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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

On a torrid Friday night in Havana, a 14-piece band plays brassy salsa riffs as sweaty but elegantly dressed couples show off their trickiest moves on a concrete basketball court turned dance floor. At Carnival time in Port-au-Prince, nearly a million Haitians parade in the streets, singing and drinking throat-burning clairin as they sway along behind gaudy floats and horn-and-percussion ensembles pumping out scratchy ra-ra music. In Kingston, the birthday of the late Bob Marley is marked with a memorial concert that sends the thick, liquid rhythms of Jamaican reggae echoing through a downtown park crowded with dreadlocked Rastafarians.

When it comes to quality exports from the Caribbean, music ranks with tobacco, sugar and coffee. Geographically, the region may be a string of small islands with tangled colonial pasts, divided by culture and language. But in musical terms, the Caribbean is a fertile superpower that for decade after decade has captivated the rest of the world with one irresistible rhythm after another: mambo, rhumba, cha-cha-cha and calypso earlier on, and then, more recently, salsa, reggae, merengue, soca and zouk.

Good music, in other words, is as essential a part of the Caribbean experience as a fine cigar or a glass of rum. But for the outsider, where is the best place to start? As with cigars, so with music: Cuba's best is the very pinnacle of Caribbean music. The clave, the one-two-three/one-two or one-two/one-two-three beat that is the heart of modern tropical music, was born here a century ago, the mulatto child of Spain and Africa, and spread to neighboring islands with the advent of radio and recordings to become almost as universal as the blues.

Today, the commercial center of Caribbean music may have shifted to San Juan, New York and Miami, where singers such as Gloria Estefan, La India, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Jerry Rivera and Willy Chirino reign supreme. But for Cubans on the island, where the tradition of artistic innovation and experimentation for its own sake remains strong, the principal vehicle of musical expression is still the ensemble--the larger and more polished, the better.

Some of those bands, such as Orquestra Aragón and Orquestra Riverside, were founded long before Fidel Castro took power in 1959, and in some cases have even outlived their founders. Others, such as Los Van Van, Irakere, NG La Banda and Orquestra Original de Manzanillo, are products of the Revolutionary era and the economic policies of a socialist state, which at one time could afford the high cost of maintaining a large ensemble, including the musicians' salaries.

Structurally, these orchestras are reminiscent of the American big band era, with up to 15 musicians and singers in a group. Almost always there is a large horn section (saxophones, trumpets and trombones), as well as several violin and percussion players, vocalists, a guitarist and a keyboard player. But that's where the resemblance ends: A contemporary Cuban dance band swings harder and more rhythmically than Benny Goodman or Glenn Miller could ever have imagined. Think of a jet-fueled Indianapolis 500 race car compared to a Model-T Ford.

This is music that begs--or better yet, compels--the listener to get up and move. Even though Cuban bands still can't perform in the United States, and it remains illegal for most Americans to travel to Cuba, several American record companies have released compilations, available in any good, big-city record store, that are designed as an introduction to Cuba's finest groups. The two-volume set Cuban Gold features more than a dozen bands, while Cuban Dance Party and A Carnival of Cuban Music include both contemporary and classic, pre-Revolutionary orchestras. Dancing with the Enemy also offers an excellent general survey for the beginner.

But most connoisseurs of Cuban music agree enthusiastically that the title of the island's top dance band belongs to Los Van Van, founded a quarter of a century ago by bass player Juan Formell and powered for many years by the extraordinary percussionist José Luis "Changuito" Quintana. In the United States, the Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen are famous for long shows that build to an exhausting climax. But for sheer giddiness and sweat in a live setting, there's nothing quite like an all-night bailable, or dance concert, featuring Los Van Van.

For many years, Americans could only sense the prowess of Los Van Van thirdhand: Many of the group's most torrid riffs were simply lifted off recordings and recycled, without credit or acknowledgment, by some of the best-known salsa performers in Miami, New York and San Juan. But recordings of Los Van Van have begun appearing in the United States in recent years, and the group is finally getting the recognition it deserves. A good starting point is Dancing Wet, which builds to a blistering finale, a 12 1/2-minute live version of "Aqui El Que Baila Gana," or "Here He Who Dances Wins," the theme song for a dance contest program on Cuban television.

Los Van Van's latest American release is a live recording that attempts to transfer to disc some of the passion of the band's concerts. Called Lo Ultimo En Vivo, it features a revamped version of the group, with Changuito absent but the beat as strong as ever. "The years pass and we keep on going," the group proudly proclaims on the opening track, "What's Los Van Van Got?" "Los Van Van have the essence of Cubanness that you want." Truer words have never been spoken, but if you're still hungry for more of this heady brew, you might turn to Songo, a compilation of Los Van Van's best-known numbers, recorded with the band's classic lineup in the late 1980s.

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