Wilson and Alroy's Record Reviews We listen to the lousy records so you won't have to.

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Miscellaneous Latin Music...

Artists reviewed on this page:
Alexander Abreu y Havana D'Primera - Anaís - Joe Arroyo - Bamboléo - Ray Barretto - Jorge Ben - Maria Bethânia - Boukman Eksperyans - Masha CampagneCubanismo - Issac Delgado - Djavan - Candido Fabré - Familia RMM - Fransheska - Gilberto Gil - Grupo Azul - Grupo Niche - Victor Jara - Klimax - Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loca - Melina León - Lucrecia y su Orquesta - Luis Enrique - Manolín, - Ricky Martin - Lisette Melendez - Margareth Menezes - Milton Nascimento - El Niño y La Verdad - Orquesta Gitano - Orquesta Original de Manzanillo - Paulito F.G. - Chichi Peralta - Tito Puente - Milly Quezada - Louie Ramirez - Johnny Rivera - Conjunto Rumbavana - Poncho Sanchez - Santi Y Sus Duendes - Ray Sepulveda - Spanish Harlem Orchestra - Tabou Combo - Carlos Varela - Johnny Ventura

Here's where we've put Latin artists we've got only a few records by (or even only one), but couldn't resist telling you our opinions anyway. You needn't have your usual blind faith in our accuracy. Note that although we don't usually deal with greatest hits compilations, in the case of Cuban artists the greatest hits are sometimes all you can find in the US, and so we've reviewed them. If you're looking for Alexander Abreu y Havana D' Primera, Adolescent's Orquesta, Adalberto Alvarez, Carlinhos Brown, Vico-C, DLG, Dan Den, Klimax, Marc Anthony, Marisa Monte, the New York Band, Orquesta Revé, Ivete Sangalo or Olga Tañón, they've graduated to their own pages. (DBW)

Anaís, Así Soy Yo (2005)
I forgive you for not following reality show Objetivo Fama, but second season winner Anaís has a wonderful rich voice which can kill with kindness (the honeyed "Estar Contigo") or knock you out with raw power ("Sexo Sexo" with La Sister). The record's big single was a remake of the tacky showstopper "Lo Que Son Las Cosas" (originally a hit for Ednita Nazario), but don't let that dissuade you. Superproducer Sergio George lines up a set of well-crafted tunes, and doesn't get carried away with arranging tricks, though "Que Te Pedi" is a sneaky electro-crypto-tango, and the reggaeton "Atrapada" has a head-spinning acoustic guitar break. Her feisty/vulnerable persona is not exactly revelatory, and the invariable pre-programmed reggaeton beats get on my nerves ("Suelta"), but Anaís's voice is the first thing you notice about the record and the last thing you forget. Her 2007 follow-up Con Todo Mi Corazón follows the same path, more or less, but loses its way thanks to overblown high-tech production. (DBW)

Joe Arroyo y La Verdad, Fuego (1993)
I know next to nothing about Colombian music, so tell me if this is a stupid comparison, but Arroyo seems to be the Colombian Willie Colón: a musical institution who's racked up countless kinetic dance hits while bringing a new political focus to the lyrics, and continually broadening his musical palette by incorporating influences from other styles. Arroyo doesn't play an instrument, but has a fine keen voice. This album isn't one of his best, with one too many gimmicky takes on the punta craze popularized by Banda Blanca's "Sopa De Caracol" ("El Monstruo"), but it's still enjoyable, with hard-hitting riff-filled salsa ("Llanto Ven Llanto Va," "Fuego") and merengue ("El Sapo"). There are a few touches of synth, but basically it's straightforward rhythm section and horns. The CD I have doesn't list the musicians in his band; Arroyo wrote three of the brief album's eight tracks, and produced. (DBW)

Joe Arroyo y La Verdad, Mi Libertad (1996)
A return to straight-ahead salsa, and even a sequel to his early hit "Rebelión" (title track). The arrangements are sharp, with more percussion and horns than you'll hear on six NY salsa albums ("Juegete De Amor"), and good tunes, if sometimes obvious ("Muévelo"). He gets extra points for including a fine 6/8 percussion fest that's apparently a traditional Colombian form ("Mara Paola"). It's heartening to hear such a good record from Arroyo after so many years in the business, and you won't regret giving it a spin. (DBW)

Bamboléo, Te Gusto O Te Caigo Bién (1997)
Recently, a good friend of mine who plays in a Latin band and turned me on to NG La Banda back in 1990 said to me, "I'm sick of timba." Is that my problem with this hit Cuban group, that I've just gotten tired of the polyrhythmic, horn-led, synth-comped, jazz-chorded heir of son that NG pioneered? I do remember liking Bamboléo a great deal when I first heard them in 1997. Or is it just that so many timba bands lack the furious danceability and stick-in-your-head, stick-to-your-ribs hooks and dynamics? I suspect it's the latter, because when Bamboléo hits on a good groove ("Bemba Colora," "Flor Perdida"), I'm still totally enthralled. But too often, they just don't - "Te Extrañare," title track, "Inmadura" -and the horn cascades, breakdowns and climaxes are utterly predictable. The group is led by pianist Lázaro Valdés, and the singers are Osvaldo Chacón, Vannia Borges and Haila Momprié. The rest of the band is Gilberto Moreaux, Andres Gonzalo and Luis Abreu (percussion); Pavel Diaz and Omar Peralta (trumpet); Juan Larrinaga, Wilfredo Cardoso and Manuel Pelayo (sax); Julio Pincheiro (keys). (DBW)

Bamboléo, Ya No Hace Falta (1999)
In just two years, the band had changed almost completely, with Valdés and Borges the only holdovers: the new singers were Yordamis Megret, Jorge David and Alejandro Borrero; the new bassist was Rafael Paceiro. Three tunes by Rafael Laverrera are highlights: the uptempo "La Tremenda" and "El Pillo," and "El Protagonista," which builds from a horn-backed ballad - sung beautifully by Borges - to a forceful jazz/funk groove. Just on that basis it's better than the debut, and the title track has a wonderfully arranged break. Again, though, too many of the tunes follow NG's trail without adding anything new ("Se Le Fue La Mano"): every time I listen to this disc I want to turn it off and put on NG instead. "Lo Que Quiero Es Bamboléo" is by Giraldo Piloto, but doesn't rise to the level of his Klimax work. (DBW)

Bamboléo, ñño! Qué Bueno Está (2000)
The same basic lineup as the previous disc; there are four live tracks, including two from Ya No Hace Falta: "El Protagonista" and "Recapacita." In concert the arranging subtleties disappear, and the piano and synth are louder at the expense of the percussion and horns (though there is an extended sax solo on "Recapacita"). As a result, the vamps extend forever - three of the tunes run more than eight minutes - without enough variation ("El Protagonista"). Then there are five techno mixes of the title track, plus a remix of "Lo Que Quiero Es Bamboléo" that sounds like an attempt to remake the Marky Mark hit "Good Vibrations" - I kept waiting for someone to bust out a "C'mon, c'mon!" "Qué Bueno Está" isn't much to start with, and after hearing five unchanging mixes you'll be begging for mercy. (DBW)

Ray Barretto, Barretto (1975)
Renowned conga player Ray Barretto has split his attention between salsa and jazz, from his years in Tito Puente's band to his many albums as a leader. This album, recorded during his commercial peak, is a mixture, bringing jazz harmonies into a salsa band context ("Vive Pa' Echar Candela"). This may be better than his usual effort thanks to singer Ruben Blades, who contributed the slow burning instant classic "Canto Abacuá" (also the mawkish bolero "Eso Es Amar," but let's not dwell on that). Barretto never overwhelms the band with showy solos - in fact, a lot of the time I can't hear him at all - keeping the focus on the tight yet swinging arrangements. "Ban Ban Quiere" is a blast, with a dramatic, heavily echoed flute solo (think "If 6 Was 9"). So why isn't the rating higher? Glad you asked. There are some forgettable numbers ("Testigo Fui," by C. Curet Alonso, a cover of "Guararé," also recorded by Los Van Van) and there's none of the virtuosity you'd hear from, say, Eddie Palmieri. (DBW)

Ray Barretto, Tomorrow (1976)
I don't know why the 70s didn't produce more live salsa albums - Willie Colón never cut one, for example - because the music is so well suited to loose high energy interpretation, extended solos and audience feedback. All are on display on this double album made up of eight long songs, with driving beats and an atmosphere of genial chaos (the collective horn improvisation in "Ahora Si Que Vamo A Gozar"). The closer "Qué Viva La Musica" - with Blades popping up on one chorus and Puente adding a lengthy timbales solo - is like an all-star version of a Central Park conga circle, though it catches Grand Finale-itis near the end, and might have been better at twelve minutes rather than fourteen. The pace doesn't slow down except on "Flores De Noche." Though most of the emphasis is on the groove, there are some startling displays of virtuosity: the flute solo that leads off "Ban Ban Quiere" (sung by Blades, as is "Guararé"); Barretto's conga solo on "Slo Flo." At times the compositions are merely functional (Barretto's "Cocinando"), but even so the record captures the exuberance of salsa at its best. (DBW)

Ray Barretto, Energy To Burn (1977)
Well, he didn't have song material to burn: Blades's "Canto Abacuá" is repeated from Barretto. Both the sound and the arrangements are dry, more like an early 60s record than Tomorrow or Barretto, and I get the feeling it's intended as an homage to salsa past: there's even a cover of old-school master Arsenio Rodriguez's "Bruca Manigua." Though tunes like "Llanto De Cocobrilo" and "Vive Y Vacila" are enjoyable enough, they're lacking both harmonic complexity and raw power. Vocals are handled by Adalberto Santiago and Tito Allen; songwriters include Alonso ("El Hijo De Obatala") and Barretto himself ("Te Traigo Mi Son"). (DBW)

Jorge Ben, Benjor (1989)
Ben was one of Brazil's best known songwriters in the 60s and 70s, using the same blend of samba, bossa nova and imported influences as Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, but without their political rabble-rousing - as a result, he was able to remain in Brazil and work consistently during the 1964-1982 military dictatorship. By the late 80s, Ben (who soon changed his last name to "Benjor") was on the Afropop bandwagon (King Sunny Adé guests on "Mama Africa"), and as a result most of the songs have bouncy melodies and a forced smiley-face quality - it's hard to tell them apart aside from minor touches like the unaccompanied guitar solo that starts "Homem De Negocios." The two exception are "Cowboy Jorge," a soulful, lilting tune with a sweeping bass line and sly guitar licks, and the Dixieland jazz "Cabelo." Co-produced by bassist Liminha, who wheels out a drum machine on a couple of tracks ("Pega Ela De Montão"). (DBW)

Maria Bethânia, Memória Da Pele (1989)
Though she's not a songwriter, Maria Bethânia became one of the four pillars of Brazil's late 60s Tropicalismo movement with Gal Costa, Gilberto Gil and her brother Caetano Veloso, based on her knowing interpretations. As with Gil, I haven't been able to find any of her key records, and I'm reviewing an unremarkable late 80s effort: the arrangements are pat Adult Contemporary - layers of synth, electric bass, little guitar - with World Beat trimmings (though "Guerra No Mar" has a moving chanted background and "Confesso" makes striking use of Spanish guitars). Her hoarse, frequently shaky voice has the echo of past glory rather than honest-to-goodness real glory - like a more sophisticated Tina Turner. She covers Veloso's "Reconvexo," Djavan's "Tenha Calma," Chico Buarque's "A Mais Bonita," and a bunch of songwriters I'm not familiar with. Unless you're already under Bethânia's spell, you're not likely to get much out of this. Produced by Jaime Além and Bethânia. (DBW)

Boukman Eksperyans, Kalfou Danjere (1992)
A nine-piece Haitian band which ably blends traditional instrumentation and call-and-response vocals with modern keyboards and guitars, bringing a populist political message often couched in Vodou religious terms. Their second album was recorded after the military coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and much of the record is in direct response: the ten-minute title track promises divine retribution against thieves, cheats and assassins - the military predictably banned the song. Other songs have a more general message: "Vodou Adjae" is about social action being more important than religious differences; "Zansèt Nou You," one of the more memorable tunes, is a celebration of Congo ancestry. Musically there's a great deal of variety, with everything from an a capella lament ("Féy") to the acoustic guitar-plus-percussion folk opener "Bay Bondyè Giwa," to the Afro-pop "Kouman Sa Ta Ye" to distorted guitars on the downtempo "Nwel Inosan." The fly in the ointment is that the melodies are often simple and even dull; as a result, most of the tracks are forgettable ("Tande M Tande") while the longer ones really try one's patience (the seven-minute "Namn Nan Boutey." So it's only marginally entertaining and, thanks to the sledgehammer-like subtlety, rarely thought-provoking either. Arranged by Theodore "Lolo" Beaubrun Jr. and Daniel "Dady" Beaubrun, who wrote most of the tunes and played keyboards and guitars respectively; the rest of the band is Gary Seney, Henry Joseph Pierre, Michel Melthon "Olicha" Lynch and Hans "Bwa Gris" Dominique (all on percussion), and Marjorie Beaubrun and Maguy Jn-Louis (backing vocals). Produced by Eric Clermontet. (DBW)

Café Tacvba, Sino (2007)
Since forming in the late 80s, Mexican rockeros Café Tacuba have developed a reputation for forward-looking, experimental rock and roll. Judging by this sixth studio album, though, they're just another intentionally obscure, retro-70s (the "Baba O'Riley" homage "53100") prog crew: Radiohead en español, with duller tunes ("Seguir Siendo"; the mock disco "Volver a Comenzar"). Despite all the sonic gimmickry and jamming ("Gracias"), though, the band is at its best when it's most conventional (the reggae-rock "El Outsider"). Most often, Rubén Albarrán is the rather whiny lead singer, with Joselo Rangel on guitar, Emmanuel Del Real on keys and Quique Range on bass, though they all switch roles. Produced by the band with Tony Peluso (who adds guitars to "53100") and Gustavo Santaolalla. (DBW)

Masha Campagne, Caminhos Cruzados (2007)
Lots of people think they can sing Brazilian jazz and samba, but one of the few who really can is Moscow-raised vocalist Masha Campagne: she avoids the twin pitfalls of over- and undersinging samba by staying commited to the lilting melodies, never sounding cutesy or flat. On this release she's working with pianist/arranger Weber Iago, who crafts a broad array of subtle but vigorous instrumental combinations: a hard bop combo on the ballad "So In Love"; a bold bass solo on the lighthearted "Doralice"; the extraordinary string arrangement on "Pra Quem Quiser Me Visitar." And the more chances Campagne and Iago take, the better it works: the piano/voice duet on Djavan's "Faltando Um Pedaço," a simple melody sung almost operatically, is haunting. Although a number of the compositions are contempt-breedingly familiar despite the various directions they're approached from, overall this is a bold statement worth checking out. (DBW)

Charanga Habanera, Hey, You, Loca! (1994)
Where fellow timba pioneers NG La Banda worked out their world-changing formula painstakingly over time, David Calzado's band took one great leap forward from traditional charanga to something wholly other: After their debut produced a couple of dance hits, they used this follow-up to consolidate and extend their brand of fiery, hook-filled, rhythmically inventive but compulsively danceable salsa. Though built on the same base of Cuban son ("Pare Cochero"), CH apparently replaced NG's jazz leanings with an affection for 70s funk/soul acts like Earth, Wind & Fire, but I don't hear that on this disc apart from some tightly arranged horn licks (Giraldo Piloto's "Mi Estrella"). What I do hear is one irresistible melody after another (title track) over arrangements that slowly, irresistibly rachet up in intensity... You feel like the proverbial frog in a slowly heating pot that never realizes it's being boiled alive, but in a wonderful way. There is at least one bathetic slow tune ("El Placer De Amar") but by then you'll probably need a break from dancing around your apartment. (DBW)

Ciclón featuring Sıla, Shaker (2008)
Ciclón is a Colombian act specializing in vallenato, an accordion-based folkloric form mainstreamed by Carlos Vives. Their self-titled 2005 debut was produced by Sergio George and received strong reviews, but as I understand it, sales were disappointing, and Sony labelmate Sıla was brought in to write and sing new Turkish lyrics to repurpose the album for a new audience. She's on four tracks including the single "Pegaito" (retitled "Pegaito - Yaz Geliyor Heyoo"), and her urbane sophistication is an interesting contrast with the band's earthiness. The other five tracks are unmodified from their 2005 release, near as I can tell, including "Estoy Pegao" featuring George's then-protege Notch. It's enjoyable party music, with songwriter/accordionist Humberto Judex leading the band with unflappable energy and good cheer ("Lucecita"), but it's so bare bones - simple melodies, chord progressions and instrumentation - there's nothing George can do with it. (DBW)

¡Cubanismo! starring Jesús Alemañy, Malembre (1997)
This was superstar combo Cubanismo's second release; both were international smash hits, thanks to leader Alemañy's no-bullshit approach. The band uses the same blend of traditional Cuban forms with jazz sophistication and modern production values that's been long-since perfected by NG La Banda and Adalberto Alvarez, but they don't waste time with self-indulgent narratives, synth experiments or fancy transitions. As a result, every track here is hard-hitting and compulsively danceable, with solid hooks and soaring solos, from Arsenio Rodríguez' "Mulence" to Alemañy's title track. Though new vocalist Jorge Luis Rojas (cajoled away from Alvarez) was apparently a godsend saleswise, the instrumentals are just as good ("Salsa Pilón"). Weaknesses? Most of the tracks are overlong, as Alemañy was apparently determined to let everyone solo as long as they wanted to; the 10-minute title track is the worst offender. Also, there's nothing groundbreaking here, and if you're not already immersed in Cuban music, this set may seem to lack variety. (DBW)

Vanessa da Mata, Sim (2007)
The third album from the Mato Grosso-born MPB singer was partly produced by Sly & Robbie, and there's a reggae cast to several of the tunes ("Vermelho"); though often with a twist ("Baú," with a herky-jerky rhythm and toy keyboards). Da Mata's voice is so angelically clear it's hard for her to project much emotion ("Amado," a gorgeous love song I hope someone covers), but it makes her a perfect foil for Ben Harper's weary, gritty vocals on their duet "Boa Sorte/Good Luck," a hit single. Fortunately, she brings a spirit of pure fun to "Quando Um Homem Tem Um Mangueira No Quintal" - virtually the only trace of samba - and the funky electropop "Você Vai Me Destruir," which is the kind of record Deborah Harry ought to be making. Mostly self-penned; produced by Mario Caldatto and Kassin. I have her 2010 follow-up Bicicletas, Bolos e Outras Alegrias, which is similar but not as exciting. (DBW)

Issac Delgado, Dando La Hora (1992)
A former singer for NG La Banda, Delgado's solo work brings some Cuban sophistication to smooth salsa romantica. This disc is pleasant, but there are no must-have cuts - Delgado didn't write anything here, although he does have two Pablo Milanés tunes ("La Novia Que Nunca Tuve," "Cuando Lejos Estás Incalcanzable"). His voice is fine, but not particularly distinctive, and the same goes for the arrangements. (DBW)

Issac Delgado, Con Ganas (1993)
A double album on one CD, this is at least a better value than the last one. Delgado wrote a number of the tunes, including the gimmicky hit "Mueve La Cintura." There's another Milanés composition, "Son De Cuba A Puerto Rico," but the two outstanding tracks are contributed by José Luis Cortés ("Que Te Pasa Loco") and Juan Formell ("La Chachachá Es La Cosa"). Otherwise, it's lite salsa again. (DBW)

Issac Delgado, Exclusivo Para Cuba (1997)
Delgado worked with an extraordinary run of musical directors during the 90s, most of whom went on to less their own successful groups - Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Giraldo Piloto, etc. - and at this point he was working with pianist Iván "Melón" González Lewis and bassist Alain Pérez. Originally intended for domestic consumption (see title), and compared to Con Ganas there's less of the NY Sound and more of the NG Sound: complex, subtle but swinging dance tracks like "Con La Punta Del Pie"and "Pa' Que Te Salvas"; even the more straightforward love songs ("Tú Tranquilo") have jazzy bridges and syncopated breaks. Delgado emphasizes that all this adventurism is rooted in Cuban tradition by including a fairly straight version of "Dile A Catalina," an ancient Arsenio Rodríguez tune that had been famously reimagined by Irakere. I've never been blown away by Delgado's vocals though there's nothing about him I dislike either... maybe he has that Sinatra quality where he makes everything sound so natural - serving the tune rather than himself - so that I don't pick up on how accomplished he is. (DBW)

Djavan, Seduzir (1981)
Djavan is a Brazilian singer/songwriter of the Caetano Veloso/Gilberto Gil tropicalismo school, combining elements of US pop and R&B with more traditional Brazilian pop into a varied yet smooth mixture. I've seen this album, his third, hailed as Djavan's masterpiece, but it's not terribly interesting: a ton of midtempo love songs (the intermittently exciting title track) with no memorable melodies, aside from the creamy woodwind and string-backed "Faltando Um Pedaço." His singing is so laid-back it's easy to tune out, and the arrangements are generally bland (the lively horns in "Êxtase" are an exception). Bassist Sizao sticks with a trebly tone and busy, see-sawing approach on every track, which prevents the tunes from having their own distinct flavors; nobody else in the band - Luiz Avelar, keys; Teo Lima, percussion; Marquinhos and Ze Noguiera, winds - really stands out. All the songs are by Djavan except for the closing medley of "Nvula Ieza Kia/Humbiumbi," both by Angolan composer Felipe Mukenga. Produced by Djavan and Mayrton Bahia. (DBW)

Emir Ersoy & Projecto Cubano, 10 Şarkı 10 Şarkıcı (2010)
Pianist/bandleader Ersoy may not necessarily be Turkey's best salsero, but he's certainly the best connected: his sophomore disc features vocal appearances from heavy hitters including Kenan Doğulu ("Kime Ne"), Funda Arar ("Bana Yalan Soylediler," where her dignified reserve is a trifle incongruous) and Deniz Seki ("Üzgünüm Askim," a highlight). All that star power wouldn't mean much if the tracks couldn't back it up, but they can: "Her Yaşin Ayri Bir Güzelliği Var" is a fine showcase for Adja Pekkan, and it's also tightly grooving urban salsa; Yaşar's feature "Masal" ... Plus it's fun to check out artists I'm not familiar with, viz. Tuğba Özerk's bravura performance on "Üç Kalp" (don't bother with her tech-heavy 2011 effort Aklımda Sen Varsın, though). The weakest tune - "Bir Zaman Hatasi" with Ayça Varlier on vocals - sounds like a 70s AM hit I can almost remember, and even that is saved by a vigorous Ersoy solo. Metin Ersoy's savvy guaracha "Ven Conmigo" is the only tune sung in Spanish, but the sound is Cuban through and through. (DBW)

Emir Ersoy & Projecto Cubano, Karnaval (2012)
Many of the same vocalists are back - Doğulu, Seki, Yaşar - plus a few new names like Işın Karaça on "Anlatsam" (with reggaeton overtones) and Alexi R. Contreras ("Nada Te Importo"). The backbone is still salsa ("Maskeli Balo"), but Ersoy stretches further into Latin forms, with merengue ("Sen Miydin" featuring Berna Anter) and bachata ("Contas De Sirena," sung by Banu Kunt); the only unfortunate consequence is "Ayrılmam," yet another "Smooth"ie. The collection of compositions isn't as memorable as the previous installment - Seki's feature "Aşk" is illustrative - but it's professional, polished and powerful. (DBW)

Candido Fabré, Son de Cuba (1996)
Fabré was the main songwriter and arranger for Orquesta Original de Manzanillo, and on this solo disc he's resting on his laurels, with a medley of his past hits ("Exitos de Fabré"), a reprise of his "Comencó La Fiesta" ("Cuando Llega Fabré"), and an exact new tunes don't have much fire to them: except for "No Sé, Porqué Me Echo Bilongo" - packed with sudden breaks and great riffs - nothing rises above mediocrity: the songs aren't going to drive you off the dance floor, but they won't entice you onto it either. Apparently "Viendo La Televisión" was a hit, but it's as bland as the rest. If you loved Fabré's work with the band, you won't go far wrong with this, but it's certainly not a step up. (DBW)

Familia RMM En Vivo (1994)
In the early 90s, Ralph Mercado had an incredible roster of salsa talent on his RMM label, and this live album (recorded in Miami) shows most of it off, with each artist getting one tune each. (Tito Nieves, then the label's biggest seller, also sings snippets of his biggest hits.) As you'd expect from a label showcase, there's a fair amount of filler (Antonio Cartagena's "Apaga La Luz"), and some of the big names don't do anything for me (Johnny Rivera's "Por Eso Esta Conmigo," Tony Vegaa's "Aparentemente"). But the high points are high: India ("Mi Primera Rumba") and Marc Anthony ("Hasta Que Te Conocí") bring the house down on their features, and Celia Cruz closes the show with a crowd-pleasing rendition of "Azucar Negra." The RMM band led by Sergio George provides solid support, but they don't get to stretch out at all, even on George's instrumental "Overture." (DBW)

Fransheska, Menéalo (1991)
Mostly written by Vico-C, who produced with Eduardo Reyes, Fransheska's debut contains perhaps the catchiest meren-rap tune of them all: The title track borrows the hook from 2 In A Room's novelty hit "Wiggle It," matching it to a Lisa M-style tiny-voiced but assertive rap, and a sharp, moderately paced merengue arrangement (by Israel Casado). But genre-crossing kitsch is a tricky game, as demonstrated by the hair-raising 50's rocker "Rap 'N Roll" (written by Iván Calderón); two reggae cuts ("Como Se Siente" and the dancehall romp "Ven Conmigo") aren't much to brag about either. Also, Fransheska doesn't have as much substance as Lisa, mostly relying on tired lines about partying and romance ("Si Quieres Amar"), and the merengue suffers from obvious melodies ("Tu Sudor En Mi Piel"). Most of the arrangements are by Reyes or Henry Jimenez; musicians include Emilio Pérez, Angel Luis Díaz and Pedrito (percussion), Alcides Figueroa (guitar), Pedro Mateo and Raúl Ríos (horns). (DBW)

Fransheska, Dulce Material (1992)
As he did with Lisa M, Vico-C produced one album for Fransheska and disappeared; most tracks here are composed by Fransheska with either Kid Power Posse or E.Z.D. The same general mix of styles as Fransheska's debut, with the title track a contrived clone of "Menéalo," a couple of reggae tunes ("Muévete Y Baila") and plenty of dance cuts based on dense electronic percussion ("Duda," a direct copy of C + C Music Factory's "Gonna Make You Sweat," right down to Fransheska's phrasing and looped sung chorus). The problem is, none of it's very good, with annoying hooks (the nasal male vocals on "Musica Perfecta"); the one outstanding cut is "Lo Que Quieras," which features a stuttering, buzzing bass synth contrasting with a pop horn section. Characteristic but flavorless: this will give you an idea what meren-rap was, but won't give you a clue why it was a good idea. Produced and engineered by Orlando Collado, with Santi co-producing some tracks; Jorge Oquendo and Elvis García produced "Caribbean House." Elías Lopés and Félix Pastrana played horns, and Rafael Camilo adds congas. (DBW)

Fransheska, Atrévete A Moverlo (1994)
Elvis García took over the production, and it's mostly straight merengue with rapped vocals (title track). Most of the tracks have the requisite energy ("Pasa La Prueba") but no originality, and Fransheska's voice is too thin to put them over. The sole reggae tune is "Baila Conmigo," while house is poorly represented by Angel Lopez's "Goodbye," which shamelessly rips off its hook from Chic's "I Want Your Love." Meanwhile, the lyrics are all trite romance ("Dame Tu Cariño"). Arrangements by García and Elvis Cabrera (who also play bass and piano respectively) and Barón López; other musicians include Luis Akino and José Díaz (horns), Isamar Irizarri, Jhan Carlos and Johnny Oquendo (percussion). (DBW)

Gilberto Gil, Soy Loco Por Tí America (1988)
Brazilian legend, co-founder (with Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa and Maria Bethânia) of tropicalismo, a 1960s movement to integrate high and low cultural forms from Brazil and abroad (principally the US, but also Europe, where Gil and Veloso lived in exile during the 70s). The title track is from the early years of the movement, a somewhat ironic love song to a land mass and/or the United States. Gil covers a number of styles - the opening "Aquela Abraço" is uptempo samba; "Vida" Afropop; "Mamma" reggae - but in all the imitating he loses his own personality. Still, he's a hell of a songwriter - "Babá Ala Palá" combines knowing horns, funky wah-wah guitar, and soaring vocals - and has a fine, flexible voice (the gentle samba "Mare De Copacabana"). The work as a whole is tuneful but impersonal and unambitious: Gil is better heard on his 1993 collaboration with Veloso, Tropicália 2. Produced by Liminha. (DBW)

Grupo Azul, Contraste (2005)
With the demise of Orquesta De La Luz, this eleven-piece band from Holland is the best salsa band from outside the Americas I've heard. They're polished and precise ("La Reina"; "Mi Azul"). They smoothly incorporate outside elements like Santanaesque guitar ("Esperaré") and Cool Jazz synth ("Declaración"). And the arrangements show verve (the asymmetrical break in "Nina"). On the down side, the compositions are rarely memorable and the soloists aren't distinctive, so they often sound like copycats, right from the Ruben Blades imitation on the opening "Rumbamix." The best song is the concluding lament "Karina," with Eduardo Alfonso Herrera's vocals accompanied only by Valentlin Bok's piano, and a depth of feeling that the uptempo numbers don't approach. (DBW)

Grupo Danson, Mi Musica (2005)
I'm not sure how this went down, but somehow Danish son revivalists Grupo Danson - named for Danish son, not danzón - convinced temporary Cuban expatriate Alexander Abreu, well known as a top trumpet player, to write and sing an album's worth of tunes - two talents he had until that point kept entirely under wraps. Led by the hit title track, the album was a surprise hit - in fact, it was so successful it soon led Abreu back to Cuba where he put together his own phenomenal band. In keeping with the group's original focus, several songs hark back to traditional forms - "Rumba A Matanzas"; the charanga arrangement of "Cuentame Todo" - and they're full of life, not museum pieces. But working with more contemporary tools is when Abreu really comes into his own: "Solo Para Tí" and "Canción De Verano" are as distinctive and tuneful as the two songs he would later re-record with Havana D'Primera. (DBW)

Grupo Niche, Etnia (1995)
This Colombian band, the brainchild of writer/producer Jairo Varela, has been hugely popular for over a decade, and it's easy to see why: they pound out relentless back-to-basics salsa with no tacky ballads, bizarre experimentation or obnoxious grandstanding to get in the way. The kind of sound I'd call meat and potatoes if I weren't a vegetarian. Anyway, every tune (all by Varela) is solid; the title track is only one standout. If you're not into salsa, the lack of variety will get on your nerves (every song runs between 4:40 and 5:28); they're not a crossover act, and to prove it they don't throw in as much as a merengue. But who cares? They're a hell of a salsa band, and they're firing on all cylinders here. (DBW)

Victor Jara, Volume 2: El Derecho De Vivir En Paz (rec. 1969-1971?, rel. 1975)
A prominent Chilean folk singer/songwriter, Jara was mutilated and executed (along with hundreds of others) by Pinochet's military shortly after the 1973 CIA-sponsored coup. Jara had released eight albums by then, but many of them were subsequently destroyed, and his discography is a mess: this LP has five tracks from Pongo En Tus Manos Abiertos and seven from El Derecho De Vivir En Paz. Political acts often get so caught up with their message that they forget about the music, but Jara stays accessible even at his most topical ("Preguntas Por Puerto Montt," about a 1969 massacre) thanks to a gift for melody ("Ni Chica Ni Limona") and a rich, lustrous tenor. Though South American Nueva Canción tends to have sparse backing, the sound here is full and varied courtesy of Quilapayun - who at this point I believe included Eduardo Carrasco, Patricio Castillo, Carlos Quezada, Guillermo Oddo, Hernán Gómez and Rodolfo Parada - who lay on instrumentation ranging from Andean flute to electric guitar (title track). A mix of singalongs ("Vamos Por Ancho Camino") and introspective material ("A Luis Emilio Recabarren"), all written by Jara except for the traditional "If I Had A Hammer" and "El Niñ Yuntero," based on a Miguel Hernández poem, it's forward-looking music of hope and promise ("Abre La Ventana") that's bittersweet now but no less compelling. The best fan site is in Spanish, pues, but there's also a good English-language site. (DBW)

Juanes, La Vida... Es Un Ratico (2007)
Colombian rock star Juanes fronted Metallica-influenced metal band Ekhymosis in the 90s, but found national and international success after going solo and broadening - while softening - his sound. On this fourth album, he ranges easily from overwrought ballads ("La Mejor Parte De Mi") to a rocking Santana homage ("Báilala"), and occasionally flirts with traditional Colombian forms ("Tres"). When he's got decent material it's lightweight fun (the pop-reggae hit "Me Enamora"), while many minor tracks are quite ordinary despite his obvious charisma ("Tú Y Yo"). Not brilliant, but harmless. In addition to writing everything, Juanes played guitar (including some laced but liquid solos), some bass and keys, and produced with Gustavo Santaolalla; most of the backing comes from Toby Tobón (bass) and Victor Indrizzo (drums) with a couple of guests (Andres Calamaro duets on "Minas Piedras"). (DBW)

Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loca, São Salvador (2000)
Ricardo Lemvo was born in the Congo, but moved to LA in his teens; his band leans heavily toward Cuban music, but there's also a bomba ("Boom Boom Tarará") and merengue ("Si Tu No Sabes (No Te Metas)"). The excellent salsa/funk "Nganga Kisi" makes me think Lemvo's been listening to Sergio George, as well. Whatever style they're playing, several things remain the same: the melodies aren't unforgettable, but the band swings hard ("Le Rendez-Vous"), the arrangements are taut, and there's no clutter or waste (the gently sombre title track). Almost everything's by Lemvo except for Capullito De Alelí by Rafael Hernández and "Te Traigo Un Son" by Enildo Padrón. Produced and arranged by Lemvo, Bopol and Jesús A. Pérez. I have no idea how this compares to his first two albums, but it's good harmless fun. (DBW)

Melina León, Con Los Pies Sobre La Tierra (1999)
If Olga Tañón is the Rolling Stones of merengue and Milly Quezada is Aerosmith, then Melina León is the Black Crowes: her music will fill the need if you haven't got anything better, but it's not hard to find something better. (And yes, completing the analogy, Juan Luis Guerra is the Beatles.) She has a big, albeit impersonal, voice, and the tunes vary from uptempo torch songs ("La Persona Equivocada") to uptempo party tunes ("Me Voy De Fiesta Hoy"). Nothing's overblown or tacky (though the ballad version of "La Persona Equivocada," a duet with Victor Manuelle, comes close), there's just not enough character, individuality or urgency. Even the montuno section - usually the emotional payoff - of the bolero "El Se Fue" sounds hollow. Produced by Eduardo Reyes, who also arranged a couple of tunes; Wilfrido Drullard arranged half the tunes including the title track and my favorite cut, "Te Amo," on which he also plays some mean bass. (DBW)

Lucrecia y su Orquesta, Me Debes Un Beso (1994)
Lucrecia Benítez is a young Cuban singer who, at this point, was sticking very close to traditional forms like son and guaracha. She did the arrangements here, rare for a Cuban vocalist, and they're competently done but basically standard fare. Her voice is clear and strong enough, but doesn't reach out and grab me - I don't hear anything distinctive. The tunes all have standard chord progressions and familiar-sounding melodies ("Yo Necesito M´s," title track), mostly at the same moderate tempo: when she briefly slows things down at the beginning of "Yo Sé Que Te Amaré" you may breathe a sigh of relief. (DBW)

Lucrecia y su Orquesta, Prohibido (1996)
This is a big improvement if, like me, you prize variety over authenticity. Lucrecia's gone for the jazz-inflected NG La Banda style, and dug up a number of tuneful, swinging compositions, ranging from high-speed workouts ("Hoy No Puede Ser") to midtempo ("La Gaviota Y La Rosa," the jaw-dropping finale of "Ven Y Entrégate") to ballads ("Declaración De Amor"). She only did a few of the arrangements this time, and if you want more of the old-style son of the previous record, you'll be disappointed, but if you're into contemporary Cuban sounds it's definitely worth a listen. (DBW)

Luis Enrique, Ciclos (2009)
Nicaragua-born Luis Enrique Mejia has been a top-selling salsero for decades, and I must confess I never paid him much attention, but this collaboration with ace producer Sergio George is a gem. Enrique sounds at home with George's Nuyorican funk and fusion borrowings ("Sonríe"), while tethering those flights of fantasy to traditional forms as humble as they are sturdy (the rustic "Cómo Volver A Ser Feliz"; the Juan Luis Guerra-referencing bachata "Autobiographia"). The attention to detail - every keyboard accent, every horn flourish according to its purpose - is lavish: At some points the style shifts are so tricky the record seems aimed more at musicians than the general public ("No Me Des La Espalda"). By contrast, the hit "Yo No Sé Mañana" (by Jorge Luis Piloto) shows how beautiful a pure romantic salsa can be, only breaking into George's trademark syncopations on the bridge. Best of all, "Abre Tus Ojos" is a killer social conference number recalling the best Colón/Blades work. Mejia co-wrote half the tracks; Carlos Varela contributed "Cambia." A deserving Latin Grammy winner for Best Tropical Album. (DBW)

Luis Enrique, Soy Y Seré (2011)
Luis and Sergio returned to the same well for the follow-up and as the cliché has it, "sequels never equals" - but the results are quite respectable nevertheless. "Locos Los 2" and "Lo Que Fui Soy Y Seré" reach for the same heights as "Mañana" (which also reappears as a bonus track) and nearly make it. Then there are roundhouse punches like "Descontrolame" (by Mónica Vélez) and tender romanticism like "Dame De Tu Boca," plus some urban funk ("Al Fin"). George missteps, though, by including a duet with his latest protege Prince Royce, whose tween idol posturing is a poor match for Luis Enrique's grown-up seriousness ("Sabes"). The disc's other duet, a bachata featuring Alex Cuba ("Deseos"), is bearable if not exactly inspired; Cuba co-wrote three other tunes. The album is slightly better than the rating implies, but I definitely want to steer you toward the previous release if you haven't heard that one yet. (DBW)

Manolín, De Buena Fé (1997)
Perhaps the most popular of the mid-90s wave of NG-inspired dance artists, Manolín "el médico de la salsa" makes it look easy, writing all the sophisticated, heavy-grooving tunes himself despite not having any formal music training. The arrangements by producer/pianist Dagoberto González Jr. are solid, and the band is flawless, but I don't hear much variation from track to track, and Manolín's voice isn't particularly outstanding. There's no one song that kicks my butt the way his early hit "Me Pasé De Copas" did, and when tunes drag out over seven minutes, as "Que Le Llegue Mi Mano" and "Somos Lo Que Hay" do, it's simply excessive. Unless you're drawn to his youth or looks, you'll do better with one of the pioneering bands in the genre. (DBW)

Ricky Martin, Me Amarás (1993)
At this point Ricky Martin had left Menudo, and was making a healthy living singing contemporary dance pop in Spanish, but still had a lot to learn about being an entertainer. The arrangements (mostly by Juan Carlos Calderón) are watered-down Babyface, lacking any originality or even any good hooks (the best is "Ayudame"); Martin's singing is laughable on the rare occasions he reaches for any emotion ("No Me Pides Más"). You know you're in trouble when someone covers Laura Branigan's "Self Control" (retitled "Que Día Es Hoy"). Sometimes it's so embarrassing ("Hooray! Hooray! It's A Holi-Holiday") you wish the whole thing was a put-on. Most of the tracks are pre-programmed; live musicians include Abraham Laboriel, Freddy Washington, and Paul Jackson. (DBW)

Ricky Martin (1999)
Martin sure has a lot going for him: he's gorgeous, he's an electrifying performer, and his down-to-earth, personable humility in interviews makes him impossible to dislike. If only he made better music... With Robi Rosa and Desmond Child writing and producing most tracks, everything here is trivial dance-pop ("Shake Your Bon-Bon," perhaps the most annoying song of the year) or sappy balladeering ("She's All I Ever Had"), with banal lyrics and only the most generic Latin trappings, like trumpets and Spanish guitar. About the only clever arranging detail is the Duane Eddy-style guitar on the #1 hit single "Livin' La Vida Loca." Even worse are the Diane Warren ballads "I Count The Minutes" (produced by Walter Afanasieff) and "You Stay With Me" - I guess no one noticed that Martin, who's perfectly competent on the dance numbers, just doesn't have the voice for torch songs. The big-deal guest is Madonna, who duets on "Be Careful," a silly Ray Of Light-type electronica tune she wrote with William Orbit. Also appearing in minor roles are Luis Enrique, Meja, Gyan and Jon Secada. The best thing I can say about the record is that it's much more professional and less embarassing than Me Amarás. There are English and Spanish versions of "Vida Loca" and "All I Ever Had"; the disc also includes remixes of two recent smash hits, "Maria" and "The Cup Of Life," making it a virtual greatest hits release. (DBW)

Lisette Melendez, Un Poco De Mi (1998)
If you remember Melendez's grating pop work ("Goody Goody"), you'll be shocked by how well she sings here: on the opening "Algo De Mi," the entire band stops to let her demonstrate how long she can hold a note, and she proves herself a capable salsera throughout. Sergio George produced and arranged this release - the first on his Sir George imprint - and as usual he has an ear for catchy tunes: "Que No, Que No," "Tocar El Cielo." But this doesn't have the freshness or originality of George's best work, and Melendez doesn't project enough personality to lift it above the crowd. She gets one of her own compositions on the album, "Dueño De Mi Corazón," but it's pedestrian, with a flat arrangement. The players are George's usual stable; DLG members also show up on a couple of tracks. (DBW)

Margareth Menezes, Kindala (1991)
Thanks to a David Byrne crusade, Brazil's Menezes has become well-known in US "World Music" circles, and she certainly has an impressive, deep voice. But she sounds the same on every song, and the heavy, slow, programmed reggae-samba groove (almost identical from track to track) is more oppressive than liberating. Highlights are the tuneful title tune, a cover of Haitian group Boukman Eksperyans's "Pwazon Rat" ("Paz No Mundo") that's the album's fastest cut, and Carlinhos Brown's "Praga Do Céu," but even there the drum programming saps any spontaneity. The major guest is Jimmy Cliff, who brings his "Me Abraça E Me Bejia" closer to Jamaican reggae; the credits also thank Marisa Monte, but the track-by-track musician listings don't mention her, and I don't hear her. (DBW)

Milton Nascimento, Angelus (1994)
Living legends face a different sort of pressure than the struggling masses: while most of us are struggling to be heard, the select few must deal with the reality that they will be heard, and can either get trapped trying to top themselves, or else focus on saying what truly ought to be said. (Stevie Wonder's usually trying to do both.) If Nascimento feels this pressure he doesn't show it: this wide-ranging yet coherent collection is as free-spirited as it is open-hearted. While his natural gifts are impressive - an ineffably elastic tenor voice, melodicism that's smooth without being limpid ("Sofro Calado") - he never coasts, pushing instead into one challenging genre after another, and usually scores. There's pseudo-classical (the opener "Seis Horas Da Tarde"), jazz fusion ("Novena," with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Pat Metheny), pensive folk-pop ("Only A Dream In Rio" with James Taylor). There's the best Beatles cover I've heard in ages (a yearning, distilled take on "Hello Goodbye"). And there's even some of the MPB (Brazilian Popular Music) Nascimento was central in establishing ("De Um Modo Geral..."). Though the sound is extraordinary, the compositions themselves often aren't, so I suspect there are better ways to get acquainted with Nascimento. (DBW)

El Niño y La Verdad, Llegó La Verdad (2014)
It's an oversimplification to give
Havana D' Primera all the credit for the resurgence of Cuban salsa, as well as a disservice to the many others who carried the torch during the lean years. But the success of HDP has certainly made it easier for a new generation of musicians to be heard, and Emilio "El Niño" Frias y La Verdad are worthy beneficiaries. Formed by Frias and fellow Revé alumnus Wilfido "Pachy" Naranjo (son of the Orquesta Original de ManzanillO founder), the band works mainly in the tradition-minded vein of Adalberto Àlvarez ("Verdad Amarga," with Buena Vista Social Clubber Barbarito Torres on the lute-like laéd) rather than pursuing the jazzy experimentation of NG or Klimax, the omnivorous pan-Latinism of Abreu or Issac Delgado (apart from the DLG-sounding "Piénsalo" with El Yonki), or the pop-aware songo of Los Van Van (though "Mi Música" quotes from "Azúcar"). La Verda sets itself apart with exciting, syncopated arrangements (by Najanjo and guitarist Dayron Ortega) featuring unusually prominent bass ("Ese Soy Yo"), alternating with memorable, melodic love songs ("Loco Pero Te Amo"). (DBW)

La 440, Ven Sígueme (1988)
The odds were stacked against the late 80s Cuban band known as either Orquesta 440, La 440 or Orquesta La 440. Their name had been borrowed by a fantastically popular Dominican singer-songwriter. Their best-known bandmember, saxophonist Germán Velasco, had jumped ship to NG La Banda. And somehow none of their material made it onto any of the early 90s compilations that gave US folks like me our introduction to contemporary Cuban music. Perhaps due to all these tailwinds, the group's second LP was their last, but it's well worth searching out. It's quite contemporary but with some traditional elements: the guaguancó opening to "Con Sabor Carabalí" (one of two tunes by ace writer Rodolfo Cárdenas); a danzón played completely straight ("Danzón Para Tres Trompetas"). The title track is probably the peak: the sort of disco-songo-jazz hybrid Irakere kept trying but never quite pulled off, though the band's unimaginatively titled theme is also terrific. Most of the arrangements are by bandleader/bassist Jorge Calvert while others are by Andrés Bolaños, and they focus on danceability but not without sacrificing creativity, as one listen to the breakdown in "Si Me Voy Me Voy" - or any of the horn charts - will make clear. The Spotify version of the record has "El Hombre Del Timbal" incorrectly titled "El Rey Del Timbal"; an RMM CD reissue has a bonus track I haven't heard, "El Ritmo De La Rumba." (DBW)

Orquesta Gitano, Salsa Gitana (1998)
This California band plays an astonishing variety of styles, and what's more astonishing, plays them all well. Their second album opens and closes with spoken incantations, and in between they play merengue, plena, bolero, son, cumbia and rock - but they're so busy swinging they never seem self-congratulatory. Nearly all the tunes are originals, and a number of bandmembers got in on the writing: guitarist Phillip Retamoza's "Gracias Carlos" is, yes, a Santana tribute, but it's also a tender bolero; trombonist Alicia Rodríguez wrote the clever "El Manzanero" in addition to "Merengue Hollywood"; percussionist Edwin Morales wrote the driving title tune. Violinist and co-producer Kevin Moore wrote the lion's share of the material, however, and it's unerringly catchy and danceworthy ("Poeta," "Buscando La Gen"). And all these different styles by different writers are effectively welded into a coherent whole, most notably on the 15 minute closing suite. The only downside is that there's such a strong focus on the ensemble that the individual musicians don't get enough of a chance to shine, aside from Retamoza, leader/percussio nist Bosco El Gitano, and the two husky-voiced, traditional singers, Mario Perez and Eduardo Herrera. The rest of the band is Joey Borrero, percussion; Ken Woodward, Louis Fasman and Tom Daly, horns; Ramon Lazo and Daniel Filip, keyboards. Guests include Rebeca Mauleón-Santana, Steve Czarnecki, Luana Pedota, Will Puckett, Wendy Black and Antonio Morrero, keys; Ron Coolidge, Jeff Cressman and Marty Wehner, horns; Steve Cervantes, flute. I'm not sure what's the best way to order this CD, but you can write to the band at PO Box 1503, Freedom CA 95019. (DBW)

Orquesta Original de Manzanillo, Exitos De La Original De Manzanillo (1990)
Yet another terrific Cuban band, led by Wilfredo Naranjo though nearly all their songs are written by Cándido Fabré. They're more traditional than Los Van Van or NG La Banda, rarely using synths or trap drums, depending on charanga-style flute and violin. They have fewer rough edges, which is a plus and a minus - they're always smoothly professional, but not necessarily very exciting. This is a greatest hits record, though, and it includes some wonderful tunes: "Via Libre Que Viene La Original" is a grinding groove, "El Cinturón Del Taxi" is an enjoyable merengue, and "Traigo La Ultima" has a fine melody. (DBW)

Orquesta Original de Manzanillo, A La Hora Que Me Llamen Voy (1993)
An exceptional effort, including three unbelievable dance tracks: "Me Lo Llevaron Todo," "Eso Pa' Tí Es Bobería," and the title track. Fabré slips in a few subpar tracks ("Viernes Prohibido"), but overall this is a fine introduction to the band. (DBW)

Chichi Peralta, Pa' Otro La'o (1997)
Given the incredible crossover success of Juan Luis Guerra's pop-merengue-bachata formula, and his subsequent renunciation of same, I'm surprised there haven't been more direct imitators. Peralta is one, from his reedy tenor to his slick, melodic merengue ("La Ciguapa") right down to his heavy Afropop influence (title track). He also bookends the disc with homages to one of Guerra's biggest influences, Silvio Rodríguez: "Amor Narcotico" and "Limón Con Sal" use acoustic guitar phrasing that's straight out of Rodríguez's book, with backing by the London Symphony Orchestra, and lead vocals from Jandy Feliz. Everything's carefully done, and there's plenty of dancefloor potential ("Techno Son"), but some of the ballads drag ("Un Día Más") and the unoriginality of the whole project is wearing. Peralta wrote a couple of tunes and arranged several others; other writers and arrangers include Feliz, José Deluc, Manuel Tejada and Victor del Villar. Weirdest guest is R&B semi-legend Betty Wright, but I don't hear her anywhere. (DBW)

Paulito F.G., Con La Conciencia Tranquila (1997)
How many of these NG La Banda soundalike bands do we need? NG's jazzy, modern salsa style is now known as "timba," and Paulito follows the formula to the letter, tossing in some ballads ("Y Ahora Que") - which are just Sergio George's NY Sound with heavier percussion - to balance the swinging dance grooves ("Llamada Anónima"). Same sly horns and occasional slabs of synth. What's missing is the ornate horn breaks, the memorable tunes, and most importantly, the fire, the dedication to moving the audience: only the title track and "De La Habana" even approach a full head of steam. It's like listening to a Xerox. Paulito's not even a distinctive singer, so there's nothing to distract you from pondering how much better other artists work with the same tools. (DBW)

Tito Puente, Un Poco Loco (1987)
I will put together a full page on legendary bandleader/percussionist Puente someday, but trust me, you don't want to wait that long. This was his 97th LP, and it's solid, workmanlike Latin jazz, with composers ranging from Puente to Chuchu Valdez ("Tritone") to Bud Powell (title track). Most tracks feature a procession of solos - Mario Rivera is featured on soprano sax more than I really needed - though the tribute "Machito Forever" is a tightly arranged, exciting ensemble piece calling to mind earlier Puente hits like "Para Los Rumberos." Some tunes are just jam vehicles ("El Timbalon"), but they're fun, and "Chang" is a lovely, supposedly Asian-styled composition - it opens and closes with a gong - with a haunting marimba accompaniment from the leader. Percussionist Pete Escevedo and keyboardist Rebecca Mauleon guest on Ellington's "Prelude To A Kiss," but Puente's vibes carry the tune, as indeed they should. You won't learn much about Puente's importance as a bandleader here, and the other soloists don't keep up with him, but it's a pleasant sampler platter of Latin jazz. (DBW)

Milly Quezada, Vive (1998)
No, it's not a live record. Quezada was the lead singer of merengue band Los Vecinos (later, Milly Y Los Vecinos) for quite a while before striking out on her own, and the top talent here reflects that. Tunes were contributed by the likes of Omar Alfanno ("Sólo Dame Amor"), Victor Victor ("Para Darte Mi Vida," present in two versions), and Emilio Estefan ("Querido Emigrante," a somewhat overblown pro-emigrant anthem). (Not that I like Estefan, or Victor Victor for that matter...) Most of the tunes are standard danceable merengue, with smooth arrangements (backing vocals are more prominent than horns) and just a couple of slow numbers; "Para Olvidarte" starts slow and speeds up - the slow part is the melody from Roberta Flack and Peabo Bryson's "Tonight I Celebrate My Love." Though the record is a bit too safe, it's solid, and Quezada's voice is lively and engaging, with unforced power and genuine enthusiasm ("Y Tu... ¿Como Estás?"). Mostly recorded in Puerto Rico and arranged by Rafael Quezada; several tracks were recorded in the Dominican Republic and arranged by Miguel Tejada, and two were cut in New York under the aegis of Henry Jiménez, "Tú Me Llena De Amor" and my favorite cut on the disc, the horn-led, riff-packed "Si Piensas En Mí." (DBW)

Louie Ramirez Y Sus Amigos (1978)
Like Ray Barretto or Larry Harlow, Louie Ramirez was a popular NYC Latin bandleader in the 60s and 70s who's somewhat overlooked today. Though Ramirez started as a vibraphonist, here he sticks to piano except on his composition "Salsa Vibes," but whatever he's doing, his omnivorous appetite makes the record stand out: An instrumental cover of the Beatles' "Something" starts with rapid jazz piano riffing, then builds to a salsa vamp supporting percussion solos and wild, Bernie Worrell-style synth from Ramirez. Instrumentals sit comfortably beside love songs ("Cuando Llegastes Tú"). "Because" - another Beatles cover - showcases flute and violins, and quotes from John Coltrane's "Giant Steps." Then there are those sweeping strings - somewhere between disco and Mantovani - that somehow sound just right ("Paula C.," written and sung by Ruben Blades). The album sounds not so much like an attempt to blur boundaries between salsa, jazz and pop, but as if the band had never heard that such boundaries existed. (DBW)

Johnny Rivera, Y Ahora De Verdad (1990)
More smooth NY Sound salsa from Sergio George, with two hit remakes: "Necesito Una Amiga," earlier popularized by NG La Banda, and a bilingual salsa version of "My Eyes Adored You," which is actually a lot better than you'd think. Rivera's voice is pleasant but familiar sounding, and the same goes for the arrangements: this is George as craftsman, not as artist. But even at his most ordinary he's still better than most other producers; if you need a NY salsa fix this will do the job. (DBW)

Conjunto Rumbavana, Dejala Que Baile Sola (1983)
Formed in 1956, Rumbavana may be the longest continually existing Cuban popular music band, apart from Orquesta Revé. And like Revé, the group has updated its act over the years, adding boleros and charangas when those crazes were popular, and also going back to old masters like Arsenio Rodríguez for inspiration. I believe - though as usual with Cuban music it's hard to reconstruct the group's discography - that this was recorded in the early 80s, toward the end of Joseíto Gonzalez's tenure as bandleader, and the group generally uses traditional instrumentation with a respectful but modern sensibility (including slinky, robust electric bass). The quasi-title track (Juan Almeida's "Que Baile Sola El Son") has the punch of Orquesta Original de Manzanillo, with complex, interwinding horns. Elsewhere, "Vine Pa' Echar Candela" (by Ray Barretto) uses a chilled-funk breakdown straight out of Ritmo Oriental's book; "Como Vivo Yo" opens with a discursive, jazzy trumpet solo and builds to a wild percussion break. The only trick that doesn't work is the tinny synth that infests the bolero "Nos Estamos Alejandro." Unfortunately, Gonzalez doesn't construct truly memorable songs: each tune is solidly - often creatively - performed ("No Llores, No Vuelvo"), but nothing burns itself into your brain the way songs by Los Van Van and the other Tier One Cuban bands do. Discographic note: Rumbavana's propulsive take on Rodríguez's "No Me Llores," recorded around this time, is available only on the David Byrne-compiled Cuban Classics, Vol. 2. (DBW)

Lázaro Calvo y Rumbavana, ¡Que Te Revisen...! (2006)
By now Gonzalez was long gone, and the band was being led by pianist Calvo. Though several songs are by the production team of Luis A. Domínguez and José Luís Uriarte (title track), most of the disc pays tribute to son standards like "Vuela La Paloma" and Adalberto Alvarez's "Bongosero Mentiroso." So like Oriental's latest CDs, this isn't novel at all, but the performances and sound are so good it's still worth hearing ("Guanabacoa"). (DBW)

Poncho Sanchez, Raise Your Hand (2007)
Veteran percussionist Poncho Sanchez branches out from his usual Latin jazz, creating a Stax/Volt soul homage: two tracks feature Eddie Floyd, Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper (title track), and two more spotlight Maceo Parker (a cover of "Shotgun"). It's not as much fun as you'd think, because the new tunes are sketchy - soul's simplicity is a double-edged sword, because if your main melody is forgettable, there's nowhere to hide - while all the extra percussion is superfluous and doesn't add any excitement ("Knock On Wood"). The one true jazz/soul hybrid is "Maceo's House," and even that works mostly because Parker is nearly infallible as a soloist. Fortunately, the majority of the disc is Sanchez's tried and true, and the band sounds great, anchored by pianist David Torres, who ranges easily from sensitive comping (his own "Rosario") to forceful vamping ("¿Dónde Va Chichi?") as the situation demands. Sanchez finds ways to blend salsa and jazz, rather than choose between them - introducing chord substitutions on the salsa "El Auga De Belen" (sung by Andy Montañez) and strong syncopation on the fiery bop "Tropi Blue") - and leaves plenty of room for his own solos ("Amor Con Amor") The horns aren't as striking as Palmieri's, either as a group or as individuals, but overall it's an impressive band, and an enjoyable listen. (DBW)

Santi Y Sus Duendes, No Inventes Papito, No Inventes (1990)
A standard merengue band, cranking out unbelievably fast three-chord tunes with eighth-note piano, call-and-response horns, and tongue-in-cheek lyrics ("La Gordita"). Impeccably performed ("Mentira Mentira" has a particularly nice horn break), but adherence to the formula is so rigid that it's wearying ("Menti-Two"), and it doesn't help that frontman Santí has a squeaky, frequently annoying voice. The one surprise is the hit that gave birth to merenrap: "Soy Chiquito (No Inventes Papito, No Inventes)" featuring an uncredited Lisa M (the song turned up on her own album under the title "Tu Pum Pum"). The differing tempo and instrumentation, and the extra vocalist make for a wonderful contrast - a little more of that would made the album much more entertaining. Most of the songs are by "Pochi" Vasquez, while future merengue star Kinito Méndez wrote "Grítale"; musicians aren't listed. (DBW)

Ray Sepulveda, De Todo Un Poco (1997)
Depressingly routine NY salsa, as if Sepulveda were trying to pack every genre cliché onto one disc, with the horns and percussion softpedaled so that there's absolutely nothing to get excited about. If the plan was to spotlight Sepulveda's vocals, it was a mistake: his voice is the exact opposite of attention-grabbing. There are a pile of different composers and arrangers, but none of them have anything approaching a new idea - to make matters worse, they replace quality with quantity, padding out each track to nearly five minutes. Tito Nieves, riding on the success of his soda commercial, drops by to sing "La Dama De Mis Amores," but it's as instantly forgettable as the rest. If this disc is anything to go by, the former powerhouse RMM records is in trouble. Unless you're a diehard fan, skip this. (DBW)

Son Cuba Y Puerto Rico (2007)
Third in a series of all-star collaborations between the two islands, after 1994's De Aqui Pa' Alla and 1996's De Allá Pa' Acá. As before, most of the firepower is Cuban: Los Van Van's Changuito, Pedro Calvo and Jeni Valdés; Chucho Valdés; most of NG Banda (the instrumental "Huracán") - in fact, I suspect their tracks were recorded before that band fragmented. Puerto Rico is represented by singers Andy Montañez (from El Gran Combo) and Jerry Medina, saxophonist David Sánchez ("Sanchez Blue") and percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo ("Regalo A Elegguá"). The arrangements range from detailed and jazz-influenced ("Manicero," sung by Calá and Medina; "Cachita") to straightforward blowing sessions ("Soñando Con Puerto Rico," pairing Montañez with Irakere), but thankfully there's a minimum of all-star showiness. Not so thankfully, the disc doesn't list instrumentalists for each track, so I'm not sure exactly where Tony Perez is on piano, or Feliciano Arango on bass, but they're in there somewhere and the best performances are glorious, so it's time to give the obsessive part of my brain a rest. (DBW)

Spanish Harlem Orchestra, Across 110th Street (2004)
Shameless nostalgia for the NYC salsa sound of the 70s, not that that's a bad thing. The Orchestra is led by former Rubén Blades pianist Oscar Hernández, and he brought in Blades to sing lead on most of the tunes ("Bailadores"). The set list is a mix of oldies - Tito Puente's "Cuando Te Vea"; C. Curet Alonso's "Como Lo Canto Yo" - and originals (Hernánez's near-instrumental "Escucha El Ritmo")... None of the tunes is jaw-dropping (the opening "Un Gran Día En El Barrio" is probably the high point, or else the sweetly harmonized "Espérame En El Cielo") but nothing drags either. The band is maximally tight ("Maestro De Rumbero"), the sound mix is impeccable - every instrument is clearly audible at all times - and no tune outstays its welcome (the instrumental "Perla Morena" possibly excepted). But what the record is missing that the 70s Fania releases had in abundance is a sense of experimentation, of risk-taking, of pushing limits... everything here is so clearly within the band's comfort zone I can't help feeling cheated. Produced by Aaron Luis Levinon and Hernández. (DBW)

Tabou Combo Superstars, Tour Du Monde (1981)
It's sadly unsurprising that Haiti's premier dance band has been based in Brooklyn for the past thirty years. Along the way they've chronicled their immigrant experience in songs like 1975's "New York City" - at one time the best-selling single in Haitian history - without ever losing their rhythm. Brooklyn may not have sped up their assimilation of disparate musical styles but surely didn't hurt: There's everything from a fragile Continental-sounding love song ("Bon Anniversaire") to a Kool & The Gang imitation ("Et Alors"), and it's all rendered with spirit. But they don't forget what their core audience is looking for, and so they deliver plenty of their groove-heavy, tightly arranged comparsa ("Trop Jeune"). While it's a good thumbnail of their approach, it's far from Tabou Combo's best set of tunes: "In Memoriam," for example, is saddled with a lackluster main theme and can't get out of mid-gear despite all the able embellishments. (DBW)

Tabou Combo Superstars, Aux Antilles (1989)
By the late 80s, Haiti's premier dance band had developed an easy-going blend of dance beat (4/4 drums by Herman Nau plus syncopated percussion by Yvon "Kapi" Andre, Yves "Fan Fan" Joseph and Raynald "Sexy Man" Valme), arpeggiated chorus-y guitars (Elysee Pryronneau and Gary "Met Ga" Resil), catchy horn riffs (Andrew "Dr. Black" Washington on trombone, Ned "Philocles" Gold on sax, Joe Mosello on trumpet), and light touches of keyboard (Ernst "Ernso" Marcelin). The low-key vocals are by Roger "Shoubou" Eugene, with the group providing harmonies on the choruses. It's the way Afro-pop should be, but never is: light-hearted even when the material is serious ("La Vie En Exil"), but never falling into a rut. The best example is the hook-packed title track: between the funky bass (by Yves Albert "Radical" Abel), percussion fills, horns and smooth group vocals, eight minutes go by in the blink of an eye. The approach doesn't vary much from track to track, though "Sweet 20" is sweetened with accordion, and the traditional "Kote Moune Yo" is transformed into a harsh, almost depressing dance groove with half-chanted lyrics (also present in a remix). I don't even pretend to understand Haitian Creole, so I can't comment on the lyrics. Most of the tunes are by Joseph or Andre, but several other bandmembers get co-writes. The production is credited to the record label, but I suspect Joseph was really in charge. (DBW)

Tabou Combo, Zap-Zap (1991)
In the same style as their previous release, and again mostly band-written, but without the same attention to detail. Several tracks stick with their basic grooves far too long (title track), the horns don't get much to do, and since there are no dynamics shifts or percussion breaks, the unvarying rhythm will get on your nerves by the concluding "Kompe Shelbe." Only "Amelie" is as stuffed with riffs as most tracks on Aux Antilles; brief loud guitar on "A Moitye" is one of the few surprises. However, all seven songs are tuneful and danceable ("Bam Ke Ou"), so if you didn't know how much more the band is capable of, you'll be satisfied with the record. Despite the name change the band is largely the same, but the entire horn section was replaced, with Jason Forsythe (trombone), Ken Watters and Ken Sharf (trumpet), and Todd Martin (sax) coming aboard; Fabrice "Fab" Rouzier is added on keyboards. Guests include Louis Cruz (acoustic guitars on the gentle "Yo"), and a few more horn players. Produced by Joseph. (DBW)

Carlos Varela, Monedas Al Aire (1993)
Varela is a Cuban singer-songerwriter who plays either Silvio Rodríguez-style folk or Springsteen-like rockers. On this release he also throws in a couple of minimalist dance tracks: "Todos Se Roban" and "Como Me Hicieron A Mí," both of which are pointed attacks on repressive authority. Whatever style he's playing, he has an expressive, unpretentious voice, a good ear for uncomplicated melody, and poetic social-issue lyrics. It's easy to write a political tract, but it's hard to make it art, and that's what Varela succeeds at throughout the album: the title track, "Circulo De Tiza" and "Enigma Del Arbol" are moody meditations on a country at the crossroads, while "Ahora Que Los Mapas Estan Cambiando De Color" (which opens with a sample of V.I. Lenin) doesn't express confusion, it is confusion. He adds two lovely studies of everyday Cuban life, "Muro" and "Desde Aquel Día En Que Lo Dividieron Todo." The loud rockers aren't as convincing ("Robinson," "Cuchilla En La Acera") and the band doesn't have much character, but Varela is at his best here, catchy and unsettling. (DBW)

Carlos Varela, Como Los Peces (1994)
Varela went to Spain to make this record, and concentrated on an arena-rock sound. His poetry, subtlety and melodicism seem to have gone out the window - he sounds more like El Tri than Silvio. There's not much to the tunes, and nothing stands out except the rock/salsa blend "Habáname" and the near-punk "La Política No Cabe En La Azucarera." Varela produced. (DBW)

Johnny Ventura, 35 Aniversario Con Sus Invitados (1992)
Merengue legend Johnny Ventura got a bunch of big-name guests for his 35th anniversary album: Celia Cruz, Grupo Niche, Victor Victor, Daniela Romo and Wilfrido Vargas, among others. Almost everything is written by Ventura with Huchi Lora, except Grupo Niche's feature "Al Son De La Calavera," written by Lora alone. It's mostly not at the frantic tempos often associated with merengue, but the tunes aren't memorable either, and typically the album fails to generate excitement - it sounds like they expected all the guests to magically make the record enjoyable. Vargas appears on "Tambora Y Guiro," a salute to merengue that's one of the album's best tracks; Cruz' guest shot on "La Carimba" isn't bad either. You won't hate yourself for buying this, but it's not going to make you understand why Ventura's lasted for 35 years, either. (DBW)

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