¡Cubanismo! certainly has good timing. Releasing their first album just before the seminal world music success of Buena Vista Social Club, they were poised to make a real impact with their melodic Cuban music that kept its roots strong but also reached outward with a rhythmic kick and a sense of adventure.
The band was formed by trumpeter Jesús Alemañy, who had been a Cuban child prodigy, gliding through Havana's Conservatorio Amadeo Roldan, then joining Sierra Maestra, the group that helped rejuvenate Cuban son, when he was just 16. The solid grounding in Cuban musical traditions stood him in good stead when he was finally ready to go it alone after more than a decade. He moved to London in 1992, playing, learning, and networking with fellow Cubans, including percussionist Patato Valdez, for whom he helped organize a descarga, or jam session, in Paris in 1994. Among those invited was record producer and head of Hannibal Records Joe Boyd. He liked what he heard and suggested that Alemañy return to Cuba and organize another descarga, this one to be recorded. It took a little while, but in 1995 a group of musicians assembled at Egrem Studios in Havana, including veteran pianist Alfredo Rodríguez and ten-year-old bongo player Julian Oveido -- a wide cross-section of ages, but all extremely talented. They laid down some classic Cuban material with sizzling solos and percussion, and the result was the first, self-titled ¡Cubanismo! record, released in 1996. Extensive touring and frequent lineup changes followed, meaning that Malembe, the band's 1997 follow-up, had noticeably different personnel. But if anything, the music was hotter and jazzier than before, with the emphasis remaining on Cuban classics, although some original material crept into the mix. Arriving as it did when Buena Vista Social Club started opening American ears to Cuban sounds, Malembe helped ¡Cubanismo! tap into the Zeitgeist for the music and become known as they continued to tour the world ceaselessly. By 1998 they were firing on all cylinders, as Reencarnacion showed, with the rhythm on fire and the trumpet solos louder and higher than ever, as the rest of the band -- with many different faces once more -- seemed to burn hard and bright. However, it was really beginning to seem that they'd gone as far as they could down that particular street, unless they wanted to begin repeating themselves. What followed was a two-year gap between records, which ended with the 2000 release of Mardi Gras Mambo, a record that connected the dots between the musics of Havana and the Crescent City. And they certainly seemed to have a lot in common, with second-line rhythms, New Orleans R&B, and even a little rap mixed with son and mambo. A bunch of Louisiana guests, including veteran singer John Boutté, lent their talents to tunes like the traditional "Iko Iko" and Huey P. Smith's "It Do Me Good," as well as some originals, to create a gumbo with plenty of Cuban spice and a ¡Cubanismo! that sounded reinvigorated. A successful U.S. tour followed the record's release. ~ Chris Nickson, Rovi