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Born 1968 in Madrid, flamenco cantaor Diego Ramón Jiménez Salazar received the nickname El Cigala from the legendary Camarón de la Isla himself and started his career in the time-honored fashion of playing flamenco peñas and tablaos. He made a name for himself with his rhythmic abilities and became a favorite accompanist for dancers like Farruco, El Güito, Manuela Carrasco, Carmen Cortés and Manolete. Once he decided to move to stage front as a soloist, he found favor with famous guitarists and joined them on some of their most famous releases: Gerardo Nuñez [Jucal], Tomatito [Aquadulce, Guitarra Gitana], Paco de Lucia [Cositas Buenas] and Vicente Amigo [Ciudad de las Ideas]. His work with Jazz cat Jerry López and octogenarian Cuban piano ace Bebo Valdés on 2001's Corren Tiempos de Alegria presaged today's album Lágrimas Negras which follows his 1998 Undebel, 2000's Entre Vareta y Canasta with guitarist Niño Josele and 2002's Diego El Cigala con Niño Josele

Intent on carrying Flamenco's torch into the new millennium, Dieguito loves to experiment with new settings for his vocal style. Nowhere is this more evident than on Black Tears where he performs traditional Cuban boleros accompanied by Cuban piano, double bass, light percussion, Musette violin on one track, flamenco guitar compliments of Niño Josele on another, Paquito D'Rivera's sax on a third and Caetano Veloso reciting a poem on the last. Anything but a half-hearted crossover effort, Lágrimas Negras is full-on frisson and head-on collision. It plants the roots of Flamenco into a completely alien environment. Never attempted before -- likely never even conceived before -- the two combatants remain completely true to their respective Cuban and Gitano roots yet meet in their own space-time capsule. Here they construct a brand-new cultural island where a long-haired Gypsy can inject hoarse Olés of appreciation into rollicking piano exploits of monster left-handed off-beat accents against jagged speed runs on the right while the maestro of the black'n'whites responds to Cigala's undulating phrasing in his own way.

This recipe comes to a full-on explosion on the 9-minute "La bien pagá" where between refrains, the 80+ year-old father of Chucho Valdés is spirited away into a very lengthy improvisation that had everyone in the studio hold their breaths to not break the spell prematurely. "Old body, young spirit" is how the pianist commented with a grin after listening to this take's reel in approval. The main theme gets a typical Cuban-style answer chorus for Cigala's melodic calls to instantly transport you to Havana while Diego's wordless warbling spins your stylistic compass to never conveniently settle down and point into any unwavering location. That's innovation! The descriptive 'negras' in the title gives away the singer's obsession with retaining the black Gypsy idiom while his woodshack period with Flamenco dancers prepared him for the rhythmic intricacies of Cuban Jazz.

Unless the next two months of new releases gift us with an unusually rich harvest of unforeseen inventiveness, Lágrimas Negras gets my vote as Best Album of the Year for daring concept and brilliant execution of something that never was nor would have been had these two inspired artists not met. From now on, the Gipsy soul lives in Cuba and Cuban son
has grown roots in the hearts of the Gypsies. Who woulda thunk?