The words ‘street party’ in the title of this album mean music that you can dance to if you want and won’t bore you if you don’t. The music is fast without being dumb-fast. It has nuance and meat, the songs have been chosen for skill as well as speed. On the whole it seems less fluffy than the other Latin-American party album this label put out recently, Think Global: Fiesta Latina, which had more of a merengue sound: electronic and glitzy and somehow flat behind the special effects, a surface-oriented noise designed to hit the charts and evaporate on impact. The piano, percussion, and brass of Cuban Street Party give the album layers, one instrument above another, suggesting a group of people jamming together rather than a lone figure at a mixing desk, or a pop singer on a faraway stage reaching you via amplification
‘Street party’ doesn’t necessarily mean that the songs on the Street Party albums are the songs people in the home country—the home continent if you’re listening to the Rough Guide to African Street Party—would play if they really were having a party in the street. Do people in Havana fill their nights with the sound of Echo a Mano, a multicultural group from Toronto? It’s possible but unlikely. Does everyone throughout Africa, or even just Bamako or Mali, put Nikodemus remixes of Vieux Farka Touré on the stereo every time they want to get together with friends and strangers? I doubt it. So these discs are not the street party equivalents of field recordings, snapshots of genuine gatherings in whatever Nominated Place the Rough Guide decides to visit. Instead they’re collections of songs that will save you some time if you’re ever sitting at home saying to yourself, “I’d like to have a party with a Cuban theme, not romantic old Buena Vista Social Club Cuba, no, I want quicker Cuba, but not all salsa either,” followed by, “Now what can I play?”
The melody of Cuba is a twitchy step-and-tap, music for footwork and hips. It’s a versatile sound. Slow it down and you get a dreamy shuffle that you can dance to even when you’re 75. Speed it up and you get, well, this, a strut. The pianos make a brisk ting-ting, the singers push out their consonants and relish their vowels, the trumpets seem proud to be there. Every noise is assertive. La Lupe shows off her rasp in “Sin Maíz”, while Linda Leida is deeper and more businesslike in “A Comer Chicharrón”. Cuban music is mainly a male business, so it’s pleasing to see that Pablo Yglesias has included a few women, even if the cover photo person tries to ruin it by giving us yet another entry in the “Random Attractive Rough Guide Cover Woman With her Lips Open and Preferably Showing Some Skin” series, which hit an apex in the Rough Guide to World Party, with a picture of a woman posing like an inflatable sex doll complete with pornface.
The compilation moves between older Cuban music, a 1970s track from Celia Cruz for instance, and newer music that marries the Cuba twitch to DJs and rappers. Both of the tracks that end the album are combinations like this. Both seem conscious of the tradition they’re working with. Echo a Mano’s “La Barbara” even starts with the furry hiccups of an album revolving on a turntable, to let you know that they’re about to bring out a sound that you might recognise from your parents’ record collection. But there’s a mutual boldness that unifies all of the songs here, so the new ones don’t sound intrusively different from the old, only a slightly different flavour of the same thing. The party atmosphere of Cuban Street Party doesn’t rely on remixes, as it did in parts of African Street Party. It doesn’t need them. The punch is an indigenous one, and the album is stronger because of it.