Friday, November 16, 2012

Cuban Sounds: From Mambo To Pop, And Back Again


Courtesy of the artist
I started to seriously listen to music around 1972, when I became an active rather than passive listener, constantly searching for songs I'd never heard before. It was a great time to do it, because bands like Santana, The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers were blurring the lines separating jazz, rock and Latin music long before they became their own genre: classic rock.

Sorry to namedrop, but I got a chance to chat with rock guitarist Pete Townshend yesterday beforehe appeared on Talk of the Nation to promote his new autobiography, Who I Am. One of the things he discussed was rock promoter Bill Graham's habit of booking avant-garde jazz acts with young rockers in late-'60s San Francisco. Townshend's eyes lit up when he described seeing saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk open for The Who at The Fillmore — an unlikely pairing that would never happen in today's music industry.

Then there's Latin Alternative music, which has consistently carried on that spirit of musical adventure. Extremely creative young musicians all over Latin America make listening to music as exciting as it was when everything was new to me — and they make a show like this week's hard to program, because there's so much from which to choose. Our travel schedules, Guest DJ shows and other logistical challenges have prevented us from presenting new music in a while. So we decided to package our latest picks separately: A few weeks ago, Jasmine Garsd showed off her finds, and today I do mine.

Curiously, my picks were largely Cuban-influenced, including Sergio Mendoza's fun reinterpretations of Perez Prado's 1950s-era mambo, DJ Mala's incredible soundscapes exploring traditional Cuban rhythms, Alex Cuba's Santeria-inspired pop music, and Ozomatli's kids project Ozokids, which circles back to mambo.

In my search for new sounds this month, I also came across the shimmering, pop-influenced Brazilian explorations of Sexy Fi. And, in Los Monedas' "Buena Suerte," I found a compelling story of how politics and cultural imperialism made musical history during the authoritarian reign of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.

Like those who shaped my musical coming of age 40 years ago, the sonic explorers today remind me of a metaphor a friend once used to describe musicians who constantly challenge themselves: If the entire world were a tabletop and all of humanity gathered in the center, these musicians would be the brave souls who'd venture out to see just how far they could go.

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