various artists,
The Rough Guide to Afro-Cuba
(World Music Network, 2001)

If you have a burning urge to get up out of your seat and dance madly around the room, there is nothing better than Afro-Cuban rhythms. Drawing from a rich and diverse musical history, the songs on this compilation are often just as diverse in feel, but one basic thread runs through the whole compilation: a beat that doesn't quit.

Both African and Cuban music share a common ancestry. Originating in Africa and falling heavily into the deep and winding drumbeats of that region, the music was carried to Cuba during the slave trades. From there, it's grown through the indigenous peoples into something that the scientists would use as a prime example for the common evolution theory -- the styles are still relatively similar despite distance and an exclusionary cultural isolation.

This album, though showcasing a full range of the Afro-Cuban sound, is far from the old days of Ricky Ricardo and his orchestra. The tracks have been chosen to illustrate both the connections between the two cultures and the descendants of the pairing. For instance, track 3, "Trovador" by Africando (random fact: "Africando" means "Africa Reunited"), is a combination of both African (Senagalese) and Cuban musicians working on the same tune. It's a little more raw than the two previous tracks, showing the new direction that Afro-Cuban music is pushing into. In contrast, track 4, "Rumba Makossa" by Cuarteto Patria and Manu Dibango, is a more classicly integrated track, performed by one of Cuba's most well-known son groups -- groups that originated in Havana in the 1920s that have a stronger Spanish influence. (Groups like the Afro-Cuban All-Stars fall into the realm of son bands, for instance.)

There is a cohesive feel to this collection. The people at Rough Guides did a fabulous job of picking and arranging the tracks so that they have a very smooth transition from traditional to contemporary, weighing in from the mostly-African tracks and sliding neatly into the stronger Cuban influences. For someone that's new to the genre, this would be a great place to start learning about this sound. It's so comprehensive that, after listening, you could easily head into your local record store and find more music in a style that's to your liking -- and if not, you'd know the right questions to ask the store clerks, which is always a good thing.

One of the best parts of this collection is the accompanying booklet, especially for a newcomer. Starting from the early days of the Afro-Cuban sound, it lays out the evolution of the contemporary tracks in a concise, easy-to-read format that can definitely pique the interest of the uninitiated.

That is, of course, not to downplay the music itself. One listen-through got me hooked, which is no small feat. I usually need a few listening sessions to let it sink in, but not here. By the third track, I was dancing while cleaning the house, and by the fifth track, I had collapsed on the couch just to listen and read the booklet.

If you've been interested in this genre before, but weren't sure where to start looking for the style that you like, pick up The Rough Guide to Afro-Cuba.

Just make sure you've got your dancing shoes on.

[ by Elizabeth Badurina ]
Rambles: 29 September 2001

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