Yusa

Breathe

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Think of Cuba, and the first thing that comes to mind is salsa. Great artists like Celia Cruz, Beny Moré, Orquesta Aragón, Machito, la Sonora Matancera, Mongo Santamaria and los Van Van. Great rhythms like son, cha-cha, guaracha, mambo, danzón and guaguancó -- all the Afro-Cuban rhythms that the New Yorkers at Fania Records started calling salsa in the '70s. But on her second album, Breathe, Yusa reminds us that a female vocalist from Cuba doesn't necessarily have to be a salsera in the traditional Celia Cruz/Jacqueline Castellanos/Albita/Caridad Cuervo sense. What transpires on this risk-taking CD is best described as a combination of Spanish lyrics (with occasional detours into English or French), Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Cuban sensibilities, R&B and a singer/songwriter aesthetic; Yusa gets some inspiration from Brazilian vocalists like Gal Costa, Rosa Passos and Maria Bethania (although she doesn't sing in Portuguese on this album), as well as from English-speaking singer/songwriters such as Joni Mitchell and Joan Armatrading. Yusa is definitely jazz-influenced, but not in a hard-swinging, aggressive way; she favors a jazzy subtlety on pensive, relaxed offerings like "El Fantasma del Marino," "La Espera," "Del Miedo" and "Una Vaca y Una Foca." The use of subtlety and restraint is something she has in common with Mitchell as well as Costa, Passos and Bethania -- and while "Descarga Track: Canda'o Cerra'o" has a strong Afro-Cuban flavor, Breathe owes just as much (if not more) to the Brazilian samba rhythm. Yusa, for the most part, is not a shouter or a belter, but she is funky in an understated way -- and she has no problem getting her emotional points across on this memorable sophomore effort.

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