The popularity of Latin music continues to climb, as does the quantity of new albums with Latin flavors, influences and origins. Leading the pack of recent titles is La Vela Puerca, an interesting discovery from Uruguay, a country rarely heard from on the international scene. While the band's primary influences are ska and rock, in the tradition of the Argentinean band Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, La Vela Puerca adds tight vocal harmonies and propulsive guitar strumming that might be heard around a gaucho campfire. The buoyant, upbeat track "Potosí" refers to the site of one of Latin America's most notorious mining regions, where countless indigenous workers died during centuries of Spanish exploitation. It’s a lighthearted and ultimately ironic song that captures La Vela Puerca's irreverent spirit.
On the more traditional front, Cuban bandleader and master flautist Maraca returns with another excellent collection expertly played, enjoyable Cuban dance music. Maraca's band is tighter than a submarine, and on Tremenda Rumba! they lay down one hot track after another, each touching on different aspects of Cuban musical tradition. While there's not much new or innovative, the album is splendid.
Panamanian salsero, lawyer, actor, politician, activist and all-around cool dude Ruben Blades goes down a number of different paths on his new album Mundo, although occasionally one wishes there were a few roads not taken. Blades often veers far from his streetwise roots into new age territory, with one too many "jazz-fusion meets the rainforest" tracks. And while his bagpipe-laden version of "Danny Boy" is certainly a heartfelt tribute to the firefighters and police who lost their lives on 9/11, is it really necessary to have to suffer through it every time one plays the record? On the plus side, Blades' experiments with Celtic and world music influences are often successful, and appearances by tres maestro Nelson González and singer Medoro Madero help give the album guts.
Producer and composer Chris Wells credits Quincy Jones as the inspiration for his project Pra Sempre, a well-crafted CD that was recorded in Rio, São Pa