Songwriter, singer, and guitarist El Curi is actually named Antonio Curiel, a Spaniard who has lived in Cuba since 1994. His tourist visa expired in 1995, but it hasn't stopped him. His lifelong dreams are tied up with the island and its people, and he will never leave of his own accord. Curiel makes his living mainly on the streets, using his wits, selling cold drink, working at a tobacco stand for a little change -- whatever it takes to get through another day. And that passion for living shows up on his debut album recorded with the backing of the awesome, renowned Septeto Santiaguero. These deep, blues-laden habaneras and boleros are full of a modern sense of life in the throbbing, shambling metropolis of Havana's old harbor district. The music found on El Curi's record is not the romantic sound of old Havana, the traditional music of son. Instead, it is comprised of traditional song forms, but carries within it the bustling, hustling modernity of a generation of musicians who respect their tradition while intending to preserve it by expanding its reach. Hence, there are a slew of electric guitars here and the slightest touch of drum programming to accompany the harmonicas, guitarrons, accordions, brass, bass, and -- of course -- the chorus-style singing indigenous to Cuban song forms. Along with the habaneras and boleros there are transmuted sambas and sons processed by passion rather than imitation or an attempt at fusion. One example is "Naufrago Azul" ("Blues Castaway"). Accompanied by electric guitars, congas, and even djembes, along with his own 12-string playing solo lines over a minimal muted trumpet section, Curiel sings (in Spanish), "One night down at the pier/Like runaway horses/We were gulls on the sea/A word written on the wall." On "Arrebatao por Ti" ("Crazy About You"), in the steamy heat of a habanera, Curiel sings about Cuba with his heart spilling from his mouth: "All your streets are a sanctuary of light and color/And taking it all in/Left me drunk...." On "En la Taberna del Puerto" ("In the Tavern Down by the Port"), his passion comes through the drunkenness and brokenness of his protagonist. The Septeto slithers through the mix until the middle of the tune, when the tempo and keys change and Curiel sings, "Let's drink/To forget the nostalgia from across the miles/That you bring out in me/Your loneliness/Is a knife that cuts/That wounds and tears me up/Barman, pour me another rum/Being without her/This passion that I feel/Is so strong it claws at me from the inside...." The finest track on the disc, however, is "Mani, Mani" ("Peanuts, Peanuts"), a bad-assed bolero with a Carlos Santana-styled guitar running through the middle and a full horn section challenging its prominence; the rhythms crisscross through the mix, dueling with one another and telling a story that is better left discovered by the listener (the lyrics are translated for gringos). The intensity is nearly as unbearable as the rhythm is infectious. En la Habana is perhaps the only project of its kind, delivered by a wandering Spanish heart passionately possessed by a foreign country while remaining true to its own roots and obsessions. This is no fusion record; this is a work of art.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek