Various Artists, Rough Guide to Salsa De Puerto Rico (World Music Network, 2003)

Like pretty much any genre or style, the music of Puerto Rico is a confluence of traditions. In this case, it’s a blend of influences from the various peoples that have populated the island country over the past 500 years. The island’s original inhabitants, the Taino Indians, melded with the Spaniards in 1493 and later slaves from West Africa. These three groups along with their native instruments and song forms were thrown into a melting pot and, over time, a heady and rhythmically rich musical stew emerged. And, during the 20th century, Puerto Rican immigrants brought their music to the United States where it morphed even further.

The album at hand is as its title says, a rough guide, indeed. Over the course of about an hour, the listener is treated to 13 pukka tracks which survey modern salsa/plena and their folkloric roots. The liner notes are quite good, as they give brief bios of the musicians, as well as a rough guide to the roots of their styles and instruments they play.

The album kicks off with the sprightly "Una Pena En La Navidad" by Yomo Toro. Toro has been playing the cuatro, a small Spanish guitar, for most of his life. Here he takes traditional peasant music and adds a hefty dose of jazz to create a joyous sound. Like Yomo Toro, Héctor Lovoe was born in Puerto Rico but relocated to New York City where he met Willie Colón in 1963. Their fruitful partnership lasted decades and "Todo Tiene Su Final" is proof of just how great a team they were. Lovoe’s soulful voice hovers over the multi-layered rhythm but there are plenty of breaks for Colón’s soaring trombone.

Plena Libre contribute "Consuelo" which features some great harmony vocals. Rodolfo 'Nava" Barrera’s "Mujer Boricua' shifts the joyous mood of the album towards the romantic with this song. As Barrera sings the praises of a woman, a chorus of backing vocals and guitar move between the horns and the percussion. The album closes with a nod to bomba music that lacks the European elements of salsa/plena and whose roots lie primarily in West Africa. "Cico Mangual" by Paracumbé features only a hefty rhythm and singer Nelie Lebrón Robles trading vocals with an all-female chorus. While it stands in contrast to the more orchestrated songs that precede it, its sparseness gives it its power.

If you’re like me and cannot speak Spanish, don’t fret. One doesn’t have to understand the lyrics to get the message of the music. With infectious beats and zealous melodies, this music isn’t about using your brain, it’s about moving your body.

[John D. Benninghouse]

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