Album Review: El Septeto Santiaguero – Raiz [Egrem, March 2017]

Contemporary Cuban music is currently enjoying a high profile with exciting, forward-looking releases from Dayme Arocena and Gilles Peterson’s Havana Cultura project – twisting and morphing Cuban rhythms and songwriting into new shapes and sounds.

With this in mind, El Septeto Santiaguero’s seventh album – Raiz represents the flipside – firmly rooted in the son cubano tradition of songwriting and musicianship – the precursor to salsa – its roots are 19th century, from the rural highlands to the east of the island, where Spanish and African elements were amalgamated by six-piece bands, establishing the classical configuration of the son sextet  – guitar, tres, bongos, claves, maracas and double bass.

Raiz kicks off with ‘No He Visto a Cridad’– uplifting, driving percussion, great interplay between lead and backing vocals and tooting trumpets before the pace is suddenly dropped. These slower songs inhabit the traditional danzon form of son, more overtly European – this was the raw Cuban music that was made respectable for consumption by the colonial masters and bourgeois – and it is here where the album is weakest – these tracks can sound cloying, sentimental and claustrophobic.

However, when the band switch up a gear, on rumba and hard hitting son you really get a sense of the passion, urgency and percussive brilliance that has earned the band a Latin Grammy in 2015 for Best Traditional Tropical Album.

‘La Rumba Está Buena/Changüí Clave’ is a steaming Cuban rumba, firing percussion, brassy horns, and the sound of the band getting deep down and dirty – hard and rootsy – a highlight of the album.

This is followed by an abrupt change in pace and atmosphere – the cheeky chachacha instrumental, ‘Cuando Canta el Cornetin’ light-hearted and playful, a perfect soundtrack for the leopard-skin cocktail party.

The latter tracks, welcome guest vocalists – Ruben Blades, Nicholas Payton and on ‘La Fiesta No Es para Feos’  – El Medico – GP and pioneer of reggaeton in Cuba – who leads the band into a full on party vibe finale –the band, showing off their musical abilities – the pace and vibrancy of these standout moments leaves you wanting more.