Blesok no. 37, July-August, 2004
Manuel ‘Guajiro’ Mirabal
Having been an integral part of the Buena Vista Social Club series of albums and tours from their inception, trumpeter Manuel ‘Guajiro’ Mirabal brings us his debut solo album. This album sees Guajiro leading a tribute to the spirit of the legendary giant of Cuban music, Arsenio Rodríguez. All of the tracks on the album were written by or associated with Arsenio. The music here is performed by a specially assembled group in the mould of Arsenio’s great trumpet led conjuntos of the 1940s and 50s.
Guajiro has been a key figure in the Cuban music scene for over 50 years and has played with just about every Cuban star you could care to mention. During World Circuit’s now legendary recording blitz in Havana in 1996, Guajiro featured on all three of these seminal albums: Afro-Cuban All Stars ‘A Toda Cuba Le Gusta’, ‘Buena Vista Social Club’, and ‘Introducing Rubén González’. The trumpet occupies a hugely important role within Cuban music, and Guajiro is its archetypal exponent, making him the unquestioned choice as the trumpet soloist for all three albums. The phenomenon that followed these releases has brought about a renewed reverence for artists such as Guajiro, who is now in greater demand than ever.
It is no co-incidence that with his key role in the current resurgence in music from Cuba that Guajiro has decided to make his first solo album a tribute to Arsenio Rodríguez.
Nicknamed ‘El Ciego Maravilloso’ (The Blind Marvel), Arsenio was a revolutionary figure completely transforming the sound and definition of Cuban music. An expert in Congolese rhythms, he pushed African influences to the fore, refashioning the traditional sexteto by adding the conga drum, and two extra trumpets to give it a lot more power and scope, and setting his syncopated tres playing style (double course 3 string guitar) against the percussion to great effect. His innovative usage of the piano began with a young Rubén González, who played on Arsenio’s first recording in 1943, and developed over the years with Lili Martínez. When Arsenio moved to New York in 1950 trumpeter Felix Chappottín assumed the mantle of bandleader; Chappottín, along with Alfredo ‘Chocolate’ Armenteros were instrumental in the emergence of trumpets within the conjunto through their work with Arsenio, and Guajiro is the heir to that tradition. Arsenio’s music is deceptively simple, but extremely difficult to perform with the confidence and swagger that Guajiro and his band have tried to capture on this homage.
Recorded in Havana’s famous Egrem studios, the ensemble featured on this album is an A-list cast of Cuba’s finest musicians, desperate to be on the album, such is the high esteem with which they regard Guajiro. With a driving percussion section including Miguel ‘Angá’ Díaz, Amadito Valdés, and Carlos González, combined with the double bass of Orlando ‘Cachaíto’ López, the keys of Roberto Fonseca, and Manuel Galbán on acoustic guitar, one can feel the fire and passion in these recordings. Featured soloists on the album include Papi Oviedo on tres and Roberto Fonseca on piano. Vocalists on the album include Calunga, a rising star of the timba scene in Cuba, and Ibrahim Ferrer, who makes a guest appearance on the album, singing lead vocals on ‘Deuda’. The opening track is El Rincon Caliente that belongs to son montuno tradition that is Arsenio’s trade mark. Although Caliente was not familiar with Arsenio’s music prior to this recording but he has the perfect voice for it. Para Bailar el montuno is a homage to Arsenio’s tres playing from Papi Oviedo. The all important trumpet section consists of Guajiro, his Tropicana partner of almost thirty years Luis Alemañy, and the late Alejandro Pichardo Pérez, to whom this album is dedicated. The closing track ‘Dombe Dombe’ has Arsenio’s original pianist, the great Rubén González, perform a piece that he specifically requested be included on this album.
The album was recorded almost entirely live in the studio, with minimal overdubs, thus giving it a more spontaneous, late night feel, allowing the musicians room to flex their musical muscle. There is a great deal of warmth and humour throughout Arsenio’s music and that is certainly the case with this recording. For producer Nick Gold this album has been a real labour of love and, for Guajiro, it’s a great thrill to be finally doing his solo album at 71, as he says “Everything comes in time.”