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Havana Ball: Calle Salud; Ibrahim Ferrer; Sublime Ilusion; Introducing...Ruben Gonzalez; Late Night Sessions; Distinto, Differente; Los Heroes; Cuba Si! Pure Cuban Flavor; Legendary Los Van Van; Bossa Cubana; Imaginary Cuba

Following the breakout success of the Buena Vista Social Club, a wave of Cuban music is crashing onto North American shores. David Browne sifts through the exports of import.

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Havana Ball: Calle Salud; Ibrahim Ferrer; Sublime Ilusion; Introducing…Ruben Gonzalez; Late Night Sessions; Distinto, Differente; Los Heroes; Cuba Si! Pure Cuban Flavor; Legendary Los Van Van; Bossa Cubana; Imaginary Cuba

Whatever the fate of international-squabble pawn Elián González, at least one Cuban export will remain on U.S. soil. In the wake of the left-field impact of the Buena Vista Social Club — the album, the tour, the movie — every Tom, Dick, and José who ever recorded in Cuba is having his music unearthed, released, or reissued in the States. (P.S. to Castro: Royalty checks from exploitative U.S. record companies will not be forthcoming.)

The north-of-the-border appeal of the 1997 Buena Vista Social Club album and its brassier, more festive cousin, the Afro-Cuban All Stars’ “A Toda Cuba le Gusta,” isn’t hard to comprehend. Steeped in Latin music of the ’50s, this union of long-overlooked singers and musicians has the feel of a congenial journey back in time, courtesy of a bevy of crinkly, libidinous veterans — a Havana Rat Pack, if you will. But once those two seminal discs have been purchased, where else should uninformed gringos go? A guide through the Cuban music booty of the past year.


If you need proof that the Buena Vista Social Clubbers are the Wu-Tang Clan of Havana, consider their cottage industry of solo projects (most packaged in the same type of coffee-table-ready slipcase that made the original album look so swank). Dapper septuagenarian Ibrahim Ferrer’s Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer (originally reviewed in EW #493) remains the best; from disconsolate boleros (ballads) to twinkly-eyed sons (dance songs), it has the most breadth, and Ferrer’s remarkably elastic voice conveys with equal ease sorrow and lust. Though slight by comparison, Compay Segundo’s Calle Salud (reviewed in EW #515) showcases the impressively nimble guitar of this 92-year-old and has a jaunty, folksy charm. The other offshoots come close, but no cigars. Wielding his acoustic guitar like a switchblade and singing in a gruff croon, guitarist and tropical cowboy Eliades Ochoa achieves a cross between Marty Robbins and Rubén Blades on Sublime Ilusion (Higher Octave World), yet its 15 tracks grow samey, and lyrics translations would help. B

Rubén González’s piano shines on Introducing…Rubén González (World Circuit/Nonesuch) — it’s as if the 82-year-old is massaging the keyboard — but the album is primarily background music for your next brunch gathering. C+


At the upcoming Grammys, Ferrer’s and Ochoa’s albums will compete in the Traditional Tropical Latin category against Caravana Cubana’s Late Night Sessions (Rhino), a clearly BVSC-inspired reunion of other obscure players. Despite impressive musicianship — Pablo Méndez’s wailing violin on “Angá Y Jimmy” — and the propulsive chant-percussion segment of “Afrekete Suite,” this set of mostly new material (as opposed to the BVSC’s sturdier vintage repertoire) suffers from a distinct lack of personality. B

To these ears, the second Afro-Cuban All Stars album, “Distinto, diferente” (World Circuit/Nonesuch), is sharp and energetic but weakened by fewer contributions by Ferrer and González. B+


To hear how González sounded before he really aged, check out Los Heroes (World Circuit/Nonesuch) by Estrellas de Areito, a newly compiled two-disc set of 1979 descargas (jams) that also features all-stars like saxist Paquito D’Rivera. These relaxed yet inspired sessions were historic in joining different strains of Cuban music — the flute-violin and guitar-trumpet schools, in layman’s terms — but what should snag Stateside ears are a limber “Guántanamera” and the contributions of Niño Rivera, whose electrified tres (acoustic guitar) adds dabs of garage-band grit. A

Not all Cuban music has the mellowed, chandelier-in-a-shack elegance of a BVSC recording; some of it is just a trashy-fun dance romp, like ¡Cuba Sí! Pure Cuban Flavor (Rhino), a respectable sampler that showcases ensembles who manage to sound modern without resorting to excessive studio polish. From Technicolor trumpeter Jesús Alemañy with his band ¡Cubanismo! to superb bassist and bandleader Cachao, the emphasis is on the type of revelry that can make even music critics move. B+ The Castro-sanctioned combo Los Van Van (the Go-Go’s, but don’t tell Belinda Carlisle) are saluted on The Legendary Los Van Van: 30 Years of Cuba’s Greatest Dance Band (Ashé). A history lesson in themselves, these two discs trace the music’s development from earthy ballads to electronic drum-enhanced crossover moves. But despite tropical topicality — like the housing-shortage song “La Habana No Aguanta Más” (“Havana Can’t Take Any More”) — Los Van Van mostly seem bland bland. C+ You can’t say the same about the Zafiros, an obscure ’60s ensemble who recorded Hispanic doo-wop harmonies, lounge pop, and surf guitar. The anthology Bossa Cubana (World Circuit/Nonesuch) is an utterly pleasant surprise, the least stereotypical Cuban music imaginable. A


Castro country has never sounded the way it does on sonic manipulator Bill Laswell’s Imaginary Cuba (Wicklow). That’s because it truly is illusory: Laswell remixed and reconfigured Cuban recordings into a flowing series of ambient dub pieces, and the voices and percussive instruments waft in and out like disembodied remnants of an old culture. It’s easily the artiest and most experimental of this bunch, as well as the most thought-provoking: Could this be the sound of Havana in another hundred years? B+