Say what you will about the Buena Vista Social Club film and album. The genius of Cuban music is certainly not restricted to a supergroup of septua-, octo- and nonagenarian musicians. However, singer Ibrahim Ferrer, who had settled into a life of shining shoes, and pianist “Don” Rubén González, who did not even own a piano at the time of the sessions, exemplified how easily an artist could slip into the darkness, their names known only to those within the know. The phenomenon was thus exceptional for resuscitating (and promoting) the careers of these and other Cuban maestros y una maestra. It was also extraordinary for exposing them to a whole new segment of the pop culture-consuming population. But were they to be generalized and marginalized as another epidemic of Latin fever?
Six years have passed since Buena Vista Social Club and the morning after kiss on each participants’ cheek remains, suggesting a favorable outcome. Although three of los superabuelo have passed, the aforementioned two managed to release their “debut” solo albums while the senior statesman Compay Segundo saw the world from the finest stages before retiring for the last time. Many of the remaining participants, particularly Omara Portuondo and Eliádes Ochoa, continue to record and tour extensively. In short, such sustained support suggests the existence of a captive audience, which also opens the possibility for diversifying the audience’s interest. Cuban artists can be presented as both contributors to a larger, national movement, and as vibrant individual artists. Thus, the next question becomes: can Cuban artists in the 21st century avoid being tiki torch accoutrement and instead be appreciated as dynamic cultural forces?
Escondida Music’s extensive Cuban Essentials appeared promising, then, for its planning and scope. The 10-part series allotted one disc per artist/group (only one disc is a mixed compilation), with each installment being gradually released over the course of 12 months, giving individual bodies of work ample breathing room. Additionally, with the bulk of a box set price tag out of the picture, Escondida’s PR campaign had the benefit of riding on the popularity of some of Cuba’s most popular exports: the five aforementioned Buena Vista Social Club stars, recent Blue Note draft pick and pianist Chucho Valdés, modern salsa pioneers Juan Formell y Los Van Van, Valdés’ Grammy-winning group Irakere, and the legendary vocalist Benny Moré. While the names were familiar to even the most loosely acquainted Cuban music fan, Cuban Essentials hinted at a trove of goodies — the label was granted access to the vast library of Empresa de Grabaciones y Ediciones Musicales (EGREM) studios, the Cuban equivalent of Hitsville, USA. Hence, the series hoped to appeal to both the new and indoctrinated.
At present, Cuban Essentials is halfway through and it is shaping up to be a project of mixed execution. Thus far, the series has focused on Buena Vista Social Club-affiliated artists, so the 10- to 40-year-old material has provided a context for these musicians’ popular contemporary efforts.
Although each disc came with scant linear notes, providing little contextual information, the mere presence of the music was welcome. For example, the most recent release, Ochoa’s A la Casa de la Trova, consists of material from the early ’80s to mid-’90s. With seemingly few or no overdubs, the loose and warm production conjures a past recording and performance ethic; the prime indicator of these recordings’ modernity is the crisp presence of Ochoa’s nimble guitar. The work illuminates Ochoa’s consistent emphasis on tradition. The sparse reading of Buena Vista Social Club highlight “El Cuarto de Tula” is an invigorating romp, while “Estoy Hecho Tierra” bristles like an energetic stroll. In addition to the inclusion of lyric text to help get your karaoke on, the package is an informal delight.
In this manner, the upcoming Cuban Essentials discs are heavy on lightweight fun. Valdés’ Virtuoso covers recent recordings that highlight the man’s mastery of gentle and muscular playing, bridging syrupy small group recordings like “El Dia Que Me Quieras” with tricky solo romps like “El Manisero”. Los Van Van’s Por Encima del Nivel similarly demonstrates the group’s range: “Baile De Buey Cansado” exemplifies their kitchen sink capacity to blend international influences into a dense dance mix; while “Dale Calabaza” and “Que Palo es Ese” chart the group’s incorporation of modern studio production and instrumentation to update the sound of Cuban popular music.
The incomparable Benny Moré is represented on Ritmo with strictly signature tunes like “Bonito y Sabroso” and “Que Bueno Baila Usted”. Bacalao con Pan appropriately shows off Irakere’s absurd command of any form of music, gliding through a Bola Sete breeze on “Romance” before raging through the dance floor burn of “Aguanile”. Guantanamera closes the series with a far-reaching spectrum of EGREM residents, from the goofy charanga of Orquesta Riverside’s “La Guarapachanga” to the commanding roll of Celina González’ tongue on “Guarapo, Pimienta y Sal”. The material is overwhelmingly rich in quality and worth multiple listens on bare terms alone.
However, considering the potential of this series, Escondida is too reliant on prior coverage of their featured artists. Looking again at Ochoa’s Trova, the packaging alone is disappointingly slim. The translation of the linear notes into three languages, Spanish, French and English, is an accessible gesture, but the slim one-page essay fails to even mention Ochoa’s role in the recording; an uncredited picture leads the listener to deduce that he played a guitar . . . at one point in his life, at least. Only a person with prior knowledge can recognize his singing and playing. Especially with the upcoming releases covering oft-documented artists, the pressure is on the label to present creatively and coherently.
Valdés and Los Van Van have recorded extensively throughout their respective careers, but their discs do not have any notable revelations. The Irakere and Guantanamera collection brilliantly demonstrates the faculty and complexity of Cuban music, but hardly raises the bar beyond what is already available. In this sense, Moré’s Ritmo is the most egregious, resembling just another ‘greatest hits’ package. Therefore, to give these releases only mild, one-page reporting and little framing beside a colorful cover (another unexplained reference, this time to ’60s communist Cuban film posters; instead, Western eyes will likely perceive it as cheeky pop art) is hardly constructive. Quite frankly, these artists deserve better.
While Cuban Essentials is hardly a wash due to the immense quality of its subject matter, the series’ fault lies in the label’s confused purpose. With special access to EGREM’s archives, the label straddles the fence between appealing to the expert (in terms of presentation) and the greenhorn (in terms of content). The result skews in favor of the latter, because they receive colorful packages with phenomenal music. However, even a sliver more exposition would have been thoughtful not only for the audience but for the artists. This haphazard presentation underscores the complexity, depth and modernity of an entire nation’s music, which has unfortunately been perceived in the West as being cocktail party filler.
Worse, Escondida inadvertently borders on throwing these revered artists back in familiar territory: canned music. Perhaps the label could have taken a cue from Prensa Latina’s El Gran Tesoro de la Música, a comprehensive coverage of EGREM’s output in eight CDs and a 66-page liner note booklet. Of course, cost and mass is an issue for this box set, but its purpose is clear. If Escondida really wants to add a lil’ more sugar in the artist’s bowl, wouldn’t a long-term investment in audience cultivation be of use?