Kiki Valera’s Vacilón Santiaguero

cover, Vacilón SantiagueroIt becomes clear early on that there’s something special going on with Kiki Valera’s Vacilón Santiaguero. Sure, it’s Son Cubano, the traditional acoustic call and response song form that is beloved worldwide thanks to the Buena Vista Social Club. But bandleader Valera is a virtuoso player of the cuatro, so he plays that instead of the more common tres. And his lifelong love of jazz adds a bit of extra spice to his solos on the cuatro, which you’ll probably pick up on the very first track “Este Vacilón.”

Vacilón Santiaguero is Valera’s second US solo release, but he has spent many years as director of La Familia Valera Miranda in Santiago de Cuba, a century-old group and one of the most important purveyors of the Son Cubano. On this outing he’s collaborating with some hand picked collaborators including singers Carlos Cascante (Spanish Harlem Orchestra) and childhood friend Coco Freeman (NG La Banda, Adalberto Alvarez y su Son) on a set of traditional pieces.

This group makes these traditional songs extra lively. I’m reminded of one of my favorite Son Cubano albums, De San Antonio A Maisí by tres virtuoso Pancho Amat. And Valera’s custom made cuatro has a lovely warm texture to it that makes his jazzy solos really stand out.

With a dozen songs, there are many highlights. Some of the ones that jump out at me include two food-related songs. “El Ají de Cocina” (The chili pepper in the kitchen), a celebration of the cooking of Santiago. Although there’s always a chance that such a song is a veiled reference to matters of amor, with all kinds of double entendres that aren’t obvious to a non Spanish speaker. The cuatro features prominently in this one, from the lively introduction to an ingenious and lengthy solo, and throughout the verses, which are light on horns. This is one of two on the album (along with “Este Vacilón”) composed by Kiki’s father Felix Valera. Then there’s “El Empanadillero,” another ode to food, this one about the guy who sells the best empanadas.

I like the use of two lead singers, particularly when their voices present lots of contrast. That’s the case with the muscular tenor (quite prominent in Cuban music) of Carlos Cascante, and the warm alto of Coco Freeman, who sings “Sobre una Tumba una Rumba,” a romantic song of love, dance and … death?

The horns are very prominent on many of the songs, including “Pajaro Lindo,” with Coco again singing lead. Kiki and the banda go old school with “Funfuñando” by the giant of Cuban music Arsenio Rodriguez. As things near the end Valera gives us the beautiful “La Guajira,” featuring lots of amazing cuatro and a striking vocal turn by guest singer Raquel Zozaya , a lazy, languid love song that Valera further enhances with a scorching solo.

And then the album wraps with two total classics popularized by BVSC, “Dos Gardenias” and the very entedre-laden “El Quarto De Tula,” about the woman whose bedroom is on fire because she didn’t blow out the candle before she went to sleep.

This is the summer album I didn’t know I was pining for. It takes me back about 20 years to when the world and I were very into Son Cubano, but rather than an exercise in nostalgia, Vacilón Santiaguero feels and sounds vibrant and fresh. This is timeless music, beautifully played and lovingly recorded.

(Circle 9 Music, 2024)

Gary Whitehouse

A fifth-generation Oregonian, Gary is a retired journalist and government communicator. Since the 1990s he has been covering music, books, food & drink and occasionally films, blogs and podcasts for Green Man Review. His main literary interests for GMR are science fiction, music lore, and food & cooking. A lifelong lover of music, his interests are wide ranging and include folk, folk rock, jazz, Americana, classic country, and roots based music from all over the world. He also enjoys dogs, birding, cooking, craft beer, and coffee.

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