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Various Artists: Cuba: I Am Time

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This little cigar box of four CDs of Cuban music is filled with more fire than smoke, and makes an intriguing, if only vaguely organized, introduction to the incredibly rich musical panoply for Americans rediscovering that fascinating isle’s cultural goldmine.

Each disc attempts to focus on a single aspect of Cuba’s music-Invocations (African roots), Song, Dance and Jazz-but, of course, trying to separate them is like trying to isolate vegetables from meats in a cocido. Common to all the discs are elevating poetry, sprightly lyrics (seldom translated), brilliant arrangements, sophisticated rhythms, excellent if sometimes untutored musicianship, social awareness, generous extroversion and generally unquenchable spirits.

The accompanying booklet makes a rambling, often illuminating, essay on Cuban music, but one that seems to comment on the groups only in general, rarely paralleling the anthologized recordings. Personnel is glossed over or misleading: excellent trumpeters in the groups of Pello Afrikan and Ignacio Pi±eiro go uncredited, while the touted Jose Itakian is not featured with Sexteto Habanero. Dates are only occasionally included, usually of more recent recordings.

Having heard it only butchered by American bands, I was astonished to learn that “Guantanamera” is not a sappy folk song; sung by its composer Joseito Fernandez, it’s a saucy cha-cha with a snappy big band and snazzy piano fills. Plentiful references in Cuban folk song to the orishas-Yoruban gods like Yemaja, Eleggua, Chango-begin to make clear the deep links between Cuban and West African culture, especially in santeria, the folk religion that has kept pace with Christianity since the days of slavery, i.e., almost the Spanish conquest.

The dance and jazz CDs get special mention for their catchy numbers featuring spicy, uninhibited solos. Visitors to Havana are quickly caught up in the dance rhythms of popular bands like Juan Formell’s Los Van Van, J. L. Cort s’ NG La Banda and Manol n, El Medico de la Salsa; here the short tracks offer only a taste of the lengthy jams and medleys that heat up the dance halls.

The jazz set includes exciting big band charts of Mario Bauzß, Jes·s Alema±y, and Chico O’Farrill, whose flute leads sing with that polite yet insouciant hipness of Richard Egu s’ with Orchestra Aragon. Chucho Valdes’ justifiably famed Irakere’s one track cuts out just as Arturo Sandoval’s solo leaps into high gear. An extraordinary encounter between Steve Coleman’s modern, line-crossing band with the very traditional but alert Afro-Cuba de Matanzas (from the 1996 Havana Jazz Festival, at which this writer was fortunate to be present) exhibits the wary circlings and inspired incantations of visionaries from different spheres.