Latin music is in. Latin Music is hot. Beyond the pop sensations of Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, et al., the popularity of Buena Vista Social Club has spawned a whole new listening audience for the Big Sounds of Latin Grooves. Happily, thanks in great part to Ry Cooder, the music of Cuba, our evil neighbor to the south, has exploded in popularity in the United States. Pop explosions are not wholly evil. While they produce feeding frenzies among record labels and aid in the overproduction of two-dimensional musical superstars, they also provide funding (all in the name of potential profits, of course) for uncovering the roots of that particular musical moment. These markets work in very strange ways. If the music won’t turn a buck for the labels, the music, and often the artist, gets shelved. If Ricky Martin’s pop presence can help make a market for Cuban music of the early twentieth century, someone will exploit it (if not actually produce the market itself). With this strategy in mind, Columbia/ Legacy Recordings has started a roots of Latin Music series, emerging with Mongo Santamaria’s two titles and a collection of early century music from Cuba as their first three releases.
Cuba’s conguero extraordinaire, Santamaria musical career spans more than six decades. He is undoubtedly one of the most influential percussionists in Latin music in the twentieth century. Released simultaneously, Afro American Latin and Greatest Hits, present two very different sides of Santamaria’s music. In the mid 1960s, Santamaria landed a recording contract with Columbia. With the success of such popular (really crossover) cuts like “Watermelon Man,” Columbia saw a goldmine in the Cuban funk gushing from Santamaria and his band.
Originally released in 1970, all the tracks on Greatest Hits were cut between 1964 and 1969. According to the liner notes, this collection has been so popular that it has never left the Columbia catalog (so exactly how and why it is being “reissued” leaves me a little confused). But let me emphasize, this is funky stuff. A number of the tracks here are covers of well-known tunes: Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” James Brown’s “Cold Sweat,” Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba,” and Booker T. and the MG’s “Green Onions” just to name a few. Santamaria and company fills these tunes out with Latin beats, phrasings, and instrumentation and expands them to at least four times their original musical size. This Columbia/Legacy Greatest Hits takes advantage of digital technology and adds five tracks to the original release, all from the same period. This is stuff cool, groovy, but mainly, it swings!
Where Greatest Hits presents all the highlights of Santamaria’s commercial success with Columbia, Afro American Latin ultimately comes across as much more interesting. Afro American Latin has been called a “lost recording,” a religious devotional, and even a secret album. Late in the 1960s, Afro American Latin‘s producer David Rubinson expressed an interest in doing an album centered around the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria. He saw a blending of Santamaria’s commercial style (such as that displayed on Greatest Hits) with Santeria. Essentially preparing this album undercover, some of this material was captured on tape in a live performance in Philadelphia; the rest of the album came from studio sessions in 1969. Unfortunately, the studio executives shelved this album, likely not seeing enough of a market for this blend of religion and funk. Now, 31 years later, we get a fabulous Santamaria treat. Santamaria’s band smokes here!
The CD opens with a 10 minute tribute to the Santerian god Obatala, the owner of the world. Opening with quiet percussion, this cut moves into circling ju ju rhythms and joins with Santamaria’s Afro-Cuban funky horns. The record cuts between more “classical” Afro-Cuban tunes and the Latin soul more characteristic of Santamaria’s musical successes. Likely, the desire was a balance to please the studio powers. At times this album feels pulled between desire and dollars, but in the end, Santamaria gives us a performance built around his expressions, not the executives’ projections. The last five tracks on this album come from live recordings of the material originally produced in the studio. This is where the CD really takes off. Santamaria’s band is tight and explosive. While the entire album is stupendous, the final tracks remain the icing on this Cuban cake! The energy of these live tracks makes me wonder as to the blindness of those 1969 bean counters.
Lastly in this trilogy of new releases from Columbia/Legacy’s roots of Latin Music is La Musica de Cuba, 1909-1951. Anyone with an interest in Cuban music needs the collection. Completely disrupting the fetish of collecting, La Musica opens with a with no name. With question marks in the liner notes about its origins, Columbia/Legacy seems only slightly clear only about the orchestra (Felipe Valdez or Pablo Valenzuela), its date (1909), and that it came from somewhere within the Columbia vaults. With 25 tracks in all, La Musica covers quite an extensive chunk of musical history. Collected here are early orquestas tipicas, sextetos playing numerous sons (a rural style), a wonderful tune complete with Austrian bagpipes, rumbas, New York-influenced big bands, and even two cuts from Desi Arnaz and His Orchestra. This CD listens like a history book; in 25 songs we cover a full half century of Cuba’s rich musical history. Put Buena Vista Social Club aside and listen to the traditions from which all those magnificent players came. While Ry Cooder’s production opened up musical worlds to Cuba’s capitalist neighbors (read: new markets), don’t mistake his slick (and brilliant and sensitive) harvest for all of Cuban musical history rolled into one CD, as Americans are wont to do with other people’s cultural artifacts. Listen to Buena Vista Social Club and then listen to La Musica de Cuba, 1909-1951. See which one goes back into the CD player the next time. If you picked Door Number One, your interest in Cuban music has been satisfied. File Ry Cooder’s offering next to your disposable toothbrush. If you picked Door Number Two, you’ve got a lot of musical excitement lined up in your future. File La Musica de Cuba, 1909-1951 right next to Mongo Santamaria’s two recent releases.