By Noah Hubbell
By Leslie Simon
By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
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By Dave Herrerra
By Josiah M. Hesse
When musical superlatives are dished out, they usually come with qualifiers attached--the greatest rock and roll group, the top hip-hop act, and so on. There's no shame, then, in ACubanismo!, an outfit fronted by brilliant trumpeter Jesœs Alemany, being characterized as the finest traditional Cuban combo on the scene today. But this compliment doesn't do justice to the stunningly ripe but tight interplay between these gifted instrumentalists. From the standpoint of sheer musicianship, ACubanismo! is arguably the best current band of any kind.
Just as surprising as this bold statement is the fact that ACubanismo! didn't develop organically. Rather, it's an all-star ensemble gathered in 1995 to record Jesœs Alemany's ACubanismo!, a CD on Hannibal Records that was originally conceived as a one-shot. But whereas most collectives of this type fail to gel, mainly because artists accustomed to standing alone in the spotlight have tremendous difficulty sharing it, ACubanismo! is more than the sum of its parts--and what parts they are. Supplementing Alemany on ACubanismo!'s most recent salvo, 1998's Reencarnación, are Carlos del Puerto, widely viewed as the finest bassist ever to come out of Cuba, vocalist "Rolo" Martinez, a star in his homeland since the Fifties, percussionist supreme Tata GYines, piano master Ignacio "Nachito" Herrera and more, more, more. Although these players are little known in the States, they're big names in Cuba--and according to Alemany, speaking in heavily accented English, they've all put the music of ACubanismo! ahead of their fame.
"It was a connection between us right away--a feeling, a soul connection," he says. "I think everybody in the band appreciates what we're doing, and everybody enjoys every single part of the music. And that is very important in the music that we play. You can see how the energy's coming through from the band to the audience, and we're all having a good time when we play."
In a sense, ACubanismo! represents the Marxist ideal--a cooperative made up of equals who set ego and self-aggrandizement aside for the common good. Of course, this philosophy requires frequent restrictions on the various members' freedom: The solos that pop up on a thrillingly regular basis are "completely spontaneous and live," Alemany notes, but "when someone is playing solo, the bulk of the instruments are playing the arrangement. This is music that has been conceived and arranged with music parts for everybody, and they have to play the right parts at the right times." The results are so spectacular, however, that the rules don't seem onerous in the slightest.
Alemany is truly a child of the revolution: He was born in Guanabacoa, on the outskirts of Havana, in 1962, a year after John F. Kennedy attempted to undermine the communist regime established in the late Fifties by Fidel Castro with a doomed invasion at the Bay of Pigs. He soon revealed his trumpeting gifts, and when he was just fifteen, he joined Sierra Maestra, a group named for the mountain range where Castro and a dozen of his faithful supporters hid out from forces loyal to despot Fulgencio Batista while planning the takeover of the island. Dominated by students from the University of Havana, Sierra Maestra focused on traditional Cuban sounds, and although the lineup has shifted over time, it continues to thrive to this day: The band's latest disc, Tibiri Tabara, put out by World Circuit/Nonesuch, is as vibrant as ever.
Sierra Maestra wasn't Alemany's sole musical outlet during the next decade and a half; he and pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba collaborated on a jazz act called Prieto, and he participated in a 1979 recording session that matched Cuban musicians with U.S. jazzers from acts such as Weather Report. But the band afforded him the opportunity to see the world beyond Cuba's shores, and during an early Nineties tour of Europe, he saw something even more important to him: the woman of his dreams. His beloved--Lucy Duran, a music producer known for her interest in world music--was a British citizen who didn't want to leave her country, so Alemany asked the decision-makers in Cuba if he could move to London to be with her. That he was given permission might seem shocking to many observers, but not to Alemany.
"When I decided to go there, I did it in a way that was arranged," he says. "And all my papers were done under the rules of the Cuban governent and the rules of the British government. I am not a political exile, so that is why I have the possibility of coming back to Cuba anytime I want to."
After settling in London in 1994, Alemany threw himself into the scene, playing with an acid-jazz combo called Incognito, a salsa group known as La Clave, and Andy Hamilton, a Jamaican saxophonist. He also staged a series of four concerts in France co-starring Paris-based pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and a slew of Cuban musicians skilled in son, a Cuban roots style, and a multitude of its musical relatives: pilon, mambo, guaracha, guajira and the like. The acclaim that greeted these dates attracted the attention of Joe Boyd, the head of Hannibal and a fine producer in his own right--his credits include Richard and Linda Thompson's classic 1982 platter Shoot Out the Lights and R.E.M.'s 1985 effort Fables of the Reconstruction. Boyd soon convinced Alemany and Rodriguez to reunite in a Havana studio with some of their Cuba-based peers and attempt to blow the doors off the joint.