Before Lou Bega ripped off “Mambo #5”, and even before a well-known beer manufacturer borrowed “Guaglione” for their success commercial campaign in the UK, Pérez Prado was already a legend. He was one of the more influential bandleaders of the 1940s and 1950s and helped carve out a genre of music that (although considered a fad at the time) has long outlived him. As result of this longevity, it’s extremely difficult to think of things to say about the music on this album that hasn’t already been said, as most of it has been around for 60 years or more. However, it is almost impossible to guess the age from the sound quality of these recordings. They have been lovingly restored and re-mastered for this 22- track retrospective that covers pretty much all of the bases of Prado’s career.
If you have had any interaction with popular culture in the last half a century, then you will have at some point encountered some of the music that appears on this set. You may remember “Patricia” for its use in the fountain scene in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, or (if you are from the UK) “Guaglione” when it was employed on a really creepy Guinness advert in the 1990s. That music that David Letterman uses for his “comedy” montages is nearly always Prado. You know this music even if you think that you don’t.
Nevertheless, this is not a dry and dusty archive record. What is on offer on this CD is golden summer magic. It is the kind of music that you should listen to while sitting outside drinking margaritas and getting sunstroke. In fact, this collection goes so well with sun and cocktails I am transported, while listening, to such a sun-kissed place. Instead of a wet and windy April afternoon in Amsterdam, I can see girls in skimpy swimwear carrying salted tequila mixed drinks out of my window. (That is, until “Guaglione” comes on, and then they are carrying Guinness.) Are you wishing you were here yet?
Most of the tracks on this compilation are quite fine examples of Cuban music from the post-Second World War era. Despite this, there were many complaints levelled at Prado in his lifetime for whitening his sound. In this nostalgic glance over his career you can kind of hear that happening, too. For example, on “Quién Será”, which unfortunately sounds not unlike the theme from the Munsters and the frankly awful “Heigh-Ho (The Dwarf’s Marching Song)”. Yes, you heard that right, a mambo version of a Disney tune. The sleeve notes would have you believe that this is some kind of knowing subversion on the part of Prado. He was some kind of mambo punk rocker. Nope, horrible cash-in, I’m afraid.
Which brings me to the “Why does this record even exist?” question. Surely there are already multiple versions of Pérez Prado compilations on the market? To my knowledge it is not his birthday or the anniversary of his death, so why did RCA/Legacy choose now to release this addition to the Prado catalogue? This mystery remains unsolved. Unless, of course, some fat cat in a business suit decided that the CD should be released because the music is good rather than because it will make money. Hmmm. Wonders will never cease.
Sure, there have been cooler artists to come from Cuba, Omara Portuondo being one of them, and several other artists “discovered” by Ry Cooder. I am sure that their records will live on after they are no longer with us. However, none of them have touched the mainstream of pop music quite like, or for as long as, Pérez Prado. That track record is almost enough in itself for you to want some of his music in your collection, and if that isn’t enough, it will make you hallucinate that the sun is shining when it plainly ain’t.