Willy Chirino: My Beatles Heart

For better or worse, Cuban culture has burst its borders. Like the mirror of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” its fragments have struck multiple eyes and hearts. Cuba is being globalized—and the world, Cubanized.

The fact that many Cuban-born musicians, trained in our country, are spread across the world offers a new challenge to researchers and Cuban music lovers: How to know what one of our artists, now living in Japan or Finland, has recorded in the last decade, or that they are about to release a great record—one that will leave its mark on both Cuban and Latin music in the coming years?

The global spread of Cuban musicians is already changing the face of our music. And it will change the way it is assessed in the future. Cuban music is becoming a dispersed and diffused corpus, whose contours and limits are difficult to pin down.

As a small token of how much is happening in the field of Cuban music, here are a few examples of notable recent discs for Cuban Art News readers.

Willy Chirino: My Beatles Heart (Sony Latin, 2011). The emergence of Cuban-born singer Willy Chirino, who began recording in 1974, was key to the creation of what is known as the “Miami Sound.” Willy’s music perfectly synthesizes the process of hybridization and multiculturalism that has taken place among U.S.-based Cuban musicians, clearly showing the cultural and musical roots of the Miami Sound. The songs in his album Acuarela del Caribe (Sony U.S. Latin, 1989) paint a generational portrait, with its main character—a “typical guy”—being a fan of popular Cuban music but also a “rocanrolero” who follows Jimi Hendrix, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles.

Following Un Tipo Tipico y Sus Exitos (A Typical Guy and His Hits, Sony International, 1992)—which used a fragment of the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”—the latest album is a tribute to the four musicians from Liverpool. In My Beatles Heart, Chirino delves into the Beatles´ repertoire, giving it a salsa—or more accurately, a Cuban—air, remaking these classic tunes into something new. His versions of “Because,” “Come Together,” “Across the Universe,” and other Beatles standards are a striking example of what it means to do a full-fledged cover album—one that is, I might add, a dance album par excellence.

Yaniel Matos: En movimiento (On the Move, Tratore Music Brasil, 2009). Initially trained as a cellist and pianist at the Esteban Salas Conservatory in Santiago de Cuba, Matos studied composition with Harold Gramatges and Jose Loyola. He turned toward popular music, and in the late 1990s joined well-known timba groups in Havana. In 2000, Matos moved to Brazil, and for a time focused on studying and understanding the rhythms and complexities of that country’s music.

Matos’s third album, On the Move, features both Brazilian and Cuban music. Here, we’re faced with a CD that’s labeled instrumental music by some people and smooth jazz by others. In any case, it exemplifies the transnational character of Cuban music nowadays. Pieces such as “Orishas Dance,” “Txai,” “Alegría (Joy),” and “Carnival” show this particular energy emanating from both Santiago de Cuba and São Paulo. And I think therein lies the merit of this CD—that is, the good vibes that make us want to listen.

Israel “Cachao” Lopez: The Last Mambo: The Legend Lives (Sony U.S. Latin, 2011). In the Olympus where names of the all-time greats of Cuban music are inscribed—in big letters—we find Israel “Cachao” Lopez. The eminent composer and bassist, who died in 2008, was part of a generation of musicians in Cuba who starred in a peculiar chapter of the island’s musical history: the so-called descargas, or jam sessions. Cachao was a representative of this genre in the early 1950s, when the LP Cuban Jam Sessions in Miniature was released. It made headlines at the time, and was very important for the future of the Cuban jazz.

Cachao´s posthumous double-disc release, The Last Mambo: The Legend Lives, records the tributes to the artist on Saturday September 22, 2007—his final performance—at the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. The first CD opens with “Marianao Social Club,” an ideal theme for showing off several danzones, recreating the musical scene of the 1940s and ’50s. Also worth mentioning are “Buenaventura” (played by violinist Federico Brito to Cachao’s wife) and “Isora Club,” also orchestrated by Britos.

In the second disc, the track “Descarga Cándido” stands out for its showcasing of conga player Cándido Camero. Also worth remarking: the sensual interpretation of “Dos Gardenias” by Lucrecia, the very Cuban version of “Obsession” with flutist Dave Valentin, violinist Alfredo de la Fe, and Cachao himself on bass, as well as “El Cuarto de Tula” by Isaac Delgado and Hansel. Participants in the tribute also include singers Willy Chirino and Lissette, and the trombonist Jimmy Bosch. Along with the other instrumentalists and the string orchestra that took part in this event, they make this a must-hear contribution to the ongoing Cuban discography.

Julio Fowler: Utopías (Factoría Autor, 2009). The Villa Clara songwriter Julio Fowler belongs to a generation of Cuban artists who for years could not make an album, given the recording industry´s lack of interest toward their work. It wasn’t until this century that Fowler could record his songs in digital format, even though he had already compiled a large and excellent body of music from the 1980s onward (including Alba vendrásLos enmascaradosPon tu corazón, and Fábula del inocente). Many of these albums are still waiting for their fortunes to turn, since their songs are stored only in Fowler’s memory, or the memories of those who discover them from time to time.

In the past decade, Julio has published three CDs: Dale Mambo (Urban Color Music, 2003), Buscando mi lugar (Looking for my place, Factoría Autor, 2006) and Utopías, his latest. With 14 songs, this disc presents Fowler´s ideas about utopia tangentially, using colloquial language and a poetic touch. With an acoustic sound and a lot of guitar, Fowler´s interpretations move from sharp tones to nasal inflections, with judicious use of falsetto thrown in. Utopías has impeccable musical production by José Ramón Mestre, Yuri Wong, and Julio himself, all of them musicians based in Spain..

As for the album, I find the impact of Gema Corredera’s and Pavel Urquiza’s work on “Tienda en Neptuno” (Shop on Neptuno) to be particularly amazing, as it comprises the greater part of the whole album. It is outstanding both in its neo-historicist approach, as it shows a past story dialoguing with the present, as well as in its formidable instrumental and vocal arrangement.

Other outstanding selections include “Se busca” (Wanted), “Bienvenida la locura” (Welcome to the madness), “Si me amas” (If you love me), and “Muros” (Walls), which, along with the rest of the material, make Utopías a highly recommended CD.

This is just a short list, barely scratching the surface, of recent musical productions—fragments of our collective cultural memory—that are currently reaching the farthestmost corners of the world.

Joaquín Borges-Triana (b. Havana, 1962) graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Havana and holds a Ph.D in Art Sciences from the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA ). His publications include Concierto Cubano, La vida es un divino guión (Linkgua Editions S.L.), La luz, bróder, la luz, and Canción Cubana Contemporánea (La Memoria Editions), among others. He is a member of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM) and LASA.