Decades of sounds reveal a musical treasure island

Times Staff Writer

To say that EGREM, the great Havana-based record company, is the Motown of Cuba is to sell it short. This is not a label that specialized in a sound or a certain subculture. This is Cuba’s national monopoly of music, a state-owned enterprise that for many years was the only game not just in town but in the entire country.

On the occasion of its 40th anniversary, the company has issued a six-CD boxed set offering a sweeping overview of the island’s astounding musical output over the past six decades. “El Gran Tesoro de la Musica Cubana” (The Great Treasure Trove of Cuban Music) is a rare and revealing survey of artists and styles in one of the world’s great sources of pop music.

Since the Buena Vista Social Club became an international phenomenon, compilations of Cuban music have become as commonplace as oldies collections in the U.S. Most are cheap retreads of the same old son, mambo and cha cha cha repertoire.

But no other label can boast access to the historic vaults of EGREM, the Spanish acronym for Musical Recording and Publishing Co. In fact, it seems that the producers went out of their way to avoid repetition by selecting tunes or versions hard to find elsewhere.


The collection, which includes a 68-page booklet, actually dates back 60 years, starting with the founding of EGREM’s predecessor, Panart, the first Cuban-owned label that competed against the powerful multinationals, especially RCA Victor.

We find anticipated classics as well as surprise rarities, such as a 1969 track by the female vocal group Cuarteto D’Aida backed by Los Van Van, a brash, groundbreaking band that debuted that year.

Van Van, which would go on to become a leader among Cuba’s experimental, modern dance bands, appears unexpectedly on another track, 1985’s “Imaginada,” backing Silvio Rodriguez, the acclaimed poet and songwriter of the revolutionary era. The cut is neither act’s best work, but it’s a collector’s gem, like a weird Dylan song backed by the Beatles.

The CDs are organized chronologically rather than by genre, juxtaposing a kaleidoscope of evolving styles -- a delicate danzon by Antonio Maria Romeu, a pro-Castro rumba by Los Munequitos de Matanzas, a smoky bolero by composer Jose Antonio Mendez, a semiclassical instrumental by pianist Frank Fernandez and a thinking man’s love song by nueva trova pioneer Noel Nicola.

Though the set adds up to more than six hours of music, it’s just a sampler of a monumental national contribution to the annals of Latin music.