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Various: Festival in Havana

Derek Taylor By

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Back in the heyday of Mose Asch’s Folkways Records in the late 1940s there was a certain academic bent to the collection and preservation of indigenous forms of music. Teams of folklorists, funded by research branches of prominent universities, hit the roads or flew to locales far and wide, ungainly recording apparatuses in tow, in admirable attempts to document what they thought was swiftly disappearing in the wake of modern "progress."

The trend became so pronounced that record store shelves and libraries he nation over were soon well stocked with vinyl copies of their finds, often packaged in plain vanilla wrapping with voluminous notes as to the wheres, hows and whys of the music’s importance. What was often lost in translation, at least on the surface, was the vibrancy and viscerality of the traditions, the sights, smells and other sensory experiences that went along with the sounds. Divorced from their living, breathing contexts, these slices of music sometimes suffered through their ability to only present part of the picture.



Originally funded under the auspices of the Instituto Musical de Investigaciones Folklóricas, this recent Milestone reissue is the product of just such a lineage, but it differs markedly from other scholarly ventures in that the recordings convey an incredible amount of information beyond the purely musical. These are sounds that connect at both the gut and cerebral levels and draw on universal elements to establish solidarity with the listener regardless of his or her ethnicity or background. The energetic polyrhythms and emotive melodies inherent to these traditional Cuban songs cut directly to the quick. Whether it’s Velasco’s anthemically charged trumpet blasting above a roiling sea of vigorously palmed hand percussion, or a chorus of voices chanting fervent political themes over rising and falling cadences, the results are uniformly electrifying.



Pieces like “El Barracón” build from boisterous vocal harmonies and a constantly driving beat further accentuated by the punchy brass sorties from Velasco’s upraised brass bell. Chano Pozo’s “Siento un Bombo,” a piece originally scripted as the legendary conguero’s signature song, receives a stunning reading replete with soaring trumpet and many-layered rhythm-vocal counterpoint. There are also lilting ballad tunes on hand like “Consuelate Como Yo” and “Donde Estabas Anoche,” which feature the soothing lead pipes of Carlos Embale backed by a small army of compatriots who echo his hopeful sentiments atop a bed of slowly percolating conga and coro drums.

Throughout the thirteen cuts, rhythm reigns supreme. Shoulders are set to swaying, feet to tapping and fingers to snapping by the infectious rhythmic variations. Somehow the drummers seem able to balance incredibly tight and attentive interplay with an overarching looseness that leavens any sense of stress or tension in their interactions. It’s a dichotmous feat that is but one of the set’s many wonders.



My only complaint is that the disc clocks only to the original album’s running time of just over forty minutes. Where are the outtakes and unused songs? With so much involving music to savor, it’s impossible to resist not wanting more.



Visit Milestone on the web.


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