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 Jess 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 Jess 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.
They did. ACubanisimo!, issued in America in early 1996, collects ten dance tracks whose vitality could have saved Dr. Frankenstein a lot of juice. "Descarga de Hoy" opens the disc with guaracha-son rhythms and a stabbing brass arrangement that's as hot as a solar flare, and it's followed by a seductive rumba, "Meta y Guaguanco," a sly cha-cha-cha number dubbed "Aprovecha," and "Ahora Me Voy," a wild conga. Most of the selections are longtime Cuban favorites, and even originals like the scintillating Alemany/Hilario Duran composition "Tumbao de Coqueta" (the title translates to "Flirtation Riff") call upon the past for inspiration. Yet they sound fresh to American ears, Alemany believes, because official restrictions against all things Cuban, which have been in place in the U.S. since the Sixties, have prevented the music from being widely heard since the days of ducktails and bobby socks.
"How can I say that the boycott has had any positive effect?" Alemany asks. "I don't think it has had any positive effect at all. There has been nearly a forty-year isolation of our music. But the Cuban music, and the roots of the Latin music, have a lot of important history, a lot of important moments, and the popularity of the Cuban music now is proof that people have been hungry for it." He adds, "There is a generation of people that have not gotten a chance to hear the Cuban music. People from the older generation--some of them know the Cuban music and love the Cuban music. But for the younger generation, it's something completely new--and that's why there is the reaction and the popularity."
The response to ACubanismo! was immediate and enthusiastic: The disc vaulted into the top ten on Billboard's tropical/salsa chart and left reviewers slack-jawed. As a result, Alemany and company junked plans to leave ACubanismo! behind and embarked on another recording project. Malembre, from 1997, more than met expectations. "Mulence," a rumba variation with lead vocals by Fernando Ferrer Rodriguez, overflows with undiluted passion; "Montuno Alegre" shows how spicy the son montuno subgenre can be; and "Malembre" is a ten-minute sashay through the Afro-Cuban style. With a greater emphasis on singing and new tunes (three of the nine tracks were penned by Alemany), the album is proof that sonic archaeology need not be dry and bookish. Indeed, there's nothing even slightly musty about Malembre.
Because Alfredo Rodriguez opted out of ACubanismo! last year in order to concentrate on an album of his own, Reencarnación presented a challenge for Alemany--but no strain is apparent when the CD is playing. If anything, the offering is the band's most dynamic to date. The horn section on "Mambo UK" is so luminous that it could serve as a nightlight; the guaracha "El Paso de Encarnación" sports dancing piano, an elegant vocal by Ferrer and the flighty flute of Orlando Valle; and "ADónde Esta Cotó?" is a gruff changYi that suggests a Cuban version of the blues. In Alemany's view, such variety reflects ACubanismo!'s growth. "I think the whole thing has been extended," he says. "The range of the music that we play is more wide. That is the biggest possibility, the biggest idea--to let the new generations watch and let them know why we need to keep the music alive."
ACubanismo!'s rising profile has not occurred in a vacuum. The Buena Vista Social Club, a Cuban project overseen by guitarist/amateur musicologist Ry Cooder, became a left-field smash in 1997 and spawned a documentary by German filmmaker Wim Wenders, and Latin-flavored pop by the likes of Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez has kept cash registers ka-chinging. As someone who tries to resurrect Latin musical forms rather than water them down, Alemany would seem likely to despise the latter trend. But while he's careful to emphasize that Latin music is far more varied than many Americans understand ("We're talking about the cumbia from Colombia, the merengue from Santo Domingo, and many more"), he finds much to cheer in the phenomenon.
"Ricky Martin or Gloria Estefan are very popular now, and so are we," he points out. "That's why we want to put out the music in a way that's a communal thing, a communal idea--a big idea relating back to all of this music. The audience is connecting to the Latin music, music with Latin roots, and whether it is pop music or more traditional music, the message at the end of the day to the Anglo-Sax community is to enjoy our music and appreciate the roots of the Latin people."
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To that end, ACubanismo! is presently embroiled in what's being touted as the largest tour ever by a Cuban act--and the jaunt has not been without its obstacles. For instance, the group missed a showcase at March's South by Southwest festival in Austin when a paperwork delay involving two new bandmembers caused the musicians to miss their flight--a situation that exasperated Alemany. "They needed to get a criminal clearance from the FBI and to prove that they are musicians," he says. "And obviously they are musicians. They have been playing in our band, and they are on our latest CD." But there have also been tremendous highs, including a concert that preceded an exhibition baseball game between the Cuban national team and the Baltimore Orioles at Baltimore's Camden Yards stadium.
The Cubans won that contest, and in many ways, Alemany did, too. No one would blame him for complaining about having to wait so long to bring the music of ACubanismo! to the land of the free and the home of the brave, but he's too politically savvy for that. Instead of talking about the bad old days, he stresses how good the new ones are.
"There are a lot of opportunities for Cuban musicians to come here now, and the people are welcoming them," he says. "I'm very happy it's happening now. And I think it will get better."
AT&T LoDo Music Festival, with They Might Be Giants, the Iguanas, Violent Femmes, the Bodeans, Beau Jocque, Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys, Cowboy Mouth, Wanda Jackson, ACubanismo! and Tiny Town. Friday and Saturday, July 16-17, 20th and Blake streets, $12-$15, two-day pass $22, 303-825-4849.