From The Vault: 2009 MARY DEVINE AWARD WINNER
Cuban Music Looking Good
Ten Years After Buena Vista
By Dr. Jason Dormady
In 1999, U.S. musician Ry Cooder ripped Cuban music out of the clutches of cameo moments on I Love Lucy and The Cosby Show and introduced an entire generation of U.S. listeners to the smooth, infectious melodies of "the Forbidden Island."
Buena Vista Social Club, first released as a CD in 1997 and then as a documentary film in 1999, didn’t stay in the U.S. very long. While the music garnered Grammy awards for Cooder at home, the documentary raked in twenty-five global award nominations and eighteen wins. The haunting Chan Chan floated out of windows from Amsterdam to Hong Kong while chiropractors everywhere rejoiced at the introduction of the spicy Candela in dance classes.
Now, ten years out from Buena Vista Social Club and on the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, is there anything new brewing out there for listeners who would like to move past the boys of Buena Vista? Absolutely.
For those seeking a younger, bohemian version of Cuban music that still strikes a traditional pose, the Cuban emigré community in Canada and the United States contributes some top voices like Yosvany Terry and Alex Cuba. Terry’s silky sax stylings combined with driving salsa rhythms is both a challenge and a joy. Classically trained as well as raised with Cuban musical jazz legends, Terry’s new Metamorphosis CD displays all those influences as well as his new home in New York. The number seven track, “Transito a Full” is an excellent example, reflecting the pan-Atlantic world of the Cuban Diaspora, alternately melodically Caribbean and New York City tough.
For a mellower sound, Alex Puente (who uses the stage name of Alex Cuba) is certainly worth a look. An immigrant to Canada, Alex heats up the cold northern nights with a Patt Metheny guitar sound in a Caribbean setting and a voice like Jack Johnson. His recent "Si Pero No" from his 2007 Agua del Pozo album found its way onto Latino radio stations in the US and Canada as well as World Music playlists around the globe. Difficult to pin down – a bit like defining latin American itself – Alex Cuba’s music is entirely addictive.
And finally, if you’re looking for music with a stronger departure from the not-so-traditional Cuban sounds already mentioned, consider Cuban hip-hop or cubaton (a take off on the popular Puerto Rican Reggaeton movement).
Cuban youth who have been influenced by global hip-hop culture have certainly found their heroes in Orishas, another ensemble-in-exile that now calls the United States home. Orishas grew out of a demand by Afro-Cuban youth for Euro-American expressions of Black youth culture. In a society which vocally promotes an emphasis on being “colorless,” Cubans of African descent slaked their thirst for racial pride in a deluge of boot legged CDs of Snoop Dog and R. Kelly. While Orishas have mellowed their rap edge over the years, their inclusion of more standard tropical rhythms like Salsa is a welcome deviation. One minute with their infectiously catchy Nací Orishas off their 2005 El Kilo CD will having you swaying around the room like a party scene at Holly Golightly’s.
For mind-blowing explosions of musical power and experimentation, however, cubaton is your destination. Not for the feint (or conservative) of musical heart, cubaton is the most recent expression of the varied history of music known as reggaeton. Like a little musical Ellis Island, reggaeton drew from the beats of Jamaican dance hall reggae, Puerto Rican Bomba and Plena percussion rythmns, U.S. hip-hop transmitted via Panama, and Spanish rap from the Caribbean rapper Vic C. The sensual – according to some tastes, lewd – dancing that accompanies reggaeton called perrero goes even further toward making this blend of sound appealing to Cuban youth.
Cubaton takes Reggaeton to a new level by adding word-plays and riddles to the lyrics while simultaneously adding timbales, or Cuban percussion to the sound (think Orestes Vilató mixing it up with Bob Marley and Fifty-Cent). The result is, to say the least, a sensory experience. The highly sexualized lyrics go beyond the initial titillation to contain allusions to a pan-Afro Atlantic World experience that is appealing both to Cubans as well as Spanish-speakers of all nationalities. In a Cuba that is currently hotly debating their post-Fidel future, artists such as El Medico (The Doctor) and Gente de Zona (Neighborhood People) shake up socialist sensibilities with hyper-sexualized lyrics and videos that makes one feel as though communism has taken a sudden leap back to the free love days (for some) of the post-Revolutionary Soviet Union. For those who found the music of Buena Vista Social Club “muy caliente,” cubaton can only be described as an inferno of volcanic passion acted out in dance and song. In short, if this Cuban music had a cameo on The Cosby Show, it would have aired on HBO.
Cubaton also has one of the most interesting chains of global distribution of all the music previously mentioned. For example, when Topaz Records – the Cuban company that produces most cubaton videos and music – is asked to use the music in sound tracks they enter the United States via a third party. The 2007 Sanaa Lathan film “Something New,” for example, used El Medico’s Chupa Chupa, from Topaz via Zync Music, a distribution firm in New York and Los Angeles. Other Topaz offerings are distributed by Warner Music of Spain – a division of Warner Music.
Such circuitous approaches are necessary, especially since 2004 when the U. S. State Department began enforcing limitations on Cuban performers and their music in the United States. In fact, Cuban performers that come to the United States and remain Cuban citizens perform for free as the embargo (or blockade, as they call it) prevents them from being paid – even the famous performances of the Buena Vista Social Club tour.
Looking back after fifty years of revolution in Cuba, and a decade after Buena Vista Social Club, one can't help but see the Cuba / U.S. in terms of a Romeo and Juliet relationship.While a frowning and feuding Uncle Sam and Fidel Castro look on in anger and disgust, music lovers in Cuba and the United States will continue to find new and creative ways (thank you, YouTube) to thwart the intentions of their various guardians and create or enjoy sweet, beautiful music. And if the power of music prevails it may certainly have a hand in giving this current Shakesperian tragedy a far happier ending.