[1 January 2007]
Success breeds dislike. After the triumph of the Buena Vista Social Club and its millions of units shifted, some people began to complain that the group was not playing music that real Cubans listened to. By real they meant modern, up-to-date Cubans. They said that people outside Cuba only bought the album because they wanted to think of the Cubans as quaint countryfolk smiling at one another over their smooth old dances. These foreigners didn’t like to think of a youthful, vibrant Cuba. It upset them. The Buena Vista Social Club was a trick, a placebo, a con. Thus ran the argument. When Yusa, a young female singer from Havana, released her self-titled album in 2002, the liner notes pointed out that, “Yusa is living proof that not everyone in Cuba is making music like their grandaddy!” That she was almost as easy-listening as they were did not matter; what mattered was that she was not old.
Yusa’s album was released by Tumi, the same label that is releasing Que Linda Es Mi Cuba, the first western release from Grupo Eduardo Saborit, also known more simply as Saborit. The band was named after a songwriter who lived in its hometown of Manzanillo. Built around a port on Cuba’s south-eastern coastline, it is located in the province of Granma, formerly part of Oriente. Oriente is the area of Cuba where son was born.
This time there are no comments about the musicians not making music like their grandaddies, because the band is led by a man who looks old enough to be a grandaddy himself. He’s not as old as the Buena Vista musicians, but decades older than Yusa. The other members of the group are grown men of various ages. People who growl at the quaintness of the Buena Vista Social Club’s success will groan with despair at the sight of Saborit’s leader, Leon Alarcon, photographed happily on a tractor. Here is the musician as a rural man—not youthful, not urban, not up-to-date, not modern. The other musicians are standing in a wooden cart attached to the tractor’s rear. This is not an affectation: it is their tractor ... this is how they drove to the studio. Instead of blurbs about grandaddies, we have blurbs about the traditions of the Cuban countryside, because these musicians, you see, are from the provinces.
Their music has a stronger kick than the music of the Buena Vistas, and a stronger kick than Yusa as well. It’s campesino—countrified and direct. This tres guitar has the sharpest metallic jangle you can imagine, and the claves knock like knuckles on a hollow door. Alarcon calls out, smiting the air decisively, and the others respond as a chorus. He likes to start the singing and have the rest of the men follow him, although sometimes, as in “Dame Tu Amor Guantanamera”, they go first and he comes afterwards, a single voice, stating his case. He energises their songs with shouts and often rolls the rrrrs with relish at the ends of his words. A little way past the middle of this song, he cries, “Amorr-rr-r!” And, in other places: “Saborr-r-rr!”
The instruments move around his voice with the regulated rhythm of clockwork. The tick-tock beat is driven by the loud claves. Guitars and percussion wind and unspool, interlock and part, like machinery, while the jangle of the tres sparkles sharply over everything. In “La Cocaleca” the tres almost has a solo moment, but the claves are still there, underneath, keeping time. The introduction of “El Don Juan” is underscored with a drum that makes a massive, padded boom. You’ll notice that, like the Buena Vista Social Club, they play a lot of son, but theirs is a vinegary and abrasive dance. They don’t have the softening touch of Rubén González’ piano, or moments of lounge music or jazz; they go for the meat of the rhythm with snappy haste, expecting you to be impatient. It’s music for a demanding audience that wants to move onto the dancefloor, quickly, now. No messing around. No smooching and sighing. By the end of the first song, the album has got its legs wrapped around yours and you’re being steered away in a tangle of guitar.
None of the songs has the same catchy hook as a “Chan Chan”, but the vigour that marks the band for action, rather than laid-back nightclub listening, is compelling in its own spiky way. The opening of “Dame Tu Amor Guantanamera”, which starts slowly with a few instruments, then expands as the chorus comes in and opens the song up, is saucy and grand, and “El Platanar de Bartolo” is a pilon that shoots sparks. The raw-souled, clave-heavy versions of the cumbia are a change from the usual Colombian cumbia sound.
Cuba seems to be a place where good new musicians drop daily out of the trees, so the accuracy and spirit of Saborit’s playing are not a surprise. It would have been more astonishing if they’d been bad. Those souls who were insulted by the BVSC will probably not get a chance to be unhappy with Que Linda Es Mi Cuba because it will fly straight under the general cultural radar. It’s an album for people who are willing to forego their honey and test their mettle on something sharp. An acquired taste, but a fruitful one.