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Michele Rosewoman: A Celebration of Cuba in America

Harry S. Pariser By

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Picking up a copy of Michele Rosewoman's New Yor-Uba , the high quality sleeve design and liner notes prepare one for the wonderful music to be found within.

This extraordinary two-CD set has both a history and legacy behind it. Born in 1953 in Oakland, California, Rosewoman migrated to New York City more than three decades ago. Once there, she first connected with the musicians with whom she would eventually collaborate on this CD. The collaboration's first incarnation was New Yor-Uba: A Musical Celebration of Cuba in America, which took place at Manhattan's Public Theater on December 12, 1983. Sadly, this band was not documented in its original configuration; since then, the music has been gestating, growing and changing, and this multilayered musical tapestry is the result.

Produced by British-born jazz guitarist Liberty Ellman and Rosewoman, the two discs hold fourteen solid traditional tunes, from the introductory "Divine Passage" to the concluding "Earth Secrets." The fourteen musicians (thirteen on most tracks, with Chanell Crichlow adding a second tuba on "Where Water Meets Sky," include two heroes of contemporary jazz, both longtime Rosewoman associates: Howard Johnson, heard here on baritone sax and tuba; and Oliver Lake, on soprano and alto saxophones, and flute. As she maintains in the centerfold statement: "I have spent a lifetime immersing myself in these [contemporary jazz and Cuban folkloric musics]" and "The batá drums hold, to those who believe, divine power." Elsewhere, Rosewoman tells us: "The cantos (chants) are in the Yoruba and Arara languages. (For example, while "Natural Light/Obatala" and "Obalube/Chango" are in Yoruba, "Dance for Agayu" and "Earth Secrets/Babaluaye" are in the Arara dialect.) The songs are generally songs of praise to the various deities. They always consist of a sequence of songs in a particular order that are accompanied by specific rhythms and transitions."

Rosewoman plays lush piano; congas often serve as counterpoints to the horns and there are many memorable interactions between the vocalists and other musicians. What is remarkable about the set is the lush, voluptuous layering of sounds, as if one were interred in a gilded mansion of sound. Here is a tour through the two CDs, assisted by some quotes from the bandleader. Rosewoman describes the opening "Divine Passage (Eleggua)" as "an energetic ballad where .... the horns, as written, create a vision of an arched entrance that we all step through. The ending is a rubato chorus of voices and rhythm section floating on a cloud of percussion."

The horn-free "Dance For Agayu," with its rhythmic, joyful sequence of arara melodies, includes interactions between Rosewoman and the batá. The funky "Natural Light (Obatala)," which incorporates traditional batá rhythms allows Freddie Hendrix to stretch out on trumpet.

The orchestral and instrumental "Por Ahora y Para Siempre" brings out the best of Oliver Lake on soprano. Rosewoman describes the tune as "veering in classic Lake manner from sheets of sound to moving lyricism." She goes on to say that it "also offers a batá feature that provides an opportunity to hear the mastery of the percussionists and the depth of the unaccompanied drums as played traditionally." The funky "Vamp for Ochun" is followed by "Old Calabar," which Rosewoman describes as "one of my favorites. It took its own course in the studio." With "Rezos A Ochun," Rosewoman "purposely avoided making any harmonic or structural decisions as to how I would pianistically accompany the traditional melodies I sing here. This one is totally different every time. [Batá player] Abraham Rodriguez punctuates with a counter melody and it becomes a vocal duet over solo piano. You can hear the special quality of Abe's voice—an ever so natural singer."

After all of that, there's a second disk to play. "In Praise of Spiritual Guides (Eggun)" comes in strong on the horns before turning into a ballad. Rosewoman maintains that "the interaction between percussion section, rhythm section and soloists is just what I strove for conceptually."

"Perdon," a lovely Pedro Flores composition, follows. Rosewoman maintains that, "When I heard this recorded by the renowned Yoruba Andabo}} [a prominent folkoric group from Cuba, from where [batá player and congero] Roman Diaz hails] in what was a pure rumba setting, I felt compelled to arrange it for New Yor-Uba. It features a beautiful vocal duet between Pedrito and Abraham as well as tenor, piano and trumpet solos."

"Obalube (Chango)" features piano, bass, batá drums and vocals and solos by Rosewoman and Lake. Then it's "Where Water Meets Sky (Yemaya)" featuring Rosewoman on Fender Rhodes. She maintains that, "The ending of this song is probably my favorite part of the recording, where the ensemble surrounds the mystery of the batá and chants with uplifting energy and color and the batá take us home."

The mini-suite of "Agua Dulce Del Bosque (Ochun)" follows with standout performances by Oliver Lake on soprano sax and Howard Johnson, who pumps his tuba.

"Warrior (Guerreros)," another instrumental vamp, is followed by the last (but hardly least) number of "Earth Secrets (Babaluaye)," a tune brought by Orlando "Puntilla" Rios, the late vocalist and conga player who was Rosewoman's mentor, when he arrived from Cuba in 1980. There is, again, some tremendous tuba work from Johnson.

A Celebration of Cuba in America will appeal to those interested in Cuban folkoric music, or enjoy funk, salsa or jazz (or any combination of the above). The NPR Jazz Critics Poll has chosen it as its number one Latin Jazz CD for 2013, and more (well deserved) acclaim is most certainly on the way.

Track Listing: Divine Passage (Eleggua) [Paseo Divino]; Dance for Agayu; Natural Light (Obatala) [La Luz Natural]; Por Ahora Y Para Siempre (For Now and Forever); Vamp for Ochun; Old Calabar (Abakua); Rezo a Ochun (Prayer for Ochun); In Praise of Spiritual Guides (Eggun) [Elogio De Las Guias Espirituales]; Perdon (Rumba); Obalube (Chango); Where Water Meets Sky (Yemaya) [Donde Agua Resuelve Al Cielo]; Agua Dulce Del Bosque (Ochun) [Sweet Forest Water]; Warrior (Ochosi); Earth Secrets (Babaluaye) [Secretos De La Tierra].

Personnel: Michele Rosewoman: piano, Fender Rhodes, vocals; Pedrito Martinez: lead vocals, batá, congas; Freddie Hendrix: trumpet, flugelhorn; Oliver Lake: soprano and alto saxophones, flute; Mike Lee: tenor saxophone, flute; Vincent Gardner: trombone; Howard Johnson: tuba, baritone saxophone; Roman Diaz: batá, congas, vocals; Abraham Rodriguez: batá, congas, vocals; Daniel Carbonell: batá; Yunior Terry: acoustic bass; Adam Cruz: drums; Nina Rodriguez: vocals.

Title: A Celebration of Cuba in America | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Advance Dance Disques

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