POP / Cuban healing

As Cuba's old guard reoccupy the Latin scene, Andy Garcia finds himself in a Peter Gabriel role. Philip Sweeney reports
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The Independent Online
If the mega-sellers of the Latin world are bland, MTV-friendly balladeers and rockers like the American Jon Secada and the Mexican Selena, a healthy and powerful substrand continues to revolve around the great stylists of the past, usually Cuban.

A parallel development exists both in the Latin US, which 99 per cent of Cuban musicians are still prohibited from visiting, and on the beleaguered mother island. I had a drink recently with Marcos Gonzalez, leader of the Havana group Sierra Maestra, just before he left for a month playing what he dismissed as ``musica de sopa'' - soup music, background for diners - at the Holiday Inn, Dubai. Sierra Maestra's flourishing international career - everywhere but in the USA - is benefiting from Castro's economic and travel liberalisation, though Gonzalez claims that Cubans get paid less than other Latin bands because of their lack of promotional and business clout.

Sierra Maestra's success is built on their expert recreation, starting as Havana University students in 1977, of the classic son style of the great founding sextets and septets of the 1920s and 1930s, particularly the Septeto Nacional of Ignacio Pineiro. They were in London to promote their new British CD, Dundunbanza, which moves the focus forward to the 1940s and 1950s, and the equally seminal figure of the blind bandleader and composer Arsenio Rodriguez, who died in poverty in California after making some of the most influential music of the mambo era. ``When we started,'' Gonzalez said, ``a lot of the old soneros were still around, but only playing in community halls or old people's homes. We learnt directly from members of the Septeto Nacional. Now there are a number of young groups - Raison, Septeto Granma, Septeto Juvenil - following our example.''

In addition to the new generation, however, the wide lapelled sports jackets, stubby cigars and gnarled bongoceros fingers of the old guard are increasingly on view, brought out of retirement or obscurity by an avid new public. At the fashionable Tuesday Latin night at Paris' 1920s dancing beneath La Cuopole, the young French big band Mambomania is fronted by Oscar Lopez, a 73-year-old Cuban veteran of the cha-cha and mambo days of New York. In Seville this summer, a half dozen octogenarian Cuban soneros jammed with local flamenco singers in an encuentro organised by the rock star Juan Perro, leading light of the great Spanish rediscovery of Latin music.

One of the finest come-back artefacts yet appeared in Miami in March in the form of a new CD, Master Sessions Volume 1, by Israel ``Cachao'' Lopez, the 76-year-old Havana-born bassist, composer and bandleader. The record, released in the UK next week, is currently number six in Billboard's Latin music charts and is a vital component of the mambo-laddered Christmas stockings of all Latin music lovers.

Cachao's comeback received much impetus from a star sponsor: in this case, the Juan Perro/ David Byrne/ Peter Gabriel role was filled by the film actor Andy Garcia, who moved with his music-loving lawyer-father from the small town of Bejucal, Cuba to Miami Beach, Florida in 1961 at the age of five. Latterly Garcia has been investigating his roots, and a meeting with Cachao at a jazz festival in San Francisco led him to arrange on film a high-profile come-back concert by the great artist, and then to produce Cachao's first record for about 10 years. Garcia has got as much media coverage as his elderly protege out of the affair, with an unstoppable flow of Latin luvvie eulogies: ``Cachao is the Mozart of Cuba . . . he's turned music on its heels twice this century.'' It's worth noting, however, that apart from flawless production work, the actor contributes some interesting moments to the record, notably a strangely effective half-shouted adaptation of a Lorca poem to the conga, El Alcalde, in memory of his father.

Garcia is not the only influential Cuban exile behind the Cachao comeback. The Master Sessions album is one of two debut releases by a new Miami record label, Crescent Moon, started earlier this year by Emilio Estefan, husband and producer of Gloria, whose own 1993 ``roots'' album, Mi Tierra, still selling by the truck-load, is one of the most successful Latin albums of all time. ``I want this label to become like a Latin Tamla Motown,'' Estefan said. ``We're going to be eclectic soul, rock, salsa, dance - but we're in no hurry - only real, thorough quality projects . . and Cachao is one of the greatest.''

Watching a video of the two dozen musicians at work - world class soloists like clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera, trumpeter Alfredo ``Chocolate'' Armenteros and tres guitarist Nelson Gonzalez - you can see how. Cachao scribbles scores prolifically in red biro, tearing off staves of music to hand to the soloists, who respond like thoroughbred racehorses.

Eminent Afro-Cuban vocalist Lazaro Galarraga runs through a religious chant in one take, a Los Angeles classical string section slips the sprightly violin figure into one of the beautiful early 20th-century danzones that are among the record's most outstanding elements. Cachao, Havana's Symphony bassist in the 1930s, co-inventor of the mambo in the 1940s, and of the descarga (Latin jam session) in the 1950s, salsa session stalwart in the 1970s and all-purpose nightclub, wedding and barmitzvah player since, is clearly at peak performance. - Sierra Maestra's `Dundunbanza' was released on World Circuit last week. Cachao's `Master Sessions Vol 1' is out next week on Crescent Moon/ Epic.