Sue Miller – Cuban Flute Improviser, Writer & Academic


CD Reviews

Various Artists – The Rough Guide to the Music of Cuba
[Review] World Music Network

Submitted by Jill Turner on 4 September, 2009 – 23:39.

Sue Miller reviews The Rough Guide to the Music of Cuba, with its Cuban ‘Descarga’ jam session focus this CD compilation offers some excellent tracks providing the listener with a snapshot of Cuban Son, Timba, Reggaeton, Modern Charanga and Big Band sounds…

Where do you start for a selection of Cuban popular music for a compilation such as this? Do you work through the history of Cuban music chronologically from Danzón, Son, Chachachá and Mambo through to the more modern styles of Timba and Reggaeton? Or do you choose a variety of artists regardless of era or genre because they are good? This rough guide compilation isn’t a comprehensive guide to Cuban music nor could it be but it does focus on the descarga jam session form of Cuban music here so there is an abundance of coros, inspiraciones and solos from trumpet, violin, piano, congas, timbales, vocals, electric guitar and tres. Many of the tracks are over 6 minutes long and feature some well established artists such as Cachaíto (bass), Amadito Valdes (timbales), Maraca Valle (flute), Pedro Depestre (violin), Anga Diaz (congas), Manuel Galban (electric guitar), Arturo Sandoval (trumpet) and Niño Rivera (tres). There are some stand-out tracks here too from the Afro Cuban All Stars ‘Reconciliación’ from the album ‘Distinto Diferente’ with its tight brass and sax arrangement, catchy trumpet melodies and joyful baritone sax riffs to the brilliant Madera Limpia’s reggaeton number ‘Salsa’ from their album ‘La Corona’.

Sierra Maestra’s ‘El Son No Puede Fallar’ (Son will not die) name-checks all the great Cuban Son musicians in their tribute to the creators and innovators of Cuban popular music such as Félix Chappotín, Miguel Matamoros, Ignacio Piñeiro, Arseñio Rodríguez, Miguel Cuni, Carlos Embale, Roberto Faz, Nico Saquito and Benny Moré. So check these guys out if you want to know more about Cuban Son! The opening track is from the album Estrellas de Areito and features Arturo Sandoval on trumpet and Niño Rivera on tres and the singer is in fact Migelito Cuní as praised later by Sierra Maestra. The fourth track is from Cachaíto’s experimental solo album where he and Buena Vista Social Club percussionist par excellence Amadito Valdes provide the backbone to a sweet melodic number called ‘Mis Dos Pequeñas’ featuring the soulful violin of Pedro Depestre and the unmistakeable sound of Manuel Galban’s blue-noted doo-wop electric guitar. The Afro Cuban Jazz Project’s ‘Ya Empezo La Fiesta’ – ‘the party starts here’ is a modern sounding Charanga number where Maraca Valle gives us a Charanga típica flute solo ending in an Afro-Cuban musical quote, preceded by some neat violin pizzicato and crisp timbale soloing. After this the CD becomes timba focussed with Los Van Van ushering in the change with its international flavoured multilingual ‘Que Tal, Comment-allez vous? Buena sera, How do you do’s!’ The following Timba tracks however are weaker with the exception of Sama y el Express de Oriente and Elio Revé’s numbers which are hypnotic and nicely woven arrangements. The Pancho Quinto track seems a strange choice with its repetitive funk soul groove and its out of tune vocals and if I could change the selection a little I would have opted for maybe an extra Reggaeton number or perhaps some Rumba, Charanga Típica or Changui to even things out a little with less bias towards the timba side – but these are minor quibbles when so many of the tracks are fantastic. As Madera Limpia sing on the last track: ‘Los cubanos echamos candela’ which loosely translated means ‘Cubans have fire’ – and I would add some have more fire than others so it is good to be selective!

Amadito Valdes
Bajando Gervasio

[Review] Resistencia

Submitted by charangasue on 3 December, 2008 – 00:24.

Sue Miller reviews Bajando Gervasio, showcasing the talents of Buena Vista Social Club timbale player Amadito Valdes. ‘Bajando Gervasio’ features inventive arrangements and a feast of beautiful solos set against a backdrop of elegant clarity from a tight and ‘timbre-ful’ percussion section….

The timbale player Amadito Valdes, the unsung hero of the Buena Vista Social Club, is profiled here on ‘Bajando Gervasio’, his first solo recording, named after a street in Havana famous for its wealth of music past and present. The arrangements cover Cuban styles from Danzón to Contradanza, Changui-Son, Guaguanco, Bolero, Guajira and Descarga and are full of twists and turns, unexpected breaks and beautiful solos. You have to wait until track three though (‘La Fiesta de Amadito’) for a timbale solo from the maestro himself, although his ensemble playing is full of all the Cuban stylistic patterns and his tasteful embellishments and breaks support the whole band. For those who love the BVSC recordings the ‘call and response’ Son and Descarga tracks are going to delight, with the fiery trombone inspiraciones of Jesus ‘Aguaje’ Ramos and the cool coros of Idania Valdes.

The opening Latin jazz track by Maraca Valle (‘Celine’s Groove’) is followed by a fantastic arrangement by Juan de Marcos Gonzalez that is vey much in the vein of his ‘Habana del Este’ arrangement (from the first Afro-Cuban All Stars album), with its bowed cello and flute dialogue on the Danzón section followed by a Chachachá with a pithy Charanga-style percussive flute solo from veteran BVSC player Polo Tamayo. There’s a Guanguanco for the fans of Cuban Rumba and a wealth of solos for those who like great improvisation (notably Maraca Valle’s flute solo on ‘Bajando Gervasio’, a virtuosic piano solo from David Alfaro on ‘Mamina’ and the ever brilliant soloing of Barbarito Torres on laoud on ‘Achy’s Guajira’). In short this recording is jam-packed with intricate arrangements and solos that are held together by Amadito’s sensitive, timbre-rich, tight timbale playing. A stand out track is ‘Amado Amadito’ by the legendary Paquito d’ Rivera. Emotionally charged it features the dexterous soprano sax of Germán Velazco, with melodies that are really haunting and a sax solo that causes Amadito to exclaim at the end of the track ‘Coño Paquito que lindo mi hermano – muchas gracias!’ Thanks also to Amadito for furnishing us with such an embarrassment of riches as all these tracks have hidden gems within them too numerous to mention here – definitely one for repeated listening.

Buena Vista Social Club

Buena Vista Social Club at Carnegie Hall


[Review] World Circuit World Circuit

Submitted by Jill Turner on 16 November, 2008 – 22:02.

Sue Miller relives the excitement of their Carnegie Hall concert on July 1st 1998. This 2 disc CD set provides us with fresh takes on BVSC favourites, covering 16 extended tracks of Cuban Son, Danzón, Chachachá and Bolero and featuring some outstanding performances by Omara Portuondo, Eliades Ochoa, Guajiro Mirabal and Rubén González…..

The reason for Buena Vista Social Club’s success lies in the calibre of the musicians involved in this project – their deep knowledge of popular Cuban dance music and their years of experience as performers. They know this music inside out: the repertoire and the musical codes and gestures used to keep arrangements tight yet fresh and spontaneous. On this recording you can feel the tingle effect of their electrifying performance as for example when Ibrahim Ferrer cooks up a storm on ‘Candela’ with his passionate improvised ‘pregones’. On ‘Quizas, Quizas, Quizas’ Omara laughingly sings a new coro, ‘a la playa yo quiero ir a bailar porque el niche me invita a guarachear’ (At the beach I want to dance because El Niche invites me to come and have fun), which lifts ‘Quizas, Quizas, Quizas’ to a new level with Guajiro’s exuberant trumpet soaring overhead heralding an exciting instrumental mambo build up followed by another spontaneous new coro, ‘sobalo que sobalo ya’ raising the temperature yet higher. All the musicians lock together and play as one creating the buzz and live energy that is very hard to capture on recordings but in evidence here particularly on the tracks  ‘Candela’, ‘Quizas, Quizas, Quizas’ and ‘Mandinga’. Rubén’s solo piano playing is as virtuosic and cheeky as ever with a sublime interpretation of  ‘Siboney’ and an adventurous improvisation on ‘Mandinga’. Guajiro Mirabal injects passion into his searing trumpet calls and Eliades Ochoa’s improvised vocals on ‘El Cuarto de Tula’ are rhythmically inspired and soaked in Santiago de Cuba ‘sabor’. The live, ‘descarga’ jam session nature of this concert makes this a nice addition to the studio recorded album and the quotes from the musicians on the sleeve notes makes for interesting reading too.

Madera Limpia

La Corona

[Review] Out Here

Submitted by charangasue on 8 September, 2008 – 00:00.

madera limpiaSue Miller gets spellbound by the magic and contemporary grooves of Cuba’s Madera Limpia. La Corona is an imaginative mix of rap, reggae and changui that reflects the Cuba of today. With hard hitting lyrics and an original approach to the musical traditions of the Carribean, their songs are destined to become future classics…….

Madera Limpia (meaning ‘pure wood’) is more than a hybrid rap fusion album as it is an imaginative mix of rap, reggae, changui (a traditional style from Guantananamo) and countless other Cuban and international styles. Using real instruments against clearly articulated vocals the sound is both acoustic and electric, mixing as it does hip hop sounds and rap with the changui rhythms of the tres and the hot sound of ‘Oriente’ trumpet (played exquisitely by Gil Guillermo Henderson Ledesma). You can hear the sounds of the guitar strings, the snare and cymbal and even a tuba on the delicious track ‘La Lenta‘. Despite the fact that the group is vocal-led even a non-Spanish speaker would enjoy the majority of these tracks as the arrangements are so varied and musically interesting.

The first track ‘En La Esquina‘, (at the street corner), starts playfully with the song as heard on a small radio before the hip hop sound kicks in. The magpie nature of the music is never contrived and ideas are well worked out whilst never over-staying their welcome. The traditional changui sounds are sometimes distorted for effect or joined by a heavier electric bass, (traditional changui bass is played on the ‘marimbula’, a box with metal keys that are struck like a large ‘sit down’ thumb piano), but the tres with electric bass really works in the context of both rap and reggae in vocalist Gerald Thomas Collymore’s agile arrangements.

The Cuba of Buena Vista Social Club, often cited when discussing Cuban music, never really existed but the musicians on that World Circuit project were part of a generation of musicians from the 1940s and 50s who have greatly added to the cultural musical heritage of the island. Centuries of musical innovation in Cuba continues today in the work of Madera Limpia as you can hear references to this rich cultural heritage in a modern context. They draw on American styles of rap and hip hop and Jamaican reggae and dancehall, suffusing their music with the spirit of changui and son, styles that originated in the east (Oriente) of Cuba. For example on track two, ‘Loco‘ (madman or idiot), you can hear the coro vocals sing ‘Bla Bla Bla Ble Ble Ble’ in a call and response section between congas and timbales, referencing Chano Pozo’s composition ‘Blen Blen Blen’. The singers are able to both rap and sing melodically and in fact are also following a tradition of two voice harmony prevalent in Cuban traditional music, that of voz primera and la voz de segundo.

On track three ‘Perro Que Ladra‘ ( dogs that bark don’t bite), the violin plays charanga riffs alongside the tres patterns (charanga is a form of Cuban dance music led by flute and violins) and a charanga groove emerges towards the end of this track. On track nine ‘Tirando Con La Cara‘ (never ending greed), about men who leave the countryside to live a life of prostitution in Havana, the tres and violin riffs evoke the purity of the countryside they have left, contrasting with the hard soul-selling grind of the capital city, represented by the rap and the reggaeton. The lyrics reflect the reality of living in Cuba today, with its economic difficulties and the rise of sex tourism and the title of the album ‘La Corona‘ (Crown or Halo) reflects the overriding theme of the album, that of the necessity to rise above these problems through humanity and dignity.

I never thought I would enjoy traditional Cuban changui mixed with rap and reggae but on this album Madera Limpia have wrought magic with their imaginative grooves, proving that hybrid fusions can work on all levels – their words are the modern equivalent of that perennial favourite ‘Guantanamera’ as Yacel and Gerald ‘cantan sus versos del alma’ (sing from the heart).

Sue Miller 8th September 2008.
La Corona is released on the Outhere label on 29th September.

Links to all Gondwana Sound Reviews:

Review of Omara Potuondo Gracias

Review of an Eliades Ochoa Concert

Review of Putumayo  presents Salsa

Review of Buena Vista Social Club live in Harrogate

Review of Putumayo Presents – Cafe Cubano

Review of La-33 Gozalo

Review of Marco Toro Oido al Tambor

Review of Los Autenticos