It seems appropriate to start off a column about odds and ends of recent Latin releases with the Buena Vista Social Club's latest, "Lost and Found," since it is a bit of yard sale of an album.
The loose amalgam of Cuban musicians brought together for the original project in 1996 is still a heart-warming rags-to-riches story. The Buena Vista project, which actually was a serendipitous Plan B when another project fell through, tapped several long-forgotten Cuban musicians, and shot to fame powered by several wonderful retro albums and a picturesque documentary that showcased the personalities of the players as much as their talents.
Today, several of the elderly performers have passed on to that great jam session in the sky, but a reconstituted group soldiers on under the continued direction of Juan de Marcos Gonzalez.
Producer Nick Gold, for whatever reasons, went into the vault and assembled this album of unreleased studio and live cuts. While I was suspicious that this was going to be a collection without much reason to be released, the surprise is that the album is so strong and satisfying.
On the opening cut, "Bruca Manigua," the nostalgia rolls forth in multiple waves, for the band members, for the old music, for all of our salad days, for an era that seems lost in its simplicity. After a lone saxophone starts in front of a live audience, the big band brass blows in, bringing with it black-and-white visions of the long-gone ballrooms of Havana, moving at a leisurely pace that the world today can barely abide. When the wiry gray-haired singer Ibrahim Ferrer walks on stage, the audience cheers join the swells of nostalgia. Suddenly the "Lost" of the title seems to refer to lost treasures that we may have let slip through our fingers as we grabbed for a fleet-footed future.
Two cuts later, another unexpected star of the Buena Vista phenomenon, Omara Portuando, evokes the elegant nightclub torch singer on a sultry version of "Tiene Sabor" - presiding over the sinewy, glowing percussion-driven groove with a masterly sense of when to play on and off the ineluctable clave beat.
Elsewhere, these old Cuban chums continue to charm. The sly dexterity of septugenarian pianist Ruben Gonzalez, tickling the audience through the ivories, works his magic amid the big band tune "Bodas de Oro" and with a lovely solo turn on "Como Siento Yo."
A nice surprise is "Black Chicken 37," a violin solo by the late Pedro Depestre flying low over a swirl of understated simmering percussion.
The rural guitar and baleful singing of Eliades Ochoa is featured on two nice cuts, apparently recorded late at night after other musicians had left Havana's Egrem studio. Ochoa was a bit of an outlier with the Buena Vista pre-salsa big band sound, but here adds a nice variety to the overall album.
For a real look back, there's Abelardo Barroso's Cha Cha Cha, which was recently released by World Circuit, the label behind the Buena Vista Social Club. The album is a re-mastering of 14 songs of the 1950s phase of Barroso's singing career. He emerged as a huge Cuban sensation in the 1920s, then re-emerged in the 1930s, but eventually faded from popularity, barely scratching out a meager living.
With the cha cha cha movement rising in Cuba, Barroso - dubbed the "Cuban Caruso" - joined Orquesta Sensacion formed by a former bandmate and once again rode to the top of the charts.
This recording solely looks at this third and last chapter of Barroso's success. The remastering cleans up the tracks well and Barroso's vocals retain their charm and dexterity, even if the recordings lack the depth of a modern productions. These short cuts have an assured swing and a stately sound of charanga bands, which feature violins and flute.
A couple of generations later, we have Congo-born Ricardo Lemvo, who has been creating some instantly likeable dance music that jumps back and forth between Africa and the Americas. California-based, Lemvo and his band Makina Loca seamlessly go from contemporary salsa to West African soukous to the stately Congolese rumba. On his latest, La Rumba SoyYo on Cumbancha, Lemvo applies his silky vocals to brightly played groove after groove.
With its nonstop polyrhythmic beats and silvery soukous-style guitar work, Lemvo aims his music directly at the dancefloor. The arrangements keep shifting over the steady uplifting rhythms, giving listeners something to sink their teeth into as they move.
The Buena Vista Social Club's "calling card" song: "Chan Chan"
Pianist Ruben Gonzalez
Ricardo Lemvo from his latest