It's odd to think that a recording in 2019 could be deemed to have become "historic" upon its release, but this one - Vivencias en Clave (Featuring Coco Freeman - by Kiki Valera actually is; and it is historic in more ways than one. First of all, decades into his life as a musician - and that too one from the fabled Familia Valera Miranda with its almost 300-year-old tradition of music - Kiki Valera has only now made his debut recording. And that in itself qualifies to be an historic event.
Secondly - and this will appeal especially to the technically-minded - Mr Valera plays a Cuban cuatro that he has modified to add an extra string. With this five-stringed instrument (the traditional cuatro has four strings) on which he displays extraordinary virtuosity Mr Valera achieves a fuller, more rounded sound that is somewhere between the more traditional Cuban tres with three pairs of (double) strings and the six-stringed or twelve-stringed acoustic guitar.
Mr Valera's cuatro adds a breathtaking lusciousness to the son cubano, guaracha, bolero and trova music that is on this album. His range and idiosyncrasy of attack and colours is dazzling. The music is traditional. Almost all of it has been composed by the vocalist Mr Freeman. But clearly, for both Mr Valera and Mr Freeman, the inner dynamic of "tradition" is innovation and there is plenty of this on the recording which sets off with terrific swagger as the ensemble launches into "Mi Son".
The love of this extraordinary Afro-Cuban form swells and swoons magnificently, bolstered by some beautifully-rounded playing by Mr Valera. His reading of the music is refreshingly mellow, almost intimate and, above all, profoundly lyrical. Moreover, he offers unwavering support to Mr Freeman's vocals and his soli are characterised by rhetorical flexibility, great skill and subtlety.
The vocalist, for his part, brings a romantic yearning to the lyric. He is able to create a rich and beckoning atmosphere around the breathtaking songs, which are further memorialised with his vivid storytelling. The sense of longing is dappled with a vivid sense of sorrow and joy and the manner in which he weaves the lyric into Mr Valera's soli is entirely convincing. The rest of the musicians, naturally, react by giving off their very best when called upon to solo as well. Ensemble passage work is smooth and superbly entertaining.
Bill Tilford's short booklet note confirms the historicity of this recording and sets the scene for one of the most exciting traditional Afro-Cuban ventures to come out of the USA, thanks to this beautifully recorded package from Origin Records.