Cuban Essentials 

Hot music for a cold winter

Even though we have months of icy temperatures ahead of us, let's pretend we're in a warmer climate. Turn up the heat to around 80 degrees, put on some Bermuda shorts, flip-flops and a Guayabera shirt, make yourself a Cuba Libre, turn on all the lights and load the CD player with one or more of the CDs in this (and next) year's hottest music collection, Cuban Essentials.

Recently, Escondida Music began sifting through Cuba's musical history and Cuban recording giant EGREM's library of music and what it found was a wealth of songs. EGREM began building their music library back in the '40s and when in the late '90s, Ry Cooder traveled to EGREM's vintage-styled studio, he recorded with a Cuban co-op of musicians who called themselves the Buena Vista Social Club. While embargoes kept many of Cuba's national products from coming into America, with the help of Cooder, the BVSC's music transcended all barriers and became part of the American music canon. The 10 CDs that make up Cuban Essentials, the first of which was released in May of this year and the last of which is scheduled for release in June of next year provides listeners with a generous taste of the music of Cuba.

The first CD released in the set (May 2005) is Ibrahim Ferrer's Ay, Candela. Ferrer, known for his smooth, aged voice, lends his rich pipes to a collection of 14 songs. The liner notes on the CD, written by Sigfredo Ariel, sum up Ferrer's voice in Ferrer's own words: "He [Ferrer] said that he has a natural voice with a tenor that identifies it with the flavor of the rum of Eastern Cuba." Just try to listen to this CD without dancing. You can't.

The second CD in the collection (June 2005) is Ruben Gonzalez's Momentos. This CD showcases Gonzalez's piano skills and improvisational talent. Gonzalez, a shy, quiet man, had originally planned to go to medical school. He dropped out, but knew he would do something with his hands. It was on piano keys that he found his destiny.

CD number three, Sentimiento (July 2005) is an amazing contribution by singer Omara Portuondo. Her voice expresses feeling and emotion in each song as though it is the last one she'll ever sing. The first song on the CD, "Verdad Amarga" ("Bitter Truth"), is so heartfelt, that even without knowing so much as a word of Spanish, the listener easily understands that this is a song of love and heartbreak. Portuondo sings ballads, jazz standards, boleros, sones, guarachas, rumbas and more.

Compay Segundo's El Compadre Again (September 2005) is a grouping of pure dance music. Born in 1907 as Maximum Francisco Repilado, Segundo's music was all Cuba and his sones and guaraches are world famous. In 2000, he even played his famous "Chan Chan" for Pope John Paul II, who had requested a performance by Segundo. The version of "Chan Chan" on this CD is one of the best tracks in the entire collection.

Eliades Ochoa's A La Casa De La Trova (September 2005) is the fifth CD in the collection to be released and his renditions of trova, sones, guarachas and guajiras have been "wildly popular" in and around Cuba for many years. Brought up in the fields of Mayari in Eastern Cuba, his family taught him to play the music of the Cuban countryside. He is known for his lovely guitar playing and a gentle, sweet voice that sometimes verges on falsetto.

Chucho Valdes and his Virtuoso (November 2005) is the next flavor in this Cuban stew of CDs. Valdes has been referred to as "born attached to a piano" and it seems to come as natural to him as breathing. His playing is soft yet passionate and this CD would be a wonderful backdrop for a dinner party with friends or a quiet evening curled up in front of the fireplace with a good book.

The next four CDs in the collection are as terrific as the first six. Juan Formell y Los Van Van and their Por Encima del Nivel (scheduled for January 2006 release) is irresistible dance music with a grittier, more updated sound than on some of the other dance tunes in the collection. Songs like "Aqui El Que Baila Gana" have chord variations and instrumentation not found in the songs on the other CDs. You can never have too much cow bell.

Benny More's Ritmo (scheduled for a February 2006 release) is just that: rhythm, pure and simple. These are big band songs written like musical epics. Any extravagant dance scene in a movie could very well be set to More's music. Listening to this CD, you will be transported back to a simpler time where you can imagine yourself twirling across a dance floor.

Irakere treats listeners to a retro sound with Bacalao con Pan (scheduled for March 2006 release). Fun fact: Irakere is credited with having Cuba's first disco hit. The songs on the CD are replete with horns, percussion and piano and are all thouroughly danceable. Songs like "Xiomara" and "Guayo De Catalina" have salsa sounds and rhumba rhythms that would make for great party music. And, last but certainly not least, is Guantanamera (scheduled for June 2006 release). It is a collection by various artists and rounds the entire Cuban Essentials out perfectly.

The music in this must-have collection is incomparable and the CD covers themselves (designed by are little works of art, each one delightfully portraying the musical artist whose music you'll find inside in bright, warm colors. This really is a hot, hot gathering of music that will be an impressive addition to any CD library.

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