Sounds of Freedom

Listening to Cuban music, we can hear an example of how we in the United States are being deprived by the embargo of the island—not to mention how the people of Cuba are being deprived by both the embargo and the obstinate politics of Fidel Castro. Doomed by the Cold War-era rhetoric of Castro, Jesse Helms, and other political ax-grinders on each side of the Florida Straits, the people of both countries continue to be impoverished by our forced estrangement.

Even without solutions to our political enmity, cracks are appearing in the wall that divides us, and, as always, the cultural lights are shining through first. As well-known Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés said in a recent edition of Pulse!, "Culture and politics are two different things. Culture is not confined by laws." Because the spread of culture, like that of disease, refuses to recognize borders, the current wave of cultural interaction taking place between Cuba and the United States could challenge the state of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

This new wave of cultural connection got a jump-start when tough, new laws (such as the Helms-Burton sanctions) included loopholes for informational exchanges. Influential Cuban groups—such as Irakere, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Los Van Van, NG La Banda, and others—have made educational appearances in the United States, whetting the appetite of Americans for more music from the island. But the political rub burns both ways, as many of these groups bypass Miami altogether because of anti-Castro protests at their concerts by Cuban exiles. Once again, culture loses to the politicos.

Although U.S. restrictions make it illegal for Americans to travel to the island, many Cuba-philes visit by going through a third country. During a trip to Havana, U.S. jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove sat in with Los Van Van, inspiring the creation of the new group Crisol ("Crucible" in Spanish), made up of Cuban, South American, and North American musicians. Their album, Habana, continues in the tradition of the late trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, whose music bent the line between American jazz and Cuban salsa and referred listeners back to their common root of West African music.

Habana shows that the most amazing thing about Cuban music (and the Cuban people for that matter) is its resiliency and its ability to combine with foreign elements without losing its own character. The hypnotic, West African-inspired "Oh My Seh Yeh" is the best (though somewhat self-conscious) example of this. Although some of the songs on Habana plod along, there is more than enough here to intrigue jazz fans, if not dancers.

Cuban music is one of the most powerfully romantic sounds. Marrying the melody and instruments of Europe's orchestral tradition with rhythm and drums of Africa, Cuban music uses brass, woodwinds, and a much fuller range of drums and percussion—congas, timbales, trap, bongos, chékere, and clave—than even the common rock-and-roll listener is accustomed to. The most lauded young drummer in music today, Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, a Cuban who plays on Habana with Roy Hargrove and is now part of the Santana band, cites the assertion of Miles Davis that "there is always a melody inside the melody"; he assigns that role to the clave (a.k.a. "the cowbell"), which is ubiquitous in Cuban son and salsa.

In 1996, ¡Cubanismo!, released by a group of the same name that was led by trumpeter Jesús Alemañy, became a big hit in Latin and world music circles. Malembe, ¡Cubanismo!'s follow-up release, is a festival of polyrhythms that celebrates the son, a musical form that is at the root of the more commercial salsa style.

The son provides the stage for Jesús Alemañy's brilliant trumpet performance, which the liner notes claim brings together "the 19th century cornet, the music of Iberian bullrings, and early New Orleans jazz."

In remaining faithful to the formal son tradition, ¡Cubanismo! never has that slick, prepackaged sound that often plagues commercial salsa. Rather, Alemañy's band stays closer to the classic Cuban grassroots method of music production, the descarga. The usual translation of descarga as "jam session" loses much of the emotional release conveyed in its literal meaning: "discharge" or "unloading." Unlike the emphasis in European classical music on technical precision, son has a quality of blowing off steam built right in—but don't think that allows ¡Cubanismo! to slack off. You won't find Mozart laying down chops like these.

BECAUSE THE people of the United States have been alienated from Cuba for almost 40 years, Americans can forget that the rest of the world has not been. Cuban-inspired music is heard almost anywhere in the world, and many countries have already developed their own unique "dialect" of the sound. ¡Latino! ¡Latino!, a collection put together by the Putumayo label, not only picks up tunes from Cuban groups, but includes sincere interpretations of the Cuban sound from the artists of several continents.

To be honest, I've always been skeptical of Putumayo, originally an importer of Third World clothes, because of its kitschy multicultural packaging and pick-and-choose sampling from the previously recorded material of international artists. While it can be argued that this type of skimming off the top increases royalties and exposure for these artists, it also represents a great danger to the integrity of the world music industry. It is important that world music distributors invest in musicians and the development of local music as much as in securing legal contracts and creating marketing devices. (Putumayo is hardly the only label guilty of not doing this.)

That said, ¡Latino! ¡Latino! offers an excellent example of the impact of Cuban music around the world. The diversity of ¡Latino! ¡Latino! includes "Asia," a Latin jazz selection by the great Bronx-born, Puerto Rican salsero Willie Colon using "an oriental harmonic scale"; and a rumba by Manzanita, a group that proves the Gipsy Kings aren't the only group carrying on the musical virtuosity of the Spanish gypsies. "Volver a Verte," by Colombian Oscar de Leon, is a tearfully romantic salsa piece about lost love that actually makes you want to get up and dance. Another treasure on this album is Zairian-born Ricardo Lemvo's "Yiri Yiri Bon," a son tune influenced by soukous, the musical style created when centuries-old Afro-Cuban music returned to 20th-century Africa.

These recordings are just an example of the music from Cuba that is starting to pour through the embargo. They show that the time has come for the liberation of Cuba, one of the most powerful reservoirs of the African spirit in the Americas, and let the potent elixir of its culture quench the thirst of the people of the United States. Perhaps the healing power of music will be able to accomplish what politics has been unable to do.

Habana. By Roy Hargrove's Crisol. Verve, 1997.

Malembe. By ¡Cubanismo! Starring Jesús Alemañy. Hannibal, 1997.

¡Latino! ¡Latino! By various artists. Putumayo World Music, 1997.

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"Sounds of Freedom"
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