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Chicago Tribune

A Challenging Fusion Of Rhythms

By Alejandro Riera

December 15, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved. 

While most Latin pop music left a lot to be desired this year, artists in the tropical, rock en Espanol and regional Mexican genres produced some outstanding work that simultaneously challenged and embraced the status quo. The fusion of rhythms was the guiding light on most of my choices for best Latin recordings of the year.

But one album stands above the rest as album of the year: Ruben Blades' genre-defying "Mundo." The Panamanian singer-songwriter and the Costa Rican ensemble Editus have achieved the impossible: a seamless mix of salsa, Celtic music, flamenco and African pop music.

Here is my list of the best Latin music albums of the year divided into four categories:

Regional Mexican

1. Sones de Mexico Ensemble Chicago, "Fandango on 18th Street" (Sones de Mexico): While the word "son" in Cuba applies to a specific style, in Mexico the word refers to at least five regional music and dance styles. Sones de Mexico Ensemble Chicago is the U.S. master of this rich and complex music. With "Fandango on 18th Street," the group created a uniquely Chicago way of playing the son mexicano, mixing it with country, Irish and classical music. The record is a sonic document of Sones' artistic evolution and contribution to the city's music scene. And, besides, it's an incredibly fun album. Just listen to their peculiar tribute to Buck Owens.

2. Banda Sinaloense El Recodo de Cruz Lizarraga, "No Me Se Rajar" (Fonovisa): "La madre de las bandas" ("the Mother of All Bands"), as this 15-member outfit from the northern Mexican state of Sinaloa is known, pays tribute to ranchera giant Vicente Fernandez in this album full of excellent musical and vocal arrangements. This is banda music at its best and purest.

3. Rogelio Martinez, "Atrevete a Olvidarme" (Fonovisa): This 25-year-old singer from Sinaloa belongs to a new generation of artists who want to change the face of banda and nortena music, making it more accessible to a new generation of Mexican-Americans. With the help of producers Omar and Adolfo Valenzuela, Martinez incorporates jazz improvisations and a good dose of pop music to the harsh sound of banda music without betraying its essence.

Rock en espanol

1. Enrique Bunbury, "Flamingos" (EMI Latin): Enrique Bunbury's fourth solo album is a paean to losers, lowlifes and drifters, a hymn to bitterness and despair served with big dollops of New Orleans jazz, Middle Eastern music, tango and David Bowie-style glam rock. I can't still get "El Club de los Imposibles" and "Si," the album's first two tracks, out of my head.

2. Los de Abajo, "Cybertropic Chilango Power" (Luaka Bop): For this sophomore effort, the Mexico City ska-salsa band joined forces with members of Hermandad Chirusa, one of the leading bands of Barcelona's underground scene. Mariachi trumpets, salsa and trip-hop beats and street sounds are weaved together to form a tapestry that fully illustrates life in one of the most overpopulated capitals of the world. The songs have a meaner bite as the band takes on corrupt politicians in songs such as "Joder" and "Sr. Judas," although there always is space for optimism ("Si Existe Ese Lugar," "Anda Levanta").

3. Cabas, "Cabas" (EMI Latin): Cabas offers an ambitious sampling of Colombian rhythms in this debut album. Electric guitars clash with Andean flutes and Caribbean percussion resulting in music that's meant to be played real loud. Cabas finds inspiration in the old street vendor's cries that still can be heard in some Latin American countries, turning these chants into catchy mantras.

Latin pop

1. Bacilos, "Caraluna" (WEA Latin Music): This album makes me smile every time I hear it. The Miami-based Colombian trio has concocted a delicious blend of rhythms that embrace 1960s American folk-rock (their vocal arrangements sometimes remind me of Simon and Garfunkel), bossa nova, tango, salsa and even ska. They have shunned the electronic pap that passes for Latin pop music these days, opting for a more acoustic, organic approach. The result is a fresh album full of quirky songs that take on the Estefan music factory ("Mi Primer Millon") and such old perennials as love, age and abandonment. Pedro Alfaro's violin playing alone is worth the price of the album.

2. Ricardo Arjona, "Santo Pecado" (Sony Discos): After a brief stopover in the Caribbean with his previous album ("Galeria Caribe"), the Guatemalan singer-songwriter returns to his old sound with "Santo Pecado." Arjona belongs to a dying breed in Latin pop music: the literate singer and composer who takes full advantage of Spanish's rich vocabulary. As a singer, Arjona embodies two personas: the earnest lover who celebrates women's superior intellectual, physical and psychological power, and a sarcastic observer of life in Latin America with all its contradictions and ironies. But his songs in "Santo Pecado" are full of bitterness and disillusionment (which may or may not have something to do with the acrimonious divorce he is involved in). Full of lush string arrangements, powerful electric guitars, gospel choirs and some tango, this is, by far, Arjona's darkest, most pessimistic album. Full knowledge of the Spanish language is required to appreciate its lyrical nuances.

3. Miguel Bose, "Sereno" (WEA Latin Music): "Sereno" finds the restless Bose playing around with new sounds, joyfully mixing classical, Arab and Irish music with acoustic guitars and samplers. His voice still maintains that seductive shine as he sings about the true meaning of love (always expect from Bose some true, painful insight into this much-beaten topic), the effeminate son of a famous sea captain, and the joys of watching a woman brew and serve a good cup of coffee. Definitely not your stereotypical pop songs.

Tropical music

1. Gilberto Santa Rosa, "Viceversa" (Sony Discos): Puerto Rico's "Caballero de la Salsa" ("Gentleman of Salsa") keeps outdoing himself with each recording. With "Viceversa," Santa Rosa shows off his two sides: the swinging sonero and the suave, elegant crooner. Santa Rosa moves from straight-ahead salsa ("Un Monton de Estrellas") to heartfelt boleros and ballads ("Si Te Dijeron") to Cuban charanga ("Nunca Te He Dicho") with dumbfounding ease. A true master.

2. Orlando "Maraca" Valle, "Tremenda Rumba" (Ahi-Nama Records): Irakere's former flutist continues expanding his musical canvas with this hyperactive in-your-face exploration of Cuban rhythms. Even though it is a sequel to "Descarga Total," "Tremenda Rumba" is far more aggressive, more danceable and more musically coherent than his previous work. It's the closest Maraca has come to reproducing the energy of his live concerts on a disc.

3. Eddie Palmieri, "La Perfecta II" (Concord Picante): Everything old is new again as Palmieri dusts off, with the help of trombonist and arranger Doug Beavers, his original arrangements for La Perfecta, his first great band. Songs such as "Tirandote Flores II" and "El Molestoso II" sound as fresh today as they did four decades ago. Palmieri doesn't rest on his laurels, though, as he mixes these oldies but goodies with brand-new compositions that sound as daring as anything he wrote back then.

Alejandro Riera is the arts and entertainment reporter for Exito!, the Spanish-language weekly published by the Chicago Tribune

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