“¡Viva Mexico!” Thus opened this concert by the Afro-Cuban All Stars in the central Mexican city of Guanajuato. Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, the founder and leader of this superb ensemble, salutes the crowd, who throughout the set loudly proclaim their love for the music and affection for the musicians of Cuba. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and this band put on a show to remember.
Juan de Marcos founded the Afro-Cuban All Stars to tour North America and Europe with the music of the Buena Vista Social Club in 1997. It has continued as one of the world’s top purveyors of the Cuban music known as son, a catchy, folk-based music that combines Afro-Cuban clave with American jazz idioms. The current group is something of a family affair. In addition to de Marcos conducting and occasionally singing lead vocals in his husky baritone, it includes his daughters Laura Lydia Gonzalez on bass clarinet and Gliceria Gonzalez on vibraphone and backing vocals. Plus, of course, loads of horns and percussion!
And it was all recorded live in front of that fantastic Guanajuato crowd – superbly recorded, I might add. Eight songs clock in at a little more than an hour, including a couple of extended workouts.
It kicks off with “Yaimara’s Groove,” which I assume is named for Yaimara Gomez Fabrè the great Cuban dancer. It’s a superb mid-tempo rumba with tons of authentic jazz soloing from the horns, Glicy’s vibes and piano (Jose Marcos Crego), and of course that groove. Emilio Suarez steps up to sing lead in his vibrant, clear tenor on the son “Barbaridad,” and in duet with baritone Caleb Michel (who’s also the timbalero) on “Tumba y Bongo.” Laura with her deep clarinet joins the dual trumpets of Julito Diaz and Yoanny Pino on some melodic instrumentals that echo those harmony vocals on this beautifully balanced, groove-filled composition. Its title refers to two of the main types of drums used in Cuban jazz, the bongo and the tumbadera, also known as tumba or conga drum.
Juan de Marcos takes lead vocals on a couple of numbers including the encore, a lengthy and complex timba titled “La Mujer del Bárbaro” as well as the son “El Cuarto de Tula,” one of two tributes to the music of BVSC. The other is the fast-paced pilón “Candela,” with Suarez on lead – both of those songs are on similar themes of the pleasures and dangers of sexual desire, something that resonates throughout Afro-Cuban jazz, whether implicitly or explicitly.
I have to go back to that closer, “La Mujer del Bárbaro” one more time. Timba is one of the more modern cousins of son, actually an offshoot of salsa, with elements of rumba and guaguancó. It’s very high-energy dance music with layer upon layer of African-based polyrhythms, and this piece is executed with great verve and confidence by the All Stars. I dare you to focus in on, say, the bass line, then find how it fits in with the various other rhythms surrounding it, and see if you don’t get a little bit lost in this rhythmic swirl. That, my friends, is what this music is all about. And it doesn’t get much better than this.
(Oh, lest I forget, this CD comes packaged with a DVD of a concert recorded in the U.S., which wasn’t available for review.)
(DM Productions, 2017)