Elijah Wald – Latin American music 2000

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Andre Fritz Dossous (Haiti, playwright 1997)

By Elijah Wald

Andre Fritz Dossous is one of Boston's most prolific and successful playwrights, actors and directors. In the last 18 years, he has produced 22 plays, all of them at least moderately profitable, and has gone on tour to New York, Washington, Miami, and Canada. If his name is still unfamiliar to most local theatergoers, that is because his plays are written not in English but in Haitian Creole.

Dossous' troup, Teyat Lakay, or "Home Theater,'' is celebrating its 18th anniversary this Sunday with a production at the Strand Theatre, the group's base since the early 1980s. (282-8000) Typically, Dossous does virtually everything on the productions, producing, writing, starring and directing. This time, though, he is presenting the work of one of his teachers, the writer and comedian Francketienne, whose "Kalibofobo'' is a dialogue between a student, representing the Haitian elite, and a teacher, representing the common people.

Dossous, known to his fans as "Papados,'' began acting and writing plays in elementary school in his native Haiti. At first, he wrote in French, the school language of the time, but some 20 years ago he switched over to Creole. "I realized, when you write in French in Haiti, you go after only one sort of public,'' he says. "But when you write in Creole you get everybody.''

That has always been important to Dossous. For him, the beauty of theater is that it can bring his ideas not only to an educated elite but to the "ordinary people.'' "You don't have to be at school at Harvard to go to theater,'' he says. "No. When I came to Boston, I realized that we needed a theater group here to educate the community, how things are going on in Haiti and how they can behave themselves in the United States. For this, you have to know how to reach people, to know what language to talk to get them to understand your work.''

Though he has been in the United States since 1973, and has worked for years as a math teacher in the Boston school system, Dossous still speaks English with an accent that he cheerfully describes as "catastrophic.'' In Creole, however, he produces an unstinting flow of complex language, filled with word-play and biting satire. His plays deal with everything from the problems of newly-arrived immigrants to drugs, AIDS, and the twists and turns of Haitian politics.

His most popular play so far is "Nan Soulye Washington,'' "In Washington [sic] Shoes.'' He describes it as a one-and-a-half-person play, with himself in the lead and another actor who is asleep. Written in 1990, it satirized the way some Haitian candidates were worshipping American leaders, but also warned that Washington's power and influence could not be ignored. "A lot of people disagreed in 1990,'' he says. "But now they see that I was not the crazy guy, and anytime I do that play I have no place to put all the people.''

Despite the seriousness of his subject matter, Dossous says that all of his plays are richly humorous. Pulling out a copy of "In Washington Shoes,'' he points out a picture of the candidate prostrating himself before an altar adorned, in place of the ancient Loas, or Gods, with caricatured busts of Clinton, Bush and Carter. Later, the candidate is on the line to Washington, speaking in English: "Please help me to stand to smell the coffee,'' he cries ecstatically. "You want to send few friends to establish and maintain order? No problem . . . . Cool man. O America is beautiful! I kiss America. . . . Don't forget to send money by air cargo.''

Dossous feels that the humor is vital to his mission. "America is good, but it is a very hard country,'' he explains. "After the people spend one week in the factory, working hard, they cannot come in a theater and you keep putting tragedy, tragedy on them. They need things to relax them. Therefore, I always combine tragedy with comedy.''

No matter how bleak the subject, Dossous says that this is never a problem. "What is comedy?'' he asks rhetorically. "When the spectator is not on the stage, the play becomes comedy. But when the spectator looks at himself on the stage, the play now is a tragedy. Therefore, it depends how you put the subject. You have to be very meticulously careful, you don't want to hurt people. But in any subject, even when you're talking about the dead, you can put comedy.''

Dossous waves away the suggestion that this may be a particularly Haitian approach. Though he speaks proudly of a playwriting tradition that reaches back to the early days of independence, he considers Haitian theater to be firmly in a Western line that reaches back to the ancient Greeks. "All theater comes from the antique era,'' he says firmly. "And in school we studied all the 17th century French writers, Moliere, Racine, Corneille, up through the 18th, 19th and 20th century.

"We follow the same path, but culturally we are different. If you write for an ethnic group, you're supposed to speak their language, to talk about them, in order to understand their thought. For example, the American joker gives a joke, maybe you laugh, and I can sit and I don't laugh. Because culturally we are different. I don't understand the joke. But me, I can tell a joke to my audience and people laugh.''

While his plays have rarely attracted non-Haitians, Dossous himself is an avid reader and theatergoer, and tries to keep abreast of contemporary American trends. "I go to watch American plays, and I learn,'' he says. "Because I don't go like a spectator who just sits and enjoys himself; when I sit in the audience, I am a student. When I see good thing, I say 'Whoo, next time I'm going to put something like that!' Even if I don't want to copy, I want to be myself, I want to be original, but that can give me an idea how I can do things better.''

As to his amazing output, which in the early years of Teyat Lakay could stretch to three or four new plays a year, Dossous says that writing comes very easily to him. "Once I know how to finish the play, the play's already written. Because if you know where you're going, you can use different ways to go, and you will still end up at your destination. Most of my plays, I don't follow a straight path, I'm going zig-zag -- over there, over there, over there -- like spiralistic, and reach my goal, and that's it.

"I think it's a routine too, because I've been doing things like that since 9, 10 years old. When I get trouble in writing the play, I know how to turn around to get there. Sometimes you put a bridge when you write, but you know the bridge is not solid, and you keep going and after three days, one month, you come back and remove the bridge and you find the right thing to put there in order to connect.''

Now, Dossous is working on a new play, "Soul Mother,'' which will be presented at the Strand in May, the Haitian holiday season. For the first time, it is written largely in English, and he likes to think that it may reach more people outside the Haitian community, but that is not why he wrote it. "The action is taking place here in the United States,'' he explains. "Things are changing, and you got to change too, so now I show how kids come home and speak English, the melting pot and how all the people interact.''

For the future, he is hoping to find a promoter who will bring his plays to Haiti, and simply to continue to keep Teyat Lakay as a vital part of the Boston scene. "Theater, I think, is the most beautiful thing, the most beautiful art,'' he says. "Because theater is you, is your soul, is your identity, is your self. When people go to see a play, they can learn more, more things. I'm just trying to do my work as a citizen, to help people to understand the meaning of life, and I think the theater is a good tool to do this work. I want all my plays to be plays that, when you come, you come to get fun; while you get fun, I teach you how to behave yourself in the community, in the society. And I really love what I'm doing.''

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THE NAZARENE SILVERTONES

By Elijah Wald

It is the end of the Nazarene Silvertones' first set at the Christian Life Center in Cambridge's Central Square, and the audience is on its feet. The band on stage is pumping out a loping, Caribbean groove, and Janice Burton is striding the aisles, singing loud and strong. "Sailing,'' she cries, bolstered by the choir's exuberant echo, "sailing across the river . . . you gonna sail to victory.''

Backstage, Burton speaks in a gentle, lilting voice that seems like it could hardly come from the same person who just brought the hall to its feet. "Actually, I'm the shy person of the group,'' she says. "I just kind of stay back and let everybody go and do their thing. But I felt the spirit in the place tonight and I just had to go out there and be with the audience. It's just this spirit of God, and you want to spread his word. We want everybody to know that we don't just sing and jump and move for the sake of doing it; we are filled with the holy spirit.''

That is a credo that could be repeated by most gospel singers, but the Silvertones are something different. The 16-member group was formed in 1981 at the Cave Hill Church of the Nazarene in Barbados by Harold Britton, who is still its manager. Designed to involve young people in church affairs, it has shifted personnel as singers grew up and moved on, but has remained a leading force in a new era of Caribbean gospel, blending island pop rhythms with an evangelical message.

"We are very heavily into Caribbean music, reggae and soca-calypso, that kind of thing,'' says Alex Blackman, the group's music director and one of its half-dozen lead singers. "And we also do some music like you would hear in North America: r&b, southern gospel, some black gospel, and a bit of rock 'n' roll as well. We've found that when you get people coming to a concert, all of them are not necessarily into one style of music. So we try to keep our repertoire as varied as we can, to make sure that everybody has a good time.''

The Silvertones' set proves Blackman's point. There are contemporary-style gospel numbers with slick key modulations, gentle ballads, and full-throated shouts. The crowd, mostly Bajan (Barbadian) immigrants, loves it all, but really comes alive when the group swings into an island rhythm: pulsing reggae, punchy soca, or a jaunty Bajan beat called "spouge.''

Considering the audience reaction it is hard to believe, but Blackman says many people in Barbados look askance at this infectious musical blend. "When people first attempted to play that [spouge] in gospel, it was like 'uh-oh,' because that was definitely pop music,'' he says. "It's like, you know, reggae is obviously associated with Rastafarianism and calypso is associated with like carnivals and that kind of stuff, so to that extent a lot of church people have shied away from it. But we're Caribbean people, and it's very much our music, and we believe that music was created by God.''

It is the rhetorical question gospel songwriters have been asking for years: "Why should the Devil have all the good tunes?'' And, in this case, it makes even more sense than usual.

Both reggae and calypso, even in their secular forms, are heavily devoted to "message songs'' and social commentary. What could be more logical than for a church group to adapt them to a gospel message?

Blackman adds that, just as reggae musicians reshaped American soul hits, many of the songs in the group's repertoire were originally done in other styles, and reworked with an island flavor. He says that, historically, Barbadan gospel groups have gotten their strongest influence from American country stylists. "The gospel radio stations played a lot of that, so people came up hearing that type of music, they love it and they feel that that is gospel. People coming up 20 or 25 years ago would be brought up on white gospel, and on country and western, people like Skeeter Davis and Jim Reeves. And there are still plenty of people in Barbados who seem to prefer the North American stuff.''

Times are changing, though. The Silvertones, all in their 20s or early 30s, represent a new generation, and are perfect messengers for the modern style. Their singing is expert and tightly coordinated, and by the end of their sets they are jumping and dancing with joy. Blackman acts like a cheerleader, leading the audience in a shouted call-and-response to spell out the name of Jesus and, hokey as it may be, the sheer energy and enthusiasm of the young singers makes it work.

"Obviously, whenever anybody attempts to change something there's resistance,'' Blackman says. "You are accustomed to something, it's become a part of you, so you don't want to change so easily. But people are beginning to accept this, and it's just a matter of more groups like us doing more of it. People are going to come around, in Barbados and I think also internationally. It's just a matter of time.''

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Giancarlo Buscaglia (Puerto Rico 1997)

By Elijah Wald

CAMBRIDGE -- The room is too crowded for dancing, but the music is irresistable, so couples are managing a sort of understated salsa between the bar and the tables. The band is not a salsa band, though. It is just one guy with an acoustic guitar, and two friends filling in the rhythm on bongo and conga drums.

The guitarist is Giancarlo Buscaglia, and for more than two years he has been playing every Thursday night at the Cellar on Mass. Ave. This summer, he added a second weekly gig, Saturdays at the Green Street Grill in Central Square. There, the sound is supplemented by Roberto Cassan's accordion, and the bigger room means that the crowding is not as oppressive, at least for the time being.

The physical reaction to Buscaglia's music is a bit surprising, considering how different it is from what most would consider a contemporary Latin dance sound. "They think of the horns, the big rhythm section,'' Buscaglia says, nodding. "That sound is great, the larger groups, but there is so much other music too that's not out there. I like to play more of an older sound, like Cuba, Puerto Rico in

the '20s or '30s, which is basically the roots of salsa, without the horns. I love that. I think if I had a horn section you wouldn't hear the accordion coming out, or the cuatro.''

Buscaglia is Puerto Rican, and came to the Boston area with his parents in the early 1980s, at age 13, settling in the western suburbs. "I used to hate this music when I was in Puerto Rico,'' he says, his voice still showing a gentle accent. "My grandparents listened to it. But as I got older I realized that there's a lot of beautiful stuff there and and I really got into it, as opposed to listening to [disco-pop like] Menudo."

At first, Buscaglia turned to nueva cancion, the Latin American equivalent of the folksinger/songwriter style. "Sylvio Rodriguez, Pablo Milanes [the leaders of Cuban nueva cancion], they have a lot of influence from the older music,'' he says. "I tended to like that more than the stuff with electric guitars and synthesizers. So I headed more towards that folk direction, which I ended up doing when I came to Cambridge and started playing in the streets. But I also started doing Mexican polkas and pasodobles and waltzes with two violin players and an accordion player that I was lucky enough to meet in the street.''

The street was his school and his workplace. "It was great for me,'' he says. "I was 18 or 19, and I was making more or less a living with what I loved to do.'' The street provided an opportunity to experiment, to sit in with different musicians and learn a wide variety of music. Buscaglia was especially drawn to the continuum of acoustic pop styles that flourished throughout Latin America in the first half of the century. He studied recordings by the classic Mexican trios, with their unearthly falsetto singing, and the harder-edged, Caribbean rhythms of the Cuban Trio Matamoros.

By the end of his Harvard Square days, Buscaglia had put together a regular band, Balaton, and was exploring virtually the whole range of 20th century Latin American acoustic music. In his sets, a Cuban guaracha will be followed by a Mexican trio number, followed by an Argentine tango. There is also plenty of Puerto Rican music, based on the jibaro style of the countryside, which he plays on the cuatro, a ten-stringed member of the guitar family which he describes as the Puerto Rican national instrument.

Buscaglia is the first to insist that he is not virtuoso, either on cuatro or guitar, but he plays both in an easy, swinging style. What sets him apart, though, is neither his musicianship nor his pleasantly evocative vocals. Buscaglia's great talent is his ability to communicate his love of the music, both to the audience and to his fellow players. Over the years, he has evolved a shifting array of groups to meet the various performing opportunities that come his way. He performs solo, in a wonderful duo with the singer and guitarist Saul Martinez, and in trios, quartets, or whatever is needed for a particular event. He also plays cuatro and sings with Manuel Santos's band, which next week will begin a regular Sunday night residency at Johnny D's.

Most acoustic musicians are ambivalent at best about playing bar gigs, especially in a room like the Cellar, where people are talking, jostling and enjoying themselves rather than sitting and listening. For Buscaglia, though, the room has a special feeling. "I love to do concerts,'' he says. "And I will work at receptions and parties and stuff like that. But I really like to be able to do what comes most naturally for this music, what it has been for the most part through the years. It is music to dance, to share, to joke around, to have a good time.''

The customers clearly agree. Buscaglia says he is as surprised as anyone by the reaction his music is getting, and especially by the fact that young Latinos are coming to dance to his old-fashioned sound. "I don't know if it's nostalgia about being here [in the U.S.] or that they've been listening since they were little,'' he says. "But they really are into it. You hear the people screaming like they do in the mariachis, and dancing to polkas. It's hard to see in any club, whether it's American or Mexican, young people of 25 getting up dancing a polka.

"I am so glad to see people will dance to this. I love that, and for me it's natural. You don't have to be a huge deal, have a big band, for people to dance. You just need a couple of guitars, or whatever. Because people love music. That is why I play alone, in the duo, in the band. I have learned in the last few years that I need to explore as much as I can in the music, and find as many venues as possible. That way, I can go on, and keep playing what I love.''

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Cubanismo (1997)

Elijah Wald

It is hard to imagine anyone who would not be interested in Cubanismo's show at the Roxy this Sunday. Jazz fans can appreciate the complexity and technical brilliance of the music. Latin and world fans can admire the impeccable rhythmic interplay. As for those who just want to get down and party, bandleader Jesus Alemany is the first to point out that, at heart, that is what this music is all about.

"People are coming to dance, to enjoy the show,'' Alemany says, speaking by phone the day after the band's live debut at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. "And I think that's the most important thing for us, because the audience is a very important part of our show. We really enjoy when we see people dancing and singing the tunes with us. And there were a lot of people screaming yesterday.''

That is all the more gratifying because, until the success of Cubanismo's first album, the music Alemany plays had been largely written off as a historical relic. At 34, the Cuban trumpeter has made it his mission to revive the classic Cuban son[MAKE ITAL], the big band music of the 1930s and 1940s. Like Stateside jazz, which it paralleled and exchanged ideas with throughout its heyday, son was originally dance music, but evolved into a largely undanceable concert style, Latin jazz. Alemany has set out to take the music back to its roots.

Unlike most of the Stateside groups that have tried to revive big band swing, however, Alemany has succeeded in capturing not only the letter but the spirit of the music. Whatever Cubanismo's cultural mission, it does not sound like a museum piece. In a large part, this is due to Alemany's decision to root his band in the descarga[MAKE ITAL], or jam session, keeping written arrangements to a minimum and letting the players kick back and blow.

"The success of the first album, 'Cubanismo,' has been spontaneity,'' Alemany says. "Everybody playing at the same time. We recorded it completely live and the ambiance was very good. Everybody happy. Happy to get together, and to make this kind of traditional music which had almost disappeared. We went back to Cuba and we did it, and we are really surprised at the success of the album here in America and all over the world.''

For Alemany, who has been based in England for several years, the session that spawned Cubanismo was a sort of homecoming. He and producer Joe Boyd traveled to Havana in 1995, planning to make a one-shot son revival album with the cream of Cuban players, both those still based on the island and expatriates like the legendary pianist Alfredo Rodri[NOTE]guez. The project

succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, both artistically and in terms of the excitement it generated internationally. They followed up with a second album, "Malembe,'' and now the band's first live tour.

The 14-member touring band brings together an electrifying mix of old masters and young Turks. Rodriguez has been working internationally since the 1960s, playing with artists like Tito Puente, Mario Bauza and Dizzy Gillespie. Conga player Tata Guines is the grand master of Cuban jazz percussionists. Several other bandmembers were in the landmark group Irakere. Then there are the young players, Alemany's contemporaries, who are trying to learn from the older men while bringing their modern sensibility to bear on the classic form.

The band also has an unusual mix of expatriates and Havana-based players, a fact that has received considerable attention from the press. Alemany, however, says that politics had a neglegible effect on the project. "The communication between us is fantastic,'' he says. "100 percent positive. Because this music is like a common language; it's like the breath that we have in Cuba. On this tour I am using a couple of musicians that live in Miami, but they are like family, you know? We all grew up together in the same neighborhoods and went to the same music college, listening to the same music on the radio and in our environment.''

He is also quick to point out that, despite the crippling effect of the U.S. blockade on the Cuban economy, musicians have managed to keep up a regular interchange of ideas, buying tapes and records in third countries, and that recently the Cuban government has greatly improved the situation by allowing musicians wide leeway to tour abroad. "Our culture is very strong,'' he says. "Especially the music. You can see the influences of Cuban music in jazz, funky soul music, even in the rock 'n' roll. It's a cultural phenomenon, and nobody can deny it. You can't blockade the music.''

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Pancho Quinto

By Elijah Wald

The next month brings several great Cuban concerts to the Boston area, but for hardcore fans of the Afro-Cuban tradition none is more exciting than a show next Thursday at Johnny D's in Somerville. It is the local debut of Pancho Quinto, one of the grand old men of Cuban batá, or African religious drumming, who appears in a double bill with the pianist and singer Bellita.

At 65, Quinto is a master of rumba -- not the ballroom dance music that swept the United States earlier in this century, but the hard-edged street rhythm most familiar to local listeners from the work of the Munequitos de Matanzas. He is quick to say, though, that his music is different from that of other rumberos. "I play a polyrhythmic rumba,'' he says, speaking in Spanish from a West Coast tour stop. "I never go outside the Cuban rumba, and I play that perfectly, but I add to it, as if I had a whole drum set in my hands. And I play many instruments, like cajón [a wooden box], batá, bells.''

A new album, "En el Solar la Cueva del Humo'' (Round World), shows the breadth of Quinto's work. To record, he seated himself on a large cajón , with a smaller one between his legs, three batá drums behind him, a conga drum on one side, a set of bells on the floor and another bunch attached to his wrist. "He goes from low to high, to wood, to metal, to skin,'' says Greg Landau, his friend and producer. "So he gets all these different timbres, all at once.''

The music is equally varied, with a breadth that more typical folkloric drum groups often miss. "In Cuba, as in a lot of places, folk music has become kind of mummified,'' Landau says. "As folklorists and state-sponsored groups learn the traditions, the songs and the styles become frozen at a certain point, and they say 'This is what rumba is.' But actually, rumba on the docks, on a popular level, is still evolving, as it always has. It takes in new influences, and it changes, picks up on popular sayings in the street and on popular music and dance forms, and incorporates them. So Pancho's music reflects the way that rumba is played now.''

Quinto's background certainly is not that of an academic folkorist. He started playing at 14, and learned his art while pursuing his day job as a Havana dock worker. "Boxes were used by the dock workers instead of drums,'' Landau explains. "They were drummers, but they spent a lot of time just hanging around beating on boxes. So the cajón became an instrument, and Pancho is the one who innovated various designs of the boxes and that became his speciality.''

He also studied with Jesus Perez and Pablo Roche, among the most respected masters of batá drumming, the ritual style of the Yoruba-derived Afro-Cuban religion popularly called Santeria, becoming a respected ceremonial dummer. "We used to play batá drums in people's houses,'' he remembers. "And the santeros [believers] would put something in the little gourd for us.''

By the 1950s, he was branching out into popular venues. "I don't remember how long ago that was -- I've been playing for many years,'' he says, with a chuckle. "I played with Sonora Matancera, with Celia Cruz at the beginning of her career, and from there I went on gaining fame as a good percussionist. I played in the Tropicana, one of the best clubs in Cuba. I played with the big shows, 'Ritmo y Son,' 'The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,' even 'Swan Lake,' but with batá drums -- there was a red rooster and a white rooster, and they fight until one kills the other.''

Quinto says that the music he plays in clubs is quite different from his religious music, but that all the styles influence one another, and he continues to pay tribute to his ceremonial background in the name of his group. "It is called Añagi,'' he says. "This is the name of my saint in the Yoruba religion. He is a boy, a mischievous boy, but he's good, and I love him a lot and respect him.''

Quinto seems pleased by the reception he has been getting on his American tour, and speaks happily of the collaboration with Bellita, a young pop-jazz pianist who trades songs with him and sometimes sings along on his numbers. While he is making his international debut at an age when other performers are contemplating retirement, he seems neither surprised nor impressed with his success.

"I have played all my life,'' he points out. "I worked on the docks, but I always lived with music and never left it. I taught other groups that traveled and became famous, but I kept on working, as a modest person, more as a teacher than a performer.

"I never wanted to be famous, but now that I am old, now my destiny wants to make me famous. But I don't care about that. I don't want to be Nat King Cole or anybody. I am just a humble man, playing for my people, for Cuba, and for all the people of Latin America and all over the world.''

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Los Muñequitos de Matanzas

By Elijah Wald

The music of the United States has swept the world; everywhere, there are rock bands, jazz groups, even country-western singers. In terms of deep influence, though, there is another area that has been equally important: the Caribbean. From the bamboula to the mambo to the merengue, Caribbean dance rhythms have spiced popular music since the 19th century. Even the most popular modern African style, Congolese soukous, was inspired by Cuban records.

Both the U.S. and the Caribbean gained their musical riches from the new-world mix of African and European styles. The Caribbean, though, remained far closer to African roots. Indeed, if one asks Diosdado Ramos, the director of the Cuban rumba group Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, why it is that modern Africans have been so massively influenced by Cuban records, he says it is because the Cubans are more traditionally African than even the Africans.

"We've maintained this music exactly as we remembered it, as our ancestors played it in the slavery times. It didn't change, because it was our connection to Africa, whereas in Africa, things continued to evolve and older styles were lost. So what we played in Cuba was what the Africans used to play, and when they heard it, it reconnected them with their roots.''

The Muñequitos, who appear next Sunday in a dance concert at the Roxy sponsored by World Music (617-876-4275), are the kings of Cuban rumba, a street style that consists of intricate, polyrhythmic percussion and call-and-response vocals, both hallmarks of the African tradition. Rumba is a creolized style, with an admixture of Spanish, and possibly French, influence, but it is the African element which is strongest. Though it has rarely hit in its pure form, rumba is the heartbeat of the fusion music that Americans like to call salsa, but which Cubans claim as their own and call "son.''

Matanzas, on Cuba's North Coast, about 50 miles east of Havana, has been one of the country's most musically productive cities, celebrated in the name of the hugely popular son band, La Sonora Matancera, and its musicians imbibe rumba with their mother's milk. "Rumba is the roots of all of the popular music,'' Ramos says. "To be a sonero [son player], you have to be a rumbero first, because the rhythm of the clave comes from rumba, and without clave there isn't any of this music.''

Clave is what rock 'n' roll fans would call the "Bo Diddley beat,'' three hesitating beats followed by two more slapping in quick succession. It can be found in much modern African music and throughout the Caribbean, including New Orleans. Clave, which literally means "key,'' also refers to the claves, two sticks which are tapped together to give the basic beat in older Cuban styles, and the Muñequitos typically begin their concerts by walking on stage playing the claves, giving the rhythmic "key'' of the music which is to come.

The Muñequitos have been in Boston before, but always playing in concert settings. This time, they will be hosting a rumba dance party, as they have done in Cuban clubs for over 40 years. Their visit provides a rare opportunity to hear the purest African-American music in a live setting, and comes on the heels of a small avalanche of record releases documenting island root styles, including their own new "Live in New York'' (Qbadisc).

For North Americans, this music is particularly interesting, as it is a sort of "what might have been'' for our own music. What if mainland slave owners had not outlawed the drums? What if the slaves had not been forcibly separated from others of their own regions and language groups? What if African religious customs had been tolerated as long as they blended with Christian observances, rather than ruthlessly wiped out?

Folklorists in the U.S. labor to find hints of African styles in blues or jazz, but in the Caribbean the African survivals are obvious on the surface. In Cuba, five different African religions are still observed; they have changed with the years, but retain enough of their origins that, when devouts of the Yoruba Lacumi religion have met with their Nigerian counterparts, the Africans can understand the lyrics and chants of the Cuban liturgy.

This is not unique to Cuba, though it remains particularly strong there and in parts of Brazil. An astonishing new record from Rounder, "Peter Was a Fisherman,'' documents a trip to Trinidad in 1939 by the pioneering folklorists Melville and Frances Herskovits. Along with some charming, sing-songy reels and quadrilles, Baptist hymns, and a "Carnival Indian'' song that is an interesting parallel to the similar New Orleans style, the record has a dozen songs in Yoruba. One of the singers had learned her music directly from her African parents, and though none of them spoke the language fluently, their singing is still clear enough that the record compilers have managed translations.

As in Cuba, Trinidadian music has become creolized, mixing with English, French and Spanish elements. The most famous result is calypso, like rumba originally an improvised form that talked about whatever caught the singer's mind. Another Rounder release, "Neville Marcano: The Growling Tiger of Calypso,'' gives a glance at the glory days of this music. Though recorded in the early 1960s by the folklorist Alan Lomax, it harks back to the 1920s and 1930s, when calypso was still largely played by string bands. Marcano, better known as the Tiger, was among the greatest calypso stars, and his music has a biting topical humor and fierce rhythmic attack that barely resembles the insipid style popularized stateside by Harry Belafonte.

Along with their rumbas, the Muñequitos are masters of several African ceremonial styles; Ramos is a babalao, or priest, of the Yoruba religion, and an initiate in both the Congo and Abacua religious societies, which hark back to roots in what are now Congo and Cameroon. The Yoruba religion is often known as "santeria,'' because over the years the hall of orisha, or Yoruba gods has overlapped with the Catholic cults of saints, matching each Yoruba god to a saint. This evolution has happened in Brazil as well, and, most famously, in Haiti, where it is known as Vodun, Vodou, or, in a thousand Hollywood misrepresentations, Voodoo.

A new album from Ellipsis Arts, "Angels in the Mirror,'' is a sort of textbook of Vodou music and observance. A bound, 64-page booklet with a CD enclosed, it explores the Haitian religion in essays, interviews, poetry, photographs, and a wide range of music. Each track is fully explained, the lyrics translated, and its significance explored, bringing the culture to life in a way that no previous book or album has managed.

Two other Caribbean countries have had a profound impact on world pop music in recent decades: the Dominican Republic, with its hip-shaking merengue, and, of course, Jamaica, with reggae. Both are explored on "Caribbean Island Music," a reissue in the Nonesuch Explorer Series. Recorded in 1971 by John Storm Roberts, author of the priceless study of African-American interchange, "Black Music of Two Worlds,'' the disc is far from exhaustive, but includes deeply African music as well as early forms of merengue and Jamaican mento, and creolized versions of Spanish and English folk styles.

Many of these styles have been dying out as the music evolves under the pressures of records, radio, and television, but in a few fortunate pockets African roots musics remain impressively strong. Ramos says that in Matanzas the classic rumba is still a basic part of day-to-day life. The Muñequitos' youngest member is ten years old and, good as he is, Ramos says that on a hometown street his abilities would be considered quite common.

"In Cuba, and especially in Matanzas, the kids, the old people, and the youth all play and dance and sing rumba on any street. Any place where there is music -- it can be a wedding or a fifteenth party [the Latin world's equivalent of a 'coming out'], or a religious ceremony -- it can start with whatever kind of music, but it's going to end with rumba. You're all going to have a bottle of rum out and be in a festive mood, and there's going to be a lot of improvising between people, and everybody will join in.''

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JUAN DE MARCOS GONZALEZ/ AFRO-CUBAN ALL STARS

By Elijah Wald

Cuban music has been gradually filtering out into the wider world for about a decade, but the floodgates opened last year with the release of a trio of albums on the World Circuit/Nonesuch label. The most famous was “Buena Vista Social Club,” produced by Ry Cooder and featuring some of the legendary musicians in the classic son style, and it was accompanied by a solo album of the pianist Ruben Gonzalez and one of a big band, the Afro-Cuban All Stars. The three sold over a million copies, and now the All Stars are on tour, coming to the Roxy this Sunday.

The All Stars are lead by Juan de Marcos González, who also brought together the musicians for all three albums and did most of the musical arrangements. He says that, while Cooder’s involvement was of course important, the project was in the works long before Cooder came on board. It grew out of Marcos’s wish to bring together musicians of the older generation with young Cuban players.

“In the first place, I wanted to help the musicians of the previous generation,” he says, speaking in Spanish, from a Minneapolis tour stop. “Ibrahim Ferrer, who now is the best-known member of our group in the United States, was almost completely unknown even in Cuba. The musicians of the other generation were living in very bad conditions, and I wanted to put them forward as artists and show the world that they still had the strength to keep working. And, in the second place, I wanted to make a record that covered the majority of genres of Cuban music, played with a modern vision. To do that, I had to bring together musicians from various generations, because the young people would bring a contemporary vision, and the old people would bring experience.”

Marcos’s credentials for this task were formidable. In his college days, he formed Sierra Maestra, the band that led the revival of interest in Cuban son, the music that forms the roots of what we now call salsa.

“Son started around the end of the last century, in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra,” Marcos explains. “Then it came down from these mountains to the big cities of the eastern zone of Cuba, fundamentally Santiago de Cuba. At the beginning of this century, there were many soldiers stationed in Santiago, and the soldiers learned to play son like the eastern rural musicians. When they were transferred to Havana, they brought the eastern son music to Havana. But, as Havana is more cosmopolitan, they added to the son and formed bands with other European instruments, like the bass and the trumpet.”

The Cuban sound soon swept the world, forming the basis of popular dance music throughout much of Latin America and Africa, and spawning Latin crazes in Europe and the U.S. It was only with the revolution, and subsequent U.S. blockade, that the Cubans ceased to dominate the field. “What you call salsa -- which one could say that we play -- is nothing but a version of Cuban music played by foreigners, mainly Puerto Ricans,” Marcos says. “One could say that Fidel Castro invented salsa.”

Marcos himself started out playing “foreign” music. “I started out as a guitarist, playing hard rock, like heavy metal, distortion, ‘overdrive,’” he says. “I played in rock groups in Havana in the ‘70s, playing in the style of the great American and English bands like Yes, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival. That music was very popular; the young people, almost all of us wanted to play it.

“Then, at the end of the ‘70s, I realized that I had to play music that fitted with my nationality and my identity. I began to study Cuban music more deeply, I began to study tres (a small Cuban guitar, a bit like the Puerto Rican cuatro), and in ‘77 we started Sierra Maestra.”

The All Stars carry on that legacy. Marcos says that they are less a band than an ongoing project, with shifting personel. The group coming to Boston will include Ferrer, Orlando “Cachaíto” López on bass, and the vocalists Manuel “Puntillita” Licea and Félix Valoy off the record, but also newcomers like the pianist Guillermo “Rubalcaba” González, father of the Latin jazz star Gonzalo Rubalcaba.

The group’s fundamental aim is similar to that of Cubanismo, formed by Jesús Alemany, another Sierra Maestra alumnus. “The difference is that Cubanismois much more instrumental, while Afro Cuban All Stars is more singing,” Marcos says. “But the artistic point of view is similar, because it is to revive Cuban music, giving it a contemporary sound. I tried to capture the sound of the great Cuban orchestras of the ‘50s, but the arrangements are modern, the chords, the harmonies are contemporary.”

Marcos says he is surprised that the revival of son has gone quite as far as it has, but he says he always expected it to be successful. “This is something that was necessary, for Cuba and for myself and my contemporaries,” he says. “We are glad that people are finally recognizing the value of Cuban music. Now, in Cuba, there are many young people dedicating themselves to Cuban music. Of course, just like anywhere else, there are other styles that hit for a moment, but right now this music is again the mode, not only abroad but in Cuba. We can say that the century is ending as it began, with son.”

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Barbarito Torres

By Elijah Wald

The first notes on Barbarito Torres’ new “Havana Cafe” (Atlantic) are startling. The tinkling tones of his lute, over simple percussion, have a jagged, atonal edge that belies the country roots of the son montuño that follows. Though he came to international attention through the traditionalist super-group known as the “Buena Vista Social Club,” Torres, who appears at Johnny D’s in Somerville this Thursday, is clearly no simple traditionalist.

In a stairwell backstage at the Roxy, where he has just finished a sparkling opening set for the Cuban pop stars Los Van Van, Torres agrees. “In Cuba, they say that the laúd [the lute’s Spanish name] is the lead instrument of musica campesina, Cuban country music,” he says, speaking a gruff, Cuban Spanish. “But I have taken on other kinds of music. I have taken things from the country music, the traditional music, and also more contemporary styles, like Latin jazz. It is music with a contemporary stamp, played by young people, with another spirit, other ideas, other harmonic concepts..”

Torres thinks that his status as a laúd innovator was somewhat accidental. “I should have played another instrument, I should have been a guitarist or a bass player,” he says, laughing. “But life gave me the opportunity to come from a family of country people and there was a laúd in my house, and it was born in me to be a laúdist, at age 10. But from birth I was a musician, with more amplitude, with other ideas in my head, not just country music.”

The laúd Torres plays is unique to Cuba, a survival of the renaissance explosion of stringed intruments. Both name and instrument derive from the Arabic al oud, a parent of the guitar family. “The lute underwent two metamorphoses,” Torres says. “One in Spain and one in Cuba. This is the Cuban lute, with a short neck and twelve strings, tuned in fourths, and it is used in guajira music, where two poets have a controversy in 6/8 time. And in son montuño, guarachas.”

Torres’ father was a poet, his mother a singer, and all of his siblings sang or played, though none of them professionally. His sister, Conchita, is a member of his touring group, a hot acoustic dance band that also includes his fellow “Buena Vista” alumnus, the 82-year-old composer and singer Pio Leyva.

The story of Torres’ arrival at the “Buena Vista” sessions sounds like something out of Hollywood: “In the ’80s, someone had given Ry Cooder a cassette of assorted Cuban music, and on that cassette I appeared, on a television program, but it did not have my name,” Torres recalls. “He got very interested in this instrument, asking what it was. So, he wanted laúd on the record, and when it was time to record they got me. When I got there, Ry said, ‘Oh, you play laúd, pleased to meet you.’ Then he put on the cassette, and said to the translator, ‘Tell him to play like the guy is playing here.’ I listened, and I said, ‘Tell him it won’t be difficult, because that’s me.’ So he threw his arms around me, and we became great friends.”

Like the other “Buena Vista” stars, Torres says that the experience changed his life. At 43, he is of a younger generation than most of the featured participants, and, while he had worked with Compay Segundo in his teens, others he knew only from their recordings. “It was such a great honor to be among those men,” he says. “With all the experience they have, with the vitality they have, at their age. Rubén González, he is 82, and how he plays the piano! Like an angel. I had admired him since childhood. For the improvisation I do on the laúd, I drank deeply from the fountain of Rubén González.”

Along with introducing him to his idols, the sessions provided a springboard for his solo career. While he had made over 40 albums as a sideman, “Havana Cafe” is Torres’ first venture as a leader, and he is building on it with almost constant touring. “On the CD and in my concerts I try to play a bit of everything,” he says. “I make a tour of Cuba starting in the east, at Guantanamo, and going all the way to Pinar del Rio, and with the city and the country.”

Happy as he is for his own current success, he sounds at least equally enthusiastic about the boost it has given his instrument. “The laúd was not so well known,” he says. “It was a bit taboo, discriminated against. The only one who brought it out of country music was me. But now there is a renaissance going on, and not only in Cuba. People all over are asking me where they can find a laúd.”

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Toots Hibbert

By Elijah Wald

Let’s get to the heart of the matter: What is Toots Hibbert doing in a small club? Monday night, Toots and the Maytals are at the House of Blues in Cambridge. Tuesday, Bunny Wailer is at the Roxy (617-497-2229). Now, Wailer is a fine reggae singer fronting a crack 16-piece band, but there is something wrong here. Because, along with being one of the most dynamic live performers around, Hibbert is the king of classic Jamaican music, the gospel-drenched master who helped define ska, then invented reggae.

Admittedly, Hibbert did not invent the music by himself, but he was the biggest star of the day and he named the style with his hit "Do the Reggay (sic)." Speaking from his Jamaican home, his voice infused with a rich island accent, he tells the origin of the word: "It come from the suffering in the Trenchtown, where I used to live. People have this little joke about "streggae," and we just use that and say reggae. It’s like raggedy people: If you just raggedy, you walk without shoes, you’re looking not so tacky, not so good, people call you reggae. So it just come out of my mouth, ‘Let’s do the reggae.’ I figure I should get some recompense for that, like some royalties, or even a trophy or a medal. I got no medal for it -- all they do, they put me in jail."

That was in 1966. At the time, Toots and the Maytals were the hottest act in Jamaica. Recording since 1962, they dominated a pop scene that was among the most fertile in the world, with Bob Marley’s Wailers, Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker and dozens more. The first Jamaican Song Festival had just been held, which the Maytals won with "Bam Bam." An English tour was in the works, and Hibbert was ready to bring island music to the world. Then he was busted for possession of marijuana.

"They framed me," Hibbert says. "’Cause I didn’t use ganja in all those days -- I was pretty young. I was framed ’cause I was a trouble to them and I was going to be the first one to go under a contract in London. Before Bob Marley, before any group."

Hibbert’s prison stay has been variously reported as 18 months or two years. Either way, he hit again as soon as he got out, singing of his prison experience in one of his masterpieces, "54-46 (That’s my Number)." "I sing about it, you know, because I was innocent," he says. "But I figure I should get a better reward, to invent the word reggae. If it was any other artist, they would really build them up for that. But thank God it’s me, and I’m not of the world, I’m just in the world."

Hibbert went on to make some of the most swinging, rocking records in Jamaican history: "Pressure Drop," "Sweet and Dandy" (both featured in the film "The Harder They Come") and, in the 1970s, the internationally popular "Funky Kingston" and "Reggae Got Soul." Somehow, though, he never became a name on the level of Marley or Cliff. Hibbert puts this down to bad management and a record company that lavished far more attention on others. There was also his resistance to trends, his unwillingness to chain his music to a hypnotic, repetitive beat, or grow his hair in dreadlocks. Though his songs could be as deep and serious as anyone’s, he was more an exuberant soul shouter than a moody prophet, and did not fit the later reggae ethos.

This is ironic, as Hibbert is the preeminent integrator of the styles that fed into classic reggae. He says that he got into music in his teens, after abandoning childhood dreams of becoming a jockey or a boxer. "I started singing in church," he remembers. "When I start singing I heard about ska, and I was listening to Ray Charles and some gospel singers." Indeed, his work has often been linked to that of the Southern soul giants, and 1992’s "Toots in Memphis" album was recorded to capitalize on that connection. Hibbert does not entirely agree. "It is just raw talent," he says. "People told me is some like that [soul singer], is some like this, but I don’t immitate."

His records back up this assertion, but it is natural to compare him to an Otis Redding, or the Maytals to the Temptations, rather than putting him in a bag with later-era reggae acts. 37 years after he first hit the Jamaican dance halls, Hibbert continues to play small, sweaty clubs and, rather than coasting on a mellow wave of rasta spirituality, he tears them up with a passion that belies his years. He wails, cries, drops in show-stopping splits, and preaches like a soul master.

Hibbert released a strong album last year, "Ska Father" on his own Alla Son label, and is pushing to release another, "Borderline," in the next few months, "because I need it come out before the new millenium." Nonetheless, his stage act is still largely made up of his classic hits of the 1960s and ’70s. "When I want to sing some new songs, people don’t want," he explains. "They don’t ready for the new songs yet, they just want these songs."

Still, Hibbert sounds anything but depressed. He can see where things could have gone better, but is as enthusiastic as ever about his music and excited about future projects. He is constantly recording and touring and shows no sign of slowing down. "That energy comes from the lord," he says. "And that power goes out to the audience and comes back. That’s the only way it can work: the energy and the goodwill and the love for the people."

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Bamboleo

By Elijah Wald

For pure heat, Bamboleo’s visit to Scullers Jazz Club in January has to rank near the top of the year’s Latin offerings. While there has been a flood of Cuban bands in the last two years, Bamboleo is the first real taste of young Havana. Though deeply schooled in son and timba, the group adds a solid dose of funk and youthful energy, and its show easily sets it apart from the veterans familiar to U.S. audiences.

"Buena Vista Social Club was a fine piece of work, and those are our roots," says pianist and bandleader Lázaro Valdés, who brings his group back to Scullers on Tuesday and Wednesday. "But it’s not what is being played in Cuba. The music that left Cuba in the 1930s, 1940s was this type of music, and for all the people who want to see that image of Cuba, it was a huge success. But that Cuba doesn’t exist anymore.

"If you put the Buena Vista Social Club in El Tropical or somewhere like that [in Havana], the spectators may go to see it, but if you put them there again, there will be nobody. Because the style of dancing has changed, the way of listening to music, it has all changed."

Indeed, one of the surprises in Bamboleo’s show is that their music is not really suited to salsa dancing. Rather than the solid son rhythm favored by U.S. Latin dancers, it is full of quirky polyrhythms and "breaks," and the dancing is more free-form. "For that style, you have to know the turns, know how to count," Valdés says, speaking in strongly Cuban-flavored Spanish. "With our music, you dance any way you want, however you move. It’s something organic."

Not that a lot of Americans will feel up to dancing after seeing the gyrations of Bamboleo’s female singers, Yordamis Megret and lead vocalist Vannia Borges. With their distinctive burr haircuts, they have set a new club fashion in Havana, and they do things with their hips that simply are not human. Combined with male singers Alejandro Borrero and Jorge David, they form a superbly dynamic frontline, and the nine-piece backing band supports them with a blaze of of brass and three powerhouse percussionists.

The shear musical chops of the bandmembers are astonishing, beyond anything a comparable Stateside Latin pop group would be likely to demonstrate. Valdés gives the credit for this expertise to the Cuban educational system, which provides intensive conservatory training for those children who show musical promise.

"It is six, eight years of study," he says. "And you spend the whole time eating music. In Cuba, a musician does nothing but music, all the time. I think that has helped very much for Cuban music to have the level it has now, and it’s something for which we have to thank our government. Here in the United States, or other places like Europe, if he is not playing with Michael Jackson or Sting or someone like that, a musician has to have some other work -- a gas station, or whatever. But we can really do what we like, not have to think about how to make four pesos more, or how to survive in the economic world."

Bamboleo is not typical, and there are plenty of Cuban musicians who have not realized plum performing careers, but there is no arguing with the versatility and skill of the younger generations of Cuban players. Valdés himself had the added advantage of coming from an intensely musical home. "I am from a family of musicians," he says. "My father is a pianist, he played for a long time with Beny More. So there was always a piano in the house, and I began to play when I was six. In school, I studied violin, percussion, and piano, following the European conservatory system, but always mixed with Cuban music."

Bamboleo’s sound has the wild, acoustic sound of older Cuban music, mixed with a fiercely contemporary energy, and the group’s "Ya No Hace Falta" album (Ahí-Namá) shows them in top form. Their most recent release, "Ñño," is something of a space-filler, consisting of four live tunes and six different club mixes. Asked if this represents a new direction for the group, Valdés quickly demurs.

"That was an experiment by the record company," he says. "I find it very comical. Maybe people will listen to it in all the discoteques, but it’s not the sort of music that interests me. But you always have to experiment. And even in Havana, they’re playing it in some discoteques, and people go, ‘Oh, how great!’"

For himself, Valdés is planning to continue composing and developing in his current direction. He would obviously love to see his group have the huge success of a Marc Anthony or Ricky Martin, but he is realistic. "For that, you need powerful record company, and a man with a pretty face," he says. "It doesn’t matter how he sings." Of course, it is pointed out, Bamboleo has no shortage of pretty faces. Valdes laughs: "Sure, now we just need the powerful company."

In any case, he says the group intends to remain based in Havana. "That is where the kitchen is," he says. "I think that the musicians who have stayed in Cuba have kept cooking the music. Once you stay somewhere else, you stop evolving, you stay wherever you were when you left. Maybe your lifestyle evolves, but the music stays there. Now, I don’t mean to say that tomorrow I might not decide to live somewhere else. But in any case it wouldn’t be in the United States -- mucho tax!"

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Larry Harlow

By Elijah Wald

Latin music is hotter than ever, with salsa classes packed and new dance venues popping up monthly, so it is surprising that more ink is not going to the people who put the music on the map. Say, for example, Larry Harlow.

In the mid-1960s, when Puerto Rican bandleader Johnny Pacheco and lawyer Jerry Masucci formed Fania Records, "The Latin Motown," the first artist they signed was a New York pianist and arranger who would become internationally famous as "El Judio Maravilloso" -- "The Marvelous Jew."

Harlow had trained in classical and jazz, but fell in love with Latin music in his teens, went to Cuba, and became one of the major bandleaders of the 1960s and 1970s. It was a key moment in U.S. Latin music; the Cuban Revolution had cut the scene off from its source, and a new generation of Puerto Rican and "Nuyorican" musicians were moving in to fill the gap.

"The Cubans were coming few and far between, and it was like Pacheco and me and Eddie [Palmieri] and [Ray] Barretto, we kind of held the fort," Harlow says, on the phone from his Brooklyn home. "We were all very Cuban-oriented, but we had our own sound. Like I had two trumpets and two trombones. Nobody had ever put trumpets and trombones before; now every band has trumpets and trombones.

"I was just looking for a new way, getting out where I could do my thing. I had two guys that could double on violins, so I could play charanga music along with conjunto music, I was able to utilize both genres of Cuban music, and it just caught on. I guess being the right time and the right place helped a lot too."

Harlow made over 50 albums, and produced another 160 or so for other artists. He pioneered the use of electronic keyboards, wrote the first Latin opera, "Hommy," which brought Celia Cruz to the New York scene, was producer and pianist of the Fania All-Stars, then brought together the Latin Legends band that comes to Scullers this weekend.

Harlow, Fania, and New York salsa reached their apex in the early 1970s. "The Puerto Ricans were looking for something to identify with, so all of a sudden the lyrics started changing. Instead of it being ‘Para bailar, para gozar -- Let’s dance, let’s have a ball,’ all of a sudden you were getting songs that had protest meaning. This is the time of the Vietnam War, so we were singing some really heavy lyrics.

"We started mixing jazz harmonies together with the old Cuban sound, which gave us a little more room to experiment around. The arrangements got a little hipper, and all the way around it just started sounding better. Then the kids started picking up on it. It was something that was totally theirs and they gave it the name salsa."

New York had some 200 Latin clubs, and Harlow’s band was working seven nights a week. He is laughingly nostalgic as he recalls those days: "We built up a big following, because we always had like 10 or 12 really handsome single young guys in the band, so we always had like 40 or 50 girls that followed us everywhere we went, and they had like 200 guys following them, so we had a built-in audience."

Today, the salsa pioneers have somewhat faded from view, swamped by the flood of attention for Cuban bands. The Cubans give interviews saying that New York salsa was just a substitute for the "real" music, and press write-ups often echo this line. Harlow’s response to this is terse and unprintable. Then he laughs, and expands on the theme:

"If there wasn’t salsa the Cubans wouldn’t have any music left to play; nobody would even know what Cuban music is. Now they’re all over the place, working for 3 or 400 dollars a gig and we’re trying to get 4 or 5,000, and they’re killing us. They ain’t got toilet paper, and they’re still playing music from 1950. You know, [to hell with] them. And you can print that, too."

He adds that the Latino kids in the dance clubs are all but oblivious to the Cuban musical invasion: "The Cubans are great musicians, they’ve got the feel and the [stuff], but they ain’t saying nothing to me ’cause they don’t play dance music. Nobody over here even knows what timba or songo [the style of more recent Cuban bands like Los Van Van] is, so the kids can’t dance to that [stuff]."

Harlow’s band you can dance to. He is still playing "hard core, ’70s salsa," and boasts instrumentalists like the legendary cuatro player Yomo Toro, along with a hot, 20-something singer. ("He sings very tipico; I’m sure he would much prefer doing Marc Anthony-type romantic salsa, but hey, you’re in my band so you sing what I tell you to sing.") Scullers will have a dance floor cleared, and Harlow adds that there is also plenty to attract a listening audience: "We’re a very visual band. Yomo gets down on the floor and plays upside down. We do some really wild stuff."

And he would not want anyone to get the idea, after his tirade on the Cubans and his comments on salsa romantica, that he is bitter or unhappy with his own situation. He has a children’s record up for a Grammy, he is working on a new opera, he has a teenaged protegee starring in a Broadway show, and he is playing as much as he cares to. "It’s still happening," he says. "I’m still working, I’m still making a living and having a good time."

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Hermanas Ferrin

By Elijah Wald

The invasion of classic Cuban music started by "The Buena Vista Social Club" seems to just keep growing. Thursday night, Eliades Ochoa, the high-energy country singer and guitarist who drove that album’s "Chan Chan" and "El Cuarto de Tula," and whose "Sublime Ilusión" is the standout solo album from the Buena Vista crowd, comes to the Roxy. With him come a pair of Eastern Cuban legends, Las Hermanas Ferrin, the Ferrin Sisters.

Mercedes Ferrin has been singing with her sister Esperanza for as long as she can remember. "We began our art very young," she says, speaking in Spanish from a California tour stop. "We started out learning songs from the radio, and we were always singing in the house. We were not perfect, by any means, because we didn’t know anything about singing, we were very young. But we loved to sing, and later we began to appear at festivals of aficionados."

The Ferrins went professional in 1963, but their lilting, string-driven music harks back to a still earlier era. "That was thanks to the great Eugenio Portuondo, who was our accompanist" Ferrin says. "He is already under the earth these many years, but we still are very grateful to him for taking the interest to teach us all about the traditional music, all the distinct musical genres. He was already old, already 80-something, and he talked about these as numbers from his youth -- just imagine! And these numbers, almost nobody plays them. On the disc we are promoting now ["Mi Linda Guajira," due out in the U.S. this summer], there is a contracanto from that time, ‘Madre Mia,’ and also a criolla."

Ferrin says that it was not common for women to sing the older Cuban styles. "Here in Cuba, there were very few duos like us in traditional music, because I understand that in those times the women were so withdrawn, staying in the house, that very few went into music. And then, successively, we got to know the duo of the Hermanas Martí in Havana, and others, but still very few. But our father helped us very much. He liked to listen to us sing, and he always encouraged us."

The Ferrin’s were very popular in the Casas de la Trova, the government-sponsored venues where traditional musicians gathered to play. Like Ochoa, they are standard-bearers of the guitar-based sound centered in the eastern city of Santiago, a more Spanish and countrified style than that played around Havana. For 30 years, they were among the area’s most popular singers. Then, in the early 1990s, they retired, though the choice was not entirely of their own volition:

"I must say, as a clarification, that traditional Cuban music is complicated," Ferrin explains. "Most of the young musicians did not know the roots of the trova, what a canción is, the contracanto, the barcarola, which are styles of that earlier time, very complicated styles. Eugenio Portuondo, of course, knew all of this, and when he died we got another older accompanist, and he became ill as well and died. After they were gone, we were very uncomfortable, because when they put us with a young person as an accompanist it was not the same. We didn’t feel the musical support that we were used to. And that was a real problem for us. It made us very unhappy, we couldn’t do what we had been doing, it was as if we had to start all over. So that was when we made the decision to retire."

Nonetheless, they kept singing for their own pleasure, and they were overjoyed when Ochoa came to them and proposed that they make a tour of Spain with him. The tour led to the album and further touring. Ferrin says that Ochoa knows how to accompany the styles they love, though his musicians are younger and on this tour they will be singing only guaracha, son and bolero, rather than exploring the more obscure rhythms. She and her sister have been astonished at the reception they have found in Spain and the United States, she says that getting back into music this way is like a dream come true.

"We always had music in our hearts, we never lost the hope of beginning again, that someone would come along," she says. "And then a prince came, where the two Cinderellas were, and brought us out into the world again. That was Eliades Ochoa, and it was a truly a fairy tale."

Now, the sisters are ready to start a second career, and to ride the wave of international appreciation as far as it takes them. "We were very happy to go back to work, back onstage," Ferrin says. "We don’t even know how to express it. Every day we are enjoying it more. We want to communicate our music to the whole world, if possible."

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