Twelve tracks of peerless post-revolutionary Cuban music.
Andy Fyfe 2009
Just in case you’ve never heard the one about the bass player, here it is: What do you call a musician’s friend? The bass player. Hilarious, eh? But no one told it to Cuban Juan Formell, the bass player who in 1969 lit a spark that fired the belly of his country’s music for two decades.
The story of post-revolutionary Cuban music is just weird. Forgive the history lesson, but the island became a cultural Galapagos after Castro ring-fenced it with an embargo on, among other things, Western music. To keep a population largely press-ganged into backbreaking work on the island’s sugar plantations happy as he strove to make the country financially self-sufficient, Fidel’s ministers effectively nationalised music, putting all professional musicians on the government payroll and sending scores of orchestras out to perform upwards of 300 gigs a year.
The fiscal policy was a disaster, but rather than stifling the musicians this bizarre and unique situation allowed them to hone their virtuosity, forcing them to find new inspiration in their past. Even so, some weren’t entirely ignorant of what was happening elsewhere, and in 1969 Formell formed Los Van Van, fusing pre-Castro charanga with soul and funk. The new ‘songo’ style was a revolution within a revolution, traditional enough for one generation, radical enough for the new, and as others picked up the baton basslines became more elastic, guitars screamed in the background and electric pianos started to make way for synthesisers.
The full story is much more expertly told in the liner notes of this stellar compilation, culled by Austrian DJ and Cuban record collector Tom Wieland from the vaults of the state-owned Egrem studio. Los Van Van are here, of course, alongside highlights by Grupo Irakere (the magnificently psychedelic Quindiambo, which combines surf guitar, a bassline uncannily similar to The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army riff and Pearl & Dean brass) and trombonist Juan Pablo Torres’ Grupo Los Caneyes with their Ernie Isley-like guitarist, to the chortling horns of Algo Nuevo (another Torres project) or Grupo Los Yoyi’s space funk, obscure even in Cuba.
Quite simply, come next summer when you’ve dug out the barbeque and cleaned off the remnants of last year’s charred chicken, mix up some mojitos and stick this on. Then call an ambulance: your guests are about to put their backs out trying to snake their hips around these 12 peerless tracks.