Recording of July 2013: Rumba de la Isla

Pedrito Martinez: Rumba de la Isla
Pedrito Martinez, vocals, congas, chekere, cowbell; Niño Josele, guitar, clapping; Alfredo de la Fé, electric violin; John Benítez, acoustic & electric bass; Pirana, cajón, clapping; Román Díaz, batas, cajón, spoons, vocals; Xiomara "La Voz" Laugart, Abraham Rodríguez, backing vocals
Calle 54/Sony Masterworks 8876 540607 2 (CD). 2013. Nat Chediak, Fernando Trueba, prods.; Jim Anderson, eng. DAD? TT: 50:20
Performance ****½
Sonics *****

Cross-cultural mashups are all the rage. There's the BlueBrass mix of New Orleans brass band and bluegrass, reviewed in this issue. The Border Music project mixes David Hidalgo's Norteño/East L.A. rock with Marc Ribot's downtown New York jazz. Here, conguero Pedrito Martinez, born in Cuba but based in New York City, successfully crosses Afro-Cuban rumba with Andalusian flamenco to celebrate the work of flamenco composer and singer Camarón de la Isla. Born José Monje Cruz, de la Isla is probably best known outside Spain for his collaborations with guitarist Paco de Lucía; together they made nine records, and toured extensively throughout the 1970s. De la Isla died in 1992 at the age of 41.

Spanish film director, music producer, and author Fernando Trueba, and film presenter and music producer Nat Chediak, the producers of this record, have gone the cross-cultural route before, most notably in Lágrimas Negras, a collaboration between the late Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés and Romani flamenco singer Diego el Cigala (Diego Ramón Jiménez Salazar). Here, the arrangements mix multiple rhythms and much improvisational soloing from every player, all of it held together by Martinez's smooth, joyful singing, which lacks the abruptness and shouted lines so common in flamenco.

Rhythm, of course, is the common ground of Afro-Cuban music and flamenco, and in each tune that commonality builds to a mass of furious, glorious drumming. The opener, "Que a Mí me Vió de Nacer," opens gently with acoustic guitar, followed by electric violin and drums, before Martinez's voice enters. Furious interplay then ensues between the drumming and, finally, a chorus of voices in call and response with Martinez. Another highlight is the spirited singing in "Volando Voy," by Spanish singer-guitarist Kiko Veneno, who worked with De la Isla.

As it does for so many forms of Latin music, including salsa and mambo, Cuban son forms the basis for much of Afro-Cuban's rhythms, as well as for the overall instrumentation of each track here. The musicians are a mix of Caribbean players—such as John Benitez, from Puerto Rico, and a pair of Cubans, Román Díaz and Alfredo de la Fé—and two Spaniards: the precise and deliberate guitarist Niño Josele, and percussionist Pirana, who plays the cajón, a wooden box, originally from Peru, that has become ubiquitous in Latin and Latin-influenced music. The album's most exotic flavor is De la Fé's electric violin, its unexpected voice flashing in and out.

Rumba de la Isla was engineered by Jim Anderson, who's profiled elsewhere in this issue: "It was interesting in the studio. We tried one take, the very first take, with a click [track] that was a clave—not just a straight 4/4, but a real clave kind of thing—and they couldn't make it through because the Spanish clave sits in one place, and the Cuban clave sits in a whole different place. The guys were feeling that they just couldn't do it. So we said, 'Okay, let's throw away the click,' and we would go as far as we could go into the tune. They would fight to keep it together, and then, when it fell apart, we would say, 'Okay, fine.' We'd back up maybe 20 seconds, play along, and we'd punch in. Almost every song is like that."

The key to getting the sound right lay in recording the many percussion instruments, and for that Anderson had a secret weapon. "I had just gotten these new microphones from Sennheiser, called MKH 8020. They're digital microphones, and they're omnis, and when the signal leaves the microphone it's actually in a digital format. So it travels through the wires and onto the computer, and we have a little Neumann control panel, and then it goes into Pro Tools on the desktop. We never hear it in analog until we hear it coming out of the back end of Pro Tools. I used [the MKH 8020s] on Roman's cajón. They're really fast and very, very precise. I was amazed at the clarity I was able to get, and the power on that percussion."

Rumba de la Isla has an alive, full-blooded sound, with three-dimensional imaging, plenty of crack on the drums, and an impressive balance between instruments on the soundstage.

"We had done two different versions of mastering. We did kind of an audiophile version, and then we thought, 'This is nice, but knowing the marketplace for this music, we'd better just squeeze it a little bit more for a little more energy.' The band and the producers just loved the second version."—Robert Baird