"El Kilo" (Surco/Universal)
* * * 1/2
Since its heralded debut in 1999, this expatriate Cuban hip-hop trio has made remarkable artistic leaps, refining its unique fusion of traditional Cuban music with the most valued aspects of rap, minus the misogyny and materialism.
The ingredients of Orishas' distinctive sound have been there since the threesome's first album, "A Lo Cubano," albeit raw and underdeveloped at the start. The Afro-Cuban rhythms, deeply rooted in Santeria spirituality. The mesmerizing cascade of lyrics and gorgeous melodies. And the jarring juxtaposition of vocal styles, alternating cynical, nasally raps with the sweetest harmonies.
The street elegance of Orishas' style is matched by the sophistication of its themes. No bling-bling, no party hearty, no bump and grind. In 2002's stirring "Emigrante," the group achieved a silky, organic fusion that was uplifting for the soul and enticing for the feet.
The group's latest album turns the switch to the next level on the musical blender, introducing brassy elements of Latin rock and cool currents of R&B, with even a dash of doo-wop in one cut. The latest brew has the hip -- without the hop -- trademark of co-producer Andres Levin, the restless Venezuelan recently known for creating New York's rowdy Yerba Buena, an urban fusion ensemble.
Since the Paris-based trio uses language so rhythmically, it's fun just to be carried away by the ripple and flow of Spanish syllables. Deciphering the meaning is trickier, since lyrics often read like riddles, liberally using Cuban lingo and references to characters and social situations from life on the island. Still, some songs have hard-to-miss messages: the stress of modern life, the tragedy of prostitution, the hopelessness of prolonged poverty and even a defiant rebuttal to rumors that the group was disbanding.
Distracted somewhat by its musical experimentation, "El Kilo" falls slightly short of the most moving songs on the previous album. But it leaves no doubt that Orishas is making some of the most sophisticated and compelling music in Latin hip-hop, the kind that rises above trends and promises to last.
Danceable but dated
* * 1/2
Few in the U.S. will be familiar with this Madrid-born singer-songwriter whose musical fusion complements his Irish-Cuban heritage. Fans are more likely to recognize Garcia's co-producer, alt-Latino guru Gustavo Santaolalla. And that's the big surprise.
This album is a departure for Santaolalla, who's been associated with the cream of the crop of rock en espanol: Juanes, Cafe Tacuba, Molotov. He's not known for work as overtly tropical, danceable and party-oriented as "13."
Despite the title (the artist's lucky number), this is only Garcia's second album after an eight-year hiatus. His official bio suggests the world wasn't ready for his Caribbean gumbo of styles when he debuted, pre-"Buena Vista Social Club." The problem today is that the world may have gotten a little ahead of him.
Garcia, who now lives in Miami, brings a rock sensibility and a certain personal charisma to 13 songs that blend salsa, bolero, funk and bossa nova, overlaid with blasts of brass and simple, fun-loving lyrics. But it's a rather routine fusion that at times smacks of '60s Latin rock, updated with touches of reggae, rap and ska.
For all its stylish production, this is basically a party record. On its own terms, that's perfectly entertaining. But this week, "13" is being measured against new releases from two masters of Caribbean fusion, Orishas, also in Santaolalla's Surco stable, and Los Van Van, Cuba's legendary dance band.
Now, that's bad luck.
The perennial sultans of salsa
Los Van Van
* * *
Six years ago, it appeared that this great Cuban dance band would finally break big in the U.S. and fulfill the commercial promise of Cuba's once-embargoed salsa music, by far the best salsa in the world. Alas, business conflicts, disappointing sales, hardening politics and personnel defections conspired to undermine the ultimate triumph of this revolutionary orchestra, now in its 35th year.
Bassist-bandleader Juan Formell, 62, retreated to the island to lick his wounds and regroup, literally. He returns now with an outstanding new lineup and a respectable comeback album that, while breaking no new ground, proves that Los Van Van can't easily be counted out.
Available in the U.S. only as an import, "Chapeando" can be seen as a sequel to 1999's Grammy-winning "Llego Van Van." It has the same high recording quality, dynamic arrangements and, on the downside, the annoying habit of phasing out songs just as they're reaching a full-throttle peak. When tracks are allowed to stretch out, as in the seven-minute "Montuno," they gain a symphonic momentum marked by changing chorus lines and freewheeling solos, trademarks of Cuban salsa during the good old days of unfettered socialism, when commercial radio was just a capitalist memory.