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Jazz Review

Cubanismo Kicks Latin Music Into High Gear

June 19, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The performance of the stirring ensemble Cubanismo at the Conga Room on Wednesday night was a powerful example of the vital, centuries-old musical links between Cuba and the United States. Largely shut down during the most frigid of the Cold War years, the conduits are now, happily, reopening.

And bands such as Cubanismo, a 14-piece ensemble led by trumpeter Jesus Aleman~y, are bringing much-needed new vigor to a Latin music arena that has depleted most of the creative potential that existed in the salsa of the '70s and '80s.

Cubanismo kicked off its opening set with an irresistible surge of rhythm, emphasizing the band's robust five-man horn section and its equally forceful collection of percussionists. Aleman~y, playing lead, drove the music forward with his soaring high notes and declamatory articulation. And, to his credit, his playing always fit perfectly within Cubanismo's descarga-based style, without setting aside the ensemble in favor of showcase high-note screeching.

With its battery of percussion (congas, bongos, clave), electronic keyboards, tres (a small, guitar-like instrument) and electric bass, the Cubanismo players produced a surprisingly intricate rhythmic package. Layered one upon the other, the rhythms interacted to produce a driving, propulsive motion--the kind of dance-stimulating, movement-generating energy that most commercial salsa can only dream of achieving.

The full-house crowd, with little room to dance, nonetheless moved vigorously with the music. And Aleman~y, an ebullient leader, encouraged his listeners to move their feet and clap their hands.

The only relatively low point in Cubanismo's set came when the spotlight shifted to the band's three vocalists, who simply couldn't match the energy of its instrumentalists.

Bamboleo, the Cuban band that appeared last week at the Conga Room, featured its singers as the centerpiece of the music. But with Cubanismo, vocals served only as an adjunct to the forceful swing and dance-driven rhythms of the instrumental ensemble. And the band was clearly at its best when Aleman~y's high-flying trumpet was leading the horns across a surging, irrepressibly physical torrent of rhythm.

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