Each week, World in Stereo examines classic and modern world music while striving for a greater appreciation of other cultures.
Dub Sonata: “Cubana”[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/03-Cubana.mp3|titles=Dub Sonata: Cubana]
On Nights in Cuba, the music of Florida’s southerly neighbor receives a proper second-hand re-imagining from New York-based producer Dub Sonata. Released late last year, the record is an ambitious 19-track instrumental voyage through the island’s tremendous musical tradition — a heritage that some attest is the richest in the world.
And if there’s one thing that listeners realize after first spin, it’s that the record gives the argument justice. Though at the heart of Cuban music are styles we’ve come to associate with the Latin sound, Dub Sonata lays down funky foundations — everything from hip-hop break beats to drum and bass — that make for a seamless integration of musical cultures.
The United States’ trade embargo against Cuba has made it quite difficult for Americans to travel there. Flights direct from the United States to Cuba are nonexistent — and though Americans can officially travel there, it’s actually illegal to purchase anything. During a small window of time, Dub Sonata traveled to Cuba via the Cayman Islands without any expectations of bringing anything back.
The impromptu trip proved to be the beginning of Nights in Cuba, as the producer met locals who pointed him to the shop where he would spend two days digging through thousands of old, mostly unplayable records. Salvaging over 100 LPs and 45s combined, he shipped the records back to New York.
Fortunately, the records were chock full of gems. Run through an MPC drum machine, the samples give off the warm, crackly feel that only vinyl can make. Mixed with a heavy dose of live instrumentation, it seems like every track on the album has something different to offer. A grand piano playing a slick salsa melody on the opening track, “Once Upon a Time in Cuba,” is interlaced with street sounds. Then it begins: a nonstop reel of those dusty Cuban records, as best told under the direction of Sonata.
In a way, the records almost speak for themselves. Styles such as the conga, rumba, son, and cha-cha appear quickly, accompanied by groovy horns and fierce rhythmic claves. The way that Dub Sonata juggles beats throughout the record is a real treat. “Cubana” stands as a kind of tour de Cuba, as the wide array of vocal samples captures the feel of a forgotten Buena Vista Social Club track. The break beat drives home the swelling flutes and breathes new life into everything.
For as diverse as the record is, the tracks generally stay within the two- and three-minute mark. Unlike Dub Sonata’s past work, Nights in Cuba is not a mixtape; the album does hit just as hard, though. Each track contains as many elements as the last and leaves listeners wishing for more. Clocking in under three minutes, “Puffin’ On a Fat Blunt” (an ode to the Cuban cigar) contains one of the most infectious jazz-inflected sax lines on the record. And one of the record’s biggest crimes is that it deprives listeners just a few more minutes of “One More Time,” a soulful track that measures only 53 seconds.
But Sonata makes up for it in every other track. The producer keeps good variety, switching up beats like any respectable turntablist does — and scratching with samples from The Fugees, he even manages to make the hip-hop heads happy.
But in the end, Nights in Cuba is about tapping into Cuba’s musical soul, an experience that Dub Sonata successfully conveys within the first minute of the album. If Dub Sonata’s Nights in Cuba doesn’t get you dancing, it will at least put an extra hop in your step.