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Adding `Salsa' To Your Selection
Recommendations on some of the best Latin compilations around
By John Clewley
November 1, 2002
It's hard to dispute the claim that Latin music is as popular worldwide today as it was during the mambo boom of the 1950s. On my recent trip to the UK, for example, I noticed that Latin dance and percussion classes were being enthusiastically taken up across the country, boosted, no doubt, by the popular success of veteran Cuban outfits like the Buena Vista Social Club and by the fabulous new fusions taking place in the Caribbean and in Latin America. Consider also the astonishing rise to global fame of Columbia's Shakira over the past few years.
Here in Bangkok, the Latin boom continues with dance classes and several nightclubs devoted to salsa and tropical pop (the catch-all term for much contemporary Caribbean music).
Interest is such that I have had several requests from readers about what salsa compilations they should buy, so here are some Latin compilations that will add a little salsa (sauce) to your music collection.
It is worth mentioning at the outset, though, that the term "salsa" is something of a catch-all term these days. Originally, it came into popular use during the 1970s, the heyday of that great New York salsa outfit, the Fania All Stars, and it referred to the big band sound developed in Puerto Rico and New York from the Cuban son. But really it is not merely a style; it is also a feeling, somewhat like swing in jazz (both a style and a "feeling" in music).
Today, salsa encompasses son-inspired salsa, as well as other Caribbean and Latin American styles from merengue (which hails from Dominica) to plena (Puerto Rico) to cumbia (Columbia). And you might as well throw newer styles like Cuba's hot youth style, timba, into the mix, too.
Top of the list of albums for a general overview must be Manteca's awesome Latin: The Essential Album (USA), which covers Cuban golden oldies, 1970's New York salsa and the latest salsa-merengue-rap fusions.
There are plenty of Cuban compilations available. Obviously, the Buena Vista Social Club recordings are easily available and worth snapping up. For a general overview, check out the Rough Guide to Cuban Music (World Music Network, UK) and on the same label, The Cuban Music Story.
Earthworks released a series of Cuban samplers in the 1980s, which includes Sabroso - Havana Hits (UK), and I would buy this just for the uplifting Latin anthem, Anda Ven Y Muevete by Cuba's top band Los Van Van, one of the best live acts I've ever seen. Buy any compilation with Van Van on it and you can't go wrong.
My own favourite Cuban compilation is the four-CD set from the French radio station Nova, which I reviewed earlier this year; it has some of the hottest salsa you'll ever hear, from the 1930s to the latest fusions.
Classic salsa and mambo from the late great timbalero Tito Puente and Salsa queen Celia Cruz can be found on The Mambo King Meets the Queen of Salsa (Manteca, USA). I also like the tracks selected for the soundtrack to the movie The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (Charly, UK). The film is worth finding, although I preferred the novel. To round off the Nuyorican (New York and Puerto Rico) sound, don't miss the essential compilation, Fania All Stars (Nascente, USA), which I would buy just for Fania's unbeatable cover of the Gypsy Kings' song Bamboleo.
With Latin house, rap and sampling so popular with Latin youth, a compilation that gives you an introduction to the latest sounds that I particularly like is Putamayo's excellent Latin Groove (USA).
There are some exciting new salsa artists, many of whom have recently featured in this column - La India, Marc Anthony and Elvis Crespo, for example. For reasons I fail to understand, some fans of classic salsa (Nuyorican 1970s usually) tend to look down their noses at them. But if Latin jazz giant Eddie Palmieri can request India to perform with him and crossover salsa legend Ruben Blades can champion Anthony, there must be something to these talented youngsters.
I featured Crespo some years ago for his terrific solo debut, Suavemente, released in 1998. On that great debut Crespo established himself as the most outstanding merengue talent since Juan Luis Guerra. And since then he's become one of the hottest stars in the Latin firmament. His new album, Urbano (MPR, USA, 2002), is his best since Suavamente. Urbano features a range of cuts, from the classic merengue of La Cerveza to the tropical pop of A Medias and a merengue cover of the Latin pop song, Besame en la Boca. Crespo cranks up the rhythm - merengue is a fast-action dance style with rhythms that are less complex than salsa but nonetheless just as catchy. His singing is first rate, particularly on the acoustic versions of Senora Tambora and Senora Tamboa, the stand-out track.
To find out more on some of these and other discs, plus lots of Latin features, check out the ultimate Latin Web site from Descarga records: www.descarga.com.