Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Tito Gonzalez, ‘Al Doblar la Esquina’- Ship’s In

Nobody was more surprised at the phenomenal success of ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ than the hard-line Communist Cuban government, which for years had surpressed all forms of popular music as vestiges of a recidivist bourgeois love affair with capitalism and all its inherent evils. They promoted classical music instead. Go figure. Well, that was before the USSR’s last gasp, and in the 1990’s ‘revisionism’ was not the dirty word it once was. Not only was pragmatism the new operative concept, but there was also a realization that a generation had been sacrificed in the the cultural evolution of the country, and that time was of the essence if the thread was not to be lost entirely. Well, it could have been worse. Havana fared better than Phnom Penh, after all. So the call went out for talent to come forward and show itself. One of those who turned up was Heriberto ‘Tito’ Gonzalez, as part of a group of musical taxi drivers. The rest is history, and Tito’s belated career was finally on its way after many years of fits and starts.

If Communism accomplished nothing else, it did manage to stop clocks all over the Communist-speaking world, so that much of the Cuban music in Cuba itself is something of a snapshot of the way things were BEFORE the proliferation of ‘Afro-Cuban’ music overseas, BEFORE the emergence of a plethora of new Spanish-language ‘Latin’ genres that would rival that of the English-speaking world, and maybe most of all… BEFORE Carlos Santana. I will tell you now, and I’ll tell you on my death bed, that no one single person is more responsible for putting that well-known sabor in modern Latin music than Don Carlos. He is the hot chile in that south-of the-border musical cuisine. He gave Latin music a new direction with a sharp edge, not just guitar-drenched, but rhythm-infused… and mind-penetrating. What he didn’t do himself directly, he did through his indirect influence, as simple comparisons before and after will attest.

The music of Tito Gonzalez comes from a simpler era, and his new album ‘Al Doblar la Esquina’ reflects that. This is an era when the brass in big bands ruled, the drums stayed respectfully on the sideline if not the background, and romancing the opposite sex was how you ‘got off.’ While Tito himself is a consummate player of the three-stringed tres (not to be confused with the cuatro), that pretty much stays in the background on this album and Tito mostly lets his rich baritone do the talking for him. Whatever it lacks in easy comprehensibility of intricate lyrics it makes up for with a rich melodic texture that wears well. The brass rule the harmonic airwaves on this album and that’s testament to Tito’s choice of a bandleader, too, in this case Jose Dumen, and a superb line-up of ex-pat Cuban musicians in the US.

This is one of those albums that only gets better as you go along. While most albums load their best stuff on the front-end of the batting order, Tito seems to be connecting first with the Buena Vista son expectations, and then moving into his own as the album proceeds, nothing short of a kick-ass salsero he is by the end, spiritual son of another Tito. Things get off to a rollicking start with ‘Busco a Alguien’ (I’m Looking for Someone’)- “no tengo compromisos… busco alguien que me queda” (“I’m not committed yet… I’m just looking for someone to stick with me”), an up-beat number that rolls out the brass in full force, especially a trumpet that soars over the top of it all. Song number two keeps it up, ‘Para Componer un Son’- “hace falta una razon, sentimento, y corazon” (to build a son… all you need is a reason, a feeling, and some heart) that tones things down enough to let some really good piano shine through, but not enough to lose momentum. Song number three does that for us, intentionally, ‘Aquel Viejo Amor’ (That Old Love), in keeping with the theme of loves and lives gone by, slow and syrupy and sentimental, as memories tend to be, almost too sticky to handle.

Love is the predominant lyrical theme of the album, not surprising for a man who’s lived his life on the seas, overseas, and always somewhere in between where he’s ultimately going. With ‘Cuando Tu Te Fuistes’ (‘When You Left’) a serenade wtih brass, the pain is almost too much to bear, ‘todo cambio para mi, un profundo dolor que me atravesaba’ (‘everything changed, with the deep pain I was going through’). La Despedida’ (‘The Goodbye’) waxes philosophical, ‘yo soy tu amigo y te ayudara’ (‘I’m your friend and I’ll be there to help’), but ‘Cancion para Bonnie’ reflects his new life in the US and the new love that cements it, romantic and hopeful. When the theme is not one of love lost and love found, it’s about the enjoyment of life regardless, the parties and the dances and the music. Soounds like a pretty good attitude to me. This man’s been around and single-handedly proves that if you stick to your dreams you’ll ultimately get… somewhere. As someone noted long ago, there is really no ‘there’ there… because there’s always a halfway point that must first be reached… always… and usually a corner or two to be turned. That’s ‘Al Doblar la Esquina’ by Tito Gonzales. Check it out.

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