The Latin invasion

A 'midrocker' finds reason to learn how to really dance

Published July 16, 1998 9:11AM (EDT)

Cuba's Buena Vista Social Club made its United States debut at Carnegie Hall last week, and the stage fairly ached under all the stories. Consider that singer Ibrahim Ferrer, who's been singing for more than 50 years, had been shining shoes on the streets of Havana when he was recruited to help record the collection of traditional Cuban songs that became "Buena Vista Social Club." And that retired pianist Rub*n Gonz}lez, 78, had to chase away the effects of arthritis as his fingers rediscovered their old paths around the keyboard. At Carnegie Hall, a playful Gonz}lez couldn't stop blowing kisses to the adoring audience.

And then there was Compay Segundo, an active musician and prolific songwriter since the 1920s and a living incarnation of the folkish style of music known as "son." Segundo, who is 91, helped to shape the sound of son by inventing a seven-stringed instrument called the "armnico," which doubled the guitar's "D" string to produce a cross between the Spanish guitar and the Cuban tres. At Carnegie Hall, he spun out the kind of sweetly lyrical solos that can come only from caressing steel and wood for the better part of a century.

The concert ended with a bolero titled "Silencio," and the duet partners, Ferrer and Omara Portuondo, spent the instrumental portion dancing in slow romantic circles. The moment was calculated, corny and, like most of the evening, altogether irresistible. It was the kind of cerebral fish-out-of-water scene that you might imagine in a Wim Wenders film -- he was there, in fact, with cameras running.

"The Buena Vista Social Club," which has already sold nearly a million copies around the world, is the hip hit of the season among the older demographic that I think of as the "midrock" crowd, and which guitarist Ry Cooder, who produced and played on the album, has been known to call the "Jeep Cherokee set." These are often affluent, well-educated music buyers in their 30s and 40s who don't often relate to the rap, rock and pop that dominates the youth-driven pop charts. This is an audience more likely to take its cues from NPR than MTV, and whose interests are often piqued by a sense of the exotic. And these days, Afro-Cuban music has become as sweetly seductive as the smoke of a contraband cigar.

Still, the success of "Buena Vista Social Club" is far beyond that of most world music releases. Language is often the toughest barrier to widespread acceptance of international artists. Part of the reason that Bob Marley became not just the biggest star in reggae but the most widely heard world-music artist is that he sang in English. "Buena Vista Social Club" includes a lavish booklet with informative liner notes and translated lyrics, but for those like me who are linguistically challenged, the vocals are destined to be heard more as musical sounds than literal language.

The mostly son-based music of "Buena Vista Social Club" manages to sound both foreign and familiar, with arrangements that are thick with a folkish bed of guitars and related stringed instruments. The collection's sweet, almost pastoral vibe is established by its first track, a haunting, minor-key tune by Segundo called "Chan Chan." Cooder's no novice at such hands-across-the-water collaborations. He's already won Grammy Awards for recent collaborations with Rajastanian guitarist Vishwa Mohan Bhatt ("Meeting by the River") and Mali's Ali Farka Tour* ("Talking Timbuktu"). And he's long enjoyed a reputation as a highly tasteful musicmaker, with his early albums introducing many to the music of such gifted artists as Blind Blake, Joseph Spence, Flaco Jimenez and Sleepy John Estes.

The challenge for the midrock (or Jeep Cherokee) listener is where to go after "Buena Vista Social Club." A logical next step is "A Toda Cuba le Gusta" by the Afro-Cuban All Stars, which includes many of the same players as "Buena Vista Social Club" but focuses on Afro-Cuban jazz, with bold horn lines and quicker tempos imbuing the music with Latin swing. Gonz}lez, who helped develop the mambo and brought jazz harmonies to Cuban music, is featured on both albums as well as on a solo effort, "Introducing ... Rub*n Gonz}lez." Though his playing is consistently inventive, this collection of Cuban tunes in the "descarga" (jam session) is less distinctive than the other two discs.

Expanding my Latin horizons beyond the traditionalist world of these albums proved to be a bit bewildering. What I was looking for was propulsive percussion and inspired instrumentalists. Browsing through the various-artist compilations in a number of large, well-stocked record stores, I was confronted by hundreds of discs on unfamiliar labels that were filled with artists beyond my limited knowledge. Consequently, I gravitated to collections on labels known for authoritative reissues.

Rhino, whose extensive reissue catalogue has long managed to mix the monumental with the marginal, has lately moved into the Latin market with a variety of compilations. "El Rey Del Timbal!" is a splendid disc dedicated to Tito Puente, the veteran band leader and timbale player best known to old rock fans as the composer of an early Santana standard, "Oye Como Va." Tracks stretching over nearly 40 years reveal Puente to be a master of creating dynamic interplay between syncopated horn lines and percolating percussion. Finding that one disc was just not enough. I also picked up a compilation on Concord of tracks from the '80s and '90s, "Oye Como Va! The Dance Collection." Frankly, now I've got enough Tito, but then, that's the way a midrocker dabbles.

If you're looking to imagine yourself dancing the night away with mobsters in a Havana nightclub before the arrival of Fidel Castro, then you might enjoy "Mambo Mania!" The collection is filled with swinging moments, but there's also a campy element to these vintage dance tunes that is driven home by the inclusion of a tune by Desi Arnaz, who became the best-known of all Cuban musicians by becoming the sitcom straight man for his wife, Lucille Ball.

"The Original Mambo Kings" (Verve) predates "Mambo Mania!" and focuses on the New York jazz world of the late-1940s. The disc is dominated by the work of a pair of seminal Havana-born musicians, trumpeter Mario Bauza and a vocalist known as Machito. Besides tracks by Machito and his Afro-Cuban Orchestra, the collection also includes an "Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite" with Charlie Parker on alto sax, and one of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's epic excursions into Latin jazz, "The Manteca Suite."

As my Latin collection grew, it became clear that I preferred music that tended toward Afro-Cuban jazz than more pop-oriented tunes that took clear aim at the dance floor. This distinction was sharpened by another pair of Rhino compilations, "Salsa Fresca! Dance Hits of the '90s" and "Sabroso! The Afro-Latin Groove." The former is a good introduction to the slick and rhythmic sounds of contemporary salsa, but it also suggests that in these global days, the highly polished sounds and techniques of commercial dance music crosses the boundaries of different musical genres. Consequently, much of "Salsa Fresca!" strikes me as no deeper nor more memorable than a collection of yesterday's English-language dance tracks.

By contrast, "Sabroso!" breathes the kind of Latin fire that'll appeal to rockers raised on the sounds of Santana. The majority of the tracks are from the 1960s, and while the instrumental improvisations are clearly inspired by the sounds of jazz, the rhythmic grooves also show the influence of rhythm & blues and funk. It's not the title of tunes like Willie Bobo's "Fried Neck Bones and Some Home Fries" and Mongo Santamaria's "Sweet 'Tater Pie" that makes "Sabroso!" a most delicious musical meal. It's the deep rhythmic grooves that left me searching for the ultimate albums by artists like Joe Cuba and Mongo Santamaria.

Another explanation for preferring "Sabroso!" over "Salsa Fresca!" could be that while my introduction to Latin music has included familiarizing myself with these and a few dozen other discs, it's yet to include a night of dancing. That is where the hips will finally meet the beat, an image that puts fear into the heart of somebody who came of age during the days of free-form hippie dancing. Maybe that's why I was so charmed by those dancers shuffling slowly around the stage of Carnegie Hall. Looking at those swinging senior citizens, it was almost possible to believe that a midrocker still had time to learn how to really dance.

By John Milward

John Milward is a New York freelance writer.

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