Son Cubano is a genre of music and dance originating from the hill country of eastern Cuba during the 19th century. Its origins are a blend of African and Spanish influences. Son vocal style and meter are of Spanish tradition, while its identifiable clave rhythm, call and response, and percussive elements are of Bantu origin.
Over the past century, the form has evolved, spreading its influence as the music was performed internationally by touring musicians. It manifested itself in the jazz world in New York in the 1960's with the advent of salsa music. Son became the main form utilized in jam sessions known as descargas, incorporating tres, cuatro, trumpets, percussion, and piano. Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit, 1996), a brilliant documentary film and album release from American musician Ry Cooder, helped popularize this form of pre-revolution Cuban music to audiences in the United States and Europe.
Kiki Valera is a Cuban cuatro master, formerly the director of one of the most influential bands in the history of Son Cubano-La Familia Valera Miranda. He currently resides in Seattle, and has released an album of twelve original compositions by Francisco Jose Freeman and Valera, Vivencias en Clave Cubana (Origin, 2019) on the highly regarded Origin Records label.
So why is an exponent of Son Cubano, who plays a non-traditional jazz instrument gaining so much attention in the jazz world that a world-class record label, and this publication would have so much interest? The answer lies within the twelve finely crafted original tunes played exquisitely throughout this recording. The innovative improvisation on the 8-string cuatro by Valera transcends traditional dance forms, and elevates him to be mentioned with the great masters of modern jazz. Lead vocalist Coco Freeman sings from a very deep, soulful place, exhibiting superb range and intonation delivered with a passionate call and response with coros from Joshuah de Jesus, Steve Guasch, Yanill Nario and Valera.
There is a sense of connection with jazz guitar greats on "Desenfreno," with Miranda laying down a devastating solo complete with Wes Montgomery-like octave passages played over a sophisticated harmonic structure.
"El Perro de Juan," is a hard driving dance number, featuring Valera's solo played over a Cuban ostinato, or guajeo. An intricate trumpet counter melody weaves its way through the piece, giving jazz fans a firm glance of the essential influence Son Cubano has on all Afro-Cuban forms that make up a large piece of the jazz firmament.
"Ferecia" again displays Miranda's ability to play out on the edge of a melody and virtually recreate harmonically while still communicating the essential elements of a tradition now in its third century.
Valera cites Pat Metheny, Wes Montgomery, and Chick Corea as influences. A cursory listen will not give a listener insights into these influences that represent a major shift in his music. An artist such as Son master Valera, or for that matter, Puerto Rican masters such as Eddie Palmieri, play music that comes from a pulse that rises from the soul of a musician's culture. It's intricacies flourish both within traditional structure, and in creative interpretations of roots that reach deeply into the heart of rhythms that arrived on Caribbean shores from Africa and Europe.
Recording and performing in Seattle, Valera could not be further from his native Cuba and be on dry land in the continental United States. The music that resides inside his collective spirit continues to assimilate culture and influence in the Pacific Northwest. With Vivencias en Clave Gringa, he hits a home run with a joyous, virtuosic romp of beautifully penned music performed masterfully. Son Cubano, much like American jazz, has been in a constant state of evolution from its beginnings. Valera continues in that spirit, shedding new and modern light on the music.