Irakere on stage at Ronnie Scott’s in London
Irakere on stage at Ronnie Scott’s in London © David Redfern/Redferns

From Havana to Key West is a distance of about 100 miles. But in the mid-1970s, the cultural traffic between the US and Cuba was at a standstill, choked off by the American boycott and, on the Cuban side, by the demands of cultural apparatchiks. And yet, in the decade covered by this compilation of tracks largely unheard outside the country until now, Cuban musicians invented their own form of musical modernism, borrowing from and mutating the innovations of jazz and funk into something distinctive. The tracks here, alive with percussion and electronic keyboards, sound more aggressively exploratory than the pre-revolutionary revivalism of Buena Vista Social Club or the classicism of much contemporary Cuban music.

As Dmitri Shostakovich could have warned his Caribbean counterparts, governments that take an excessive interest in music can be as bad as those that take too little. Pre-revolutionary Cuba was a significant exporter of music, from rumba and mambo to pachanga; the Batista regime hosted hotel nightclubs that lured Americans — real-life versions of Sky Masterson from Guys and Dolls — to weekends in Havana. All that changed after 1959. Musicians became state employees; in the cultural politics of the Cold War, the Soviet bloc emphasised realism and folk culture while the west neatly appropriated modernism and, in particular, modern jazz. The trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, for example, was threatened with imprisonment for listening to American jazz on the radio.

Album cover of ‘Cuba: Music and Revolution’ by various artists

For propaganda purposes, in the late 1960s the authorities set up the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna, which asset-stripped all the island’s leading ensembles for a repertoire that competed with the Americans without ever explicitly admitting it. When OCMM dissolved in 1973, its alumni formed Grupo Irakere, popularising the foreign-influenced music while keeping within strict guidelines: cymbals, for example, were prohibited but congas and cowbells were acceptable. Los Van Van, a group which also achieved international popularity, gave a rock boost to charanga. Another government entity, Grupo de Experimentación Sonora del ICAIC, were in effect the house band of the Cuban film industry: the collective’s contributions here have a woozy spiritual jazz flow at odds with stereotype. Elsewhere the female trio Las D’Aida harmonise righteously; Los 5-U-4 deliver a concise psychedelic nugget, and the driving horns and low croon of Eduardo Ramos’s “Vocación Revolución” fire up agitprop.

★★★★☆

Cuba: Music and Revolution’ is released by Soul Jazz

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