Friday, July 06, 2007

La Maravilla de Camagüey

Last year in Havana I was thrilled when I saw that Maravilla de Florida were going to be playing at Teatro America. In the end I managed to see them twice, and they were even better than I had thought they would be. This year, they also played, though I only got to see one, very brief set. Compensation comes in the form of this new version (I'll explain later) of Luchando con fe; recently released and one of the nominees in the musica bailable category at Cubadisco this year (I don't think they minded that they were beaten by Manolito). In recent years they have done some good work, but this is by far the standout.
Before you dismiss charanga as fusty and old-fashioned, let me tell you that this incarnation is nothing of the kind. Maravilla have a sound that is all their own, and it is neither fusty nor old-fashioned, but tough and funky; the melodic strings providing a sweet counterpart to the robust rhythms.
I love the traditional charanga sound of flute and violins - also evident in the works of disco band Chic - but generally it is just a little too genteel for me: live, it usually packs a punch that is lacking on record, but even then, as when I saw Orquesta Aragon last year in Milan, the uniformity of the songs can't always hold my attention for more than about 30 minutes. This is why this album - and Maravilla - is different.

Maravilla de Florida has proved an extraordinary breeding ground for contemporary Cuban music. Alumni include Pupy's Pepito and Charanga Habanera's Leonid, but the most prolific is Manolito, who, when he left the band to form Trabuco, also took half of Maravilla with him, including conguero Lelo, bajista Mora, tecladista Osiris (now with Pupy), violinist Nicolas and cellist Orestes. The group must have had to rebuild itself from the ground up when Trabuco was formed. But rebuild they did: since then they have released only four albums - Vieja, pero se mantiene, Levantate y baile , 50 y más maravillas and this year's Luchando con fe released by Egrem. Well it's five if you count the early version of Luchando con fe recorded for Envidia in 2005 (on their web site - last updated in 05 - they refer to the Envidia album as Yo te doy la clave, after one of the album's more annoying songs, which happily doesn't make a reappearance on the new version). But this new version - rerecorded, with new songs and also some new musos, including a much less annoying singer - is a great improvement. In fact I've been thrashing it since I got back from Havana.
Manolito is listed as producer for this version; and other members of Trabuco (Bencomo, Miguelito) are listed as invitados. There are no indivdual credits however, so it's impossible to know whether it's Bencomo, or Maravilla's own Anais Casas Guerra who is responsible for the album's ripping flute solos.
The opening track features a rap in the intro, flagging the fact that this is no traditional charanga offering. Unfortunately it comes across as a bit try-hard - it's also completely unnecessary: the zestiness of the rest of the album - indeed the rest of the song - would have made that clear soon enough. Never mind. It's one flaw in an album that has very few indeed. And the song goes onto become one of the best in an album packed with great tunes.
La bola, which starts with a phat, squiggly synth riff, before the violins enter playing a percussive riff, is another.
As with a lot of timba, Maravilla take the energy level up and down and right back up again. It's infectious. A recogerse - played this year during the baseball broadcasts apparently - takes even more from timba with the traditional, almost lacklustre cuerpo, before opening up to fire on all cylinders with captivating coros and funky breakdowns.
I could have done without the ballad, Por estar contigo, but the rest of the album more than compensates.

All images from the sleeve - couldn't get a decent shot at the Tribuna show, unfortunately. So this is it.

If you don't get down to Camaguey, the band can be difficult to catch live - so this album is pretty much the only way to hear them in action. Just as well it's so good. Descarga only has the Envidia version, which is OK, but nowhere near as good as this one. Peeps in the US can buy the good version at Prodland.
One of the group's violinists, Jelien, told me that they will be touring Europe in October. If I find any more details, I will post them here. They are defiinitely worth a look - and a dance.

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