The Latin Music Hotlist

The Hispanic Caribbean boasts a dizzying diverse musical scene, with sounds ranging from son to jibaro, bomba to salsa, cumbia to reggaeton. Where should the enthusiastic amateur start?

  • Miguel “Anga” Diaz. Photograph courtesy Christina Jaspars
  • Omar Sosa. Photograph courtesy Otá Records
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  • The late queen of salsa, Celia Cruz. Photograph courtesy Mary Kent

While the Anglophone Caribbean moves mostly to the riddems of dancehall and soca, with occasional nods to salsa and zouk, the whole region is a hotbed of Creole-generated genres: from the traditional punta, parranda, and hungu-hungu of Belize’s Garifuna and the musica jibaro of the Puerto Rican mountains, to the unstoppable Cuban flood and some little known but amazing remixes like the Afro-Colombian fusion of cumbia and soukous, and the latest Latino phenomenon, reggaeton, which threatens to displace salsa in popularity.

Although it’s sometimes difficult to access this kind of range in music stores, the dedicated listener or curious aural explorer should be able to sample and order via Internet websites, or keep an ear open, again via the Internet, for Caribbean Free Radio’s downloadable podcasts, which address the staggering variety of Caribbean music.

A good place to start exploring the sounds of the Hispanic Caribbean is the Rough Guide series on the World Music label. These compilations, besides giving some idea of historical development, also come with knowledgeable liner notes and pointers to other albums.

The Rough Guide Venezuela album covers some of this giant’s many forms — from the country-style musica llanera (which features cuatro, harp, maracas, scrapers, and percussion) and accompanying joropo dance, to the secular parranda, derived from the Christmas tradition of aguinaldo singing and Afro forms like the percussive gaita, the sangeo, and calypso brought by neighbouring Trinidadians during the gold rush over a century ago. Standout tracks are Simon Diaz’s Caballo Viejo — which many will recognise as the prototype for the Gypsy Kings’ Bamboleo — and Cheo Hurtado’s Pajarillo Revuelto. Hurtado is among the world’s greatest cuatro players, and those who develop a taste for his lyrical virtuosity should check out his album of joropos, Cuatro Arpas y un Cuatro.

For any salsero who feels I’m selling that genre short, the Venezuelan guide has a couple of tracks by Oscar D’Leon, one of salsa’s living legends. And then of course there are complete Rough Guide albums dedicated to Colombian and Puerto Rican salsa, and salsa dance music in general. This feet-defying dance music, which originated among Cuban and Puerto Rican son musicians in New York during the early 1970s (for a fabulous soundbyte of this era, try Honest John’s Son Cubano NYC 1972–82), reached Colombia’s Caribbean port of Barranquilla in the mid 1970s, where the vinyl takes of Celia Cruz, Willie Colon, and Johnnie Pacheco were devoured. The Colombian version adds local rhythms like cumbia, bullerengue, chande, and mapale to the explosive cocktail. An unmissable track on the Rough Guide Colombian album is Yolanda Rayo’s A San Lazaro, which with its powerful delivery and sacred subject matter is reminiscent of the santeria singing of two Cuban divas: Merceditas Valdes and the late, great queen of salsa, Celia Cruz, who has a recent Rough Guide album dedicated to her entire career, featuring such pioneering salseros as Johnny Pacheco, Justo Betancourt, Papo Lucca, and Ray Barretto.

Nothing illustrates the circular, mutually influencing dynamic of Creole music better than the development of Puerto Rican salsa, which another Rough Guide covers comprehensively. Nuyoricans like Willie Colon, Tito Puente, and Eddie Palmieri were initially instrumental in introducing island rhythms from the African-derived bomba and the more Euro-influenced plena (a topical song genre which owes much to Trinidad calypso) into the New York brew which became salsa. Since the 1980s, island-based groups like Plena Libre and Los Plenos del Truco, along with virtuoso trombonist Jimmy Bosch, have been reworking the folkloric plena and bomba into a distinctive Caribbean-sounding brand of salsa. For an update as to where salsa dance has now reached, check the most recent Rough Guide, while those who want more of the development can get their feet in fifth gear with the Rough Guide to Mambo.

And so we come to the source: Cuba linda, where son, mambo, salsa, rumba, and much more originated. Those wishing a key to the untold riches of Cuban music now have a veritable library to leaf through, starting with the classic Music in Cuba by the grandpa of magic realism himself, Alejo Carpentier, who along with Fernando Ortiz established ethnomusicology in the Caribbean. Maya Roy’s Cuban Music provides an excellent survey of the main genres, as does the pocket-size Rough Guide to Cuban Music (with several accompanying albums), while leading Cuban musicologist Helio Orovio’s Cuban Music from A–Z explains everything from the origins of the distinctive clave (made from wooden pegs used in boat-building) to how the enormous range of drums and percussion instruments are made, along with thumbnail bios of many musicians. Isabelle Leymarie’s Cuban Fire will attract those who want the story of salsa and Latin (or should we really say Afro-Cuban?) jazz, and Ned Sublette’s authoritative Cuba and its Music goes all the way back to prehistoric Africa and forward to the 1950s — another volume to match this 600-page tome is currently in production.

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It’s an impossible task sifting through everything that pours out of Cuba, but here’s a very brief selection of some of the best. El Trio Matamoros are, along with Beny More, the most revered male voices of Cuba, and finally there’s been a re-release of this legendary trio’s repertoire from 1956 and 1960 — go ahead and knock yourself out with sons like Noche Triunfal and Que Siga El Tren, boleros like Cuando Ya No Me Quieras and the galloping Alegre Conga, or the classic habanera Mariposita de Primavera.

And hot from the pressing plant comes a brace of albums by two of Cuba’s most influential groups. Juan de Marcos is the genius responsible for assembling those old guys who burst onto the world music scene with the Buena Vista Social Club film; he’s also musical director and leader of the equally famous Afro-Cuban Allstars. His Step Forward continues the work of nurturing a new generation of musicians (hugely successful, if the Allstars’ recent sell-out London concert is any yardstick), while Sierra Maestra, the island’s best-known son group, have unleashed a homage to the greats (Ignacio Pineiro, Nico Saquito, Beny More, Manuel Corona, Bola de Nieve, Arsenio Rodriguez) who shaped son on their Son: Soul of a Nation album. Another Buena Vista Social Club alumnus, jibaro guitarist Eliades Ochoa, is a must-have for any serious Cuban music devotee. Treat yourself to his aptly named 1999 album Sublime Illusion.

Sometime Afro-Cuban Allstar Miguel “Anga” Diaz, probably the world’s leading conguero — who cut his teeth playing with Irakere, the first Latin jazz supergroup, founded by Big Daddy Chucho Valdes, and who has accompanied everyone from the Allstars to the late, great pianist Ruben Gonzalez, bassist Cachaito Lopez, and American jazzers Roy Hargrove and Steve Coleman — has released his first solo album, Echu Mingua. It’s an eclectic, experimental mix he describes as “the union between Cuban, African and DJ cultures”, which tackles jazz classics like John Coltrane’s Love Supreme and Thelonius Monk’s Round Midnight (with Anga’s seven congas playing the piano melody); an African-style danzon, Pueblo Nuevo (featuring Ruben Gonzalez and his son Rubencito on pianos); and a hip-hop version of Frank Emilio’s Cuban jazz classic Gandinga Mondongo Sandunga. Malian griot Baba Sissoko on ngoni lute and tamani talking drum mixes it with French hip-hop DJ Nasty and Magic Malik’s flute on the bubbling Tume Tume, and Irakere, led by Chucho himself on piano, bring this futuristic offering from African roots to a combustible climax with Conga Carnaval. Anga’s express objective as a practising santero, “to invoke the spirits to come down and join us”, has been magnificently realised, and you too can join the dance of Orishas merely by listening.

Another santero who recently called on the services of Anga Diaz at a London concert is the sinuous Afro-Cuban jazz pianist Omar Sosa, who hails directly from that distinguished brotherhood of the keys that stretches back to Ernesto Lecuona, Perruchin, Lili Martinez, Bebo Valdes and his son Chucho, Ruben Gonzalez and son, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and Ernan Lopez-Nussa. All these compays are masters in any idiom, from classical to straight-ahead jazz, but where they leave any competition behind is in their facility for drawing on the polyrhythmic base of their island music for the kind of improvisation most jazz players dream about. Omar can be as percussive as Anga (a favourite trick is reaching into his grand piano to strike the wires direct), or as mellifluously soulful as Rubalcaba or Keith Jarrett. To catch him in both modes, try his latest two releases: Mulatos (which features compatriot Paquito D’Rivera on sax) and Ballads.

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It’s always hard leaving Cuba, so by way of farewell let me leave you with an introduction to a truly 21st-century artiste who burst onto the international scene in 2003 with her eponymous debut album: Yusa. A slim morena in her twenties, Yusa plays guitar and bass accompaniment to her minimalist and sometimes surreal lyrics, delivered in a  sultry, smoky style that perfectly captures contemporary Havana’s mood of decayed magnificence. Yusa is at ease with jazz and a more gutsy version of Tracy Chapman’s introspective soft rock, and on her new album Breathe she incorporates bossa nova rhythms and sings a track with Brazilan pop star Lenine. Nueva trova (modern folksong) influences get an outing in her beautiful duet Del Miedo with Haydee Milanes, daughter of acclaimed composer, singer-songwriter, and guitarist Pablo Milanes.

Now we’re in jazz territory, let’s slip across to Panama to meet a pianist who can hold his own with Chucho Valdes: Danilo Perez, who’s hot enough to have become a regular fixture in American sax player Wayne Shorter’s touring band. Check out Perez’s solo album till then with bassist John Patitucci, Lizz Wright on ethereal vocals, and Adam Cruz on steel pan.

Speaking of pan and jazz, I’m taking a slight detour into les Antilles Françaises to recommend the latest album by a group of old friends from Martinique and the world’s best known non-Trini panman, Andy Narell. Martinique has its own tradition of excellent pianists — Marius Cultier, Georges Rabol, Bibi Louison, Paulo Rosine — and Mario Canonge, who’s the latest incarnation, is equally at home with the beguine as with jazz, having accompanied the likes of Arturo Sandoval, Ray Barretto, and Patato Valdes. After a stint with Malavoi, Canonge joined other Paris-based compatriots Michel Alibo on bass, Jean Phillipe Fanfant on drums and panman Narell to form Sakesho, a tight Antillean jazz combo who have just followed their debut album with the delightfully free-rolling We Want You to Say. I want to say: get it pronto.

And since we’re in Martinique, anyone wanting to keep tabs on that most self-effacing yet hugely talented St Lucian jazz composer and multi-instrumentalist Luther Francois should check out his outing with a group of young fellow islanders, Blue Mango. When will someone have the vision to get Luther into the studio to record just some of his own compositions, so the world can get a proper taste of one of the planet’s most under-exposed musical greats?

Finally, on the subject of greats, I’ll leave you with a couple to savour. The album that blew my mind the most in 2005 was Radio Bakongo byAfro-Colombian Batata y Su Rumba Palenquera. Batata Paulino Salgado is a master drummer descended from runaway Bantu slaves who founded the village of San Basilio de Palenque, in the foothills close to the Caribbean coast in 1600. By 1700, the Spanish throne gave up on re-conquering the cimmarons and San Basilio became arguably the first free village in the Americas. Here the fusion of African drums and Amerindian flutes produced cumbia and bullerengue. The village also became famous for its tradition of wake drumming and laments (which could be heard 15 kilometres away), which was passed down to Paulino, born in 1933.

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An influx of Cuban engineers brought to maintain a sugar refinery during the 1920s had introduced the Palenqueros to son, resulting in the syncopated hybrid of son montuno, cumbia, bullerengue, and laments. Paulino was heir to all this, and when Colombian diva Toto la Momposina heard him playing on the street during carnival in Barranquilla, she signed him immediately for a twenty-year stint as her touring drummer. He returned to San Basilio on the death of his father in 1968, during the period when Africa was discovering Cuban rumba and son and Cartagena was flooded with Afro Beat, High Life and Congolese Rumba records played on pico soundsystems, which went the huge way of their Jamaican counterparts. With this largely African input, in which soukous features largely, and some help from Haitian konpas and Jamaican raga, a new Colombian black music emerged — champeta — whose undisputed king is Batata.

Radio Bakongo will force you out of your seat and onto your feet, from the first Fela Kuti-style Afro Beat track, through stately son Palenqueros, ripping cumbia soukous fusions, and porro Highlife. Over the drums, accordions, and guitars rasp Batata’s rum-soaked vocals. This is music to keep you up all night — a pure Creole take on many African roots. And just so you’ll really grasp the concept of “what goes around comes around”, listen to De Dakar a Cuba, a recent compilation of 1960s and 70s African greats like Franco, Tabu Ley Rocherau, Bembeya Jazz, Orchestre Baobab, and Nico, entirely inspired by the Cuban rumba craze — here are the roots of African soukous and salsa. Just check Bembeya Jazz’s version of Guantanamera and Les Bantous del a Capitale’s take on the classic Peanut Vendor Mayeya and then baila! baila! Azucar!

Quick list


Garifuna Music: Field Recordings from Belize (Arc Music, EUCD1913)

Jibaro Hasta el Hueso: Mountain Music of Puerto Rico  Ecos de Borinquen (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, SFW CD 40506)

Cuatro Arpas y un Cuatro  Cheo Hurtado (Tropical Music 68.807)

Rough Guide to Venezuela (World Music Network, RGNET115CD)

Rough Guide to Salsa Colombia (World Music Network, RGNET1112CD)

Rough Guide to Salsa de Puerto Rico (World Music Network, RGNET1130CD)

Rough Guide to Mambo (World Music Network, RGNET1136CD)

Rough Guide to Celia Cruz (World Music Network, RGNET1150CD)

Rough Guide to Salsa Dance (World Music Network, RGNET1156CD)

Son Cubano NYC (Honest John’s Records, HJRCDDJ10)

El Trio Matamoros en San Juan (Nuevos Medios, NM 15 805 CD)

Step Forward  Afro-Cuban All Stars and Juan de Marcos (Ahora! Records, DM0001)

Son: Soul of a Nation  Sierra Maestra (Riverboat Records/World Music Network, TUGCD1039)

Sublime Illusion  Elaides Ochoa y Cuarteto Patria (Virgin Records, CDVIR85 7243 8 47494 2 2)

Echu Mingua  Miguel “Anga” Diaz (World Circuit, WCD071)

Ballads  Omar Sosa (Ota Records, OTA1015)

Mulatos  Omar Sosa (Ota Records, OTA1014)

Breathe  Yusa (Tumi Music, TUMI 131S)

Till Then  Danilo Perez (Verve)

We Want You to Say  Sakesho (Headsup Records)

Blue Mango (Blue Mango Music)

Radio Bakongo  Batata y su Rumba Palenquera (Network, 24.127)

From Dakar to Cuba (Cantos Records, 079.0001.020)


Music in Cuba  Alejo Carpentier (University of Minnesota Press, ISBN 0-8166-3229-4)

Cuban Music  Maya Roy (Markus Weiner, ISBN 1-55876-282-5)

The Rough Guide to Cuban Music  Philip Sweeney (Rough Guides, ISBN 1-85828-761-8)

Cuban Music from A–Z  Helio Orovio (Tumi Music, ISBN 0-9511055-5-8)

Cuban Fire  Isabelle Leymarie (Continuum, ISBN 0-8264-5586-7)

• Cuba and Its Music  Ned Sublette (Chicago Review Press, ISBN 1-55652-516-8)