Cuba is an island of many musical styles and the musical culture of the country has influenced numerous developments in other genres. Changüí is often called the granddaddy of salsa and is an antecedent to the more well-known style, son. Now Gabriel Garcia, the Los Angeles-born son of Mexican immigrants, is adding to the history of Latin music with his first album featuring traditional songs played in the older style.
Changüí Majadero is a five-piece ensemble and their music will sound familiar to any fan of acoustic Latin music. With Garcia on vocals and tres, the three-stringed guitar-like instrument, George Ortiz on bongos de monte (a larger drum than the more commonly known bongo), Norell Thompson on vocals and guayo (a metal scraper), Alfred Ortiz on vocals and maracas, and Yosmel Montejo on bass, the group makes a musical splash with intricate guitar lines on the tres, a strong rhythmic foundation on bass, and a soulful beat courtesy of the guayo and the maracas. The vocals are strong throughout the group’s eponymous debut.
Changüí, like so much music created across the African diaspora, takes elements from European and African styles. An older Spanish genre known as canción, which is distantly related to more modern Spanish styles, provides the structure of the songs and is the basis of the guitar work.
Slaves from the Bantu region of Africa (parts of modern-day Congo, Uganda, and Tanzania), imported to Cuba to work the sugarcane fields in eastern Cuba where the style originated, added the distinctive African rhythms and the percussion instruments.
Many of the songs appearing on the album Garcia learned directly from the teachers he met on a trip to Guantanamo, which is the eastern Cuban province where the style originated. They are traditional folk tunes that are played at local gatherings and celebrations.
The production keeps the rhythms up front and Garcia’s work on the tres stands out, demonstrating the connection between strong guitar playing (his first instrument) and the more percussive technique involved in playing the tres.
The vocals also draw the listener in. Martha Gonzalez, a Grammy winner with Quetzal, a Chicano rock band from East Los Angeles, makes a guest vocal appearance. But the call-and-response, lead and unison vocals of the band are quite compelling on their own.
Lovers of Latin music, particularly acoustic vocal styles made famous in the United States by the Buena Vista Social Club, will immediately gravitate to the sound of this band and this album.