Afro-Cuban All Stars Present FĂ©lix Baloy
Sun June 3, Paramount, 682-1414.

By now, if you haven't heard of Afro-Cuban All Stars, it's safe to say you've been living in a deep freeze, buried in whatever grim northern glacial mass has not yet been thawed by global warming. 1996's summer release of the Ry Cooder-produced Buena Vista Social Club set off a bloom of Cuban music across the United States that mimicked the spontaneous springtime explosion of airborne seed pods from certain hardy perennials. Suddenly, from every cracked window and passing car, one could hear the swingy big-band blare of "Chan Chan," a ubiquitous song that lent its sex appeal to sticky backyard barbecues and backseat make-out sessions alike.

The music is appealing, all right--especially to our culturally flattened gray nation of suburbs. Somehow, the recording's mix of traditional rawness and homespun studio sheen seems to represent not just sunshine, but a sunshine unclouded by crass marketing, an image heightened by Wim Wender's vision of the Buena Vista Social Club's color-saturated Cuban neighborhood in the movie he directed of the same name. Cuban Juan de Marcos González, who produces Afro-Cuban All Stars and worked with Ry Cooder on the first album, says that Cooder can be credited with "having achieved a fusion in which the sound is really old, very roomy, and reminds one of a homemade recording of the '40s. This sound [is] very attractive, for some reason, to Americans and Europeans."

González's remarks reveal commercially savvy insight into the success of Afro-Cuban All Stars projects, and a proud awareness of his own role. It was González who helped unearth a number of the old-style Cuban musicians whom Afro-Cuban All Stars celebrate so gloriously. He describes growing up in Cuba listening to Florida radio, learning English in order to be able to sing along with King Crimson, the Rolling Stones, and Deep Purple. Then, in the late '70s, he suddenly began hearing traditional music coming from a club down the street--the famous El Solar, El Africa. He took lessons to learn how to play the tres, the pear-shaped Cuban guitar. González credits his band Sierra Maestra with instigating a renewed interest among young people in Cuban music.

All Stars' latest album, Baila Mi Son, with Félix Baloy, continues the big-band, traditional sound. The album features four trumpeters, three trombones, a bass, a piano, a timbal player, three bongo/conga players, two baritone saxes, two flutists, maracas, violins, and González on tres and guitars. Baloy's voice competes admirably with this rumbling instrumental storm front. Baloy, whom González describes as "presumptuous, but with a great heart," and "an excellent friend and musician," is known for his "elaborate mode of improvisation." There are moments, such as on the track "Lo Es Todo Tu Amor," when Baloy seems to be laughing and crying as he sings; you can almost hear him tapping along with the maracas, or shaking his head euphorically during the piano solos. This is part of the appeal of every All Stars album: the sense of how familiar these musicians are with the music. "In the record," González says, "we approached all the genres that are to be sung, from the bolero and the cha-cha-cha to the rumba and the montuno, in an attempt to give a panorama of their possibilities. By and large the sound is quite traditional."

González is adamantly disinterested, however, in making Cuban music more "marketable" through All Stars projects. "If we happen to sell them, fine," he says. "If that is not the case, at least we will be at ease with our own demons. Up to now our work has given results. We hope it will in the future as well. We are soneros and play Cuban music. Not anything of synthesizers and strange sounds. Neither melodramatic salsitas, or easy music." He believes the worldwide market for Cuban music may already be saturated, but for now his bigger concern is for the musicians themselves. "There are a lot of people who are coming and exploiting Cuban music. Musicians are paid poorly--[these producers] make low-cost productions, with very little heart, and with the sole object of making money."

His project, he says, is different: "We do everything in our reach to respect the spirit of our identity."