Various Artists

The Rough Guide to the Cuban Music Story

by Ben Varkentine


I wanted to hear this record because Kirsty MacColl, one of my favorite singers, spent a lot of time in Cuba in the last years of her life and her final album was very influenced by Cuban music. If it’s good enough for Kirsty, it’s good enough for me. I also like a lot of the Latin-influenced jazz I’ve heard, such as some of the work of Vince Guaraldi. I tell you this to identify where I’m coming from in my appraisal of this collection: I’m the interested newcomer from afar, having his first prolonged exposure to the music of Cuba but having heard a bit filtered through western sensibilities.

I enter into this with open ears and open mind, but I’m not in an expert enough position to be able to say whether the picture painted of The Cuban Music Story is accurate. What I am in a position to say is that this makes a very pleasant alternative to the mind-numbing sameness and averageness of too much of the music I’ve been listening to and reviewing lately. And because Cuban music has been filtering into the rest of the world for the past 80 years or so, it doesn’t sound that alien. More like part of a long conversation of which you’ve previously only heard snatches and to which you now have a chance to really listen.

cover art

Various Artists

The Rough Guide to the Cuban Music Story

(World Music Network)

And what will you hear? My favorites after two or three hearings include Bebo Valdés’s “To Mario Bauza”, one of the jazziest of the cuts included. According to the informative and useful liner notes, the pianist was in his mid-‘70s at the time. ¡Cubanismo!‘s “Aprovecha”, with its popping percussion and toney trumpet, is also good, as is the “electro-Latino” of Azúcar Letal’s “Somos Lo Máximo”, a hip-hop inflected track that reminds us the road of influences goes both ways and it goes up to the present. The album closer, “Laura”, played by PeruchÍn, feels nostalgic and new at once, which is a marvelous thing to be able to say about a cover of a standard.

And speaking of standards, my favorite track on the CD, the one that makes it indispensable, is Cuarteto Patria & Manu Dibango’s “Quizás Quizás”, better known to western ears, probably, as “Perhaps Perhaps”. Eliades Ochoa, leader of the group Patria, duets on guitar with Dibango on saxophone and the results are so sexy and romantic it made me think about dancing with Sonia Braga. Who I grant you is Brazilian rather than Cuban, but if you think I’m going to pick nits when it comes to thinking about hearing Braga whisper “I love you” as we dance, her lips pressed against my ear . . . I’m sorry, I seem to have wandered. That’s what this music can do for you. And besides, Brazilian, Cuban . . . American. The same things move us, do they not? Which is what compilations like this are reminding us anyway. 


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