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Cuban Lute Player Shares Sound, Rhythm of His Life

Pop music: Barbarito Torres revels in the son, the sound he grew up with. Now he's passing that legacy along.

May 14, 1999|ERNESTO LECHNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ask Barbarito Torres if he likes salsa, and you get a reply laden with irony.

"Of course I love salsa," says the Cuban lute player, a hint of sarcasm in his voice. "I love tomato salsa, mayonnaise salsa and all kinds of salsa."

Torres, who will appear tonight at the Conga Room, has plenty of reasons to dislike the ubiquitous word, which has been used as an umbrella term outside Cuba to describe many markedly different Afro-Caribbean dances, from the mambo and the cha-cha-cha to Cuban son, a traditional style that Torres has spent his life perfecting. The harmonious marriage of two contrasting cultures, son mixes African rhythms with European melodies, resulting in folk songs that talk about love and country life, and are based on the recognizable rhythmic pattern called the clave.

Thus, the warm, earthy sounds of "Havana Cafe," Torres' first solo album, have very little to do with most of the salsa that is heard in clubs and on the radio. A much closer point of reference to Torres' work would be the 1997 "Buena Vista Social Club" album, which has sold 1 million copies worldwide and spearheaded an immensely popular revival of the son.

Torres participated in the Buena Vista sessions, as well as in its companion project by the Afro-Cuban All Stars.

"That album was really helpful for all of us," he says. "Those were some amazing sessions. It was really like a gathering of friends, with all these old, retired musicians getting back together to play. We chose the material spontaneously, talking it out among ourselves. And [producer-guitarist] Ry Cooder's presence was very strong. I felt honored to be there."

For a long time, Torres had yearned to gather a group of family and friends to create a project that would be entirely his own. At 43, he has become the premier lute player in Cuba, appearing on more than 40 records both as the musical director for legendary singer Celina Gonzalez and with groups Piquete Cubano and Grupo Manguare.

Enter Havana Caliente, a new division of Atlantic Records devoted to quality Cuban music. Torres' album is its debut release, and a clear attempt on the label's part to cash in on the success of the "Buena Vista" record.

Of the several albums that have come along trying to ride on "Buena Vista's" coattails, Torres' is the only worthy successor to Cooder's visionary project.

"I grew up in the countryside in Matanzas," Torres says, explaining his deep connection with the son. "From the moment I opened my eyes, everybody around me was playing this kind of music, from my father and mother to my sister. What else can I do but represent the sounds that run in my veins, the folklore of my country?"

A collection of 14 crisply recorded tunes, "Havana Cafe" continues the tradition by combining a few original tunes with classics by composers such as Arsenio Rodriguez and Miguel Matamoros. More than a mere re-creation of the original son movement, the record presents music that is as vital as it is inspiring, marked by soaring vocal harmonies and Torres' virtuoso work on the lute.

"The lyrics of the son movement have always found beautiful ways of praising women and love, expressing patriotic feelings and describing the landscapes of Cuba," Torres observes, contrasting his music with the contemporary scene that has been defined by the musically and lyrically tasteless "timba" style. "I've tried to be respectful to my roots and salvage a lost repertoire of sones."

Still, Torres is forgiving when talking about the iffy innovations of modern salsa.

"Times change," he says. "Musicians today are more sophisticated and stress technique more than before. I see what has happened recently as an exploration. Because the essence and the heart are still there."

The musician's appearance at the Conga Room promises to be especially memorable considering the illustrious guest he's bringing along. The sextet that performed on the album will be augmented by 82-year-old Pio Leyva, the singer who last year gave a demonstration of his irrepressible personality at a Sportsmen's Lodge concert by flutist Maraca.

"You won't recognize Pio when you see him," says Torres with a laugh. "He's spent hundreds of dollars on hair dye. Now his hair is all black and he looks like a kid again."

* Barbarito Torres, tonight at the Conga Room, 5364 Wilshire Blvd. 10 p.m. $25-$60. (323) 938-1696.

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