various artists: Cuba Eterno: La Colección Cubana

various artists
Cuba Eterno: La Colección Cubana
Music Club

BEFORE CASTRO CAME along, Cuba was well-regarded as an American tourists' paradise, a reputation solidified during Prohibition when the Batista government's lax policy toward organized crime--especially imported, American organized crime--made the island a haven for illicit good times. During and after World War II, Cuba's long-distance connections with New York and the city's big-band hierarchy and emerging bop scene ran especially deep, making for a constant musical exchange between the two countries, as best heard in Dizzy Gillespie's 1947 Afro-Cubop breakthrough "Manteca." The 1959 revolution and the subsequent U.S. embargo changed all that, halting the then-flourishing exchange between Cuban and American players and forever changing the course of Cuban music and American reception of it as well.

Of course, Cuba's musical activity hardly abated post-Castro; the government subsidized the music industry and gave it pride of place in the national plan. But as with any music forced to grow up in the marketplace--hip hop, say, or jazz during the birth of bebop--there's an urgency in the best pre-revolution Cuban and Afro-Cuban dance music that later stylistic innovations (read: salsa) can't quite match. And this spirit permeates every minute of Music Club's brilliant new compilation of late-'50s and early-'60s classics, Cuba Eterno.

It certainly helps that the album captures some of the finest bands the island has ever produced, on tracks that amount to a greatest-hits tour of the traditional Cuban songbook. Even a song like "Guajira Guantanamera"--one of the most overplayed songs from any country, ever--sounds anything but stale during Grupo Raison's laid-back, modern take. Listening to it is like catching up with a good friend you haven't seen in years.

Similarly, "Babalu" (played here by Caridad Hierrezuelo) has a hard time surviving U.S. listeners' memories of I Love Lucy, but damned if this beautiful, dramatic-yet-restrained version doesn't open you up to the song's power. Similarly, Beny Moré--simultaneously Cuba's "barbarian of rhythm" and its "aristocrat of song"--is as fiery as he is elegant during "Cuando Quieras Volver." But the freshest cut of all might be Orquesta America's 1953 version of Enrique Jorrin's classic "La Engandadora" ("The Cheat"), a classic highlighted by a piquant, almost liquid rhythm section and frisky strings. (The tune was recently recorded by Cuban piano great Ruben Gonzalez for his album Introducing.)

Despite the three-minute limit applied to most of these old 45s, their pace is uniformly stately and unhurried, like the musicians who made them had all the time in the world to get the songs across. Collected here, they present as smart an overview of the era as we could hope for. You might even call them revolutionary.

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