Various Artists

Cuban Gold, Vol. 4: Fuego Candela (Smokin' 70's)

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The fourth installment in this laudable series from Qbadisc is solid but not revelatory, or at least no more so than the previous volumes in throwing light on what was going down in Cuban music after the trade embargo was imposed. Although the liner notes (which at least make it to minimal level this time) speak of a "wave of neo-Africanization," the music still sounds like highly professional songs in classic Cuban pop styles. The material sticks pretty close to the expected flute and violin-dominated charanga style plus some horn-and-percussion workouts. The former dominates -- the Los Van Van track is surprisingly traditional in that vein, although fans will get a kick out of the period photo of bassist/leader Juan Formell -- but there's a muted, almost MOR quality to much of the music. In a nutshell, it's pretty mainstream stuff. Orquesta Aragón's old-school "El Tiburón de Guanabo" has involved melodies but too-sweet strings; its strongest song is the percussion-heavy "Juego ¿De Qué?," featuring a fine flute solo with strings and vocal backing. Its lively version of the African song "Muanga" is a strong bridge to Las Maravillas de Mali's (with Boncana Maïga, who turned up years later as arranger for Africando) "Radio Mali," a simple, direct charanga with a great violin solo and arresting string riffing. Chappottin's two songs are typical but undistinguished Cuban big band outings, and scattered individual touches distinguish other tracks. Orquesta Riviera's "Mi Mambito" is pretty MOR-ish until a showoff flashy violin solo and seamlessly spectacular handoff to the flute follow-up. Conjunto Bolero's pair of tunes boast nice singing and backing horns (ragged but right on "A Mi Cuba le Tocó") and Las Maravillas de Florida's "Caras Extrañas" is lush but sports a very strong piano. It's Ritmo Oriental that scores for original arrangements, as strings work from the percussion rhythms on the exuberant "El Son de Claro." The lighthearted, refreshing "Yo Traigo Panatela" gets almost a charanga-flapper mojo working with its call-and-response vocal exchanges. And Reyes '73 sounds like the dawning of a new era with its electric bass foundation and triumphant horn section over racing percussion. But those are the exceptions to the rule, and any explorers looking for revelatory gems or unexpected takes on the island's rich musical tradition are likely to be disappointed. It's pretty classic, mainstream Cuban music and best for those who are confirmed fans of big-name groups and the charanga sound.

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