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From Cuba, Insistent Rhythms That Intrigue

October 01, 2000|ERNESTO LECHNER | Ernesto Lechner is a regular contributor to Calendar

Although the countless releases from the tired salsa subgenre known as timba would have you believe otherwise, Cuban music and its many permutations have been responsible for some of the most intriguing Latin albums of the year.

From new albums by two Buena Vista Social Club members to an archival recording of infinite charm, some of this month's most intriguing releases are connected, in one way or another, to the island of nonstop rhythm.

*** 1/2 Ruben Gonzalez, "Chanchullo," World Circuit/Nonesuch. *** Eliades Ochoa, "Tributo a Cuarteto Patria," Higher Octave.

How many Buena Vista Social Club-related albums can we take? As it turns out, the million-selling phenomenon has spearheaded an entire genre: the nouveau son.

These two collections deliver an aural snapshot of the changes and revelations pianist Gonzalez and singer-guitarist Ochoa have gone through while on the road to international success.

Gonzalez's "Chanchullo," in particular, is an altogether different animal from the record the pianist made in 1996 during the initial Buena Vista sessions. In the intervening years, the now 83-year-old veteran toured the world, gave hundreds of interviews and was the keyboardist of choice on the stunning solo efforts by Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo.

This activity seems to have infused Gonzalez's playing with an extra burst of fire. Some of the material on "Chanchullo," such as the rollicking title track and an elegant version of Orquesta Aragon's "El Bodeguero," will be familiar to those who saw the live Buena Vista shows last year.

Surrounded by most of the musicians from that tour (including trumpeter "Guajiro" Mirabal and trombonist Jesus "Aguaje" Ramos), Gonzalez exudes a sense of confidence that was missing from the days when he would arrive at the Havana recording sessions before the studio doors opened, just for the pleasure of sitting at the piano and remembering the old days.

The pianist's first album has sold about 600,000 copies worldwide, according to his record label, and on this follow-up (due in stores Tuesday), the unlikely superstar justifies the attention. The furious dialogue between congas and piano on the more experimental "La Lluvia" illustrates Gonzalez at his most frantic, free of creative limitations and able to enjoy life at its fullest.

Ochoa's record is a variation on his excellent "Sublime Ilusion." The rootsiest member of the Buena Vista collective, the singer has also enjoyed wide recognition in the last few years. His immediate reaction was to record a tribute to the Cuarteto Patria, the 60-year-old folk group he has fronted since 1978.

Originally, the record was going to be a Santana-like all-star affair defined by a list of guest artists. Fortunately, Ochoa understood that this program of simple songs deserved a more organic approach and he left all grand ideas behind. The warmth with which the Santiago de Cuba native revisits chestnuts such as "Yiri Yiri Bon" and the bolero "Cuando Ya No Me Quieras" is more than enough to turn this sophomore effort into a cause for celebration.

*

*** 1/2 Chico O'Farrill, "Carambola," Milestone.

Since his resurgence in 1996 with the excellent "Pure Emotion" and its follow-up, 1998's "Heart of a Legend," this Cuban composer, arranger and bandleader has continued to experiment with a variety of Afro-Cuban formats, from the descarga to the bolero. "Carambola" completes a trilogy of sorts with old and new numbers alike, including a majestic rerecording of his seminal "Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite."

Salsa fans, however, will rejoice when they listen to the old-fashioned "Oye Mi Rumba." The song includes a guest vocal by Graciela, the singer with the legendary Machito orchestra who has been brought out of retirement by O'Farrill. Anybody familiar with the recordings of Graciela and the late Machito (they were brother and sister) from the '50s and '60s will appreciate the magic of this cut.

*

** 1/2 Los Zafiros, "Story," Ahi-Nama.

If you listened to the compilation by this '60s Cuban group released last year by Nonesuch, chances are you were left pining for more of Los Zafiros' refreshing blend of doo-wop, bossa nova and Afro-Caribbean sounds.

That anthology coincided with the inclusion of a Zafiros tune ("Herido de Sombras") in Ibrahim Ferrer's first solo album. Manuel Galban, the group's original guitarist, participated in the recording and then toured with Ferrer and other Buena Vista Social Club players.

Now, the Los Angeles-based label Ahi-Nama has dug into the vaults for some more Zafiros recordings, which serve as the soundtrack for an upcoming film dealing with the group's tragic history. Most of the founding members died at a young age, and the group disintegrated in the '70s.

Unfortunately, half of the tunes in this collection are repeats from the Nonesuch release. But the newly uncovered ones are must-haves, most notably the gorgeous, string-laden bolero "Hermosa Habana."

Perhaps to compensate for the scarcity of original material, the disc includes some music videos (accessed on a CD-ROM drive) from the Ahi-Nama stable of performers, including Bamboleo, Laito Jr., Arte Mixto and Maraca, plus four vintage clips of Los Zafiros themselves.

*

*** Various artists, "Latin Travels," Six Degrees. Latin goes electronica courtesy of quality acts such as Zuco 103, St. Germaine and Suba, and the resulting soundscapes are exhilarating. You might be worried about what a battery of samples, drum machines and layers of keyboards could do to your basic salsa and bossa nova patterns. But the cool piano lines and hot trumpet riffs here prove that these seemingly disparate worlds have one goal in common: to lighten up your spirit with their relentless hedonism.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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