Graded on a Curve:
Cuba: Music and Revolution Vol. 2

Compiled by Gilles Peterson and Stuart Baker, Cuba: Music and Revolution Vol. 2 pulls off an exceedingly rare trick, following up their introductory volume with no lessening of quality, nary a smidgeon in fact, while documenting the same ten years of transition, specifically 1975-’85. The full title’s descriptor Clash in Havana: Experiments in Latin Music is borne out by the 22 selections, most of which, as with Vol. 1, have had limited exposure outside of Cuba. But as the distinctiveness of style unfurls, rhythms potent and pleasurable, expressed forcefully but with flair, unite the set’s contents. It’s scheduled to arrive October 29 on 3LP with a download code and on 2CD, through Soul Jazz Records.

Much of the music featured on this collection and its precursor gets spotlighted in the large format book Cuba: Original Album Cover Art of Cuban Music (a necessary truncation of a much longer, colon-loaded title) currently available through Soul Jazz Books, with its contents also compiled and edited by the noted French-born UK-based broadcaster Peterson and the owner-operator of the Soul Jazz empire Baker (for those on a budget, booklets do accompany both releases).

Rather than repeat Paterson and Baker’s background research on these musicians, a few of them heard on both volumes, we’ll leave that (other than some basic discographical info) for later discovery. Instead, this review will focus on the sheer range that’s in evidence across Vol. 2, with the understanding that the true yardstick of a compilation’s value is based upon the strength of its sounds.

Returning from Vol. 1, Juan Pablo Torres Y Algo Nuevo kick off the set with the opening track from their 1977 LP Super Son, “Y Que Bien” indeed a beefed-up variation on the bedrock Son Cubano sound, laden with synths, horns, guitar toughness and vocals (sans lyrics) that span from some almost proto-beatboxing at the start to a healthy dose of scatting in the back end.

Orquesta Los Van Van are next with “Por Que Lo Haces” from their self-titled ’76 LP, a lively tune with a string arrangement vacillating between the disco dancefloor and a credits theme to a ’70s action TV program. Nice. Then, Los Latinos shift the program toward the traditional with “Quemando,” a robust guaracha from a self-titled album made sometime in the late ’70s.

But after that, Farah Maria’s “Ámame Y No Pienses Mal” swings the trajectory back to disco-flavored pop vocalizing, the track certainly dating from the late ’70s, its sweep as grand as the bass is funky. Similar ingredients are tapped by FA 5 for “Muevete Con Las Fuerzas Del Corazon,” culled from their eponymous ’76 LP, though here, the Afro-Cuban recipe is a little heartier and the dish as served a definite groover.

Tambores De Enrique Bonne adjust the album’s scheme, scaling back to just drums and vocals for a sharp but welcome return to the traditional, their song “Como Arrullos De Palma,” originally written by Ernesto Lecuona (who’s been called Cuba’s Gershwin) and later recorded by Ibrahim Ferrer on his noteworthy 2003 album Buenos Hermanos.

These more classic Cuban excursions are nearer to the exception than the norm across Cuba: Music and Revolution Vol. 2, as Ricardo Eddy Martinez’s “Expreso Ritmico” plunges back into high disco style. The opening title-track to his ’78 LP, it begins with the mimicking of a train (the Expreso Rimco, I’m assuming) and then quickly establishes a funky foundation, one that’s near Ze Records in orientation, as a fuzz guitar quickly emerges, ushering in an air of Tropicalia, all before a vivid disco boogie-down solidifies, complete with gal backing vocals.

Los Papines’ “Solo De Tumba y Bongo” brings yet another contrast, this one landing squarely in the guaguancó-guaracha-rumba zone. Anyone familiar with Brooklyn’s Los Hacheros will recognize the sound, which is tastily potent in this drum-loaded cut (bongos, man) as it derives from Homenaje A Mis Colegas, one of the few LPs here to have received a US release (through the Vitral label in ’85, with a CD edition emerging four years later).

By now, it should be clear that this set, akin to Vol. 1, flaunts its stylistic twists with a blend of bravado and panache. Grupo Sintesis offer Latin-kissed proggy jazz rock, their “Aqui Estamos” followed by Los Van Van’s return with the timba-infused rhythm fiesta “Llegada,” and after that Grupo Raices Nuevas joins the party with “Baila Mi Guaguancó,” a decidedly Big-Bandy Afro-Cuban affair, but one that’s initial burst of distorted keyboard registers like it could’ve been removed with a scalpel from an early ’80s Italian horror soundtrack.

The title “La Rumba” might lead the reader to anticipate something in the ballpark of the earlier cut by Los Papines, but instead, it features the prolific Luis Carbonell reciting a poem by José Zacarias Tallet and accompanied only by hand drumming in a manner that recalls The Last Poets, a sweet surprise (but one that also makes sense, as Tallet was an ardent Leftist).

From there, the prolific and long-serving Orquesta Riverside (formed in 1938) do a fine job of keeping it contemporary with their Afro-Cuban number “En Casa Del Trompo No Bailes,” while Juan Formel and Los Van Van, a tandem first heard on Vol. 1, increase the funk quotient considerably with “Llegue, Llegue,” adeptly mingling a dirty groove (the hi-hat and bass are an utter beast) with sophisto elements (flute, natch, plus a killer string arrangement) for one of the Vol. 2’s standouts. Fans of Fania Records should consider it a gas.

Like many of the best comps, Vol. 2 gets stronger as it nears conclusion, serving up Grupo Los Yoyi’s organ, synth and psych guitar-infused cooker “Tu No Me Puedes Conquistar,” plus there are second helpings of Los Papines (with “Para Que Niegas?,” a cut significantly stranger than “Solo De Tumba y Bongo”) and Ricardo Eddy Martinez (his “La 132” another dip into the intriguing Expreso Ritmico album).

Returning from Vol. 1 are Los Reyes 73, closing side six with the symphonic-tinged psych-soul of “Finalizo Un Amor,” and Grupo De Experimentación Sonora Del ICAIC, represented by the wonderful “¡Cuba Va!,” the track an absolute must for fans of early Os Mutantes. There’s also a selection by Grupo De Experimentación Sonora Del ICAIC’s director Leo Brouwer, the (too damned) short and deeply symphonic “Tema de El Rancheador De La Naturaleza,” culled from the 1979 LP Instrumental ICAIC.

The lineup is rounded out with Raul Gomez’s utterly disco-fied “Luces En La Pista” (handclaps, sweeping strings, swooping synth, vamping horns, and the necessary tempo) and Los Brito’s deeper fusion of disco with Afro-Cuban gusto, “El 4-5-6.” Along with the persistence and variances of rhythm, a crucial aspect of Cuba: Music and Revolution Vol. 2’s worthiness stems from the lack of streamlining that has long afflicted so much commercial music made in the USA and Europe. This set offers sounds by Cubans made for Cubans, which is how the disco grooves and the fuzz guitar can come together so splendidly.


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