ORCHESTRA RYTMO AFRICA-CUBANA
JULES SAGNA PRESENTA LA CHARANGA 1980 (7779 vol 1)
ORCHESTRA AFRO-CHARANGA VOL II (Thiokis Records JS21480)
This is one of the oddest two-record sets in music, mainly because the personnel and even the name of the band changes, yet there are indications that there is intended continuity here. Since there are no liner notes I will add some conjecture. The producer Jules Sagna is, I believe, Senegalese. Like many West Africans he was enamored of salsa music and so hired the Latin Sounds studio on Broadway in New York and assembled some top notch session musicians to cut some standards and original tunes. This had been done earlier by Aboudou Lassissi with great success and those Sacodis releases of African soneros fronting Neuva Yorquino salseros were all the rage from Abidjan to Dakar. (And continued to draw followers when Sylla cottoned onto the idea with his later popular grouping Africando.) For Sagna's first effort he hired Alfredo de la Fé, the violinist, and had him assemble a charanga group, including Sonny Bravo on piano, Nestor Torres on flute, Charlie Rodriguez on tres, Nicky Marrero, star timbalero of Fania records, and Felo Barrio and Hector Alomar as vocalists. The impromptu grouping was dubbed Orchestra (note American spelling) Rytmo Africa-Cubana (although there were no Africans present, other than Sagna, they did a song titled "Vamos pa Dakar"). The catalog number 7-7-79 leads me to suspect that was the recording date, and the LP was released in 1980 as La Charanga 1980 Volume 1, and reissued on CD in 1992. Right from the start it explodes with some crazy violin soloing on "Galletana" that is run through a space echo so Alfredo sounds like he is a whole string section as Nestor chases him on flute. It does not let up.
Later that year a second volume appeared with different musicians and a different band name. This was Orchestra Afro-Charanga Vol. II. Nestor Torres the flautist has taken the helm and again it's a mix of public domain and original tracks, with familiar jams on "El Manicero" and other chestnuts inevitably creeping in. Despite the change in personnel the producer is Jules Sagna and once again the session is held at Latin Sound NYC. And again there is an African twist on the track "Sénégal en Africa." The reason I am dwelling on this is that both albums are the quintessential Latin jam session. Of course each stands alone, volume two perhaps having the edge in intensity. There is also violin on the second, played by Eddie Drennon less vociferously than Alfredo, and Nestor's dad has taken over the ivories. Bass is plucked by Andy Gonzalez, Charlie Rodriguez returns on tres, and there's no shortage of luminaries on the other instruments: Orestes Vilato on timbales, Angel Maldonado on conga, and Papo Vasquez on trombone. Hector Alomar returns on vocals and is joined by Vicente Consuegra. This is essential and shows skilled musicians improvising at the top of their game with superb performances all round.
MACHITO AND HIS AFRO-CUBANS
CUBOP CITY (Tumbao TCD-012)
Throughout the 1990s the Spanish label Tumbao Cuban Classics set out to publish a history of Cuban music on CD. Their budget sampler (out of print in US but available in Europe) called The Essence of Cuban Music skimmed fleetingly over the surface of this deep well, but did include a full-color 70-page book itemizing their whole collection. The discs were well-researched and compiled from good source material and included excellent liner notes and photos. The pinnacle of their efforts was a pile of box sets of Chano Pozo, Beny More and Arsenio Rodriguez and the complete recordings of Sexteto y Septeto Habanero. But more than just mouldy oldies repackaged, the series was full of revelations and was also educational, if you will pardon the expression. Like Dizzy Gillespie, Machito was eager to incorporate American jazz with Cuban rhythms (though he was coming at it from the opposite direction to Diz) so he brought Zoot Sims and Brew Moore (a Lester Young acolyte who features on "Vacilando" here) to his group on tenor saxes while Howard McGhee jammed alongside his bandleader Mario Bauza on trumpet, and featured on a bizzy cu-bop solo, "Howard's Blues." Having come to New York in 1937, Machito was a popular singer for many expatriate Cuban bands. His ideal would be a band that had elements of Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Count Basie and Chick Webb. From them he learned to respect musical traditions but also was eager to foreground the Afro-Cuban percussion. After his discharge from the US Army he was ready to bring Be-bop to his Afro-Cubans, one of the top bands in New York in the 40s. They were so popular the tide had turned and now American bandleaders like Stan Kenton were drawing inspiration from them. Dizzy had known Mario Bauza from Cab Calloway's orchestra and through him met conguero Chano Pozo who was central to his "Afro-Cuban Suite." Fortunately there are many recordings preserving the sound of Machito's band: he even had Charlie Parker in on one session. But I am partial to this radio transcription because it captures the excitement of the band in concert. They had a regular stand at the Royal Roost on Broadway and 47th near Times Square and these shows were beamed over WHN radio and a few captured for posterity in Winter and Spring 1949. There is so much spark and rhythmic fluidity it is a joy to hear, despite some sonic limitations. The intros are by the tipsy "Symphony Sid" and the band take it good-naturedly when he consistently mispronounces everything ("Timbero" becomes "Tampiro,") and asks "Que significa en Ingles?" They open with Chano Pozo's "Blen, blen, blen" and then we get a riotous version of "Si si, no no," featuring Graciela, Machito's sister. This was such a hit with the listeners there were many requests to hear it again, so it is repeated in a different take on the following week's broadcast with more prominent piano. There's one standard, "How high the moon," their hit "Tanga," and a wild jam session that even includes Ella Fitzgerald on scat vocals. Machito doesn't sing much (he provides the wild "Bucabu" with a great mouth percussion intro) as the focus here is on the be-bop fusion with the congas and timbales. I have just remembered I met Brew Moore decades after these recordings. He moved to San Francisco and was part of the Poetry & Jazz movement accompanying Kenneth Rexroth & other performers in the 1950s. One Sunday afternoon circa 1979 I went to a jam session in a bar on Mission Street and he was hanging out, so I had a beer and chatted to him. Of course I was only dimly aware of his importance to the great fusion that became Latin Jazz.
CUBA: EL SON ES LO MAS SUBLIME (A.S.P.I.C. X 55513)
This Swiss compilation came out in 1992 and it is still the best introduction to the Son music of Cuba. It features many of the great artists in crystal clear recordings and will send you off in pursuit of their individual albums. While the music was big in the 1920s (it is roughly contemporary with ragtime in the USA) some of the exponents lived long lives and were able to record their compositions (after perfecting them for years) in the Egrem Studios in Havana. By now, you have heard these songs performed by Buena Vista Social Club and its many offshoots but, believe me, those performances don't hold a candle to the originals heard here. From the exquisite balance of "Chan chan," performed by Compay Segundo, with bongo in one channel, muted trumpet in another, and the guitar, sounding almost hoarse -- if that can be said of a guitar -- picking a delicate lead before the metallic scraper comes back in, it's achingly beautiful. Compay, real name Faustino Repilado, was part of the Duo Los Compadres and also did a stint with the Matamoros group. Ignacio Piñeiro's big bomber, "Suavecito," is up next and sideswipes you before you can get a breath. The title of the album comes from the lyrics of this song performed in the original by the great Septeto Nacional (founded in 1927, still going strong). Carlos Embales and Abelardo Barroso are among the singers who started out with this group. Maria Teresa Vera fronts Trio Matamoros for Miguel Matamoros's ballad, "Lagrimas negras." It's hit after hit. A couple of Changuis from Guantanamo are thrown in for variety and to show the mutation of complex rhythms in guitar, tres and percussion. Another of the top ten all-time great Cuban songs is up next, "Echale salsita," again in the original from Ignacio Piñeiro. It winds itself up, almost like clockwork to the tres solo and everyone else, the bass, bongo, guiro and clave get drawn into the thrum of the strings. At 3 minutes in, time stands still, only the clave is locked in and everything just hangs in the air like a bird: it's one of the most phenomenal moments in recorded music. By the way, the same cover photo is used on a Septeto Nacional CD so you might buy that in error, but not to worry, that disc, Clasicos del Son includes many more of their hits, from "Las Cuatro Palomas" to "Ruñidera" to "La Cumbancha" with Agustin Lara. Compay Segundo graces us again with his raspy time-worn voice for "El Cuarto de tula" which also romps and rollicks along wildly, gaining momentum. The line-up is always the same, a simple small group of acoustic instruments: guitar or tres, or both, acoustic bass, trumpet and bongo, with the singers also playing claves and guiro or maracas. Throughout the album, the tres floats serenely over a very sportive bongo. We're not even halfway through and get banjaxed by the truly sublime, "Cómo está Miguel," from Septeto Típico Habanero, this time featuring Felix Chappottin on trumpet. El Guayabero is only represented with one track, but it's a doozie: "Como baila Marieta." Characterized as a "picturesque minstrel" on his collected hits El tren de la vida (Euro Tropical EUCD-15), Faustino Oramas -- "El Guayabero" -- was massively popular in the late 20s with songs like this one, "How Marietta dances." More raspy vocals with muted trumpet signal the big guns: Miguel Matamoros, this time with Cuarteto Maisi, performing a bolero-son, "Veneración." Sweetness and melancholy in equal amounts ooze from these fifty year old recordings that have been beautifully remastered and are as fresh as ever.
GOOD-BYE MR CAT (World Circuit WCD035)
Now that we have detente with Cuba -- finally -- there's a race on to get to Santiago and visit the Casa de la Trova before it posts a sign in English saying "We proudly serve Starbucks." While the compilation El Son es lo más sublime featured some stellar performances by Son groups from Cuba, it by no means exhausted the field, or covered all the luminaries. There are many wonderful compilations of Sextetos and Septetos on the market (e.g., single disc comps on Musica Latina Nostalgia from Belgium and Harlequin from England, a double disc set from Arhoolie, and a 3-CD set from the Goldies label), but there are also the individual singer-songwriters, who come from the long tradition of troubadours that stretched back to before the printed word in Europe. These men told universal truths with humor and insight into society. They generally backed themselves on a simple stringed instrument. I first encountered Nico Saquito on a compilation, where his song "Maria Cristina" shone out and I thought, sadly, since this gem was from a long time ago the singer was but a fading memory. But then in 1993 World Circuit discovered that he had emerged at the age of 80, in 1982 for a farewell show in Santiago. He performed some of his most beloved songs with El Duo Cubano and El Quarteto Patria (from which the remarkable Eliades Ochoa emerged). The set opens with his biggest hit, "Al Vaivén de mi carreta (The Rocking of my cart)," a guajira that was covered as far away as Senegal. They tear through "Maria Cristina" and give a heart-rending performance of "A Orillas del Cauto (On the banks of the Cauto)," from 1938. Ochoa throws some echo on his lead guitar solo, but Nico doesn't need any embellishment. His lyrics are given in translation in full in the carefully annotated booklet. The liner notes translate the beautiful guarachas and guajiras as well as the amusing banter between songs. The gentle call and response lyrics have a strong social message as well as demonstrating the humanity and warmth of a great poet. If this is too short for you (38 minutes), check out his hits from the late forties on La Bodeguita del Medio recorded with the Conjunto Oriental de Bimbi (Egrem CD-068). There's a copy of the vinyl on Amazon for $142.50, but hold on, the CD will turn up. Carlos Embale sings here, on some of Nico's 300 compositions. You can also hear "A Mi me gusta el cha-cha-cha" and many of the songs on Good-bye Mr Cat in their original versions.
ROMANCE GUAJIRO (Musica Latina Nostalgia MLN55009 or Tumbao TCD-084)
While I am on the topic of great trovadors we cannot omit Guillermo Portabales, who rose to fame with some immortal tunes in the Cuban repertoire. He does not have a coarse voice, on the contrary, and his fine singing is backed by an unusually light and sprightly guitar. You could say his sound is more Spanish and less African than some of his contemporaries. The son was one rural style from Eastern Cuba when it was brought to the cities in the 1930s. Gradually trumpet was introduced and the music shifted more to a jazz mode and eventually led to full-fledged big band music. But in its early incarnations, Cuban rural music had many forms such as rumba and guaracha, and Portabales excelled at the guajira, which is featured on these early recordings. There are two versions of this album, from different labels, but containing the same songs from 1937 to 1943 in different order. He sings solo with his guitar, then with a trio and finally with a conjunto including bongo and claves driving the rhythm. There's superb interplay on the acoustic guitars from the Trio Habana, who also add sweet harmonies to the vocal (Check out "Habanera ven"). His version of "Al Vaivén de mi carreta (The Rocking of my cart)" has a slight edge over Nico Saquito's because of his whistling! (And check out his bird calls on "Flor de amor.") If you like this, and it is quite irresistible, then I suggest you check out his 15 Grandes Exitos also.
ALEGRE ALL STARS
TE INVITA (Charly 306)
Alegre was a small New York salsa label, formed by Al Santiago in 1955, rival to Tico (established in the 40s), Fania (founded 1963) and other heavies. In addition to Charlie Palmieri, Ricardo Ray and Johnny Pacheco albums, he issued the phenomenal Angel Canales as well as Eddie Palmieri's La Perfecta LP. In 1961, he came up with an idea to promote his label: put all his artists together and let them rip. So, under the leadership of pianist Charlie Palmieri he assembled his four main hornmen, half-a-dozen percussionists and his singers and gave them sketchy "head" arrangements: intros and outros, and rolled the tape. Okay, when was the last time you read album credits and there was a bartender listed? The booze-getter is billed above the "Also sax," another strange job description, unless it's a typo for "Alto." You know they are having too mucho fun because the tape continues to roll between numbers and we get to hear studio banter of a high calibre. "Where the hell's Kako?" It's inaudible at times, but you'll be asking yourself Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!! In fact on Volume 3, Cecilio Carmona is credited with "Studio chatter." How many volumes were there? Well, five or six is the official count, between bouts of Liquid Nutrition. The Charly issue is a "Best of" compilation put out in London in 1992, but you can find the originals from the mid-60s on CD or vinyl here and there. Like the Tico label, Alegre was a salsa pioneer which was ultimately absorbed by Fania. And some of their artists also migrated to the better-known label, such as singer Cheo Feliciano, trumpeter Puchi Boulong, tromboner Barry Rogers and Palmieri the leader. From volume two the title cut, a tough arrangement of "El Manicero," is included. From volume three we hear "Yumbambe" and "Sono sono," and from volume four, "Manteca" by Chano Pozo & Dizzy (featuring Orlando Marin on timbales, since, apaprently, Kako hadn't shown up yet) and "Se acabo lo que se daba," with Juanchu on vocals. The longest track, "Bobby, bajo y clarinete" gives everyone room to solo, sometimes simultaneously as they overlap. I don't hear any clarinet, but it is incredibly textured. Four tracks are taken from their 1977 effort Perdido, including the opener "Alegre te invita," and the Duke Ellington/Juan Tizol classic featuring Louie Ramirez on vibes. This set closes with "Estoy buscando a Kako," a quest for the co-leader of the group, Kako on timbales, from their first 1961 session. They then seek out other performers by name, including Johnny (Pacheco) who plays wooden flute, Bobby (on bass), Chombo (sax), Barry (trombone) and so on round the room till Kako rips it up on his timbales. Speaking of Kako, if you like this intensity there's another great album, with most of the same personnel, also on the Alegre label, called Kako's New York After Hour Orchestra Tribute to Noro Morales. There are three pianists, Charlie Palmieri, Rene "El Latigo" Hernandez, and Hector Rivera, Cachao on bass, Chombo Silva on tenor, Joe Quijano on bongoes, three trumpets and two singers: Felo Brito and Chivirico Davila. I'd say it's also essential.
GRUPO FOLKLORICO Y EXPERIMENTAL NUEVAYORQUINO
CONCEPTS IN UNITY (Salsoul 20-60012)
Just as there are many kinds of Latin music, there's more than one kind of descarga in the world. There are the big band jam sessions with carefully orchestrated sheens of trumpet and trombone but there are also throw-downs that feature mainly the drummers. If you ever go to a flea market you've probably encountered free-form jams with mostly conga players rapping in the sunshine, occasionally spurred on by a cowbell or an agogo, while spectators clap or tap beer bottles in harmonic appreciation. In percussion-heavy jams the other instruments stand out more (they have to) and usually only solo once a groove has been laid down by the conga and bata players, bongoceros and others. This album came out on 2 LPs in 1975 and went out of print. It was remastered and reissued in 1994 and remains one of the best hard-driving Latin jam sessions ever waxed. The group, appropriately, jammed in public, most were young New Yorkers of Puerto Rican heritage. Some were Cubans. Their common heritage was the salsa of their parents, tunes like "Anabacoa" or "Cuba Linda." It's loose yet intense and the musicians are all reacting to one another: there are elements of the Cuban guajira, guaguanco and mambo as well as the plena of Puerto Rica, even hints of Polish mazurka. There are thundering solos on timbales. Trombone, piano and tres (Nelson Gonzalez who also plays guitar here) can also be heard in the mix. The legendary Chocolate Armenteros shows up to play one of his tunes on trumpet. For two tracks a harmonica player is featured, merging African and European traditions. By the second part we discover the spiritual aspect of the music, Santeria hymns to the Orishas from the Yoruba tradition, and here the drummers are led by Milton Cardona while the chorus invokes Babaluaye and Chango. Sadly, this is out of print once again, but I suspect demand will see it return to listeners.
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A DISCOGRAPHY OF DOCTEUR NICO
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