Compilation albums are a great way to check out a new musical style... Here are reviews of a few Latin American collections that are particularly groovy... This page will expand as time permits, but for now here's a quick look at some records I've enjoyed recently.

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Various Artists "PUTUMAYO PRESENTS: AFRO-LATINO" (Putumayo, 1998)
I know, I know... people in the know consider it obligatory to look down on pretty much anything that the Putumayo label puts out... But for the last couple of years they've had a pretty good batting average. This is a strong, groove-centric collection exploring the interlinking traditions of African and Latin-American dance music. Plenty of well-known world music celebs on here: Sam Mangwana from the Congo, Papi Oviedo from Cuba, Putumayo's star peformer, Ricardo Lemvo, and others. This is one of the first of the "new" breed of Putumayo discs that made me sit up and pay attention to where the label was headed. Recommended.

Various Artists PUTUMAYO PRESENTS CAFE CUBANO (Putumayo, 2008)
A fine, rich set of contemporary Cuban (and Cuban-style) music, spanning a decade from 1999-2008. Emigres are included, as well as regional artists from across the island, younger artists and Buena Vista-style old-timers, large salsa bands and urgent acoustic balladeers, political singers and romantic traditionalists -- it's a nice cross-section of music and very little of it veers into the slicker, poppier jazz terrain of the '80s-era bands such as Irakere, et. al. Most of these artists will be new to US listeners, and they'll be welcome as well. Another strong release from the pleasantly revitalized Putumayo label.

Various Artists "PUTUMAYO PRESENTS: COLUMBIA" (Putumayo, 2001)
A good, solid set of Columbian dance tunes, bridging the gap between straight-ahead salsa and the hyperactive homegrown styles like cumbia and vallenato... This collection features huge stars such as Joe Arroyo, alongside lesser-known luminaries like Toto La Momposina and Tulio Zuloaga... This disc stays on a fairly even keel -- not a lot of rhythmic variety, but it's all very nice stuff. Definitely worth checking out!

Various Artists "PUTUMAYO PRESENTS: DOMINICA REPUBLICA" (Putumayo, 2000)
A very solid collection, further signalling Putumayo's rise out of the "Wal-Mart of world music" pigeonhole that many have placed on the label. Although there are questionable chord changes here and there, for the most part this compilation focuses on straightforward Cuban-tinged dance music. Pleasantly melodic, these tracks veer sharply from the manic, hyper-charged merengues which typified Domincan pop in the 1980s. As far as I'm concerned, it's a welcome change of pace, and this collection was a real eye opener. It might be for you, too! Definitely worth checking out.

Various Artists "PUTUMAYO PRESENTS: LATIN BEAT" (Putumayo, 2011)
A nice, multi-textured mix of traditional Latin dance styles -- son, cumbia, reggae, flamenco, et. al -- mixed with traces of dancetronica, funk, pop, hip-hop and rock. I like that most of the songs seem to come from a more traditional, Latin-American base, rather than adding "Latin spice" to modern pop songs: the groove is both heavier and more subtle, and several tracks have a pleasantly narcotic, hypnotic groove. Some artists, like Grupo Lokito, play straight-up old-school son while others, such as New Zealand's Sola Rosa tweak things around and bend your ears a bit. Not surprisingly, Columbia and Cuba are the best represented countries, although Spain, the US and UK also get their licks in... I would have enjoyed a bit of Mexico's "Nortec" scene in the mix (some amazing stuff happening there!) but like many Putumayo sets, this can point you in some interesting directions. If you like old-school, but have new ears, you could give this a spin and see what happens.

Various Artists "PUTUMAYO PRESENTS: LATIN JAZZ" (Putumayo, 2007)
A swinging set of Latin jazz classics, featuring tracks by heavyweights such as Chocolate Armenteros, Ray Baretto, Machito, Manny Oquendo, Tito Puente, Hilton Ruiz and Tito Puente... It's a pretty solid collection and, interestingly enough, it concentrates on the slinkier, more groove-oriented "Latin" side of the equation, lingering on the hypnotic phrasing of salsa/son, rather than the big bandish blare of the "Jazz" camp. That's just fine by me -- other than the album's closer, a long track by Eddie Palmieri and Brian Lynch, nothing on here is "too jazz" for me, so it mostly sounds like a cool son set. Definitely worth checking out.

Various Artists "PUTUMAYO PRESENTS: LATIN PARTY" (Putumayo, 2010)
Contemporary Latin dance music from all across the Americas... This is newer stuff, mainly from the last decade (with one older track from 1995) and with a heavy tilt towards Colombia, with tracks from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Peru and elsewhere. It's slick, funky, fun modern stuff, and mostly from artists who are well off the radar up here in Los Estados Unidos... There's one track from Colombia's legendary bandleader Fruko Estrada, but other than that, these names will probably be new to most listeners. And in my book, that's a good thing! The music is slick, sensual and well-selected: this collection lives up to its name as a solid party album.

Various Artists "PUTUMAYO PRESENTS: LATIN REGGAE" (Putumayo, 2008)
Although the frenetic hip-hop-salsa-reggae hybrid called reggaeton took off a few years ago to become a potent commercial force, plain-old roots reggae has also been thriving in the Spanish-speaking world, as heard on this solid set of riddims from around the world. Spain -- and Barcelona in particular -- seems to be ground zero for Spanish-language reggae: over half the songs on here come from Espana, with additional entries from Argentina, Chile and Puerto Rico... North America gets a little representation, too, by bands from Brooklyn (naturally) and Canada as well, where Montreal-based Sarazino get a little of the tropical vibe going, evenwhen there's three feet of snow. This is a fine record for reggae lovers (and lover's reggae!) and for world music fans who really like hearing different cultures mixin' it up. There isn't as much musical influence from the salsa side of the street as you might imagine, but in some ways hearing straight-up old-school reggae being sung en espanol but otherwise unchanged is even cooler than a big reggaeton-style mash-up. Definitely worth checking out!

Various Artists "PUTUMAYO PRESENTS: MEXICO" (Putumayo, 2001)
This disc is another surprisingly nice sampler, which runs a nice tightwire between the shrill tinniness many normally associate with Mexican music, and the saccharine folkie-fusion new age leanings of the older Putumayo discs. The material is tuneful and melodic, but not drippy or overblown, and overall this is quite pleasant. The recordings are all of recent vintage, mostly from the late 1990s, so if you want older stuff, you'll have to look elsewhere. But if you want a pleasant little surprise, then give this CD a try. It's nice.

Various Artists "PUTUMAYO PRESENTS: NUEVO LATINO" (Putumayo, 2004)
A sweet set of soft, sly, (mostly) Spanish-language pop from across the globe, including Cuban, Mexican, Brazilian and European artists, all linked together by a sleek, subtle style that foregoes the aggressive edge of both Afro-Cuban salsa and rock en espanol. Its a surprisingly strong set, mellow without being goopy, downtempo without drifting into any of the electronica/world beat cliches that are so prevalent these days. Plus, it has New York's Mosquitos on it -- a pleasant surprise that really made me sit up and take notice. Nice record... recommended!

Various Artists "PUTUMAYO PRESENTS: RUMBA FLAMENCO" (Putumayo, 2002)
All these decades later, the Gipsy Kings still cast a long shadow on the world of popular flamenco, as evidenced by the forceful opening number on this fine collection, "Rankankin," by Maita Verde, which bears the stamp of the Kings' virile pop-crossover formula. There's a lot of variety, though, and other tracks on here are more subtle and lyrical, although many, inevitably, drift into easy listening-ish "world music" terrain. Almost all of the bands are Spanish or Catalonian, although it also includes entries by French groups such as the Gitano Family and Ricao, as wella s American-based acts such as Ziroq and De Madera. All in all, a sweeping and effective overview of modern flamenco, which ably explores the style's rich Arabic and cross-cultural influences. Recommended!

Various Artists "PUTUMAYO PRESENTS: RUMBA, MAMBO, CHA-CHA-CHA" (Putumayo, 2011)
A swinging set of highly danceable music... one of the most flat-out fun albums in the Putumayo catalog. If you want to get a party started, but this disc on and start to sway. Latin dance bands from Cuba, Colombia, San Francisco, Chicago, Scotland and Eastern Europe all get funky and sleek, with classic-sounding salsa and rumba riffs. What more can I say? This is a really nice collection, well worth checking out.

Various Artists "PUTUMAYO PRESENTS: SALSA" (Putumayo, 2009)
A rock-solid set of modern salsa music, mainly from the US and Cuba, but also with popular South American bands such as Colombia's venerable Fruko y Sus Tesos or Juanito y La Agresiva. Although these are all songs recordedin the lastten years, the sound is pure New York-style salsa, derived from the 1970s Fania Records template: catchy melodies, syncopation and unrelenting, sexy rhythm. One through-line is the elegant, inventive piano playing highlighted on most tracks, from delicate, complex improvisatory passages to the thunderous keyboard pounding on Eddie Palmieri's "Sujutate La Lengua." Other old-timers such as Pocho Sanchez and Orchesta Aragon are represented, as well as relative newcomers like Ricardo Lemvo, Grupo Gale and Son Boricua. Unlike previous Putumayo collections that made a point of showcasing salsa bands from unlikely locales, this album opts for power over novelty -- if you want a strong set of dynamic, old-school latin-dance music, this is a pretty strong set. Recommended!

Various Artists "PUTUMAYO PRESENTS: SALSA AROUND THE WORLD" (Putumayo, 2003)
An excellent set of Cuban-style salsa music recorded by groups from lands as disparate as India, Italy, Finland and Morocco. With the decades-long cultural interchanges between Africa and the Carribean Basin, the bands from Senegal and Cameroon are no surprise, but entries by bands such as Apurimac (from Greece) and Salsa Celtica (a Scottish group that intertwines Gealic melodies with Latin rhythms) will give you pause to think. The performances are uniformly strong, though a few dip into slicker production styles. Holds up well to similar collections out earlier on the Tinder label... recommended!

Tango music, which was one of the first great global dance crazes, was born in Argentina and is inextricably linked with the history and soul of that country. But, having spread across the planet nearly a hundred years ago, it has had ample opportunity to gestate elsewhere, and it is no surprise that a collection of modern tango music that spans the globe would yield such rich results. To be sure, Argentina is well-represented, by artists such as Hugo Diaz, Federico Aubele and Florencia Bonadeo, but the sampling of songs from other nations such as Serbia, Senegal, Norway and Portugal, will be as eye-opening as it is rewarding. Finland, one of the great European strongholds of tango, has its own distinct tango style and is represented here by a single track by M.A. Numminen and Sanna Pietiainen, while Brazil, a neighboring country that resisted the pull of tango in favor of its own, homegrown samba, contributes a fine song as well, "Tango Ishede," by Fortuna. Tango fans will enjoy this set, as will newcomers who may welcome the way these crossovers and variations often dilute the innate severity of the genre. As with many of Putumayo's best collections, this serves both as a fine album itself and as a signpost for deeper exploration of many fine artists who would otherwise be far off our radar. Recommended!

Various Artists "RITMO AFRO-CUBANO" (Fantasy, 2004)
Jazz and soul-jazz meet heavy Cuban rhythms in this fine, well-selected collection, drawn from the vaults of the Fantasy, Milestone, Pablo, Prestige, Riverside and Tru-Sound labels. The lineup includes brand-name biggies such as Ray Baretto, Dizzy Gillespie, Chico O'Farrill, Joe Loco, Manny Oquendo, Pucho & His Latin Soul Brothers, Cal Tjader, et al, along with less well-known artists like Montego Joe, Andres Hernandez, Alfredito Valdes and Benny Velarde... The music is uniformly slam-bang and satisfying -- this disc may not be revolutionary or unique, but it is a real earth-shaker, packed with sizzling examples of the best in latin jazz. Recommended!

This collection mines a style of music that, by the compiler's own admission, has never had much of a following outside of the poor barrios of Peru, where it first emerged in the late 1960s. Chicha is a Peruvian variant on Columbian cumbia, in which manic accordions are replaced by gritty electric guitars, and the tempo is kept relatively slow. The style evolved during the acid rock era of the 'Sixties, when American and European rock made huge inroads into global indigenous cultures, particularly in the introduction of cheap, loud, portable modern instruments such as the Farfisa organ and electric guitars, which lent the sound of yanqui rock to local scenes, but were also easily adapted to local styles. The tracks on this album were all recorded between 1966-78, when rock-flavored experimentation was exploding across South America -- In Peru it was the Andean immigrants into the big cities, primarily Lima, who latched onto electric instrumentation and made it their own... Calling this music "psychedelic" is a bit of a stretch, although the influence of surf rock is evident, and some of the extended guitar riffs were very improvisational and unusual; there's also a distinctly Andean huayno influence, particularly in the contracted tonal scales, that sounds kinda cool. Like the cumbia it stems from, this was party music, made for people to dance to, and although it was frowned on by urban sophisticates and never made it beyond a limited regional influence, the good-timey vibe persists, all these decades later. Put it on, crank it up, and you'll find yourself tapping your toes and wiggling your hips in no time at all...

Various Artists "ROOTS OF MAMBO: 1930-1950" (Fremeaux, 2006)

Various Artists "ROUGH GUIDE TO CUBAN SON" (Rough Guides, 2003)
Pretty nice. One of the best samplers of Cuban dance music you're ever likely to find on the American market, packed with solid performances by classic artists such as Beny More, Orquesta Aragon, Ignacio Pineiro, Nico Saquito and others. Even if it isn't all "son" per se, and even if it includes a few tunes by slick modern groups such as Los Van Van, there's a perceptible tilt towards older, rootsier acoustic styles and artists that I find appealling. Sure, maybe all of the artists aren't brand-name, dyed-in-the-wool legends, but this is a very strong, no-nonsense sampler of some of the sweetest music Cuba has to offer, and one of my favorite RG discs to date. Definitely recommended.

Various Artists "SALSA WORLD SERIES, v.1: VENEZUELA" (Walboomers, 2010)

Various Artists "SALSA WORLD SERIES, v.2" (Walboomers, 2010)

Various Artists "SEXTETOS CUBANOS v. 1" (Arhoolie, 1991)
Various Artists "SEXTETOS CUBANOS v. 2" (Arhoolie, 1995)

The sexteto was once the classic Cuban ensemble: guitars, bass, trumpet and percussion; although stylistic innovations and changes in popular taste led other sounds to take over, the sextetos remain at the root of much of the Cuban popular music. These CDs predate the late-'90s resurgence of old-school Cuban son, and not coincidentally are of very high calibre. On Volume One, Antonio Machin is heard in 1929 with his Havana ensemble, on the eve of his departure for New York and, ultimately, for Europe. "Vengan, Vengan" may turn the ears of blues fans who recognize its playful theme; Volume Two features even earlier recordings by venerable bands such as Sexteto Bolona and Sexteto Nacional. There are dozens of similar releases available on import labels such as Harlequin and Tumbao, but there is certainly no faulting these outstanding CDs for their quality and depth. Recommended!

Various Artists "SON CUBANO NYC -- CUBAN ROOTS, NEW YORK SPICES: 1972-82" (Astralwerks, 2005)
This swinging set of New York salsa/son cruises through the sweet, summery sounds of old-timers such as Chocolate Armenteros, Henry Fiol, Rey Roig, Roberto Torres and several less well-known (but no less thrilling) Cuban-American dance bands. It's great stuff, a collection that easily holds its own next to all the other salsa and boogaloo reissues out there these days. The liner notes are funny, though, with two parallel perspectives on the "salsa" vs. "son" nomenclature -- there's one strident argument that says the word "salsa" was all marketing/public relations BS, and another, mellower version that says, Who cares? It's the same music, and it's all really good. I guess I slide into the second camp: when you've got stuff that sounds this sweet, why get all hung up on the name? This is a great collection, definitely worth checking out.

Various Artists "TRIOS PODEROSOS EN 3 CD" (Sony, 2008)
Wonderful music -- fab Cuban and Latin American acoustic trios such as the legendary Trio Matamoros, Trio Servando Diaz, Trio De Oro, Los Guaracheros de Oriente, Los Tres Ases, and others... What I don't get, though, is why they packaged this collection on three separate CDs, each with only nine songs on them, for total of twenty-seven songs. There are countless collections out there that have that many songs on a single disc -- this version just takes up too much shelf space. Oh, well. It's still a good introduction to a lot of great old music.

Various Artists "UMALALI: THE GARIFUNA WOMEN'S PROJECT" (Cumbancha, 2008)
The Garifuna people, who live in enclaves along the Caribbean coast of Belize and other Central American countries; they have strong, vibrantly alive African roots and, up until modern times, their own distinctive language and dialects. Because of external economic and cultural pressures, the Garifuna culture was in danger of dying out in the 1980s when a group of younger artists seized it back from the precipice, embraced it, and brought it into the 20th Century. One of the most prominent artists, Andy Palacio, delved into the wellspring of Garifuna traditional music, both preserving the fading oral tradition and combining it with rock, jazz, and other outside influences. He led several bands, and more recently released solo albums including his last one, Watina (also on the Cumbancha label) which brought widespread acclaim, just before his untimely passing away early in 2008. Despite the loss of its great champion, Garifuna culture appears to be healthy and thriving, at least if this fine compilation album is any indication. This is a set of music featuring several women from Palacio's own region of Belize, with keening vocals set against sleek, velvety modern arrangements. Sofia Blanco, Desere Diego, Bernadine Flores, Damiana Gutierez, Sarita Martinez -- none of these are famous musicians, indeed, their singing style is marked by its roughness and authentic rural character, a sharp, distinctly African vocal style that's rather similar to the roda de samba sung by older women in Bahia, Brazil. The pairing of the contemporary pop production and their other-worldly chanting seems potentially perilous, but much to the producers' credit, they don't subsume the women's vocals, don't remix or gussy them up, but rather play off of them, and support them delicately and with admirable restraint. Although the rugged core of their pre-modern culture is left intact, the album is surprisingly rich and engaging... Another nice one from this up-and-coming new label!

Various Artists "!VIVA CUBA LIBRE!" (Amiata, 2000)
A handsomely packaged set, with a hardbound booklet featuring over sixty pages of vibrantly colorful photographs, and a 14-song CD that spins through several of the best-known contemporary Cuban son singers, mainly artists associated with the Buena Vista Social Club. Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzales, Omara Portuondo and Compay Segundo are featured, as well as some older acoustic guajiro players such as Guillermo Portabales and trovador Carlos Puebla. To be honest, this album didn't blow me away, perhaps because it's mostly stuff you can hear elsewhere, and in some cases (particularly with Puebla and Portabales) it's not the strongest work by these long-lived artists. But it is a strong, representative set, and certainly would be a fine addition to the library of anyone looking to learn more about this music. The beautiful pictures, taken in 1999 by Italian photographer Stefano Bilioti, are really what make this a unique release.

Various Artists "VIVA CUBOP 1: JAZZ THE AFRO CUBAN WAY" (CuBop/Ubiquity, 1999)

Various Artists "VIVA CUBOP 2: DANCE THE AFRO CUBAN WAY" (CuBop/Ubiquity, 2000)
Offhand, I can't say as I've ever been a huge fan of latin jazz, per se, but this is a pretty swinging sampler of the best artists in the Ubiquity stable. This collection ranges from straight up jazz guys like Jack Constanzo (whose thunderous "La La La" opens the album...) and Dave Pike, to folks closer to the salsa side of things, like Arturo Sandoval and Bobby Matos, as well as electronic/DJ types who also want in on the action, such as Snowboy, who contributes "Oya Ye Ye" from his new album. Pretty cool disc, really!

Various Artists "VIVA CUBOP 3: MORE JAZZ THE AFRO CUBAN WAY" (CuBop/Ubiquity, 2003)
This set is even stronger on the Latin Jazz side of the equation, and if that's a style that appeals to you, then these young'uns wailing their little hearts out will probably strike a chord. Too jazz-oriented for my tastes, but it's cool to hear modern artists putting so much energy and enthusiasm into this music!

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