Love Hz: Area 52 by Rodrigo Y Gabriela and C.U.B.A.

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If you think you’ve heard Rodrigo Y Gabriela, you haven’t heard anything until you’ve given their new Cuban-influenced album Area 52 a spin. And if you really haven’t heard RYG before, well, what the heck?

For the uninitiated, Rodrigo Y Gabriela — in the most basic terms — are a Mexican acoustic guitar-playing duo influenced as much by classical and flamenco guitar styles as they are by the likes of Metallica and Led Zeppelin. He plays lead. And she, quite simply, is a virtuoso of percussive rhythm guitar. Gabriela’s frenetic playing makes one feel sorry for her right wrist and fingers, not to mention a series of guitars that has probably seen as much abuse as any in Pete Townshend’s collection.

RYG’s two-guitar style works so well that it would seem silly to deviate from the theme. But that’s just what they’ve done on Area 52, their latest release, which was recorded in Cuba with a host of Cuban musicians (C.U.B.A. to be exact — the Collective Universal Band Association) and other guests such as Anoushka Shanker. The album features nine previously released song: five from 2009’s 11:11 and four from RYG’s eponymous 2006 album. But don’t mistake Area 52 for a simple compilation — the songs have been re-arranged and essentially re-imagined by producer Peter Asher (with Rodrigo) and Cuban arranger Alex Wilson, so much so that in most cases these may as well be new songs.

What’s so great about Area 52 is that the signature RYG threads are there — most fans will have no trouble recognizing the main melodies from some of the duo’s best-known songs — but the Cuban musicians put their own stamp on each composition. Percussionist Otto Santana describes the mashup best on the insightful 30-minute documentary DVD that accompanies the CD release:

When you combine [Rodrigo and Gabriela’s] swiftness with the slow Cuban rhythms, you create a conversation.

And what a conversation it is. Area 52 may be a conversation, but it isn’t an album meant to be enjoyed from the comfort of your easy chair. In fact, I defy anyone to sit still during tracks such as “Diabolo Rojo” — trumpet players Lazaro Dilou and Juan Toledo provide a strong foundation throughout the song while Alex Wilson’s piano offers a nice counterpoint to RYG’s guitars. And later, Jorge Sorzno offers a flute solo for just a little more punch. Listeners will be able to catch a breather during the laid back “Logos,” featuring some soothing piano from Wilson and and a weighty bass line by Feliciano Noa. But even this reserved track gives way by the end to some classic Cuban rhythms that will have even steadfast couch potatoes hoping up to take a quick lap on the dance floor.

And those are just a couple of the great moments on Area 52. You’ll fall in love with the electric guitar on “Hanuman,” which sounds like it could have been played by Carlos Santana himself. Fitting really, because Rodrigo wrote the original song as a tribute to the guitar legend. The energy carries through to the end as the album closes with a blistering rendition of “Tamacun.” There are no less than five trumpet solos here — each of the album’s trumpet players gets his own moment in the spotlight, and that’s on top of a signature guitar solo by Gabriela. And let’s not forget Ms. Shankar — her guest appearance on “Ixtapa” is a joy. The call-and-answer interplay between Anoushka’s sitar and the Cuban brass section is a treat. Adding an Indian flare to these other disparate elements might leave one wondering how will that work? As with the rest of the tracks on the album, such a marriage of styles absolutely does work.

Listening to Area 52, I couldn’t help but be transported back to mid-1950s Havana (or at least what I imagine Havana in the mid ’50s to be). Girls in their flashy dresses, Cigar smoke thick in the air, and enough Mojitos and Daiquiris to keep the party going all night long. All of that, thanks to a couple of Mexicans no less, might as well have been going on in my media room. I can give an album no higher praise than its ability to take me out of my current environment and take me someplace else entirely. Area 52 most certainly does that; in fact, if it wasn’t for that pesky U.S. embargo, I wouldn’t mind visiting that little island off the coast of Florida someday.

If it’s not evident by now, I’m in love with Area 52. But I realize that the album isn’t for everyone. I suspect that a few ardent RYG fans are going to absolutely hate this. It sort of sounds familiar for a second, but then it sounds like something Rodrigo Y Gabriela have never done before. And Area 52 isn’t really for the RYG neophyte either. I want that group to listen to Area 52, but only after they’ve become familiar with the albums that inspired this one. Unless Cuban music is your thing, of course, and then I say and then go for it, because the musicianship on display here is first class. I have a feeling it was a heck of a lot of fun to make this record. That feeling begins to come through on the making-of DVD, but I wasn’t there so I can’t say for sure. What I can say, is that Area 52 is a heck of a lot of fun to listen to and I’ll be listening to it for a long time to come.

Check it out now at [Amazon]

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