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Afro-Cuban All Stars sell out

Stewart Oksenhorn

All things musical and Cuban are gold these days. Witness tonight’s concert at the Wheeler Opera House by the Afro-Cuban All Stars, a band led by Juan de Marcos Gonzlez: The concert sold out well in advance, an unusual accomplishment for any concert in Aspen, and remarkable for a band that has never performed in Aspen before, that is never heard on radio, and has not one name that would be recognizable even to the people attending tonight’s gig.

It has been this way in the world of Cuban music since the 1997 release of “Buena Vista Social Club.” That album, produced by American guitarist Ry Cooder, featured Cuban musicians who were popular in the pre-revolution days, and have been mostly retired, mostly forgotten, since. It became an international best-seller, and has spawned renewed careers for many of the participants.

Those interested in the music but left without tickets can try showing up at the Wheeler before the 8 p.m. gig time; a few tickets are almost always to be found.



Or, try gathering up a few of the many recent Cuban recordings and see why the craze for Afro-Cuban music has taken hold. Here are some suggestions: Afro-Cuban All Stars, “A Toda Cuba le Gusta” and “Distinto, diferente” These are the two releases by the Afro-Cuban All Stars, led by Juan de Marcos Gonzlez. “A Toda Cuba le Gusta” was something of an offshoot of the 1996 sessions for “Buena Vista Social Club,” and utilized many of the same musicians. Playing mostly aged songs from the Cuban tradition, the CD earned a well-deserved Grammy nomination.

It turns out that de Marcos was just warming up. Last year’s “Distinto, diferente” brought together over 50 musicians for a cross-generational updating of the Cuban music tradition. The title itself – “Unique, different” in English – refers to the process younger musicians go through in combining modern musical ideas while maintaining traditions. It works here. Such tunes as the title track (which begins “It’s so hard to see anything original/In these times of imitation”) and “Reconciliacin” swing with a very modern feel, yet build on the rhythms of such traditional forms as son and danzn. “Buena Vista Social Club” The story of the Buena Vista Social Club – of Ry Cooder going to Cuba and rounding up, one by one, elderly Cuban players for a recording session – was well told by filmmaker Wim Wenders in his Oscar-nominated documentary. The music, featuring such old-timers as pianist Rubn Gonzalez and singers Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo, as well as Cooder on guitar, justifies all the attention. The singing on such tunes as “Dos Gardenias” is warm and romantic in a style that is no longer common, but has not grown tired. “Chan Chan,” sung by a chorus of voices, features an unusually dramatic, captivating chord progression. There is a simple magic to this recording. Barbarito Torres, “Havana Cafe” Torres, a guest on “Buena Vista Social Club” and both Afro-Cuban All Stars recordings, is the reigning master of the lad, a 12-string Cuban version of the lute. He rips on the instrument, as he demonstrates throughout this magnificent CD. Torres keeps his playing within the tradition – and within the bounds of the song – on all 14 of the listed tracks. But to see what else Torres is capable of, there is an uncredited tune at the end of track 14 where his soloing goes way outside. Caravana Cubana, “Late Night Sessions” This disc is a twist on the “Buena Vista Social Club Sessions” – it features a group of Los Angeles-based Cuban-American players joining forced with such Cubans as pianist Chucho Valds and flutist Orlando “Maraca” Valle. Los Angeles seems to have a healthy community of Cuban musicians; some tunes feature 15 players. The disc is noteworthy for the very hot percussion section, and the contributions of Bamboleo, a quartet of young vocalists which has become a big thing in Cuban music. Chucho Valds, “Briyumba Palo Congo” Valds, a founder of the ’70s Cuban supergroup Irakere, has been called the most complete pianist in the world. He is, without a doubt, one of the best. Valds, playing in a quartet with bass and two percussionists here, shows plenty of Cuban style, playing an incredibly rhythmic, percussive form of piano on “El Rumbn (The Party)” and the title track. He also shows great interpretive powers on Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Los Van Van, “Llego … Van Van” For over 30 years, Los Van Van, led by bassist Juan Formel and a trio of powerful singers, has been Cuba’s most popular dance band. The band consists of 15 pieces – three trombonists, two violinists and a fleet of percussionists – and they use all that power on this collection of dance-inducing songs.