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The Heart of Havana

January 25, 2011 1 comment

It was towards the end of the day, but before I left the swap I had to hit up the vendor with the wraparound bass hunter sunglasses and long braid who looked like he had a healthy jazz section on his table. After digging up some cheap Blue Notes I asked the guy if he had any cumbia. He frowned and explained that he had a dope cumbia collection, but recently nobody had been picking it up so he had left it at home.

But check this out bro he said as he began digging through a box labeled WORLD. He pulled out a record in a beat up jacket with the promising big photo of a predominately black band and sporting the tantilizing title of The Heart of Havana. This is some Cuban shit, but this is real dope he says. Every time I see this I pick it up for somebody, it’s that perfect Sunday afternoon record, you know?

I pulled out the heavy LP and saw tons of tiny little scratches gleaning on both sides. Nothing too deep, but it was my turn to frown. The record is pretty scratched, man I said to the vendor. He waved his hand in dismissal and said You know how many fucking hurricanes pass through Cuba, bro?

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If you’ve seen the second Godfather movie then you know that prior to the revolution, Cuba was a pretty hip place for a person with a lot of money to be. Many of the big casinos, bars, hotels and night clubs had their own bands to entertain the wealthy clientele. Son, charanga, mambo and rumba were the mainstays of the time, and just as the wealthy traveled from one exotic beach resort to another so did the music. Listening to beach resort music of the day in Ghana, Senegal, or Panama there is a recognizable influence of the sugar-cane sweet Cuban sound.

Orquesta Aragon are somewhat of an institution in the charanga tradition in Cuba. The band had their hey-day in the 50’s and 60’s, but an incarnation of the band supposedly still plays today. Typical of charanga, the group is largely represented by it’s rhythm section including multiple percussionists and violinists.

The Heart of Havana is exactly how the record vendor had described – a beautifully light record that turns any day into a deliciously lazy tropical afternoon. The rhythm is strong and the vocals are smooth and elegant. The record is characterized by strong flute playing that works very well as lead instrument as it adds immensely to the sweet vibrant tone of the record. I am a total sucker for the flute and the playing on this recording is excellent, it is lilting and birdlike, but never falling into the realm of the cheesy. Other than the syrupy vocal harmonies, the real stands out are the few piano solos that strut through a parting of charanga rhythm and lay out like a mad Monk on a Latin tip.

While the Orquesta packed the dance floor back in their day, unfortunately not much of the music on this record would be relevant to most dancers today. That being said, the opening track “Que Rico Tilin” has been appearing more and more in my sets recently as it has this great seductive breakdown which makes the song a great slow number, but it works even better as a prelude to a big latin jazz or boogaloo track. While maybe not a dancefloor hit, this record is very upbeat and it is hard to not tap your foot to every track and even harder still to not enjoy the the beautiful melodies and subtle swing of the record.

There is an Orquesta Aragon greatest hits collection available on CD packaged under the same title and cover as this record, but none of the songs on this album appear on that collection.

It may still be winter a lot of places, but it sure does feel like summer here in Long Beach.

 

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Categories: 1957, cuba