this live and direct. And the CD comes with the next best thing to having been there: a DVD featuring live performances and interviews. Get this and savor a double dose of sevdah at its progressive best.


Various Artists – Cuba! Cuba!


If your collection of Cuban music isn’t complete (and whose is?), pick up Cuba! Cuba! (Putumayo, 2017). The various artists here are mostly in classic sound mode and some are younger artists carrying the torch for that classic sound. Still, the Putumayo folks like to throw in a wild card or two, and one surprise here is the unearthed instrumental “Guajira” featuring legends Alfredo Valdes Jr. on piano and trumpeter “Chocolate” Armenteros, recorded in Peru in 1964. That track serves as a kind of guidepost for the other fine singers and players on the disc, including veterans Roberto Torres and Armando Garzon (the latter with the ever-venerable and hypnotic “Chan Chan”), Miami-based young traditionalists Sonlokos and the always invigorating Jose Conde y Ola Fresca. This one’s got sizzle to spare.


Various Artists – Mista Savona Presents Havana Meets Kingston


“Chan Chan” is also the opening track on Mista Savona Presents Havana Meets Kingston (17 North Parade/VP, 2017), a brilliantly realized Cuban/Jamaican fusion in which son meets one drop, congas patter away alongside nyabinghi drums, Spanish-accented troubadours trade off with Trench Town chanters and both sides nice up the party. Some songs are more one locale than the other and employ a key element (like deejay chatter or regional horn riffs) that make the connection, while most are seamless mashups that are simply thrilling, like veteran guitarist Ernest Ranglin joyously picking his way through “410 San Miguel” with pianist Rolando Luna nimbly matching the vibe (and that’s before the dub effects even kick in).

Some of the other participants on the album are Sly and Robbie, Barbarito Torres, Changuito, Bongo Herman, Julito Padron and a chorus of notables that includes Leroy Sibbles, Lutan Fyah and Price Alla. That’s just the tip of things. No other written words will do justice to this landmark release recorded at Havana’s Egrem Studios under the guidance of producer/arranger/keyboardist Jake Savona. Highly recommended.


Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino – Canzoniere


Grandly combining Italian traditional music with jolts of contemporary Western pop, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino strike a tasty, dance-ready balance on Canzoniere (Ponderosa Music Records, 2017). CGS are one of those bands that can seemingly do it all, mixing accordion, uniformly rhythmic clatter and a reggae feel on “Ientu,” infusing “Moi” with a start-and-stop techno stomp that dramatically punctuates the traded vocals, builds simplicity into complexity in nothing flat with help from guitarist Justin Adams on “Aiora” and erects walls of sound throughout using instruments and voices that are organically and electronically symbiotic. I’m not sure if the term “mind-blowing” is still in the accepted lexicon, but this album fits that description in a most satisfying way.


Mary Ann Kennedy – An Dan: Gaelic Songs for a Modern World


Scotland’s Mary Ann Kennedy gives us An Dan: Gaelic Songs for a Modern World (ARC Music, 2017), and a very nice lot they are. Her voice is grand and soaring and the arrangements, heavy on strings and Kennedy’s own piano, match to near-perfection. The lyrics are from a combination of literary sources while the musical arrangements are again Kennedy’s work, so the whole thing has an air of tradition mixed with vision.

Those who appreciate the familiarity of Gaelic music will be spellbound even as subtleties like the South African melody that underpins “Song for John MacDonald” ring true from a world beyond. For pure beauty, you can’t beat this.


Arturo Jorge y El Cuarteto Tradición’s Rural Charm

Arturo Jorge y El Cuarteto Tradición – Finca Santa Elena (Tumi Music, 2017)

Finca Santa Elena is the international release from Cuba’s Arturo Jorge y El Cuarteto Tradición. British label Tumi Music is providing wider exposure to one of the finest performers of rural guajira music from Eastern Cuba.

Arturo Jorge Cabrales, better known as Arturo Jorge, is a talented singer-songwriter, composer and tres and guitar player from San Rafael. He founded El Cuarteto Tradición, an ensemble that brings forward the son and son montuno traditions to new generations. It’s music that brings together poetry, the Spanish guitar traditions and light Afro-Cuban percussion.

The amusing lyrics cover all kinds of topics, ranging from changing rural life and love to jealousy and unhappiness with foreign rhythms like reggaeton that are getting more attention than traditional Cuban genres.

The personnel on Finca Santa Elena includes Arturo Jorge Cabrales on vocals and tres (he uses a double-necked acoustic guitar instrument); Geovanis Oliva Aguilar on guitar and backing vocals; Gerardo Ramirez Valdé on acoustic bass; Ramón Vicente García Montero on percussion and backing vocals; and Erlis Ros Navas on percussion and backing vocals.

Buy Finca Santa Elena in Europe

Buy Finca Santa Elena in the rest of the world


David Virelles’ Afro-Cuban Piano explorations

David Virelles – Gnosis

David Virelles – Gnosis (ECM Records, 2017)

Gnosis is a multifaceted avant-garde album featuring a extensive series of musical illustrations by Cuban pianist David Virelles. There is unconventional piano experimentation, captivating Afro-Cuban rhythmic performances, and jazz improvisation.

The highlights on Gnosis ae the piano and percussion ensemble pieces where Virelles collaborates with percussionist Román Diaz and the Nosotros Ensemble.

Musicians featured in Gnosis include David Virelles on piano, marimbula, vocals; Román Díaz on lead vocals, percussion; Allison Loggins-Hull on flute, piccolo; Rane Moore on clarinet and bass clarinet; Adam Cruz on steel pan, claves; Alex Lipowksi on percussion; Matthew Gold on marimba, glockenspiel; Mauricio Herrera on ekón, nkonos, erikundi, claves; Thomas Morgan on bass; Yunior Lopez on viola; Christine Chen and Samuel DeCaprio on cello; Melvis Santa and Mauricio Herrera on background vocals.



Buy Gnosis in Europe

Buy Gnosis in the rest of the world