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Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna - Directo Desde Cuba [Areito 1972, reissued on Uniko, CD, unkown date]

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I never thought I would get to write this post.

Many years ago, back when I was racking my brain every week trying to come up with ideas for a 2-hour playlist on Saturday nights that would be unique, danceable, and above all else fun, I stumbled onto the excellent compilation series "Si, Para Usted" from Canadian label Waxing Deep records, a label that appears to have only existed for the sole purpose of releasing this phenomenal piece of digging before vanishing into the ether. While both Volume 1 and 2 are full of wonderful tracks, the one that stuck with me was what is quite possibly the most unhinged cover of Ides of March's Vehicle - with exquisite musicianship, incredible sabor and, for some reason, a spooky organ section near the end that sounds straight out of some cartoon. It was absolutely arresting, and I had to know more about this "Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna", as well as the album it came on.

The first part was easy. The Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna began as part of an about-face from the government in 1967, who stopped seeing jazz as a "vehicle of ideological penetration to suffocate socialism", to the point of banning the electric guitar and saxophone as "imperialist instruments", and began to believe that jazz was fine so long as it always had Cuban elements within. Rafael Somavilla and Armando Romeu were assigned as directors of the orchestra, and were tasked with finding the best musicians on the island to form part of this new endeavor. They definitely had the background to do so - Somavilla directed the orchestra of the Habana Libre hotel in 1961 as well as being part of the Cuban musical delegation to the Soviet Union and the GDR in 1963, and Romeu was a long-time director of the orchestra at the famed Tropicana cabaret. Using their expertise, they got musicians from everywhere - military bands, the orchestra of the Instituto Cubano de Radio y Televisión, the national symphonic orchestra...if there was a diamond in the rough, they found it. From 1967 to 1970, they did in fact succeed in playing the jazz that had been forbidden, and their first concert recorded by EGREM is stellar, if short, and was a great success. They even made it as far as Warsaw to play at a jazz festival in 1970.

The Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna receiving a standing ovation at the end of their first recorded concert
A shot from the end of the first recorded concert of the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna

But, once the Congress of Education and Culture of 1971 came along, with dramatically increased Russian influence on Cuban culture, the orchestra was ordered from the very top to play less jazz, and over time this became a breaking point for some of the rising stars in the group, in particular Paquito D'Rivera, who got kicked out of the orchestra for complaining all the time, and Chucho Valdés, who would leave the orchestra and form Irakere along with D'Rivera, Jorge Varona, Carlos Emilio Morales, Carlos del Puerto, Bernardo García and Oscar Valdés II. The rest, as they say, is history, as Irakere became one of the greatest influences for the modern Afro-Cuban jazz movement, and many of its members became international stars. But it all comes back to this one about-face moment of the commisars that led to an incredible gathering of top-notch musicianship with the OCMM in 1967.

The second part - actually finding the album for this incredible cover, to see what else would be there - proved to be much more difficult. The rest of OCMM's work is easy to find on streaming services, music shops, you name it. Heck, I can link you to three of their albums here, easy to buy, and I think the one compiled as "Jazzcuba, Vol. 10" is excellent. But as you can see - no sign of Vehicle on any of these. The album is definitely licensed from Areito, the primary imprint of Cuba's government-run - and, for most of its post-revolutionary history the only - record label, but the only copies I've ever seen turn up are on the Spanish label Movieplay, with the original Cuban record either non-existent or exceedingly rare. Trying to find tracks on YouTube brings us the excellent Vehicle, of course, as well as another absolutely gobsmacking cover of Perrey & Kingsley's Popcorn. And...that was it for many years. The album barely ever goes on sale, and when it does, it shows up for over $100, which is a bit too rich for my blood when all but two songs on the record could be absolutely awful. Gambling with vinyl is always dangerous, so I put it on the proverbial backburner pretty much permanently.

screenshot of Discogs sales graphs for this album, showing that it has sold 11 times in 6 years, and whose price never dips below $85 before shipping
Never gamble on vinyl, kids.

I am glad to report that thanks to an obscure Canadian record label "Uniko Records", that my hesitancy on gambling was misplaced, and the record is absolutely jam-packed with top class musicianship, and performances dripping with soul and Cuban sabor - the arrangements are top-notch, the mix is crystal clear (though heavy on the bass, as is standard for Cuban records of the 60s and 70s), and it's just plain fun. Big smile on my face the whole time, especially during the absolutely excellent Close to You, which is just such a creative take on a song that I've heard covered dozens of times that it's worth the journey for it alone. If anything, that's the connecting thread between all the songs on here - if you've ever wondered what some of the biggest pop hits of the late 60s and early 70s sound like as a Cuban descarga, with arrangements that are profoundly creative and absolutely delightful, this is the album for you.

That said, there are some downsides, though they are all due to Uniko Records and not the music itself. The packaging is dirt cheap, with no liner notes, and very cheaply printed disc label and cover. The cover honestly looks like it's printed with an early 2000s inkjet printer based on an already low-resolution high-noise JPEG of the original album cover, which is a shame. Also, this is absolutely a needledrop from vinyl, and not even a particularly good one - you can hear the telltale clipping of a spherical stylus all the way throughout, and the only reason I'm not railing against this more is because of just how excellent the music is, such that it transcends the limitations of poor sound quality. That's also true specifically for the tracks that come from the original album; the two bonus tracks seem to have had some noise reduction applied to them and sound awful, but I do of course deeply appreciate that they are included, as they're stuff I never would have had even if I plonked down over $100 to maybe get the original album on vinyl.

But as much as I rail against this version, and can't recommend buying it as it is both low quality and of dubious origin - given the rest of their output as mostly old Cuban and Colombian records that are out of print, and at least one blog post claims they put out bootlegs - this stuff is just too good not to share. So, my deep apologies to Uniko Records, who I can find no trace of on the Internet whatsoever, but if you reach out to me and prove that you actually have the right to distribute these recordings I will happily take them down; heck, if Sony Music wants to use their deal with EGREM to finally bring this stuff into print as they have done with many other historic Cuban tracks they can tell me and I will, as they hold the master tapes and can definitely do better than this post. Until then, however...let's enjoy this absolutely delightful record together.

Liner Notes

There aren't any! This is a very poor release. The only piece of information in the back cover credits arrangements and direction to a Rafael Somavilla, which matches the original release.

It also has a FBI anti-piracy warning on the back which, if this is a bootleg as my hunch suggests, is absolutely hilarious.

Back cover of the CD
Back cover of the CD

Track List and Rip

I came in to this with very low expectations, figuring that only Vehicle and Popcorn would be any good. I was blown away when even the tracks that I didn't have a huge amount of excitement for, demonstrated just how good everyone in this orchestra is. It's no wonder that so many from OCMM would later go on to become some of the titans of modern Cuban music; you can tell from all their records that they were just brimming with talent waiting for an opportunity to shine.

I find it interesting that a lot of tracks here are credited as "D.R." (presumably, Derechos Reservados - rights reserved) even though there's clear composition credits for others. Did they just not know who Burt Bacharach was, or something? Oh well.

  1. Mamy Blue (Phil Trim / H. Giraud)
  2. La Pelotera (Juan Luis Delgado)
  3. Help (N. Byl / D. Vangarde)
  4. Close To You (D.R. but this is Burt Bacharach and Hal David)
  5. Taka Takata (Al Veriane)
  6. Vehicle (D.R. but this is Ides of March)
  7. Misa Luba (D.R., but this is Guido Haazen)
  8. Popcorn (Gershon Kingsley)
  9. Vamos Caminando (Ovidio Guerra)
  10. A Santiago (D.R., no idea where this is from)
  11. Tus Lágrimas (D.R., no idea where this is from)
  12. La Fría (D.R., no idea where this is from)

Get the album HERE