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Chicago Tribune

The End Of An Era, And An Emerging New Sound

By Alejandro Riera
Special to the Tribune

December 14, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.

Celia Cruz's death last summer was not the only loss suffered by Latin music, especially its Tropical branch, in 2003. It followed, by mere days, the deaths of Francisco Repilado, a.k.a. Compay Segundo (the 90-something star of the Buena Vista Social Club), and Puerto Rican trumpet player Juancito Torres (co-founder alongside percussionists Giovanni Hidalgo and Angel "Cachete" Maldonado of Batacumbele, the band that introduced such contemporary Cuban rhythms as "songo" to Puerto Rican "salsa").

But no death shook the foundations of salsa more than that of Catalino "Tite" Curet Alonso in early August at the age of 77. If Celia was the queen of Afro-Caribbean music, Curet Alonso was its soul and conscience. Author of more than 2,000 songs, most of them hits during salsa's heyday in the '70s, Curet Alonso paved the way for Ruben Blades' social and political chronicles of daily life in the streets of Latin America and New York's barrios. In songs such as "Anacaona," "Los Entierros" and "Las Caras Lindas," Curet Alonso became the spokesman for Puerto Rico's disenfranchised, celebrating the beauty of being black and the poetry of daily life. Celia's and Curet Alonso's passing marked the end of an era for Latin music. Grupo Montez de Durango shone a spotlight on the local music scene this year with the release of "De Durango a Chicago," the second album for Disa, a subsidiary of Univision Records, the music division of the U.S.-based Hispanic media conglomerate. The album outsold Latin pop crooner Luis Miguel's mediocre effort "33" and opened the floodgates for the nationwide release of half a dozen CDs produced by local Regional Mexican outfits such as Alacranes Musical.

The emergence of groups and vocalists that mix rap and hip-hop with the accordion-based sounds of "norteno" music and the heavy brass of banda music is a trend to watch out for in 2004. Indeed, two of its greatest advocates occupy my top 10 list of the best Latin CDs of 2003:

1. El Gran Silencio, "Supper Riddim Internacional, Vol. 1" (EMI Latin): How could the Monterrey-based outfit top their 2001 release "Chuntaros Radio Poder"? By going back to the studios and recording, non-stop, more than 30 songs, most of them written on the spot. They recorded so many songs, in fact, that brothers Cano and Tony Hernandez took a page or two from the Wachowski brothers and Quentin Tarantino's manuals of style, and decided to release the album in two parts. The result, at least in this first volume, is a fresh, lively, energetic and incredibly danceable mix of dancehall reggae, rock, norteno, Colombian vallenatos, Mexican huapangos and even Arab music. Volume 2 was supposed to come out in late October but they are still in the studio tinkering with it.

2. Yerba Buena, "President Alien" (Razor and Tie): The New York-based outfit founded by Venezuelan producer and musician Andres Levin shares "party album of the year" honors with "Supper Riddim Internacional, Vol. 1." How else can you describe this in-your-face sonic stew of cumbias, salsa, rock, straight-ahead jazz, rap and funk? Levin builds his songs around Xiomara Laugart's divine voice and El Chino's machine-gun raps and enhances the sound with guest appearances by a Who's Who of the New York music scene, including Roy Hargrove and Bryan Lynch.

3. Truco & Zaperoko, "Musica Universal" (Libertad Records): Truco & Zaperoko are two Puerto Rican bands that joined forces in the late '90s to record one of that decade's best Tropical albums, "Fusion Caribena." Along with Batacumbele, Zaperoko built a musical bridge between Puerto Rico and Cuba that had been closed by the U.S.-imposed embargo on that island. Los Pleneros del Truco, on the other hand, are practitioners of the African-influenced rhythms of bomba and plena. Together, they are a force to be reckoned with. With "Musica Universal," they up the ante by incorporating Cuban rhumba and Brazilian sambas to their fusion of American jazz and Puerto Rican and Cuban rhythms.

4. La Ley, "Libertad" (WEA Latina): After experimenting with electronic music in "Vertigo" and reclaiming its pop-rock roots with "Uno," the Chilean rock trio left its Depeche Mode affectations behind to produce the most lyrically and musically coherent record of their career. A response to 9/11, the war in Iraq and the dismantling of civil rights worldwide, La Ley delivers a one-two political punch with songs such as "Amate y Salvate" (a power guitar plea to take control of our own destinies), "Sabes Quien Eres" (a harsh indictment against election-robbing politicians) and "Mundo Ideal" (a tender vision of a perfect society).

5. Cabas, "Contacto" (EMI Latin): The Colombian singer-songwriter pumps up the volume on this follow-up to last year's sensational self-titled debut album. If on "Cabas" he took his listeners on a musical journey through Colombia's diverse folk idioms, in "Contacto" he focuses his energies on exploring the musical connections between Africa, Colombia and 1960s American rock with some jazz thrown in for good measure. Once you think you got him pinned down, Cabas hits you from left field with an enchanting ballad or a folk song performed by musicians from Colombia's coastal towns.

6. Akwid, "Proyecto Akwid" (Univision Records): Following the footsteps of Cuban hip-hop outfit Orishas, brothers Sergio and Francisco Gomez bring to hip-hop the live accompaniment of a brass band to create a sound that is uniquely Mexican and uniquely American. The tracks are fresh and exhilarating. Equal care is taken with the vocals: guest singers Jenni Rivera (a banda star on her own right) and Francis Benitez soften the braggadocio of tracks such as "Taquito De Ojo" (Mexican slang for "babe," to put it mildly) and "Sin Ti" with their sweet dulcets. The brothers sing defiantly about unrequited love, complex relationships and life on the streets of East L.A.

7. Jae-P, "Ni De Aqui, Ni De Alla" (Univision Records): More straightforward in its hip-hop stylings and tracks and less macho than Akwid, Jae-P raps about Mexican-American pride, a father's failure in fulfilling his parental duties and an ex-gang member's desire to reform himself and serve as a role model to his community. The songs are full of sincerity, avoiding the misogynist message and materialist bent that has so sadly stereotyped hip-hop.

8. Cafe Tacuba, "Cuatro Caminos" (MCA): For their first full-length album since their 1999 masterpiece "Yo Soy/Reves," the Mexico City quartet recruited drummers Joey Waronker and Victor Indrizzio and the results are breathtaking. Sounding more like an alternative rock band than in their previous sonic experiments, the Tacubos deliver their most intimate and personal album, yet. Although the old Tacuba sound does peek through here and there in songs such as "Soy o Estoy" and "Hoy Es," a sonically dense hymn to bright, sunny days.

9. Issac Delgado, "Versos en el Cielo" (33rd Street Records): The Cuban sonero pays tribute to "Nueva Trova" singer-songwriters such as Pedro Luis Ferrer, Silvio Rodriguez, Frank Delgado (no relation) and Pablo Milanes. Issac Delgado eschews their political songs in favor of their more romantic ones and his silky tenor does them justice. Issac Delgado shows a younger generation of salseros how to do true, romantic salsa: with poetry, elan and style.

10. Luz Casal, "Con Otra Mirada" (EMI Latin): In this year of mediocre outings by such Latin pop superstars as Luis Miguel and Juan Gabriel and over-hyped efforts by Ricky Martin and Chayanne, this delightful, heart-wrenching album by Spanish chanteuse Luz Casal flew right under the radar of most Latin music critics and fans. Casal's husky, deep voice tears through such boleros like "Ni Tu Ni Yo" and "Pueden Ser Tantas Cosas" while sounding defiant in the hard rock anthems "Mantenerse En Pie" and "A Veces Un Cielo." "Con Otra Mirada" is an album full of feeling, that really gets under your skin, something I cannot say of most of 2003's Latin pop offerings.

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