Reaching at least back to the mid-1940s and as far forward as the early 2000s, the two-CD Cuba: The Essential Album is a good but erratic compilation of Cuban popular music through approximately the last half of the 20th century. (The qualifiers "at least" and "approximately" are necessary as the track listings, as is unfortunately common on many compilations issued by the Union Square Music group, provide only some of the original release dates.) There's no argument with the best of these tracks, including selections by Cuban music giants like Desi Arnaz, Pérez Prado, Graciela Machito y Sus Afro-Cubanos, Irakere, Los Van Van, Mongo Santamaria (though his version of "Watermelon Man" included here is a 1992 remake), René Touzet, Chano Pozo, and Celia Cruz. The problem's more to do with some of the more recent tracks, and though some may say it's the carping of a purist, the adult contemporary instrumentation and material on tracks like Pablo Milanés' "Yolanda" and Lazaro Ros con Mezcla's fusion-esque "Barasuayo" simply lack the vibrancy and wit of much of the rest of the set. The irresistible propulsion of the best cuts compensates, combining varying flavors of Latin music with jazz and pop, best heard on "Tin Tin Deo" (by James Moody & His Bop Men, but featuring Chano Pozo), Touzet's exotica-tinged "Mambo Inn," Machito's "Consternacion," Beny Moré's rubber-mouthed "Babarabatiri," and Cruz's sly "El Tamborilero." As for more crassly (but very enjoyably) pop ventures, there's Arnaz's hammy "Babalu" and Prado's "Guaglione" (with that inimitably weird organ sound). It's not wholly devoted to styles associated with the mid-20th century, either, as rap makes its presence felt on Yerba Buena's "Guajira (I Love U 2 Much)" and Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez's "Cachaito in Laboratory." It's not a bad gateway into the sounds of many shades of Cuban popular music, with a generous playing time of about two hours, though with a few unfortunate bumps along the way that could have been programmed out with little loss.
AllMusic Review by Richie Unterberger
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2