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Sounds of the Caribbean

Here's How to Bring the Best of Latin Music into Your Home
Larry Rohter
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96

(continued from page 1)

None of the great dance bands that have dominated Cuban music in recent years have evolved in a vacuum, however. Their songs are studded with admiring references to their predecessors--great pre-Revolutionary singers such as Celia Cruz, Beny Moré and Arsenio Rodríguez. Reincarnated as the "queen of salsa," Cruz, possessor of one of the most penetrating voices ever put down on disc, is alive and well, performing and recording throughout the United States and Latin America. She even appears on the soundtrack of the 1991 film The Mambo Kings, but her groundbreaking work was done back in the 1950s, and can be best heard on records such as Celia Cruz con la Sonora Matancera.

Beny Moré and Arsenio Rodríguez, on the other hand, have been dead for more than 20 years. But two American record labels recently revived and repackaged some of their best work, as well as that of contemporaries like Tito Puente, Pérez Prado, Machito and Miguelito Valdés. RCA's "Tropical" series and Tumbao Records' "Cuban Classic" series have different strengths: The RCA collection sounds better, having been digitally remastered, but the Tumbao series is more informative, with each disc being accompanied by an essay on the artist. With both series running to more than 50 discs, it's hard to single out an individual recording, but a good starting point might be Moré's The Most from Beny Moré and Rodríguez's Como Se Goza en el Barrio.

Among the more than one million Cubans and Cuban-Americans who have settled in the United States, there have been efforts to mix the music of their homeland with American pop. The primary exponent of that style, and the only one to cross over to a mass English-speaking audience, is the singer Gloria Estefan. But a couple of years ago, the Miami-based diva began to feel the tug of her Cuban roots, and the result was Mi Tierra, a collection of newly written songs that had a deliberately traditional sound, as if they had been taken from her parents' collection of old 78 rpm records.

That record proved so successful, selling well in both the Latino and Anglo markets, that Estefan has now broadened her scope. Her latest recording is called Abriendo Puertas, which means "opening doors," and focuses on a variety of musical styles popular along the Caribbean coast of Colombia: vallenato, cumbia, chande and curralao. This tropical hillbilly music is driven by accordions (rather than percussion, horns and guitar as in standard salsa), but if that summons up unpleasant memories of polkas or Lawrence Welk, just relax, because this is music that has a deep, eminently danceable groove. Though Estefan sings here in Spanish, she gives each of the 10 songs an illuminating explanation, in English, in a very useful set of liner notes.

Estefan is not the only one taking a mix-and-match approach to tropical music. The Dominican Republic is renowned throughout the Caribbean as the home of classic merengue, which differs from standard salsa in that it has a more rapid, galloping beat, punctuated by stuttering horns. But the big innovator in Dominican music this decade, Juan Luis Guerra, and his group, known as 440 (the frequency of an A note that is perfectly tuned), have made their mark by allowing the beat to become less insistent and more elastic, adding lilting vocal harmonies and writing sophisticated lyrics that can be humorous, romantic or pointed, depending on the purpose of the song.

That approach has made Guerra, who studied music at Berklee College of Music in Boston and is well acquainted with American rock and jazz, one of the most popular artists in the Spanish-speaking world, as capable of filling every seat at Madison Square Garden as in soccer stadiums from Santiago to Madrid. His breakthrough record, called Ojalá Que Llueva Café, has a humid, dreamy quality, like the tropics after a heavy rain, and critics have praised its lyrics as recalling the magical realism of the novels of Colombia's Gabriel García Márquez--no small feat.

Three subsequent records have maintained that high standard and burnished Guerra's reputation. On the 1993 record Areito, for instance, a humorously trenchant piece of social satire whose title translates as "The Cost of Living" is followed by one of the most erotic love songs ever written in any language, "Signs of Smoke." Yes, it helps to understand the words he sings. But even for those who don't speak Spanish, the sheer beauty of Juan Luis Guerra's music gives it an irresistible power and attraction.

Since the Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, it should come as no surprise to find that its Creole-speaking neighbors have developed their own, more ethereal version of merengue. That seems to be the defining characteristic of the music of Haiti and the French Antilles, in fact: an almost lighter-than-air sensation that comes from its reliance on layers and layers of electric guitars and keyboards floating above African polyrhythms.

That sound was initially developed in the 1950s by bandleaders such as Nemours Jean-Baptiste and came to be known as "compas," or "beat," music. As an introduction to the evolution of compas, it would be hard to top Konbit: Burning Rhythms of Haiti, which begins and ends with a pair of songs by Nemours Jean-Baptiste but also features several of his musical and spiritual heirs, such as the group Tabou Combo. The music of Martinique and Guadeloupe, which has evolved over the last decade into a style called zouk, tends to be even more bubbly and breezy, as shown on the compilation disc called Zouk Attack.

But the Haitian sound has been updated and fortified for the '90s by groups such as Boukman Eksperyans and its offshoot band, Boukan Guinen, practitioners of what has come to be called, for lack of a better term, "voodoo rock." The Boukman group draws heavily on traditional voodoo drumming for its strong rhythmic base, stirs in rock-style electric guitar and synthesizers and tops the brew off with a dash of ra-ra, an energetic style of Haitian Carnival music. They have recorded three albums since 1990, the best of which is probably Kalfou Danjere: Dangerous Crossroads, and the band now tours regularly in the United States and Europe.

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