(by Dave Hucker, from The Beat, Vol. 23, No. 5, 2004)

We live in momentous times, but then all times are momentous for the people who live through them. But just how momentous depends on who is experiencing it and understanding, deconstructing, codifying, mythologizing or criticizing any given period in time. As for what is momentous, well, that is variable—wars were worse, music was always better in the past.

The Cuban people have lived through a few momentous periods during the last 50 years. Among other things they came very, very close to hosting the start of an Armageddon World War III. They are due another momentous experience when Fidel dies. The best look at the state of Cuba right now is Last Dance in Havana (Free Press, 2004) by Eugene Robinson. Subtitled "The final days of Fidel and the start of the new Cuban revolution," this entertaining, informative and intelligent read takes us on a journey through current Cuba through the music, with Bamboleo, Juan Marcos Gonzalez, Los Van Van and the new hiphop generation. Robinson argues that in Cuba the music is the catalyst for change. He writes "In Gdansk, grassroots civil society developed in the shipyards, in Prague in the coffee houses and drawing rooms. In Havana I was seeing a tropical version of civil society take root in the hot, sweaty, sexy, swinging dancehalls."

He steps through the conundrum that is modern Cuba, with its society of haves and have-nots and its lunatic market, which is defiantly not something that Fidel planned, but then since when has life gone the way one person planned it? I cannot fault the author's musical observations or his accurate political analysis. Throughout this book Robinson uses dance as a metaphor for Fidel always being one step ahead of his enemies whether local political opponents or abroad. All have had their noses bloodied and been out-maneuvered and out-danced by the Bearded One.

What will happen when Fidel dies? How will the Cuban equivalent of the fall of the Berlin wall occur? Whatever you might suggest is pure speculation, and knowing Cuba, anything could happen. But it certainly will be another big moment in time for the people of Cuba.

Caught Ruben Blades and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra promoting their new release Across 110th Street (Libertad) in London. It was the first time I had seen him live; his only previous appearance in London had been some years ago, at a period when I found his music less than interesting. In pork-pie hat, round shades and dark suit he cut a charismatic figure. His puppet-like body movements were in total in contrast to the other vocalist with the SHO, the avuncular Ray De La Paz and his well-rehearsed sharp footwork. What I liked about this three-hour doubleheader set was that after the powerful pristine twists and turns of the SHO's style of 100 mph arrangements, when Ruben came on the rhythms slowed down. The arrangements became less animated and things loosened up. It looked and sounded like the musicians did not have the detailed charts for these tunes like they do for the SHO songs, so they had to remember how the arrangements went for songs they knew from childhood.

You could see Ruben was obviously enjoying himself in front of the sell-out crowd and went energetically through his greatest hits; "Plastico" and "Juan Pachanga," while his signature tune "Pedro Navaja" started off with him singing "Mack the Knife" on his own and then expanded into the classic story of life as a new immigrant on the street. The audience knew all the words and sang along as well. His opening song had been "Un Gran Dia en el Barrio" from the new album and when he did "Bailadores," the track made famous by the great Joe Cuba, Ruben commented that Joe Cuba was born in Spanish Harlem, but he neglected to mention that septuagenarian Joe also still lives there with his mother.

Ruben was in fine form but claimed these will be his last shows before going off to work "in the "bowels of bureaucracy" of the Panamanian government, where he will be the minister for tourism. Unlike Gilberto Gil, who successfully combines music and politics and politics in music, Ruben has made the choice to do one thing at a time.

As for the Spanish Harlem Orchestra release, there's some megatastic music there, especially the opening Ray De La Paz composition "Un Gran Dia En El Barrio." Tito Puentes' "Cuando Te Vea," and "Tun Tun Suena El Tambor" thunder along while Curet Tite Alonso's magnificent "Como Lo Canto Yo" is a tour de force. With this release Ruben has made some of the best music he has done for a long time. It is always a pleasure to have your ears and feet dragged away by the Spanish Harlem Orchestra because they are just so tight: The razor-sharp arrangements from master craftsman, leader and piano player Oscar Hernandez are dovetailed together beautifully to create a multitude of five-minute symphonies. On Across 110th Street the choice of great tunes is faultless and the original compositions are just as good! Spanish Harlem Orchestra have created a new level of music, a lofty niche in an already mountainous cliff of New York salsa music.

One of the things that producer Aaron Lewinson tried to do with this release was to get a live sound, no overdubs or multitracking, which it succeeds in totally but I find the final mix a little lacking in warmth and color, especially around the bass regions. At home or playing out it calls for the bass knob to be maxed out. May I humbly suggest that for the next cd they should go to the Rudy Van Gelder studio to get a proper old-fashioned "one take" sound, use engineer Irv Greenbaum who in the '70s recorded what are now known as many of the classics of salsa in studios with relatively rudimentary equipment, so think what he could do now, and then get Jon Fausty to mix it.

The Palladium Ballroom on 53rd St. in New York achieved mythical status as Afro-Cuban music central, the source of the spring where what is known as modern salsa/mambo fountains out. The Palladium deserves its exalted position as the place where it all started, where the best bands played and the best dancers went. From the word go in 1946, with a booking of six local bands and Machito headlining, the Palladium rocked. Everybody went there: It really did cross all barriers, black, white, Puerto Rican, Jewish, Italian.

Tito Puente made his bandleader debut there. Tito Rodriguez was the star headliner whose tight band ruled the '50s. Machito's son Mario, himself a successful musician, had a great idea: Why not record the music of the Palladium bands as done by the sons of the great bandleaders, who by some strange chance were also bandleaders? Which is how The Big 3 Palladium Orchestra, Live at the Blue Note (Rumba Jams) came into being. Machito Jr. got the original musical scores for the tracks and assembled a big band of players, some of whom played with the original bands and some more recent notables of the NY scene like Oscar Hernandez, taking a day off from Spanish Harlem Orchestra, to soneros Luisito Ayela and Herman Olivera.

Recorded live at the Blue Note Club, this group just sizzles. The original arrangements swing in a very sophisticated way mixing the old with the new. This is pretty much as you would have heard it then, authentic with an accumulated knowledge, a few new twists and better recorded. They explore their fathers' hits with gusto; well, TP Jr. tries hard but is not a patch on his old man. The big hits just keep firing out a you, TR's iconoclastic speedball "Mama Guela" rushes at you, and "Avisale A Mi Contrario" is a stormer you can play in clubs today. TP cha-cha-chas along with "Oye Como Va" and "El Cayuco" while on "Babarbatiri" the percussive contrapuntal horns box your ears. A great release, every aspect of the music on the album is sheer class with some real tasty, jazzy solos and when sonero Herman Olivera starts riffing over that old-style beat, well. . . .

Without the Palladium there would not have been musicians like Ray Santiago operating in New York. He was the pianist for late '70s seminal Afro-Cuban band Saoco and famed Newyorican singer and composer Henry Fiol. Every once in a while, in this case 10 years, Ray makes a solo album. Afro Cuba a la New York City (Ray Santiago) is a real blast from the underground, a real pure Gran Manzana experience. It is gritty and rough and ready. Great grooves stand shoulder to shoulder enjoying life together, there is nothing flashy or ostentatious, just an affirmation that the truth can still be out there in music. Biggest track on the dance floor—where it is a massive hit—is a multilingual version of James Brown's "It's A Man's Man's Man's World" which is utterly sublime. The rest of the album is the kind of stonkingly good, honest music that seems to have almost disappeared.

Critically Colombian Pacific coast music frequently seems to get relegated to below that of the Caribbean coast or the modern salsa from Cali and the other big cities. But without it and with Ernesto Urbano Tenorio AKA Peregoyo there would not have been Colombian music as we know it. A true pioneer, he started recording in the last century (the 1960s) and quickly became one of the first major stars of the emerging Colombian popular music scene, including writing one of the greatest of the classic songs about the region, "Mi Buenaventura." But in the last few decades Peregoyo had been overtaken by time and had retired, but in 2001 at the age of 87 he came out of retirement to make a new album with the original members of his band Combo Vacana. El Rey Del Currulao (Otrabanda) is the result, the currulao is a pure African rhythm from this region where 95 percent of the population are descended from African slaves. The rhythms are very deep and chunky as the horns and Peregoyo's clarinet create a dense wall of groove while the songs are truly fantastic stories and tales.

This a really magnificent cd that allows the world to rediscover the music of Peregoyo and there is a lot to enjoy—the music is quite unlike anything else. His clarinet leads the big band that knits together the complex rhythms into a thick sound rope that swings. Welcome back, Peregoyo: This release puts you back in the limelight and reminds us of your lofty position in the pantheon of Afro-Colombian music. [www.otrabanda records.com ]

Cuban music has always been popular in the Colombian Pacific coast region. Los Nemus Del Pacifico has been one of the most popular and consistent protaganists of old-style Cuban music so I'm sure Cuban sonero Felix Baloy has always been very popular there. Right from his days with Orchestra Reve and Son 14 to the Afro Cuban Allstars he has been one of the great Cuban vocalists. A new release produced by star piano player Manolito Simonet, Un Poquito de Fé(Tumi), is a fine showcase where Felix's deep, full voice floats over the band culled from various talented old friends from BVSC and the Afro Cuban Allstars. It is certainly worth checking out; it is much stronger than a lot of the "old" stuff out recently like, for example, BVSC trumpet player Manuel "El Guajiro" Mirabal's first solo outing. When is someone going to turn the tap on this incessant drip of BVSC dilutions? This release could have been interesting as it is a homage to and features songs by and about the godfather of Afro-Cuban music Arsenio Rodriguez. But all you end up getting is a load of old guajiro.

I reported on timba merchants Charanga Forever during their European tour as they were seemingly shedding members in every country they played in. From the side of the stage they were also selling home-burned cds of their forthcoming latest release. The full release is out now La Cuqui Quiere Fiesta (Envidia). Their trademark tight harmonies, complex arrangements and bright horn section are much in full evidence. Live they put on a blinding show, and it is a bit mean to describe them as a just a pretty boy band. They are better than that. I just don't find them as deep and satisfying as, say, Tirso Duarte or the original Charanga Habanera. But they make music that is very popular in clubworld with the Casino dancers and the timba freaks.

As a jobbing dj—weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs—I am always looking for those interesting rootsy thumpy things to play so you can engage and play up the crowd. But good ones are few and far between so I was pleased to discover Ex-Centric Sound System's West Nile Funk (EXS) where several very useful tracks are to be found. I agreed with bassist Yossi Fine who said "I am dj too—most world dance albums are too soft on the beats or soft on the African element" So he went away and did something of hardness and durability. There are some very good big, little and medium thump beats here expertly intertwined and woven into the original songs, shifting things round the bones of the "songs" recorded in Ghana, Israel and New York. Dubbing it up tastefully, dropping the beats, going round a corner and taking the track somewhere else. Interesting stuff.

For aficionados of this type of dj music there are also some choice cuts on Nu Brazil 2 (Manteca), an eclectic selection from dj John Armstrong. You get a really good selection of recent music from a large variety of areas of modern Brazil, you also find sometimes obscure tracks—read, hard to find, like Siri's "No Tranco" a totally whacked-out urban soundscape that mixes car exhausts, drums, horns and vocals. Totally and utterly crazy.

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