Si, Para Usted: The Funky Beats of Revolutionary Cuba Vol.2
US: 11 Aug 2009
UK: 7 Jul 2009
I’ll start by saying that I haven’t listened to Si, Para Usted: Volume 1, so I don’t know whether Volume 2 is better, or worse, or merely different. According to the booklet:
“This volume continues where the first left off, but we shift our curatorial focus just a little.”
The compiler, Dan Zacks, explains that the Cuban government of the 1970s helped professional musicians thrive by subsidising their training and making them employees of the state, but it also subjected them to the inanities of bureaucracy and censorship. A musician who wanted to leave one band and join another had to apply for permission, which might take years to arrive. Clothes and hair were scrutinized for foreign influences. Music that seemed to glorify capitalist societies was not encouraged.
“Ask [Cuban] musicians active in the 1970s about the day’s funkiest band, and almost all will mention Los Dada. By all accounts, Los Dada played a heavier version of the funk Cubans heard on Miami radio, and the band was infamous for its raucous shows. Yet, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, Los Dada recorded not a single track. Los Dada […] were simply too “American”...
In acknowledgement of this, Volume 2 features a number of tracks from groups affected by government whimsy. For example: the musicians of Los Rápidos were not state-sponsored and were therefore able to record a song only after they had been selected to appear at a 1974 culture festival in Havana. That song appears on Volume 2. “Safari Salvaje” is a mix of smooth organ, jittery guitar, and mondo exotica percussion, vamping and rolling with energy. To be an amateur in 1970s Cuba didn’t mean that you lacked talent. The professionals put on a good show, too: Hilario Durán’s freestyling piano in “El Son de Victoria” goes beyond entertainment into art, and the backing singers of “Para Qué Niegas” pop their voices around like parrots trained to hiccough on cue.
Like the rest of the tracks on the album “Safari Salvaje” sounds less frenetic than the music some Cuban émigrés were making on the mainland. The absence of riotous strut on an album subtitled “funky beats” is striking. The strut is here—in the brass at the start of Los Brito’s “Cuando Llegro a mi Casa”, for example—but it’s cool, creamy, or fluttering, not rough-edged, not nasty. A chorus lifts its arms to the sun, a flute purrs, the male vocalist of “Suspirando por el Chickichaka” lays out a soft rock tenor. “Flower-child funk,” I thought. “Psych-funk.” And I wondered if the Cuban government was specifically against aggressive music, as the Los Dada anecdote suggests, or if this was evidence of nothing more than Zacks’ personal preference, or if the aggressiveness of the mainland music—say New York boogaloo of a kind showcased earlier this year by Honest Jon’s Boogaloo Pow Wow—was a result of hybridisation unique to the US.
Whatever the case, this is fine, sweet music, and it’s good to see it compiled. A theme like the one Zacks has chosen gives crate-digging an exceptional purpose, putting a non-Cuban audience in touch with music that might otherwise be lost to them, giving a shape to an idea that might otherwise sound like a non-sequitur and a joke—pro-communist funk? Apparently, yes.