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A Dominican Guitar Legend's Historic Debut

On <em>Mujer de Cabaret</em>, Puerto Plata exhibits the specifically Dominican version of the musical style called <em>son</em>.
On Mujer de Cabaret, Puerto Plata exhibits the specifically Dominican version of the musical style called son.

The sound that established the career of 83-year-old Jose Manuel Cobles lies buried beneath layers of musical and political history. His stage name, Puerto Plata, refers to the resort town where he was born. But Cobles made his mark in La Joya, the storied red-light district of Santiago, one of the Dominican Republic's largest cities.

In the late '40s, when he got his start, Puerto Plata's signature style was son. Son is typically associated with Cuba, but it can be heard all through the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Dominican son was overshadowed because that country's notorious dictator, Rafael Trujillo, preferred merengue, effectively making it the national music by the time of his assassination in 1961. It's no surprise, then, that Puerto Plata also cranks out a mean merengue.

Puerto Plata is the only surviving member of his original group, Trio Primavera. But he's pulled together an impressive ensemble of veterans for a twilight-years release, a long-overdue solo debut called Mujer de Cabaret. The two lead guitarists provide the real fireworks: Edilio Paredes and his protégé, Frank Mendez, drive Mujer de Cabaret.

A song called "Los Piratas" functions as Puerto Plata's response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Merengue tradition has always called for commentary on contemporary events, even from musicians whose mission is to revive the sound and spirit of the past. Mujer de Cabaret is Afro-Latin roots music at its best: passionate, brisk, and, coming from an all-but-forgotten octogenarian, delightfully unexpected.

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Corrected: January 17, 2008 at 2:21 PM PST
In the broadcast version of this review, we incorrectly call Santiago the capital of the Dominican Republic. While Santiago is one of the country's largest cities, the capital is Santo Domingo.
Banning Eyre