Cuba's spicy musical stars shine again

One of the pleasures I experience as a member of the National Academy of the Recording Arts and Sciences is casting my vote for musicians deserving of a Grammy Award.

Last year mine went to a group of Cuban musicians spanning four generations called the "Buena Vista Social Club." My enthusiasm was widespread enough that the group received an award.

Their album of the same name on the World Circuit/Nonesuch label has sold more than 1 million copies internationally. This has led to tours in Europe and the United States (including a dazzling concert at Carnegie Hall in New York last year) and a documentary film released nationally this month about the group by the German-born director Wim Wenders.

Cuban music has a long history in the US, but there is something especially touching about the "Buena Vista Social Club" that makes its presence on various recordings striking.

The generation-spanning identity offers a moving portrait of Cuban popular music before and after the Communist revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959. Disarmingly simple guitar melodies from the back country are blended with urban polyrhythms and blazing jazz horns. Their music manages the paradox of swinging fiercely yet maintaining a relaxed, even casual center, blending Spanish folk melodies and harmonies with a tinge of African drum rhythms.

This summer has been marked by two new CDs that incorporate members of the group, a solo self-title album by Ibrahim Ferrer and a double CD set titled "Los Heroes" by an imposing jazz supergroup, Estrellas de Areito. Both are on World Circuit/Nonesuch.

Many fans of the first "Buena Vista Social Club" album were captivated by the vocals of Ferrer, whose artistry brought together various Afro-Spanish strains in Cuban music. So, American guitarist Ry Cooder produced "Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer," an album even more emotionally charged and stylistically varied than last year's Grammy-winning effort.

Ferrer offers 11 songs, an entertaining mix of slow romantic ballads and up-tempo dance tunes. And what does Ferrer's mature voice sound like? Seasoned, as Sinatra's did in the '60s, with a slight gruff touch, a surprisingly rich quality, and a tightly controlled vibrato. It conveys a sensitive masculinity, as in "Silencio," a heartbreaking love lament ("I don't want the flowers to know of my life's torments/ If they knew of my suffering they would cry in sympathy") sung as a duet with Omara Portuondo.

Ferrer can be rowdy, too. His up-tempo wailing on the salsa-flavored "Marieta" is backed by a spirited 21-piece band. The recording is expertly produced by Cooder, who adds small but immensely memorable electric guitar fills to several numbers, while Ferrer brings together sentiments of love, loss, and spiritual resiliency to each performance.

Ferrer's sensitive ballads are illuminating to listeners who identify Cuban popular music solely with frenetically noisy dance recordings.

That said, there are times when I love nothing better than raucous Cuban dance music, salsa, and jazz at their most abandoned, laced with hot trumpet and sax solos skyrocketing over pounding percussion.

And "Los Heroes" by "Estrellas de Areito" is exactly that. These are jazzy jam sessions, more instrumental than vocal, originally recorded in Havana in 1979 and never widely distributed.

Two stars from these super sessions went on to become jazz stars in exile in the US: trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera. Their playing here is steamy and less mannered than in their American recordings. Members of 10 bands spanning three generations - this is yet another example of how blending varying levels of experience leads to a dazzling musical synergy - explore a stunning range of musical ideas.

One folk tune US fans will recognize, "Guantanamera," serves as a launch pad for brilliant violin and trumpet improvisations. Like Ferrer's recording, this album communicates a vibrantly robust love of life.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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