Friday, March 27, 2009

Timba CDs of the last year

The last year saw a bumper crop of timba releases, with almost all the major groups releasing discs, some (in the case of Los Van Van) after a lengthy hiatus.
Some I wrote about enthusiastically, some I tried to adhere to the "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" rule, and some were great CDs that simply slipped through the blog cracks. Ewww. Let me rephrase that: some came out when I was too busy with other things, or were simply growers, whose appeal was slow to reveal itself.
Taking these factors into consideration, I've decided that an appraisal of the CDs of the last year is on order, and it seems appropriate, on the eve of my next trip to Havana (I leave on April 23) to take it back to last year's trip.

I'll start with what I think are the two most overlooked albums released during that time: Klimax's Solo tú y yo and Azucar Negra's more recent Exceso de equipaje. They are both similar in that they manage to cover lots of different styles while still having at their cores half a dozen very strong, solid timba/salsa songs. But there the similarities end.

Klimax's album is the typical classy outing you expect from Piloto, though I think this one is a lot stronger than 2004's Nadie se parece a ti. As usual, he has had his pick of Cuba's musical talent; he has chosen wisely and used them well. Instead of using grand dame Omara Portuando for a genteel son, she's here singing a salsa/timba number with the classic Klimax sello for a combination that's all class. At the other end of the other age spectrum is Haydee Milanes, giving a lovely feather-light vocal treatment to another timba track, Tú no eres - the breakdown halfway through giving it a slightly tougher edge than Omara's. Other guests include Pablo Milanes, Chucho Valdes, Alexander Abreu and the ubiquitous Tania Pantoja of Bamboleo.
There are probably half a dozen salsa/timba songs here all ranging from good to very good. The rest are either in that tropical fusion style that Piloto has been dabbling in for a while now, or have a reggaeton backbeat; and Chucho plays on a slow, orchestrated ballad.
The standout track for me is a blistering number that is worth the price of the album alone; it's easily one of the best songs of the last year by anyone, and one of Klimax's best ever. Adios amor features Reinier on vocals - he has a high voice (similar to former Klimax vocalist Kalunga, though not quite in that esteemed league) which soars on this glorious tune. Like the Klimax songs of yore, it's quite fast and it has a smooth start before cutting loose with some gutsy coros and a funky rhythmic change. It's a terrific arrangement by tecladista Yusef Diaz: listen to the phrasing on the coro: ahora tengo una muchacha que me gusta más/que me gusta más.
I didn't get a chance to see them last year. Hoping to catch them this year and see if Reinier can pull this off live.

An album that completely took me by surprise was Azucar Negra's Exceso de equipaje. Last year Cuban radio was flogging their Vitamina C - a merengue. It was inoffensive enough but, you know, merengue. They also had recorded a bachata, and well, meh. But Exceso has got a lot of snazzy dance tunes on it. It's not sophisticated, like Klimax, but your feet will love you for it. And it's mostly a sunny, upbeat record. Some of the horns are regrettably a little sharp, and I'm not a huge fan of the singers either but a lot of the songs here compensate for these shortcomings.
La identidad, supposedly a dig at Maikel Blanco for ripping off the sound of other groups (or so the rumours go) is one of the best I think; chockful of catchy coros. It's a real keeper.
The other salsa/timba tracks are pretty much in the same vein. You can read a discussion I had with a fan of the album, Richard from Mucho Swing here. One of his favourites is Cola Loka, which certainly delivers a knockout punch towards the end. You'll need to get those hips working.
As I mentioned in that exchange, my other favourite (with Identidad), is the reworking of Con un canto en el pecho, originally done when Limonta was in Bamboleo, with Haila on vocals. I really love what Limonta has done with it this time around - it doesn't have the razzle dazzle and dynamic bloques that the original has. Instead he has taken it down a notch, and lets it build slowly. I always like a slowburn, and this is a masterful arrangement. Ailyn has such an odd affected style - she kind of sits back on her throat and drags the sound out. But then again, Haila bangs the sound out and only manages to hit the actual notes half the time, so ...
There are a couple of clangers on this album, and I'll admit that my favourable opinion of it is coloured by the fact that I had such low expectations. Having said that, there are good songs here that stand on their own. I'm just not sure how durable it will prove in the long run.

Los Van Van's Arrasando could hardly be said to have been an album that was overlooked; it had been four years since their last studio album Chapeando, and had a release date that seemed to be delayed and delayed, and consequently was highly anticipated. It finally came out and ... to be honest, I'm a little underwhelmed. I'm probably not the best to judge. I loved Chapeando, it's true, but I was never a huge Van Van fan - I've always prefered Pupy. And the Van Van songs I like tend to be Pupy's.
Having said that, there are about six songs here that I like: the title cut, though it reminds me quite a lot at times of Eddie Palmieri's La Cuna (not a bad thing), and of course it is reminiscent of the title track of Chapeando (ditto); both of Yeni's tracks, especially Este amor que se muere - slow and funky, my favourite combo; Mayito's La rumba no, Roberto's No te de por eso; and Lele's gritty Me mantengo. I also like Tumbao pa' los dos, despite Vanessa's tricksy sobbing vocal - I can only dream of what a class-act like Yeni would have done with it. But even so it's a lovely song given a nice R&B-flavoured treatment thanks to Samuell Formell.
Interesting that two of the songs I like are reworkings of old Van Van tracks (which I am not familiar with).
Having said that, none of these songs have sustained my interest since I got the (still unreleased) Havana D'Primera album and Alain Daniel's latest, Vestigios (reviews of both are in recent posts). Perhaps I'll get back to it later.
Here is Billy Bryans' review of Arrasando, as well as the discussion that subsequently ensued.

Former Vanvanero Pupy released his first album since 05's Mi timba "cerra". Inexplicably, I wrote nothing about Tranquilo que yo controlo on the blog. I'll blame post-Havana torpor, and try and rectify that now by saying that I'm with Michelle White of who thinks it's the best album of '08. To be honest, I expected nothing less, and Pupy didn't disappoint. The album has become even more valuable now, as it's the last recording we have of the group with its great singers from the original line-up, Mandy Cantero and Pepito Gomez. Pepito has written not one, but two great tracks, Un poquito al reves, a deceptively low-key son-style number that builds beautifully, with Pepito at full-capacity over the top. The "y si no se te da/tranquilo que yo controlo" coro will remain in your head for hours/days/weeks. His other song, Desde cero is another killer, in a similar style, also not dissimilar to his song from Mi timba cerra, Desde el trabajo a la casa, although it has a darker mood. Interesting that all Pepito's songs have their sello, something that bodes well for his career in the States.
The brilliant Angel Bonne contributed Si me quiere conocer, a rumba-flavoured son, with lyrics inspired by Jose Martí. I saw this song evolve: in Havana last year it was nothing more than a groove, coros and guias (sung by Mandy). The finished product was not what I expected. It's a great arrangement by Bombon, and an outstanding song. Pupy talks about it in an interview with Michelle here.
In an album with killer tracks, Nadie puede contra eso vies for the title of most deadly. Aggressive grooves, lethal mambos and an utterly committed performance from Mandy at his most rumbificent. I am so gonna miss him.
The re-recording of La machucadera (now known as Bailalo hasta afuera) improves on the demo by ramping up the pace and tightening up the playing. I was a bit blasé about this, and A la Italiana, simply because I had lived with them for a while before the album's release, but they are both great tracks. The latter incorporates some new musical ideas that were added during live performances after the demo was recorded. I initially thought this track was beyond kitsch, but of course I was wrong, and Pupy was right! It's funny and swingin'.
There are tracks here that don't really trip my trigger - the cover of Arsenio Rodriguez's Prestame el cubo (with Omara, again) doesn't do much for me, and neither does the trad danzón, but the ones that do are destined to endure - in fact, they already have: I've had the album since June, and I still love the songs I've mentioned.

I almost felt ill when I first heard the schlocky acoustic guitar which opens many of the songs on Manolito's album Control; not to mention the cover by the Mexican pop group Camila, Colecionista de canciones. This was not the Manolito of the brilliant Hablando en serio, with deadly bloques, innovative arrangements and kickarse grooves, but something else entirely.
In truth, it's probably not as bad an album as I think - most of the songs do manage to fire up a bit after those mushy intros. I just can't get past the intros. And some of the better songs (Muevete un poquito) suffer from the company they keep. The less said about Amaray's strangeled cat impression on Linda melodía on the potpourri the better.

Despite the odd amiable dancefloor track such as Déjala mala noche, Adalberto lost me after the very good album Sueno cubano. Since the departure of singer Donaldo Flores, a worthy successor to the powerhouse Aramis Galindo, Adalberto has settled for vocalists of little ability and even less charisma, and Gozando En La Habana is the worse for it. If you like what he's been doing for the last few years, you'll probably like this, as he's not breaking any new ground.

Maraca's Lo que quiero es fiesta suffers from the same problem I always have with his albums: predictable hornlines - you can practically hum a Maraca mambo before you've ever heard the tune. It's a shame, because he has brought in a good vocalist: the charismatic and vocally deft tenor Jose Miguel, and there are a couple of good songs here (Me tiene enamora'o and Lo digo yo), though there is a lot of tropical fusion here too, which is not really to my taste.

I was apprehensive about Salsa Mayor's album - although the demos that were around before its release - Anda y pégate and Ella dice were outstanding - both of the singers on those songs (Ricardito and Norberto) were no longer with the band, and I had been underwhelmed by the new line-up which I had seen play Havana.
The album didn't really do much to change my mind. Not to buy into the criticism surrounding Maikel, but my personal feeling is that although he is capable of writing a catchy tune, he is yet to really find his feet and latch onto something really solid; a sound that really hooks you and sticks around. Songs from the album, like Mi destino and Quitate que vengo volao were fun for a while but have since disappeared from my playlist. And many others never even made it on in the first place. I know others feel differently, and really like this band. For me Maikel is still one to watch, rather than an established force.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

On the radio

I'll be doing a catch-up with Martin from Cubanisimo on Eastside Radio 89.7 FM tomorrow night (Thursday), from about 10pm, before I head off to Havana on April 23.
I'll be playing mainly new and recent releases - tracks from Van Van's Arrasando, Azucar Negra's Exceso de Equipaje and Alaín's Vestigios - as well as Havana D'Primera's yet to be released CD Haciendo historia, and maybe one of the sizzling Bakuleye demos.
Tune in!
I'm also working on a post about the major timba releases of the year, which I hope to have up by Friday (or maybe Saturday).

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Alain Daniel - Vestigios review

Alaín kept us waiting and waiting for this album, his first full-length disc since 2006's Avisale mi gente. I won't add insult to injury and keep you waiting longer: I've only had it a day, but I'm going to say that it's worth your time and money.
Vestigios is a spunky album of timba brava with a side order of funk, a suffix of "ton" and the obligatory ballad and cha-cha-cha. Plus: Vania! All with Alaín's trademark, hyperactive, pega'o sound.
Anyone who has seen him in Havana and dug his show should be happy with it. Those who haven't; this a good taster.

One thing I love about Alaín's sound is how he uses the coros as a groove - the way funk uses the bass or the synth. Other timberos do it occasionally - or more accurately, used to - Paulito, for instance, on Con la conciencia tranquila. In this scenario, the coros aren't used merely post-cuerpo to back-up the guias; they are an intrinsic part of the groove - really they are another layer of percussion. And they pretty much feature this way in every song here. This is a very big part of the Alaín sound, and it adds to the temblequerrificness of the songs.
The coristas also have that nasal thing going on that you hear on the older timba records of Issac and Manolin, but which goes back to ancient son and changúi.

Two songs that have been around for at least a couple of years are here - Se pegan and Le encanta la calle. Both have been re-recorded and sound better than ever. The latter is all dark minor groove: it'll have timberos grinning with delight and slot-dancers fleeing the floor.
Another one that has had a presence via Mucho Swing is La Miky - it's an unusual song in that it's a very slow salsa; almost hypnotic.

Marginal is one of my favourite songs from his set last year - it was the show opener, probably due to the lyrics which talk about "un poquito de to'". It starts as a slow blues/funk, complete with smokey horns and meandering organ before stepping up to salsa at the three-minute mark.

Esto si sabe es Cuba and Un amigo en Madrid are the two songs that Alaín was working on when I dropped in on him in the studio last year (in the post you will see that I had the two confused). The first is a fast cha-cha-cha that has some fairly obnoxious washy synths on it, but is otherwise pretty good, despite the lyrics that namecheck every Cuban cliche in the book - this plus the fact that it's a cha-cha-cha lead to me believe that it's been tailored for an overseas audience. I'm not sure what to make of the fact that it's the album opener.

One song I'd never heard before which I really love is Un loco enamora'o. It has the classic timba-wuss cuerpo - the kind that just about makes you want to push skip - but wait, there's an intriguing chord change and a nicely phrased guia - then suddenly it's 2:46 and the palette changes from sweet to spicy and the bass is growling and the bloques are hammering and your hips know just what to do, and it doesn't matter that it didn't kick in till 2:46 cause it's 6:25 minutes long and there are four glorious temblequetastic minutes left.
Aaaahhh. Where was I?
Ah yes. The duet with Vania. Bendita locura first appeared on the four-track EP of the same name (released 2007) as a ballad. This version starts a little mushily, but quickly reveals itself to have been salsified. Note: salsified, not timbafied. It's nice to hear these former Bamboleo colleagues together - still nicer to hear Vania doing salsa, cause she doesn't do a whole lot of it these days, being a more a diva of the traditional now, I think. But this isn't one of the album's standout tracks. (This is the only track from the EP to appear here, so if you want El de siempre, El Zorreo and El Bum Bum - songs that range from good to great - you'll have to buy it separately.)

Que le pasa a esa mujer, is a speedy timba number, again with some delicious chord changes.

There is still more lively stuff here (as well as a ballad, which I'll leave people who give a shit about such things to comment on). And it's all been nicely recorded, to boot.

Some people in Havana refer to Alaín disparagingly as "el hijo del Medico", saying he sounds like Manolín, and you can hear shades of El Medico, it's true - he still even sometimes does No lo comentes in his live set.
But I say, it's been a while since Manolín did an album of timba this good (or an album of anything this good), so, bring it on, Alaín.

Update: It occurred to me that this review is probably a little light on for actual details on the Alaín sound for those who have never heard him, so here goes.
Quite a few of the songs feature a rap (including one with the ubiquitous Alexander from Gente d'Zona), which should immediately give you an idea of where Alaín is coming from (or where he is going). The "salsa" parts of his songs have a slight tropical fusion feel - they are still salsa, but there is just a hint of other parts of the Caribbean in their rhythms. Almost all of the songs build to heady, and very hard timba climax, replete with stuttering bloques, urgent coros and lots of tension and release moments. I played Un loco enamora'o last night. It wasn't a busy night, but it got the punters that were there onto the dance floor.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sydney gets a second Cuban night

Great news! Mani and Kian, the guys who run Casa de la Salsa's One Night In Cuba night, have organised another night of Cuban music for this Sunday - pretty cool, huh? It would be awesome to have two nights of Cuban music a month instead of hanging out for one night from month to month and suffering through hours of torturous NY and PR-style salsa at clubs in between.
So vaya mi gente! Come up to the dead swish
Favela at the Cross this Sunday - it's an early start - 9pm (dance class at 8pm) and it goes till 1am, so you can still be home in time to get your beauty sleep. DJs are myself, Mani and AV el Cubano.
And if you
want to suffer through torturous forms of non-Cuban salsa, there is a room for that as well, or if, god forbid, you have friends who, for some reason, can't handle timba, you can all go to this and be happy: hence the name "Salsa for All".
See you there.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

New Alaín Daniel on sale

Vestigios, the new album by Alaín Daniel that seems to have taken forever to get itself a release date, has turned up. Those who haven't had bad experiences with Prodland (or are willing to take their chances) can get it there.
(I'll wait for it to turn up at
Descarga. Shouldn't be too far off.)
Details of the album's release are
here. I would put this in the must-buy category.