NG La Banda – Veneno (1998)

I have never played cricket. But I believe that you can learn a fair bit about cricket (or pretty much any sport) by watching in an inquisitive way. So early on in my cricket watching days (which started several years after I had got through school without playing a game of cricket) I figured out that Graeme Pollock was a cut above: It was easy to see the effort that each player had to make to send the ball crashing into the boundary fence, and easy to see that with Pollock the apparent effort was rather less. It looked like he was hardly swinging the bat, but the ball would hit the fence like something out of a cannon (you could also see that he preferred 4s to 6s and that he didn’t plan to score a lot of runs that involved actual running).

I know a bit more about playing music than I do about playing cricket, but I still believe that anybody listening with inquisitive intent can start to work out some things about music, and that what you figure out listening to one school of music can be used to understand and appreciate and evaluate others.

Looking at my CD collection you’d pin me down as being most interested in roots music and, in broad terms, “rock”. There’s also a few discs that a good record store in the UK or in South Africa would file under “world music” (and not so good stores wouldn’t stock) and compilations of works by Beethoven. Mozart and Gilbert & Sullivan (one of each).

Recent adventures have included (and these would be filed under “world”) Beausoleil and King Sunny Ade. The only example of Cuban music that I have is the one that everybody has: The Buena Vista Social Club. (Now that I’ve created the opening, Y’all can spare me the messages about how you wouldn’t know a Buena Vista Social Club if it bit you on the backside).

Until the last week or so. I’d been reading quite a lot about Cuban music on Wilson & Alroy’s site and having bought some new discs (so to speak, the purchases being on iTunes) that would not make notable changes to the composition of my collection I decided to take a flutter on one of the Cuban bands about who W&A had lots of good things to say – NG La Banda.

And I ran into problems straight away – similar to those I had with King sunny: Their catalogue is large and confusing and much of it isn’t available in the West. There were lots of samplers and none of their top-rated albums. There were few I could get any sort of guidance on, and of those the most likely to impress seemed to be their 1998 release Veneno.

NG La Banda (the initials stand for “nueva generación”) are a dance band, but also innovators (of the hugely popular “timba” style). They are full of musicians with fine pedigrees, and band leader Jose Luis Cortes played with two of the top bands in Cuba, Los Van Van and Irakere. Apparently they are loathed by Cuban intellectuals because of their unabashed appeal to the popular and for their sexist lyrics (Wilson & Alroy note that you may be better off NOT understanding Spanish if you intend to explore the NG La Banda catalogue). However they seem to be both popular and influential.

OK… so what do my years of analytical listening allow me to say about NG La Banda?

They are recognisably Cuban and much more contemporary and “pop” than the veterans of BVSC. Superficially in the same zip code as Miami Sound Machine. But, a couple of listens reveals, they are more polished and there’s a lot more interesting detail in the music.

This music sounds great on headphones. There are multiple percussionists – all of them excellent – spread across the stereo spectrum and playing rapid fire interlocking parts. It gets the ear interested and maintains the interest.

Solos are few and far between, despite the obvious excellence of the players – notably the horn players and the pianist (there is, as far as I can tell, no guitarist). They work mostly as a very tight band with the pianist and the percussionists often playing to polyrythmic effect. There are multiple singers, and they are all excellent – great pitch and control, great timing, great dynamics. The chorus vocals are tight and play well against the lead.

Jikkel! You can’t fault this band when it comes to proficiency and precision. They work well together to produce often dense arrangments. You can be a Cuban-style intellectual and observe that it’s not particularly high brow (even if you don’t understand the lyrics) but that doesn’t rule out skill and sophistication and they certainly have both.

The solos, when they come, are taken by band leader “El Tosco” (“the naughty one”) Cortes. He plays flute. Rock fans may have a certain idea about how flute and flute solos sound – either like Ian Anderson or like boring MOR instrumentals. Cortes is neither – he has a smooth but rich tone, great technique and inventive musicality. He plays very cleanly and with great fluidity.

So I didn’t feel like I’d discovered anything profound, but the playing is fantastic and often infectious and they can really kick up a great groove. The arrangements are often dense, and brilliantly executed. They have range too. Sometimes within the same number. The title track starts off sounding like an AOR pop number with a nearly-but-not-quite-cheesy synth part under a like vocal, but it builds into a great mix of driving piano over shifting, complex rhythms.

The obvious appeal is to the hips an ass (and, if you’re middle aged and listening on the train, the feet) but listen a little more carefully and you find a top notch band executing rich, complex arrangements and changes of musical course with flawless precision.

You can P A R T Y and be sophisticated, though perhaps not highbrow, at the same time.

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