A walk down memory lane in search of vanishing Cuban popular music

A recent boxed set of Cuban music posits an enigma as a title: I Am Time. To get the full gist of the declaration, you have to go to Cuba (despite our government's archaic prohibitions, it's not so hard to do). You have to walk along the Malec ón, the six-and-a-half-mile sea wall and boulevard that curves around the Havana coast, where kids dive between the rocks and wood pylons, old men tie fishing wire to beer cans and then wait for the metal rattle to announce their catch, lovers saunter, someone plays a nylon-string guitar and invites you over to talk as if you both have, quite literally, all the time in the world. While the wind and sea crash and withdraw with the steady respiration of history, it seems like you do. In the morning, you have to pause to smile or chat with the women in the windows of 200- and 300-year-old barrios, and you return at night to find them again keeping their view.

Cuba bears the signs of time like no country imaginable. An intractable will for independence, four decades of embargo and isolation, and a small, at times barely surviving socialist economy have slowed the clock by which the rest of the planet marks days and changes. Globalization, that horrid word, is not part of the Cuban vocabulary.

Cuban son is timeless, as musicians on the island frequently say, because its sense of time is so complex. Ornate, contradictory rhythms and spiraling and shifting time signatures are the soul of Cuban son, and son has always been the soul of the more popular hybrids salsa and mambo. Son is in large part Cuban country music, with roots in the rural farming and mountain communities of eastern Cuba and centered in the interplay of guitar and tres (a guitar with three sets of double strings), and featuring clave (two sticks smacked together), bong ó (handheld drums), mar í mbola (a thumb piano of West African origin) and maracas. Rumba, the other original form of Cuban son, was born on the docks of Matanzas, a port just to the east of Havana. Early rumba was an orgy of wood boxes, spoons and bottles, pure god-affirming percussion straight out of West African Yoruba culture and slave-drum conversations. Choruses of voices would shout out whatever came to mind: the names of the elements — "¡Agua! ¡Fuego!" — or the name of a hot soloist or simply "Let's boogie!"

Not since the 1970s' wave of salsa have the U.S. media and culture devoted so much attention to Cuban music, and not since the '50s have the elemental forms of son been so widely appreciated. The Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club has sold more than 1.5 million copies and led to successful solo recordings by key participants Rubén Gonzáles, Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo and Eliades Ochoa. More recently, in the wake of Wim Wenders' eloquent documentary on these great veteran musicians, that attention has, neither surprisingly nor infrequently, become politically charged.

Chicago Reader scribe Peter Margasak wrote that "the style of music (the Buena Vista musicians) play was rapidly dissolving into distant memory," and laid the blame at Castro's door. "When he came to power in 1959, Fidel Castro did his best to eradicate it, pushing instead the patriotic trova tradition, and as the government took over the recording industry many artists fled to the U.S. Communism made (and makes) it difficult for those who stayed behind to get equipment or record." New York Times film critic Stephen Holden was even less subtle: "The dreams that (Ibrahim) Ferrer and his colleagues have realized, of course, do not reflect the austere collectivist vision of Fidel Castro. They are the echoes of a world that the Communist revolution may have erased in physical fact but not in memory."

Such pictures of the authoritarian Castro not only deliberately smashing the dreams of a generation of gifted musicians but "eradicating" a whole genre may play well to readers conditioned to thinking of Cuba as a Communist prison state, but in physical fact, history is more complex.

From the time of the revolution, up to present, the state-run EGREM studios recorded and released scores of Cuban son artists, and radio stations featured regular performances by artists like Ochoa and Segundo — both of whom, before and after the revolution, toured and performed on the island and internationally. At state-funded Casas de la Trova you can still hear son in all its forms. In March I spent eight days in Cuba, and every bar with live music that I drank in featured some form of rumba or guitar-based son.

But tastes evolve, and just as most young fans of country music today prefer the latest Nashville confections to twangy honky-tonk, and inner-city youths aren't likely to be spinning Motown or the Staple Singers, what sells in Cuba isn't always the best or the most deeply rooted of the country's diverse genres. It's not just traditional son that has fallen on hard times; even interest in the revolution's nueva trova has waned. Resources for cultivating Cuban music are limited, and the music that has been available has often been directed more toward older Afro-Cuban traditions, Latin jazz and progressive salsa. Cultural judgments made at the state level have often been shortsighted and foolish. But not always.

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.

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