What looks like it would be a rap album with some Cuban touches turns out to be much more Cuban than expected.
My respect for out|here and its musicians and compilers grows and grows. Until now the label has been specialising in urban music from Africa -- the Trikont label that put out Africa Raps was an earlier incarnation -- and I'd had them pegged as a solely Afro-focused organisation. With La Corona they've moved outside the continent that is their comfort zone, showing the same instinct for talent that they brought to last year's Ghanaian Black Stars compilation and 2007's Bassakou Kouyate album, Segu Blue. These are people of taste and they have chosen something very good.
The members of Madera Limpia are Cuban. They come from Guántanamo. The news media has discussed the detention camp at Guántanamo Bay so often that I can't read the word without seeing chainlink fences and men in vivid jumpsuits kneeling on concrete slab. These Cuban musicians don't live at the camp, of course. They live in the capital city of the province, miles away to the north. In 2003 a Romanian filmmaker made a documentary about them which she called Paraiso. The group provided the soundtrack. It was their first European release. The film led to a tour, and then to this international non-soundtrack debut album, which lists the same Romanian filmmaker as a producer.
The packaging, with the graffiti-tag font on the title, tells you that this is going to be urban music, rap and hip-hop, and it is. What's unexpected is the amount of indigenous Cuban sound. What looks as if it is going to be a rap album with some Cuban touches turns out to be much more Cuban than it seemed. There are a lot of things on La Corona that most English-speaking listeners probably wouldn't think to associate with rap, things like curling, golden salsa horns, a chippy Latin violin, and the sharp-sounding Cuban guitar that is known as a tres for its three groups of strings. There are little scraps of balladeering that sound folklike. Then there are more expected things, like reggae and reggaeton.
The way Madera Limpia fits all of this together with the US Afro-urban sound is terrific. I'm in awe of it. The old instruments don't sound old, and the new style doesn't sound out of place in its newness. Their salsa is rap-salsa, and neither salsa nor rap seems diminished by it. When a tuba drops by to lend a hand to the backing percussion in "La Lenta" it manages not to sound like a tuba, by which I mean that they don't ask it to make that dutiful fuddy-duddy parp that so many people seem to enjoy. Instead it sounds dark and significant, like a bit of percussion in itself.
Most of the album is upbeat, though. The songs move fast. The chorus on "Terro Con La Cara" leaps along with the violin snapping at its heels. "Perro Que Ladra" switches direction three times in the first 50 seconds. First it seems very old and sad, then there's a segue and the tres cuts in, bringing us into an introductory passage of singing from a male chorus, which guides us to the point where, in a typical Cuban song, the lead singer would step up and position himself in front of everyone else so that we could admire him. Right there, just at that point, we jump sideways into the stabbing pop-pop of rap. The lead has made his appearance as he was supposed to, but it's not the singing we were led to expect. The joke is on us.
They keep you guessing and entertained, it's one of La Corona's strengths. You get used to the constant changeroo, then they hit you with "El Ruego", which thwarts your expectations by not changing. "El Ruego" is one of those songs that strikes me deeply: I feel it has inscribed itself on my bones. Other young Cuban musicians have been touted as "the new Cuba," "the hip post-Buena Vista Cuba sound," but Madera Limpia is the real thing, very immediate, very strong, capable of crossbreeding the traditional music of its area without betraying it. La Corona is extremely good.