various artists,
Congo to Cuba
(Putumayo, 2002)

While Africa and Cuba are quite a distance from each other on the physical map, the musical influence each has had on the other is noticeable and profound. Deep rhythms punctuated with the use of traditional percussive instruments and elements, syncopation and call-and-response styles, link the two disparate worlds.

In Putumayo's Congo to Cuba collection, this is illustrated through songs originating in both Cuba and African nations, showing the relationship between them, and the differences that the fusion of styles have created, as well. The common core of guaguanco, son and guajira musical styles was reflected back from Africa when recordings began to emerge in the 1930s, continuing into some of the songs included in this CD.

For example, "Safiatou" by Mama Sissoko has a very salsa-inspired sound that isn't quite as in-your-face as a Cuban son, but still retains the interpretive conjunto that shows up in a lot of the African music of the time.

Track three is quite a treat, coming from Alfredo Valdes, one of the original patrons of the Buena Vista Social Club popularized in the documentary of the same name. "Canto a la Vueltabajera" is a version that echoes Sissoko's conjunto style, though in a more soulful and quiet way. It's interesting to note that in this fusion piece, the lyrics are all about defending Cuba's culture from outside exploitation and influences -- a strange dichotomy, given the African influence that the song itself holds.

One other interesting fusion track, Pape Fall's "African Salsa," is sung half in Spanish, half in the Sengalese wolof language. Its bouncy feel seems only barely related to the strictly Latin counterpart, having a dance component that's unmistakably from it's African heritage.

In its attempt to be representative of the wide variety of cross-influential African and Cuban styles, Putumayo makes the mistake of being slightly disjointed in this collection. It's my only complaint. As a snapshot of cultural melding, it's a fabulous collection -- but to listen to straight through, at times, the transition between tracks can give pause while your listening mind adjusts. For music teachers, afficianados or lovers of Afro-Cuban music, though, this is a CD well worth picking up.

- Rambles
written by Elizabeth Badurina
published 6 September 2003

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