Classic Cuban CDs

In pre-Castro Cuba, musicians were gods. Once Castro came to power, though, God was banished, and musicians, like the rest of the island's deities, were relegated to being just another cog in the revolutionary machine. Suddenly, bandleaders were propagandists, pushing Castro's communist agenda; set-lists were mandated by the country's politicos. Jazz, seen as an American product, was stifled. In one fell swoop, the progression of Afro-Cuban music came to a stop.

At least it did on the island. Many of Cuba's best and brightest musicians found ways to leave the country: Arturo Sandoval, Celia Cruz, Willie Chirino, Paquito D'Rivera, Cachao and even a toddler named Gloria Estefan all made their way to America.

Forty years later, in 1997, Ry Cooder recorded a group of elderly, forgotten musicians in Cuba and released the CD The Buena Vista Social Club. Among the musicians were pianist Rubén González and singers Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer. Buena Vista, which showed González's still-intact genius and Segundo's and Ferrer's faded, but still impressive, talent, was a worldwide hit. It was also a painful reminder of what could have been -- if Castro had not come to power, if creativity had not been seen as anti-revolutionary, if Rubén González had been at a piano all those years instead of sitting in his living room with no instrument, no audience and no hope of either. If, if, if.

Nothing can undo the last 50 years. Once-in-a-generation musicians like González are gone, and we will never know what could have been. Thankfully, Malanga Music gives us another look at the past with the simultaneous rerelease of six classic Cuban CDs by Chucho Valdés, Bebo Valdés, Generoso "Tojo" Jiménez, Omara Portuondo and Arturo Sandoval. Each is captured in all their "Castro be damned" glory. (The bulk of the tracks were recorded between 1955 and 1964, with a few from the 1970s and early 1980s.)

Chucho Valdés Trio
Jazz Batá

Chucho Valdés always called himself a "student" of the piano, but when your dad is master pianist Bebo Valdés, maybe "student" is all you can hope for. Still, by 1972, when these tracks were recorded, Valdés had set himself apart as a bandleader with vision. Half of the tracks are from the earlier Jazz Batá (with Carlos del Puerto on bass and Oscar Valdés on congas), and half from Tema De Chaka (with Carlos Emilio Morales on guitar, Carlos del Puerto on bass, Enrique Plá on drums and Jorge "El Niño" Alfonso on congas. The ten tracks on Jazz Batá, including the iconic "Irakere," clock in at more than 77 minutes, and nine were written or cowritten by Valdés.

Chucho Valdés & His Combo,
introducing Paquito D'Rivera!
The Complete 1964 Sessions

That's right, introducing Paquito D'Rivera! The saxophonist was only 16 at the time of these recordings (bandleader Valdés was only 22). These tracks are taken from LPs that were originally distributed only in Cuba and include Valdés on piano, D'Rivera on alto sax and clarinet, Julio Vento on flute, Alberto Giral on trombone, Carlos Emilio Morales on guitar, Enrique "Kike" Hernández on bass, Oscar Valdés on congas and Emilio del Monte on timbales. The lack of a traditional drum set was something new Valdés was trying -- and it worked.

Songs on The Complete 1964 Sessions include the cha-cha-cha "Indestructible," the bolero "Mi Mejor Canción" and the jazz tune "Chiquitico." There are also a few bossa novas, a mambo and several descargas (jams). A total of 27 tunes are on the CD, and together they capture a young, energetic Valdés on the brink of stepping out of his famous father's shadow.

Bebo Valdés's
Sabor de Cuba

Bebo Valdés's Sabor de Cuba has the earliest recordings in the group, including a 1955 session in Havana, one from 1958 in Haiti and another from 1960 in Mexico. Bebo Valdés is on piano; Alejandro "El Negro" Vivar and Luis Escalante are on trumpet; Generoso "El Tojo" Jiménez is on trombone; Gustavo Más, Rafael "Cabito" Quesada and Virgilio Vixama are on saxes and clarinet; Enrique "Kike" Hernández is on bass; Guillermo Barreto is on drums; and Rolando Alfonso and Cándido Camero are on congas.

Valdés, who was a member of the Tropicana's orchestra in the 1940s, was legendary for his jazz jams, but none of these were recorded, since Latin jazz wasn't in style on the island at the time. By the early 1950s, he was working with a new rhythm called the batanga, combining the batá drums with jazz. The 25 mambos, danzóns, cha-cha-chas and rumbas on Sabor de Cuba document the work Valdés was doing with his orchestra of the same name.

Generoso "Toho" Jiménez
Trombón Majadero

The 23 tracks on Trombón Majadero come from two recordings: 1965's Trombón Majadero and 1960's Ritmo. In the early 1950s, Jiménez had formed his own all-star batanga orchestra, which included vocalist Benny Moré. A highlight on Majadero is the instrumental mambo version of "A la Bahía de Manzanillo," originally made famous by Moré but heard here as a battle between the trumpet, trombone and saxophone. There's also a saucy version of "La Bamba," but listeners will enjoy the various descargas the most.

Arturo Sandoval
Arturo Sandoval & The Latin Jazz Orchestra

Considered a leader in Latin jazz, Arturo Sandoval spent much of his early career in Cuba. When Castro's revolution imposed itself on his music, Sandoval at first tried to work within the system. But his jazz wasn't what the regime wanted to hear. Even after the band Irakere's 1978 Newport Jazz Festival triumph, jazz musicians were kept on a tight leash.

Even though all of the 15 tracks collected here were recorded in Havana during 1981 and 1982, they show Sandoval pushing Cuba's musical boundaries by recording "Maria" by Leonard Bernstein and "A Mi Manera/I Did It My Way" by Paul Anka, who were both -- gasp-- Americans!

Omara Portuondo

Vocalist Omara Portuondo is the only woman included in this batch of reissues. Her tracks feature the most recent recordings -- "Danza de los Ñáñigos" was recorded in 1987 with the band Irakere under the direction of Chucho Valdés. Like Valdés, Portuondo was the child of a famous man; her father was a well-known baseball player. And again like Valdés, Portuondo soon stepped into her own spotlight. She was a founding member of what can be argued was the finest female group in Cuban music, the D'Aida Quartet. They shared the stage with Edith Piaf, Sarah Vaughn, Nat "King" Cole and Tony Bennett, among others.

The 20 songs on this CD are her singles, all hits, and show her move from "girl singer" to singer.

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Olivia Flores Alvarez