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Capturing the Steam of Latin Sounds : VARIOUS ARTISTS: “Sabroso: The Afro-Latin Groove” Rhino (*** 1/2)

There are albums that can transport you to a very specific range of feelings from the very first notes. Such is the power of this steamy compilation, which captures the sensuality that Afro-Cuban music conjured up in past decades.

When Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants brought the Latin beats to the U.S. in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the era’s sophisticated jazz musicians fell in love with them. This marriage of jazz and Latin, brass splendor and percussion heat, was the catalyst for the 18 tracks in this collection.

“Sabroso” includes defining samples of this school, although the man who cooked up the tastiest concoction of salsa con jazz, the legendary Machito, is represented with only one track, 1954’s playful “Relax and Mambo.”

The bulk of the disc covers the late ‘60s, when most Latin bands were hugely influenced by R&B.; A forgettable dance craze called boogaloo was born then, and is represented here by “Watusi Boogaloo” by Willie Rosario & his Orchestra. A more memorable style was the slow groove with vocals, a sort of salsa-blues, exemplified by the soulful “Fried Neckbones and Some Home Fries” by Willie Bobo.

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The music’s intensity grows a little tiring at times--the individual tracks sounded better in the context of their original recordings. The classic “Picadillo,” for instance, a stellar collaboration between pianist Eddie Palmieri and Cal Tjader, loses some of its impact when separated from the 1966 album “El Sonido Nuevo.” But “Sabroso’s” reason for being is to push listeners into new discoveries anyway.

* 1/2 Various artists, “Billboard Hot Latin Hits: The ‘80s,” Rhino.

Although this compilation might be worthwhile for the Latin-music listener in search of a few good laughs and plenty of radio memories, the danger is that it could seriously mislead the inexperienced consumer.

The title might lead the novice musical explorer to expect a scintillating collection of earthy, authentic Latin American songs. Nothing could be further from the actual contents of these two discs.

The 10 songs included in each volume were indeed hits, but hot they definitely are not. They are actually great examples of the lowest possible standards in Latin music--tasteless pop morsels that try desperately to imitate American production techniques.

Only a couple of hits by Los Bukis (“Tu Carcel” and “Como Fui a Enamorarme de Ti”) offer the genuine goods. It’s a crime here to champion Kaoma’s “Lambada” as the ultimate in Hispanic entertainment when the Latin American songbook is filled with artists who managed the difficult balance between the commercial and the deeply artistic.

Why, for instance, not include some hits by Mexico’s Juan Gabriel, Colombia’s Grupo Niche or Puerto Rico’s Ricky Martin, all of whom have churned out hit singles by the dozen while still keeping their vision intact?

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).


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