Sue Miller – Cuban Flute Improviser, Writer & Academic

World of Music Journal ReviewsOctober 8th, 2009

CD reviews of  Out of Cuba: Latin American Music Takes Africa by Storm and ¡Cubalive! published in The World of Music Journal 48 (1) 2006, p151-154:

Record Reviews

Out of Cuba: Latin American Music takes Africa by Storm

out of cuba (Small)

From the World and Traditional Music Section of the British Library Sound Archive

Compilation and text by Janet Topp Fargion

Topic Records TSCD927

¡ Cubalive!

Recorded Live in Cuba

Liner notes by Gene Rosow and Natasha Rosow

Rounder Records 1161- 5082-2

Produced in conjunction with ‘The Roots of Rhythm DVD with Harry Belafonte

‘Out of Cuba’ is a collection of singles selected from 246 titles from the HMV GV 78rpm recordings held at the British Library Sound Archive. This CD, whilst not a cohesive album, provides a fascinating insight into what was considered to be Cuban music in America in the 1930s and 1940s. These recordings were made primarily for an American audience and were later re-packaged and marketed in Africa during the depression years by the merged companies of RCA Victor and Gramophone when there was little money to undertake new recordings.

Whilst RCA Victor was present in Cuba (the recordings of Sexteto Habanero were made in Havana in 1928) the main bulk of the recordings were made in New York. The CD contains tracks by authentic Cuban groups such as Trio Matamoros, Sexteto Habanero and Arsenio Rodriguez y su Conjunto, alongside more hybrid groups such as Rico’s Creole band (resident band at Paris’s La Coupole) playing Samba, Calypso, Plena and commercialised Son, as well featuring the big name bands that held residencies in New York and Havana hotels. In the thirties many of these resident hotel bands would be broadcast on the radio and offered record contracts.  The big names in New York are featured on this CD in the form of Xavier Cugat and his Waldorf Astoria Orchestra, Vicente Sigler y su Orquesta and Don Azpiazu’s Orchestra. The famous Havana band featured here is Orquesta Hermanos Castro. The 21 tracks are representative of the GV collection as a whole with its emphasis on vocal-led, commercial, sweetened versions of Latin music. The album is very vocal-led and percussion-light with a preference for Son without bongos (featuring only claves and maracas). The Hollywood–style arrangements of the bigger bands feature violins in a backing function not at all in line with the Cuban violin style used in the Charanga Orquestas popular in Cuba at that time and there’s very little improvisation or ‘call and response’ on any of these tracks.

The music here paints a picture of Cuba as a tropical island of fantasies and dreams, with pastiches of Cuban themes in evidence on several numbers such as Don Azpiazu’s novelty Guajira replete with dog and chicken impressions and Xavier Cugat’s ‘Elube Chango’. Whilst acknowledging that Xavier Cugat was well known as a ‘caricature watered down version’ of Cuban music Janet Topp states that he nevertheless dealt with Cuban themes. However his use of the Afro-Cuban chant to the God Chango is a million miles away from real Santeria. This is ‘fake’ rumba made for an American audience with a taste for ‘safe’ exotica. A real Santeria ceremony would have been far more threatening for white audiences of that time. With a 21st Century perspective one cannot ignore the racism inherent in these early 1940s recordings. However if you can put aside these observations (and idem those of Carmen Miranda in her MGM fruit fantasy extravaganzas!) then his music can be enjoyed for its kitsch novelty value. Xavier Cugat gave audiences what they wanted and one can only wonder how far the bands featured here adapted their music to their hotel audiences and to the recording companies themselves. In fact it needs noting that the Cuban ‘rumba’ is not featured on this CD despite the listings. The term ‘rumba,’ which was often spelt ‘rhumba’, was coined in America at this time to refer to Cuban son and Americanized forms of son. The real vocal and percussion-led Cuban rumba would probably not be known by the hotel audiences or by the recording companies themselves.

In contrast to these saccharine numbers is Arsenio Rodriguez’s ‘Dundumbanza’ which is the best track by far on the album. Earthy and rhythmically driven, it features fabulous ‘Manteca’-like riffing from the trumpets, a fiery vocalist and a short but amazing solo by pianist Lili Martínez replete with cross-rhythm motifs. This music is real and uncompromising, albeit not brilliantly recorded.

Apart from Arsenio’s track the congas are not really featured on these recordings. Anyone expecting to hear musical links between African musics and Cuban genres will be disappointed as the rhythmic elements are very much diluted. The song ‘El Manicero’, recorded first by  Trio Matamoros (and featured on the opening track) but released first by Don Azpiazu, was a major hit worldwide  and it was this Cuban style of singing with two tenors, one high (la voz prima) and one lower (la voz del segundo) which really had an influence on African music via these recordings.

Cuban music however was not confined to Cuba with many Cuban musicians making their home in the US and further afield. The singer Ernesto Oviedo (interview Havana 20061) told me that Antonio Machin, featured on track 15, had a high thin voice that was not to Cuban tastes (they considered it effeminate) and it was only when Machin moved to Spain that he had more success.  His track ‘Cachumbambé’ is in fact a Cuban son in 3-2 clave (not a rumba as listed) and features his beautifully phrased, rhythmic vocals. It’s a matter of taste as to whether you like his distinctive vocal timbre. Interestingly the flute is featured in this son but plays very much in the style of a conjunto trumpet behind the vocals rather than in the high register of a Charanga flute.

Of the big orchestras featured Vicente Sigler and Hermanos Castro are the closest to Cuban forms with Sigler’s ‘Boton de Rosa’, which is in fact a Danzón in Orquesta Típica form and not a bolero (although the subject matter is romantic) and Hermanos Castro’s ‘Alegre Conga’ is a fine arrangement that, although not wholly authentic, was popular with Cubans too via  radio broadcasts. Trio Yara’s ‘Babae’ features bells and congas and two trumpets and most amazingly harmonised whistling! The other tracks (Rico’s Creole band, Victor Antillana, Canario, Gonzaga) are hybrids of various Latin American styles many of them with a Caribbean Creole flavour to them reminiscent of early jazz.

Cuban son, Latin-American hybrid songs, exotica and novelty songs thus formed the backbone of the GV recordings sold in Africa in the thirties and forties and this album is a fascinating document of performance and reception both in America and Africa.


The ¡Cubalive! CD by contrast has all the energy and percussive drive of Cuban music, recorded as it was in 1984 in Cuba. This recording is a snapshot of musical life in Cuba in the 1980’s rather than a historical document. Nevertheless, as the accompaniment to the excellent DVD Routes of Rhythm (presented by Harry Belafonte) it features many legendary Cuban artists such as tres player Isaac Oviedo (son), Estrellas Cubanas and Orestes Lopez (Charanga), Irakere (Latin jazz/Salsa Cubana) and Los Munequitos de Matanzas (rumba) amongst others.

The energy and live atmosphere is captured perfectly as the CD bursts into life with the opening track ‘Maria Antonia’ from Septeto Nacional de  Ignacio Piñeiro. Here the rhythm section is at full throttle with crisp bongo soloing from Rogelio Castellano, rum-soaked trumpet guias and the spine-tingling vocals of Carlos Embale.

In addition to the rumba group Los Munequitos de Matanzas, the group Afro Cuba de Matanzas perform a chant to the God Elegua. This could not be further removed from Xavier Cugat’s call to Chango on the ‘Out of Cuba’ CD. After the initial call to Elegua the  music builds in intensity as the ‘toques’ of the drums call up the spirit of Elegua, becoming  faster and more trance-like as the spirit possesses some of the dancers. On the DVD you can clearly see that Elegua certainly came down for this one.

Although the CD stands up perfectly well on its own, appreciation can definitely be enhanced by viewing the DVD which it accompanies, as you get to see these tracks performed on location. One example of this is the footage of one of Cuba’s finest tres players, Isaac Oviedo, performing with his family in Havana. On the DVD more songs are performed and there’s some lovely footage of Isaac recounting his days in Matanzas cutting cane by day and playing dances by night before moving to Havana with Sexteto Matanzas in 1926. As he sings ‘La Fiesta no es para feos!’ (‘No ugly guys at this party thanks!’) he breaks into a cheeky disarming smile that is priceless. On the CD two of their numbers are performed ‘El Botijita’ a guaracha son and a bolero sung by Isaac’s son Ernesto Oviedo. The lyrics of ‘El Botijita’ harken back to plantation slavery days which is presumably why the style is labelled Son Afro on the liner notes. On it Isaac’s distinctive voice tells a tall tale with backing coros from Julia and Ernesto Oviedo with complex tres and guitar work and a very palpable rhythmic drive.  The bolero is in contrast to the up tempo son and is entitled ‘El Buen Camino’ (‘The Right Path’) on the liner notes, but according to Ernesto himself (Interview February 20061) it is actually called ‘Pon la Luz’ (‘Put the Light on’). Where Isaac’s voice is distinctive and hard-edged Ernesto’s voice is rounder and softer-edged with a vibrato that is part of the voice in a natural way that makes you feel he is singing directly to you. The two tres guitars of Isaac and Papi Oviedo (also Isaac’s son and currently Buena Vista tres player) weave in and out of each other beautifully against the percussive backdrop of bass, maracas, bongos and clave. This romantic bolero in other hands could sound cloying but their rendition combines elegance and coolness with passion.

Charanga, the violin and flute-led line-up that invented the Chachachá and the Mambo, is represented on the CD by two very different bands: Estrellas Cubanas and Orquesta Orestes Lopez.

Orestes Lopez, alongside his brother Israel Lopez (Cachao) were in the seminal Charanga band Arcaño y sus Maravillas which formed in 1937 and they are credited with inventing the Mambo long before Pérez Prado adapted it in the US. On the CD veteran Cuban musicians play Orestes’s composition ‘Llegaron los Millionarios’ (‘Here come the Millionaires’) which is a Charanga classic with the coro: ‘Yo soy millionario, por eso me siento feliz’ (‘I’m a millionaire, that’s why I’m happy’) which is not without its ironies given the hard times experienced by black Cubans prior to the revolution and also given the bad economic situation in Cuba at the time of recording. The piece opens with pizzicato strings and castanets followed by the tune of the coro played repeatedly by the violins under the coros and flute solos. A hypnotic and elegant piece, ‘Llegaron los Millionarios’ is part of the Charanga canon of compositions (of which there are thousands by composers such as Israel and Orestes Lopez, Urfé, Romeu, Chepín, Félix Reina and Richard Egües). The piece is performed in a hall in the afternoon and these Matinee performances by Charanga bands of all kinds still take place today in Asociaciones Culturales mainly for an older clientele who dress up and have a ball. Here older gents in white suits, Cuban heels, waistcoats and panama hats dancing flirtatiously to Charanga is a sight to behold!

Estrellas Cubanas is a very different Charanga band. Formed in 1959 by Félix Reina, it has always had a reputation for playing fast upbeat charanga styles. The two tracks featured here sound like the Charanga bands of the 70s in that the piano montunos and violin guajeos are very busy and the pianist has decided to use the organ setting on his keyboard (you would normally have a piano in Charanga). That said  both ‘Moneda Falsa’ (‘Counterfeit Coin’) and ‘Barco Velero’ (‘Lookout Ship’) are great arrangements with tight breaks, a barrage of coros and clear rhythmic flute soloing  over trance-like strings and a rhythm section driven by the machete style of the güiro. Although both tracks are listed as ‘traditional’ the current flute player with Estrellas Cubanas, René Beltran, assures me that they were written by the band director and violinist Félix Reina (Interview March 20062). This does seem plausible as Félix Reina wrote many classic compositions including the beautiful danzón ‘Angoa’ which is featured on the current line-up Estrellas Cubana’s album ‘Pa’ Bailar’.

The final track on the album is a carnival Comparsa which features a deafening chorus of tractor breaks, congas and whistles interspersed with brass and sax coro-style melodies and street sounds, providing a glorious live finish to a very physical and real musical experience.

Sue Miller, Leeds, March 2006


1. Interview with Ernesto Oviedo, Centro Habana, 24/02/06

2. Interview with René Beltran, Centro Habana,  04/03/06