Graded on a Curve:
Okuté, Okuté

Slickness is an attribute shared by far too many contemporary recordings, with this preponderance of sheen often indicative of an overriding superficiality. Obviously, releases that are free of the malady are a welcome respite; the eponymous debut by Havana, Cuba’s Okuté is one of those. Available June 4 on vinyl (light transparent blue or standard black), compact disc and digital via Chulo Records (available through Daptone), the album’s eight songs are tough and raw as they hone a vibrant synthesis of Cuban music’s elemental diversity (spanning back to the African root). And yet, the album is wholly inviting. It’s difficult to come up with an LP better suited for social gatherings than this one right here.

Although in operation since 2012, my introduction to Jacob Plasse’s Chulo Records came through Bambulaye, the gemlike second album by Brooklyn’s Los Hacheros. Released in 2016, it delivered a remarkable serving of what the band, which features Plasse on trés guitar, describe as the sound of Latin Music’s Golden Age.

Okuté’s debut shares a lot with the sound of Los Hacheros. There is verve and edge heightened through sheer virtuosity and expert ensemble play, with Okuté comprised of lead vocalist Pedro “Tata” Francisco Almeida Barriel (pictured on the cover), percussionists Machito, Ramoncito, Roberto Vizcaino Sr. and his son Roberto Jr, trésero Juan “Coto” de la Cruz, and bassist Gaston Joya.

The album-opening “Caridad” is a concise serving of Okuté’s strengths. There’s Tata’s assured lead singing and the band’s tandem responses in the chorus, the rough-toned guitar, the sheer robustness of rhythm and the resulting infectiousness of the groove. They even spike it in the middle with a lively arrangement for trumpets.

With rumba of prime importance to Okuté’s approach, it’s unsurprising that three of the tracks here cite the Cuban style in their titles. The first, “Quiere La Rumba,” slows the tempo and nearly doubles the length of “Caridad” as the bata drums hit harder in combo with Joya’s acoustic bass. Along with the vocals (both Tata and the group-sung passages), the guitar’s edge really accentuates the music’s African roots (I thought specifically of Saharan desert blues, though I’ll stress that this association is a subtle one). A late organ solo provides “Quiere La Rumba” with a delectable twist.

Okuté are anything but predictable. In “Chi Chi Ribako,” they expand upon the African connection with a rhythmic burst that emerges after the song’s opening vocal call-and-response. It’s a sweet sound heightened by a shift of refinement (but not smoothness); there is a pause, the bass comes in, the up-tempo groove is reestablished, the voices engage in dialogue, and those trumpets are back on the scene.

Those with a casual relationship to Cuban music (and Latin styles in general) often focus upon the celebratory briskness of the ensembles, but Okuté deliver a welcome reminder that fast-paced material is only part of the scenario. “Gaston’s Rumba” is perhaps this record’s standout example; as the title situates, the bass is prominent, but so is a string section infusing the track with emotion without a drop of syrup.

The cut also features a solo from Coto that’s downright splendid in its spiky intensity. And the vocals don’t even enter the equation until three minutes in. But not to worry, throat fans. “Rumbarimbula” follows, a vocal showcase retaining the slower tempo as it builds to a powerful climax that’s augmented with a recurring violin motif. But with “Na Na Saguay,” the pace quickens, yet does so gradually, with Joya’s bass at the forefront initially and the bata drums exploding in the second half as Coto lays down another wicked guitar line.

Again accented by strings, “Orakinyongo” is the record’s prettiest selection, with the only downside its succinct length, as it barely breaks two minutes. But it effectively illuminates Okuté’s range amid the tendency for the economical, which is to be admired. It’s also generally smart, as this album is an exquisite example of leaving the listener wanting more, and without faltering into the skimpy.

“De Vuelva Me La Voz” is the closer, and if “Caridad” is a template of what’s to come, the LP’s finale allows all of the band’s core elements to shine. And the return of that organ is a fine capper. Altogether, Okuté is a statement of elevated mastery that’s distinct from any other Cuban record I’ve heard. Those digging the beauty and passion of the country’s sounds who also love music with a little sand in its gears are in for an absolute treat.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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