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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ilú Keké is an album dedicated to the batá drums, a set of three barrel drums (itótele, iyá and okónkolo) used in sacred Afro-Cuban rituals as well as secular Cuban music. The album presents traditional batá drumming performed by elders and younger instrumentalists, spoken word and sacred Afro-Cuban chants as well.
The album tells the story of a set of religious drums known as ilú keké that were discovered in a small Cuban village and brought back. Ilú Keké. Transmisión en la Eritá Meta is collaborative work between British ethnomusicologist Amanda Villepastour and Cuban producer Luis J. Bran Acevedo.
The musicians featured in the album include the elders Justiliano Pelladito Urrutia on itótele; Pedro Pablo Tápanes González “Pello” on iyá; Pedro Aballi Torriente “Regalado” on okónkolo; the Ilú Keké drummers: Idalberto Berriel Pérez on itótele and acheré; Orlando Alvarez González on iyá; Eusebio Hernández Rodríguez “Nandito” on okónkolo; and José Luis García Fernández “Pepito” on okónkolo.
The vocalists are: Yaima de los Milagros Pelladito Portillo (female lead and chorus); René Sergrañe Menocal (male lead and chorus); Regla Pérez Herrera (chorus), Odalis Fuentes Pérez (chorus); and Yaimel García Poertillo (chorus).
The nicely-packaged album includes details about the history of the Ilú Keké, color photographs, track descriptions and credits.
Ilú Keké. Transmisión en la Eritá Meta is a great introduction to the fascinating world of the batá drum, recorded live in Cuba.
Acclaimed Cuban vocalist Daymé Arocena is set to perform on Thursday, August 17, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. A singer, composer, and choir director, Arocena’s inspiration comes from jazz, soul, classical music, and Cuban musical traditions. This is a free admission concert available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Cuban music goes well with jazz, African music and other sounds. On AmeriCuba, the producers envisioned adding Cuban flavor to pop hits. Unlike other projects where musicians from various backgrounds meet in person, what the producers did was to use original vocal tracks by American artists and added Cuban musicians who “Cubanized” the songs.
The selection of American artists is an odd mix of popular disco, soul, pop and hip hop acts spanning several generations. Some of the original versions of the songs, especially the most recent, were cheesy top 40 songs so the Cubanized versions are much more appealing.
Various Artists – Cuba! Cuba! (Putumayo World Music, 2017)
World music compilation label Putumayo revisits the music of Cuba on Cuba! Cuba!, an album that features a mix of Cuba-based artists and other acts based in the United States.
The collection features a handful of well-known artists along with musicians that are less familiar. The songs selection leans towards the traditional side of Cuban music, including son cubano and guajira music.
Highlights include “Oriente” by Asere, “Caballo Viejo” by La Familia Valera Miranda, “Guajira” by Al Valdés y su conjunto, “El Carretero” by Roberto Torres, “Me Dieron La Clave” by legendary Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro, the now classic “Chan Chan” by Armando Garzón, and “Puente a Mi Gente” by José Conde y Ola Fresca.
The release of this album, and another one titled Cuban Playground, coincide with the announcement of a partnership with an American company called insightCuba that specializes in Cuban tours for Americans. The first Putumayo Cuba! Cuba! Tour is scheduled for November 6th-11th in Havana, and is expected to feature intimate and exclusive performances with internationally recognized Cuban artists along with other cultural activities.
For more information about the Putumayo Cuba! Cuba! Tour and other insightCuba tours, visit www.insightcuba.com or call 800-450-CUBA.
Singer, guitarist and songwriter Silvio Rodríguez is one of Cuba’s most influential songwriters. He was born November 29 of 1946 in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba. His mother introduced him to music by singing lullabies, boleros, and sometimes sones.
His first contact with the mass media was at the age of 3, at a radio station. At 16 he took piano lessons. His musical studies were interrupted by his service in the Cuban armed forces as a conscript. Nevertheless, while in the military, he met Esteban Baños, who encouraged him to play guitar. That was the beginning of a new stage in his artistic career.
His poems, combined with his revolutionary ideology and his innate talent at making music, made Rodríguez a leading figure in Cuban music. Together with Pablo Milanés and Noel Incola, he gave birth to the Nueva Trova Cubana movement. His creative work includes hundreds of songs that made him popular throughout the Americas as well as Europe and some African countries.
Sierra Maestra is a seminal son cubano (Cuban son) band from Havana, Cuba. Currently, it’s one of the finest and most popular musical ensembles performing in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.
Placing themselves apart from other Cuban acts, Sierra Maestra reawakened the traditional style son line-up: tres, guitar, trumpet, bongo, güiro and vocals, emulating the golden days of the 1920s and 30s. Sierra Maestra’s members are pioneers in revitalizing this genre for new generations and its re-introduction into the Cuban mainstream. Sierra Maestra named themselves after the mountain range in the eastern part of Cuba as a tribute to the birth place of son.
Sierra Maestra first performed in 1976 at the University of Havana, where all the group members studied. Their goal, then as now, was to recover this popular Cuban music style of the 1920 that had been all but forgotten.
The group slightly increased the original instrument line-up with extra percussion (congas and maracas) and replaced the tradiitonal marímbula with electric bass. Some of the guaracha rhythms were sped up in a move away from the slow, close pair dancing of the 1920s.
This revitalization of son with a modern attitude was a sensation for the new generation of Cubans, and Sierra Maestra quickly became popular, playing the annual festivals at the universities around the island of Cuba, capturing first place prizes in their first three years. They were also appearing regularly on national TV.
In 1978, Sierra Maestra was asked to represent Cuba a the “Festival Mundial de la Juventud y los Estudiantes” in Havana. Their first album, “Sierra Maestra llegó con el guanajo relleno” recorded in 1981, received a silver disc award for outstanding sales, spectacular popularity and critical reception. They also won individual prizes for best recording, most popular song and highest record sales. Also in 1981, they launched their first foreign tour to Nicaragua.
Sierra Maestra recorded their second LP, “Y Son Así” in 1982 and was awarded the Girasol prize for the year’s most popular group and finished the year with tours to Angola and Nicaragua.
In 1983, Sierra Maestra won the “Benny Moré” dance music prize at the Benny Moré festival and took part in the IV Song Festival held in Helsinki, Finland. They then traveled to Sweden and France and to the International Film Festival in Spain (where they’ve enjoyed playing over the years).
Also in 1983, Sierra Maestra recorded the soundtrack to the Cuban TV series “Las Impuras” and their song “A los rumberos de Belén” was used in Robert Redford’s film, “The Milagro Beanfield War”. Since then, Sierra Maestra has attracted international audiences in Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States. They have recorded numerous albums, singles and appeared on over seven compilations.
Sierra Maestra also have a French feature film called “Salsa” that was released in February of 2000 in France. It’s a feature film, written by Jean-Claude Carriére and directed by Joyce Buñuel, released by Universal Studios.
The ensemble’s arrangements generally use the classic formula: introduction of trumpet phrases over the basic melody of the song (this usually following A-B or A-B-C-A scheme) and then the montuno, based on vocal or trumpet solo improvisations with chorus work. Sierra Maestra also play Cuban rumba, a different clave -2/3- that accompanies a totally different dance to that of son.
Sierra Maestra’s leader for many years, Juan De Marcos González Cárdenas (vocals, tres, musical director) left the group to create the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Buena Vista Social Club. And Jesús Alemany, the band’s charismatic trumpet player for many years, left to form his group Cubanismo.