The first thing Aymée Nuviola wants you to know about herself, going by the biography page of her website, is that she likes to mix things up.
Like her idol Celia Cruz, and “like Cuba itself,” her artistic goal is to “create quality among many genres,” to “toggle easily between styles,” to produce “that magical blend” that will be at once fresh and welcoming, unique and universal. She’s done this in many ways throughout her career, performing sultry love ballads of her own composition for her first album, or tearing it up with Cruz, Oscar D’León and Gloria Gaynor during the Salsa Giants World Tour.
Her newly released studio album “Como Anillo al Dedo” (“Like Ring to Finger”, a Spanish saying that means “fits like a glove”) continues her love affair with salsa while at the same time creating something new. The ten-song collection combines the rhythms and instrumentation of older styles, salsa especially, but also mambo and merengue, with the technologically-driven music that currently dominates the Latin pop charts: reggaeton. The result is high-energy, eminently danceable, undeniably different. This is both good and bad. Good because, if there’s any justice, it will earn Nuviola the larger, younger audience she craves and deserves. Bad because, by submitting to the demands of what’s new and current, she has dampened some of the qualities that make her great.
The term “música tropical” (tropical music) is misleading. Originally, it referred to the music that originated in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean region–island cultures like those of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, but also the Caribbean coasts of Colombia, Central America, and Mexico. Later it was narrowed down to separate Cuban music from its Caribbean brethren, and later still, it was broadened to include new incarnations of old rhythms, such as those developed by Latin diasporas in the United States. Today, it’s the common moniker for the three dominant Latin American dance styles of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s – cumbia, merengue, and salsa – as opposed to the current Goliath of Latin music, the proudly, aggressively urban reggaeton.
This is ironic, since much of tropical music, particularly salsa, was born in cities. Of course it has its roots in island music, like Cuban son and Puerto Rican bomba, but also Spanish canción and American jazz. The early salsa pioneers such as Tito Puente and Celia Cruz came of age during the 1940’s and ’50s, but salsa itself came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, in the music of Willie Colón, Rubén Blades, D’León, and others. Several places fight among themselves for the honor of being known as “the birthplace of salsa.” All of them are cities; Panama City, New York and the city of Cali, in Columbia are all leading contenders. No matter who wins in your view, salsa music is urban music regardless.
But if “urban” means “hip”, then salsa is not really urban anymore. Nuviola understands this. “Although I work more in salsa and the tropical genres”, she told an interviewer recently, “I’m looking to refresh the work we’ve been doing for years and get closer to the younger people.” For “Como Anillo al Dedo” she sought the input of well established figures from the reggaeton world such as Baby Rasta and Gringo. Together with a team of top-notch producers, she worked on a series of tracks that cover the spectrum, from “tropical” sounds with a little bit of reggaeton, to the opposite, urban-sounding music with just a hint of traditional spice.
Take “Rumba de la Buena” (“The Good Kind of Rumba”). While the horns and drums of the older music are still heard, the song is driven by a fast-paced electronic beat, like so many club anthems that invite partiers to jump up and down rather than perform the elaborate choreography of couples dancing. As in the other songs in the album, Nuviola’s voice is dampened by Auto Tune, and not always to good effect. True, the songs have the pleasant sing-along catchiness of, say, Marc Anthony’s “Vivir Mi Vida” (“Live My Life”), but to the detriment of Nuvila’s deep, sonorous vocals. It’s almost criminal. Why would anyone hide behind electronic wizardry when they have pipes like that? I find it hard to believe that making her voice sound much more like everyone else’s will turn on more fans than it will drive away.
Having said that, there is a truly innovative sound to be found in “Como Anillo al Dedo”. “Pa’ Que la Gente Se Entere” (“So People Will Find Out”) is mostly reggaeton, complete with spoken verses and twangy digital effects, until it unveils its salsa-infused refrain. The unfamiliar switch in rhythms might cause some confusion on the dance floor, but part goers will surely find a way to manage. The trick is repeated in “Donde Está el Billete” (“Where’s the Bill”), which unfortunately borrows from current urban music an unhealthy obsession with hard cash: “Where’s the money?/ where’s the bill?/ tell me where you put it”. “Soy Yo Quien Te Enseñó” (“I’m the One Who Taught You”) has some of the same electronic bells and whistles, but stays closer to its tropical roots. Featuring a more reggae-y sound, and a title that caters to its intended young audience, “Dame un Like” (“Give me a Like”) is one of the grooviest numbers in the album.
The faster songs, like the merengue-reggaeton hybrid “Lo Que Tú Me Pidas” (“Whatever You Ask of Me”), are the more likely to rely on effects. Not to harp on this, but it’s no coincidence that these are the least successful. As in her previous albums, Nuviola imitates the vocal stylings of Celia Cruz, hooting and injecting commentary into the lyrics. This works well most of the time, given that Hip Hop and reggaeton feature similar ad-libbing. The work would be more powerful, however, more memorable, if at least sometimes Nuviola and her collaborators had let her voice flow au naturel, free of its electronic shackles.