Reviewed: Diana Fuentes’ Planeta Planetario

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(Crossposted from MTV Iggy, 8/25/2014)

Bright-eyed and heavily decorated, singer-songwriter Diana Fuentes is well on her way to becoming Cuba’s next national treasure. She was practically bred for it, having been classically trained at competitive institutions like the Alejandro Garcia Caturla Conservatory of Music and the National Art School of Cuba. She subsequently spent 6 years singing with the prolific Afro-Cuban jazz fusion group, Síntesis, who scored a Latin Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Tropical Album in 2002.  Fuentes later went on to work with Afro-rocker and fellow Síntesis alumni X Alfonso, as well as iconic Cuban chanteuse and occasional Buena Vista Social Club member Omara Portuondo.

It’s plain to see that a young Renaissance woman like Fuentes is much too big of a deal to be contained in the Caribbean. So she struck a deal with Sony Music Latin, and with the help of her hubby and producer, Calle 13’s Visitante, her sophomore LP Planeta Planetario (Planet Planetarium) was born. As the follow up to her award-winning 2008 debut, Amargo Pero Dulce, (Bitter But Sweet), Planeta Planetario is Fuentes’ chance to experiment and truly break out of her bubble in the Tropics.

Opening with a whimsical cover of Carlos Varela’s “Será Sol,” Fuentes drags her old bandmate’s song out of its deeply ruminant state, transforming it into a saccharine, yellow-tinged ballad equipped with horns, bells and whistles. In the music video for “Será Sol” she plucks at a ukelele and lithely prances about a smoke-swathed farm in the aftermath of a battle like a manic pixie dream war survivor. “Where there was once rain / will be sun,” she chirps softly, taking vocal queues from Latin indie pop songbirds Natalia Lafourcade and Carla Morrison. She ramps up the quirkiness in her album’s namesake, “Planeta Planetario,” employing folk staples like the banjo and the bizarre twang of a jaw harp to celebrate a fortuitous love that one suspects may only be the work of the cosmos. Though her turn to twee fragility seems completely out of character for a jazz virtuoso like Fuentes, it is hard not to find it charming. Like most things, she does it well.

However refreshing her delicate indie pop ballads are, though, some of her most powerful vocal performances lie in her modern interpretations of old school Cuban sounds. She transforms herself into a smoky, film noir anti-heroine in the big band ballad, “Malas Lenguas” (Gossiping Tongues), and fleshes out her lyrical prowess in “Ritmo Sexual” (Sexual Rhythm), a blush-inducing bolero. The Afro-jazz fusion spiritual “Los Caminos” (Roads) functions as a glimmering keepsake from her time in Síntesis. And in tribute to the days of Disco Fever, which only recently picked up steam among internet-deprived music fans in Cuba, “Otra Realidad” (Another Reality) is an undeniable throwback to Gloria Gaynor’s timeless disco anthem, “I Will Survive.” The melodrama ramps up with each toll of the bell, violins quivering with anguish as Fuentes declares with a fierce optimism: “I can find another reality / far from here / without you.”

Although “Otra Realidad” initially reads as a farewell to an ex-lover, she alluded to its political context at her recent performance at the Latin Alternative Music Conference, in which she dedicated the song to Cuban refugees who’ve lost their lives searching for other realities themselves. Having left Cuba years ago to live with her husband in Puerto Rico, she delves into her political position more explicitly in her reggae-infused motivational song, “Asuntos de Invención,” which she has described as the most arduous song she wrote for the album. Detailing the unwavering hunger and ennui experienced by many of her countryfolk, her optimism continues to shine through. “I will light a candle to my ancestors / who will bring strength and tranquility,” she resolves, “Today I am going to start again / without despair.”

As much as her music draws on the past, she certainly doesn’t seem like one dwell to on it, in genre or in lyrical content. After all, most of her songs are about busting out and moving on, and they are bolstered by the dynamism of her musical range. You knew she could belt it out like Latin soul queen La Lupe and assume the timid cadence of American indie pop darling Ingrid Michaelson. But believe it or not, even her MC skills are a force to be reckoned with. She serves up a hearty dose of derision (and shows off her hip-hop chops) with the fervor of a woman scorned in “Cómo Hago,” (How Do I) and takes on a witchy bravado in “De Oriente A Occidente” (From East to West), adding a touch of soul and a barrage of furious congas to a solid reggaeton beat.

“Every song on the album is an episode in the process of change in my life,” said Fuentes in her recent interview for Billboard. If there was one word with which once can describe Planeta Planetario, episodic is it. Each song is unique in its own right, revealing Fuentes’ impressive and eclectic array of influences — could you imagine her record collection? And yet for all its variety, the album ultimately lacks cohesion. More of a decadent appetizer than a full-course meal, Planeta Plantario is best served as a delectable sampler for fans of Latin music, both young and old. But much like an appetizer, I suspect this album is only the beginning of the feast that will be her epic Latin pop takeover.

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