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Various Artists

The Story of Cuba

(Hemisphere)

Hop on board the Cuban bandwagon. Forget that despelote workshop in Havana, this record is better yet. The 15 tracks do their job showing off the rhythms and styles of Cuban dance music. Undiluted for foreign markets, the selections reflect current listener tastes in Cuba. If you want a stop-action sample of what Cuba currently offers, here it is as performed by some of the biggest names on the island.


Because this collection emphasizes contemporary treatment of traditional rhythms, purists might be disappointed. Cubaholics will love it. The familiar danzon, son, bolero, conga, salsa, rumba, and cha-cha-cha are displayed, as are more arcane meters. Saved from obscurity is the rare pilon, a nearly defunct rhythm traced back as created by Pacho Alonso at the end of the 1950s, perfect casino music. The Story of Cuba is saturated with danceability, nearly exhausting just reading through the list of styles. Receiving special introduction is the timba, also known as “hypersalsa.” The only alternative to salsa in Latin America, the timba is the favorite ‘90s dance music in Cuba among the young. As a dance and rhythm, the timba exists for the time being only in Cuba.


All of that’s going on here, but there’s an obvious set-up designed not to be ignored. Demanding attention is “Guantanamera,” the chorus of the Cuban revolution. I doubt that too many people wouldn’t recognize the original version of the song. Pete Seeger had all us “ricos” singing along to his early ‘60s version, a beautiful song that flew out of Cuba and made its way into public acceptance despite recent memory of the Bay of Pigs and the then new blockade. Joseito Fernandez composed the original music, a lovely prototypical guajira. In music, guajira refers to a rhythm and style that incorporates a three-stringed (tres) guitar or two, and slow, smooth percussion. Not here. It’s urban removal time in New Jack City.


Grupo Amenaza (Group Threat) bop til they drop in a new styling called guajira-rap. This “Guantanamera” has about as much to do with the original as a restaurant with the same name in Moscow. As I barely recognize any of Jose Marti’s original poem, I figure Grupo Amenaza changed the words because they were tired of singing the same old song. As diss rap, I can’t even say if these guajiros caught on to the dis in disrespectful or the dys in dysfunctional. They attempted the style, so it’s open for the dis in discussion. Hey, where’d they hear rap, anyway? Behind closed doors, on a smuggled cassette bearing suspicious goods? I can’t enthuse with a traditional “Thank God for expropriation.”


Fortunately, there are other local treasures co-existing in Cuba and on this disc. Nothing surpasses Celina & Reutilio offering up “El Hijo de Eleggua,” an ancient-sounding, fluid incantation steeped in the elements of the Orishas religion. They showed me their secret spot in shimmering Afro rhythm, a bright and lively 6/8 time. I’ll be out searching for more of their music.


I’m intrigued by this compilation. I listened to this record almost non-stop for two days and could always hear something new. For rich rhythms alone, The Story of Cuba should end up on essential music lists.

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