Over the past decade, "Rough Guides" have distinguished themselves as travel books packed with authoritative information written in a breezy yet intelligent style. In recent years, "Rough Guides" has begun to offer popular music guides and has lent its trademark to a series of accompanying CDs that cogently complement the musical "Rough Guides." Their latest batch of books and CDs centers on Cuba, and any lover of Cuban music can't afford to miss them.
Philip Sweeney's The Rough Guide to Cuban Music (Rough Guides, $11.95) is a diminutive paperback that packs a wallop. Eminently readable, it offers concise portraits of the chief movers and shakers of Cuban popular music during the past century. It underscores the delicate and dynamic balance of African rhythmic and Spanish melodic elements that have made Cuban dance music internationally popular for decades.
More unusual, Sweeney writes perceptively about musicians of the Cuban diaspora, those scores of artists who left Cuba and resettled in the United States or Europe after the Communist revolution in 1959. His list of hundreds of suggested CDs is dazzlingly comprehensive.
And there's no better way to fully savor Sweeney's book than to listen to the "The Rough Guide to the Cuban Music Story" CD. This well-annotated and carefully sequenced compilation covers a half-century of Cuban creativity. There is a raucously brash, brassy, big-band jazz tune by Mario Bauzá, an electrifying collaboration between the Cuban star Cuarteto Patria and African pop master Manu Dibango, and a broad range of songs to get you dancing.
The book's only shortcoming is a cursory examination of Cuba's long classical music heritage. Fortunately, the recent publication of the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier's landmark 1946 study Music in Cuba (University of Minnesota Press, $34.95) fills in the gap, magisterially describing the earliest roots of Cuban music in Roman Catholic church music and slave culture.
Even more eclectic is The Rough Guide to the Music of Cuba, the CD most representative of daringly cutting-edge styles. The jazz group Irakere is showcased here, a decades-old yet restlessly inventive jazz group blending rock with bop-jazz elements in their energetic sound.
Also exemplifying this slant is "Tinguiti 'Ta Durmiendo," by Los Terry, a family of musicians. They brilliantly mix Afro-Cuban religious ritual music identified with the religion of Santaria, with avant-garde jazz and old folk tunes. The result is heady and intoxicating, and bodes well for the future of popular Cuban music at exactly a moment in its evolution when "The Buena Vista Social Club" has popularized another style from the early 20th century.
That style, which has sold millions, is called son, a hybrid of country-folk melodies infused with urban polyrhythms, with deep roots in African drumming carried to Cuba by slaves. Carpentier cleverly called the son an "atmosphere," implying perhaps that it exemplifies the smokiness of cigars laced with sugar's sweetness.
Son evolved again when it traveled to the US and was transformed by New York-based Puerto Rican composers into the popular music known as salsa. The Rough Guide to Cuban Son is a generously programmed compilation of sons in different flavors.
These three CDs offer more than the humble "Rough Guide" title on their covers evokes. These well-conceived and reasonably priced anthologies help define the breadth and depth of a small island's music, which has touched the hearts and moved the feet of listeners worldwide.