Son de Madera
"Las Orquestas del Dia" (Son de Madera)
This accomplished group has been at the forefront of the movement to revive the rousing music of Veracruz. Known as the son jarocho, this rhythmic style arose centuries ago from the dramatic convergence of Spanish, Indian and African elements. It's characterized by the bright flutter of the jarana, a small guitar; the sharp dance steps of the zapateado; the improvisations of the lead singer and a high-pitched call-and-response chorus.
But this is not just another traditional album of musica jarocho, too many of which become anthropological documents. "Las Orquestas del Dia" marks a creative step forward for the band, which takes the folk music it has cherished and brings it into the present, making it sound fresh, modern and fully its own.
Recorded in Mexico City and produced by members of Quetzal, East L.A.'s Afro-jarocho fusion band, this work is authentic but full of surprises. Standards such as "La Bamba" and "El Cascabel" are barely recognizable, with unfamiliar verses and revelatory reworkings.
The arrangements are occasionally breathtaking, intensified by the smart song sequencing. In a one-minute track, the haunting a cappella vocal of Laura Rebolloso Cuellar affirms love and loyalty in contrast with images of desolation. That's followed by the 6 1/2-minute "La Marea" ("The Tide"), with its soulful tapestry of strings, including the clavecin (sounds like a harpsichord) of Miguel Ciceros and the always evocative violin of L.A.'s Rocio Marron. Then comes the joyful "La Fantasia de Santiago," with verses and interludes that float softly to a soothing, lullaby-like ending.
This is a beautiful work that shows how fruitful it can be when Chicanos and Mexicanos, sometimes distant cousins, collaborate creatively across the border.
A Cuban exile looks homeward
"Que Dios Disfrute la Reina" (Crab/Universal)
For fans of the late Queen of Salsa, this release arrives with the joy and nostalgia of finding a hidden keepsake left behind by a departed loved one. The discovery is sad too, because musically this is Cruz's strongest album in many years, and the most Cuban.
During her half-century career, Cruz was the quintessential survivor. With her robust, melodious and incomparable voice, she left her mark on the evolving phases of Afro-Cuban music, adapting to every change except one -- the phenomenal new music being made in her communist homeland.
Her well-known bitterness toward the Castro regime kept her from collaborating with the terrific new talent that emerged on the island while she built her career in New York. This album unites Cruz with one of those acclaimed young Cuban musicians, bassist Alain Perez.
Perez emerged from Havana's young timba scene before moving to Spain, where he recently joined flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia on tour. He is credited as co-producer and co-arranger on Cruz's album of mostly reincarnated Cuban standards, to which Perez brings a taste of timba's invention and power, without its dense, complex excesses.
The connection between the singer and her exiled compatriot came through Spain-based Oscar Gomez, who has produced past albums for both. These tracks were originally taped by Gomez in 1998 and 1999, when Cruz was between recording contracts.
Despite her painfully apparent loss of vocal strength, Cruz infuses these traditional songs with the deep emotion of someone cut off from her homeland. On the aching "La Cuba Mia," one of the new tunes, she expresses the yearning of a life lived in exile, her anger yielding to the hope of returning before she dies. "I want to go back without looking back / Be able to live in order to forgive / I want to feel / I want to return to the Cuba of mine," she sings in Spanish.
We can only imagine the kind of music the world would have gained if Cruz had been able to go home.
Oh, for a little more rowdiness
"Unidad, Cerveza y Ska" (Universal)
This is the third album from the muscular Mexican dance band, which mixes Jamaican and British ska with south-of-the-border accents and sentiments. And though the record has some flavorful and even intriguing cuts, as a whole it fails to fulfill the promise of Inspector's sophomore CD, "Alma en Fuego."
The previous album was recorded and distributed independently by the band before Universal picked it up in 2002, adding a couple of cuts. The production had rough edges, and the hefty lead vocals of Big Javi seemed boomy and overpowering. But the album connected with fans through its punkish energy and spontaneity.
The new album is a lot more polished and polite, not the most sought-after qualities in a raucous ska outfit. Missing are the previous album's more distinctive jazz and ranchera touches, and its careening unpredictability. Inspector's unruliness has been harnessed, leaving us hoping they could just cut loose.