They remain a vital force in a music that still symbolises Cuba.
Colin Irwin 2010
Over three decades since they first began reviving the classic son music so popular in Cuba in the 1920s, Sierra Maestra prove they remain a vital force in a music that still somehow symbolises the island.
Long before he teamed up with Ry Cooder to give Cuban music overwhelming international cache with the Buena Vista Social Club, Juan de Marcos González was updating the son tradition with both flair and guile in Sierra Maestra and, while González disappeared from that particular equation years ago, his legacy marches triumphantly on.
Five original members – Carlos Puisseaux, Alberto Valdés, Luis Barzago, Eduardo Himely and Alejandro Suárez – are present and correct to provide the atmospheric heartbeat on a deliciously warm and sensual collection that also enthusiastically embraces the new, with Emilio Ramos proving himself an inspirational occupant of Juan de Marcos González’s former role, playing tres. As you’d expect from their history, this is intoxicatingly rhythmic and gloriously romantic music, but they also have youth in the ranks now. This shines through on a largely contemporary range of material which wields a welcome capacity to surprise, whether in the stirring variant on the guaracha style of Angel Bonne’s La Mulata Presumida or the unexpectedly free-form instrumental extravaganza unleashed on Sangre Negra, the one time they might be accused of indulgence.
Their legendary singer José Antonio Rodríguez (Maceo) died in 2005, but they seem to have unearthed another star in the big, bold vocal style of Jesús Bello, who is equally majestic on both the sentimental Bendito Hechizo and the spiritual Un Toque de Bembé, sharing the rest of the vocals with veterans Luis Barzága and Virgilio Valdés, who maintain a characteristically relaxed feel. Yet it’s an ever-present sense of joy designed to put a smile on your face which defines an album highlighted by regular, uplifting blasts of trumpet and the constant overload of urgent percussion guaranteed to keep the feet tapping.
A band who can shrug off personnel upheavals and the vagaries of music fashion to keep developing while holding steadfastly to the traditions and values that drove them in the first place is either lucky or shrewd. Sierra Maestra may just be both.