Just mention the name Francisco de Asis Javier Cugat Mingall de Cru y Deulofeo (or Xavier Cugat for short), and a giant technicolor screen flashes to life. Nearly everyone’s memories hold music and images Cugat helped bring into the world. The mental screen displays visions of Carmen Miranda adorned with oversized fruit bowls for her hats. It is likely also crowded with Busby Berkley-like spectacles of swaying costumed Latin musicians and energetic dancers in jaunty straw hats, or other attention-grabbing sights like a pair of 30-foot conga drums; and, of course, the lively soundtrack music is playing and there’s the beginning urge to shout out “Babalú”. Cugat’s extravagant, playful, and typically zany visuals are nearly inseparable from Cugat himself; he also amused himself by drawing cartoons and caricatures that sometimes found their way onto his album covers.
He’s wiggled his way into your mind whether you know it or not because Xavier Cugat is one of Latin music’s first superstars. After honing his act (Cugat and His Gigolos) by touring with Benny Goodman, Cugat settled into a 16-year stint broadcasting his own radio show from the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. His band took off in popularity and regularly appeared in movies and on television throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s. His music, a slick, commercial-minded sound, achieved most popularity at the time when ballroom dancing to big bands was a long-lived craze. “The Rumba King” did much to introduce Latin music to the U.S. as Perez Prado would admit. Often criticized for the very commerciality that led to success, Cugat held fast to his ideas. He once explained, “I would rather play ‘Chiquita Banana’ and have my swimming pool than play Bach and starve.”
“Chiquita Banana” is not among these 26 tracks (Sony probably doesn’t own Dole Foods just yet or chooses not to license music). First out is “Babalú” with Cugat teasing the audiences by bursting into rapid Spanish lyrics, perhaps playing a bit off stereotypes in the process (spoken Spanish squeezes in more syllables per second than English, and native English-speakers are still known to comment upon this “fast talking”). While the music on this disc is certainly dated, with more than a few pieces sounding undeniably hokey, it’s overall a lot of fun. The good tracks are quite good, like “Jamay”, the surprising “Mambo Gordo”, “Suavacito”, and the instrumental portion of the crazy “Cuban Mambo” (if you can overlook the Andrews Sisters-like harmonies and corny lyrics). Those in particular are more than worth wading through the period pieces for. Even “Bésame Mucho” can call up a world of memories.
The disc itself is a surprise: chartreuse in color with a photograph of Sr. Cugat tinted in fluorescent orange. He is smiling in his wide-legged pinstriped banker’s trousers. He is also wearing a vaquero’s bandana around his neck, a rumba shirt with layers of feathered ruffles cascading down the sleeves, and his waist is draped with a South American peasant sash that has a long tail, comically evoking a conductor’s formal tails. He is holding his violin and bow in his left hand and his right hand is poised. But instead of a conductor’s baton, an artist’s brush is in his hand, as if he is about to add another drop of color to one of his famous caricatures. Posed?