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Sounds of the Caribbean

Here's How to Bring the Best of Latin Music into Your Home
| By Larry Rohter | From 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.

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.

It's safe to say, however, that no musician from the Caribbean has found a larger international audience over the past 25 years than the late Bob Marley. He didn't invent reggae, but he did refine and popularize a style that fused indigenous Jamaican elements with flourishes derived from American rhythm and blues, taking the resulting mélange to a worldwide audience and becoming one of the best-known musicians in the world before dying of cancer in 1981.

One of the reasons reggae has caught on with non-Jamaican listeners is that its rhythms are unforgettable. At first hearing, everything seems backwards: The accents fall on the offbeat, contrary to what the ear and the body expect. Chattering guitars and swelling organs or growling clavinets emphasize the unusual rhythm, which is more often than not set off by socially conscious lyrics that address issues such as racism, poverty or the legalization of marijuana, the "sacred herb" of the Rastafarian cult. Marley perfected that formula, and its evolution can be traced in a four-CD set called Songs of Freedom that combines the best of his many recordings. The 1972 movie, The Harder They Come, also helped introduce many Americans to reggae, and the soundtrack album, with recordings by his contemporaries, remains fresh and enticing.

Yet, as great as Bob Marley was, Fred "Toots" Hibbert of The Maytals may be an even better singer. Check out The Maytals' Reggae Got Soul or Funky Kingston, with vocals that rival Otis Redding and Sam Cooke in their primes, and decide for yourself.

By far, however, the most comprehensive overview of reggae and its many forerunners and variants (ska, rock steady, dub, dancehall) is contained in a marvelous four-CD set called Tougher than Tough: The Story of Jamaican Music. Bob Marley is here, of course, but so are some other wonderful singers and groups, ranging from pioneers Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff to current stars such as the ever-bawdy Shabba Ranks and Buju Banton. Of special interest to rock 'n' roll fans may be the original versions of songs later recorded by the Rolling Stones and The Clash, among others.

Reggae's ascension in recent years has robbed a bit of the luster from the lilting calypso music of Trinidad and its more driving descendant, soca (short for soul calypso). But that doesn't mean calypso recordings aren't accessible in the United States or that the music has stopped evolving at home. The great calypso singers, with their wonderfully descriptive stage names and fondness for satiric or risqué lyrics written for Carnival celebrations each year, are all available on disc. Start with The Mighty Sparrow, undisputed king of contemporary calypso, and then work your way back through his predecessors: Atilla the Hun, Lord Executor, The Roaring Lion, Houdini, King Radio, The Caresser and Lord Invader, best known for the song "Rum and Coca Cola."

Purists may argue that the infusion of American rhythm and blues and French Caribbean influences over the last two decades has changed calypso for the worse. But others are likely to conclude that those outside forces have only enriched the calypso tradition by making it more animated. Say What? Double Entendre Soca from Trinidad is guaranteed to liven up any party with its powerful dance groove and humorously suggestive lyrics. An equally infectious companion compilation is entitled Heat in de Place: Soca Music from Trinidad, and highlights the same propulsive beat, powered by horns, drum machines, synthesizers and guitars.

Larry Rother is the Caribbean bureau chief for The New York Times and a former music critic for The Washington Post. Caribbean Music: A Discography

A Carnival of Cuban Music--Rounder (CD-5049)
Cuban Dance Party--Rounder (CD-5050)
Cuban Gold--Qbadisc (QB-9006/9016)
Dancing with the Enemy--Luaka Bop/Warner Brothers (9 26580-2)
Heat in de Place: Soca Music from Trinidad--Rounder (CD 5041)
Konbit: Burning Rhythms of Haiti--A&M< (CS 5281)
Say What? Double Entendre Soca from Trinidad--Rounder (CD 5042)
Tougher than Tough: The Story of Jamaican Music--Mango/Island (162-539 935 -2)
Zouk Attack--Rounder (CD 5037)

Boukman Eksperyans
Kalfou Danjere: Dangerous Crossroads--Mango/Island (162-539 927-2)

Celia Cruz
Celia Cruz con la Sonora Matancera--Rodven (CD-122)

Gloria Estefan
Mi Tierra--Epic (EK 53807)
Abriendo Puertas--Epic (EK 67284)

Juan Luis Guerra
Ojalá Que Llueva Café--Karen (CDK 126)
Areito--BMG (3456)/Karen (CD 146)

Bob Marley
The Harder They Come--Mango/Island (162-539 220-2)
Songs of Freedom--Island/Tuff Gong (TGCBX 512 282-2)

The Maytals
Funky Kingston--Mango/Island (162-539 330-2)
Reggae Got Soul--Mango/Island (162-539 374-2)

Beny Moré
The Most from Beny Moré--RCA/BMG (2445-2-RL)

Arsenio Rodriguez
Como Se Goza en el Barrio--Tumbao (TCD-22)

Los Van Van
Dancing Wet--World Pacific (CDP 0777 7 80600 2 4)
Lo Ultimo En Vivo--Qbadisc (QB 9020)
Songo--Mango (CCD 9825)