The Sound of Son

¡Cubanismo! carries old-time Afro-Cuban rhythms to a modern audience.

The embargo is crumbling, the embargo is crumbling not. On the day I tried to call Havana to interview trumpet virtuoso Jess Alema�bout his legendary band Cubanismo!, the US trade embargo with Cuba was definitely not crumbling. "Right now, you can't call Cuba from the United States," said the first MCI operator flatly. "And nobody else will let you either," said the next.

The third operator seemed more willing to listen, so I tried playing up Cubanismo!, telling her about its new CD—"It's their best yet! They take these vintage Cuban dance styles, see, add voltage, and let 'em rip"—but she countered with a details of a battle between the Cuban government and US phone companies.


Meany Theater, University of Washington Saturday, April 3

Two weeks later, though, when I finally reach Alema�the embargo is crumbling—from a musical perspective, at least. "Things are getting better and better," he says from California, where Cubanismo! is about to begin a four-month tour that will bring it to Seattle this weekend. Alema� voice is pleasantly hoarse; he's been talking to reporters all morning. "Before," he says in Spanish, "because of the embargo, there was very little promotion of Cuban music and very few possibilities for Cuban artists to come here. Now, there are many more."

The world has certainly opened up for Cubanismo!, a band that began as a one-time recording project. In 1995, Alema�a highly respected trumpet player and veteran of one of Cuba's top bands, Sierra Maestra, met Hannibal Records founder Joe Boyd in London, where Alema�ad been living and playing for several years. Boyd, fascinated with Cuban music and disgusted with its unnatural suppression by the embargo, dreamed up a project for Alema�a rescue mission of sorts: Return to Havana and invite the island's top musical guns to participate in a multiday recording session, performing the island's classic Afro-Cuban dance styles: guaracha, rumba, cha cha cha, danz�I>, and particularly the son, featuring the trumpet as lead.

But when Alema�rrived in Havana, he met with resistance from some of the very musicians he was trying to recruit. "They couldn't believe that in the 1990s, we were going to play these old styles," recalls Alema�ith relish. Despite pessimism, he put together an extraordinary 15-piece lineup, including pianist Alfredo Rodriguez (another expat), legendary conga player Tata Gines, flautist Orlando "Maraca" Valle, and Carlos del Puerto Jr., who has been called the world's best Cuban bassist.

The resulting self-titled 1996 album, produced by Boyd and released on Hannibal, enjoyed phenomenal success in both Latin and North American markets, making Top 10 lists in Billboard and Latin Beat. Its success helped spur the stampede of North American companies trafficking again in Cuban music; witness 1997's Buena Vista Social Club, the Ry Cooderproduced album on Nonesuch that has become one of the best-selling world music albums of all time.

And Cubanismo! lived and evolved, reconvening to tour and produce 1997's Malembe, and 1998's Reincarnaci�I>.

Like the group's other two albums, most of the tracks for Reincarnaci�I> were laid down in less than a week during a recording session in Havana. Again, Alema� trumpet, which he pushes beautifully to its limits throughout the album, takes a starring role, with percussive backbone added by Gines' conga, bassist Carlos del Puerto (the father this time, an alumnus of Latin jazz band Irakere), and pianist Ignacio "Nachito" Herrera, who replaced Rodr???ez.

But there are some fundamental differences on Reincarnaci�I>: more vocal work, and a wider variety of styles, from the more familiar mambo and son to the rootsy changui, the up-tempo, street-smart guaracha, and the ritualistic abacua. Emphasizing danceability, Cubanismo! plays a mix of original compositions in classic styles and classic compositions with electric new arrangements (what Alema�efers to as adding more fuerza, or power).

The result is pure exuberance, setting a joyously blistering beat from the first track, "El Platanal de Bartolo," a 1950s-era hit of the lesser-known and very hot pil�I> style. Other keepers include "Con Ma�e Rompe," with a smoking tres (Cuban guitar) solo by Pancho Amat, and "Mimi," a lovely Alema�omposed guajira that starts 1950s-style, slow and sentimental, but lands smack in 1999, with spirited runs by Alema�nd pianist Herrera. Best of all, though, is "El Paso de Encarnaci� a version of a 1960s hit that is brought to a slow simmer by a wonderful back-and-forth between the chorus and the trumpet, and Herrera's nimble piano lines. The record is a primer on Afro-Cuban music that anyone who has ever thrilled to the complex, exacting rhythm and call-and-response sections of good salsa music will find illuminating.

Indeed, the growing international popularity of salsa music has something to do with the success of Cubanismo! and groups like it. Cuban genres like the rumba and the son—transplanted to New York and given extra kick from Puerto Rican music—were the basis for the development of salsa in the 1960s. Now the son of son is turning the spotlight back to the source, says Alema�"People have discovered the roots of what they call salsa or tropical dance music. That's been fundamental."

There is a bit of irony. Despite its emphasis on dance styles, Alema� group is often booked into venues that aren't particularly suited for dancing, including Seattle's Meany Theater. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course: The drums-and-horns fireworks of a large band like Cubanismo! can be as impressive to watch as to move to. Alema�ertainly isn't worried. "If they want to dance, they're welcome to," he says. "It's going to be difficult to remain seated, listening to the music."

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