By Bob McMahon
By Allison Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By Carolina de Busto
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
Case in point: Estrellas de Arieto, a series of five LPs recorded by EGREM in 1979, have long been legendary among Cuban musicians but rarely heard by anyone else. The project, to assemble some of the best of Cuba's son, rumba and salsa artists into a freewheeling orchestra, sought to follow the success of groups like the Fania All Stars who, though Puerto Rican, were playing Cuban music and, in a sense, anticipated the Buena Vista Social Club by nearly 20 years. But without a Ry Cooder or adequate financial support, the music never had a commercial chance.
But those sessions were incendiary, experimental and unprecedented Cuba's answer to Kind of Blue, if you will. The two-CD set (freshly reissued by World Circuit) pours out a sequence of eight- to 10-minute descargas, or jams, each built around a simple riff or rhythmic pattern, affording space for musical conversation and improvisation. In selecting the estrellas, staff arranger and producer for EGREM Juan Pablo Torres created a new sound, marrying the violin and flute of traditional t í pica bands with the trumpet, tres and guitar of the classic son ensembles and situating these lead instruments on a rhythmic bedrock of piano, bass and as much percussion as would fit into the tiny EGREM studio.
The players included future Buena Vista alum Rubén Gonzáles, P í o Leyva and Amadito Valdés and two of the greatest modern Cuban horn players, Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D'Rivera. Along with Gonzales' brilliant, elliptical piano playing at one point, in full polyrhythmic rock-out, he drifts into the melancholic melody of a bolero the sessions are most deeply marked by the unsettling sounds of Ni ño Rivera's amplified, distorted tres and Pedro Depestre's and Pedro Hernández's violins, which leap and curl like smoke fresh from the flame.
The Estrellas de Areito created within an anarchic, unpredictable moment. Another band that recorded in Havana after the revolution (and whose music has also recently been reissued by World Circuit), Los Zafiros, sculpted their Cuban musical inheritance with pop flair and mathematical elegance. Inspired by the harmonies and melodies of the Platters and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the quintet Miguel Cancio, Ignacio Elejalde, Manuel Galbán, Eduardo Elio Hernández and Leoncio Morüa sang like no other Latin group in their day, like none heard since. Lead vocalist Elejalde was fantastic, his voice capable of a spectral falsetto and searing passion. The group's harmonies could be as sweet and smooth as the Platters', but they were hardly parrots. They maintained a sensual, sometimes playful approach, replacing vocal "doo-wops" with chirrs and coos that were lush and evocative. Los Zafiros were young and impulsive, and they absorbed everything they heard: bossa nova from Brazil, calypso from Trinidad, boleros and gospel.
If the recordings Los Zafiros made for EGREM from 1963-67 should be reckoned among the most memorable Latin pop music ever made (and they should), the roles played by guitarist Galbán and prolific session bassist Orlando "Cacha í to" Lopez should be remembered as central. In a previous life, Daniel Lanois might have imagined the interplay between Galbán's atmospheric, twang-traced guitar and the deeply drawn breaths and beats of Lopez's bass. The restrained economy of their playing filled space without taking any away, always gently responding to vocal nuances. Relying less on percussive complexity and more on melodic dynamics, Los Zafiros gave the simplest romanticisms an unbearable heat. And like the best Cuban music you may or may not have heard, their sound still transcends time.