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Latin music hits a popular peak yet again, with great new releases from Cuban masters

By Ron Wynn

AUGUST 9, 1999: 

"Latin music becomes hip every 20 years or so and has since the beginning of the century or earlier." --John Storm Roberts

It was almost exactly two decades ago, when America was undergoing another of its Latin music crazes, that critic and record label owner John Storm Roberts penned The Latin Tinge. At the time Afro-Cuban jazz was once more au courant, and salsa was beginning to bubble up from the New York and Miami undergrounds. Roberts not only documented the extensive Latin underpinnings in everything from surf rock to disco, he correctly predicted that throughout the '80s and '90s, Latin music would continually seem to disappear, then resurface as the primary non-American component of popular sounds.

Fast-forward to the present, and Latin music is spicy-hot once more, thanks in part to the Carmen Miranda and Xavier Cugat of the '90s, Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin. But while they occupy center stage in the tabloids and pop culture press, far more exciting music is available on the Afro-Latin circuit courtesy of longtime stalwarts pianist Chucho Valdes and vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer. Both men's albums are part of a deluge that represents the record industry's continuing attempts to tap into what will ultimately be the nation's most populous minority, but they also indicate the sizable stylistic breadth of modern Latin music. As such, their success or lack of it will be significant, as labels decide what artists to sign and what styles to hype in the next century.

Valdes and Ferrer are of particular interest, because they're among a group of first-rate musicians who've chosen to remain in Cuba, even as most of their comrades have defected. They've stayed resolutely apolitical in public discourse, no doubt largely due to family considerations, but also because their love for their native land hasn't been sullied by Castro's rule. Despite age differences (Valdes is 58, Ferrer 72) the two share an intense devotion to traditional Cuban song forms and rhythms.

The son of noted musician Bebo Valdes, Chucho started on the keyboard as a 3-year-old. He was leading his own group at 16 and remained in Cuba when his father left for America in 1960. But before he departed, Bebo Valdes helped his son get formal training and helped him hone his chops in cutting contests and concerts. The younger Valdes founded the Orquesta Cubana de Musica Modern in 1967, then six years later created Irakere, the band that became Cuba's finest jazz orchestra. Word circulated throughout the early '70s about Irakere's brilliance, and when the group began making periodic stateside appearances, defections were inevitable. Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera both left during foreign tours, but Valdes tried to keep Irakere alive for years with lesser replacements, before opting finally to concentrate on his own career.

Briyumba Palo Congo [Religion of the Congo] (Blue Note) scores on several levels--as a keyboard showcase, as a rhythm exhibition, and as a display of vintage Cuban religious and secular themes. Valdes demonstrates flashy phrasing, immaculate chording, and dazzling dexterity on conventional jazz tunes, soaring over the keyboard on Duke Ellington's "Caravan" or caressing the melody, then imploding it on George Gershwin's "Embraceable You" and "Rhapsody in Blue." But he's even more explosive on traditional Cuban fare like the title track or "El Rumbon [The Party]." While he's assisted by several fine players, among them conguero/percussionist Roberto Vizcaino Guillot and stunning bassist Francisco Rubio Pampin, it's Valdes' spinning lines, octave-leaping encounters, and driving forays that give the songs their lift. Whether in 2/3 clave or 4/4 jazz, Chucho Valdes proves a brilliant soloist and bandleader, as magnificent an all-round player as the more heralded Gonzalo Rubalcaba or Danilo Perez.

Ibrahim Ferrer's tender, agonizing, and supple vocals were featured on many classic Cuban sessions during periods when only the local citizenry could hear him. His greatest recorded dates with Benny More and Banda Gigante are only beginning to dribble into this country, and it wasn't until 1997's Buena Vista Social Club with Ry Cooder that most of the world even heard his name. Ferrer was born in Santiago and moved to Havana in 1959. Since he departed More's orchestra, he has dreamed of heading his own big band and recording his favorite Cuban classics.

He's finally gotten his wish: Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer (Nonesuch) gives Ferrer the production niceties and sympathetic backing that solidify his reputation as a great up-tempo singer and underrated ballad stylist. Even listeners with absolutely no command of Spanish will be bowled over by his dramatic articulation and engaging lead on "Bruca Manigua," the first song ever recorded by Arsenio Rodriguez, perhaps Cuba's greatest pre-Castro performer. It's a story about a slave who flees to the mountains to escape persecution, and it's sung with such force and emotion you can't miss the message. Likewise, the emotion and ardor in Ferrer's voice communicate the passion and romance of "Herido de Sombras" and "Marieta" and the sexual underrcurrents of "Mami Me Gusto," another Rodriguez original.

For this collection, Ferrer has assembled many other Cuban veterans who've toiled in equal obscurity: guitarist Manuel Galban, who was an original member of the '60s group Los Zafiros; Ruben Gonzalez, who played with Rodriguez in the early and mid-'40s; and vocalist Omara Portuondo, whose demure support makes the duet "Silencio" unforgettable. Cooder is on board again and adds tasty electric guitar fills with Galban on "Silencio," while tenor saxophonist Gil Bernal, who once played with Duane Eddy, injects nice yet muscular touches to "Aquellos Ojos Verdes."

Reading up

It's certainly appropriate that, in the wake of these superb new dates by Valdes and Ferrer, the prophetic John Storm Roberts would return to the publication wars. His new book, Latin Jazz--The First of the Fusions: 1880s to Today (Schirmer), nicely fills in the gaps for those who missed The Latin Tinge and outlines Latin music's impact from ragtime all the way up to '90s idioms. It's intricately and explicitly detailed, with Roberts providing musical examples of habanera and tango rhythms in stride piano, explaining the difference between the samba and bossa nova, and examining the rhythmic makings of Cubop, Latin funk, and New York and Miami salsa. He also wisely includes a glossary of terms and a selective discography.

Roberts has never been either a purist or an academic; he freely admits preferences and dislikes. He doesn't write down to the audience, nor does he assume that everyone shares his tastes. While at times it could be argued that he praises some artists more than necessary (Stan Kenton, Sergio Mendes, and Astrud Gilberto for starters), he knows Latin and Afro-Latin music better than almost anyone in this field--certainly far more than most jazz, rock, or pop critics. Like his other seminal works Black Music of Two Worlds and The Latin Tinge, Latin Jazz is first and foremost fun reading, but it's just as often informative and even occasionally controversial. Those interested in past and possible future developments in Afro-Latin and Latin music won't find a better source than Latin Jazz.

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