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Kiki Valera: Vacilón Santiaguero


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Kiki Valera: Vacilón Santiaguero
Son Cubano, the music and dance from the hill country of eastern Cuba, may be a mystery to some readers of these pages. Though the form is rooted in both Spanish and Bantu traditions, its modern day practitioners, embodied and popularized by the music of Buena Vista Social Club, have broadened the music's view. In the United States, particularly in this case, the Pacific Northwest, there are pockets of enthusiasm for Latin music of all sorts. Yet upon attending a performance from a world class Cuban artist such as cuatro master Kiki Valera in Seattle, you will find many in the audience mostly connected to the jazz community. The jazz audience has a passion for Cuban music, whether gathered from African or Spanish origins. The inventive improvisation, call and response and Cuban rhythms speak to the freedom and emotive expression so evident in jazz music.

Valera's story is most interesting indeed. Vacilón Santiaguera (Circleninemusic, 2024) is his second album released as a resident of Seattle, as far away from his native Cuba as one can get in the US. It is an unlikely landing spot for the former director of one of the most influential bands in the history of Son Cubano, La Familia Valera Miranda. His first American release, Vivencias En Clave Cubana (Origin, 2019) featured original compositions from Valera and vocalist Francisco Coco Freeman, a lifelong friend from Santiago de Cuba. His second finds the cuatro master skillfully arranging traditional tunes on the way to joyous, soulful interpretations, embellished by friendships made along the way from Santiago de Cuba to Seattle, USA.

"Este Vacilón," a song written by Kiki's father Felix Valera is the opener, and features the classic stylings of vocalist Carlos Cascante, a metro Seattle resident and vocalist in the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. The music sings, rooted in the percussion of Pedro Vargas and Steve Guasch. Valera's solos are performed on the Cuban cuatro, an eight string guitar sized instrument with four courses of two strings. On this track, one hears both his purely Cuban roots along with the intent of a jazz musician—a trait that he has clearly acquired from his interest in that world of music. His playing is in no way a culture clash—it is Puro Son that is accelerating, gathering elements over the course of living and growing along its path. As an accompanist to vocal parts, or in comping for the scorching array of trumpeters employed on the record, Valera's work is fascinating. His instrument, while possessing the body and full sound of a guitar, is much different from the popular six string instrument when it comes to chords. His harmony work dances through chordal and single note runs, and features fleet and dynamic plectrum work. With all its moving parts, the bass line of the album's twelve tunes seems to neatly subdivide it all, as if gathering and creating order amidst creative chaos.

Valera's reunion with childhood friend Freeman is represented by two tracks—Felix Miranda's "El Aji de Cocina," and the popular bolero, "Dos Gardenias Para Ti." The latter, made famous worldwide by legendary singer Miguel Ferrer, is a familiar tune to international listeners through its recording by Buena Vista Social Club. Freeman's approach to the tune is starkly different from Ferrer's, with Valera's harmony and solo work providing that degree of separation. Freeman tends to sing just behind the beat, giving the tune a different feel from the classic recording of Ferrer. The band plays the tune with a looser handle on the overall cadence employed, far less rigid in form than previous recordings of this classic tune. It allows both Freeman and Valera to fill in the void creatively with added spontaneity. Freeman as a singer is a strong, emotive presence, as always.

Valera delves into the classic Sergio Eulogio Gonzalez Siaba composition, "El Cuarto de Tula," with great intensity. His sweeping chordal passages define the opening verses, with Cascante digging in both melodically and narratively. The upbeat clave provides Valera a perfect space to display his extraordinary skills as a soloist and master of his instrument. While the wildly danceable rhythms of the music may be what initially draws many to it, it is ultimately Valera's playing that appeals most to jazz fans. In the end, it is the degree of separation between this recording, and many equally superb albums within the latin jazz community over decades of time.

An interesting aspect of this record that needs to be mentioned, is the superb trumpet pairings employed. While these are first and second trumpet parts without much solo work, where Valera places them within the arrangements is crucial to the overall dynamics of the music. It is a driving force within the machination of the band. The pairing of Michael Rodriguez and Jonathan Powell's elegant lines within the arrangement of "Muñequita Feliz," including the former's solo, stands out. Northwest Salsa artist Joshuah de Jesus adds his vocals to create a beatific call and response. The duo of Brian Lynch and Thomas Marriott on "Pájaro Lindo" brings a very visual quality to the tune so marvelously presented by vocalist Cascante.

The arrangements by Valera covering classics, some of which are familial, are colorful and jazz influenced much in the same way that his cuatro playing echoes with jazz adventurism beyond the anticipated musical values of Son Cubano. This is a significant accomplishment considering that the majority of the album's songs are Cuban standards and held in a very high place.

When Valera first came upon the cuatro, he became intrigued with the instrument to such a degree that he taught himself to play in a non-traditional way, inventing his own fingerings and tunings. The instrument had a fourth set of strings compared to the traditional Cuban tres, and a unique projectile sound apart from the guitar. It was an adventure for the young Cuban musician who was listening as much to Wes Montgomery, Pat Metheny and Chick Corea as he was to the music his family had pioneered and helped present to the world. Perhaps this is why his jazz sensibilities blend so naturally into the fabric of this marvelous music from the hill country of Cuba. After all, for Valera, it has been an intrepid journey all along.

Track Listing

Este Vacilón; El Ají de Cocina; Sobre una Tumba una Rumba; El Penquito e’ Coleto; Funfuñando; La Guajira; Mari-Juana; Muñequita Feliz; El Empanadillero; Pájaro Lindo; Dos Gardenias; El Cuarto de Tula


Album information

Title: Vacilón Santiaguero | Year Released: 2024 | Record Label: Circle 9 Records




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