New York Music Daily

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Tag: cuban music

Up Close at Legendary Cuban Singer Omara Portuondo’s Farewelll Tour

At this point in her career, Omara Portunondo can do whatever she wants. The legendary Buena Vista Social Club singer has roots in Afro-Cuban music as deep as pretty much anyone ever has. Being Cuban, she hasn’t had the chance to spend as much time playing in this country as other artists of similar stature from elsewhere around the globe. That’s downright tragic, especially since her current tour is billed as a farewell.

But she doesn’t sing like she’s on her way out. Sure, she’s in her eighties now  and there’s more flint in her voice than there was ten years or so ago. And she gets an escort onstage, sits when she sings and takes a break midway through the show. But she still has power in the lows and brightness in the highs.

Portuondo distinguished herself as one of the most elegant singers to come out of latin music, and salsa in particular, a long time ago. Her delivery is as articulate and nuanced as ever: even if Spanish is not your first language, she’s very easy to understand. If you manage to catch her on this “Ultimo Beso” tour,, there will be people in the crowd singing along: if you don’t know the words, just wait for the chorus, you’ll get it.

If Friday night’s show at a swanky, semi-new sub-basement boite in the Times Square area is the blueprint, expect pianist Roberto Fonseca to open the show and then lead the band – Andres Coayo on percussion, Ruly Herrera on drums and Yandy Martinez  on bass- through what could be a long, very eclectic ,mostly instrumental interlude midway through. These guys are equally skilled at guajira, rhumba, cha-cha and boleros, and  like their leader can shift effortlessly between those styles.

Although she stays in her seat for most of the set, Portuondo may practically do the limbo from her chair when she’s not setting off singalongs with the audience. Beyond what the band are playing, the musical backdrop may include synthy orchestration and samples emanating from a loop pedal or a sequencer in Fonseca’s collection of keyboards. Martinez will switch between electric and acoustic bass and really dig in on the lows when he bows. Coayo will be as subtle as the singer, since most of the material is on the slow and melancholy side, as he switches from bongos to chekere, but he’ll really energize the crowd and draw them into a fiery timbale solo.

Portuondo will engage the crowd more if she senses that most of them know the material. Friday evening, the bttersweet Adios Felicidad was a highlight: holler for it if the band doesn’t play it early on. They don’t make singers like Portuondo anymore: this is a fleeting chance to be glad that the two of you are alive at the same time when she can sing your disappointments away.

Lush, Lively, Inventive Cuban String Sounds From the Toomai String Quintet

Last night at Symphony Space, the Toomai String Quintet played an irrepressibly dancing album release show for their new one, Cuerdas Cubanas, which would have made Ernesto Lecuona proud. The “Cuban Gershwin,” as bandleader and bassist Andrew Roitstein aptly characterized him, is well represented on the record and likewise in the concert program, a mix of elegantly serpentine themes with the Cuban composer’s signature blend of European classical, flamenco, Romany and indigenous sounds.

Cellist Hamilton Berry grinningly told the crowd that Roitstein’s new arrangements, many of them based on material originally written for piano or orchestra, were pretty awesome, and he wasn’t kidding. Roitstein has an obvious affinity for Lecuona’s work, and his bandmates  – who also include violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Fortes and violist Erin Wight – reveled in his nifty exchanges of phrases and contrapuntal voicings.

You might not think that a singer who’s made a career in opera, as Roitstein’s sister Alina has, would necessarily be suited to singing salsa, but she also obviously gravitates toward this music. A magnetic presence in front of the band, swinging her hips and negotiating the lyrics in impressively fluent Spanish, she delivered cheery and frequently coy versions of hits made famous by Celia Cruz, Tito Puente and others.

A slinky, loopy bass and cello interweave set up Gendron’s plaintive vibrato in the night’s lilting, opening instrumental, La Comparsa. True to its title, Zamba Gitana had emphatic Romany riffage and some neat handoffs between the two violinists. The exchanges between band members were even more incisive in the phantasmagorical Gitanerias, which the group began as a real danse macabre.

There were also plenty of lighthearted moments in the set, including but hardly limited to a jaunty santeria dance, an animated thicket of pizzicato in Lecuona’s En Tres Por Cuatro, and the balmy nocturnal ambience of Manuel Ponce’s Plenilunio. There was also an interlude where a small battalion of young string players who’d been workshopping Cuban music with the quintet joined them and added extra ballast to the Israel “Cachao” Lopez hit A Gozar Con Mi Combo. Solos are still a work in progress for these kids, but when they played along with the rest of the band, the music was absolutely seamless.

The quintet encored with Lecuona’s Andalucia, shifting from uneasily acerbic Arabic-flavored chromatics to an indomitable, triumphant sway. It’s hard to think of a more perfect way to close such an eclectically enjoyable show. The Toomai String Quintet have a weekly Saturday 6 PM residency at Barbes coming up this September, where you will undoubtedly get many opportunities to hear a lot of this material.

Changüí Majadero Bring a Rare, Slinky Oldschool Cuban Sound to New York This Weekend

“It’s gonna be an amazing night,” Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh beamed, a couple of hours ago.  “Our programming is designed to represent the best of New York and beyond. Even though they’re from East LA, and Cuba, Changüí Majadero represent the kind of quality that we need at Lincoln Center.” She was on to something.

Changüí Majadero play the roots of salsa with a slinky passion. It’s the kind of Eastern Cuban dance music that was popular back when US gunboats were self-destructing in Havana harbor and mishaps like that were blamed on the occupying Spanish forces. It’s a soundtrack for rum and lechon parties on the beach that last for days. Which is to say that the six-piece band play it that way. It’s what the Buena Vista Social Club guys’ grandparents would have listen to as kids.

The tingly, metallic chimes of bandleader Gabriel Garcia’s tres opened the first song of the night, Guararey de Pastora. Roberto Bauto Segarra had a very serious reason for writing this undulating, crescendoing vamp: to placate his mother-in-law, who didn’t like him. Reggae-like polyrhythms between the tres and David Gomez’s 6-string bass percolated throughout this song, and much of the rest of the set, testament to the influence of Jamaican music. Lots of cross-pollination floats across the water in the part of the world this music comes from.

A bouncy tres riff and friendly, conversational trumpet from Roque Garcia kicked off Popurri De Sones, a catchy, upbeat ballad with jaunty harmonies between Garcia and frontwoman/guayo player Norrel Thompson. The bandleader took pride in telling the crowd that he’d written Pa Cuba Me Voy, a fearlessly political shout-out to the island: the packed dancefloor responded with a spontaneous clapalong.

Jorge Ortiz’s bongo de monte opened the steady, pulsing Mayumbero. His twin drums differentiate from your typical set of bongos since one is tuned with the usual drum pegs, but the hardware on the other is fire-tempered, and the sound is boomier. That might be a Haitian influence, considering that Haitian lights are visible across the water from Guantanamo.

The group went back to vampy, matter-of-factly rising proto-salsa in Me le Llevo al Megaton, the guy/girl vocals slowly rising toward fever pitch as the dancers twirled in front of the stage. The deadpan, sardonic Peor Es la Envidia dealt with “Haters that you can’t get off your back,” as the bandleader put it; Gomez’s soulful, serpentine solo echoed Garcia’s tres lines as the percussion section bubbled and clattered behind them. 

They finally, finally slowed it down a little bit with Canconera, sung with wounded poignancy by Thompson over a similarly brooding, bolero-tinged bass groove punctuated by the chime of the tres and a mournful trumpet solo. It was the best song of the night. La Rumba Esta Buena, with its graceful minor-key riffs, was also pretty chill.

From there the band took a fat, bass-centered, trumpet-fueled departure into oldtime Cuban son and followed with the catchiest song of the night, which also most closely foreshadowed the sound that would become classic oldschool salsa in the 1960s and 70s. At the end of the show, the group left the stage and led the crowd in a parranda around the space.

Changüí Majadero are at SOB’s this Monday, Jan 15 at around 10; what’s even better is that the show is free. If you missed the Lincoln Center gig, this is a rare chance to see rural Cuban party music that doesn’t sound like it belongs in a museum. If you’re lucky they’ll play Un Burro y un Elefante, their wryly spot-on critique of American politics written in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election. 

And the next show at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is this Jan 18 at 7:30 PM with classic oldschool Cuban-style charanga José Fajardo Jr. y Sus Estrellas. These free dance parties are wildly popular – if you’re going, get there early.

The Battle of Santiago Bring Their Wild, Hard-Rocking Latin Dancefloor Jams to Red Hook

The Battle of Santiago sound like no other group on the planet. Ostensibly, they’re an Afro-Cuban dance band, but that’s just for starters. They also bring elements of Afrobeat, dub, south Asian sounds and even a little stadium rock to their undulating, serpentine dancefloor jams. They’re bringing their wild live show to Pioneer Works in Red Hook at 8 PM on May 14; the show is free.

Maybe more than anything, the Battle of Santiago are all about contrasts. They fill the sonic picture from boomy lows to airy highs over a clattering, hypnotic beat from Sty Larocque’s drums in tandem with the congas and percussion of Reimundo Sosa and Magdelys Savigne. Their album La Migra – an obvious reference to the terror facing displaced persons and immigrants these days – is streaming at Bandcamp.

It opens with the stormy, seven-minute jam Aguanileo, part shamanistic call-and-response chant, part Afrobeat and part dub, awash in ominous low brass and Lyle Crilly’s resonant guitar as bright alto sax flutters overhead. The second number, Rumba Libre sets distantly fiery, tremolo-picked guitar and a hypnotic interweave of horns over a circling, qawwali-like groove. In Pa’ Bailar, the band sticks with that pulse but picks up the energy, burning electric guitar anchoring the sax and Elizabeth Rodriguez’s violin. Congo is much the same, centered around a bright, anthemic Hawaii 5-0 brass hook.

After the music box-like miniature El Viajes del Bata, a balafon solo, the band brings back the bluster with Asi Vengo Yo, a blazing, galloping, cinematic theme awash in nebulous atmospherics, spiced with guitar, sax and a little reggaeton. Barasu-Ayo is a diptych, opening with a lively santeria chant over bubbly balafon, then picking up with a brisk Afrobeat drive and a scurrying Jason Hay baritone sax solo. With cloudbanks of synth slowly turning overhead, it’s the album’s most hypnotic number.

Se Me Complica, a big, dramatic Afrobeat jam, bounces along with clip-clop percussion. The album winds up with Bomba Grande,  a launching pad for a long, treetop-brushing bari sax solo. For those who like like Radiohead and Pink Floyd but wish that you could dance to them – or who would like Fela better if his music was more focused and heftier – this is your jam.

The Pedrito Martinez Group Play Rugged, Sophisticated Cuban Grooves at Lincoln Center

The Pedrito Martinez Group are Lincoln Center favorites. Their Friday night show there felt like a block party. There was a comfortable, multi-generational, multicultural afterwork crowd in the house for the latest in the ongoing series of concerts by world-class acts from across the world of latin music. Lincoln Center calls it Vaya 63 since the atrium space is just south of 63rd Street.

The music was slinky, and raw, and irresistibly physical. With just piano, bass, percussion and lots of call-and-response vocals, Martinez kept the dancers on their feet for about an hour and a half. When a couple would sit down for a breather, another would spring up to take their place. It is physically impossible to sit still and listen to this band – your body rebels and begins to hurt. Much as there’s a gritty, no-nonsense, streetwise feel to their music, it’s also extremely sophisticated. Martinez plays a hybrid kit that includes both congas, snare, cymbals and plenty of other bangable objects. He was rocking his usual Yankees cap, this one with a bright gold metal logo.

Because he’s a generous bandleader and likes to keep company with musicians who have chops as daunting as his, Martinez switched to cowbell while his longtime co-percussionist Jhair Sala took a turn on the congas: it turned out to be the most boomingly adrenalizing solo of the night.

Throughout the set, they teased the crowd with false endings. Pianist Edgar Pantoja-Aleman opened the show with a display of elegant classically-tinged phrasing before buckling down into energetically tumbling salsa riffs and cascades. Meanwhile, bassist Sebastian Natal played with a growly, incisive tone, often spicing his hypnotic lines with hints of reggae or bachata. While the clave was always present, it also wasn’t ever completely straight up – there was always something going on between the beats, or against the beat, not to mention the constant jousting between Martinez and Sala. They hit a quasi-triplet gallop midway through which brought the rhythmic drive to a peak. They finally led the crowd in a familiar one-two, one-two-three clapalong at the end.

While the group didn’t take the songs as far into jazz territory as they can, they never stayed in one place for long, even as a tune would go on for ten or twelve minutes. Sala beckoned for “all the single ladies” to come down front and sing coros with him; a little later, they launched into a long, undulating take of Que Palo that started out crepuscular and mysterious but by the end was a triumphant anthem with polyrhythms and vocals from everybody. Pantoja-Aleman opened a recent Martinez original, Dios Mio – an OMG-good moment – using a cheesy 80s salsa romantica DX7 synth patch, but by the middle of the song, the congas were thundering and he was back on the piano. As the set went on, the jams got longer, with more sparring between band members. They closed with a joyous singalong of the salsa standard Bacalao.

“I’ve never known them to play with a setlist,” one audience member in the know revealed: Martinez simply called out the tunes and the band knew them. Martinez’s next gig is tomorrow night , Feb 28 at  7 PM at Subrosa on Gansevoort St.; cover is a measly $7. Then they hit the road for a long international tour. 

And the next dance party at the Lincoln Center atrium space, on March 16 at 7:30 PM features the first-ever US performance by the master musicians of the Festival Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde in Essaouira, Morocco with Maalem Hamid El Kasri, Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane and special guest Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer, leader of wildly popular NYC ensemble Innov Gnawa.

Gato Loco Play Explosive, Cinematic Noir Latin Sounds at Joe’s Pub

When a trio of smart, stylish, resourceful women – Nicole (a.k.a. Coley), Lindsay and her vivacious mom Sue – conspire to take over the best table in the house, and then ask you to join them, do you resist? That would have been impossible. Things like that happen at a Gato Loco show.

It’s hard to imagine a set of more explosively dynamic noir music anywhere in New York this year than the “psycho mambo” group’s show at Joe’s Pub a week ago Friday. The energy was Gogol Bordello-level – and they did it without lyrics, and with a pair of frontmen who played bass sax and trombone, respectively. Bandleader/multi-reedman Stefan Zeniuk’s expansively cinematic, toweringly crescendoing latin themes smoldered and slunk and scampered and often blazed for minutes on end, carried at gale force by an amazing band.

Zeniuk started out uncharacteristically on tenor sax but was soon back on his usual bass model, switching back and forth several times, often in the same song, at least when he wasn’t playing bass clarinet – this guy lives for the lows. Teaming with him to anchor them  were “Tuba Joe” Exley and bassist Ari Folman-Cohen (leader of exciting new ska band Pangari & the Socialites). Trombonist Tim Vaughn spent the duration of the show centerstage, literally, and made the most of it, whether looming, blasting or negotiating Zeniuk’s haripin-turn changes with soulful, resonant aplomb. Drummer Kevin Garcia – also of the similarly menacing Karla Rose & the Thorns – teamed with percussionist Matt Hurley as the grooves rose from lowdown to frenetic and everywhere in between while the trumpets of Jackie Coleman and Evan Honse, Rachel Drehmann’s french horn and Lily Maase’s eclectically virtuosic guitar blazed overhead.

The night’s opening number, The Big Sleep, began with Hurley’s rumbling digeridoo, then Maase led them into an ominous stroll with hints of mariachi and swing jazz, Zeniuk’s sirening solo kicking off a twisted New Orleans theme that they finally wound down from, slowly and elegantly. Die, You Sucka! – the first of a trio of sureral, darkly frantic Keystone Kops themes – sounded like the Bad Brains taking a stab at scoring a Mack Sennett film, then Garcia wound it down with a misterioso rimshot groove, Maase’s savage chords bringing it back to redline as the trumpets punched at the ceiling.

The Sound & The Fury rode a slow sway, an Isaac Hayes soul criminnal theme with a John Zorn punk jazz edge giving way to a cruel parody of a patriotic march, interchanging with oldschool disco and a bit of beefed-up, brassy lowrider funk. The best number of the night, counterintuitively, was the quiest and most morose one, Orphans of the Storm, a hypnotic, Middle Eastern-tinged dirge: Zeniuk’s edgily chromatic bass solo, going way into the depths, was both the low point – in a sonic sense – and high point of the show.

From there they sprinted through another Keystone Kops number: as over-the-top as it was, the low/high contrasts in Zeniuk’s chart, and how the band edged it almost imperceptibly into creepier territory were artful to the extreme, and Zeniuk’s phony go-go interlude was just plain funny. A lingering, Cuban-tinged waterside nocturne, a lustrously melancholy, gospel-tinged interlude for the horns and a pretty straight-up salsa number that suddenly morphed into a frantic circus rock narrative were next on the bill.

They reprised Die You Sucka! even more wildly then they played it the first time around, Maase’s jagged riffage underneath the night’s most far-out free jazz-influenced passage, then hitting a vaudevillian pulse on the outro. They closed with Caridad, which sounded like a Cuban version of a moody mid-70s Burning Spear reggae theme, Maase finally getting a solo and a big round of applause for her sunbaked, psychedelic funk explosion. They took it out doublespeed with a series of irresistibly funny false endings. And a terrorist baritone sax quartet – Kevin Danenberg, Jessica Lurie, Josh Sinton and Maria Eisen – stormed in and made a surprise appearance midway through the show before joining onstage at the end. All this, except maybe for the terrorists, is immortalized on Gato Loco’s album The Enchanted Messa.

Psycho Mambos with Gato Loco Saturday Night at BAM Cafe

Gato Loco got their start putting a punk-jazz spin on classic old Cuban son and mambo styles, with low-register instruments: baritone and bass sax, tuba, bass and baritone guitar, among others. Snice then, they’ve expanded their sound with a rotating cast of characters: it wasn’t long before they’d added originals to their set. They had long-running residencies at the old Bowery Poetry Club and the late, lamented Zirzamin. Since then, gigs have been somewhat fewer and further between, especially since frontman/multi-saxophonist Stefan Zeniuk is so highly sought after as a sideman. It’s never exactly certain just what Gato Loco lineup is going to show up, but it’s a safe bet that their gig this Saturday night, November 21 at 10 PM at BAM Cafe will be a party.

Their most recent show at another frequent haunt, Barbes, was this past June, where they were joined by a hotshot Strat player along with Tim Vaugn on trombone, Tuba Joe, Ari F-C on bass and the brilliant Kevin Garcia (also of another similarly estimable noir band, Karla Rose & the Thorns) on drums. They opened with an agitatedly pulsing chase scene of sorts that rose to a wailing, enveloping forestorm as the rhythm went completely haywire along with the rest of the band, faded down into cinders and then sprang up again in a split second. Zeniuk’s ghostly bass sax mingled with lingering, reverbtoned Lynchian licks from the guitar as the slow, slinky second number got underway, then shifted shape into a warmly moonlit tableau before rising toward macabre Big Lazy territory. From there they segued into a dark clave groove, Vaugn punching holes in the sky, Garcia tumbling elegantly in the background as the horns joined forces, terse and somewhat grim as they went way down low. The careening, axe-murderer sprint to the finish line was one of the most exhilarating moments of any show anywhere this year – and probably one of the loudest ever at little Barbes.

From there the band went epic, making a slow, big-sky highway theme out of a wistful Gulf Coast folk-inspired tune, slowly elevating to a lively, scampering fanfare, then down again, Vaugn pulling the rest of the group along with a long, tightly unwinding staccato solo. The low instruments’ murky noir sonics contrasted with the guitarist’s spare, sunbaked blues  and Memphis soul lines as the next number got underway, Zeniuk finally signaling with a snort that it was time to build another funeral pyre on top of the serpentine groove. The best song of the night was a gloomy bolero, played in a dynamically shifting vein as Sergio Mendoza might have done it, featuring a muted trumpet solo, another pyrotechnically noisy interlude and an unexpected, clickety-clack dixieland outro. Name another band with as many flavors as these crazy cats.

Ola Fresca Bring Some Oldschool Cuban Flavor to Classic NYC Salsa

“You jacked my beats!” the old Cuban salsero said with a scowl to his Puerto Rican colleague. That accusation doesn’t hold a lot of water, since music from the Caribbean, with its island nations and many ports of call, is so well-traveled and full of ocean-borne cross-pollination. But that argument still gets some play in latin music circles. So there might be a little irony in the fact that Jose Conde – a guy who’s operated at the artsy edge of latin pop for the past decade or so – would revisit his oldschool Cuban roots with his band Ola Fresca. They’ve got a new album, Elixir – streaming at Spotify -and an album release show coming up at 9:30 PM on September 16 at Joe’s Pub. Cover is $15.

The album’s opening title track sets the darkly bronzed trombones of Jose Davila and Rey David Alejandre over a terse four-man percussion section, pianist Pablo Vergara holding to a similarly tight, almost minimalist groove in tandem with bassist Juan-Carlos Formell (heir to the Los Van Van legacy). While the production is closer to digital-clean than, say, Machito, it’s also not sterile.

Conviviencia is a cool exercise in dynamics, a biting horn arrangement with trumpeter Dennis Hernandez joining with the trombones over a jovial, lowdown groove. With its balmy brass chart, Bizcocho is both more ambitious and retro, again pairing jazz sophistication alongside vaudevillian flourishes. La Mano del Rumbero puts some extra slink on a rhumba beat, the percussion section – Roberto Quintero, Obanlu Iré, Gabriel Machado and Román Diaz – taking a welcome turn front and center.

A Formell cover, Mulata, starts off on the careful side but then the band relaxes. Likewise, the band resists shifting El Niño de la Clave from an elegantly tiptoeing pulse toward the stomp that a lot of salsa bands would make out of it. In the same vein as the lighter, more party-oriented material from the golden age of Nuyorican salsa, the songs’ lyrics put Conde in the position of party-starter or rootsman guiding everybody back to their island origins, sometimes with a droll, punny sense of humor, as in the catchy, playful, Veracruz-tinged Pollitos de Primavera. The humor takes a backseat to relevance with the starkly shuffling border-crossing tale Bandera. Otherwise, this isn’t particularly heavy music (although the playing has a laser-direct focus): it’s a lot of fun and will resonate with people who look back fondly on the classic Fania era as well as those who go back deeper into history with the Buena Vista crew.