While the linguistic and cultural legacies left by Spain in Cuba may be fairly obvious, the musical one is perhaps less so. Many of the complex polyrhythmic musical elements that make Cuban music so beloved in the rest of the world stem from African elements imported by the Yoruba of West Africa, who were first brought there as slaves. But the musical bond linking Spain and Cuba is in fact a strong one, encompassing everything from the stringed instruments brought by the Spanish to the New World that evolved into the Cuban tres and other instruments, to the fact that both flamenco and the Cuban son are strongly organized in groups of 12 beats.
Potaje, a Bay Area-based ensemble led by master flutist Chus Alonso, is hardly the first group to marry flamenco and Cuban music — fusions of this sort have been around at least since flamenco guitarist Paco De Lucia and others began experimenting with salsa rhythms in the '70s. But the mix has surely never sounded as natural and inviting as it does on Potaje's breathtaking Charanga Flamenca. The beauty of Potaje — which also includes violinist Tregar Otton, guitarist Jorge Liceaga, percussionist Sage Baggot, and bassist Steve Senft-Herrera — isn't just the impressive musical facility provided by its members, though both Alonso and Liceaga in particular are capable of show-stopping theatrics. Rather, it's in the way the entire ensemble moves between styles with such fluidity that they make the difficult transition from flamenco to son or rumba sound like a natural progression.
The album starts off in a pure flamenco vein on “Como El Humo,” a thrilling bulerias that shows off the melodic blend of flute and violin to gorgeous effect. But things soon get a bit more multinational, and “Tarareando” finds the group dipping into rumba rhythms with its traditional flamenco instrumentation, and “Migajas” pastes melodies from artists like De Lucia, the Orquestra Aragon, and Spanish folk tunes over rhythms that move effortlessly through son, tangos, and flamenco. By the time “Tertulia” rolls around, with its seamless shift from flamenco to Afro-Cuban 6/8 rhythms and back again, the juxtaposition between musical styles seems like anything but, as the group makes the different rhythmic patterns sound like parts of the same cloth.
And yet, while Charanga Flamenca may demonstrate beyond reproach the linkage between flamenco and Cuban music, it's anything but academic. Potaje (the name of a stew made with beans, vegetables, and meats) sounds instead like the work of a multinational chef who uses spices from different cultures to whip up his own irresistible dish.