Sierra Maestra disc whets WOMAD appetite


Sierra Maestra
World Circuit through Larrikin Entertainment
Reviewed by Norm Dixon

As the Adelaide WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) festival approaches, world music enthusiasts are licking their lips at the prospect of some of the world's leading artists playing here. Apart from the three-day festival in Adelaide beginning February 24, WOMAD headliners will be playing in several other Australian capitals.

One the most keenly awaited groups is Sierra Maestra, the nine-member son supremos from Cuba. Just what they have in store for us can be glimpsed in their sizzling new CD, Dundunbanza!. This is Cuban music at its best, recorded examples of which are few and far between because of the US government's criminal blockade of the island.

Sierra Maestra, formed in 1976 by a group of engineering students in Havana, is named after the mountain range in Oriente province where son music evolved and where Castro and his fighters prepared the revolution. Son is the folk music that developed among the rural people, weaving African rhythms and Spanish melodies with homespun lyrics. From son, ethnomusicologist boffins tell us, developed the more lively, urban rhythms of montuno, salsa, and mambo.

Sierra Maestra plays a power-boosted 1990s form of son, paying homage to son's moderniser, Arsenio Rodriguez (1911-1972), with four blistering tracks of irresistible Afro-Latin dance music. Rodriguez revolutionised Afro-Cuban music in the 1940s by infusing the traditional son with a modern urge by way of congas, piano and trumpet section. Influenced by the emerging US jazz trends, especially the impact bebop was creating among African American big bands, Rodriguez's compositions made space for exciting improvised solos.

In the hands of Sierra Maestra's maestros, the son and its associated rhythms are the sexiest music you will ever hear. The immediate effect of the insistent bongo, bata and conga drum beat is to produce an uncontrollable hip-wiggling movement that only the deaf or infirm can resist. Jes£s Alema¤y blasts out some eye-bugging, artery-bursting trumpet solos that leave the listener astounded.

Vocals are both sweet and urgent. Alberto Valdes' penetrating high tenor charges "Sarabanda Chang¢ ta' Veni". Pointing to Cuba's rich African heritage, this song is an appeal to Chang¢ and Sarabanda, the deities of thunder and lightning in Cuba's Santeria and Palo Mayombe religions. Chang¢ came to Cuba from the area that is now Nigeria with the enslaved Yoruba people. Likewise, the title track "Dundunbanza" is an Arsenio Rodriguez composition about an evil spirit from Afro-Cuban mythology.

London-based World Circuit's decision to release one of Cuba's premier bands is, apart from an astute commercial move, an important breach of the US blockade, which has put immense pressure on Cuban artists. While they still record in Cuba, a severe shortage of vinyl and a lack of modern technology to produce CDs means that their Cuban releases are restricted to cassettes. They have resisted the temptation to leave Cuba and abandon the revolution for more lucrative musical pastures.

If you can make it to Adelaide for WOMAD, or to the gigs in your local area, do it. If you can't, get hold of this CD. Whatever you do, take Sierra Maestra's very sensible advice: "If you want to be happy and be rid of the melancholy in your soul/Enjoy the band's gentle music and have a rum". I certainly will!

Sierra Maestra will be playing in Melbourne at the Bullring on February 22 and 23, in Adelaide at WOMAD on February 24-26, in Sydney at the Town Hall on March 3 (with Zaire's Papa Wemba), and in Brisbane at the Riverstage on March 4.

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