Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Raices Latinas: Smithsonian Folkways Latino Roots Collection

Problematic as it can be to identify music by genre, it becomes even more so when confronted with an impossibly broad ethnic term like "Latino."  The prevalency of the Spanish language and the often-brutal history of Spanish colonization might be among the few links between countries as widely differentiated as Cuba, Argentina, and Mexico.  Otherwise, the specific local conditions in these and other places in the "Latin" world get obscured by the identification of "Latino."

Still, Raices Latinas is a fantastic release from Smithsonian Folkways, which always seeks to present interesting material with historical and musical context, so whatever misgivings a listener might have with "Latino" music, it would be really hard not to enjoy this impressive collection.

The album gets off to a fine start with the irrepressible "Un Gigante Que Despierta" (An Awakening Giant" from Nicaragua, followed by a pretty flute-based dance called "Ballecitos" or "Little Dances" from the Andes.  The African-infused rhythms of merengue from the Dominican Republic follow in "Apágame la Veia" (Put Out My Candle) and the diversity and variety flow effortlessly from there.

Music from Puerto Rico, Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, the American Southwest, Colombia and Cuba feature great sound and excellent playing.  Lots of fine percussion, passionate and romantic vocals (check the great "Seis Mapeyé" from Puerto Rico and "Los Arrieros", or The Muleteers, a fine mariachi piece from the Mexican state of Jalisco), guitar, flutes and other elements permeate the twenty generous selections.  There's even a nod to California's historical fable involving the possibly apocryphal bandito, Joaquin Murrieta, who was said to have terrorized the state during the peak of the Gold Rush before being captured and executed by a posse in 1853.

For this listener, it is hard to top the Cuban son titled "Yo Canyo en el Llano" (I Sing on the Plain) with its harmonized vocals, fleet-fingered guitar work, and bubbling percussion and the fantastic and plaintive "Las Naranjas" (The Oranges), a beautiful tonada from Chile.  The percussion workout, "Adios, Berejú" sounds like it could have been made in West Africa, from which, of course, much of Latin American music derives.  The "Corrido de Joaquin Murrieta" has a gorgeous melody and is sung beautifully by Luis Méndez.  The album closes with an epic "Las Leyendas de Grecia" or The Legends of Greece, a rumba guaguancó from a live recording in Cuba that makes for a thrilling closer.

As enormous as the so-called Latin world is with all of its varied societies and musics, this survey of twenty pieces is really a great introduction to the sounds of places so vastly different.   The 28-page booklet features two short introductory essays on the Latino Roots collection and on Latin music, followed by song-by-song descriptions that give historical background as well as information on the performers and pieces.  Raices Latinas is a fine way to sample the varied musical heritage of the Spanish-speaking Americas and has great sound to boot.

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