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Ritmo Oriental

Reviewed on this page:
Volume I - Sabroseao - Volume II - Volume III - Volume IV - Historia De La Ritmo Vol. 1 - Volume V - El Agua No Me Llevó - Volume VII - Azúcar A Granel - 30 Años - El Ritmo De La Ritmo - Tremenda Habana - De Nuevo... La Ritmo - Los Tocadores De Güiro - Mucho Más Que Exitos - Entre Amigos

One of the "big three" 70s Cuban dance bands, with Los Van Van and Irakere. Ritmo Oriental formed in the late 1950s when Elio Revé's band left en masse. (A decade later, Los Van Van was also formed from Revéfugees.) I had incorrectly pegged Ritmo Oriental as a traditional Cuban band along the lines of Aragón or Rumbavana, but really they're closer to Orquesta Original de Manzanillo, generally sticking to standard instrumentation but frequently pushing other boundaries: their breakdowns are bewilderingly complex, cross-rhythms innovative, group tempo shifts unparalleled, and bassist Humberto Perera freed himself from typical tumbao so far that he became more featured soloist than timekeeper. The first fifteen years of the band left almost no trace on disc, but since then they've put up a string of hits that rivals almost anyone's: not as highbrow as Irakere, as jazzy as NG, as tradition-minded as Muñequitos De Matanzas, or as Western pop-influenced as Van Van, Dan Den and Revé, but considered on their own terms they're practically unbeatable.

In compiling this page, I've relied to an embarassing extent on research presented by Kevin Moore on the excellent site timba.com. Since nearly all the group's original albums were released without titles, I'm calling them Volume I, II, et cetera, which would presumably be the titles EGREM would use if it ever got around to re-releasing the LPs on CD (which you can request by writing to the label here). It's tough to find Ritmo Oriental releases in the US, so your first stop should be the two Historia De La Ritmo compilations released by Qbadisc in the early 90s, and 1989's Ritmo Oriental Is Calling You!; to get a sense of the band, their recent CDs are very solid and remake many of their classic tracks. (DBW)

Enrique Lazaga, güiro; Daniel Díaz, timbales; Juan "Claro" Bravo, congas. Humberto Perera, bass, joined c. 1969. Other key members: Juan Crespo Maza, lead vocals; Policarpo "Polo" Tamayo, flute. Tony Calá, vocals and violin, joined 1976, left 1987. Díaz died, early 90s. Perera left in the 90s, replaced by Rafael "Chá" Limonta. Maza and Bravo left by 2005, at which point the rhythm section was Lazaga and his two sons, Enrique Lazaga Jr. (congas) and Eduardo Lazaga (timbales).

Freshly after forming in 1958, Ritmo Oriental recorded four tracks for the Palma label. If you know anything about them, tell me. (DBW)

Volume I (1965)
At this point, Oriental sounded much like a typical charanga band, sub-three-minute songs with flute carrying the melody, violins providing harmonic backing, and the rhythm section almost impossible to hear (though the mix is better than most from the era). "Quién Baila Mejor" is one of the more memorable tunes, with an easy groove and a brief piano solo. The final descending vamp of "Nada Seré" and raked violins in the second half of "Cuéntale A Lulú" both hint at future achievements, but the record's worth listening to mostly as an example of the standard forms La Ritmo would leave behind. Or to put it another way, how far they still had to go. (DBW)

Sabroseao (1971)
A four-song EP, the first recordings featuring bass phenom Humberto Perera. "Sabroseao Con La Ritmo" is an early composition by Maza, who was a prolific songwriter when most Cuban vocalists weren't (and still aren't, exceptions like Manolín notwithstanding). "Quiéreme Mucho" is an early example of fun with tempo, as the band speeds up and slows down erratically - like teenager (or me) driving a car, only less scary. The band already had most of the pieces that would define its future success, but couldn't quite put them together yet, so despite all the talent in evidence not one of the songs is great: "Qué Historia" deteriorates after a striking opening, while "Chica Te Quiero Ver" never gets rolling. (DBW)

For some reason, Cuba wasn't releasing any new LPs during the first years of the 70s (even Silvio Rodriguez had to wait until 1975), so Ritmo Oriental's rapidly maturing sound during that period is mostly undocumented. A couple of 1973 tracks have turned up on compilations, though, and they're terrific: "Que Se Sepa Bién Mi Amor," a three-minute vamp bracketed by a very brief theme; and Rodolfo Vaillant's "¿Quién Dice?," which combines jokey asides from Pedro Calvo with deadly serious ostinato strings. (DBW)

Volume II (1974)
By this point, the elements of the group's distinctive take on charanga are easy to hear: adventurous, Jamerson-style bass; violin arrangements liberated from their usual supporting role; and a remarkable ability to expand and contract the tempo while retaining an organic sound. "Mi Socio Manolo" was the biggest hit, but "Adiós No Estoy Loco" and the dramatic "Se Perdió Mi Amor" are at least as striking. Songwriting is split, with Maza writing four tunes (incuding "Manolo") and two apiece from Lazaga ("Canto De La Felicidad") and Ramiro Reyes (two boleros). Produced by Vincente Rojas, directed by Reyes. (DBW)

Volume III (1975)
Perhaps not as novel but much more consistent and cleanly recorded. Rolando Vergara's "Yo Bailo De Todo" - which would become the band's signature song - starts things off in style. "La Chica Mamey" (again by Maza) is a great example of their style: an old-timey melody that could be kitchy is transported into the future with catchy violin hooks, rhythmic displacements, and herculean bass runs from Perera. The first half of "Lágrimas Negras" is almost unrecognizable, with Perera's laid-back lines and a transformed melody, until the familiar refrain finally kicks in. "Y Se Baila Así" is another classic track with a great bass line, originally recorded for single release before Volume II but not released until the next year. Produced by Adolfo Pichardo; Reyes didn't write anything this time but arranged half the tracks, with the balance divvied up among Maza, Lazaga and Perera. I believe this was the last record to feature Pedro Calvo on vocals: he joined Los Van Van by 1976. Shortly after this release, the band cut the catchy, confident "Enseñama Tu Baile Lola." (DBW)

Volume IV (1977)
"Pero Soy Así" may be the disc's standout track, bubbling over with hooks - violin, flute, bass, vocal - but there's plenty under the hood. "La Ritmo Suena A Areíto" is a Perera showpiece, as he runs the gamut from solid underpinning to surehanded soloing over an elemental groove. The group has a singular approach to slow numbers, livening up the backing tracks without winking or undercutting the singer: the brief bolero "Pensamiento" is a blast, with trickling piano and a sturdy fade, and "Pero Déjame Mirar" - practically a suite - is one of the most enjoyable tunes the group ever cut. Even when the main melody is unremarkable, listen for the bass runs and arranging tricks, like the surprise ending of "Por Hacerme Caso." Maza wrote five of the twelve tunes (the supercharged ballad "Grandes Cosas Para Tí"), with two more from Lazaga ("Que Es Lo Que Hay," with a bewildering succession of breaks). The band also recorded some other tracks in 1977: "Yo No Me Equivoco" is a hit with bass improvisation above Perera's already lofty standard; new vocalist/violinist Tony Calá's "El Son Claro" is even better, with a stunning bridge and unflagging energy; a gimmicky salsa-fied take on Beethoven's Fifth, though, has more in common with Walter Murphy's disco version than with Irakere's forays into classical music ("La Quinta"). (DBW)

Volume V (1978)
By this point Perera was listed as band director, a role he would retain for a decade or so. A more traditional sound than the previous 70s albums, and the songs are not as exciting either, apart from Maza's hit "Nena Así No Se Vale" and the delightful rollercoaster ride "Juan Primito." Maza contributed only two cuts ("Si Hay Posibilidad Me Voy") with the slack taken up by unfamiliar names - I don't know if the band was experimenting or in some sort of crisis. Whether the tunes are fast ("Maritza"), slow ("Corazón") or both ("Y Tú Qué Has Hecho"), the record is decent ("La Ritmo Te Está Llamando") but ordinary ("Tiene Nivel"). A disappointment only in relation to the nearly flawless surrounding albums. (DBW)

Historia De La Ritmo Vol. 1 (rec. 1974-1978, rel. 1993)
This Qbadisc compilation is made up of Volume II and Volume III, minus a few boleros, plus a brief percussion interlude purportedly from Volume V but not on any copy I've seen. Not the way I would have represented the band's early period, but it's loaded with hits ("La Chica Mamey"; "Mi Socio Manolo"; "Yo Bailo De Todo") and as the only way to get any of the 70s tracks without hunting in the back alleys of Miami or Havana, it's highly recommended. (DBW)

During the next several years, Oriental didn't cut an album but did release some tracks. "Canto A Mi Tierra Campesina" is from 1979 or so: it's a strikingly Van Van-like tune, with a prominent electric piano, once-per-measure string hits, and a soothing though vaguely mournful melody. Calá's "Cuidado Con La Percusión" is closer to the band's usual style, including striking unpredictable breaks and satisfying vamps. (DBW)

El Agua No Me Llevó (1983)
This is more like it! With Calá providing half the tunes, the excitement is back on every track: "Mi Amigo Nicolás" starts as a pensive ode, but the singer's sorrow is gradually undercut by limber string and piano runs, until the composition boils over into a salsa vamp with a tongue-in-cheek samba interlude. The rambunctious "Barrios De Rumberos" opens with an incongruous synthesizer, but otherwise the instrumentation is the group's usual, lengthy ornamental flute solos and all ("Como Me Gusta El Coco"). Sometimes, though, the arranging tricks behind the slow numbers obscure the sentiment of the tunes ("Mía Definitivamente"), a trap they'd managed to avoid in the past. Produced by Luis Yáñez. (DBW)

Volume VII (1986)
Continuing in the same vein, with thrilling, multi-part dance cuts like "Advertencia Para Todos" but also a number of mediocre efforts like "Estoy Aquí Nuevamente." The high-powered "Baila Azúcar" contains a chant Calá later brought to NG's "Echale Limón." Everything's more or less uptempo: at this point La Ritmo basically gave up on boleros, which is a shame. They also switched to electric piano, which is an improvement of sorts, because the piano on the 70s albums was almost inaudible. Calá wrote two additional songs, including "Sin Apellidos" with Perera, and Maza and Lazaga were down to one each. (DBW)

Azúcar A Granel (1987)
More or less in the band's usual groove, largely unexceptional except for "Baila Si Vas A Bailar" and the title tune (with a massive second-half montuno). "Hay Salas Y Son Para Rato" has a similar keyboard-led easy vibe to "Canto A Mi Tierra Campesina." I rarely find the group's lyrical content notable, but the anti-smoking "Por Eso Voy A Dejarlo" is an exception. After this disc, Calá jumped ship for the recently formed NG La Banda. (DBW)

30 Años (1988)
I'm fine with greatest hit medleys in concert - they're a handy way to give the audience all the songs they're expecting, while saving time and energy for more interesting stuff - but on record they're a waste of time, and that's largely true of the ten-minute "Popurrit De Exitos" here, despite the good cheer. You might think that after Calá's departure, the band was running short of things to say, but fortunately there's a lot to like, in a variety of styles: Then-up-and-comer Cándido Fabré contributes two memorable dance tunes ("Que Tiene La Ritmo"). "La Gioconda" is another classical reworking, this time of the Ponchielli melody best known to US pop listeners as Allan Sherman's "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah." "Azúcar Con Chocolate" performs La Ritmo's magic on Juan Formell's favorite chord progression. (DBW)

Historia De La Ritmo Vol. 2 (rec. 1978-1988, rel. 1993)
The second Qbadisc compilation, tracing the next decade of the band's development. Again, it hits the high points ("Bailadores"; "El Agua No Me Llevó"; "Mi Amigo Nicolás") and is worth searching out. (DBW)

Ritmo Oriental Is Calling You (rec. 1978-1988, rel. 1989)
Curiously, this compilation covers the same period as Historia Del La Ritmo Vol. 2 but the tracks are all different: "Nene, Así No Se Vale"; "Advertencia Para Todos"; "Ritmo Suena A Areito"; etc. Buy it if you can find it. (DBW)

El Ritmo De La Ritmo (1995)
During this seven-year break from the studio, the band lost drummer Daniel Díaz, the first change in the rhythm section since 1958, and there is some electronic percussion in his place ("Lo Que Traigo") though mostly the sound is unchanged. Another ten-minute medley ("Popurrí De Exitos No. 2"), which at least manages to avoid the hits included on the previous one. Otherwise the material is new (Maza's "Una Descarga Cualquiera") and quite good: "No Quiero Piedra" and "Oye Relaciónate" have the fire and unpredictability of the group's best work. (DBW)

Tremenda Habana (1995)
The title track is another solid dance hit, but the deeper you dig into the album, the more interesting it gets: "El Que Mas Goza" is a dark, flute-led instrumental suite, while "Déjame Volver Contigo" interrupts its traditional format with a funk bridge. The first break in "Adelante Los Tambores" is so unexpected it stands out even in the band's remarkable catalog. "Qué Clase De Cara" is a small miracle: the main melody is nothing special, but the interaction between the percussion, bass and strings is continually shifting and surprising. And Oriental finally delves into santería with the concluding "Llévame Con Tu Babalao." (DBW)

De Nuevo... La Ritmo (Enrique Lazaga y La Ritmo Oriental: 2002)
By the turn of the century, the band was focusing on remakes ("Mi Socio Manolo"; "Popurrit #3," which revisits tunes from the first poppurit) and standards ("Son De La Loma") rather than new compositions. Apart from Maza and Laza, nearly the whole band is new, including two of Lazaga's children - Enrique Jr. (congas) and Edel (viola) - three keyboard players (Luis Peñalver, Javier Concepción, Hector Marquez), four violinists (Adolfo and Neraldo Durán, Erick Lay and Gretchen Rodríguez) and flautist Luis Mustelier. They run through the tunes with brio, but there are no surprises if you've heard the songs before. The one stylistic departure is the mostly instrumental "Descarga De La Ritmo," which segues through jazzy vibes and a piano solo before ending with an interpolation of "Baila Azúcar." (DBW)

Los Tocadores De Güiro (Enrique Lazaga y La Ritmo Oriental: 2004)
How often does this happen? A long-established act turns its back on its successful formula, and immediately comes up with another successful formula. By now Lazaga had lost most of his original band, and looking at the track listing you'd think the band was just a nostalgia act, resuscitating past hits and other oldies ("Pero Déjame Mirar"; "Canto De La Felicidad"). Surprisingly, though, the tunes are as hard-hitting as anything the group has done, but it's updated son rather than Oriental's usual charanga: there are fewer trademark breakdowns and mini-suites, while the arrangements feature less bass, the rest of the rhythm section cranked up, smoother strings, occasional horns and on one tune ("Almendra"), even an electric guitar. The piano player, whoever it is, is ferocious, ranging easily from sensitive comping to Palmieri-like sunbursts. Combine all those elements and the closing "Baila Si Vas A Bailar" becomes almost unrecognizeable, but it's a heck of a lot of fun, and that goes double for the straight shot of adrenalin "Yo Soy El Capitán." Perhaps the best example of the transformation is the standard "Quizás, Quizás, Quizás," which becomes a whirlwind of percussion and dramatic jazz-inflected piano while the weathered group vocals stay true to the tune's heart. Adding a nice balance, a couple of boleros are presented more traditionally ("Angoa"). Definitely no place to get a sense of the band's approach or importance, but a tremendously enjoyable detour. (DBW)

Mucho Más Que Exitos (Enrique Lazaga y La Ritmo Oriental: 2005)
An abrupt switch backward stylewise, dropping the non-charanga instrumentation so that the familiar tunes ("La Chica Mamey"; "Yo Bailo De Todo") actually sound familiar. And this time, almost everything is a remake, both big hits ("Ahora Sí") and overlooked numbers ("¿Quién Dice?" with a garrolous guest appearance from original vocalist Pedrito Calvo). So the excellent sound quality and totally committed presentation makes the record worth hearing ("Se Baila Así") but there's nothing here you wouldn't expect. By this time timbalero Claro Bravo had quit the group - replaced by yet another of Lazaga's sons, Eduardo - and Tamayo was back, flute flurrying as densely as ever ("Liceo Del Pilar"). Teenage prodigy José Ramón Cabrera is on piano, and exhibits some of the versatility of the previous record's pianist ("Ojos Malignos") but not the fire. (DBW)

Entre Amigos (SOS Lazaga: 2006)
Enrique Lazaga and his three sons, but in a different configuration: Eduardo (timbal/bongos) is the leader, backed up by Enrique (güiro), Enrique Jr. (conga) and Edel (violin); also on hand are bassist Limonta and pianist Cabrera ("Piti Chá"), while Yaimi Karel Lay adds Ele Valdés-like bell-clear vocals. Musically it's somewhere between traditional Cuban music and jazz ("Descarga Piti-Laz"), and as the title suggests, there's a loose, half-improvised feel that makes me think of hanging around the town square. Largely instrumental - such vocals as there are are mostly chanted ("Shangó") - and there's plenty of time for solos ("Los Tres Golpes"). Without the dramatic buildups or song orientation of Ritmo Oriental, and worlds away from modern Cuban dance music, it's no more and no less than a bunch of expert musicians chilling out and having fun with a musical style they love. (DBW)

Baila si vas a bailar.

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