Remastered, Afro-Cuban All Stars from 1996, the Genesis of Buena Vista Social Club, Sparkle on “A Toda Cuba Le Gusta” (ALBUM REVIEW)

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A Toda Cuba Le Gusta, the debut album by the Afro-Cuban All Stars was the first in a trilogy of special albums recorded by World Circuit in a single two-week session at Havana’s Egrem studios in 1996. This is the re-mastered re-issued version.  The other albums, which share many of the same personnel, were Buena Vista Social Club and Introducing Ruben Gonzalez.  This recording marks the beginning of what led to a series of albums involving Cuban artists under the Buena Vista Social Club banner, much of it due to the efforts of Ry Cooder, who guests on one track with these All Stars. Among the artists featured on those albums, some of whom appear here (*), were Compay Segundo, Omara Portunondo, Ibrahim Ferrer*, Eliades Ochoa, and Barbarito Torres*.

The All Stars were brought together by musical director Juan de Marcos González (who was previously the leader of the son group Sierra Maestra) as a backing band for his heroes:  the legendary soneros (singers) from the 1940s and 1950s – the ‘Golden Age’ of Cuban music. González had long embraced a dream to put together a band combining the ‘old masters’ and the new generation of Cuban musicians.  A meeting with World Circuit’s Nick Gold gave him the opportunity he was seeking. With his contemporary arrangements, his choice of musicians and wide ranging repertoire combined with the all-acoustic ensemble’s talents, he found an extraordinary balance between relaxed playing, spontaneous solos, and contagious energy.

The thirteen-piece band comprises four generations of some of Cuba’s finest musicians. The list of lead vocalists is a virtual ‘who’s who’ of Cuba’s best: the octogenarian Pío Leyva and septuagenarians Raúl Planas, Manuel ‘Puntillita’ Licea and Ibrahim Ferrer are joined by younger rising stars, Antonio ‘Maceo’ and Félix Valoy.

To back these legendary singers, González worked hard to assemble top shelf talent. He coaxed the legendary pianist Ruben Gonzalez, out of retirement. He tapped Cuba’s finest bassist, Orlando ‘Cachaito’ López, who learnt his trade as part of the extraordinary bass playing López dynasty which includes his father Orestes López and uncle Israel ‘Cachao’ López. The six-piece horn section (three trumpets, two trombones, sax, flute) is from the Havana’s Tropicana Orchestra. The trumpet solos are by Manuel ‘Guajiro’ Mirabal. The album also features guest solos from Ry Cooder on guitar (“Alto Songo”), Orchestra Aragón’s legendary flute player, Richard Egües (“Havana del Este”) and Barbarito Torres on laoud (“Amor Verdadero”). These players were joined by six piece percussion section.

As you listen, you can practically feel the vivacious studio atmosphere where the older players were inspired by the youthful energy surrounding them.  The rejuvenated singers relived their glory years. The entire recording was completed in under a week. The next day work started on what became the breakthrough Buena Vista Social Club album.

Listen closely for the different Cuban styles including: danzón, son montuno, guaguancó, mozambique, afro, mambo and guajira. We’ll briefly reference the tracks highlighting the principal players, leaving the composers aside. Amor Verdadero” is a guajira-son arranged following the classical style of the Afro-Cuban Jazz bands from the 1950s such. Manuel “Puntillita” Licea is lead vocalist. “Alto Songo” is a son montuno arranged by de Marcos González. Four generations of singers are represented in Raúl Planas, Pío Leyva, Manuel “Puntillita” Licea and José Antonio “Maceo” Rodriguez. Rubén González delivers a piano solo and Cooder plays slide guitar.

“Habana del Este” is a danzonete-chá in homage to Havana’s region along the east coast from Matanzas. The flute is played by Richard Egües, and de Marcos González plays a tres solo. The title track,”A Toda Cuba le Gusta,” is a son arranged by de Marcos González in a new version blending elements of son, mambo and mozambique. Lead vocalist is Raúl Planas, who sang in the 1950s with Sonora Matancera, Conjunto Rumbavana, Celia Cruz, and others.”Fiesta de la Rumba” is a collage of various traditional Cuban guaguancós with the tres taking the lead. Lead vocalist is Félix Baloy and backing vocals from all the other singers and musicians.

“Los Sitio’ Asere” is a guaguancó-son written about Los Sitio’, a barrio in Havana famous for its nightlife and fiestas in the 1940s and 50s. Lead vocalist is Félix Baloy, who sang with Cuban son bands. Sharing the lead is José Antonio “Maceo” Rodriguez, lead singer in Sierra Maestra since the 1980s.”Pío Mentiroso” is a guaracha re-arranged by de Marcos González, who added new material in the form of two montunos and two mambos, written for three trumpets. Pío Leyva is lead vocalist and Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal plays a trumpet solo.

“Maria Caracoles” is a new version of the well-known 1950s Mozambique. Lead vocals are by Ibrahim Ferrer.”Clasiqueando con Rubén” was composed by de Marcos González as an experiment mixing baroque with tropical dance music, following the principles of Haydn and Bach and arranged to the canons of son. Rubén González leads on piano, with participation from the brass and rhythm section, and a Cuban crescendo with contributions from trombone and congas. “Elube Chango” is a son-afro as a praise song to the Santería gods. It is sung in the Yoruba language by de Marcos González, who also plays tres solos. Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal (trumpet), Demetrio Muñiz (trombone) and Miguel “Angá” Díaz (congas) also deliver solos. The tempo is upbeat, within the rhythm known in Cuba as timba.

Immerse yourself in this joyous music. You’ll likely revisit some of those Buena Vista Social Club albums from twenty years ago too. This is where it all began.

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