By now you know the heartwarming story of the Buena Vista Social Club: American guitarist Ry Cooder goes to Cuba, locates almost-forgotten elder statesmen of classic Cuban music, records album, watches album become worldwide smash. Said Cuban musicians receive long-overdue recognition, adulation, and royalty checks.
But one sometimes-overlooked fact of the Buena Vista Social Club's album is that it showcased a classic son style rarely heard in Cuba today (except in Havana tourist bars). By contrast, the Afro-Cuban All Stars' debut album, A Toda Cuba le Gusta, a searing big-band excursion recorded and released concurrently with the Buena Vista disc, featured many of the same musicians and represented a much more contemporary salsa sound. Led by Juan de Marcos González, the All Stars were conceived as a group that could bridge the gap between classic and newer styles of Cuban music. The follow-up "Distinto, diferente" is, if anything, an even stronger example of the astonishing breadth and diversity of sounds emanating from Cuba today.
The album mainly sticks to a big-band salsa style that balances classic sounds like guajira and son montuno with more contemporary styles like timba, and that balance is reflected in the band's lineup. With a mix of veteran Cuban singers like Manuel "Puntillita" Licea, Felix Valoy, and Omara Portuondo and younger talents like Dennys Martinez and Lio Verais, "Distinto, diferente" succeeds by paying homage to the past without being stuck in it. Nowhere is this more evident than on the latter half of the title track, in which the elder and younger singers trade lines over a scintillating son montuno rhythm. The album covers some wide ground, including an Afro-Cuban religious track for drums and voice ("Warariansa"), a smaller septeto arrangement that wouldn't have sounded out of place on the Buena Vista album ("Huellas Del Pasado"), and a beautiful bolero ("Homenaje a Martha Valdés") that highlights Portuondo's masterful vocal style.
Mostly, though, "Distinto, diferente" succeeds as 62 minutes of thrilling (and irresistibly danceable) minutes of Cuban music. The group's All Star moniker is no marketing ploy. The band assembles some of the best talent Cuba has to offer, including percussionists "Anga" Diaz and Amadito Valdes, pianists Ruben Gonzalez and the young David Alfaro, legendary flutist "Poyo" Tamayo, laúd player "Barbarito" Torres, and de Marcos himself, who showcases his beautifully melodic tres soloing on "Tributo al Niño Rivera." While the All Stars have been overshadowed by the runaway success of the Buena Vista Social Club, "Distinto, diferente" proves that musically they're second to none. -- Ezra Gale