Various Artists

The Essential Guide to Cuba [Box Set]

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It goes without saying that even a collection as well-packed as the three-CD, 52-track The Essential Guide to Cuba could never hope to sum up all there is to know about the island's rich musical legacy. Like its smaller Caribbean neighbor Jamaica, Cuba has produced a wealth of diverse music disproportionate to its size, and it has done so while being cut off culturally from its northern neighbor, the U.S. That considered, The Essential Guide to Cuba covers a remarkable range of core Cuban styles -- from son to danzón, rumba to mambo -- and a span of at least 70 of the 20th century's years, with a heavy concentration on music from the '50s to the '80s. Unfortunately, the set lacks a detailed written overview that places it all into perspective; the liner notes are confined to brief track-by-track capsules, not all of which offer adequate information about the artist or the date of the recording. Also frustrating (but not detrimental to the set's listenability) is the thematic arrangement. One might have difficulty understanding how compiler/annotator John Child differentiated between an artist placed on the "Icons" disc and one more appropriate to "Innovators & Traditionalists." For that matter, the tracks on the first disc, devoted to "Buena Vista Roots," would also seem to be somewhat randomly chosen: while Beny Moré, represented here by the 1951 recording "Yiri Yiri Bón," undoubtedly qualifies as a Buena Vista Social Club root, he could just as easily be considered an icon and an innovator. One could, of course, play the who's-missing game -- the omission of Celia Cruz alone would suggest that the set is incomplete -- but that's no quibble. With prime cuts from such giants as Rubén Gonzalez, Irakere, Compay Segundo, Los Van Van, and dozens of other artists both world-renowned and relatively unheralded, The Essential Guide to Cuba is a thrilling sampling of classic Cuban music.

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