Cuba is a country that is changing fast. As its political relationship with the US thaws and the once inaccessible island becomes slowly globalised, some worry that its culture will be diluted. This worry is justified: Cuba’s isolation has preserved its fantastically individual culture. Enter Gilles Peterson, who has been a sort of unofficial ambassador for Cuban music since the 1980s. Peterson is as much a curator as a DJ and has played a major role in propelling genres like acid jazz, trip-hop and Latin music in the Western consciousness.
In the past, Gilles Peterson’s Havana Cultura Club – a loose collective of Cuban musicians - has helped him on a number of projects. Most of these projects have been about documenting and reimagining Cuban music. The ‘Havana Club Rumba Sessions’ are no different. His most recent project captures the zeitgeist of this transitional period in Cuban history. On the album, producers from around the globe reimagine the three central rumba grooves (guaganco, yambu and columbia), definitively recorded by rumberos in Havana. This is globalised Cuban music at its finest, and represents how Cuban culture can extend its reach without losing its heart.
Peterson is exactly the man to curate such a project. He has a keen understanding of Cuban culture and the extensive phonebook necessary to call in remixes from Peckham to Japan. He also has the vision: this collection of remixes is accompanied by a feature length documentary and a full sample pack of rumba rhythms.
Unsurprisingly, the quality of the actual tracks live up to the high standard set by the expansive aims of the project. Motor City Drum Ensemble, representing Holland, supplies a simmering rhythmic delight of a remix on ‘The Rumba Experiment’, deciding to focus on an understated shuffling beat. Montreal’s Poirer delivers another notable cut where the rumberos’ voices take centre stage and warm synths complement a constantly evolving drum-track. Glenn Astro and Max Graef provide a predictable, if funky, workout on ‘Weird Melody’.
Things get even more interesting on ‘Yambu', Daisuke Tanabe and Yosi Horikawa’s effort direct from Japan. ‘Yambu' at once captures the feel of the rumba whilst introducing an excess of inventive elements. Handclaps and snares roll and voices grunt in time to a propulsive, almost trap-like beat. It’s the type of track that screams “play me on a good soundsystem” and deserves multiple spins. Peckham outfit 22a reimagine the rumba in a more minimal style. Tenderlonius and Al Dobson Jr., both members of that collective, provide rhythmic experiments rather than full songs, building sparse rhythmic exercises that complement the more full-bodied works that fill out the rest of the album.
Tracks like these show that this is more than a collection of remixes. ‘Havana Club Rumba Sessions’ is a collection of experiments that genuinely push the envelope, breathing new life into an age-old musical style. A project like this could not be better timed. As Cuba takes to the global stage, a whole host of foreign musicians will be exposed to its lush musical history. Compositions like these show that Cuba has much to give musicians around the world, and musicians around the world have much to give to Cuba.
Words: Alex Green
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