In a career spanning five decades, pianist Monty Alexander has built a reputation exploring and bridging the worlds of American jazz, popular song, and the music of his native Jamaica, finding in each a sincere spirit of musical expression.
All his albums testify his audacious explorations of his Latin American heritage and its African roots.
The press have nicknamed him the «salsero Don Quixote». Yuri Buenaventura’s social and political engagement has been nourished by his difficult start in life... and music. Named after the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, he grew up in a remote town of Colombia called... Buenaventura. After turning his back on economics studies in Paris he became a successful salsa crooner in the Latino Paris scene.
A disastrous return to Colombia for a record project left him penniless. His interpretation of Jacques Brel’s classic Ne me quitte pas saved him, however, and Buenaventura became the first salsa singer in France to go gold. The singer has added three more albums to his repertory since that breakthrough. All testify to his audacious explorations of his Latin American heritage and its African roots.
“Cita con la luz” is Yuri Buenaventura’s fifth album in twelve years. This time, the songs breathe tranquillity, easing off on the accelerator - more chic than shock. The album’s twelve tracks (plus a hidden one) were essentially recorded in Yuri’s native Colombia, in Bogota, and, for the first time, Cuba. CaliCuba! Much more than just a salsero, Yuri confirms his talent as an all-round singer with styles ranging from jazz to ballad… and even forays into hip-hop and folk, the result of his more audacious partnerships. But before we immerse ourselves in Cita’s iridescent ambiences, we should perhaps take a look back over Yuri’s previous records and try to get a clearer picture of this elusive sprite.
Herencia africana (1996): An album conceived in Colombia by a Parisian student turned salsero, a bold craftsman flavouring his African roots with Parisian saborrrrrrr, bringing a tropical tan to Brel and added colour to a Belle histoire: the 1st latino gold record in a France he converted to salsa, dancing frenziedly with an anguished Ne me quitte pas (If you go away). Fabulous miscasting and a dual masterstroke.
Yo soy (2000): The original soundtrack of a film directed by Joyce Bunuel, Salsa, a latino-raï duet with Faudel, an instrumental version of La chanson des jumelles (The song of the twins, from the musical Les Demoiselles de Rochefort), and especially a turbocharged Mala Vida - a brass version of the Mano Negra classic: Yuri Buenaventura finds four different ways to avoid potential pigeonholing as a French-language and cover singer. Clever.
Vagabundo (2003): Two new experiences. First, Porto Rico, cradle of US salsa, where a large part of the album was recorded with the help of maestro Pappo Luca (the front man of La Sonora Ponceña) and legendary Fania singer Cheo Feliciano, who features on two tracks. A childhood dream for Yuri and a seal on his reputation in the world of salsa. Second, a strange but relevant detour into tango, long prized in Colombia and Paris. Tango with drums: another Herencia Africana (African heritage).
Salsa dura (2005): An album that continues to explore salsa, but adds nothing more. For personal reasons, Yuri has set music aside to a certain extent, exploring painting and the visual arts, and growing unsettled by the irrational spirit of the night. Fortunately, touring restores his energy and brings a spring back to his step.
Cita con la luz (2008): His feet now firmly back on the ground, Yuri Buenaventura reveals a great deal about himself on this record. As he admits, he spent a long time partying relentlessly. Alcohol fumes became his creative muse. Emerging from the mist, he wrote this album from start to finish in Buenaventura country. To do so, he shut himself away for two months in a room with a balcony overlooking the sea, watching the fishermen coming and going, returning to the real world.
He set himself a challenge: to make this album with people from his region, starting with José Aguirre, a partner since way back, a musician and above all a brilliant arranger, able to anticipate Yuri’s dazzling improvisations. The record was crafted in Havana and Bogota (and a little in Paris).
So let’s explore its songs, their soul and chemistry…
“I dreamed that this rain was us; the drops splashed down on the leaves alone. Music sometimes accompanies me, giving good reasons for this life with no future”. The hammock swings in the damp of the night, La Hamaca de la noche: jazz chords on a melodic piano open the album (as if to distance it from the “salsa dura” of the previous record), but then a more laid-back salsa ambience returns. Like Ruben Blades, the great Panamanian salsero, and his “Rosa de los vientos” in 1996, Yuri takes his marks in the Latin world, defying categorisation.
“Am I not late for this appointment? Time didn’t wait for me, I didn’t notice it go by” This song has the delicious scent of the tobacco his grandfather puffed as protection against snake bites. If Yuri had not been able to turn to his grandfather, his mother and the people of Buenaventura, he would have self-destructed. Cheo Feliciano made it through, winning his battle, while Hector Lavoe failed to maintain his self-control. Dedicated to his grandfather, La Cita is a sort of rustic “son cubano” that turns into a guajira, with ambling tres (a small Cuban guitar) from Pancho Amat, virtuoso of the genre.
“We carry around our self-inflicted pain, with lost dreams and unmentionable passions that lead us to lie to ourselves”. Dark, subdued words alleviated by... “if we listen to this feeling of love, we’ll pass on a world of hope to our children”. Caminamos is a bilingual bolero pearl with two vocal parts: a dazzlingly simple encounter with US folk singer Morley, a little as if Joni Mitchell and Ruben Blades had got together way back when. A regally stripped-down jazz ballad with an elite Cuban quartet, including piano maestro Ernan Lopez Nussa (pioneer of the Afrocuba band) and drummer Enrique Pla (front man of the legendary Irakeré).
A slice of past life: nights spent with Bohemian girls that he treated like queens and never touched, then the sunrise and a return to another world, the nightmare of morning. 40 years of solitude: an infernal, spiralling cycle. “That’s how my days passed... The lie was yesterday”, he sings. No le puedo recordar, a bolero that begins on harmonium (the first instrument Yuri played) and turns into a guajira, an indolent, hypnotic Cuban beat that draws us in...
“You leave and like the moon, you hide behind the mist, behind the mist, like the nobility of foam on the beach of golden sand”. Te fuiste was initially a nostalgic song with a danzon beat inspired by oceanic solitude, but it is now a Spanish duet with Olivia Ruiz - a native of Carcassonne in France as it happens, but, let’s not forget, of Spanish extraction. In short, an Iberian kinship.
“For all the Obamas, we keep the faith, for all the Bettancourts who remain nameless” (...) “I’m an alter-globalist who eats at McDonald’s”. The world on standby, like the echo of a life on society’s fringes, a life led by Yuri, once a busker in the Metro. No pasa nada is in French and Spanish: hip-hop is an occasional playground for Yuri. Not that he raps freestyle himself, but he has been known to replace the sung with the spoken word. That was with the Latinos of Orishas (on their respective record), but this time, it is Belgian-Congolese Baloji who takes over. Incisive, instinctive, dense and raw...
“You see, I’ve left my grief so that one day, you’ll come back to me at last; it took a while for me to realise that living together is a question of luck”. Very simple words and a love song, which is already quite something! Yuri makes peace with himself in this duet. Si tu estas aqui is another bilingual duet, this time in French and Spanish, with murmured pop vocals from Berry - part Charlotte Gainsbourg, part Brigitte Bardot - to a bossa beat. A first for Señor Buenaventura, long a fan of Astrud Gilberto, Tom Jobim, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. “I don’t come from the Caribbean, but from a fucking jungle where we survived, rather like the Brazilians, and Brazil in France is a feminine caress”, he explains. The theme turns to 70s Cuba, with vintage keyboards and guitar, then, at the last minute, we travel back from the Amazon to the Caribbean.
Another local snapshot: the picture of a little native-American girl in the only hotel in Buenaventura, a colonial building with the jungle as its backdrop. In her eyes is a pirogue, symbol of the native-American nation. Vuelo is a jambù, the august, slow Cuban beat that king of 50s Afro-Cuban percussion Chano Pozo so loved. The striking intro is rapidly backed by an impressive wall of brass with five saxophones, like Mario Bauza in his day.
“Your lips fiery as a volcano, your eyes dark as cinders, your skin scorched by the wind, your world that overwhelms me with tenderness.” Fascinating, alluring… trouble personified. Como la maleza starts with a silky cello, followed by a flute flitting here and there, a full-figured double bass, Ernan Lopez Nussa’s mischievous piano and timpani from the legendary Changuito, elite percussionist of Los Van Van. All of this underpinned by the velvet foundation laid down by a string quartet, and the triumphant backing vocals. Very close to Ruben Blades in both its spirit and swelling energy.
“If there’s something left in my heart that’s untouched by rust, if I still have time and soul enough to find what I myself have lost”. Yuri Buenaventura wards off the disease that ate away at him for a while. In its theme and brass, Se me fue la vida is similar to the work of Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe, the bad boys of salsa - Lavoe, his master singer and sadly-missed sonero, “a good guy, but rusted inside,” Yuri observes. A sensual, terribly giddying beat!
Timeless love, where a man sets out to win a woman whose body is allegorically a cordillera. When he was a child, Yuri’s grandmother told him the story of the earthquake that brought together the mountains of the Andes. Amor eterno is a theme recorded in Colombia with a jazz combo: Yuri’s loyal fellow traveller (and arranger) José Aguirre on tiple (the Colombian cousin of the little Cuban guitar called the tres) and a jazz guitar solo from Gabriel Rondon, along with delicious drumming from Cuba’s Horacio El Negro Hernandez, adding a pan-Latin note to this wonderful ballad.
“We dry tears of joy with an explosion of eternal love, with a flower by way of life (...) Bleed the wind rose and the love of our united land, the truth is no longer hidden.” In a country paralysed by contradictions, where the people have been warring for centuries, is eternal love simply impossible? Dedicated to a stubborn peace activist endlessly struggling to move (Colombian) mountains, this song is a tribute to the tenuous thread that holds the promise of peace. Surely Valle de rosas, which opens with a wave of piano and cello, could only have been recorded in Colombia, given the intensity of its inner message? No, the theme was laid down in Cuba, with Ernan Lopez Nussa’s jazz touch and Enrique Pla’s minimalist beat among others.
Hidden somewhere on this album is a bonus track with a provocative title: Los Cobardes (The Cowards), an incitement to… let go and enjoy a descarga, a Latino jam session. Its ten minutes build into a frenzy, led by fiery Cuban drummer Horacio El Negro Hernandez, a postscript to remind us that Yuri Buenaventura’s last album’s “salsa dura” is still part of his heritage.