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Cachao - Ahora Si!

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Artist: Cachao

Album: Ahora Si!

Label: Univision

Review date: Oct. 19, 2004

When Hollywood actors find their careers on hiatus (the same way Al Gore and Color Me Badd’s careers are “on hiatus”) the world becomes a more dangerous place: Left to roam the streets of Burbank, Andy Garcia has for several years been quietly blowing his When A Man Loves A Woman money on a series of musical projects centered around his admiration for famed Cuban bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez. Apparently not content to use his influence to find Cachao a decent distribution deal or commercial publishing engagements, Garcia has dedicated CineSon (combining the Spanish “cine,” ostensibly “cinema,” and “son” or “sound” to make a new word that translates as “vanity project”), a record label/production company, to professing his own love for (and connection to) Cachao and his music.

In an era during which the gifted paupers of the Buena Vista Social Club hit their stride and achieved a success far beyond what Cuba could hope to offer under the duress of the US embargo, Cachao probably didn’t need Garcia’s co-branded shout out. One would be hard-pressed to find a more qualified musical pedigree: Descended from a lineage that includes anywhere from 35 to more than 100 bassists, Cachao began playing music at the age of 8, played for danzon (the colonial-influenced dance music) ensembles in the early part of the 20th century, and revolutionized Cuban popular music with his brother Orestes Lopez when they introduced the mambo rhythm before names like Perez Prado and Tito Puente had found their way into the popular lexicon. At its best, Ahora Si! gives listeners the opportunity to hear a master musician, arranger, and soloist in a setting constructed specifically as a showcase for his talent. At its worst, it sometimes sounds like the musical equivalent of rotisserie baseball, so rife with talent and “executive producers” that someone forgot to bring the soul.

The exciting things about mambo, like it’s Congo-derived attitude and the ostinato punch of band members playing the montunos in tight unison, get buried beneath the gloss and ambition of the corporate fan letter that is Ahora Si!. Garcia, er, Cachao has assembled an arm-long list of masters for this recording, including salsa-session heavy and bandleader Jimmy Bosch on trombone, singer Lazaro Gallaraga (an accomplished singer and bata drummer in the lukumi tradition,) trés player Nelson Gonzalez, and Orestes Vilato, one of Cuba’s finest timbale players, as well as several others.

The album begins, inexplicably, with a spoken introduction that may very well be the Afro-Cuban equivalent of “the rap skit,” simply to let listeners know they are about to hear the master Cachao perform in his element, and slides awkwardly into “Mambo cambio el swing,” or “Mambo changed it’s swing.” Nelson Gonzalez’s trés walks listeners into the rhythm optimistically, yet the melody introduced by Gonzalez is quickly drowned out by the entire band. Barely shifting gears (the tempo of Cachao’s mambo is not nearly as hot as folks expect), the group lumbers into “Queja Africana / Protesta Abakua,” where the struggle between the colonialized danzon roots of Cachao’s beginnings, and the fiercely African influence on the rhythm of modern Afro-Latin music, bubbles to the surface, shedding light on just how difficult it is to capture the energy of what Cachao brings to the table. Almost deceptively Iberian, the Gallaraga sings plaintively in the opening section of “Queja Africana,” channeling the despair of an African slave in the new world:

“When I came from Africa I brought my shells
The Spaniards brought me on a caravel
They gave my little son away to become a slave
So that the master would become richer
....The master doesn’t want me to play the drum”

Almost identical to the traditional rumba “Lamento Esclavo” (“The Slave’s Lament,”) this song doesn’t crackle, and in fact hardly leaves the ground at all, until the second half, a more traditionally African piece set to the Abakua rhythm. With the 6/8 handclaps, conga, and Abakua chant, the album realizes one of its few moments of joy, with the band loose and jubilant, as if the slave has thrown off his shackles. With a saxophone solo mixed as if it were an alternate take from “Walk on the Wild Side,” the listener is reminded that the African roots of this music don’t enjoy the production’s confidence; they are hints only, and are almost never allowed the freedom they represent, forced to languish beneath the obligatory string-filled boleros and danzons of the rest of the album.

An area in which Cachao not only excels but pioneers is the descarga, a “discussion” or structured platform for improvisation between the various melody instruments and their rhythmic counterparts. Not unlike an Afro-Cuban take on dixieland, on “Una Descarga Cachao,” the group plays through a chorus sung by Gallaraga (and composed by Garcia, who plays bongo throughout the album and conga on the final track) and then many of the principal instrumentalists take extended solos. Some of the most interesting interplay occurs between conguero Luis Conte, less associated with Afro-Cuban jazz than he is with new flamenco groups and session work, and Orestes Vilato, a timbalero whose only peers may be the octogenerian Manny Oquendo and the gruff virtuoso Changuito. When Conte and Vilato first trade measures, and then burn simultaneously, “Una Descarga Cachao” delivers on its promise; the listener hears genuine conversation in an ancient language of rhythm. Cachao’s own vamping and soloing follows the two percussionists, erupting into a master class of contrabass technique that neatly packages bowing, slapping, walking, tapping and more in just a minute or two of improvisation.

The bold, redemptive posturing of the descarga form surfaces again several times on Ahora Si!. While the vast palette of musical styles and instrumentation renders many of Cachao’s gestures as museum pieces (much the way some would argue The Clash did with boogie, dub, and bebop on Sandinista,) tunes like the title track, another strong showcase for Conte and Vilato, and “El Tiburon (The Shark),” which may be the album’s strongest track, nearly do achieve a definitive escape from the post-colonialist sheen that otherwise never allows any of the soloists to jump out in front of the rest of the group. On “El Tiburon” the ensemble, led first by a playful duet between tresero Gonzalez and flautist Danilo Lozano, sneaks into a rumba yambu, featuring an extended solo by Conte on the near-metallic rattling of a cajon (a drum fashioned from wood, still resembling the packing crate from which the drum was first created,) and then launches into an up-tempo conga that closes the album.

The cellophane-wrapped shortcomings of Ahora Si! may be its greatest gift; a reminder that Cachao’s mastery flies highest in a live setting. In fact, some of the album’s finer moments will not just create more Cachao fans; they will create Cachao researchers, scanning beneath the radar for recordings of Cachao from a time before he became an object for Hollywood to produce and show to its friends.

By Andy Freivogel

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