This project represents a significant undertaking for British DJ, producer and all-round global beats guru, Gilles Peterson.
A master of presenting different music movements on classy compilation discs, Peterson goes a step further with Havana Cultura, which is a more substantial, collaborative – though not by any means comprehensive – survey of contemporary Cuban music.
This two disc release, the full name of which is Gilles Peterson presents Havana Cultura – New Cuba Sound stems from an organisation – sponsored by Havana Club International Rum – that promotes the Cuban capital’s arts scene through a swanky website (click here). With jazz pianist Roberto Fonseca, Peterson sets out to take the pulse of Havana (‘bringing together the street, the urban and the more traditional’ he says on an online film). Together they present 28 tracks featuring recordings by Peterson’s own Havana Cultura Band (disc one) and a selection of music from local emerging artists (disc two).
In bringing together a host of Cuban musical talent under one roof, Havana Cultura invites inevitable comparison with Buena Vista Social Club, and in its scope and ambition, the upstart album does at least have the feel of a similar achievement. But, despite the fact that much of Havana Cultura was also recorded at the famous Egrem Studios, facile observations on similarities should end there. Havana Cultura documents a hugely varied stable of music. The jazz, latin, hip hop, reggaeton and funk that vie for space are all linked by Cuban rhythms, but follow different paths, reflecting the greater degree of cultural to-and-fro between Cuba and outside world in recent years. There is a homogoneity to the sound on each disc though: Roberto Fonseca’s dextrous virtuosity at the keyboard towers over disc one, while rap, in one form or another, gives the the second part an urban vibe.
From the opening riff, the pizzazz of Fonseca’s playing brings a benevolent glow to an anyway riveting set from the Havana Cultura band, which includes Fonseca’s band mates: reeds-man Javier Zalba, drummer Ramses Rodriguez and bassist Omar Gonzalez. Unsurprisingly then, it’s a tight, swinging affair, as demonstrated on the irresistible groove of ‘Arroz con Pollo’, which extols the virtues of chicken and rice. On some of the best tracks, Peterson’s house band invites other artists to sit in. The big-voiced Mayra Caridad Vald?©s contributes to a Havana-style re-working of Fela Kuti’s ‘Roforofo Fight’ and to a further standard, Irakere’s ‘Chekere Son’. Meanwhile, a find of Peterson’s, the singer Danay, leads the band in the sexy ‘Lagrimas de Soledad (No Existen Palabras)’. It’s a scintillating set.
Given the cohesion of the first disc, it’s hard to find the same sense of narrative on disc two, but its charms come in its eclecticism. Numbers by established artists like rapper Kumar and Free Hole Negro sit alongside rarer fare. Inventive hip hop outfit Ogguere rolls out an animated anthem; DJ Wichy de Vedado is more laidback with jazz-sampled beats; while Gente de Zona’s jumping reggaeton number, ‘Homenaje a Benny More’, proves a memorable dance tune.
A benchmark recording for new Cuban music.