Polo Montañez

Record companies specializing in musical subgenres regularly market certain releases to tourists, literal and otherwise. For instance, blues labels tend to balance albums aimed at consumers who know the form well with lowest-common-denominator platters intended for people who think it would be cool to purchase a blues CD once every decade or so, but who wouldn't know Muddy Waters from Howlin' Wolf.

On the surface, Polo Montañez's Guajiro natural seems designed for dilettantes interested in visiting another style — the sound of Cuba — but who aren't committed enough to live there. The cover photos of Montañez look like the sort of self-consciously picturesque images that decorate Caribbean travel brochures, and the disc's unsigned liner notes are heavy on quaintness, noting that "Polo was a coalman by trade, and during the watches of the night, he learned how to celebrate the scent of the dawn and to enjoy watching the sunrise behind the mountains' ridge." The music itself is described in equally benign terms: "There is no need to understand Spanish: His melodies and rhythms are intelligible in any part of the world."

Fortunately, though, there's more to the album than meets the eye. There are few musical surprises on Guajiro natural, but these deeply felt, beautifully recorded excursions into the folk tradition of pre-Castro Cuba should appeal equally to aficionados of the approach and newcomers whose experience pretty much begins and ends with having seen Buena Vista Social Club on public television.

Montañez definitely knows how to draw in novices. "Un Montón de Estrellas" opens with guitar strumming and background vocals that are more Hollywood than Havana, and focuses on the simplest and most universal of emotions; its chorus translates as, "When it comes to love, I'm an idiot." But he allows the song to build up a subtle but substantive head of steam over the course of more than six minutes, with the give-and-take between his crisp, infectious tenor and a chipper chorus proving irresistible. Likewise, the ballad "Mi Mejor Amiga" features a structure and arrangement that's cornier than anything ever cooked up by Orville Redenbacher. However, Montañez's commitment to the material is so complete that by tune's end, only the hardest hearted individuals will be able to resist its charms.

Such cynics should probably steer clear of the disc as a whole, since Montañez is almost pathologically eager to please: On "Un Bolero," "Barca A La Deriva" and plenty more, the smile he was undoubtedly wearing in the studio while recording is practically audible. But he's such a wonderful singer that it would be a pity to let beginners have all the fun.


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