Recordings

Les Thugs
Strike
(Sub Pop)

Just because a culture's good at throwing rocks doesn't mean it will necessarily excel at playing rock. Considering that the French are, off and on, so talented at mass revolt, I'm surprised at how truly pitiful they've been at rock 'n' roll. The country that offered the world the Revolution(s), the Commune, May '68, and even last year's boffo transportation strike has given us pretty much Jacques shit in terms of popular music with any kind of postwar insurrection value. Les Thugs are l'exception. Hailing from the picture-perfect Loire Valley, they hash out noise that isn't like any postcard I've ever seen -- lovingly flawed, questioning, devoid of platitudes. Their fourth album, Strike, beats with a raspy punk heart.

While their second record included found tape of a May '68er telling her bosses to fuck off and this one's packaging sports a photo of demonstrators carrying a banner marked, as far as I can tell, "Meilleur" (meaning "better"), the haphazard English-as-a-second-language lyrics are devoted mostly to various forms of standstill: "Waiting" finds them doing just that, and "So Heavy" is so heavy he's "like stuck to the ground." The title cut's directive to strike is surprisingly slacker-friendly, somehow lazy and utopian at the same time. The word "strike" is whispered so seductively, and so often -- I counted 42 times -- that it's almost subliminal. The narrator won't get out of bed, doesn't want to fight. So even though he's probably not up for civil disobedience, at least he's not above a little old-fashioned hooky. (Though we've pretty much ruined the concept's romance in this country by coining the horrid neologism "personal day," which doesn't have the same jailbreak appeal.) "The world is ugly," he moans, with all the angry optimism of a cobblestone in flight. "I'm gonna dream it nice."

-- Sarah Vowell

Various Artists
El Cha Cha Cha de Cuba
El Son de Cuba
La Rumba de Cuba
La Charanga de Cuba
(Milan Latino)

For the newcomer or the established aficionado, this set of four CDs provides a stunning portrait of the diverse beauty that encompasses Afro-Cuban music. From the Eurocentric leanings of the cha-cha-cha and charanga to the earthy African depth of the rumba and the son, you are given a discriminating overview of both the genres and musical figures that made them happen.

The first set's plate of sumptuous cha-cha-cha starts with a generous helping of the Orquesta de Enrique Jorrin, led by the violinist and bandleader credited with inventing the popular '50s dance. Based on the danzon rhythm that evolved from the quadrilles brought over by French immigrants (via Haiti) at the end of the 18th century, it sported an aristocratic flair of strings and flutes. In the '30s, Jorrin, along with bassist Israel "Cachao" Lopez and his brother Orestes, as members of the Orquesta de Arcano y Sus Maravillas, would loosen up the rhythm with a swing that would lead not only to the innovation of the cha-cha-cha but the mambo as well. Otherwise, the digital remastering of classics like "El Bodeguero" (Orq. Aragon), "Me Lo Dijo Adela" (Orq. America), and others is nostalgic bliss.

The charanga volume of the series chronicles an instrumental format innovated by the danzon orchestras of piano, violins (sometimes even cellos and violas), the five-key ebony flute, bass, and percussion. Here you get a feel for the contemporary with monster bands like Orq. Ritmo Oriental, Orq. Original de Manzanillo, and Orq. Los Van Van, as well as groundbreaking compositions like Lopez's "Mambo," with Arcano y Sus Maravillas, and "Pare Cochero" performed by Charanga Tipica de Guillermo Rubalcaba (the father of Cuban jazz virtuoso Gonzalo). From here we venture to the rich idioms of the rumba and son that derive from the culture of the Yoruba, Bantu, Karabali, and Arara peoples of West Africa. Comprising largely drums and voices, there's usually a theme presented by a solo singer (or a duo) before the call-and-response so crucial to the trance quality of rhythms like the guaguanco, columbia, yambu, and conga.

But the son compilation is my favorite, just on the basis of sheer soul. Here is where the Spanish and African musical identities meet. Central is the tres guitar -- which has three doubled metallic strings -- and a crying trumpet, these played over a rhythm section of bongos and hand percussion like maracas, the gYiro (a gourd with indentations for scraping), and other instruments. Featured is the work of pioneer Ignacio Pineiro, the laughing trumpet of Felix Chappottin, and contemporary practitioners like vocalist Jacqueline Castellanos and Grupo Sierra Maestra. This music, born in the mountains on the eastern side of the island, turned Havana upside down when it filtered into the cities. Pineiro once sang, "El son es lo mas sublime" ("the son is the most sublime"); without it there would be no salsa today.

The availability of much of this music was until recently restricted to a handful of collectors who circulated ever more degraded taped copies of vintage 78 rpm recordings among themselves; with these collections you can rejoice, listen, appreciate that Cuban music has arguably had more impact on the music of this country in this century than any other import -- and then ask, "Wanna dance?" to your partner of choice.

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